Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Third Degree: Manil Suri and the mystery of the ‘closed door’ book launch

In Literature, Management, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:15 pm


Manil Suri’s new novel, The City of Devi, is releasing this month, and the US-based author is in India to promote his book and participate in the Jaipur Literature festival, where he is one of the star attractions.

I had reviewed Suri’s earlier novel, The Age of Shiva, for this paper, and we had remained in touch sporadically. Prior to his India visit, we connected again, and when he said he had a book launch in Gurgaon, I jumped at the opportunity to meet one of my favourite writers. But strangely enough, Suri told me to hold on. He would have to get me a special invitation, he said, as this was a “closed door book launch”.

“A closed door book launch?” I was incredulous. For most publishers in India, it’s a struggle to get a decent crowd for launches, and here was somebody actually shutting the door on potential stragglers, like me.

But more surprises followed. “What’s the venue?” I asked. “Some IT company,” he said. When I landed at the venue, I had a tough time convincing the security that I was not a terrorist but “a personal guest of your special guest, Mr Suri”. When they finally let me in, I walked past a large bay of cubicles to a designated closed door, opened it, and stepped in to find Suri reading from his book to a group of about 30-40 people.

The session was being moderated by the “Programme Manager — Performance Benchmarking, Value Engineering, Chief Customer Office”. As you would have guessed by now, I knew exactly what this guy did for a living. And whatever that was, his questions, at any rate, were consistently more intelligent than the ones I have heard from the good-looking, young moderators of the Jaipur Lit Fest. Here’s a gem: “You are a mathematics professor, and a novelist. Which is more difficult? Solving a differential equation or writing a novel?” Suri gave a sensible answer: Both involve problem-solving, and are tough, but a novel is more forgiving, in the sense that you can find wrong solutions, and end up writing a bad novel. But with a differential equation, you either find the solution or you don’t — the wrong one simply won’t do.

The highlight of the programme was Suri’s power point presentation (ppt) on his novel. It was definitely the most entertaining ppt I’ve ever sat through in my life, besides being the first one by an author on his novel.

Suri had included sound effects, cut-outs of faces to represent his characters, and used visual elements such as a maze and a pomegranate to illustrate the various aspects of his novel. The most fascinating dimension of his writing process was the mingling of the literary and the mathematical.

He had actually plotted the various narrative arcs, only to end up with ‘mathematical proof’ that The City of Devi could not be written. Just as he was ready to give up, his agent/editor wanted to take a look at whatever he’d written till then. He decided to polish the draft one last time before sending it to her. And that’s when he found a way to approach his material afresh, and eventually managed to ‘balance’ the fictional equation.

Suri then went on to explain how he employed the rule of threes, or the triangle, as a device to frame his plotting issues. By the time he was done, you were left wondering why more authors didn’t give ppts at their book launches instead of reading from their book.

After the event, I got talking with the IT guys, and it turned that calling Suri to their office was a part of their “employee engagement programme”. They had a number of ‘interest groups’ – and this programme had been organised by the ‘Book Interest Group’.

Suri himself seemed more than happy to interact with the group of engineers, as opposed to the usual crowd of journalists, retired bores, and wannabe authors that throng such events at books shops.

As we said goodbye, Suri mentioned that he was leaving for Jaipur the next day. And later, reading in the papers about how big the ‘open-door’ Jaipur Lit Fest has become, thanks to corporate money, I couldn’t help wondering if the average book lover in Jaipur this weekend could hope for the kind of cosy, intimate session with a celebrated author that a typical employee at this IT MNC could enjoy. I don’t want to underline the irony in this, but then, well, here I go.

Book review: The Twelve

In Book Reviews, Literature, Uncategorized, Vampires on April 22, 2013 at 2:12 pm

Book: The Twelve
Author: Justin Cronin
Publisher: Hachette
Pages: 576
Price: Rs695

Vampire fiction has been sucked dry, almost. If John William Polidori drew first blood, as it were, withThe Vampyre (1819), nearly two centuries later, Stephenie Meyer has carried out a transfusion of sorts, draining out whatever blood remained in the genre, and replacing it with a saccharine cocktail of hot chocolate and cough syrup.

The dilution of vampire fiction’s horror component has been accompanied by the genre’s rising popularity in global mass culture. Innumerable TV series and Hollywood adaptations have cashed in on the insatiable appeal the ‘immortals’ seem to hold for mortal consumers.

And there are countless websites peddling anything from custom-made vampire tattoos to vampire baby pacifiers to retractable fangs (I ordered a pair last month).

Into this expanding pool of dangerously diabetic blood jumps a middle-aged professor of literature named Justin Cronin. And you suddenly find, perhaps for the first time since Bram Stoker, fresh blood of literary vintage flowing into the ossifying veins of the genre. The effect is as dazzling, and as deadly, as daylight would be for a  ‘nightwalker’.

It is by now well-known that Cronin began penning The Passage trilogy on a dare from his eight-year-old daughter, who wanted him to write a book about a little girl who saves the world. But for the world to be saved, it must first teeter on the verge of destruction, and that is what happens in the first installment of the trilogy, The Passage, which came out in 2010.

A semi-autonomous wing of the American defence establishment, in its quest for the super-soldier, infects a bunch of criminals with a new virus, and as you’d expect, things go out of control. The twelve original test subjects escape from the high security facility, infect the population, and soon the entire continent is overrun by ‘virals’ — a hybrid monster with both vampire and zombie characteristics. As America descends into post-apocalyptic chaos, a few isolated settlements attempt to start life from scratch in walled, militarized colonies. A small band of humans attempts to fight back, and towards the end of The Passage, one of the all-powerful Twelve is destroyed, but so are two big human settlements.

In The Twelve, part two of the trilogy, Cronin takes us back to Year Zero, when the ‘outbreak’ happened, and fills the missing plot links between the original cast of characters and the bunch waging the battle a hundred years later. He also takes the story up a notch, getting new villains, adding layers to the old characters, and fleshing out the human dilemmas of living in a world where the old value systems no longer seem adequate for negotiating the slippery terrain where you have to choose between surviving as a monster and dying as a human being. A choice that, for many people today, would not appear unusual at all.

Anne Rice, in her Vampire Chronicles, reinvented the vampire as a metaphor for the ‘outsider’ struggling to find his bearings in a (human) society that has changed enormously from what it was when they were born, and changed faster than they could adapt to or understand.

Cronin explores the same predicament from the other side: how do you live when ‘being human’ renders you an outsider in a society controlled by a human bureaucracy that has made peace with the vampires, where the 99% lives and works as slaves of the quasi-vampiric elite, and the merest sign of resistance could have you branded a ‘terrorist’, turning you instantly into vampire food.

The Twelve opens in high epic mode, with the events of The Passage summarised in biblical prose. The story of an apocalypse survived is necessarily also the story of a new beginning — the story of genesis. And Cronin manages to chart, with painstaking attention to detail, the fears, motivations and inner conflicts of ordinary human beings who end up getting portrayed as legends and heroes by the historical imagination a thousand years later — without ever aspiring to heroism or seeming heroic in their own eyes.

The depth of Cronin’s characterisation is such that despite it being ‘only’ genre fiction, each of Cronin’s central characters — Amy, Peter, Alicia, Sara, Wolgast, Bernard — is worthy of a novel to himself or herself. Also, while the apocalypse is not a new element in vampire fiction — Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s recent Strain trilogy is also based on a vampire apocalypse caused by a virus — the imaginative recreation of a dystopian society surviving under perennial threat of vampiric invasion has never been achieved with the realism and panache that Cronin manages.

Cronin has set such high standards with the first two books that you can barely wait to sink your fangs into the final (and one hopes, equally fat) installment of the trilogy.

Book review: Chennaivasi

In Book Reviews, Literature, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Book: Chennaivasi
TS Tirumurti
Harper Collins
270 pages

There’s as much plot in this novel as there is water in Chennai. But this shouldn’t bother readers who prefer beer to water and enjoy soaking themselves in nostalgia rather than chasing after suspense.

For Chennaivasi is first and foremost an exercise in nostalgia — for Chennai and its unique Tamil Brahmin (“Tam Bram”) sub-culture. That it is also a novel is a bonus.

It is obvious from the opening page that this book has been authored by someone in love with Chennai. The most evocative passages in the novel are those that lovingly recreate the sights, smells and sounds of Chennai past and present — the Madras Central Railway Station, waking up to the strains of Suprabhatham, putting together a kolu-show during Navratri, a visit to a Nadi astrologer.

Chennaivasi does a convincing job of depicting the conservative ethos of Chennai’s Tam Brams — their strange cocktail of professional modernity and personal traditionalism that makes them model employees in fields that require a high level of intelligence and a low level of independent initiative, a rare combo.

If there is one message that is drilled into every Tam Bram child growing up in Chennai, it is the all-consuming importance of obeying authority, of not using one’s own judgment to decide whether said authority is right or wrong on any given issue but simply to do as told. That way you stay out of unnecessary conflict.
In a modern setting, especially in a fraught professional or political environment, what this translates into is complete ideological discipline. It is this quality more than anything else that managements look out for when they choose to promote certain individuals up the power ladder.

Smart people don’t like to take orders from stupid people. But it takes an altogether different level of smartness to be able to spend your life taking orders from those stupider than yourself. This is the one big secret behind the success and longevity of Tam Brams in the Indian civil services (though a lifetime of such obedience can occasionally result in a TN Seshan).

The storyline of Chennaivasi can be read as a parable of the Tam Bram who defied authority. Ravi goes to America for higher studies and falls in love with Deborah, a blonde American bombshell and Jew to boot. Ravi’s orthodox father disowns him when he learns his son is determined to marry a “white girl”. Ravi and Deborah start living together in Chennai, scandalising the former’s family. Ravi’s doting mother is caught in the crossfire between father and son. Well, you know enough now to guess what happens in the end.

Tirumurti writes with a lightness of touch that works well when things are on an even keel, but doesn’t hold up so well in scenes of emotional intensity. The characters of Appa and Amma ring true to life and to type. The rest of the characters, especially Ravi and his brothers, appear to have been put together using plaster of Paris.

What is interesting is the way Ravi’s maturing into adulthood hinges on his defying the one authority figure in his life — his father.

Readers not familiar with the Chennai Tam Bram ethos might wonder what’s the big deal, in today’s day and age, in a high-earning Tam Bram boy marrying a high-earning white American girl (who’s hot too).

But Ravi’s cardinal sin, in his father’s eyes, is not so much his desire to marry outside caste and religion and nationality as ideological indiscipline – how can you, a Brahmin son, defy your Brahmin father and therefore the Brahmin way?

From the moment Ravi thinks independently, using his faculty of reason as opposed to letting tradition guide his life choices, he ceases to be a Brahmin in his father’s eyes.

There is no real arc of transformation that the novel’s ostensible protagonist, Ravi, undergoes. Rather, it is his
ultra-conservative father (also an ultra-modern professional who works as CFO in a large company) who has to make the ideological journey, from unthinking Brahminism to rational modernism before he can find peace in his heart and equilibrium in his familial relations.

If you love Chennai, or if you’re a Tam Bram, you’ll enjoy the bearable lightness of this novel.

Where the books go when you’re not reading them

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:30 pm
First published in DNA, May 19, 2012

I don’t enjoy shifting cities. Setting up a new place can be very stressful. Perhaps the only thing about it that I enjoy is the opportunity it gives you to arrange all your books. In the process you end up spending many pleasant hours with some old, long-forgotten friends.
You open the carton and pick one up. As you wonder which shelf it should go to, you flip through the pages, and start reading at random, something like “To Helen, a gift was not something you gave to person number one, but something you didn’t give to person number two. This was how we wound up with a Singer sewing machine, the kind built into a table.” You want to read on, but you have a task to complete — emptying all the book cartons (there are eight of them) and transferring their contents either to the book shelves or to the loft.
You sigh, put off the decision of where it should go, and pick up another book. You again open a page at random. “An erection is a thought and the orgasm an act of imagination. The male has to will his sexual authority before the woman who is a shadow of his mother and of all women.” WTF, you say to yourself, and continue to read. Before you know it, three hours have passed, it is lunch time, and the wife peeps in to check, gives you that look, and says, “WTF, you haven’t emptied even one carton yet!”
It was to avoid this scenario that in Mumbai the wife had taken over arranging the books, with the result that I could never locate a book when I wanted it. How is that possible, you ask. All I need to do was look carefully, no? No. As it happens, the ease of locating a book depends a lot on the logic of their arrangement. If the logic of the arranger is not the same as the logic of the searcher, then the searcher and the searched may never meet. At least not until the searcher and arranger move cities and the books have to be arranged again.
In our Mumbai place, the wife had taken a ruthlessly pragmatic approach. Initially, I had trouble figuring out her logic. How could you mix poetry with sociology? And Foucault sitting next to Stephenie Meyer? One day she told me: she had arranged the books according to height – yes, height! Like how kids are made to line up in school for the morning assembly. The shortest on the extreme left, the tallest on the extreme right. So if you ran your finger across the spines, you could begin with Billy Budd and end at Guide to Effective Marketing Communications or some such tract I wouldn’t dream of admitting to owning.
And it wasn’t only height. The wife’s selection criteria, not unlike that of a college girl appraising potential boyfriends, was a complex matrix of age, height, good looks, and hygiene. So the physical attractiveness of the covers, the newness of the title, and whether it was a 1948 edition stolen from a hotel in Goa or purchased last week on Flipkart, decided whether the book went to the Gulag or the top row of the new bookcase the carpenter will make. That’s how Padma Lakshmi ended up in our living room while Rushdie went into the loft to co-exist with lizards and spiders.
Granted, in a situation where there are more books than there is shelf space (which is always the case, isn’t it) you have to choose, much like Sophie did, between your beloved children. But put yourself in the book’s shoes for a moment (I know books don’t wear shoes, but still try). If I was a book, I’d do anything to be out there on a shelf in the living room, I can tell you that. It doesn’t matter if I am Chetan Bhagat, I want to be sitting up there with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Kenzaburo Oe. So the point is, as a book arranger, you need to be fair, and follow a logic that books can live with – and that doesn’t include height or good looks. Not in my book.
So, that’s what I’ve been doing the past two weeks — curating my bookshelves. Arranging and rearranging, casting Delillo into the dungeons, retrieving Agassi from oblivion, moving Follett to the middle row, commanding Llosa to take Follett’s place.
I feel like the warden of a huge, cosmic hostel for living and dead writers. And I get to decide who shared a room with whom. Should I put Theroux alongside Naipaul? Or have the arch-MCP Henry Miller trapped between Greer on one side and Steinem on the other? Would Sylvia Plath be uncomfortable with Russell Brand, or would she be happier in the company of Emily Dickinson?
I shuffled them around, trying out different rationales — nationality, genre, author, subject, century of publication. Should I put all the French authors together? But how can Flaubert be on the same shelf as Catherine Millet?
Do I put the books I love the most closest to my desk? Or should that honour be on rotation basis — with the books on my current reading list sitting within arm’s reach?
I banish literary giants from my presence, on a whim, and summon them back when I wish. Come to think of it, even the world’s most powerful literary critic (who’s that, by the way?) can never wield such power – except in her study.

A brief introduction to Boo-lean algebra

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on June 24, 2012 at 10:26 pm
First published in DNA, May 5, 2012

Let me say this upfront: Katharine Boo’s Behind The Beautiful Forevers is an excellent work of reportage (narrowly conceived); the language is beautiful (it’s beauty all the more striking given the ugliness of the language’s referents); and it’s heart is in the right place – Boo’s sincerity and concern for the people she writes about are not in question. Having said that, Behind The… is also a seriously flawed book. On at least three counts.
Number one: Boo’s ideological baggage, and her seeming obliviousness to it, restricts her to a symptomatic understanding of poverty. It is this superficial understanding that informs her approach to her subject – the human beings who live in Annawadi, a Mumbai slum.
What do I mean by ‘ideological baggage’? In sociological terms, it refers to one’s beliefs about the nature of the world which we take to be the truth, forgetting (or not realising) that it is merely one narrative about the nature of the world, but a narrative that has been elevated to the status of truth by powerful institutions. It also means that there can be no ‘reportage’, no ‘facts’ and no writing as such, that is ‘outside of ideology’ or ‘ideologically neutral’. This is a basic given that informs most academic writing.
But ‘ideological neutrality’ is a myth that continues to survive in the minds of journalists and editors and even Pulitzer Prize winners, and they often speak about ‘journalistic objectivity’ with the same touching faith that a three-year-old talks about Santa Claus.
I don’t have access to Boo’s mind beyond the evidence of her writing. But such evidence as exists points to complete ignorance (or is it indifference?) about the nature of her book considered as an ideological project. In her Author’s Note, Boo states that she wrote the book to answer the following questions: “What is the infrastructure of opportunity in this society? Whose capabilities are given wing by the market and a government’s economic and social policy? Whose capabilities are squandered? By what means might that ribby child grow up to be less poor?”
The book’s foundational questions reveal, in stark terms, the intellectual bad faith of Boo’s endeavour. For example: how did she arrive at the conclusion that lack of opportunity causespoverty, as opposed to being the effect of poverty? She didn’t: it is merely an assumption that allows her to hold on to the ideological fiction that creating an “infrastructure of opportunity” is the best way to combat poverty.
And this logical inversion in her thinking is the ideological filter which ensures that her narrative will never interrogate either the western, scientific, modern values and the contractual relations that they legitimize, or the global institutions and practices they gave rise to, and at whose mercy every Annawadian lives and dies.
As a result, Boo takes the poverty of the Annawadians as a given. In her book, poverty is an effect of nature, like sunlight or gravity. She notes that all the families in Annawadi are migrants. But does she ask what forces drove them to become migrants? Surely that’s a fundamental question you need to ask if you’re planning a “deeply reported account” of the people you’re studying?
But no, Boo doesn’t name the forces that made Karam Husain leave Siddharthnagar, “the impoverished Uttar Pradesh district where Karam had been raised”, and choose a miserable existence in Mumbai. Was it even a choice? How did people in Siddharthnagar live before it became “impoverished”? Or was it always already an “impoverished Uttar Pradesh district”?
The closest Boo comes to asking such questions is in the case of Asha, a wannabe slum lord. Boo follows Asha to her village in Vidharbha where, faced with the reality of farmer suicides, she gets a big opportunity to connect the dots – between rural distress and urban migration and destitution. But all she has to offer is this: “Ashamed and in debt, somefarmers (italics mine) killed themselves – an old story, one of the Marathi-movie staples.”
It is an accepted sociological fact (not necessarily acknowledged by economics) proven by innumerable studies and research projects, that poverty is caused by disempowerment. The less control a people or a community have over their lives and resources, the more they are likely to slip into deeper and deeper poverty.
Economic development in independent India, and especially the accelerated phase of development that has generated the new-found ‘prosperity’ that Boo is so dazzled by, has been predicated on a systematic dispossession and disempowerment of large masses of people who, though they may never have been wealthy in monetary terms, were by no means living in want.
Vidarbha’s farmers before the advent of multinational seed companies and an export-focussed agricultural policy, Chhattisgarh’s adivasis before the state government signed MOUs with mining companies, residents of Tamil Nadu’s Illuppur town, a thriving centre of artificial diamond polishing before India opened its markets to cheap Chinese gemstones — to take just three examples, were doing okay in their modest, low-efficiency, low productivity, low consumption, low carbon economies.
But the hunger of global economic capital for their land, resources and new markets – a hunger which moved the Indian state more than the hunger of its own people – kick-started the processes that became liberalisation (for the overcity) and pauperization for the vast majority, which then had no option but to embark upon the long march to various ‘undercities’ in megacities like Mumbai.
Urban poor don’t drop from the skies. They come from somewhere, and they are actively produced when India’s predatory urban class preys upon the resources of the rural poor (most commonly, their land) in order to sustain its own unsustainable economies.
The aluminium that Abdul collects as scrap as well as Abdul himself, are products of the same process of plunder unleashed by the forces of global capital whose servant the Indian state has become, and corruption is merely the lubricant that facilitates the relentless sodomising of the 99% by the 1%.
Reading Boo, it is possible to imagine that you and I, and our lives in gated communities, have no direct bearing on the sewage-enriched lives of the Annawadians. This can be such a liberating thing to know, it is hardly surprising that IMF-ers and copybook neoliberals have fallen in love with the book despite its excoriating account of poverty in shining India. It is after all nice to be freed of the moral responsibility for the misery of fellow citizens.
For all her claims to a “vagrant-sociology approach”, Boo is in no mood to acknowledge, let alone report on, the screaming fact that the creation of poverty is an integral part of the very processes that have brought mind-boggling prosperity to those perched at the top of the economic food chain.
By not identifying these pauperising processes for what they are, Boo presents a misleading picture of what she calls “the infrastructure of opportunity”. Of course, there will always be some space for a few individuals to come and take a bigger bite of the crumbs that drop off the high table. It is these crumbs that Abdul and Asha fight for, and accumulate, and hope will lead them to middle-class respectability. But Boo doesn’t ask why they are only ever in a position to seek crumbs and not sit at the high table themselves.
Instead, her exclusive focus on the immediate reality of poverty leads her to magnify how the poor screw the happiness of other poor. As you read again and again how the poor fuck the poor, the fact that the rich have already fucked the poor by rigging things in such a way that the only way the poor can survive is by fucking other poor doesn’t seem so noteworthy anymore.
In other words, the question to ask in a book like this is not about “the infrastructure of opportunity” but the “infrastructure of empowerment/disempowerment”. Sadly, Boo doesn’t want to go there, and her book stands diminished by this refusal.
In fact, the best work of nonfiction about poverty in contemporary India is a rather less lushly written volume, titled Listening To People Living In Poverty, a publication brought out by the NGO ActionAid, in December 2003. Unlike Behind The…, not only does it document lives, it also provides an explanatory framework for understanding the life stories it documents.
It is less about journalistic flair, more about articulating a truthful answer to the real question that is the burden of a book like Boo’s: why do the Annawadians continue to remain poor? Is it possible that the majority of them remain poor not despite India’s growth story but because of it? Such a possibility does not come within a thousand miles of Boo’s mind, let alone cross it.
In her review (the sanest one I’ve read so far), academic Mitu Sengupta fears that “that the neoliberal establishment will find substance, in Boo’s book, for their wider narrative of why the government can only ever fail, and why retracting the already-thin cover of publicly funded programs remains the best bet for getting India back on track.”
It is easy to see why her fears are fully justified: there is nothing in the book that indicates Boo’s understanding of poverty and its alleviation is radically different from that of the neoliberals. Boo believes that a better “distribution of opportunity” is the way out. The neoliberal gang has no problem with that. The problem comes when you start talking about distribution of power, and sharing control over resources and decision-making – then things get ‘political’. And Boo’s book, of course, is pure reportage, a polished gem of facticity itself, and totally ‘apolitical’ – which is precisely how ideology operates.
While there is nothing in her book to discourage its co-option into the neoliberal agenda, there’s plenty — especially about how government welfare schemes suck – to actively encourage it. It’s hard to imagine that Boo is innocent of these possibilities.
Number two: Boo’s strategy of novelising her narrative and yet keeping herself out of this novelised account clashes with the moral responsibility that an author of nonfiction has towards her subjects.
Throughout her narrative, Boo remains the invisible, all-seeing subject, while the poor Annawadians are objects of her authorial gaze. While we get to know what she thinks of each of them, we never get to know what they think of her and her project. She makes a cursory attempt to redress this imbalance in her Author’s Note at the end, but that’s not the same as putting yourself at the same level, and sharing the same space, as your interlocutors – both in the life situations in the slum, and in the text.
An effect of this segregation is that, by the end of the book, the slum-dwellers remain ‘them’ and the readers remain ‘we’. Boo writes, without any self-consciousness, “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets, and we who have means are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.” Now, who is this “we” here? And who are “we” to pass judgement on the poor? Ironically, this is also the closest Boo comes to acknowledging that the poor are so completely disempowered that they have no say in the choices of governments and markets. Yet she does not see this as having anything to do with why they are poor. Nice.
Finally, Boo’s portrait of the poor, instead of rendering their selves as real to the readers as their own (reader’s) selves, ends up other-ing the poor. Of course, an otherness conceived as a separate self that is ultimately mysterious and hence unknowable and worthy of respect is what good novels are about.
But Boo’s novelistic narrative stops the poor-as-the-other at a comfortable distance – they are the ‘other’ defined at the level of people-not-like-us, people we can understand through, and meet in, Boo’s book, but not people with whom “we” can discuss national economic policy.
Boo does not portray even one poor person as someone who can empathise with or understand the life of someone from the overcity, except in broad aspirational brushstrokes.
More than anything else, it is this authorial snobbery that caricatures their humanity – they are human, no doubt, but not so human that they can occupy the same space as our own intimate selves in our world, or Boo’s self in her book. It would have been interesting, and only fair, to see their understanding of her life, of her values, of her childhood, of her ambitions, articulated in these pages. But we don’t get it.
Boo, however, gets full access to all their innermost secrets, and shares them with millions of strangers. If she had an ethical issue with this one-sided relationship, we don’t hear about it.
That is why, having read the book, we, like Boo on the last page of her book, can still think of Annawadians as ‘they’ and ourselves as ‘we’. We can congratulate ourselves on our resources of empathy, our ability to be moved by the suffering – and then go back to cursingthose hawkers who have encroached on our footpaths.
We acknowledge another’s humanity not merely by empathising with them, or getting to know them intimately, but by letting them empathise with us – which is the real test of class barriers. This is where Boo’s book fails most spectacularly – not one resident of Annawadi is shown to be capable of understanding Boo in the same way she is allowed to apprehend their lives’ meaning. This water tight segregation of the self and the other is both the charm (for the non-Annawadian reader) and the harm in Boo’s beautiful narrative.

When you were a teenager and in love with books

In Lifestyle, Literature, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:58 am

G Sampath | Saturday, March 24, 2012

First published in DNA
Last week, I reread Agostino and Disobedience, two short ‘adolescent novels’ by Alberto Moravia, a writer I first read as a 16-year-old and was told I’d outgrow. I’ve often wondered what it means when people say you’ll ‘outgrow’ some author. I’ve noticed this is usually said of writers you first discover when you’re growing up, especially in your teens. As an adult, you might look back at their works with nostalgia, as books that belong to an age inhabited by a more innocent version of yourself.
Perhaps something about these novels appeals to the adolescent sensibility. A sensibility marked by a certain disconnect from the adult universe, and an inability to inherit its preoccupations. It often traps the adult-in-the-making in a profound moral and emotional paralysis — leaving him or her unable to take decisions, even simple ones like whether to get up from the bed or bunk school. It fills you with self-loathing at the same time as it fills you with a sense of superiority, detached as you are, from the necessarily petty concerns of a middle class existence — do well at school so you can go to IIT-IIM (or at least a foreign university), make tons of money, get your own car-house-spouse, have kids, attain a position of power/influence in and beyond your sphere of work, then die post-retirement of a suitably prestigious disease.
Speaking of adolescent angst, of course, the first novel that comes to mind is JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. And it occupies this preeminent place for a reason — Salinger was perhaps the first novelist in English to craft an original narrative voice that was pitch perfect for expressing the adolescent resentment against a world ruled by mercenary grown-ups and rigged by them in such a way that you cannot make the transition to adulthood without doing violence to your own recalcitrant humanity. 
In this sense, the quintessential coming-of-age novel, or the bildungsroman, as it is called, is nothing if not a record of a character gradually, and successfully, sawing off his or her own unthinking goodness, compartmentalising, and learning to parcel it out in a calculated manner in a world where goodness too is part of a larger economy of good(s) and bad, right(s) and wrong (s), and favours given and received.
Coming back to Moravia, in Agostino, which was written during World War II, and banned by fascist Italy when it was published, the 13-year-old eponymous character is the son of a beautiful, rich and fairly young widow. During a summer beach holiday with his mother, Agostino gets involvedwith a gang of working class boys, and in a reversal of the usual class snobbery, it is Agostino who is harassed, bullied and teased by the rowdy kids on account of his wealthy background and ‘superior’ upbringing. Agostino, in order to fit in, starts wearing his oldest and most worn-out clothes, imitates the rough style and crude mannerisms of the lower class boys, and sets out with them on dubious adventures into the neighbouring woods.
But most tellingly, it is the way these ‘lower class’ kids view his mother — as an object of sexual desire, and possibly an easy conquest — that subject him to the defining conflict of his adolescence: what attitude to take towards his mother, who still treats him as her little boy, but who he can no longer look at as just his mother?
In Disobedience, 15-year-old Luca decides that he will disobey all the commandments of urban middle class adolescence — despite being a bright student he consciously neglects his studies, gives away his stamp collection, sells off his books, avoids his friends — until finally, he finds that his ‘game’ of disobedience would remain incomplete unless he disobeyed that most fundamental of all commandments — the commandment to live, and to go on living, which, in his case, meant to go on being a school boy. He decides to die, and almost succeeds, before life intervenes.
When I first read these novels as a 17-year-old, I was convinced they were about my own inner life, which Moravia had accessed through some kind of telepathic literary alchemy. Reading them today, I am struck by the precision with which he charts a teen’s painful confusion as he experiences for the first time the gentle shock of self-consciousness — when we confront the impossible truth that the world does not really care about our wishes.
It is therefore not surprising that students have been at the forefront of revolutionary movements throughout history. Be it Paris in 1968, or Prague Spring or the Naxalbari movement in India, the youthful idealism that powered these movements is essentially born of the deep introspection that begins in adolescence. What passes for a successful passage into ‘well-adjusted’ adulthood is simply the exchange of this idealism for a more pragmatic worldview. And such a personality change cannot but also alter our opinions of the authors we loved during those tumultuous years of self-questioning, the years before we formally made our peace with the adult world.
I suppose the longevity of a writer is to be measured not merely in terms of whether she survives in historical time, but also whether she survives personal time. Does a writer who grabbed you by the eyeballs when you were 15 still do so now that you’re 30? If she doesn’t, then perhaps you can say you’ve outgrown this writer. But if she does, you’ll consider her works a ‘classic’, depending, of course, on the reading culture you’ve been socialised into. After all, there are also people who consider Chicken Soup For the Teenage Soul a classic. And who’s to say it isn’t?

Book review: The Night Eternal

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Vampires on March 30, 2012 at 10:43 am

First published: Sunday, Jan 29, 2012, 9:45 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Book: The Night Eternal
Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan
372 pages
What if human beings were supplanted at the top of the food chain by a “creature race of superior strength”? What if their staple diet was human blood? And how would this affect your relationship with your son/girlfriend/father/ boyfriend/mother/office colleague? This thought experiment is carried out with frightening attention to detail in film director Guillermo Del Toro and novelist Chuck Hogan’s trilogy of vampire thrillers, of which The Night Eternal is the third and final instalment.
The superior species in question is, of course, the vampire. But Del Toro and Hogan’s vampires are not Twilight-type creatures with emo good looks and a weakness for luxury sedans (Edward drives an Aston Martin V12Vanquish while Carlisle owns a Mercedes S55 AMG). They are humanoid monsters whose interest in you is similar to what a lizard feels for a cockroach. And human beings are pretty much below the cockroach in the new world order established by the Master, the super-intelligent, telepathic, preternaturally powerful, 2000-year-old vampire that takes control of the planet after subjugating the human race. 
With the wily vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian having died at the hands of the Master, it is now up to a motley crew of bickering resistance fighters — Dr Ephraim Goodweather, his former girlfriend Nora Martinez, rat catcherVasiliy Fet, a black gangbanger Gus, and Mr Quinlan, an estranged offspring of the Master and the lone vampire aligned with the humans — to overcome the Master and bring the old order back.
This page-turner strikes the ideal balance between effective characterisation and fast-paced plot. The consequences of a vampire-dominated world for human relations and outlook are imaginatively worked out. In one passage, for instance, Alex Creem, a gangster, talks about the women he has saved from being ‘turned’ (into vampires). He protects them so he can sleep with them. “The women were nothing very special, a few desperate strays they had picked up along the way — but they were women and they were warm and alive. ‘Alive’ was very sexy these days.” In a world ruled by the undead, where most ‘women’ are out to suck you dry — only of your blood, alas — ‘alive’ would indeed be the high point of sexiness.
The vampire-ruled world is one where there is no shopping, TV offers only reruns of shows past, and night is day and day is night (because sunlight is fatal to vampires). And human beings are organised into a new caste system based on their blood group. They are bred in captivity for their blood, much like livestock are for their meat or milk or eggs. No school for you, and no office — just sit there and make blood.
Contrary to what we might believe — given our exalted notions about humanity and so-called civilization — not all humans find the new reality to be worse than what existed before. Many make their peace with their vampire overlords, and do well for themselves. Everett Barnes is one of them. A doctor and entrepreneur, he runs industrial camps where humans are farmed for blood, which he packages and distributes to the vampire population.
Barnes’ justification for these camps (not unlike our SEZs and sweatshops) is eerily reminiscent of the neoliberal orthodoxy that dictates government policy in most countries today: “The basic human biological function — the creation of blood — is an enormous resource to their kind [vampires]…the camp exists neither to punish nor oppress. It is simply a facility, constructed for mass production and maximum efficiency.”
You can’t have a more accurate description of the moral philosophy of free market economics. If vampires and zombies have come back with a vengeance in mass culture, there must be reasons for it, and you can be sure cultural theorists and social psychologists will have some ready. Yet one can’t help but speculate on the socio-economic parallels between a world where humans exist to service vampires and a world where humans exist to service vampiric capital.
In both cases, the moral imperative is displaced by the economic imperative. Is the return of the vampire and zombies in popular culture also a return of a repressed truth about the plight of humanity in today’s world?
To their credit, the vampires in this book, unlike their human counterparts on Wall Street and the PMO, are no hypocrites. The Master admits that it believes in no morality. And this amorality makes it easier for the vampire to achieve dominance over humans who have retained a semblance of morality even under extreme circumstances.
The character of Ephraim Goodweather embodies this struggle between the logic of expediency and the logic of morality — a morality that is closely tied up with whatever it is that lends a person his or her humanity.
But in the end, which is a bit of a mish-mash in this book, it is this very humanity — which is not an economic resource, and therefore has no value in the calculus of capitalism — that trumps, and stumps, the all-powerful Master. Can the little humans in the real world put up a similarly strong fight against their equivalent of the vampire adversary, marauding capital? Well, you’ll have to be around for a really long time to find out. And that, only a vampire can do.

Book review: Death In Mumbai

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:34 am

Published: Sunday, Dec 18, 2011, 13:00 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Book: Death In Mumbai
Author: Meenal Baghel
Publisher: Random House
Pages: 161
Considered as an abstract idea, murder is like the face of a beautiful, amoral woman — endlessly fascinating. It is one of the essential ideas of civilization. Without the concept of murder, there can be no morality. A tiger doesn’t murder a deer, any more than a soldier murders an enemy combatant. For a killing to qualify as murder — culturally, if not legally (the law has its own specialised nomenclature — homicide, manslaughter, etc) — it needs the stamp of individual, human volition, which neither tiger nor soldier can claim to possess.
It is this element of human volition that gives murder its moral dimension, and society, its pretensions to civility. Without the discourse of murder, there would be nothing to back up our cherished platitudes about the value of human life, particularly in a world that is willing to offer very little in exchange to those who possess nothing else.
Thus murder has always held pride of place in that favourite activity of civilized people — story-telling. It even has a genre to itself in literature, and murder mysteries and crime thrillers have traditionally been among the largest selling book categories. Writers seeking to plumb the depths of human nature need look no further than murder. Tragedy, for Shakespeare, as it was for the Greeks, was unthinkable without a good murder. For Dostoevsky, murder was the divining rod that guided him in his search for a moral centre in Crime And Punishment.
And for Meenal Baghel, editor of the tabloid, Mumbai Mirror, the Neeraj Grover murder case is the ultimate tabloid story — it had a gruesome killing, sex, and tremendous glam quotient in the form of three beautiful, young people involved in a complex game of deceit, ambition and betrayal.
In Death In Mumbai, Baghel sets out on a two-fold endeavour: one, a narrative reconstruction of the killing and its investigation, and two, to provide an understanding of the milieu that shaped the characters and perhaps primed them to act in the ways they did. While she does a thorough job of the former, her attempt to go beyond hard facts and weave a socio-cultural web of causation around the three characters involved in the crime remains engaging without being satisfying.
Through extensive interviews with their friends and family members, Baghel does an efficient job of fleshing out the main characters: Neeraj Grover, the flirtatious, small town boy with big town dreams; Maria Monica Susairaj, the ambitious, manipulative starlet with Bollywood ambitions; Emile Jerome Mathew, the handsome, upright navy lieutenant who falls for the wrong woman; and Inspector Satish Raorane, a canny Crime Branch detective who wears down his suspect with an adroit mix of patience, intimidation and cunning.
The section titled ‘Unravelling’ offers a riveting account of how the cops cracked the case. “The perfect crime lies not in the execution, but in the cover-up,” observes Baghel. You end up wondering whether the naval officer’s militaristically efficient cover-up of the crime — cutting up the body into pieces with a bread knife, re-painting the bedroom, burning the victim’s remains at a remote picnic spot — would have succeeded if his emotionally fragile lover hadn’t betrayed him.
Baghel tries to unearth some tangential insights on her subject by interviewing people whose lives were indirectly touched by the murder case — Moon Das, a Bollywood wannabe who got an offer to play Maria’s character in a film based on the murder; Ram Gopal Varma, who actually made a film based on the murder, titled Not A Love Story; and soap queen Ekta Kapoor, who was Neeraj’s boss when he worked in Balaji Telefilms. The chapter on Moon Das, for instance, serves as a case study of the kinds of pressures and insecurities that must have plagued Maria when she landed in Mumbai, trying to make headway in the hyper-competitive entertainment industry.
Death In Mumbai alludes to, but doesn’t explore, the hollowing out of culture and prospects in small town India, which in a way sparked the migration of its brightest talent to the metros. This evisceration of small town India coincided with the liberalisation of the Indian economy, a process that gave a handful of metros a monopoly on economic opportunity, at the cost of the rest of India.
Concomitant with this hollowing out, the advent of satellite television enabled the mass dispersal (and consumption) of a deadly cocktail of consumer values and traditional stereotypes, often through serials like the ones purveyed by Kapoor and the ads that accompanied them, leading youngsters like Neeraj and Maria to entertain exalted aspirations about themselves, to think beyond their small town roots, and embark on a feverish pursuit of the good life they saw on TV, a life that only India’s dream factory Mumbai can offer.
In the words of Neeraj’s friend, Deepak Kumar, “He (Neeraj) was very clear about what he wanted —fame, money and pretty girls. Our ultimate aspiration was to be like Vijay Mallya. We wanted the yachts and the models floating around us.”
Maria, too, was in search of quick fame and glory, and Neeraj presented himself to her as someone who could make it happen for her. She comes across as possessing that special brand of manipulativeness that comes naturally to women who project vulnerability. Men who don’t like independent, aggressive women presumably find this vulnerability attractive, and Emile Jerome, in Baghel’s account, is a victim of such manipulation. And yet, Maria herself seems to have been taken for a ride by Neeraj, who was happy to partake of her physical charms without fulfilling his promise of getting her a break in television.
All said and done, in Baghel’s sympathetic yet unsparing portrait of the three characters, it is the one who, on the face of it, seems to be the most worthy of condemnation — the killer, the one still in jail — who suffers the least injury to his dignity. He was not a killer, in the sense that Maria was a manipulator or Neeraj a womaniser, and yet he killed.
At the heart of a book like this is the search for some clue in the person’s past history, that he or she would go on to kill someone, or get killed, or betray a loved one. But even if Baghel were to compile a mammoth encyclopaedia containing all the facts about every single day of Emile and Neeraj and Maria’s lives, and all the facts about every single day of the lives of every single person they ever came into contact with, we would still not be able to ‘understand’ the murder. (It is perhaps worth mentioning here that Emile was convicted only of “culpable homicide not amounting to murder” and therefore, though a murder was committed, technically, in this case there is no murderer as such.)
So how does one understand a murder? A murder is both an event (somebody gets killed) and a narration (someone kills someone, covers it up, then a cop investigates, and either catches the guilty, or fails to do so). As a narrative, a murder is an endless search for causes. Usually, the cause takes the form of a credible motive, which serves to arrest the chain of culpability at the level of the individual or a group of individuals. But to make sense of the crime in its totality, one would either have to write a philosophical tract, or a novel like Dostoevsky’s. Baghel’s ambition, understandably, is more modest. Her book is none the worse for it.

Why the book is always better than the movie

In Hollywood, Literature, Popular Culture, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:25 am

G Sampath | Saturday, October 29, 2011

First published in DNA
Last week, after a long time, I read a novel that I’d seen as a film already — Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.
One problem with this is that your experience of the novel is pre-filtered through the cinematic rendition.
So I imagined the main characters, Llewelyn Moss, Sheriff Bell, and Anton Chigurh as Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones and Javier Bardem respectively. But you also find that the novel evokes a far richer experience of the story than a film ever could. I guess you can put it down to the limitations of the medium. When made into a film, a novel gains in terms of spectacle and reach, but loses out on depth and complexity. This is partly also due to the nature of the reading process, which is not as linear, and passive, as watching a film.
For those not familiar with the story, here’s the plot summary: one day Moss, a welder, while hunting antelope in Texas, stumbles on the scene of a drug deal gone bad: dead bodies, guns, a stash of heroin, and a satchel with $2.4 million in cash. He could either walk away, or grab the money and run. Moss chooses the latter, setting off a chain of events where Chigurh, a killer, is hired by one of the drug bosses to track Moss down and recover the money, while Sheriff Bell tries ineffectually to investigate the drug-related killings and protect Moss and his wife.
Unlike the film, the book resonates with multiple layers of meaning. For instance, it explores the endlessly fascinating question of whether a human being can take what is not his, and expect to live without consequences — his life unstained by that crime. Moss only attempts to take what is anyway illegal money, and it does not belong to him. Is this then, an allegory about the American nation itself — which stole the continent from native Indians, and yet has always believed itself to be destined by god to be a leader of the Free World (the doctrine of manifest destiny, American exceptionalism, etc)?
Will the theft and genocide on which America was born, and continues to live off — the theft of land from the Indian peoples, the theft of the lives of millions of slaves trafficked from Africa, and today, the theft of oil from the Middle East, not to mention innumerable other thefts of lives and resources from different parts of the world — catch up with it someday, as Moss’s theft catches up with him?
Moss knows there is little chance of his getting away with $2.4 million of drug money, but he thinks maybe he can because he is special. Perhaps, in this dilemma, and in this choice, McCarthy, often hailed as the true heir of Hemingway and Faulkner, has managed to capture the existential history of America, and the radioactive nature of the American dream.
In the book, Chigurh’s character, who the film depicts as the purest incarnation of evil, doesn’t see himself as evil. He believes himself to be the instrument of fate. Hence his use of the coin toss. When a victim begs him for mercy, he flips a coin and asks him to call it. Invariably, the ones he knows he’ll have to kill call it wrong, and those who call it right are people he knows he can spare.
In a brilliant scene, Chigurh has a chat with Moss’s wife, Carla Jean, who knows he has come to kill her. When she begs him not to kill her, he offers her a glimmer of hope: a coin toss.
She calls ‘tails’, but it is ‘heads’.
Chigurh says, “I’m sorry.”
A terrified Carla tells him, “You make it like it was the coin. But you’re the one.”
In a revealing comment, Chigurh tells her, “I had no belief in your ability to move a coin to your bidding. How could you? A person’s path through the world seldom changes and even more seldom will it change abruptly. And the shape of your path was visible from the beginning.”
Here was a bad guy, so to speak, who killed seemingly good people — not out of greed or jealousy or hatred, but almost from a sense of duty, as a matter of principle. In the film, you are either terrified of Chigurh or you hate him. But as you read McCarthy’s novel, you find the evil of Chigurh refracted through the prism of your own self — the evil things we do, and justify, as a duty we have to perform. The patriotic killings of a soldier comes to mind, as do the lay-offs a CEO perpetrates as part of his professional duty, or the peculiar logic that justifies the evil and forcible displacement of adivasis from their land in the name of economic development and progress (a logic apparently as inexorable as fate and Chigurh).
While watching the film, you’re rooting for Moss, but it is not until you read the novel that you understand that in real life, our allegiance, whether we like it or not, is with Chigurh.

Book review: The Fall

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Vampires on March 30, 2012 at 10:07 am

Published: Sunday, Sep 4, 2011, 8:00 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Author: Guillermo Del Toro & Chuck Hogan
l HarperCollins
l 390 pages 
l Rs250
Hardcore lovers of vampire fiction have not tasted blood for some time now. A majority of them have been feeding on synthetic blood substitutes, a product category where the biggest market share is held by a literary werewolf named Stephenie Meyer. Her sickly sweet concoctions, peddled under the brand name ‘Twilight Series’, had hardly any vomit-inducing gore.
In fact, earlier this year, an English professor called Justin Cronin struck a blow for true-blood vampire fiction with The Passage, a magnificent work of apocalyptic fiction. But readers will have to wait till 2012 for the second part of Cronin’s trilogy.
In the meantime, they can snack on The Fall, the second book of Messrs. Del Toro and Hogan’s own vampire trilogy. The first instalment, The Strain, unleashed upon the world in 2009, sets in motion a chain of events wherein The Master, a powerful vampire, one of the seven Ancients, lands in New York with the aim of gaining control over the human race.
As New York’s population falls prey to the vampiric virus, Dr Ephraim Goodweather, an epidemiologist, Abraham Setrakian, an old Romanian Jew, and Vasily Fet, a rat catcher employed with the New York Bureau of Pest Control, come together to fight the pandemic.
The Fall takes off where The Strain ends, in a New York that is fast moving toward apocalypse. Eldritch Palmer, a dying billionaire who craves immortality, is strung along by The Master with false promises, and together they take over a nuclear power plant near New York as part of a larger plan to convert humans into blood banks for a vampire ruling class.
The authors take painstaking care to ensure logical consistency in their depiction of vampire biology. The vampire in The Fall, with flesh like “pickled pig foetus”, no nose to speak of, atrophied ears, and blood worms floating beneath translucent skin, are a far cry from the chocolaty good looks of an Edward Cullen.
The authors also weave in acute social commentary that inverts, and explodes, some of the foundational shibboleths of modernity — the idea of evolution, progress, division of labour, and the necessity of an enlightened elite that will decide the fate of the working/ consuming masses.
Just like in The Strain, the climax zips past faster than you can turn the pages. The last line, “The Night Eternal had begun,” is a direct invitation to the final instalment of the trilogy, titled, The Night Eternal, due later this year. The vampires in this trilogy are not exactly the kind of people you might want to date — they are viruses. But they are perhaps the most richly characterised viruses in the history of non-viral writing. Go ahead, get infected.