Sampath G

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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.

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.

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.

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.

Book review: The Beautiful And The Damned

In Book Reviews, Literature, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:58 am

First published: Sunday, Aug 28, 2011, 0:00 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
The Beautiful And The Damned: Life In The New India
Siddhartha Deb
253 pages
In recent times, there has been no dearth of ‘India’ books that use easy generalisations as building blocks to construct a portrait of the nation that bears as much resemblance to reality as dieting does to starvation. The white man has been kind enough to bear some of this burden of explaining India to Indians, with a host of ‘India correspondents’, biographers, historians, and NRI coconuts (brown outside, white inside) taking a passage to India, and taking a passage out with a book that has ‘India’ in the title.
In the past couple of months, however, two remarkable books have broken this trend of macro-pontification with their micro-reportage. Aman Sethi’s A Free Man was one. Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful And The Damned, which released in India this month, though in an amputated form, is the other.
Deb’s book comes adorned with a pink paper necklace. The necklace bears a message for the reader: “The first chapter of this book has been removed in accordance with a court order.”
Arindam Chaudhuri, the head of Indian Institute of Planning and Management, whose grinning face has bludgeoned its way into public consciousness by virtue of sheer advertising power, was the subject of the excised chapter, titled ‘The Great Gatsby’.
As Deb observes in a note appended to the book, “There is a sad irony to the fact that a book about contemporary India, while available in full in most of the world, appears only in partial form for Indian readers. But that in itself says something about the state of affairs in India these days, where critiques of the powerful and wealthy, no matter how scrupulously researched, are subject so often to intimidation.”
Indeed, a deep sadness pervades the multiple narratives through which Deb seeks to present his impressions of 21st century India. He meets Indians from across the social spectrum: NRI entrepreneurs seeking security in million-dollar houses built on farmland-turned-SEZ-turned-residential real estate; farmers bankrupted by seed dealers who are themselves victims of forces unleashed by the free market; fresh-faced village youth who join a steel manufacturing sweatshop, and are reduced, in a matter of years, to shriveled, dried out shells of the men they used to be; a middle-class girl from Manipur who dreams of ‘making it’ in a city that barely acknowledges her claim to ‘Indianness’.
Deb’s prose has the transparency of a glass of cold water. It is refreshing, without being distracting. Sample, for instance, his description of workers in their ‘barracks’ at a steel factory near Hyderabad: “The men appeared shabby and their bodies looked worn out by the work, shorn of flab without being muscular. Some of them carried pots of water to go behind the barracks for a shit. Others pumped small stoves to get the fire going for their evening meal. There was no hint of domesticity about the food being prepared, nor any sign of pleasure. They chopped the vegetables mechanically, smoked a cigarette or a beedi, and urinated into the gutter.”
Perhaps the saddest story of all is the one you won’t find in the book — that of Arindam Chaudhuri. On the surface, his is a self-made success story of new India: starting off as a middle-class youth with one small business school set up by his father, Chaudhuri today is an enormously wealthy man presiding over an empire that traverses education, media, publishing, films, and public relations. Or so it seems. We can’t be sure, because we are allowed to have only Chaudhuri’s word for it. Indeed, what Deb does, and does well enough to piss off Chaudhuri, is to lay bare the pathos of this success story.
In what ought to be the defining quote of the book, Chaudhuri informs Deb, “I don’t like an image of me that isn’t me.” In a curious twist of irony, it transpires that Chaudhuri, the successful tycoon, is no more successful than the successful projection of an image of success. If his image crumbles, his entire business model and success story, both of which rest on this carefully constructed persona of Chaudhuri as an uber-successful businessman, might begin to unravel. Hence the intimidation through defamation suits, and the millions spent on advertisements to prop up Brand Arindam.
But what kind of success is this — one that is entirely image-built? There is a word in English for an image that has no basis in reality: ‘mirage’. As Deb observes, Chaudhuri’s “was the face of the new India.” His story, which is also the story of contemporary India, is about the victory of appearance over reality. It is the story of how appearances give rise to aspirations, which, when they fall short of realisation, give birth to another regime of appearances.
Reality itself is banished from such a world, by a court order if necessary. To enter reality, one has to go into exile. It is perhaps sadly fitting that in such an India, there is no place for a story like the one Deb seeks to narrate.
It is a truism that India after economic reforms is not the same country it was pre-liberalisation. A small minority that has benefited from it, and happily dominates the media, does for India what Chaudhuri does for himself — project a mythology of success, especially to moneybags abroad. This writer has personally met foreign investors who, taken in by the hype, land up here all excited to be a part of the ‘India story’, and then experience a series of emotional states that must be familiar to students who end up in B-schools promoted by fast-talking ‘visionaries’.
Remove the beautiful wrapping that is Shining India, you get Rotting India. The beautiful and the damned are not two Indias; they are two ways of seeing the same India. Do not miss this book.

Book review: A Free Man

In Book Reviews, Culture and Society, Labour Rights, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:54 am

Published: Sunday, Aug 14, 2011, 14:00 IST | Updated: Sunday, Aug 14, 2011, 0:37 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Book: A Free Man
Aman Sethi
Random House
224 pages
If newspapers and magazines were all that you read, you could end up thinking your city was built by builders, run by administrators, and inhabited only by people who work in offices and live in ‘societies’.
This is to be expected in a culture dominated by advertising-funded mass media, where telling stories about the bottom 30% of the population is not a commercially viable proposition. As a result, India’s vast working class — mistrysbeldarskarigarsmazdoor, rickshaw-pullers, plumbers — has largely been rendered invisible. They are everywhere you see, and yet, nowhere seen.
In A Free Man, Aman Sethi illuminates the lives of a few of these invisible men. As he does so, he doesn’t try to keep himself in the shadows either. The light falls where it will, without the forced pretensions of ‘journalistic objectivity’.
The main subject of this remarkable work of reportage is Mohammed Ashraf, a 40-year-old safediwallah (painter) and construction worker. Sethi, a journalist with The Hindu, first encounters Ashraf while working on a story about construction workers. Subsequently, when he needed a labourer for a research project he’d taken up on “the life of the labourer”, he goes back to Ashraf.
Sethi’s narrative is held together by his attempts to interview Ashraf. Over a period of time, he forms a bond with Ashraf and his labourer friends — the crazy Lalloo, the muscular Rehaan, the dying Satish, Kaka the tea seller, and many others. He smokes with them, drinks with them, gets stoned with them, and becomes more involved in the lives of his subjects than a journalist might be expected to, something that is impossible to avoid when professional interest develops into a human relationship.
Sethi, a South Delhi youth on his way to an American university, wants Ashraf to tell him everything about his life — when and where he was born, who his parents were, where he grew up, how he ended up as a daily wage worker in Delhi. But Ashraf is too ebullient a character to comply meekly with his demands. Sethi wants to pin Ashraf’s life story down with a ‘timeline’. But the ‘free man’ of the story is as elusive as a butterfly, and refuses to be fitted into the reporter’s notebook.
What we get instead are revealing vignettes of a daily wager’s life — from the secret pockets stitched into their clothes, to their unconventional banking arrangements, to their vulnerability to the kidney mafia.
In what is perhaps the most surreal section in the book, Sethi describes his encounter with Sharmaji, a raiding officer for the Department of Social Welfare. Sharmaji’s job is to catch beggars and have them tried and punished at the Beggars Court in north Delhi. And he is under a lot of work pressure because his department has to make Delhi “beggar free in time for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.”
Sharmaji is proud of his department’s latest acquisition in biometric technology, the Beggar Information System or BIS 2.1. The machine will store the details of every beggar ever arrested by him — name, place of birth, fingerprints, etc — so that “recidivists will no longer fool the judge by claiming that they got off a train in Delhi, were robbed of all their possessions, and were begging to get enough money to go back home.”
But sadly, the BIS 2.1 has some serious flaws, such as its scanner, which, “as befitting any high-tech gadget — was extraordinarily sensitive to dust.” It worked best when recording images of clean thumbs. “‘But these beggars,’ the exasperation in Sharmaji’s voice is palpable, ‘their hands are so dirty, so filthy, that the scanner just cannot pick up the image.’” So they started washing their hands before registering and fingerprinting them. But that took too long. “The department also tried bathing them — but, after a bath, the beggars look ‘just like anyone else’. How then can the judge make the decision?”
It might come as a surprise to many, but Ashraf, ‘just’ a construction worker, has all the complexity of a character in a Henry James novel. He has had a troubled past, doesn’t always know what he wants, and works against his own interest on the few occasions life gives him a chance. It is to Sethi’s credit that he manages to write about a man like Ashraf without seeking to explain him away.
Strangely enough, the most poignant passage in the book appears after Sethi has extracted from Ashraf what he had wanted right from Day 1 — the ‘timeline’ of his life. By then, five years have passed. Ashraf is now in a TB hospital, weakened by the disease, exhausted by the treatment.
Having surrendered the timeline, the labourer tells the journalist, “That’s it, Aman bhai. Now you know everything about me — sab kuch. Like a government form: name, date of birth, mother’s name, place of residence, everything. Our faces are pasted in your notebook, our voices are locked in your recorder — me, Lalloo, Rehaan, Kaka, JP Pagal, everyone. Now you know everything. What will we talk about if we ever meet again?” By thus foregrounding the underlying instrumentality of the journalist’s interest in the labourer, Ashraf retains his dignity even when all has been taken from him.
About 93% of India’s working population belongs to the unorganised sector, and people like Ashraf would figure close to the bottom of this 93%. Indeed, the labourer class exists in the consciousness of the country’s elite more as statistic and subject of policy debates, than as living people with names and even lives. The achievement of Sethi’s book is to extract a person from that statistic and paint his life in all its tragic, funny, and moving humanness.