Saturday, June 26, 2010

Why So Serious?

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

SERIOUS MEN  Manu Joseph

In his debut novel, Manu Joseph attempts a biting take on Indian class distinctions as well as the respect accorded to practitioners of science by the rest of us. What emerges is not so much a comedy of manners as a mannered comedy.

Serious Men features the conniving Ayyan Mani, a clerk at Mumbai’s Institute of Theory and Research, who lives with his wife and 10-year-old son in a crowded chawl. As a Dalit, Mani sees the world as being unfairly in the grasp of Brahmins, and is determined that his son, at least, escape the drudgery and relative poverty that is his lot. To further this end, Mani engages in a series of machinations designed to prove to the world that his son is a prodigy, a genius clever beyond his years.

The other leg of the book’s plot revolves around the irascible, woolly Arvind Acharya, head of the scientific institute. When we first meet him, Acharya is busy pooh-poohing other scientists’ hunt for extra-terrestrial intelligence, firmly believing instead that “microscopic extraterrestrials” are falling to earth every day – that is, microbes from space, responsible for life’s arising on the planet. He’s known for his bluntness and all-too-direct views of life, the universe and everything: “This was what modern physics itself had become. Time reversal, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, invisibility, intelligent civilizations. Exciting rubbish. The money was in that.”

The problem is that the arcs of both these characters fall and rise almost independently for most of the book, giving it a compartmentalised air. Ayyan’s underhand antics and Acharya’s downfall – hastened by his affair with Oparna, the head of one of the institute’s sections – have little to do with each other and it’s only close to the book’s end that they mesh satisfactorily. Though there may be parts of the book that one can relish, such as Ayyan’s fabricating quotations to chalk up as the Institute’s Thought For The Day, there are others that disappoint, such as Oparna’s all-too-convenient vanishing act once her part is played out.

Joseph delights in skewering the pretentions of the pompous, and there are many satirical asides and observations to this effect, especially when it comes to the way different classes of society view each other. On occasion, though, the tone is decidedly sour, putting one in mind of the later novels of Upamanyu Chatterjee. An added perturbation is that many times, one can’t discern whether such interventions are authorial or belong to the characters.

The sentences, however, are layered, on occasion with spot-on observations about the way we see ourselves: “He was a trim, tidy man who suspected he was good looking”; “A girl who was preoccupied with her own glamour arrived at the podium”. Unfortunately, on many other occasions, they get carried away by mellifluousness: “The beast of genius inside him was now fatally infected by what he diagnosed as common infatuation, but through a minute crack in the fog of misery his mind could still see the beauty in the conviction that alien microbes were always falling from the heavens and they had once seeded life on earth”.

Serious Men, then, has a distinctive take on the world around us, but despite its knowing, barbed tone there is facileness in treatment that lets the wind out of its sails.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Kindling A Reader's Block

The next instalment of my Yahoo! India column is online: this one is about how the Kindle took care of my reader's block. If you're not suffering from one, do take a look.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


This appeared in today's DNA.

GLOBISH: How the English Language Became the World's Language  Robert McCrum

You can call it Hinglish, Singlish, Spanglish or gibberish, but some form of English is today in use in virtually every part of the planet. Fuelled by the globalization of business and advances in information technology, it’s spreading to more regions of the world than imperialism could have dreamt of.

Take, for instance, the unenviable task of Alison Waters, lexicographer and publishing manager with the Oxford University Press. On a recent visit to India, she spoke of the labour involved in compiling the new edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary: “The hardest part is that with each successive edition the pages are increasing. We have to crunch the material because you cannot publish 20 volumes”.  The current edition features words such as chapatti, niqab and kirpan, as well as the use of “revert back,” once thought ungrammatical but now accepted as “Indian-English”.

Ms Waters and her ilk will only find their task more arduous in the years to come. As veteran journalist and author Robert McCrum points out in his new book, Globish, English is “floating free from its troubled British and American past…to take on a life of its own”. The word was first coined by former IBM marketing executive Jean Paul Nerriere in 1995, and McCrum uses it to show how English is becoming “the worldwide dialect of the third millennium”

He begins with a potted history of the origins of English, a tale told before by him in The Story of English, as well as by others such as Bill Bryson and Melvyn Bragg. With verve, McCrum takes us through its Saxon origins, the Norman invasion, the French influence and ultimately the self-confidence that led to the creation of “your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English”, as Daniel Defoe called it. Then, of course there are the people who championed and transformed it, from Wyclif and Tyndale to Chaucer and Shakespeare, all given unstoppable momentum by Caxton’s printing press, not to mention those who journeyed overseas to promote British imperialism.

Unlike Latin or Sanskrit, as McCrum points out, “it is part of the enduring appeal of the world's English that its origins are associated with the history of the many, not the few, and with the street, not the court or cloister”. An essential feature of the language’s make-up from the very beginning was, in Rushdie’s memorable neologism, the quality of “chutnification”.

From here we move on to that other continent which took over the baton of the promotion of English. McCrum is eloquent about the words that built America, pirouetting from the impact of Tom Paine's Common Sense to the Declaration of Independence and moving on to the speeches of Abraham Lincoln as well as the colloquialism of Mark Twain. Throughout, he adds a contemporary flavour to the proceedings, such as when he links the cadences of the slave trade, Black music and the speeches of Barack Obama.

So far, so familiar. But it’s only now, very many pages later, that the book really elaborates on its stated premise of people around the world embracing Globish. When it comes to India, McCrum gives us a thumbnail account of the rise and importance of English, touching, of course, upon Macaulay and the impact of his Minute on Indian Education. These chapters have a breezy, journalistic air to them, mentioning the by-now well-known call centres, literate middle class, changes in Bollywood, China's rise as a  manufacturing centre and superpower and its language being “self-contained and difficult to penetrate”. Such sketchiness is a pity; in consequence, the book seems decidedly lopsided. That apart, there are other aspects of the worldwide adoption of English that he barely touches upon. The upwardly mobile aspirations of those who learn the language, for example, or what its spread has done to local literature, drama and other ways of thought.

All of which is why this account of the English language’s ascent -- from small family business to multinational to international brand of Globish -- emerges as interesting at times but decidedly patchy at others. You could say it’s nice-ish.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What's Love Got To Do With It?

This appeared in today's DNA


Turkish novelist Elif Shafak’s new novel is about the famed pair of Jalal-ud-din Rumi and Shams Tabrizi, and reading it brings to mind another well-known couple: Mills and Boon. On almost every page one comes across little homilies on the nature of love as well as submission to the universe that would not be out of place on Hallmark cards, especially the ones with puppies and roses on them.

To give it a contemporary resonance, The Forty Rules of Love alternates between the lives of bored middle-aged American housewife Ella in 21st century Massachusetts and those of Rumi and Shams in 13th century Anatolia. The disgruntled Ella, with a comfortable suburban house, unfaithful husband and three growing children, starts to work as a reader for a literary agent. The first manuscript she receives, titled Sweet Blasphemy, is by one Aziz Zahara, who describes himself as a photographer and traveller, and it is from his manuscript that the tale of Rumi and his spiritual consort is reproduced.

We learn of the travels of the dervish Shams in search of a partner, the people he influences on the way, his arrival at the Sufi mystic Rumi’s household, the reactions of those who become friends and enemies, and of course of the great love that springs up between him and Rumi. Interspersed with this is the tale of Ella’s growing distance from the life she leads and her fascination with the author of Sweet Blasphemy, whom she starts a correspondence with.

What’s of interest is that the book proceeds polyphonically – much like Rumi’s Masnavi– and we hear the varying voices not just of Shams and Rumi but of those in their ken, including members of Rumi’s family, as well as a unregenerate drunkard, a repentant harlot, a vicious assassin, a leprous beggar and more.

Shafak’s intention is laudable and not to be doubted. She urges us to move away from dogmatism and fundamentalism and seek a deeper meaning; to not judge harshly and show compassion to all those on the path. Her exposition, however, is disappointingly facile. Both Ella and Rumi ponder over the meaning of a love-filled life and yearn for their beloveds in a manner that can only be described as banal. At one point, for example, Ella thinks that Aziz is “a gushing waterfall....He had an animated personality, too much idealism and passion for one body”. Meanwhile, Rumi muses, “Is there a way to grasp what love means without becoming a lover first? Love cannot be explained. It can only be experienced. Love cannot be explained, yet it explains all.” 

The subject and structure of The Forty Rules of Love, then, are interesting as well as audacious.  It’s a pity the novel falls so far short of its ambition.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Black, White And Re-read All Over

The latest instalment of my Yahoo! India column, on the pleasures and perils of re-reading, is here. Do read. (And re-read, of course.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

By The Bosphorus

A brief account of one's recent trip to Istanbul. This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

"Istanbul traffic very nice!" says the taxi driver to us sardonically, indicating a frozen sea of cars ahead. Being from Mumbai, this leaves us unfazed, but minutes later, it’s another sea that has us entranced. “Marmara,” says the man nonchalantly, and then, “The Golden Horn”. The famous spires come into view behind a blue shimmer. This time, we don’t need him to tell us: “Aya Sofya. The Blue Mosque”.

It’s to the Aya Sofya that we make our way first, trying to live up to Henry James’ advice: be one on whom nothing is lost. For nearly a thousand years this was “the church of holy wisdom” until converted into a mosque by the Ottomans. In 1935, it was deemed a museum. Inside, we gaze up at the large dome, shafts of light filtering in from high windows. The focal point of the apse is the fresco of Virgin and Child, but, as an obvious metaphor of the city’s palimpsestic past, it’s bordered by two large calligraphed roundels: one reads “Allah”; the other, “Mohammed”.

A detour to the Church of the Holy Saviour at Chora yields more marvellous frescoes from the time that Istanbul was Constantinople. In the words of Tim Mackintosh-Smith, it’s like finding oneself in the midst of a “glittering cosmic cocktail party”.

Back to the Blue Mosque, which is minutes from Aya Sofya, past the Hippodrome’s Egyptian obelisk and Serpent Column. Squinting at the skyscraping minarets, we realize that Graham Greene was inexact in describing it as floating “like a cluster of azure soap bubbles”. It’s ethereal and light, yes, but named for the Iznik quartz tiles within.

To escape the sun, we travel underground, into the cool, spooky Basilica Cistern. A sixth century water filtration system for the Topkapi Palace, it contains over 300 red-lit marble pillars, two being supported by ancient heads of Medusa. We avoid looking too directly at these; we have no desire to be converted into stone yet.

Now that we’ve ascertained one of the sources of water to the Topkapi Palace, we make our way there, strolling down cypress-lined gardens that lead to the first courtyard at the entrance to what was, for 400 years, the nerve centre of the Ottomans. First stop: the de facto seat of power, where there was more intrigue than in a library-full of thrillers. This is the royal harem, an arrangement of chambers and rooms now muted save for the hushed whispers and camera clicks of the tourists shuffling through.

Next, we enter Ahmed III's library, built in 1719. Airy and sofa-lined, but sadly, there are no books here; they were moved to the Agalar Mosque years ago. Another stop is to view sacred relics of the Prophet Mohammed as well as those of David, Joseph and Moses.

All this bustling about has made us feel ancient ourselves, and at the Konyali Restaurant, we’re refreshed by a view of the Golden Horn as well as some fragrant apple tea (the aroma of which pervades virtually every alleyway in the city). A restaurant we step into at another time, the Hazzo Pulo, is over 150 years old -- their menu describes baklava as made with “sweat pastry” -- and we find other such establishments, including a traditional Turkish sweetshop from 1717. More contemporary is Sultanahmet’s Pudding CafĂ©, where returning hippies once hawked beat-up Volkswagens, now a humdrum diner.

On the bustling Istiklal Caddesi, however, are any number of tony cafes, restaurants, and high-end stores, in addition to buskers and hawkers of simit, corn and chestnuts. The elegant crowds show no signs of the end-of-empire melancholy that Pamuk is so eloquent about. There are many bookstores too, notably the fascinating Robinson Crusoe where we need a Man Friday to track the titles we want.

Ahead is the 200-foot Galata Tower, a 14th century Genoese lookout with spectacular views across the bay. We shy away, however, from the large crowd packed into the vertiginous viewing area. From its base radiate cobblestoned alleyways: a raffish neighbourhood once known for its brothels – Flaubert visited one in 1850 – is being transformed into a salubrious quarter of cafes and boutiques.

Pavement cafes abound, and bypassing Navizade we enter Sofiya Sokak to patronize one. On offer is meatballs (we counted 12 preparations), seafood, doner kabab and the ubiquitous mezzes. As for dessert, two rules apply: make it sweet and make it sticky. All washed down by the aniseed-flavoured raki, Efes, the local beer, and, on occasion, devilishly thick, sweet coffee. A memorable repast is the grilled sea bass, fried calamari and rocket salad at Poisson, on the riverfront at Ortakoy, accompanied by a view of the baroque mosque and the first bridge across the Bosphorus.

Of that river, Orhan Pamuk has written, “to be travelling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea -- that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus”. On such a cruise, we spot well-maintained yalis rising above the choppy, blue-black waters, as well as palatial Ottoman mansions, while on the Asian shore, Greater Istanbul rolls away in waves. Sailing between two continents has never been more rousing.

Back on terra firma, we go past the faded Edwardian glory of the Pera Palas hotel, meant originally to house those disembarking from the Orient Express and thus playing host to those such as Graham Greene, Ian Fleming, Greta Garbo, Agatha Christie, Mata Hari; and the shabby-genteel Grand Hotel de Londres, where Hemingway stayed in 1922. (The bar, we’re happy to report, is still functional.)

Once we arrive at the vast Grand Bazaar, we’re accosted by a carpet seller who proclaims, “Let me help you spend your money.” Leaving him disappointed, we saunter under the Ottoman-designed ceilings, past stores of silverware, antiques, clothes, leather, cloth, jewellery and, should the urge overtake you, belly dancing outfits.

The impressive bazaar may not house all that you covet, but the metropolis still has the magnetism to demonstrate why it was thought of as “the city of the world’s desire”. In the words of Lord Byron: “I never beheld a work of nature or art which yielded an impression like the prospect on each side from the Seven Towers to the end of the Great Horn”. You can say that again, George.