Sunday, March 30, 2014

Now, A Reading App That Does Away With Reading

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

There’s been much chatter of late about a new app that promises to increase reading speeds. Claims are being bandied about that from an average of 250 words per minute, this app can make you reach up to 1,000 words – about four times as fast. There’s no need to quail anymore, enthusiasts say, at the sheer bulk of books such as War and Peace or Infinite Jest, which can now be finished in a day.  One imagines librarians across the land groaning at the increased rate of borrowings from the stacks.

What has been a closely-guarded secret until now, however, is that another app is being developed that takes speed-reading a huge step further by eliminating the need to read at all. After all, these developers say, why bother with mundane details when you can – in their words – think out of the box while pushing the envelope?

Understandably, the developers don’t want to release too much information at this stage, as they’re wary of competitors latching on to the same formula. However, this columnist has managed to unearth some particulars of their venture, which is radical in the extreme. I’m legally bound not to reveal all of the details, but suffice to say that the world of books and reading will never be the same.

What I can report is that, as with all works of genius, this one has simplicity at its heart. In essence, their plan is to eliminate the need for a person to measure reading speeds and eye movements simply by having the books read out to him or her. As the company’s vice-president said, “The ear is the new eye”. Those who think that this is just a rehashed version of an audiobook could not be more mistaken.

Once downloaded onto your smartphone, HearHere, as the app is called, will store details of your location and offer a menu of titles. All you then have to do is to tap your choices onto it, and you’ll receive an address and time where one of the titles is to be read out in public. Such venues are typically campfires, riverbanks, town squares and other such open spaces. Here, a group of like-minded people will assemble to listen to a trained representative of HearHere, called “a Storyteller”.

The initial plan is for such Storytellers to recite titles from mainstream and genre bestseller lists: thus, on any given evening, there would be a wide-eyed group listening to tales of the many shades of grey, whereas elsewhere, they would be enthralled by robots overtaking humans, or thrilled by locked-room mysteries.  This revolutionary new step, the developers claim, also decreases the waste involved in a single book being read only by one person at a time. (“It’s a Multiplier Effect”, one of them said.)

HearHere’s founders don’t plan to stop here. Once the stock of titles that people want to listen to start to dwindle, they intend to coach their group of intrepid Storytellers in order to take it up a notch. In this phase, they will start to riff on subjects such mythical battles between champions and demons, the origins of the universe and our place in it, local legends of love and loss, and so on. In passing, this is also the basis of HearHere’s business plan: companies can sponsor such tales and have their products woven into them. For example, a detergent manufacturer could sponsor a folktale of a washerman’s donkey, and cleverly imply that you’re an ass if you don’t use washing powder. Ingenious.

When I asked one of HearHere’s founders how their scheme differed from age-old pre-literate storytelling activity, he bristled. “There’s all the difference in the world!” he spluttered, taking a few sips of his hazelnut latte. “You see, in the past they simply recited stories. Now, we plan to simply recite stories – by using an app!” Refusing his offer of another latte, I returned home, marvelling at the uses of 21st century technology.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

In An Antique Land

This review appeared in today's The Indian Express

At one point in Kamila Shamsie’s new novel, A God in Every Stone, a character writes to another to say: “All these stories which happened where we live, on our piece of earth -- how can you stay immune to them?” Bringing such stories to light to examine history’s long shadow is what the novel sets out to do, as indeed was the case with her earlier Burnt Shadows. That novel encompassed events from the Hiroshima bombing to India’s Partition to 9/11; similarly, A God in Every Stone yokes together events separated by decades through their cumulative impact on individuals affected by them.

Given the emphasis on history, it’s apt that the work of a man known as that discipline’s father plays a large role here. In his Histories, Herotodus mentions Scylax, an intrepid Greek explorer who is supposed to have followed the course of the Indus down to the sea. Scylax’s exploits in particular, and archaeology in general, hold a special fascination for Vivian Rose Spencer, a young, spirited and impressionable Englishwoman who, when the novel opens in 1914, is on an archaeological dig in present-day Turkey. Shamsie’s counterpoint to Vivian is Qayyum Gul, a Pathan from Peshawar who is among the first soldiers of the Indian Army to arrive in France, subsequently being injured at the ill-starred Battle of Ypres.

Vivian and Qayyum, as yet unknown to each other, return to their families in London and Peshawar respectively, and other characters are brought in, notably Qayyum’s younger brother, Najeeb. When Vivian turns up in Peshawar in quest of a lost artefact of Scylax, she finds echoes of Kipling everywhere; she also discovers and then nurtures Najeeb’s own budding interest in archaeology, playfully nicknaming him “the Herotodus of Peshawar”. The stage is almost set for the novel to advance towards the other event that it brackets: the infamous confrontation between British troops and non-violent protestors at Peshawar’s Qissa Khwani Bazaar -- or Storyteller’s Street – in 1930.

Shamsie doesn’t let the weight of all this history get in the way of depicting her characters’ inner lives, rendering them as interesting and absorbing. Her prose is fluid and sensorial, especially when it comes to depicting the sights and sounds of Peshawar, without tipping over into the florid (as with compatriot Nadeem Aslam).

However, given the framework of interactions between characters from different worlds, the action, at times, does largely depend on coincidence. Such are the treacherous currents of an intricate plot, and novelists often have to work hard to keep their characters afloat. (Again, Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows had a similar reliance on happenstance, a cheeky acknowledgement of which can be found in the words that one character in that novel tells another: “Both times you've entered my home it's been nuclear-related. Once was acceptable; twice just seems like lazy plotting”.) While that may be an acceptable and not lazy strategy, it turns out that Shamsie also introduces new characters with defining and almost phantasmagorical roles very late in the narrative, and this does come across as over-egging the pudding.

Another way of reading the novel would be to see it as a series of choreographed exchanges between counterparts. In its pages, there are journeys to the West and expeditions to the East; World War I engagements and Peshawar riots; a chaotic, walled city and its orderly cantonment; Western notions of history and local legends that fill the air in the Street of Storytellers; an embittered Pathan soldier and a na├»ve Englishwoman both seeking means of fulfillment; Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s non-violent protests and brutal colonial retribution; and the rose-scented intensity of attar contrasted with the mellow fruitfulness of autumn. Such a pas de deux of opposites is everywhere, and it is skillfully done. It is this, along with Shamsie’s empathetic view of characters caught in history’s undertow, that are the defining and often pleasing features of A God in Every Stone.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Tolstoy Reports From Crimea

My Sunday Guardian column.

Over one-and-a-half centuries ago, a young Russian aristocrat racked with gambling debts enlisted in the army. A few years later, as a second lieutenant in the artillery, he arrived in Sevastopol, a strategic fort then under siege by the British, French and Ottoman armies, the loss of which proved to be the final episode of the Crimean War.

His experiences in Crimea provided the 26-year-old Lieutenant Tolstoy, already in the grip of literary ambition, with fodder to write three fictionalized accounts set in the Black Sea port during the blockade. It's because of these that he's sometimes referred to as the first modern war correspondent. In a paragraph from the second sketch that was censored when first sent for publication, Tolstoy’s as-yet budding pacifism comes to the fore. “One of two things appears to be true,” he writes. “Either war is madness, or, if men perpetrate this madness, they thereby demonstrate that they are far from the rational creatures we for some reason commonly suppose them to be”.  We’re still far from realising the truth of those words.

All three pieces first appeared in a reputed St Petersburg journal in 1855; they were later collected under the title, The Sebastopol Sketches. His incipient attitudes towards armed conflict apart, they also provide a foretaste of literary talent. (The Crimean War has other literary echoes, the most well-known being Tennyson's thundering The Charge of the Light Brigade.)

In the sketches, one can find Tolstoy trying to come to grips with his feelings when he sees at first hand the confrontation between notions of nationalistic pride and the reality of carnage. Death is a commonplace in Tolstoy’s Sevastopol: it arrives unexpectedly, yet is treated in an everyday manner. The wounded and the limbless recover from and reflect upon their experiences; others at the front display attitudes that range from the courageous to the boastful to the cowardly.

The first sketch is in the second person, addressed to a newcomer to Sevastopol. Here, Tolstoy writes, you will “witness spectacles both sad and terrible, noble and comical, but which will astonish and exalt your soul”. There are further contradictory experiences: despite a conviction that “the strength of the Russian people cannot possibly ever falter”, you will see “fearsome sights that will shake you to the roots of your being; you will see war not as a beautiful, orderly and gleaming formation, with music and beaten drums, streaming banners and generals on prancing horses, but war in its authentic expression -- as blood, suffering and death”.

In the second sketch – which ran afoul of the Russian censors – more doubts emerge, often couched in irony. This alternates between the fortunes of fellow officers during the conflict, revealing behaviour that’s often vain and haughty. One officer is “infected by that painful excitement that is commonly experienced by onlookers who are confronted by the outward manifestations of battle at close quarters but are not taking part in it”.  Elsewhere, “the soldier who has been wounded in action invariably believes the battle to have been lost with fearful carnage”. The real hero of the tale, Tolstoy adds, “is truth”, which “will always be supremely magnificent”.

The last is the most personal of the lot, dealing with the actions and sacrifices of two brothers -- one sensitive, the other boisterous -- during the siege. One can detect the character of the writer in the younger brother, especially when “he was going to have to endure much mental anguish if he was to become the man, patient and calm in toil and danger, who constitutes our generally accepted image of the Russian officer”. In the shadow of constant shelling by the enemy, the port has been transformed into “this terrible place of death”, yet he can see “beautiful, festive, proud Sebastopol surrounded on the one hand by yellow, misty hills and on the other by the bright blue sea, sparkling in the sun”.  All these years later, that beautiful and festive city is once again under threat.