Wednesday, February 20, 2008

"The Age Of Kali" By William Dalrymple

William Dalrymple's fourth book, published in 1998, is again on Indian subcontinent (mostly India but also touches upon Pakistan & Sri Lanka plus a brief visit to RĂ©union, an French island in the Indian). It is a collection of essays collected through his nearly a decade of travel around the Indian subcontinent. The name, Age Of Kali, is a reference to KaliYuga - which is the time (as per Hindu cosmology) when world's imperfection's become so big that there comes a need to start the whole cycle of life afresh. He is surely an Indophile Scotsman, which become more evident after reading this book - where he (despite all the essays of political corruption, ethnic violence, and social disintegration) does feel for India's diversity and the will to survive all times. Nearly half of the essays in the book are not written in his usual travel chronicle style - they are more like interviews and interactions with people. And nearly, in each chapter, he asks some tough questions which the subcontinent is still facing. I would not say that the book is dark, but it would still make you think "why did not he found any happy stories to tell in India?".

Dalrymple covers a lot of ground including Bihar, Rajasthan, Vrindavan, Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Cochin, Madurai, Goa, Sri Lanka, RĂ©union Island, & Pakistan: Islamabad, Peshawar. He starts with Bihar, where he finds corruption, caste conflict, government breakdown, and general lawlessness to alarming extent. He then moves to Lucknow, once a beautiful pre-Raj city, where he finds its heritage decaying due to poverty, neglect, corruption, and being replaced by ugly concrete towers. Next is Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, a "temple town" where many devout Hindus believe Krishna still lives, and also heartbreakingly a place for many thousands of widows, who live lives of terrible poverty and suffering, the result of traditional Hindu society views on widows. Next significant essay is from Rajasthan, a tale of informal social workers among village women struggling to stop infanticide and child marriages and promote education for all children, focusing on a social worker who was raped and faced both caste and gender-based bias. Another good essay is about sati (the act of a widow throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre); and his visit of the village where a famous sati case was reported in 80s. Then there are some essays on Bombay, Bangalore, Madurai, and Cochin. Next significant essay is a wonderful summation of his interactions with Tamil Tiger - he went to their core areas and met a significant leader as well. The most turning part of this essay is his meeting with the 20-somethings Tiger girls who were trained to give life for the cause. The essays on Pakistan consists of his interactions with Imran Khan, ultra-famous sports star turned politician; the ruins of the fascinating Gandhara civilization (a composite civilization influenced by the Alexander the Great), and an interview with and account of Benazir Bhutto and her family.

It is a good book, written with honesty and dedication towards India. Although some of the initial essays are depressing - but then India is not what you see on travel books.

Monday, February 18, 2008

"The Men who killed Gandhi" by Manohar Malgaonkar

“Men Who Killed Gandhi” was first published in 1978. It is like a research work by the author where he tries to unearth the facts about Gandhi’s assassination. Recently, the book has been released with new documents, and rare pictures that leave the readers amused. Interesting archival records include copies of the Air-India tickets used by Godse and Apte to make the trip from Bombay to Delhi and back for the assassination and even their bills at Hotel Marina in Connaught Place where they stayed while carrying out their mission.

It is an informative book about historical facts but it reads like a thriller about a well-laid murder plan. It traces the whole events (partition of India, riots, Gandhi’s fast) leading to the assassination and the trial at Red Fort afterwards. The book tries not to take a side at all – which is a good thing provided the fact that neither of them (Gandhi or Godse) was justified. If Gandhi was not justified to go on hunger strike for releasing 55 crores to Pakistan while India was at war with them, Godse was equally not justified to kill somebody (and that somebody in this case was Mahatma Gandhi). The book states that both Godse and Apte were pledged to the cause of an independent and undivided India. And they held Gandhi liable for India’s division.

The book also points out the leniency with which police handled the events leading to Gandhi’s murder (including a failed bomb attack only two weeks ago). As per the author, if the police would have been fast enough (and would have cut through their internal egos/red-tapism) they would have surely caught all these persons earlier enough to avoid the assassination. On the other hand, book also points out the childish ways of the murders and their co-accused, how on each step they left some witnesses behind to identify them and bring them to justice. It also points out that how Gandhi was all together alienated from the realities of divided India and public sentiments during last days of his life – and paid with his life for that.

A thousand splendid suns - Khaled Hosseini

This is another wonderfully narrated novel by Khaled Hosseini. For those, who have read his first one, The Kite Runner, and appreciated it, would not be disappointed with this one. It is a great read. Written in his usual story telling manner - where he tells some unbearable events with so ease that they become readable – he tells a lot about human relations and how the will to survive is much bigger that the destiny to perish. This is a novel where at some point of time, you feel like putting the book down and crying our heart out. And for me, it is just a wonderful feeling – there are very few writings which can do this. He also has a way of making Afghanistan very real and its people come live in front of your eyes while you read his books.

A thousand splendid suns - Khaled Hosseini

“A Thousand Splendid Suns” is a female centric novel. It makes the reader feel the plight of women in the conservative societies. It also highlights the impact of civil unrest on women specially. The story begins in 1964, ends in 2003, spanning over the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the defeat and withdrawal of the Russians that led to the warlords in-fighting, followed by the rise of the Taliban, and ending with the beginning of democratic rule in which the warlords are given legitimate posts in the government. It is primarily set in Kabul with some early incidents in Herat and later ones in Pakistan. It traces the life of two women, alternating between their points of views. First one, Mariam is from Herat, born as an illegitimate country girl to a wealthy businessman, married to a 30 years older Pashtun man in Kabul, and unable to conceive a child (victim of domestic violence due to that). Second one, Laila is a Tajik from Kabul itself, born to a literate family, looses her family in a rocket attack & brothers fighting for freedom over Soviets, and agrees to become second wife of Mariam’s husband due to his extremely calculated manipulations. The two of them, are initially repulsive to each other. But in due time, they gain each other’s sympathy and trust, and become inseparable. After living their lives like rats, as an act of desperation, Mariam kills her husband, allows Laila to run away to Pakistan with her true teenage love along with her kids, and goes to hell as per Taliban’s law. After Taliban’s fall, Laila comes back to Herat & Kabul to pay visit to Mariam’s place and starts a new life in Kabul working among kids affected due to civil war & Taliban rule.

It is an extremely moving piece of writing – well narrated. It is surely worth a read.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Jane Eyre - The Implausible Modern Victorian Woman

When I first started reading Jane Eyre, I had expected to find the protagonist to be a materialistic socialite like Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind or, at best, a prig like Fanny in Mansfield Park. The last thing I expected was a woman who could very well be my idol today in the way she follows her heart and mind and takes strong decisions. It is hard to believe that Charlotte Bronte wrote this novel in 1857.

Jane Eyre, the protagonist is an intelligent, passionate orphan who is being raised by her rich aunt who is not too kind to her. She gets her education in a charitable school, Lowood, and emerges as a much learned, passionate, but sensible woman. Her many talents include a flair for languages, painting and sketching. She is hired as a governess for a french girl, Adele and falls in love with Mr. Rochester, her employer. They are about to be married when something from Mr. Rochester's past intervenes and makes it impossible for both to be married. Jane refuses to be Mr. Rochester's mistress and runs away. She chances upon her cousins from her father's side and her cousin St. John asks her to marry him. Though she likes St. John as her brother, she is not able to consent to marrying him as her heart still belongs to Mr. Rochester. She goes back to find out whether Mr. Rochester was fine as previous enquiries had not yielded any results. She finds Mr. Rochester blinded and maimed by an accident and the previous impediment to their marriage removed. She ends up marrying Mr. Rochester.

One particular passage from this book that I would like to quote and which also tells us something about Jane Eyre and Charlotte Bronte is:

"Women are supposed to be very calm generally: but women feel just as men feel; they need exercise for their faculties, and a field for their efforts as much as their brothers do; they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer; and it is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags. It is thoughtless to condemn them, or laugh at them, if they seek to do more or learn more than custom has pronounced necessary for their sex."

The philosophy is very modern for the Victorian Age and might as well be one of the first feminist writing in English Literature (as far as I know). Jane Eyre herself never compromises her self respect but is not overly egoistical. She is honest and refuses to bear unfair treatment. She stands up for herself and is strong enough to resist the temptations of love from Mr. Rochester in a way that does not go well with her self-respect. She is honest and straightforward and this is why Mr. Rochester has a strong liking for her.

Anyone who wants to read the story of a woman who goes through much suffering by following her heart and at the end righteously achieves her destiny, should read Jane Eyre. And as usual, the movie does not do justice to any of the characters. Jane's paintings, that are much a part of Jane's character are not mentioned anywhere. The grace and certainity with which she tackles Blanche Ingram's threat to her hopes of love is totally subdued. But more that Jane, the character that suffers most at the hands of the movie's script writer is Mr. Rochester. One basic flaw in Mr. Rochester's character, his lack of compassion for his mad wife is done away with and he is shown to be kindly comforting her. All that is not ideal in the novel is made ideal in the movie and this takes away the charm of the story considerably.

Monday, February 11, 2008

O Jerusalem - Larry Collins & Dominique Lapierre

Most people would have heard of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at the same time, a vast majority of the same people would have little or no knowledge of the background of the conflict; or of the history of the region of the region at the time of the founding of Israel in 1948. The conflict has split people so widely that it is hard to find people who do not have a bias on the subject. The same is true of people who have written on the topic. In the midst of all this, to find a book that details the history of the region in a relatively unbiased way is difficult. This book is a very close approximation of the detailing of the history of that region that seeks to present history without too much bias.

O Jerusalem by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins
Jerusalem is without doubt the most disputed territory in the world, and still at the center of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even now, most Islam inspired terrorists consider the cause of Jerusalem to be central to the conflict. Jerusalem is the holiest of holies for Jews, the site of the destructed Second Temple (and the remaining Western Wall from that temple); in addition, the same complex contains the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims (said to house the rock from which the prophet Mohammed ascended to heaven on his horse along with the archangel Gabriel); to round off the religious significances, Jerusalem also contains the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the grounds that are venerated as the place where Jesus was said to have been crucified and buried. It is not hard to imagine why the city of Jerusalem has always been a much sought over city.
To write a book about such a place is not easy. Such a book will be reviewed very critically, examined for bias, and every historical fact mentioned checked. To ensure that they did a good job, the authors, Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, spent 5 years of research, checking historical documents and records. The overall aim was to write a book that aims to provide details of the facts and circumstances surrounding the creation of the state of Israel - to that extent, the book presents details of all the chief players of that time - the Arabs, the British who had the mandate of the region of Palestine, and the various players on the Jewish side (simple soldiers, religious leaders, the leaders (David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir), as well as the various organizations on the Jewish side (Hagannah, Irgun, Stern)).
The book itself starts from the time when the United Nations (in 1947) voted to partition the British mandate of Palestine into 2 parts - one to be the state of the Jews called Israel, and the other to be a Palestine state. However, both sides knew that this was not the end, there would be a war; and both sides prepared for war. So, for example, Israel sent its men abroad to buy arms and needed to setup an army and air force that could hold up its own against the might of its Arab neighbors. Similarly, the Arabs went to buy arms, and also worked at ensuring that all the constituents of the Arab side worked together. As the end of the mandate came closer, war became more imminent. It was also an intelligence war, something that Israel eventually won and won the entire battle (the Israeli objective was to retain their homeland, and they managed to do so). One consequence of the battle was to create a huge number of Palestinian refugees, the problem of which is a major impediment to any peaceful solution even now.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Caves of Steel - Isaac Asimov

Asimov wrote almost all his science fiction with stories geared to the future. In some of them, his ideas fail spectacularly after a period of time (his concept of one giant computer and MultiVac), but it is his stories of the evolution of a society of a future that is much more realistic, and it would be very much possible to look a thousand years down and find a resemblance to the society that he has created. Asimov wrote some of his greatest works when detailing the interaction of humans in the future, and about the society that got developed. The Caves of Steel is a combination of 2 distinct ideas - one is about the development of human society, and the other is about the development of robotics as an ever present strain. It is incredible to read his future novels and see how he almost single-handedly develops the concept of robots as an integral part of society (whether liked or hated), as well as develops the ethical and moral dilemmas concerning robots.

Caves of Steel - Isaac Asimov (1953)
It is in the depiction of the positronic brain being the base for the development of the truly thinking robot that was a great spark and made these novels special. A positronic humanoid robot is the evolution of robotics - strong like all robots, but capable of independent thought and action, and yet bound by another of Asimov's great contribution to the field of making robotics a much more human friendly science (The three Laws of Robotics that form the basis for all robotic thought and action).
The Caves of Steel also develops 2 characters who play a role in many of Asimov's future novels - the plainclothes detective Elijah Baley, and the humanoid robot R. Daneel Olivaw (who went to star in many of the other robots and foundation novels). This is the first novel in which they start working together, with Eijah being hesitant because of the taboos against robots in the society on earth at that point of time. It is not the best in the series, far from it, but it is worth reading because it is legitimately the first one in an incredible series (this does not mean that the novel is badly written, but that The Naked Sun is a better written work).
These 2 books (The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun) are also different from the others because these are stories set in the future with a very strong focus on detective work and investigation, the society forms more of a backdrop. The Caves of Steel actually refers to the vast cities on which a seething humanity, 8 billion strong lives. These are vast underground cities in which people hardly ever get a chance to see the sun, and in fact almost all of them would get disoriented and shaken on seeing the sun. As a contrast, human settlers on other worlds (50 of them) are a well settled financially dominant society, enjoying a much longer life and having a robot dominated life, with these robots making their life comfortable. Earth is dominated by these settlers (called Spacers) in terms of their power (although most Spacers would be uncomfortable being near the humans on earth).
With such a skewed power play, one of the prominent Spacers on earth is killed, and earth could face a major problem from the spacers unless the culprit is found. Finding the culprit is a thankless task, since failure could spell severe trouble for the detective incharge, and to Elijah falls the task of doing the investigation. In addition, he gets a Spacer to be his partner in the investigation, but this is not a normal spacer. This is an expensive state of the art humanoid robot, and Elijah has to overcome his own biases against robots, and at the same time, prevent Daneel from getting harmed by other humans during the investigation. Can he pull this off ?

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Bourne Identity (1980) by Robert Ludlum

The Bourne Identity is an extremely famous novel (although it never was made into a good movie - even the movie of the same name starring Matt Damon changed the story and somehow did not appeal to Ludlum fans). The Bourne Identity has been acknowledged as one of the better spy novels of all time (published in 1980). The concept of a man, who does not know who he is, but knows for sure that he was somebody whom people are hunting in a very determined manner, and who keeps on running and running in order to find out who he is (at the same time, running away from his pursuers) makes for a very fascinating story. Throw in the US Government agencies, throw in Carlos the Jackal, and throw in a romance, and you get a very gripping book.

The Bourne Identity (1980) by Robert Ludlum
The first in a series of 3 written by Robert Ludlum (the others being The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) and 2 more books in the same series written by Eric Van Lustbader written after Ludlum's death, you should ideally read the whole series and then you will admire the way that Robert Ludlum spins a fast-paced thriller.
The book starts with a man picked up from the Mediterranean Sea by a fishing boat and brought to a local doctor, a former good doctor, but now mostly a drunk. His body has many bullets in it, and in order to save him, the doctor gives up his drink for some time, and then saves him. It takes some time to recover, but the patient finally recovers. He soon discovers that he has amnesia, does not remember who he is, but there are some interesting circumstances around him - he has had signs of plastic surgery, and also surgically implanted in his body is a microfilm with the details of a Swiss account with 4 million dollars. Soon the patient also discovers that he has the instinct of a skilled fighter, when he has a fight with a local; as a result of this fight, he needs to leave fight.
He eventually gets to the Swiss Bank in Zurich, and soon discovers a name, Jason Bourne. This may or may not be his name, but he has to struggle when people at the bank know who he is, when he himself does not know who he his. And from this time, he is now a marked men when people get to know that he is alive. He struggles to stay away from them, and soon he takes a woman hostage, Marie St Jacques. He is now thoroughly enmeshed in a struggle with people (who may be from the famous Carlos the Jackal); he also has to face the possibility that he may be himself an assassin. The circumstances seem to point out that. But he also shows a very positive side to his character when he saves Marie after she is abducted and marked for killing.
As the plot progresses, you get to know more facts. He is / was an agent of the US Government, but then suddenly disappears, and then his prints appear at a location where some US agents are killed. Based on medical advice, the US now believes that he has turned hostile and needs to be hunted down. How can he stay one step ahead of his pursuers and make his former controllers believe that he did not turn, but instead lost his memory ? Read the novel to find out.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

This Immortal - by Roger Zelazny

This Immortal was the first novel by Roger Zelazny (published in 1966), and was of a level good enough that it shared the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year with Frank Herbert's "Dune". When I first read the novel many years back, it seemed very ordinary at first reading (in fact, I struggled to understand the meaning of many of the words and people in the novel - maybe if I had been born in the Greek Isles, I would have understood it better); however for the next few days, I kept on thinking about the novel, and read it again within a week. On second reading, it appealed much much more. Now, once every 1-2 years, I dust out the copy of the novel that I have and read it again (and I do not get bored by it at all).

This Immortal - by Roger Zelazny
I was reading a review of the novel in another place, and somebody pointed out something very pertinent about reading the novel - "the best way to understand "This Immortal" is to read Lawrence Durrell's chronicles of the Greek Isles, most especially "Prospero's Cell" and "Reflections on a Marine Venus"---or better yet, read Percy Shelley's "Prometheus Unbound," which is referred to more than once in this novel." Seemed very pertinent. But no matter, this is a fascinating novel and I can understand why this book remains very popular (with a new print coming out in 2007) and a number of authors have claimed to be inspired by the author.
The book is set in an earth sometime in the future, where a nuclear war between human and human condemned vast sections of the earth to be uninhabitable; vast sections of humanity were saved by moving them through space to other worlds. All this was done by an alien blue race called Vegans. They also helped the small number of Earth's population who remained to survive, but all the remaining places on earth were now owned be Vegans.
In the midst of all this, This Immortal refers to the character of the hero of this novel, a huge man who is also very ugly, with one leg shorter than the other. He was there from the nuclear war, but does not want to advertise his immortal nature by changing names. He is Conrad Nomikos, a Greek, born on Christmas Eve. In an earlier time soon after the nuclear war, he prevented the Vegans from converting the remaining portions of earth into resorts. He is otherwise not a person given to many displays, preferring to keep things quiet. He is just currently a caretaker and is also giving security to a rich visiting Vegan, Cort Myshtigo, who is traveling all over for reasons that are not very clear. There are many who want Cort dead, and it is upto Nomikos to keep Cort alive, and to figure out what the purpose of his visit is.
Earlier, Nomikos was heading an organization called the Returnist's - getting people to return so that earthlings can recover their planet from the Vegans. He is now somewhat removed from that mission, and is ambivalent about the Vegans now. During the course of showing Cort around the various ruins, he also protests him from various attempts. Some of those attempts seem very complex, and some very simple, many of them placing Conrad in severe danger.
Amusingly, his wife Cassandra calls him a kallikanzaros', which a Greek term for a little cloven-hooved satyr, who causes mischief of every kind. Conrad has already tricked the people around him about his origins and the death of the character who had his previous name. Now, he has to keep Cort alive till the end, when the surprising end is revealed.

Asimov's Nightfall

A classic science fiction novel, Nightfall was first published as a short story in the September 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, written after some friendly persuasion by the editor of the magazine - John W. Campbell. The story was later adapted into a complete novel, and one that was acknowledged to be an incredible piece of science fiction (but it was not just science fiction, but a psychological look at a society when it suddenly encounters a very changed environment and raises questions about how humans respond to unknown stimulus). The influence and power of this story was such that it was declared in 1968 as the best science fiction short story ever written prior to the establishment of the Nebula Awards (the awards were established in 1965) by the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Isaac Asimov's Nightfall
Nightfall has a pretty simple story. The story deals with human (like) society on an alien planet Lagash (Kalgash in the novel adaptation) that has a unique sky. It has a total of 6 suns all around it the stellar configuration (the various suns being Onos, Dovim, Trey, Patru, Tano, and Sitha). Because of these 6 suns, the planet is always in light and the inhabitants have not known darkness. They are so habituated to always having light that standing a time of darkness can be unnerving for most people. For example, a new amusement park ride that promises a time of total darkness has scared and traumatized many people.
The story has 3 main plots that all move to the same merger. There are the archaeologists who make the discovery that the ground strata of the planet seems to indicate that civilization builds up and then destroys itself, and that this has not happened once, but seems to keep on happening in a cycle. The researches are puzzled as to why such a thing keeps on happening, after all, most civilizations advance and maybe stagnate, but don't keep on going through a repetitive cycle of advance and decline.
Similarly, physicists discover that the there are irregularities in the orbit of Kalgash around its primary sun Onos. After more studies, the conclusions that they keep on heading towards is a horrifying one. The discovery is that the planet has a so far unknown satellite that causes the irregularities, and plotting the orbits of the planet, the satellite and the 6 suns lead to a conclusion that just cannot be true. After all, everybody knows that the planet has always had sunlight, so how can there be a time of many hours when the suns and the satellite reach a position where there is no light on the planet. Such a situation can cause mass hysteria and madness.
And then there is the political angle. There is a group known as the Apostles of the Flames, that calls itself as an ancient society; their belief (like a religious belief) is that civilization dies out with the appearance of darkness and then the stars that unleash fire. They are trying to gain more authority and political power.
These 3 combine together to reach a conclusion - every 2,049 years, the sole sun on one side of the planet is eclipsed for half a day, and this is a time when society (never having experience darkness) will go through madness and anarchy, with fire and chaos.
The rest of the novel is about this time coming closer, and then what happens when that time appears. This is a fascinating propounding of the state of the human mind, its irrationality in believing weird faiths and religious fervor when faced with a new thing.