Sunday, February 22, 2009

In Other Worlds

One of the pleasures of reading fiction is the ability to encounter places you would never otherwise do. The last three books I read were good books, but not good enough to want me to read them again (my criterion for books I really like!); yet they were interesting because they showed me worlds other than where I live, helped me imagine lives so different from my own.

Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole is a debut novel set in Australia. Nominated for the Booker, that it ultimately lost to The White Tiger, it is a monster of a book, 700 pages long, rambling and messy at times and peopled with characters bizarre and yet tangible, imaginable. It is a book about Jasper Dean’s search for identity. It follows his father Martin Dean’s (the most hated man in Australia) peripatetic life and his uncle Terry Dean’s (the most loved). The strange fascination Australia has for murderers and criminals (Ned Kelly, for instance), comes into play and Terry Dean, criminal and murderer is a hero. His brother Martin, who is the clever one, the philosopher and the analyzer is vilified and has to escape his country with his son. It takes 700 pages, innumerable diaries written by Martin, weird labyrinthine houses, mad business plans, exile to Thailand and a tragic return to Australia to get Jasper, who is forever looking for excuses to hate his father, learn to finally say, “..I had had the good fortune to be raised by an odd, uncompromising, walking stew of ideas. So what if he was a philosopher who thought himself into a corner? He was also a natural-born empathiser who would have rather been buried alive than have his imperfections ever seriously harm anyone. He was my father. He was a fool. He was my kind of fool.” Throughout, the book is peppered with philosophical homilies from Martin that can get as infuriating as they can get interesting. It is a bit of a roller-coaster of a book, that can get maddeningly bizarre and painfully twisted at times. Yet it all does seem rather fresh and new and interesting. Australia sure has a worthy-of-note, original voice.

Amos Oz’s Black Box (a translation from the Hebrew) gives us a glimpse into life in present day Israel. The lives of ordinary middle-class people living everyday in the midst of a political conflict that cannot help getting personal. It is the story of Alex and Illana, divorced and yet unable to let go of each other. Illana is married again, this time to Michel, an orthodox Jew, whose mission is to establish the supremacy of the Jewish homeland. Alex on the other hand is the liberal professor, who fought the war, yet wants no hand in the continuing conflict. Alex and Illana’s son Boaz forms the fourth character in this fascinating drama. The whole story is told in the form of hand-written letters (a rather old-fashioned technique, I must say – people seem to have large amounts of time to write the long missives) and the loves and passions of the main protagonists that play in the midst of the political drama (liberal vs orthodox; tolerance vs fanaticism) make it a moving and remarkable story. It was for me a first look into modern Israel, the real-ness of living in a kibbutz, the proximity of a conflict zone and the way the political invades the personal in ways that we cannot even imagine. Interesting.

Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland was one of Time Magazine’s 10 best books of 2008. To me, its interest lies in its description of a strange new world – that of cricket players in New York. Hans van der Broek is a Dutch equity analyst, married to an English lawyer Rachel with a young son Jake. They move to New York in high-powered jobs. 9/11 happens, they need to move out of their Manhattan apartment and their marriage slowly falls apart. Rachel moves with Jake back to London and Hans discovers the joys of playing cricket in New York with a jamboree of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and West Indian immigrants. In the process, he meets with Chuck Ramkissoon, a Trinidadian immigrant who dreams of making Americans play cricket. His grand immigrant dream resembles the great American one – he has plans of forming a cricket club, building a stadium, getting teams from the sub continent to play cricket there and introducing the greatness of the game to Americans. Hans is taken in by this strange vision and by Chuck himself, who as a mesmerizing raconteur, he cannot resist. It is only when he slowly discovers Chuck’s darker side – his illegal gambling network and his Russian mafia connections – that Hans finds it in himself to move away. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of cricket and O’Neill’s philosophizing of a game that has never gone past its colonial origins. O’Neill romanticizes the game in its pristine form – men in white on green fields, imagining an environment of justice and fairplay. Netherland is a slow, ponderous book, much like its protagonist Hans and some of its pages can get excruciatingly heavy and tedious. Yet there are moments of lyrical beauty that can catch your breath – he describes experiencing London for the first time as finding something romantic in ‘the leftover twinkle of empire’. And when asked for advice about marriage by a younger colleague, he says “We are in the realm not of logic but of wistfulness, and I must maintain that wistfulness is a respectable, serious condition.” It is a good book if you feel like slowing down and you’re moving too fast.
Fanaticism, Amos Oz , Johann Hari

Israel and Palestine! A 60 year old conflict that is arguably the source of much of the Islamic world’s anger. I have always found it difficult to reconcile myself with the Western world’s support of Israel. After all, the Jewish claim to the Holy Land is a bit like the Hindu claim to Ayodhya – based on faith in a mythology that can never be scientifically proved. Of course, in the modern context, might has always been right. So when Israel has won two wars against their Arab neighbours, they are entitled to the right of spoils for the victor, I suppose.

Why am I writing about this? Because I have just encountered an interesting Israeli writer – Amoz Oz. His little book intriguingly called Help Us To Divorce is actually the text of two speeches he delivered on his proposed solution to the problem. These speeches are not very recent, but they are pretty topical, and will be, I guess till the Palestinian problem is solved for good.

Good fences make good neighbours, said Robert Frost. Amoz Oz recommends the same to solve the conflict his nation has been embroiled in since its inception. Divide the territory, build a fence. Israel and Palestine. Two nations, one asking for recognition from the Arab world and the other asking for territory to call its own. Kind of a sensible resolution, it would seem? Apparently not. There is far too much passion invested, far too much history, much too less common sense on both sides of the divide.

As a nation that has encountered the trauma of a divorce in its recent past, India knows it is not easy. But we also know it was probably for the best in the long term. So Oz’s recommendation, as articulated in the first essay (and in the Geneva Accord, that he is a co-author of) seems sensible though difficult, especially in the current scenario with stances on both sides hardening.

His second essay in the same book, How to Cure a Fanatic, is interesting because it goes beyond the immediate problem. It is Oz’s thoughts on what makes a fanatic and what can unmake them. He should know. He has lived all his life in the midst of fanatics – Jews on one side and Muslims on the other. “The seed of fanaticism always lies in uncompromising righteousness”, he says. Be it the anti-smokers or the vegetarians, the anti-abortionists or the pacifists; the fanaticism gene he says lies in all of us, all around us. “The essence of fanaticism lies in the desire to force other people to change”, he says. And while the suggestions he has to unmake the fanatic might seem idealistic and hard to do at an immediate level, it does make sense for parents and teachers to keep them in mind while bringing children up. The enemy of a fanatic is ‘imagination’, he says. If you are able to imagine the other, you will be less inclined to kill him. In fact, it is the one exercise activists working with children in strife-torn areas always do – get children to imagine what it is like to be the enemy. So injecting imagination into a society is one way to strangle fanaticism. Injecting humour is another. When people can laugh at themselves, when they can see the humour in any situation, it tends to be difficult to take oneself or one’s cause too seriously. It is an interesting look at one of the plagues of our time.

Talking about fanaticism, the protests in Calcutta against the Statesman that published Johann Hari’s article on standing up for the right to criticize religion are bizarre. Read the article in question here and his response to the furore created, here. Both superb pieces that everyone who feels strongly about secularism should read.
Slumdog Millionaire

It is a bit late in the day for thoughts on a movie everyone has seen and reviewed. But before Oscar makes his decision, just thought I’d pen this down.

I liked Slumdog Millionaire. It is quite a rollicking entertainer, packaging Mumbai primarily for an audience that hasn’t seen anything close to a place like this. The plot line is clever and picaresque in technique. It brings the different strands of a fascinating city together to pack in quite a punch. The slums, the beggar gangs, the underworld, Bollywood’s lure, call centres, religious riots - they are all in there and there in oversaturated colour. As is the case in such plotlines, characterization goes stereo-typical. The wicked gangster and the sly game show host; the victimized beggar and the innocent prostitute. All of them seem real by themselves, but when they come together the way they do, they are props in a film dedicated to weaving together a tapestry that is meant to overload the senses, much like the city itself does.

The photography is quite brilliant, I thought. It is an external eye that finds colour in the most mundane, beauty through a different frame. The music was nice too, lifting the film in the parts that flagged a bit.

Dev Patel was a disaster. I wished I could slap away that hangdog expression on his face through the film. A more interesting face and a better actor could have made the package better. Frieda Pinto was ordinary to say the least and I never liked Anil Kapoor. But the kids quite made up for it. They were absolutely amazing and adorable – especially the teenaged Latika.

All in all, was an absorbing two hours of my life. The whining about showing the world India’s underbelly was just that – whining. And all that hand wringing about why this movie would deserve an Oscar? Since when were the Oscars about just great film making? Forrest Gump? Titanic? Rocky? Slumdog Millionaire fits right in, actually.