Sunday, March 28, 2010

In Search Of Guiding Principles

The Arundhati Roy article ‘Walking with the Comrades’ in Outlook and the subsequent rants against and for it online make for interesting reading. Roy goes into Dandakaranya as the personal guest of the Maoists and comes back with what is ostensibly an inside view of the rebels who constitute according to Manmohan Singh, ‘the gravest internal security threat’ to India. What it of course turns out to be is a nice piece of writing that is unabashedly one-sided in its view – definitely not good journalism by any stretch of the imagination. We know Arundhati Roy believes the country needs a revolution and here was an opportunity to show and tell the world the romance of the on-the-run, gun-toting, Che-like revolutionary. There is no questioning of the Maoist approach (terrifying in my view), no thinking through if Gandhian ways wouldn’t be better for the tribals and for the world at large. If I was not such a fan of Roy’s writing, I would have not bothered to go beyond the first page of the 10 page article, rubbishing it as leftist propaganda.

But this is not a critique of the article. Reading it gave me pause. It was obvious which way Roy’s sympathies lay. She has in the past been critical of Indian democracy, the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, corporate greed. She sees herself, to paraphrase her brilliant and only piece of fiction, as the god of small things – fighting for the little, unknown, defenseless people, against powerful governments and big companies. Vedanta and Chidambaram are evil; out to strip and cheat the tribals of everything they value. Just as America is an imperialistic power out to establish its hegemony in the world. And there are no two ways about it.

What does it take for someone to completely believe? In a political theory or an economic one, in god, in an after-life, in the supremacy of a race or gender. To believe that something is absolutely right and the opposite is plain wrong. Like Arundhati Roy and her anti-big dam stance…or Gandhi and his non-violence…or Bush and his war on terror…or my cousin and his ‘the free market is the answer to everything’ theory…

I think that to truly believe in something, you need to be blind to a lot else. To believe in the Maoists, you need to be blind to the historical inhumanity that political theory has engendered in the twentieth century (and possibly in Dandakaranya itself, among the children forced to become soldiers). To believe in capitalism and Adam Smith, you need to be blind to its consequences on Roy’s ‘small things’. To believe in god, you need to blind yourself to everything that disproves its existence (Dawkins excellent book, for example). To believe in the absolute rightness and strength of non-violence, you need to be blind to the existence of pure evil (wonder if satyagraha could have been a weapon against Hitler).

Because there will always be individual circumstances that can put paid to belief. Is America’s free market system conducive to India’s growth challenges? Can Dawkin’s certainty about the non-existence of god explain the solace religion can bring to desperation?

I struggle with forming strong points of view – about religion, politics, economics, even about people. And I am sometimes repulsed by others who form them easily and with such certitude. There are some personal absolutes I can live by – truth and honesty, positivity and hope, an equal world for all, compassion, an absence of hatred, a respect for life, any life. But beyond that, what could be the absolutes? Theories – political, economic, social, religious – are just thought through opinions. Not a one-size fits all answer, but frameworks which will need to be moulded to individual circumstances.

If there is one belief I think the world would be better off living with, it is this: an acknowledgement that there could be different ways to reach the same goal, and that yours is a choice you make without ever being blinded to the others on the table; that while you give your all to that choice, there is always a recognition that a course correction or a modification might be required, that your choice might prove to be the wrong one and that you should learn as you go along. And along the way, the only absolutes you adhere to are a commitment to humanity and human rights, a hatred of any kind of hatred, and a lack of cynicism.

Is it too middle-of-the-road to be interesting? Is the lack of sharp edges smacking too much of compromise? Maybe. But do I believe the world will be a better place without the kind of polarization and uncompromising stances taken today? I do. Strongly and firmly. The Arundhati Roys have a place in this world. They paint one side of the picture. An extremely important side; yet it is but one side. There has to be a recognition of the other – a choice of democracy and peaceful resistance; of activism within the boundaries of law. It is a choice we made as a nation 60 odd years back. And we keep at it, while hearing and taking into account what Roy is saying…acknowledging that there are a lot of things that need to be corrected, understanding that what we call progress might not translate well to the people most affected, that a few cannot be sacrificed for the good of the many. There are always two sides to a story.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

By Hariko Murakami

Murakami continues to fascinate. His style of straight forward telling of stories that border on the absolute bizarre is addictive. Yet even for someone used to Murakami’s strange mix of fantasy and realism, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is an exercise in eccentricity.

Toru Okada is the hero and as most of Murakami’s heroes tend to be, he is blandly normal and quite a loser as the book starts out. Out of work, Toru Okada sits at home, cooking pasta and listening to music while waiting for his editor-wife to come home. Then strange things begin to happen, disturbing this idyll. First his cat Noboru Wataya, named after his wife’s brother, whom they dislike, disappears (disappearing cats seem to be a big thing with Murakami – there are so many scattered across his various books). Then the parade of strange women starts. Malta Kano and her sister Creta Kano appear in his life; Malta, a woman with some kind of psychic abilities is sent by his wife to find their cat; she in turn introduces him to her sister Creta Kano. Toru ends up having sex with Creta in his head (don’t ask me how, but they do!) and later in real life too. But then his wife disappears…ostensibly with another man, but he has no way of knowing if it is really true. If disappearing cats and wives weren’t enough, there is a teenage neighbor May Kasahara, a school drop-out who earns pocket money by doing a part time job counting bald men in the city for a wig company. May gets close to Toru, calling him the Wind-up man (a reference to a bird whose cry foretells doom), takes him bald-men-counting with her and by the middle of the book she has disappeared from the neighbourhood too. But we know where she goes – to the wig company’s factory in the hills where she is making wigs in an assembly line. We know her story through the letters she writes to Toru from there (letters that the reader gets to read but not Toru himself). In the meantime, there is a neighbourhood house that is lying vacant because bad things happen to its owners. There is a dry well there into whose depths Toru climbs down to think. And in one of those well sorties, he has a strange dream or out of body experience from which he emerges with a bluish mark on his cheek and a power to heal troubled people. Which leads him to Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon (their real names are never revealed to him). The Nutmeg and Cinnamon story is yet another adventure in this surreal Toru world.

For the first time in a Murakami, I find Japan and Japanese history. Normally the only things Japanese in his books are the names of the characters and places and the weirdness of the situations (that somehow feels Japanese!). Japan’s aggressive adventures in Manchuria and Mongolia in WW II form a backdrop to two sub-plots within the book. These sub-plots with Lt. Mamiya in one and Nutmeg’s vet father in another are real war stories, horrific and wrenching; where a man is skinned alive and all the wild animals in a zoo are killed. The juxtaposition of these anguished tales with the fantastical journeys of Toru can be quite ‘messing with your mind’ variety. The connections of these sub plots with Toru’s main story are quite tenuous and it is possible to read these as quite separate from the main one.

At 600 and more pages, this is a massive and ambitious book. And there is no tidy tying of the different threads of the story. Noboru Wataya is the unscrupulous politician and the villain of the piece, messing with Creta and his own sisters… but the full nature of his evil is never explained. We know where Toru’s wife ends up finally, the cat does come back…but Malta and Creta disappear without explanation and we still are no closer to understanding why all these different threads were brought together in the story.

But if you like Murakami and his brand of surreal and fairy-tale like stories, this is a great way to spend a long weekend. In the mundane everydayness, you sometimes need to get into your own personal well to create that strange imaginary world all your own.