Thursday, May 4, 2017

A Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond

If a movie is made based on a book you have read, watching the movie is a must. But if you have seen a movie based on a novel you haven’t read, it’s unlikely that you would read the novel. We somehow tend to believe it’s always a novel to a movie and the reverse journey doesn’t excite us a much. But with The Flight of Pigeons by Ruskin Bond I did make that reverse journey.

I had watched Junoon (based on the novel The Flight of Pigeons) many years ago and liked it, the story of a passionate one-sided love of a Pathan for an English girl in the wake of the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. A few years ago I chanced upon the book the movie was based on. A few months ago, after wanting to read it for many years since I saw it the first time, I finally read it.

 In a foreword Ruskin Bond informs that as a kid he had heard the story from his father, who, in turn, had heard it from Bond’s grandfather, a soldier those days, several times. The incident which took place in a small town in UP (Sharanpur) during the Mutiny had captivated a young Bond.

Many years later, when Bond decided to write a novella based on the incident,  he visited Sharanpur and found many of its parts, especially those the British families occupied in the days of the Mutiny, unchanged from how his father had described them.  

The action starts with a church where a mass is underway being attacked by rebels inspired by the hate wave that’s blowing across swathes of the country against the British. Among others, the narrator’s (a British teenage girl) father is killed. 

Following the death the family takes shelter in a Hindu merchant’s house who has braved the consequences of sympathizing with a British family amidst the anti-British frenzy which has gripped the town. 

In the meantime, a Pathan, a married man with a reputation for his dare devilry and cruelty, who is wreaking havoc in and outside the town by killing and looting the British and wealthy Hindus and setting their establishments ablaze, has taken a shine to the British girl and coaxes the Lala to let the family go with him and stay in his haveli.

After bringing them to haveli the Pathan does what was not expected of him. Instead of forcibly marrying the British girl or dishonoring her, he asks her mother for her daughter’s hand and the mother says the Pathan could marry her daughter if the rebel side won the war. Finally, the British win the war.

After some time the British reenter the town of Sharanpur to the relief of its British inhabitants and those who had persecuted the British families following the outbreak of the Mutiny and the reverses the British had suffered, flee the town to escape British retribution. 

However, after knowing that the lover Pathan has fled the town and gone beyond any possibility of return or been seen again, the British girl, in a silent acknowledgement of her softness for the handsome and chivalrous man, wishes him a safe passage.

By reading the outline of Flight you would expect it to be a romantic thriller, but it is not. After the initial burst of action it settles into a slow pace and shows reveals different layers of the story. 

The reaction of the people to what the Pathan wants to do, the transformation of the Pathan from a reckless troublemaker to a lovesick man patiently awaiting the matrimonial permission of his muse’s mother, the grit of the girl’s mother, who, despite the fact that she and her family are at the mercy of the testy Pathan, manages to keep her wit and composure in place.

And then you have the magic touch of Ruskin Bond to savour.  

Monday, March 6, 2017

One Year with My Maruti 800

This month my car – a Maruti 800 – completes one year with me and nine years since it rolled out of a showroom. Yes, when I purchased it last March, it was eight years old. And as is expected of a car that old, it did give me some troubles and caused me minor expenses for the first eight months or so. But after the first burst of repairs, it seems to have stabilized and functions smoothly without being an irritant.

This one year with the car has been a series of discoveries.

One of the reasons for buying the car was learning how to drive, which I had tried many, many years ago with a cousin’s second hand Premier Padmini and had not been able to get the clutch and brake coordination correct resulting in the car starting and then stopping without moving an inch.
I was booed at.  Frustrated, I left trying. After that unsuccessful attempt, I never tried my hand at driving again until I joined a training school last year.

The first thing I learnt was - driving is not easy. It is an applied art - where how good you are at it is determined not by how well you know the theories but how deftly you apply them when behind the wheels. You are told a few things at the school and many more you discover on your own.

It requires a mix of many skills. You have to take quick decisions, you have to have quick impulses to react to situations, you need what I would call space-ial intelligence, and as you are doing all this, you have to remain calm and relaxed. 

That I am able to successfully drive came to my mother as a surprise. A year ago, when I started learning, I would be surprised to know that a year later I would be able to drive. My personality traits run contrary to the prerequisites of driving.

I am slow to react to situations. I am a slow thinker. I am confusion-prone. And generally I place a chair or  table right the second or third time.

It took me two months of training (10 hours) and six months of practice to overcome my natural deficiencies. Probably it would be a little longer had it not been for the fact that I had a Maruti 800 to learn with.

These six to eight months were not without pain. Once, while trying to complete a 60 degree turn, I hit the bumper of an SUV and had to pay heavily to get it repaired.  The driver of the SUV informed me, while we were returning from the service center, that there was a new driver who had hit the car bumper against a pole while backing it. “Sale ko chalana nehi ata.” I would be thankful to him if he had not told me.

The other mishaps were minor but enough to dent my confidence for a while. Along the way, I also learnt a few life lessons.

One of my friends, who learnt driving about four years ago, told me the guy who shouts first in an accident and shouts the other guy out generally gets mob support and prevails: “Yaar, a second later no one knows whose the fault was.”

Seeing me appreciating his point, he shared a deeper human insight: Following a crisis, we pretend to look for the actual culprit, but actually we look for a fall guy - enough to quell our anger!

I learnt another thing: driving doesn’t get the credit it deserves because it’s a poor man’s job.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Silence - a Movie That Will Stand the Test of Time

When a new arrival – a book or a movie - is based on a piece of history you are familiar with, it does not leave you with too many options – you have to devour it. So when in promo pics of Silence, the latest movie by Martin Scorsese, I saw two guys with scrubby beard looking like coming from another time in an exotic mountainous locale, it piqued my curiosity. (I was not familiar with Scorsese‘s reputation and repertoire.) Upon digging deeper, I came to know Silence deals with a piece of Japan’s past I had read about many years ago.

The time is 16th century and Japan is going through a period of extreme religious persecution aimed at those who have embraced Christianity and Jesuits operating in the country. Amidst this, two Portuguese jesuits visit Japan to find out about their mentor jesuit – father Ferrero - who is said to have abandoned his faith in Christianity publicly, and also to help Christians facing persecution in the country.

This is the period which has a parallel with post Nagasaki Hiroshima Japan: when the nuclear attack forced the country into a shell – to rebuild a nation maimed by a war and nuke. Many say these two incidents and their aftermath left Japan with a permanent paranoia for the foreigner (much like what the Opium War did for China) which still informs its public policies.  However, people familiar with the bit of Japan’s history Silence deals with will trace the source of that paranoia a little further back in time.

An edge-of-the seat suspense takes you through the first half an hour or so of the film and then it slowly dissipates and the film gradually settles into an easier pace but a certain tension continues to characterize the narrative throughout, thanks to the subject, but also how the director has brought that element to bear upon the narrative.

Given the nature of the subject Scorsese has chosen for Silence, a plaintiveness running across the film is understandable. But the scenes depicting the dehumanizing treatment meted out by Japanese officers to those who have moved to Christianity, mostly poor villagers, leave you with a sour mood. And this I feel helps the evangelist  side get sympathy with the viewer and win the argument obscuring the viewer to the fact that  the colonial powers often hid sinister intent behind the guise of faith (many advocates of the Opium War on China had used faith as their justification), a point that Scorsese’s movie overlooks. 

In fact, many would say Silence is a passionate argument for Christianity - one of the travelling Portuguese padres dies but the other lives and goes through a forced public denial of his faith in Catholicism following which he becomes a Buddhist and never acknowledges his faith in Christianity in his lifetime only to be shown with a cross in his rolled palm when he is being cremated as per Japanese customs - in an apparent show of trump of his Christian beliefs. 

Be that as it may, I wholeheartedly rooted for the characters undergoing persecution and the torture scenes left me downcast for a long time.

Silence is easily a classic, something which will stand the test of time and be remembered respectfully many years later for several things – great cinematography (some of the scenes are simply breathtaking), authentic recreation of a period in history (the monasteries, the wooden structures, everything looks so much like they have leapt out of the period) and above everything else a film which powerfully tells a story showing the two sides of religion – devotion and intolerance.

It’s a must watch.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Where Are We with Demonitization

It’s been sometime since I wrote the earlier blog on demonetization – and the situation has changed since then. We have got used to the new normal – that ATMs will not be the same again, that some visits to ATMs will be disappointing, some fruitful, that 2000 rupee notes will be in greater use than 1000 rupee denomination ever was and therefore getting it changed will always be a concern, that although a complete cashlessness may still be some years away, more and more number of small shops, the most formidable bastions of cashbased transactions, will offer digital options for payment. In sum, liquid cash will become less and less part of our day to day lives.

Well, all this is good news, but is it the whole picture or just an urban snapshot? From the reports that are emerging, rural India is still smarting under the effects of demo. A few days ago a news portal solely reporting on the effects of demonetization on rural India reported that in Maharashtra prices of some vegetables have dropped substantially due to over supply resulting from the inability of middle men to buy them due to lack of cash availability  (these transactions are almost always cashbased). Some rural regions are not receiving enough cash supply in their banks – and it’s a bigger concern in rural areas than in urban ones.  

And even in urban areas, even by the standard of the new normal, order has not completely returned. Most ATMs are still out of cash. Most of those that are working are mostly dispensing Rs 2000 notes.  Many have concluded that visits to banks to draw cash via cheques is a better option than depending on ATMs; but then if that is so, then does it not defeat the whole purpose of demonetization?

By now it is undeniable that the implementation has been a disaster. How the government and various financial institutions have reacted to situations suggests they were not foreseen and planned for earlier. Surprisingly though, as it appears, demo hasn’t hurt the government politically, although many would suspend their judgement about it until UP delivers its verdict.

Apart from Modi’s thunderous speeches, what has helped the government is that the opposition continues to be hopeless. To start with, there is hardly any opposition unity. Some parties are ambiguous about their stand on demo, some are half-heartedly supporting it by maintaining silence, some are mindlessly hurling accusations none of which is sticking. 

Amidst this chaos, though, one thing is becoming clear: emergence of a new order of payment methods, networks etc. The problem is how fast people can get used to the emerging order. The lightning speed with which demo was brought by the government will keep people on their toes, causing them to rush to the new transaction practices, in terms of learning them and making them an integral part of their day-to-day financial transactions.

Good or bad, this attitude towards government-brought changes is another bequest of demonetization. In the past, whenever it came to matters relating the government, people felt things would largely remain the same and they would be able to bypass the minor changes and survive the effects. Such comforting assurances have become a thing of the past. 

In the meantime, stories will keep emerging, some funny, some tragic. Let us look at this one from Karnataka. To raise funds, to help a depleted exchequer, the government is invoking an old law where pubs will have to achieve a minimum target of liquor sale set by the government, falling short of the target will attract penalties.

Monday, December 5, 2016

The I and We of Demonitization

It’s been sometime I have been at the receiving end of the effects of demonetization. I still am confused whether what the government is telling is right, that it’s today’s pain and tomorrow’s gain. Or what the opposition parties are claiming is true, that it’s not going to serve the intended purpose of eliminating black money, that it’s legalized loot, that nothing will prevent counterfeiters from counterfeiting the newly introduced notes and so on. 

Whichever side of the argument you are on, a few things are very clear. It’s almost a month since  demonetization and the situation on ground is still not back to normal. Most ATMs are not functioning, barring a few located in prominent places per area. The load on these few functioning ATMs is so high, as a result, that they are running out of cash within a few hours of refill. I stood in long queues of several such ATMs and the cash ran out when my turn was two to three people away. The luckiest ones walked away with 100 rupee notes, the luckier with 2000, some (including me) had to return emptyhanded. Even if you are lucky to get some cash, there is restriction to how much you can draw. Until some time ago ATMs cards from banks other than the host bank were not working. Now they are.

Like many of you, I am tracking this development closely and have read several articles and heard some interviews. Posthumously, they say a range of things which could have prevented or at least brought down the scale of the crisis. Instead of banning both 500 and 1000 rupee notes, they say, the government could have banned one – preferably  1000 – and left the other, which would have given them time to replenish the banned notes and also the option of targeting the 500 rupee denomination later. If they had taken some time to make all the notes the same size, which is how it is in many countries, the ATM machines would not require recalibration, they say.

These ‘should have beens’ may not bother us much now that it’s too late, but at a national and personal level there are a few possible outcomes of them. The happy political consensus over GST seems to have dissipated and reorganized itself as a pan India opposition against the government over demonetization. No one seems to mind the purported goals – end of black money, cashless economy etc - of demonetization; given their lofty nature, they are slightly unchallengeable. The opposition parties seem to smell a political opportunity in how demonetization has been carried out. And that seems to be the bone of contention for the amm janta too…who may think, if the mainstream media reports are to go by, that little bit of pain is worth the long term gains. But as each day goes by without the situation coming under control, the concern that’s becoming bigger and bigger is: how long the patience will hold out?

The answer to that lies in several things. How long will the government take to pull the situation under control? How soon, in what forms and how tangibly will people see the benefits of the pain they are undergoing? How long the government will be able to prevent the growing voice of a uniting opposition into becoming a nationwide roar (something like the G scams)?

A lot of this will require perception handling. Also, as the government works towards getting things in order, care has to be taken to make sure that nothing undermines the ground which is being covered on the way to normalcy. The system has countless holes through which illegal money can travel back and forth having a termite-like effect. And there is enough evidence that this is happening. New notes worth over Rs 4 crore have been seized in income tax raids in Bengaluru. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country. And there are inherent challenges. One of them is the unorganized economy in India is intricately entwined with the mainstream economy and the former is mostly (unless it is illegal) cash based.

On ground a few things need to be made smooth so that after I get a 2000 rupee note it’s easy for me to find change or there are enough 100 notes in ATMs. The number of functioning ATMs should start growing so that I don’t have to stand in queues for too long. If the problem is to linger for a few more months, then special arrangements should be made on payment days, either by pumping in more currencies or devising ways to identify and move as many as possible to crediting their stuff salary into their accounts.  None is easy. And what makes it difficult is this hydraheaded monster has to be tamed FAST.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

There are very few books that fill you with a sense of urgency to write something on them before it’s too late. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which marks the author’s return to nonfiction after a long while, is one such book. The Great Derangement…delves into history (literary and political), analyses contemporary practices, our choices and preferences...and tells us how they are collectively responsible for forcing the nature to unleash destructive forces - like earth swallowing floods, monstrous earth quakes, gales with never-heard-of speed and ferocity – and have brought us to the edge from where a return journey is not possible unless we immediately stop the ‘march of modernity’.  

The book blames several things for the climate challenges we are faced with – one is history, another is indifference of serious fiction towards climactic matters, another is the apathy of governments to climactic concerns, still another is our lack of awareness about the havoc climate change can wreak in our lives although there is no dearth of evidence around us.

Ghosh is most morbid about the middle class when it comes to suffering from impact of climate change. He says the rich will fly away in airplanes, the poor will go away to their villages, but where will the middle class go given the fact that they have built their lives in cities? In other words, Ghosh says cities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And particularly those that are close to sea or other forms of water bodies, like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta. Most of these cities were built in colonial period to act as good trade and commerce centers because of their proximity to water. And somehow this preference for proximity with water has crept into the elites of these cities, who tend to build their settlements close to water. The richer the closer.

This love of the rich for staying close to water makes the sea-facing locations most coveted real estate pieces. And, Ghosh observes, this desirability of these locations as real estate properties, anywhere around the world, makes it difficult for governments (or municipal bodies) to create awareness about the perils of staying close to water bodies, thanks to the political clout the real estate practitioners enjoy everywhere.  

For Ghosh the peril of this proximity was best exemplified when he travelled to Andaman and Nicobar islands to report on the impact of tsunami.  He visited an army settlement located close to the sea. He noticed two things: a) the higher the rank of the occupant, the closer his dwelling was to the sea leading to the highest rank holder staying closest to the sea (and vice versa); b) those closest to the sea were affected the most by tsunami.

Ghosh observes that in the pre-colonial period people lived away from water, but with the city-building projects the colonial masters took up, the preference slowly reversed.

One of the most original points Ghosh makes in Derangement is the indifference of literary fiction to the concerns of climate change. According to Ghosh, some of the practitioners of serious fiction in the 19th century consciously moved away from using fantastical elements – like flying carpets or a rising sea gulping a landscape – as a means to tell stories, in order to focus on more prosaic day-to-day affairs of life. This prosaic-ity fulfilled the requirements of serious fiction. So describing minor details of landscape and how people lived their lives became fashionable. Amitav Ghosh says this shift from writing about fantastical occurrences to more mundane motions of life had to do with the emphasis of the Industrial Revolution on betterment of human lives.

This shift made the fury of nature, like floods, cyclones etc., an untouchable terrain for serous fiction – because, as Ghosh observes, the gigantic scale of these furies of nature lends them a fantasy-like incredulity not to be dealt with in the type of fiction which swears by credulity.  

Writing on furies of nature fell to less-respected a form of fiction, genre fiction. And, Ghosh rues, it continues to this day. That is why thrillers and science fiction have addressed climactic concerns; but sadly, the author says, because genre fictions hardly receive any serious literary award, the issues they address don’t receive the attention they deserve.

One of the things responsible for pushing us to the brink is replacement of coal with petrol as a fuel. Petrol is a more versatile fuel than coal but that is not the only thing which explains why petrol usurped coal’s position as a primary fuel: the reason is petrol is a politically safer fuel than coal – and what makes coal a politically volatile fuel is the highly visible mining process involved in it unlike the refinement process of petrol which is very opaque.

Remember the blackened face of the 20th century coal miner melancholically looking at you from a black and white photo? This visibility of the plight of coal miners is responsible for the revolutions that coal mining has led to unlike the plight of petroleum refinery workers which suffers in obscurity. And the political elite of the Anglosphere the Churchills and Roosevelts of this world knew about this disadvantage of coal mining, Europe having experienced many of the coal-triggered revolutions, and ensured that coal was replaced by petroleum as a primary fuel.

But as always Ghosh’s favorite whipping horse is once again colonialism. He says Britain made sure that the benefits of the industrial revolution were denied to its colonies – and that’s the kind of development that took place in the Western world didn’t take start in Asia until the 1950s when the colonies started getting independence. But, according to the author, the earth can’t withstand the rigor of another round of Western-style development.

That’s why, in climate negotiations taking place among nations, the Western nations insist the poorer nations to take a different route to development.

Ghosh says governments across the world, particularly the democratic ones, come to power on the promise of fulfilling people’s aspirations – and therefore are ill-placed to ask their citizenry to view their actions in the light of their moral responsibility towards saving the earth from going over the edge. It’s only religious groups that can do that. And Ghosh praises the book Laudato Si written by pope Francis in this regard and does a comparative study between the papal book on climate and another important treatise concerning the same subject, The Paris Agreement - and concludes that Laudato Si is much more lucid and readable of the two.

You can take The Great Derangement in many ways – as a book which preaches, prophesises, disparages - by asking us to happily forgo the type of modern development the Western nations have taken for granted. And I am afraid seeing the book in any of these ways will obscure you to its merit as a well-researched book which forcefully holds a brief for climate and makes some unique points along the way. But it does so not without occasionally sliding into ideological slots avoiding which would have ensured a wider acceptability of its views which are certainly worthy of attention.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making a Break with the Past with Enid Blyton

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enid Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction - picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of his books.)

Back then I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation or whether someone was a commercial or literary writer. I developed these pretensions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enid Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years ago why I didn’t try out Enid Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I was age conscious. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s author just wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was naturally out of the question. But my indifference to Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with her.

In my earlier reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enid Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enid Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English - where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play with. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

The plot is simple and straight forward with a moral and social justice angle to it. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for occasional derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and mostly over weekends.
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