Wednesday, May 30, 2007
on new fiction:
Khaled Hosseini's follow-up to The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns,
Manjushree Thapa's book of stories Tilled Earth,
Daniel Kehlmann's surprise bestseller Measuring The World,
and possibly Sandor Marai's The Rebels
Christopher de Bellaigue's The Struggle for Iran,
Jeffrey Goldberg's Prisoners: A Muslim & A Jew Across The Middle East Divide,
and Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus
Saturday, May 26, 2007
Yet the concern advanced by Maira, formerly an industrial executive and currently chairman of The Boston Consulting Group, India, is that Indian democracy is so fractious and unruly that it detracts from development. The parallel that pops up in his book, as it often does in discussions about Asia, is that of undemocratic China, which has put together world-class infrastructure within the span of a generation. By contrast, people entering the city from Mumbai's airport face eyesores, traffic snarls, and other signs of retarded development. Yet, as India has chosen the democratic way of life, there is no alternative to democracy; the only hope is to better it.
"[T]he improvement of democratic decision-making must be the agenda," argues Maira, "for Indians who want to accelerate the country's progress." It is with this specific problem in mind that he suggests five graduated steps for better debate and building consensus. These steps, he suggests, are like the gears of a car: some are to help us take off, but we cannot accelerate unless we move further down the chain of successful problem-solving. Readers will want to decide for themselves whether they find Maira's ideas about such concepts as aspiring, realizing and framing helpful.
Maira is a widely read man - among the many writers he cites in his book are Fareed Zakaria, Lewis Lapham, Jonathan Schell, Tariq Ali, and Thomas Friedman. Sometimes his survey or what other people have written can be insightful, such as when he cites the Dutch political scientist Arend Lijphart's classification of democracies into majoritarian ones, in which a stable two-party system is the norm, and consensus ones, in which power is divided between many competing players as in India. Intuition suggests that consensus democracies are slower and more inefficient, but in truth such democracies also manifest many good qualities, because forging a consensus means to some extent listening or deferring to the other side. When thinking about the pros and cons of fractured mandates of the kind widely seen in our era of coalition politics, it is useful to have information like this at hand.
Yet all too often Maira's book feels unhelpful, because it is too general. Maira's background is that of the corporate world, and the tone of his book is that of a self-help manual for managers. Many of the examples of successful conflict resolution Maira cites come from seminars and leadership conclaves he has attended. "Listening, like the atom, seems a very small thing. Yet it has enormous power to change the world," he counsels. On another occasion he writes, "In this scenario, many people rise like fireflies - living lights - all over the country and begin to transform darkness into light, despair into hope and passivity into action." Perhaps I do Maira a disfavour here by quoting him out of context, but his approach strikes me as a little too roseate. Like many management gurus, Maira also has a weakness for generating catchy acronyms, such as the concept of PLU ("People Like Us", or the tendency of people to assume conformity with their own values) and that of WMD ("Ways of Mass Dialogue").
But the fallacy manifest in Maira's book is also a PLM (People Like Me) kind, which assumes that all the actors in Indian democracy are committed to liberal values and to democratic debate and consensus - that they have the will but perhaps not the skill, which they can learn by adopting his "five steps to consensus". By doing so, he greatly simplifies matters. But, six decades after our experiment with democracy began, BR Ambedkar's assertion that "Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic" still remains acutely true today.
The real problem with India may be not so much that it is a nation of discordant democrats, but rather that it is under pressure on all sides from forces who do not subscribe to or have lost faith in the resolution of disputes by democratic and non-violent means. In other words, the weakness of Indian democracy is less that it is impracticably discordant and more that it is insufficiently deep-rooted - democracy is not yet for us a way of life. The failure to frame the problem properly makes Maira's treatise a well-intentioned but somewhat inadequate one.
And some essays: "Downloading Democracy" by the historian Robert Conquest ("Democracy is almost invariably criticized by revolutionaries for the blemishes found in any real example, as compared with the grand abstraction of the mere word. Real politics is full of what it would be charitable to call imperfections"); "The Guru of Hate", an essay by Ramachandra Guha on the still-influential Hindu ideologue MS Golwalkar, who thought democracy was alien to Hindu ethos and extolled the laws of Manu; "Democracy and Its Global Roots" by Amartya Sen; "Fears for Democracy in India" by Martha Nussbaum, whose book on India The Clash Within is just out from Harvard University Press; and "Nehru's Faith" by Sunil Khilnani.
And some old Middle Stage posts on writers dealing with aspects of Indian society and politics: Ashis Nandy, Krishna Kripalani, Pankaj Mishra, Minoo Masani and Amartya Sen.
A shorter version of this piece appears today in Mint.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Of all modern cricket writers, Haigh is the most versatile and companionable. In our post-post-Cardusian times, when television brings every detail of the great game into our living-rooms and in the breaks gray-haired pundits tell noodle-strapped lovelies everything there is to know, it is still possible to watch a day's cricket and then profitably read Haigh on it the next morning. He has a great sense of the ebb and flow of the game, an eye for the quirks of character of those who play it, a lovely prose style that throws off sparks of both erudition and sunny good humour, and a cat, Trumper, who was unfortunately left behind when he went to cover the cricket. Most daily journalism has a short shelf life, but the reports and columns collected in All Out merely bring together between two covers and some sturdy binding pieces we were all collecting anyway.
During the series Warne bowled some marathon spells. Haigh writes:
Arthur Shrewsbury, legend has it, went out to open for Nottinghamshire in country cricket having ordered his seltzer for teatime, in full expectation that he would still be batting. When Warne takes the ball these days, it is with a similarly proprietorial air. He arrives, settles, surveys. He attacks, consolidates, harries, heckles and sometimes even dawdles. Some bowlers hasten through their overs, as though to sneak a dot ball or two from a batsman not quite fully tensed. Warne never hurries, averaging about 210-240 seconds per over, the leisurely walk back being part of that tightly-grooved action, the thinking time both for himself and the batsman. What did Warnie just bowl me? What will Warnie bowl me next?
One drawling surveillance of a batsman's inadequacies can be guaranteed in most overs; a field change, conveyed by minimal gesture and perfunctory nod to his captain, every other over. Regular importuning of the umpires, of course, is guaranteed.
Here are two bits from Haigh's book as they first appeared in the newspapers, one on a long spell bowled by Warne at Perth, and the other a survey of the careers of Warne and Glenn McGrath - "the best slow bowler of all, and the best seam bowler of his era". And some other exceptional Haigh pieces: "The Game Was Never The Same", on the Packer revolution; "Man and Superman", on Garry Sobers; "Standing the Test of Time", on the factors that make for a great Test match; and lastly, a piece on the super-dull 2007 World Cup.
Saturday, May 12, 2007
Invoking the motto E pluribus unum ("Out of the many, one"), and declaring that there was not a conservative America and a liberal America but only "the United States of America", Obama immediately stood out before a nation weary of cynical and divisive politics. Almost overnight the mixed-race child of a Kenyan father and American mother was anointed the country's most promising young politician, and began to be talked of as a future candidate for president. The process set in motion that day in 2004 reached its logical conclusion in February this year, when Obama announced he would compete with Hillary Clinton and John Edwards to be the Democratic nominee for next year's presidential elections. If elected, Obama will become America's first black President.
The Audacity of Hope, Obama's new book, draws upon one of the many memorable phrases from Obama's speech in 2004 to articulate his vision of American society, politics, and foreign policy. It is a book that Obama, still a relative unknown, had to write for many reasons. It serves as an autobiography to those unfamiliar with him, and as a campaign manifesto for those wanting to test out his ideas. Also, as Obama has himself said, a book allows for more complex and judicious arguments than a quote or a sound-bite. In the difficult arena of electoral politics, where opponents are waiting to seize upon your lapses or twist your words out of context, it is an advantage to have a written record of your stances.
What does The Audacity of Hope reveal about Obama's personality? The most distinctive feature of his book is the extent to which he speaks the language of inclusion, of conversation rather than confrontation. Success in politics often requires the carving out of a distinctive space for one's own ideas, or the canny repositioning of the ideas of one's adversaries. But Obama is seen on several occasions searching for "the common ground" between himself and his opponents, and insisting their similarities are more significant than their differences. He is clearly by nature a moderate and a centrist, which helps explain his attraction for American voters after the fractious and polarizing years of the Bush regime. American presidential candidates have often defined themselves in opposition to their predecessor, but Obama's air of quiet resolve contrasts naturally with Bush's bellicosity.
If anything, Obama is too courteous. Early in his book there is a revelatory moment in which he visits the White House, and spends a few minutes in the company of Bush. Although Obama has been an outspoken critic of Bush's policies - in particular of the war on Iraq and Bush's tax cuts for the rich - he insists "that I don't consider George Bush a bad man, and that I assume he and members of his Administration are trying to do what they think is best for the country". This is a characteristic Obama gambit - he argues convincingly on several other instances for the need to abandon our tendency to impute bad faith to those with whom we disagree. But at some point incompetence and partisanship do become issues of character and personality.
Partly Obama's tone - and indeed the quality of his writing - is a reflection of his background as a civil-rights lawyer and community organiser. Partly it has to do with his family background, which is more diverse (and therefore representative of America, a nation of immigrants) than that of any presidential candidate in recent memory. But his insistence of playing by the rules, according respect to opponents, and avoiding divisive rhetoric and low blows is also his most important asset in a field populated by vastly more experienced candidates, including Clinton and John McCain.
An example of how Obama brings together points of view from opposing sides of the spectrum can be found in this passage on the place of religion in politics, a contentious issue in multi-faith America. Although Obama thinks the separation of Church and State one of the best things about the American consitution, he argues that this does not mean that politics should be a totally secular space bleached of all religious frames of reference. He argues,
And in another passage he writes about the ideal of freedom enshrined in American life by the Declaration of Independence of 1776, with the famous line:
Surely, secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering the public square; Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr. - indeed the majority of great reformers in American history - not only were motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue their causes. To say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity; our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy does demand is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values. It requires that their proposals must be subject to argument and amenable to reason. If I am opposed to banning abortion for religious reasons and seek to pass a law banning the practice, I cannot simply point to the teachings of my church or invoke God's will and expect that argument to carry the day. If I want others to listen to me, then I have to explain why abortion violates some principle that is accessible to people of all faiths, including those with no faith at all.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."Obama is good at making us think about things that we often take for granted. If successful candidates are expected to have some kind of big idea that sets them apart from the rest, then in some ways Obama's big idea is that he has no big idea. Although he offers nuanced and complex arguments on issues like globalisation and the economy, school and university education, health insurance and race relations (and a thrilling meditation on the Constitution), his attitude is more distinctive than his policy.
These simple words are our starting point as Americans; they describe not only the foundation of our government but the substance of our common creed. Not every American may be able to recite them; few, if asked, could trace the genesis of the Declaration of Independence to its roots in eighteenth-century liberal and republican thought. But the essential idea behind the Declaration - that we are born into this world free, all of us; that each of us arrives with a bundle of rights that can't be taken away by any person or any state without just cause; that through our own agency we can, and must, make of our lives what we will - is one that every American understands....
Indeed, the value of freedom is so deeply ingrained in us that we tend to take it for granted. It is easy to forget that at the time of our nation's founding this idea was entirely radical in its implications, as radical as Martin Luther's posting on the church door. It is an idea that some portion of the world still rejects - and for which an even larger portion of humanity finds scant evidence in their daily lives.
In fact, much of my appreciation of our Bill of Rights comes from having spent part of my childhood in Indonesia and from still having family in Kenya, countries where individual rights are almost entirely subject to the self-restraint of army generals or the whims of corrupt bureaucrats.
"As a country, we seem to be suffering from an empathy deficit," he argues. "[Empathy]…calls us all to task…We are all shaken out of our complacency. We are all forced beyond our limited vision." Not to practise empathy for others, he cajoles gently, is "to relinquish our best selves". It remains to be seen how far this audacious message will take Obama, but he can certainly be read for profit and inspiration in our country, with its own deficit of good men in politics.
Both the text and a video of Obama's splendid keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention can be found here.
A chapter from The Audacity of Hope, called "My Spiritual Journey", can be found here, and an exellent recent profile of Obama by Larissa MacFarquhar in the New Yorker is here. The Guardian even published a piece recently called "The Lyrical Democrat", publishing some poems Obama wrote when he was in his teens (link thanks to Space Bar). Slate magazine has an excellent archive of Obama cartoons published in the American press here, of which my favourites are these ones by Steve Sack, Signe Wilkinson, and the one by Tom Toles reproduced below from The Washington Post.
Update, August 25 - Robert McCrum writes about Obama's previous book Dreams of My Father and thinks it to be "a literary tradition of political prose that goes back to another master of the American language: Abraham Lincoln".
Update, February 24, 2008 - Morgan Meis on the Audacity of Hope and how "Obama thinks of himself as Lincoln".
Update, July 2, 2008 - Obama's thrilling speech on race delivered in Philadelphia in March is here, and Garry Wills's equally brilliant meditation on two speeches on race by Lincoln and Obama is here. And lastly, "A literary critic reads Obama" by Andrew Delbanco ("This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though [The Audacity of Hope] lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts").
Update, July 18, 2008: Dayo Olopade surveys the field of Obama cartoons in "Sketchy Imagery" ("During Obama's meteoric rise from state senate to the threshold of the oval office, political cartoonists have had to grapple not just with a fresh face to draw, but a new race to signify.")
Tuesday, May 08, 2007
But it is for The Devil's Dictionary (1911) that Bierce is remembered today. It began in the eighteen-eighties as a weekly newspaper column, each piece containing fifteen or twenty humorous definitions of words. Some definitions were only a sentence long, while others stretched to two or three paragraphs. Bierce's strong, vigorous prose style - one attribute in a writer's work that can never dates or go out of fashion - and savagely misanthropic wit made for a winning combination. When his work was published in book form in 1911, he addressed it to "enlightened souls who prefer dry wine to sweet, sense to sentiment, wit to humour and clean English to slang".
The pleasure of reading The Devil's Dictionary is the way Bierce recasts the meanings of words not as they exist in a conventional dictionary, but as they are realised in human affairs. "Acquaintance, n. A person whom we know well enough to borrow from, but not to lend to. A degree of friendship called slight when its object is poor or obscure, and intimate when he is rich or famous." Distance is understood as "The only thing that the rich are willing for the poor to call theirs, and keep." And no one has ever bettered his definition of Present as "That part of eternity dividing the domain of disappointment from the realm of hope".
Sometimes Bierce used his definitions as springboards for further inquiry, such as the charge of ahistorical writing in literature in this entry on "handkerchief":
Handkerchief, n. A small square of silk or linen, used in various ignoble offices about the face and especially serviceable at funerals to conceal the lack of tears. The handkerchief is of recent invention; our ancestors knew nothing of it and intrusted its duties to the sleeve. Shakespeare's introducing it into the play of "Othello" is an anachronism: Desdemona dried her nose with her skirt…
Heart, n. An automatic, muscular blood-pump. Figuratively, this useful organ is said to be the seat of emotions and sentiments - a very pretty fancy which, however, is nothing but the survival of a once universal belief. It is now known that the sentiments and emotions reside in the stomach, being evolved from food by the chemical action of the gastric fluid. The exact process by which a beefsteak becomes a feeling - tender or not, according to the age of the animal from which it was cut…; the marvelous functional methods of converting a hard-boiled egg into religious contrition, or a cream-puff into a sigh of sensibility - these things have been patiently ascertained by M.Pasteur, and by him expounded with convincing lucidity. […]for further light consult Professor Dam's famous treatise on Love as a Product of Alimentary Maceration.
Explaining the allure of the figure of Satan in Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost, William Blake remarked that "The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet, and of the Devil's party without knowing it." Bierce was of the Devil's party too, but he knew it, and was proud of it.
Saturday, May 05, 2007
Rehana is born in Calcutta, sees her sisters married off and sent to Karachi, and is herself married - neither by choice, nor against her wishes - to a businessman, Iqbal, in Dhaka. When Iqbal succumbs suddenly to a heart attack, Rehana is left with two small children to bring up. Her brother-in-law and his wife, who are childless, argue that her children are better off living with them in Karachi. She loses her children for a few years before her circumstances improve, and she is able to bribe a judge to decree that her children be returned. Anam's narration then leaps forward from the nineteen-fifties to 1971, showing us Rehana in middle age and her children, Sohail and Maya, in their teens.
Rehana's children identify with the Bengali language and landscape: Sohail, we are told, loved "the swimming mud of the delta; the translucent, bony river fish; the shocking green palette of the paddy, and the open, aching blue of the sky over flat land". But Rehana always feels slightly out of place in Dhaka, for more than anything else language is constitutive of human identity, and "She could not give up her love of Urdu, its lyrical lilts, its double meanings, its furrowed beat". Here, and on many other occasions, Anam's writing summons a polished lyricism to give expression to human allegiance and longing. When conflict breaks out between the two halves of Pakistan after the elections of 1970 (in which the party of Mujibur Rahman, from the east, won a majority), Rehana realises that her mother tongue is now "the Urdu of the enemy".
Yet the turbulence in Rehana's world is not all political; some of it is also domestic. Sohail is in love with Silvi, the daughter of their neighbour Mrs. Chowdhury, but Silvi is abruptly betrothed to a lieutenant in the army, and breaks Sohail's heart by complying without protest. At a celebration to mark the engagement, when the bride's mother raises a toast to the couple, Sohail, reconciled to his defeat, pitches in with a toast to the country: "May it emerge from this trial and stand strong". In this one moment we see romantic ardour giving way to revolutionary fervour, and sense that Sohail has joined the resistance not just to fight but also to forget.
Anam's narration bears witness to the brutalities of West Pakistan's assault, the ravages borne and the resistance shown by the nascent state of Bangladesh, and the pathos of lakhs of refugees spilling over the border into India (Rehana herself is shown escaping to Calcutta, becoming a refugee in the very city where she was born). What imperfections her novel has have to do with the occasional contrivances of her plotting and the odd patch of wooden dialogue. But even as it registers the drum-roll of history, her novel does not lose sight of the individual. Anam presents an attentive and satisfying portrait of her protagonist.
Rehana still mourns for her husband and holds imaginary conversations with him, is both exasperated by and proud of Sohail ("she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge"), and feels guilt that she does not care so deeply for her headstrong daughter. On a visit to Sohail's hideout, Rehana enters a dilapidated building:
Rehana saw a grey pair of men's underwear, next to which was an equally tired brassiere, and beside that a small child's nightie. She felt an old swell of longing for the unit, the family: man, woman, child. This was the formula for happiness, the proper order of things. All other equations suffered in its shadow.
This image of wholeness conveyed by the sight of washing is fitting not just because Rehana remembers her own broken family, but because she is worried that Sohail is living all alone, and that she may lose him in the war - different kinds of uncertainty build upon each other.
And at another juncture Rehana feels that Sohail may have dropped in to visit Silvi, who has taken to a cribbed and joyless view of religion, and visits the girl to ask her, only to hear:
"No, I haven't seen him. I'm in pordah. I don't appear before strangers."
Strangers? What had happened to Silvi? What religion had possessed her? Certainly not the familiar kind. Rehana was not religious herself. She prayed every day, at least once, at Magreb, the most important prayer-time of the day. When Iqbal died, she had used the prayer to give her something to do, something that didn't immediately remind her of the cruel hand she'd just been dealt, and she was unashamed about the solace it had given her. Life had punished her enough; the God she prayed to was not a punishing, not a vengeful, brutal God; He was a God of comfort, a God of consolation. She accepted the relief with entitlement, with confidence, and in turn demanded very little from Him - no absolution, no change of destiny. She knew, from experience, that this could not be achieved.
She knew, from experience, that this could not be achieved - that is a clear-eyed account of how, for Rehana, (and unlike Silvi) the consolations of religion do not draw her away from life, but instead stand alongside and support a more realistic appraisal of life.
Rehana longs for peace and stability but, "sifting her memories" one day amidst the chaos, she realises there never was a then to contrast to the now. "No, there had never been any other time…there was only this time, this life, this fraught and crowded era, to which they were bound without choice, without knowledge, only their passions, their loves, to lead and sustain them." Although the novel describes great suffering, Anam's title paradoxically suggests that, where individuals have lived fully and deeply in awareness of life's fragility, any age is a golden age.
And some links: "Birth Pangs" by Ashis Nandy (We refuse to recognise that the birth certificates of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh are written in blood and the memories of that first genocide constitute the dark underside of the cultures of state in South Asia."), "The Forgotten Womb" by Patrick French, "What If We Were Together?" by Amitava Kumar and "What If India Hadn't Been Partitioned?" by Ainslee T. Embree, and "Poems of Partition" by Ramachandra Guha.