Thursday, January 31, 2013

Life in Dec 17 - Jan 31

Sometimes it is better to forget. After what can be described a highly successful last year,  2013's first month was a lot below the expectations. Or perhaps i had punted the difficult decisions of 2012 on to 2013 and am now reeling under the weight of failed expectations. In any case, tomorrow is a new day, a new month and i am still alive.

Highlights of this time period in the life and times of the great, if not the greatest, the one and only me are -

Trip to Shillong: Bangalore-Ranchi-Kolkatta-Guwahati-Shillong-Bangalore. Shillong stay was awesome with typical touristy stuff, board games, playing cards and family fun. Pics are uploaded here
Shillong trip

Trip to Delhi: Bangalore-Nagpur-Delhi-Bangalore. Finished Nagpur work. Met relatives, old college friends at Delhi and attended Nikhil's sangeet and wedding ceremony.  Overall a good trip.

The Dune
Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Game theory (half done)
Critical thinking in global challenges (yet to start)
Consumer Law is still going on. Need to decide thesis topic.

Movies -
Inkaar  (3/5). An extra half mark just because of the subject matter. Sudhir Mishra, it seems, begins with the right ideas, has the correct intentions, gets most things right but somewhere in the process gives in to the mundane pressures of film making and his end products instead of being bold and defining (as the subjects are)  movies of our times are reduced to yet another commercial movie. It is a sincere request to him to please take more risk, we are there to support him.
Les Miserables (4/5). A very good movie. Loved the  the direction, songs, lyrics, acting and almost everything. Perhaps one of the few hollywood musicals that i have enjoyed. Directed by Tom Hooper (of King's speech fame), Les Miserables is a treat to watch. It almost comes off as an opera.
Broken city (1/5): Trash movie.
The impossible (3/5) Decent movie.  Tsunami sequence is really well done.
Lots of movies at BIFFES
The Hobbit: An unexpected journey (3/5) Delighted to see Dr.Watson as the hobbit. Fills some nostalgia of LOTR but still not as good as them.

Attended Yamini - the overnight classical concert at IIMB ,Spicmacay. Came mid way as i got fever. But attended Malvika Sarrukai's awesome Bharanatyam performance followed by violin instrumental.

Went to National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) with Nandini.  Decent collection. Almost empty. Ample parking, lots of trees and a decent cafe. A place for future hangouts :)

Cricket with office colleagues. A different kind of chess and Cities and Knights expansion.

Lots of office work and more coming in the coming days.

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in Mumbai Undercity
By Katherine Boo

A non-Indian writing about a slum in India. An Amazon Bestseller. A darling among neo-liberal elites. I had a lot of hesitation on reading this book before i decided to make it part of our book club meetup. My reluctance arises because non-Indians writing about India often had a very monothematic view of a multidimensional nation. Moreover, often under the pretext of reporting, these books quickly devolve into a venting medium for their opinions (aka "feelings") . Either India is glorified or criticizes depending on filters applied to their viewing lens.

My view was changed after i carefully read this article -  and no matter what i write, my review will always short of Girish Shahane's writeup.  I think the concluding paragraph is superbly written and should be read by everyone - 

"In scripting Peter Brook’s Mahabharata two and a half decades ago, Jean-Claude Carriére reduced to a single allegory the long (perhaps ‘interminable’ is a better word) disquisition delivered by the dying Bhishma in the canonical text. Asked by Yudhisthira about the cause of the world’s savagery, Carriére’s Bhishma raises his head briefly from a cradle of arrows to say, “A man is walking in a dark, dangerous forest, filled with wild beasts… He falls into a pitch-black hole. By a miracle, he is caught in some twisted roots. He feels the hot breath of an enormous snake, its jaws wide open, lying in the bottom of the pit. He is about to fall into these jaws. On the edge of the hole, a huge elephant is preparing to crush him. Black and white mice gnaw the roots from which the man is hanging. Dangerous bees fly over the hole letting fall drops of honey. Then, the man holds out his finger—slowly, cautiously—he holds out his finger to catch the drops of honey. Threatened by so many dangers, with hardly a breath between him and so many deaths, he still isn’t free from desire. The thought of honey holds him to life.” Bhishma and Yudhisthira view the man’s reaching out for honey as a great defeat, but for those like myself who see only oblivion beyond the earthly life, the protagonist embodies a resilient, even heroic, human spirit in his refusal to let wretched circumstances overwhelm him. The people of Annawadi lead lives so precarious, so circumscribed and powerless, their situation appears analogous to that of the man in the pit. Some, like Kalu, are trampled by the elephant. Others like Meena let themselves fall into the snake’s jaws. But many like Abdul and Sunil stay resolute, clinging to what support they can find, and stretching out to catch a few drops of honey."

Yet, inspite of the Caravan review, i must persist just to add my support to this precious book that provides strength to me just because of its existence. 

To begin with, i would like to offer a standing ovation, a salute, to Katherine Boo for boldly covering a topic that many would not dare to do so. My respect comes with a tinge of sadness as i expect current Indian journalists to write such accounts, to cover other aspects of society that are not faced by middle class. The task would have been a lot difficult for any Indian but for a foreigner to come and report such detailed accounts of people living in slums, people who hardly speak English, would have been a herculean task and kudos to Mrs. Boo to deliver it with conviction.

Almost the first reaction that hits you within first five pages of reading is "I can't believe it is non fiction". Written in a detailed literary narrative prose, with book elements such as prologue wherein a suicide becomes a murder, chapters that are character introductions, the book almost comes off as a well scripted three act play. Katherine frequently describes inner emotions of book's people,  keeping us, the readers,  hanging in the dark as we can't be sure if they really confided in her or is this an author's artistic liberty with the subject.  As a result, even after we have come to terms with the fact that it is indeed a factual documentation of true events, the feeling of detachment lingers on. Personally, i could not identify with the people described but it was only after a few days of finishing the book, once the trance of novel's prose got over, i  discovered the sadness in it, the failure of our times.

Behind the Beautiful Forever chronicles lives of people living in Angadwadi, a slum next to the Mumbai airport. The book captures events after an old woman known as One-leg burns herself to spite her neighbors. Her death is seen as a murder and its blame falls on Abdul, a young muslim garbage tradesman whose little rise in class, owing to his quick ability to sift through garbage, causes jealousy among people around him . The book also covers the slumlord Asha, her daughter Manju and other people, their hopes and aspirations and how the system works at that level. 

Once you accept the prose, there are two things that makes this book a success that it has been getting. For one, Katherine Boo successfully stays away from letting her feelings cloud the narration. It is indeed a difficult task to not be judgmental about people and throughout the book, you can feel the strain. It is only in her closing remarks she shares her thoughts and opinions. The second feat of this book  is by giving such a detailed account of their lives, it changes the perception of middle/upper class people towards them.

Boo's elegance and sharpness shows off  as she connects the dots that seem very far apart. By juxtaposing two unrelated yet factual events, she is able to chart out the scale of disparity that exists between what is commonly called as India and Bharat. 

In her description of Angadwadi, she writes -

'…almost no one in this slum was considered poor by official Indian benchmarks. Rather, the Annawadians were among roughly one hundred million Indians freed from poverty since 1991, when, around the same moment as the small slum’s founding, the central government embraced economic liberalization.'

She begins the chapter on Manju as - 
'The plot of Mrs Dalloway made no sense whatsoever to Manju. Doing her college reading, Asha's daughter felt so sluggish that she feared she'd caught dengue fever or malaria again - hazards of living thirty feet from a buzzing sewage lake. No, she decided. It was simply the weather.'
Later, in the third act, after couple of suicide attempts in the slum, Boo writes '...Manju and her friend Meena, in the secret nightly meetings at the public toilet, began discussing more foolproof means of suicide' 

Abdul, who is beaten in prison after being falsely accused of One-Leg's murder, later recounts
'They will probably beat him(Kasab) lots in the jail, but atleast Kasab knows in his heart that he did what they say he did. That had to be less stressful than being beaten when you were innocent'

I used to wonder why would anyone or what kind of people  steal bulbs and mirrors from train coaches, or steal cables connecting telephone/internet lines to our homes. I often thought that those who stole would be habitual thieves and are doing so just to be an additional inconvenience to society. But as i read about Sunil's escapades and his stealing of aluminum pipes (known as German silver) and other un-rusted construction material from the airport, i realize the necessity behind it.  Instead of looking at the action condescendingly, i can now empathize with Sunil.  We cry foul as stealing a light bulb is again the societal rules but for people living in Angadwadi, the entire concept of a society is now a fantasy. Rules of fantasy-land do not apply in real world. 

I used to believe that people living in slums would be part of a very tight knit community, everyone knowing what is happening with everybody else and in my mind, this image was a positive image with people helping each other in times of need. Angadwadi shatters this image by repeatedly striking a mirror with a strong hammer. That the corruption has gone so low that people feel nothing when taking something from those who have nothing, that our moral compass has gone for a toss as people with active ferocity take advantage of anybody that can be trampled, that those who were supposed to help (the orphanages, the govt. hospitals etc), and those who were supposed to protect  (the police, the state) are the ones exploiting them in a manner that  even animals would walk away. 

How did we get to this? Is there a way out and if so, how do we get to it? I do not have any answer and Boo does not offer any. Instead Boo closes the book with a section titled Author's Note where she describes her reasons behind this project and the process behind it. She describes so by asking questions like -  '... After all there are more poor people than rich people inthe world's Mumbais. Why don't places like Airport road, with their cheek-by-jowl slums and luxury hotels, devolve into arrant violence? Why don't more of our unequal societies implode?' I too do not have any answer to them.  In her note, Boo's outlook is still optimistic. She acknowledges the positive impact of globalization, she believes that better policy will get formulated as ordinary lives are understood in more detail.  This book is her attempt in this direction.  

Book Review: The Dune

The Dune
By Frank Herbert

We, human beings, have always been tempted by the science of astrology - namely the prescient knowledge of events before they take place. There is a strong desire in everyone of us to know what is to happen before time. It is not that the current events are boring that we look towards the future in hope of excitement. Perhaps it has more to do with the present bleakness that pushes us to look towards future out of our ingrained perpetual optimism. Or may be we need a comfort to sustain ourselves, a consolation that our efforts will not go in vain. Maybe its both or neither.  It is with this nuanced understanding of the unpredictability of our psyche that makes Frank Herbert's Dune an excellent novel.

The Dune is set on a desert planet Arrakis where water is so scarce that people wear suits that collects water released by body pores and purifies it back into a tasteless liquid which is again consumed back by humans. These suits work with extraordinary efficiency such that the only water loss happens due to sweat from palms of our hands. Just as winter governed everything in the LeGuin's Left hand of darkness, everything happens in Dune either because of water or spice (a highly desired element that can be manufactured in desert only. It comes as no surprise that Dune started a niche sub-genre under science fiction namely - Eco-science fiction. 

The story of Dune after all its fantasy layers are unveiled is a story of revolution, a hero's journey from an ordinary man to a legend against all odds, the struggle of small vs the big.  A young kid, Paul, suddenly finds himself fighting first for his own survival, then soon as a savior of an entire tribe of people. The magic of dune lies in unraveling of its plot. Not only the elements of fantasy are creative but they are applied with caution and sense.   The plot moves at a comfortable pace with lots of action happening in quick succession.

For me, the added layer of prescient knowledge shared in just a few lines at the introduction of each  chapter added a level of complexity that was just too much to bear as it filled me with a curiosity that was unstoppable. Is Paul the Muad'Dib? Is he going to eventually marry the Princess? Should i believe these opening lines? If so, is it really going to happen as it says? What if Frank Herbert is just messing up with my mind? They say that  a little knowledge is dangerous but knowledge of events about to happen is debilitating. One starts to question the present and future seems more uncertain than before. From a plot point of view, it adds nothing as we eventually witness those events. But from a literary perspective, it is a masterstroke. It prevents the novel from being an extremely sad, pessimistic one to one with hope and adds a philosophical layer that is needed to deliver the enormous wall it wishes to climb.

In addition to environment and ecology, Frank brings in his incredible knowledge of different religions especially Islam. The book can be also be seen as a study in sociology, or an application of  political science, or micro-analysis of human psychology. The fact that Dune does a great job in so many departments is what makes it such an interesting read. One can feel that it is a result of lots of research, endless hours and a lot of passion.

Dune also has its sequels wherein Frank analyzes the negative aspects of Heroism - blind belief in anybody could be dangerous as well. I have not read the follow-ups, nor i intend to do so in any near future. Dune itself was fulfilling and one never likes their heroes to fall.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Gulzar - BLF - Untitled

(At 2012 Bangalore Literature Festival, Gulzar on the topic of mountains recited a poem. I can not find it either in Selected or Nelgected poems. But i had an audio recording, based on which it is copied below. To me, this was the best poem that he read during those two days.)


पिछली बार भी आया था
तो  इसी  पहाड़ ने
नीचे खड़ा था
मुझसे कहा था
तुम लोगों के कद क्यूँ छोटे होते हैं ?

आओ हाथ पकड़ लो मेरा
पसलियों पर पांव  रखो  ऊपर आ जाओ
आओ ठीक से चेहरा तो देखूं 
तुम कैसे लगते हो
जैसे मेरे चींटियों  को तुम अलग अलग पहचान  नहीं सकते
मुझको भी तुम एक ही जैसे लगते हो सब 
एक ही फर्क है
मेरी कोई चींटी जो बदन पर चढ़ जाए
तो चुटकी से पकड़ के फेक उसको मार दिया करते हो तुम
मैं ऐसा नहीं करता

मेरे सरोवर  देखो,
कितने उचें उचें कद हैं इनके
तुमसे सात गुना तो होंगे
शायद दस या बारह गुना हो
उम्रे देखो उसकी तुम, 
कितनी बढ़ी हैं, सदियों जिंदा रहते  हैं
कह देते हो कहने को
लेकिन अपने बड़ों की इज्ज़त करते नहीं तुम
इसीलिए  तुम लोगों के कद
शायद छोटे रह जाते हैं

इतना अकेला नहीं हूँ मैं
तुम जितना समझते हो
तुम ही लोग ही भीड़ में रहकर भी 
तनहा तनहा लगते हो
भरे हुए जब काफिले बादलों के जाते हैं
झप्पा  डाल के मिल कर जाते हैं मुझसे 
दरिया भी उतरते  हैं तो पांव  छू  के विदा होते हैं
मौसम मेहमान है आते हैं तो महीनों रह कर  जाते हैं
अज़ल अज़ल के रिश्ते निभाते हैं

तुम लोगों की  उम्रें देखता हूँ
कितनी छोटी छोटी मायादों  में मि
लते और बिछड़ते हो
ख्वाबें और उम्मीदें भी
बस छोटी छोटी उम्रों जितनी
इसीलिए क्या
तुम लोगों के कद  इतने छोटे रह जाते हैं