Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

A book cover is the unsung hero of a book – because we don’t realize that designing a book cover is a great and very difficult art to practice. Jhumpa Lahiri in her book Clothing of Books deals with this aspect of books – and takes us behind the scenes to reveal how book cover designs are conjured up, how different designs work in different cultures and how sometimes book covers can be utterly shallow.

She starts the book by telling how as a child when she would visit India on vacation with her parents, she liked the sartorial discipline of her cousins – who always went to their school wearing uniforms unlike a young Jhumpa, who, back in the US, wasn’t burdened down by any uniform by her school – she preferred the lack of freedom her cousins had to the freedom she had back in the US. She grew up in an immigrant Bengali family and her mother was very keen on Jhumpa sticking to Indian clothes and culture while Jhumpa wanted to be American.

After establishing the importance of the outer appearance and its connection with what lies inside (or what it covers) through an autobiographical chapter, she moves to the role a cover plays for a book. She says a cover comes when a book is finished (from a writer’s perspective) and it is time for it to come into the world. A cover gives a book independence and freedom of its own. It tells her that her work is finished and now the publisher’s work starts. For the publishing house it signals the arrival of a book; for her it’s the farewell. She also tells how she reacted to various covers of her book and informs she approved some of them when approached by her publishers for approval with liking them.

When it comes to her books, her publishers readily commission covers with stereotypical references to India, like elephant, hennaed hands etc overlooking the fact that larger parts of her books are set in America. Once when she complained to her publisher about a cover of her book which had an Indian building in it saying it was too exotic for a book whose larger part was set in the US, the publisher replaced the Indian building with the American flag!

Where the book disappoints is it is only centered around Jhumpa whereas I had expected it to tell about covers of famous books by other writers and provide a wider perspective on book covers instead of only an individualistic view.

 

Is the International Community Acting Self Rightious on Rohingyas

Don’t you think the international community is acting self-righteously on Sui Kyi?  Those who are criticizing her for her inaction in the wake of atrocities on Rohingyas in Rakhine, in Myanmar, are not taking into account how the ground realities in Myanmar almost don’t allow any space to Suu Kyi to do anything. Suu Kyi operates under a constitution which confers overriding power to the army. It empowers the army to dissolve the civilian government anytime it wants without any obligation to justify its action, and restore Junta rule in Myanmar.

But some say the reason for Suu Kyi’s indifference towards the suffering of Rohingyas at the hand of the Myanmar army is more ethno-religious than we realize. Buddhists don’t particularly like Islam, having been at its receiving end for centuries. Islam has always posed existential threat to Buddhism. Islam was responsible for preventing the growth of Buddhism in India, the place of its birth. Recently, among other things, Bamiyan Buddha statues were destroyed in Afghanistan by Taliban.

From the documentaries I saw on Youtube, there is clearly a divide among the two communities in Myanmar. Some of the popular religious/community leaders from both sides openly expressed their animosities towards the other community. There is a concern among the Buddhists, the majority in Myanmar, that they will be soon outnumbered by Muslims.

What further deepens the chasm between the two communities is the secessionist movement underway in Rakhine which seeks separation of Rakhine, home to Rohingyas, from Myanmar. There is another angle to the issue: the displacement of Rohingyas from Myanmar and their incursion into various neighboring countries. Even here the international community, particularly the UN, has stuck to their humbug attitude.

Given the current geopolitical challenges – transnational terrorism, lack of employment etc – any country would be reluctant to throw its door open to anyone seeking entry unless it’s in a desperate need to pump up its population. And even sparsely populated countries, like the Scandinavian countries, are wary of being too generous with migrants as we have seen with respect to those fleeing war-torn places like Syria and Iraq.

The idea of multiculturalism and no-holds-barred entry for everyone of the past decades has received a bad name not only due to terrorism as a security concern but as a social problem stemming from an unresolvable conflict between Western and Islamic values. India shares some of these concerns and in addition to them it has a huge population.

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

Sometime back I had read this book – The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh – and written a blog on it. Seeing the floods that are taking place in different parts of the world (America, India and now Japan where an island saw a devastating flood) triggering displacement and devastation on a scale unimaginable, I think this book has something interesting to offer – it looks at various such climactic events from across time and from different parts of the world which together indicate that, thanks to modern development, nature has had enough and it’s hitting us back.

It raises important questions about our taste, preferences and lifestyle and explains how they have been shaped by forces of history that were responsible for setting the climatic disaster ball rolling, which slowly has rolled too far and if not stopped immediately will go over the edge. Read this review and enjoy the book.

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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.

Swami and Friends by RK Narayan

I have never quite understood the best end to start reading a writer’s body of work from if you want to experience a writer completely. Is it the works coming from the beginning of a writer’s career or those towards the end or from the middle? All of them are significant in the writer’s literary landscape – the works at the beginning of a literary journey tell you the ideas the writer dealt with before coming of age, those in the middle see the same ideas shape into fuller themes or if the writer digressed while the ones towards the end are generally on the same lines as before but more ambitious, more skill-intensive.

With RK Narayan I have made a reverse journey. I haven’t read his Guide (which is one of the books on my must-read list) but watched the movie. Many years ago, I read a RK Narayan omnibus and glimpsed snippets of his memorable works. Then I read his Financial Expert written when the author was in his mid-career. And recently I finished his Swami and Friends, which marked his literary debut and is among the first batch of English books to be published by an Indian.

I haven’t read a simpler book and there are very few books that have touched me so much. Swami and Friends is about growing up – all the challenges and fears and insecurities, and lows and highs we experience in our formative years. Several times it left me ruminating about my days in school and friends. Albeit, as the story progressed, I realized I had very little in common with Swami, who is much more rebellious and much less tolerating of the oppressive world that school can be than I ever was.

Swaminathan is growing up in a small imaginary town in South India, Malgudi. Swami goes to a missionary school (Albert Mission School) where his Brahaminical beliefs often come into conflict with the Christian theosophical lessons imparted on children. Swami and his group of friends are equals in every sense, educationally and in terms of economic background they come from, leaving very little scope for ego conflicts. But this tranquility is broken by the entrance of Rajam into their school and their lives. Rajam’s father works in police and due to his transferable job Rajam has been to many places and several good schools – and therefore comes from a wider base of experience than Swami and friends who have never stepped beyond Malgudi. He leaves Swami and friends intimidated with his superior spoken English, clothes and with many other aspects.

In the background, the winds of freedom struggle, sweeping across the country, enter Malgudi and ruffle the quiet world of the small town. A handful of youth, carrying the message of Quit India Movement, hold demonstrations exhorting Malgudians to shun foreign clothes and embrace khadi.

Suddenly, the crowd turns violent and starts attacking every sign of foreign presence in Malgudi – and Swami’s missionary school inevitably comes at the receiving end.  Swept by crowd emotion, an impressionable Swami also joins the trouble mongers and pelts a stone into the headmaster’s window pane only to be spotted by the headmaster in the act.

 

Next day, in his class, Swami is spanked by the headmaster and after bearing it for some time he snaps up – snatches away the cane, throws it on the floor and runs out. There is only one more school in Maldugi.  Swami takes admission there but again manages to run into a complication attracting punishment of the same nature as meted out to him in Albert Mission School – and reacts in the same way as he had done earlier: snatching the cane from the teacher’s hand, throwing it on the floor and running way. This time, however, Swami also runs away from home, only to return later following a harrowing experience and due to a stroke of luck.

How RK Narayan had got a publisher for Swami and Friends is part of Indian literary lore. The manuscript had been rejected half a dozen times and then somehow it had ended up in the hands of Graham Greene, thanks to a friend of Narayan’s who was studying in England.  This friend had luckily met Greene, in Oxford, and shown the manuscript to him and been assured by the famous writer that he would find a publisher for it.

But before Narayan knew about this breakthrough, heartbroken that his manuscript wasn’t meeting with any success in England or in India, he had written to his friend that he weight the manuscript with stone and throw it into the Thames. Three months later his friend’s response had arrived from England informing him about Greene’s assurance.

Like any first book, Swami and Friends is highly autobiographical. The world Narayan set the story in isn’t very different from the world Narayan would have grown up in, in Mysore, quite a small town then. Having read about Narayan, I found Swami’s rebellious streak very similar to that of his creator. Narayan’s first rebellion was when he had announced that he would only be a writer, nothing else. Later he had said writing was the only profession that would have given him complete autonomy.

Swami’s reluctance to accept a freedom-denying school life, his rebelling against it first by lobbing a stone into his headmaster’s room and then by throwing away the cane on floor and running away to freedom – are reminders of his creator’s personality.

Recalling Demonitization

I had written the blogs below when effects of demonetization were at their peak. Almost no ATMs had cash. The very few that had would attract interminable queues. Sometimes after standing in a queue for a long time (it could be anything between half an hour to an hour or more) when your turn would be just a person away, the security guard would announce the ATM wouldn’t have cash beyond the person in front of you in the queue. You would go to another ATM to try your luck.

It was the same situation everywhere. The government had suddenly decided to starve the country of cash. Normalcy looked far off; some even wondered if it was the new normal. Reports of people staying in rural areas travelling to distant places for cash and returning home disappointed, people standing in long ATM queues dying of excessive heat, were coming in.

Nothing could be a better situation for the opposition. Yet they failed to seize the opportunity. People somehow had believed demonetization was good for the country. Observers said the poor felt the rich were suffering more than them; that people indeed believed demonization would bring better times and so on.

When the nation was still discussing whether demonetization was good or bad, UP elections arrived –  and BJP won. Whatever little flak the government was receiving from the opposition parties and the media died down. In a country where the success of policies is measured in terms of their electoral effects, there could not be a more decisive answer than a win in UP, the most politically important state in India.

Slowly cash returned to ATMs (it took roughly two months). People forgot.

But demonetization is back into news after a substantial drop in GDP has been attributed to the effects of demonetization by experts.

The following blogs will help you recollect the period after the November 8th announcement: that 500 and 1000 rupee notes would no more be legal tenders.

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.

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.

An Encounter with a Pickpocket – short reads

Taken from pixabay

I was in a bus when I felt a hand on my trouser pocket. It was a young chap trying to slide his hand into my pocket for the five rupee note which lay crumpled in its furthest corner.

I decided to stay calm and have fun. I twitched my thigh muscles loosening my trouser so that the pickpocket could dig his hand in and fish out the note easily. The pickpocket slid his hand gently, but just when he was at the half way mark I released my muscles and gently moved the leg in his direction. He hastily withdrew his hand.

I pulled my thigh muscles again loosening the trouser inviting another attempt. The same sequence followed. We replayed the cat and mouse game three times. Finally, I decided to let go the money. It was just five rupees, I felt. I repeated the act the fourth time. He dug his hand and fished the note out.

He was slight of built – half my height, straw-thin with a narrow frame. The difference of our heights meant our eyes wouldn’t meet denying him the knowledge that I knew what he was up to. I was standing next to the exit door, he in front of me.

The bus drew up at a stop.  My attention was drawn to people boarding and unboarding it. I suddenly felt something thrown at my chest. Something light. I looked down. It was my five rupee note. I looked up – the pickpocket was getting down the bus. He turned back; our eyes met. He smiled at me disdainfully and melted into the crowd.

The Moon and Sixpence – Somerset Maugham

Some have artistic talent. Fewer have artistic aspirations. Fewer take their aspirations seriously and pursue art alongside other professions. Fewer leave their professions to pursue art fulltime. And still fewer pursue art just for the sake of art, not for money or fame. Charles Strickland, a conventional stockbroker, left his family, in England, at 47, and went to Paris to become a painter. He never sold his paintings during his lifetime. After a few years in Paris, he went to Tahiti and after living for a few years there, he died. About seven years after his death, when his portraits were discovered by art agents and they yielded astronomical prices from art enthusiasts for their artistic brilliance, they woke up to Strickland’s genius and Strickland found fame.

The Moon and Sixpence was my second Somerset Maugham book and it shares a few things with the last Maugham book I read (Theatre, reviewed below). One is marriage is not a watertight compartment, but a porous relationship which often loses its integrity due to various factors preying on grey areas (discord or dissatisfaction either expressed or suppressed) that work under the surface of any relationship.

In Theatre, the advent of an accountant in the life a of married actress changes the complexion of the actress’s relationship with her husband. In The Moon and Sixpence, one day, Strickland’s wife finds a letter left behind by her husband telling her that there is nothing left between them anymore and that he is going to Paris, tossing her world upside down as until then theirs was a contented marriage and Strickland seemed unlikeliest of husbands to leave his wife. One losing its integrity due to the advent of a foreigner, another due to presence of a unexpressed desire (to free oneself from the clutches of relationship which could restrict one from fully dedicating oneself to fulfill a desire).

The other attribute is, I think, part of Maugham’s style of framing his characters which also forms, according to me, his belief about human nature – that no man is monochromatic: we all have conflicting character traits; that we all have some redeeming qualities; that a tip is always a deceptive indicator of the size of the iceberg behind it. Also a part of Maugham’s style is making panoramic observations about human nature based on the actions of his characters and in such places as his plots warrant. The observations read well and form extremely quotable quotes. Maugham is a very quotable writer and his quotes mainly come from these sharp and insightful observations he makes.

Published in 1942, The Moon and Sixpence is loosely inspired from a great impressionist painter’s life, Paul Gauguin. The story is written in the first person with the author as narrator who traces Strickland’s life starting from a few years before Strickland left home and family to a few years after his death when Strickland had come to be known as a genius. But being just a social acquaintance of the painter, during these years the author had seen or known Strickland in bits and pieces making it difficult for his experience to throw up any concrete picture of the man, how he lived his life in Paris, what were the reasons behind his actions/behavior etc.

Maugham has had to bridge a lot of gaps in his knowledge of Strickland’s life to give the reader a concrete picture of the man whose behavior was often puzzling and differing with the author’s view of him. And his efforts notwithstanding, Maugham has admitted that he has not been able to present a coherent picture of Strickland’s personality. Maugham has summed up incidents and stitched together facts some known by him and some gathered from others whose paths crossed Strickland’s mainly when the painter stayed in Tahiti.

The Moon and Sixpence is about pursuit of art for art’s sake. During his lifetime, Strickland never sold his portraits. He saw women in his life as means of fulfilling his bodily needs avoiding the trappings of relationship so that he could completely devote himself to painting. Until his death, he achieved nothing of material value and lived the last years of his life in terrible penury (contracted leprosy) and in the last year of his life lost his eyesight. Each year he spent trying to be an artist materially pauperized him. Finally fame came to him seven years after his death.

While reading the book, I found Strickland’s dedication bizarre because of his indifference to success. Later I realized that what revolted against my belief is that for us dedication and success are part of the same package. One must lead to the other; the absence of one makes the other lose its vitality: without success dedication becomes pitiable and without dedication success seems unreliable. For Strickland, however, this relationship didn’t exist; his dedication was a self-fulfilling component which didn’t need to draw sustainance from success or hope of success.

The Moon and Sixpence doesn’t leave you long after you have left it, shut and put it down.

How India and Turkey are Similar in More Ways Than One

The recent incident of Darwin being dropped from school syllabus in Turkey would have made many in India react with ‘this is more of the same’ boredom. The ‘the more of the same’ boredom is understandable given the fact that rewriting of school history books has become a routine affair in India.

However, the way the two countries are trying to indoctrinate their education may appear to be coming from the global trend of rise in conservatism, but they are, in reality, rooted in the histories of the two countries which are strangely similar.

Like India, Turkey was a British colony. The founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk Kemal Pasha, was among the most prominent figures of Turkey’s freedom movement. Once Turkey found independence from Britain, Kemal, a military person, seized power. He is said to have had many of his political adversaries killed, some of whom were his former allies, to remove hurdles to his passage to power.

A diehard Westophile, Kemal believed the only way Turkey could prosper was by embracing Western ways. He told his people they should look to Europe for social and cultural reference and consider themselves as part of European culture and not the Arab countries.

He replaced the Arabic script of Turkish language with Roman script. He insisted on Western attire. He completely suppressed the Muslim orthodoxy.

In 2014, BJP came to power with a majority unmatched since 1981 when Indira Gandhi, following some years in opposition, had stormed to the PMO. Indira Gandhi’s 1981 victory meant a resumption of continuity following a disruption in 1977. Conversely, BJP’s 2014 victory was a complete break with the past.

This departure from the past signifies a much bigger break than mere political. This victory meant a halt to everything Congress. It’s not as if Congress had not suffered electoral reverses before (read 1977), nor is it the first time that there is a non-Congress government in power; BJP itself was in power 10 years ago.

What is different this time is everything is being completely reversed. New definitions of traditional perceptions are being laid. Because of Congress’ long stay in power, popular perceptions about good and bad involving things like space of minorities in the society, secularism were coloured by Congress’ stand on them. Now a new normal is being formed.

But Congress, to a great extent, is responsible for their decline. Subsequent leadership generations of Congress digressed from the core values of socialism and secularism  which defined the value framework of pre and post independence Congress leadership. The quality of Cong leadership in fact started reducing  post Nehru.

Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was ideologically less driven. Her son Rajeev Gandhi was a novice and a new comer to politics when leadership was thrust on him following Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. The current leadership of Congress led by Rahul Gandhi, Nehru’s great gradson,  is reluctant and incompetent.

In addition to this, what works for BJP is a popular leader and unprecedented majority in parliament.

But perhaps the bigger reason is the party in power represents Hindu orthodoxy, a group that was denied any voice in post-independence India when Jawaharlal Nehru was steering the country in the direction where religion had no role, in the same way as the voice of Muslim orthodoxy was suppressed in Turkey when Kemal Pasha was writing the rules for a modern Turkey. It’s this that brings a touch of vengeance to whatever they do to the old orders (Kemalism and Nehruism) in their country.

Since then, lot of water has flowed under the bridge for both the countries.

In 1998, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then mayor of Istanbul, read out verses of Ottoman Islamist poet Ziya Gőkalp at a public event. In a secular Turkey, it was an oddity for a politician to read out Islamist verses publicly. It was also illegal – which attracted a 10 month sentence for Erdogan for ‘’inciting religious hatred”.

While in jail, Erdogan continued to mobilize opinion and founded a party, AKP (Justice and Development Party), his launch vehicle for a career in politics. In 2002, AKP won a thumping victory and since then the man who was born in a family of modest means in a provincial town of Turkey and moved to Istanbul aged 13 and joined the youth wing of an Islamist party, has not had to look back.

In the years following Erdogan’s coming to power, Turkey became economically prosperous resulting in the rise in income levels of the middle class and exit of many from poverty. But together with this economic boom came social conservatism (many wear scarves publicly – a marked departure from the past) and shrinking civil liberties, especially after the failed military coup last year which saw wide-spread purging of perceived and real enemies from different institutions and terrorist attacks carried out by Kurdistan separatist and ISIS affiliated groups.

Since then the long shadow of the state hasn’t retreated.

BJP came to power with the promise of change – change from the corruption, incompetency, leaderlessness and an economic stagnation which had characterized the Congress led UPA 2 (United Progressive Alliance). And indeed BJP has been able to deliver change on several fronts. The economy is doing better but how much of it is due to BJP’s performance is uncertain because the party has not had a long shot at power unlike AKP. It has taken bold decisions involving several areas – some of which mayn’t have had the intended impact and some may make their impact felt in longer term.

Its biggest impact has been on how the country discusses matters related to politics and other issues of public interest. On every matter there seems to be a division from the middle – whether it’s religion, the army, security, food, on everything the nation is divided into two camps, pro national and anti-national. The same moral certitude informs the stand people take on any issue involving moral ambiguity, corruption and media collusion (certain sections of the media generally presenting balanced view of things are targeted for being antinational and sections of media presenting a pro-government view of things in an unabashed manner are being hailed). A simplistic certainty on everything seems to have gripped the country.

The stridency of the ruling party and their fellow companions has helped them counter the backlash they faced from the intelligentsia (both pseudo and real) after coming to power. But the same stridency is not helping them handle problems that require a softer approach.

Like there has been a spurt of violence from the Kurdish groups after Erdogan’s ascendance, the Kashmir problem in India seems to be getting more complicated – and the reason why the government is not able to try out softer options, like engaging with moderate separatist voices within the valley, is that doing so will not square up with hyper nationalism which the government has come to be associated with. This may lead to the cornering of the moderate voices allowing the movement in Kashmir to acquire a religious colour.

Reading the social media reactions to a changing Turkey, Turkey is also going through a similar experience.

Stephen King on Writing

Source: Google

No two persons write alike. And this is what makes writing a difficult craft to teach. However, if you have been a successful fiction writer for many years, it’s likely that the net of your knowledge would be so vast as to cover varied grains of thoughts or be based on methods which have produced results time and again.

That’s why Stephen King’s book on writing – Stephen King on Writing, A Memoir of the Craft – makes lot of sense regardless of which school of thought you come from. In the first half of the book, King takes you through his life, his growing up years and coming of age as a novelist and then the book becomes a writing manual where King provides you with his views on novel writing he has framed based on his experience as practitioner of storytelling for several decades now.

King comes from an American lower middle class family comprising a single mother and brother. King grew up in a small town of the US and started dabbling in writing at a very young age. He ran a newspaper with his brother from their garage which eventually closed down. He wrote for his school magazine and offended a teacher so much with his writing that she held it against him and denied him an opportunity many years after the writing was published in school magazine.

He wrote short stories for various magazines and received more rejection notes than acceptance letters. But gradually the rejection notes started arriving with small pieces of advises and sometimes ‘submit again’. In the meantime, he did odd jobs trying to make ends meet after he got married with the girl he had met at a writing seminar, Tabby, who continues to be his Ideal Reader (or first reader, critic) for all his works. The publication of Carrie – King’s debut novel – marked the end of King’s struggle as a writer (and also financially).

When I started reading the book, I expected it to be a writing manual but King surprised me by starting the book as an autobiography and then digressing (or mainstreaming) into the craft of writing. But later, after covering a long sweep of the book, I realized that the autobiographical part was to inform the reader what makes King the writer he is and the book confirms that later.

As much as it is difficult to explain how to handle something which is largely a matter of instinct and imagination, King has successfully detailed the nuts and bolts of the craft without going into its theories. He provides a primer on grammar. Towards the end of the book, King presents the reader with a raw manuscript and its edited copy in the subsequent chapter. He presents a list of books that, he says, have helped him.

What makes the book touchy is that King had put it on hold for sometime because he met with a truly horrifying accident and had very slim chances of surviving it. And many months after his release from hospital when he started writing again he resumed this book and finished it.

Where Will Automation Take Us

When I read about automation, which I do very often nowadays, I feel it’s bringing another industrial revolution which will change everything in professional landscape beyond recognition all in a few years’ time. Many of the existing roles across industries will be automated with technology replacing humans. Those that remain human-dependent will transform beyond recognition. Companies are reacting to it through adoption and adjustment. They are embracing automation on one hand and trying to figure out how best to use their existing workforce in this new emerging order. Neither is without its challenges.

Automation will invade roles of varied kinds across industries rendering most of them redundant. Is it possible to reskill/upskill everyone whose role will be made obsolete by automation?  You can’t reskill someone in anything you want; each resource has certain limitations defined by aptitude/education etc.

That leaves us with one question: what kind of roles are endangered? A short answer is roles involving tasks/activities that are simple and repetitive. But a bigger concern is how simple is simple and repetitive, repetitive. HDFC, for example, is automating loan-underwriting, an activity highly regarded in banking.

Additionally, in any role there are activities that are simple and repetitive – if you only automate those parts and leave the other parts, in a role, to be performed by humans, then you will leave employees partially underemployed leaving the organization to pay for their downtime neutralizing the cost benefit automation was expected to bring to the organization.

Among all industries facing this challenge, it is IT which is making the biggest noise – because automation may have caused disruption to other industries, but IT is faced with an existential threat: automation can throw its entire business model into disarray.

In its roughly two and half decades of existence, majority of the Indian IT industry’s workforce has been involved in low-end volume oriented work outsourced from the West and very little or nothing in terms of innovation or research and development based work. Although this is particularly true when it comes to services, the product part of the industry is not much better. The Indian bellwethers, like Infosys, Wipro and TCS have subsisted on this outsourcing model for so long.

And as a result, the industry is infested with roles involving activities that are simple and repetitive. Skills to handle volume based work are lauded here and simple renovations are passed off as innovations. The industry has produced an army of workers who almost no nothing outside nuts and bolts and quick fixes required to keep an IT infrastructure going and have very little skills to survive outside this ecosystem.

The product part of IT is also threatened but in slightly different ways. Basic coding – the main stock in trade of the software companies – is one of the things that will be made obsolete by automation. Product/application consumption and maintenance habits are also changing. Applications residing on cloud is a point in case.

So where are we headed?

My guess is the behemoths will try to negotiate the storm by doing several things: offloading workforces, reskilling where possible, investing in technologies and acquiring new startups (attempting to monopolize innovation in the process). Startups that manage to survive the predatory attempts of the biggies and remain afloat will occupy a huge market space and they will be among equal employers in Indian IT (and also in other sectors). In short, they will script a new IT story. And given the rising protectionism in geopolitics, it mayn’t be one of handling low end outsourced work from the US and Europe.

But every day when I read my fill of business news I feel we won’t get there without considerable pain.