Why Congress is Jittery about VS Naipaul

If you are familiar with VS Naipaul’s stature as a writer you would have got a little surprised by the indifference of Congress guys on Twitter to his passing away recently.

And when I say Congress guys I mean the entire pro Congress brigade from editors through average sympathizers to Cong MPs. I can understand the tepid response from the average Cong sympathizers and even those who formally represent the party.

They mayn’t know much about Naipaul – because Naipaul is not Rushdie nor was he a very popular commercial writer like, say, Jeffrey Archer or John Grisham. Before he won the Noble Prize for Literature, he was hardly known outside the group of people with genuine interest in English literature. After he won there was a sudden eruption of interest in Naipaul.

That’s when many who didn’t know him would have read him the first time (this includes me). And many would have restricted their knowledge about him and his work to what the media had to say about him, that he was an anti-Muslim bigot, a misogynist etc. But what about the pro Congress editors?

I didn’t see too many posts from them beyond the customary ‘great writer bad human being RIP VSN’ ones. Did you?

Many of them would have read Naipaul, at least his nonfiction books. Many of them would have interacted with Naipaul when he came to India to research for his last book on India, The Million Mutinies Now. On record Naipaul had met Vinod Mehta (who is no more with us), Vir Sanghvi and Shekhar Gupta.

Only an article by Vir Sanghvi was an expection to the rule. In the article, Vir Sanghvi claimed he knew Naipaul rather closely having met him several times while Sanghvi worked in Calcutta and Naipaul was visiting the city.

Sanghvi admitted his greatness as a writer but little bit tarnished it by calling Naipaul’s contemporary relevance into question. “Will his novels stand the test of time? Does anybody still read say, A House for Mr. Biswas? Will they read it ten years from now?”

Most of his books are celebrated and no discussion on post 2nd World War great books is complete without a mention of A House for Mr. Biswas.

This ‘tell as little as you must, then shove him inside the carpet’ approach of Congress online image managers towards VS Naipaul is not strange. VS Naipaul’s nonfiction work on India – mainly An Area of Darkness, which was written in the mid-60s and was scathingly critical of India – almost of everything you can think of.

The India that Naipaul criticized so strongly in his first two books An Area of Darkness and A Wounded Civilization was actually Nehru’s India. And Naipaul never changed his views until Million Mutinies Now, many years after An Area of Darkness, published in 1990.

This was two years before liberalization and many years before liberalization made its effect on India felt, but Nehru by then was firmly placed in India’s past separated by several subsequent leaderships of Congress.

And if you think a little deeply, the India that Naipaul rejected – the Nehru constructed India – is the main bone of contention between BJP and Congress. BJP says Nehru’s socialist model, which Congress followed until Rajiv Gandhi started tinkering with things in the mid-80s, denied India its share of development, made it poor, and deepened corruption even as it strengthened the grip of the Gandhi Nehru parivar on power.

Congress says the path shown by the first prime minister of India is the right path for the country, and moving away from the Nehruvian way is where India’s doom lies.

But Congress knows it stands on a very shaky ground when it comes to Nehru. Economically India has moved beyond Nehru. His contributions to nation building may be immense but sadly obscured by the subsequent years of Congress rule when Nehru’s economic legacy degenerated into license raj which held back India until it was dismantled in the early 90s, his institutions were subverted as his own daughter strengthened her grip on power – Emergency was an extreme manifestation of which – and the Congress became the fiefdom of one family.

So if you found the response of the online Cong image managers to Naipaul’s death underwhelming it’s because there is no point paying too much attention to a writer who held inconvenient views about a period when Congress was in power especially when the tempo for 2019 general elections is building up.

When We Were Orphans – A Detective Novel with a Difference

Christopher Banks, a retired detective now staying in London, is reminiscing about his past, his exploits as a successful sleuth, his life and that very important case involving the sudden disappearance of his parents in 20th century Shanghai. When We Were Orphans was my third Kazuo Ishiguro novel, Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World being the other two.

Unlike the other two, When We Were Orphans has a more tangible storyline, but what it deals with within the four walls of the story delivers on the expectation I have come to have of an Ishiguro novel – themes like nationalism, filial love, how we remember things from the past and elliptical prose, if sometimes a little workmanlike.

The novel is unlike an average detective book – it is about a detective without being a detective story where the solution at the end of the investigation is not as important (or maybe just as important) as the things the investigator discovers and reveals to the reader in the course of investigation – about society, history and other things of common human interest.  Christopher Banks recalling his exploits as a detective just is a small tributary flowing into a larger narrative he is narrating; the purpose of the recollections is only to the reader that he is a well-known detective and not how he solved his cases, the chief concern of any detective story.

Finally when he embarks on the most important case of his life, finding out the reason behind his parents’ sudden disappearance so many years ago, after wading through a Shanghai, currently smarting under a Japanese attack, which has changed beyond recognition since when he left it for England as a child – Christopher Banks finally encounters a truth about his parents contrary to what he was deceived into believing as a child by them.

The truth devastates him and also leaves the reader surprised. When it comes to the reader, though, it’s not the truth alone which is surprising, completely different from what the novel prepares the reader for, but also the fact that it is too ham-handed an ending for an Ishiguro novel.

Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World end on a very gentle and misty note. Upon later reflection, I gave the ending, We Were Not Orphans, a benefit of doubt considering that, unlike the earlier two Ishiguro novels I had read, this one is a detective story where the reader is kept waiting for the truth until it arrives at the very end of the novel, making a more well defined, maybe a little sensational ending a necessity.

I read Pale View of Hills at least four years before Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for literature last year. Although I liked the book, I found it too indescribable, but it created an interest in Ishiguro. I researched on him and came to know about his other books. Through his interviews on Youtube, I came to know his views on genre which is made so much of in publishing. He says the idea of genre does not have any literary relevance; slotting books into different categories only helps market them, nothing else. When We Were Orphans is a work in that tradition: a genre bender.

I felt vindicated when he won the Nobel for literature. By the way, this was my second novel I read as an ebook on Kindle.

Why Liberals and Conservatives Are Always at Loggerheads

The divide between liberal and conservatives is outside the purview of personal life. Only politicians can be divided on liberal and conservative lines. The common man doesn’t care, much less knows clearly what is what. In the apolitical sphere, the divide is more on the lines of what one considers good or acceptable to one’s value system or social sphere. What is good or acceptable is always a mix of ideas that draw from both liberal and conservative schools of thought.

And where values are not applicable like in practical matters, common sense rules the roost.

Loving your nation doesn’t mean you can’t feel empathy for another nation or national. You love your tradition without being anti-modern. And so on.

Yet social media interactions are almost always polarized. If you spend some time on Twitter, for example, you will realize it’s impossible to not take sides – liberal or conservative. The divide is more obvious on TV.

I think it has not so much to do with loyalty to either of these two ideas but opposition to what one considers common sense. Actually common sense is not as apolitical, neutral, innocuous, egalitarian, universal as we think it is. One man’s common sense can be another man’s lack of it. It is shaped by community sensibilities, awareness etc. These things define what is ‘common’ to you. A professor’s common sense, for example, is very different from a man coming from another walk of life.

For some, a little misogynistic or class driven attitude is how things should be normally, but for others, these things stick immediately. They may not publicly object but will privately disapprove.

People take sides or get enraged so easily on social media because this common sense is hurt.

The rage we see on social media against the liberals is because what they stand for, espouse, support, oppose goes against general common sense of people with a conservative bend of mind. Things they have always known to be true (that you should respect the religious sentiments of people, that your country should come first etc) or right are being called otherwise.

There can be multiple examples of that but to cite a few.

Trump’s general behavior is unbecoming of a president and his policies are bizarre but how does that justify not acknowledging his achievements, however little, or carefully under reporting or outrightly overlooking them? This is how American media behaves with him. And this defies the common sense of many people.

In India being a liberal has come to mean attacking everything that is dear to conservatives – national boundaries, mainstream culture, army – they have little else on offer.

And because the liberals don’t stand for anything concrete – borderless humanitarian concerns, triumph of reason over prejudice – the conservatives attribute liberals’ espousal of lofty causes to their pesonal interests. Snootier types, the liberals don’t engage in a direct showdown with the conservatives and blame the declining public discourse caused by the current regime.

Liberals think the conservatives don’t have brains because they don’t understand that even the army can be wrong; the conservatives think liberals are sinister, amoral, generally rich and self-interest driven people with lot of respect for everything foreign and elite and utter disdain for everything indigenous.

Both are opposed to each other’s ‘common sense,’ the basic sense we are all expected to have, even if it varies from person to person.

Is there no difference between a conservative and liberal and is it all made up, merely a social media phenomenon, a public stance?

We have basic and acquired characteristics. The basics, according to me, form the person essentially; the acquired, received through later awareness, are borrowed from the other side. But when it comes to making a choice, the basic characteristics override the acquired ones.

And therefore in an apolitical atmosphere where our beliefs are not put to test or they don’t find any opposition because generally we like to surround ourselves with ‘like minded’ people, balanced views are given but when on social media, the ‘common sense’ is challenged and we take sides.

Return of a King: The First Afgan War

There is a certain cyclic order to British rule in the subcontinent. Successful occupation, social disconnect with the natives obscuring the British to a growing resentment (mostly based on religious but also nationalistic sentiments) caused by the actions of a handful of British officials and other elements of the colonial entourage, the resentment slowing but steadily solidifying into mass based anger simmering under the surface for some time and then a singular incident blowing it up into a wide spread revolt against the British leading to their large scale massacre (including their children and women folk), the sudden explosion of revolt and its utter brutality taking the British by surprise.

They are destroyed, defeated and pushed back. There is a period of calm. The British organize themselves and retaliate. The retaliation is severe, equaling the savagery and ferocity of their opponents. The natives are massacred, humiliated and defeated. British power is restored.

Sepoy Mutiny, in 1857, which rocked British rule in India albeit for a short period, has the same pattern to it.  Around 100 years before the Mutiny there was lot of bonhomie between the British and natives (exemplified best by an affair between a British spy and a lady of Muslim nobility in Hyderabad – read  Dalrymple’s The White Mughal – which had scandalized the Muslim and the English society alike).

This bonhomie was frowned upon by high officials in England and it slowly stopped leading to a complete absence of social exchange between the ruler and the ruled, placing the British poorly to gauge the widespread anti-British mood among Indians which led to the outbreak of the Mutiny, a result of multiple factors but provoked by a single incident – a minor East Indian Company soldier’s refusal to put cartridge in his mouth to tear off its opening which was rumored to have been greased with animal fat.

Large scale massacre of the British followed – followed by British retaliation and restoration of British rule in India. William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal brilliantly captures everything about the Mutiny.

In many ways, 1857 was a repeat of 1840 – 41, when British rule’s hubris, ignorance of local conditions and insensitivities towards local sentiments led to a similar disaster but on a much, much bigger scale, this time in Afghanistan. William Dalrymple’s Return of a King, which I read recently, deals with it.

The British have intelligence that Russia is planning to invade India, the jewel in the British Empire crown, via Afghanistan with the help of Napoleon. The intelligence sends panic waves in British quarters from London to Calcutta and the theory, which was highly exaggerated, finds its backers and gathers momentum over time. Only a friendly administration in Afghanistan can prevent the disaster, the British decide eventually.

Shah Shuja had been deposed from the throne many decades ago by Dost Mohammad who has ruled Afghanistan since. Against the advices of one of their most hands-on observer – Alexander Barnes – who has spent considerable time in the region, the British decide to invade Afghanistan to depose Dost Mohammad and restore the rule of Shah Shuja.

After a bitter war between the two sides, the British manage to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan. But problems start soon after. Three things slowly turn the mood of the Afghans against British occupation: dislodging of Dost Mohammad, a popular king; British policies in Afghanistan some of which hit the interests of the local tribal chiefs involving removing and curtling subsidies they had received for very long from the king; and the most incendiary one: licentious ways of the British officials using Afghan women, from all social sections, for pleasure.

Amidst growing resentment  a singular incident involving a slave girl, who had escaped from the harem of an Afghan of nobility to Alexzander Barnes, now the highest British official in Afghanistan whose licentious ways with Afghan women are chiefly responsible for  the growing anger against the British – sparked the revolt. The common Afghans, enraged by the fact that the kafirs are dishonoring their women folk, rise to arms massacring anything and everything British on their way. A mob storms into Alexzander Barnes’ place and slaughter him.

Eventually British exit from Afghanistan is negotiated but here awaits an even bigger disaster for the British. Afghanistan is a complex country whose different provinces are ruled by different tribal leaders – and a central leadership’s authority is dependent on their fealty to it. However, tribal groups often act independent of the dictats of their central leadership.

On their way out of Afghanistan when the British entourage is passing through the Khyber Pass they find themselves completely helpless against the tribal groups constantly buffeting them with sniper and ambush attacks in a terrain completely unfamiliar to the British and one that the tribals know like the back of their hands. The weather is more inhospitable than the terrain. An unexpected snow storm leaves the British troops, leaving officers and fellow companions frozen to death and those escaping death, completely maimed.

The humiliation makes international news headlines and is seen as the biggest reversal to face the Empire since its beginning. Prestige has to be restored. Retaliation and recapture of Afghanistan follow…

This is followed by another revolt taking place – this time spearheaded by Akbar Khan the son of the deposed king Dost Mohammad who had been banished to India by the British after he surrendered to them following the British invasion of Afghanistan to restore Shah Shuja to the throne of Afghanistan.

This revolt is different from the earlier one which ousted the British from Afghanistan the first time. The earlier one was due to a confusion of several factors – imposition of a puppet ruler, British policies and behavior with locals – where religion played but a minor role; the second rising is distinctly religious in character, mobilized by Akbar Khan as such.

Faced with a religious uprising, and depleting British coffers owing to an ongoing Opium War in China, Britain decide to retreat from Afghanistan…to India. However, the retreat, this time via a route different from the earlier one, is an experience no different from the earlier disaster – again constantly troubled by Afghan tribes through sniper attacks carried out from the crevices of the craggy mountains surrounding the serpentine passageways through which the British entourage (the entire soldiery, families and camp followers) are retreating.

To this day the country remains as inhospitable to foreigners as it was 170 years back when the British had left. The Russians got a taste of that in 1989. The Americans have been bearing the burnt for some time. While Dalrymple was researching the book, an Afghan told him: “We sent the Brits on their way. The Americans know their game is up, only their bosses back home refuse to accept the reality. The next will be the Chinese.”

The America We Hardly Know

You can know a country from its small towns and villages because the big cities are almost same everywhere. Bill Bryson’s A Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America establishes that fact beyond any doubt. The America you meet in the small towns that Bryson takes you through are a world very different from how we know America.

Taken from Good Reads

You will meet American bigotry (against blacks), poverty, ignorance about the world beyond, tits and bits of history, encountering an America, in the process, which is anything but glamorous and alluring.

And along the way your constant companion will be Bryson’s whacky observations (some of which indeed make you laugh) and autobiographical details about growing up in small town America (Des Moines, Iowa), which always adds character to travelogues, as he takes you through the obscure towns and cities of America on his way back home several years after he settled in England with an English wife.

What stays with you finally are not so much the prosaic details about these places (some are not efficiently laid out, some are plain dirty, some have no proper eateries etc.) as much the America the country and society that emerges through them.

There are searing observations. In the North people don’t dislike blacks as overtly as they do in South. In the North the whites wish blacks all success in life, but avoid being seen socializing with them. Somewhere are deep: America is a country of small town values – hard work, religion etc.

Bill Bryson’s writing style is complete standup comedy. Sometimes it’s effective and sometimes it reads like the kind of comedy a group clown does while among his school friends, knowing that any joke is better than no joke.

But then I have my sympathies with Bryson. Writing a travelogue is not easy – keeping the reader interested with the most average matters of life can be tedious to write and to read a well, that’s why travel book writers resort to history and autobiographical details. Alas, some of the towns Bryson drives through are so utterly obscure and insignificant that probably there is no recorded history to fall back on.

Where there is nothing to build the narrative around you wade through page after page of gibberish or Brysonism about what he thinks about a bad TV anchor whose show he stumbled upon when he switched on the TV in a hotel room – expecting that a nice piece of history or sprinkling of autobiography is just round the corner. It’s not that your patience is never rewarded but sometimes you are also left with disappointment.

But when your patience is rewarded with a piece of history or an autobiographical slice, it’s like a crunchy chocolate nugget coming in to break the monotony of landmass of vanilla ice cream.

Bryson’s father is a recurring presence in the book reappearing to rescue his son over and over again. Bryson’s father grew up during the Great Depression of the 1930s and that left a lifelong impact on him: it made him extremely tightfisted – always looking out for opportunities to minimize expenditure. This fiscal restraint was a constant presence in Bill’s and his brother’s upbringing, staying in economy hotels when they went vacationing, which they did very often, eating at not so good hotels etc. This solid middleclass upbringing informs Bill Bryson’s worldview – an indifference to money and a loathing for extravaganza – which is evident through the book but prominently comes through when he visits Los Angeles, Nevada. But I also suspected he plays up the indifference to money and wealth thing a bit.

As much as Bryson sees everything American through the eyes of an insider someone who grew up in the country, Bryson also brings a refreshing perspective of an outsider, having stayed in England for many years.

When he happens to a backward place which has a reputation poverty stricken, he observes the houses seem to have everything you need for a decent living; yes, of course they don’t have air conditioners, fridges (the book was written may years ago) etc. – the quintessential American middle class gadgets – but that hardly makes them impoverished.

He continues that his father in law, in England, in his younger days was many years away from owning his own car and he never owned a firsthand car in his whole life; but no one called him poor or sent him aids. Observations like this save the book from becoming a dry tourist guide.

Home as Office

I had written this blog in 2010 on work from home, a practice widely followed in IT in the West but, eight years after I wrote the blog, WFH is still frowned upon in India.

Although WFH is more widely practiced today than eight to 10 years ago, coming to office is still the more accepted form of the two – and a large number of those who work from home sometimes do so stealthily either hiding it from their colleagues or their bosses.

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Many years ago, when I had heard that the son of my father’s close friend, who stayed in Japan and worked for a multinational company, had made his home his office, I was surprised. Today working from home is a very common practice among IT workers. The laptop and the internet have turned the old concept of office as workplace on its head.

A sizable part of IT population either work from home frequently or have become home-based workers. Until few years ago, this privilege was available mainly to managers, but now it is quite common for a normal worker to operate away from office.

But despite the ubiquity of the practice, the concept has received a varied response in different parts of the world. In the US, working from home is hardly frowned upon. And I guess even in other parts of the West, it is considered quite normal (although the non-IT sector, even in the West, has remained cold to such new-age work practices).

Not so in India. The practice isn’t more than five to six years old in India, but it’s catching up well with companies arming a larger body of their work force with laptops, a luxury which was limited to only IT managers until some years back.

But in India, the practice doesn’t enjoy the acceptability it has in the West. I sympathize with the Indian stand to an extent. There are certain problems. The concept is new to India and will take sometime to find acceptance (and it is getting some acceptance slowly). While there are people who work seriously regardless of where they work from, there is no dearth of work shirkers.

You need a good setup at home to ensure that you are as effective while working at home as you would be if you were at office (power cuts don’t help). It doesn’t help team bonding. And then, there are certain roles, even in IT, that can be better performed with your presence in office.

But, on the other hand, working from home has some advantages, too. It helps companies save infrastructure cost. The companies that allow their employees the luxury are seen as better employers than those that don’t. It helps working women immensely. It also helps workers avoid unnecessary office socializing and thus promotes productivity.

If you look at the positives and negatives of the practice, the points in its favor will far outweigh the points against it. And, while the advantages are actual business and employee benefits, the disadvantages (like lack of proper setup, powercuts, work shirking etc.) are problems whose solutions aren’t difficult to work out.

Karnataka Elections – Several Tragedies Rolled into One

Siddaramaiah offering HD Kumaraswami chief ministership to form government in Karnataka has a tragic twist to it. Siddaramaiah, the Congress CM, was a senior minister in JD(S). In 2005 he left JD(S) feeling marginalized by HD Deve Gowda’s attempts to promote his son Kumaraswami as his political heir and the top leader of the party.

After leaving JD(S), Siddaramaiah joined Congress. In later years, both Siddaramaiah and Kumaraswami rose to the pinnacle of Karnataka state politics. Kumaraswami became CM in 2006 when JD(S) formed government with BJP. Siddaramaiah became CM in 2013 when he helped Congress win in Karnataka. But their rivalry continued. They kept exchanging barbs through media.

Couple of years ago, the rivalry boiled over when at the State Assembly Kumaraswami swore on his father that he would not let Siddaramaiah become CM and Siddaramaiah retorted that he swore on Kumaraswami’s father (HD Deve Gowda) that he would become CM. Karnataka politics is acrimonious and filthy. But as fate would have it, a few years later and a few days ago, driven by compulsions of politics, in the wake of unexpected dip in Congress’ number of seats, Siddaramaiah not only offered support to JD(S) to form government in Karnatka but also offered Kumaraswami the position of CM.

That’s not where the tragedy ends, though.

Of the three chief ministerial aspirants – HD Kumaraswami, Siddaramaiah and B. S. Yeddyurappa (BJP) – Siddaramaiah was the most deserving candidate. He has run a clean administration for five years which performed reasonably well and wasn’t disrupted by internal feuds and challenges to his leadership. None of these can be said about the other two chief ministerial aspirants (one of whom – Kumaraswami – is a chief minister now).

But will this coming together of the Cong and JD(S) for purely political reasons mark a complete transformation of Siddaramaiah’s and Kumaraswami’s relationship? Or will the old bitterness rear its head again once the euphoria is over? Both are mercurial and ambitious. And at least Kumaraswami has the record of being ungentlemanly when it comes to temptations of power.

In 2006, JD(S) had formed government with BJP with Kumaraswami as chief minister on the understanding that after 10 months Kumaraswami would step down from the position of CM making way for Yeddyurappa, but he refused to, prompting BJP to withdraw support to the government and call for new elections which BJP won riding a pro- Yeddyurappa sympathy wave.

Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is always fun to read. Lot of information, presented in a very interesting manner. But that’s not the only trait of Bryson’s writing. His writing is high energy and his humor is over the top, if a little low brow sometimes. There are very few serious moments – in fact he looks at anything serious with the smirk of a jester – and there is always a college buddy air to it. I am currently having lot of fun reading a travelogue by Bryson on small towns of America – and will write something on it when I finish it.

The book review below is on a Bryson book I had read many years ago and believe it is one of his most popular and best works – English the Mother Tongue coming very close. Shakespeare by Bill Bryson is a wafer thin hardbound book – I have never seen a paperback version – where Bryson recreates the times Shakespeare lived in and using very little credible information that’s available on the Bard creates a picture of him which at least told me things I never knew about the greatest writer in the English language. Enjoy.

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Anything about Shakespeare inspires two reactions: boredom and reverence. And this makes Shakespeare a bad topic for a book. That’s why credit should go to Bill Bryson for his Shakespeare for making it everything that a good book is – exciting and informative.

The problem about writing a biographical book on Shakespeare is that about most of his life there is no concrete record set in a tight chronological order. So you are left to rely on his plays and the times he lived in to track his life.

That’s precisely what Bill Bryson has done. He has brought Shakespeare to his readers through the times he lived in and relied on his plays to trace as much of Shakespeare’s life and world as the work of any writer can possibly reveal about its creator.

Bryson describes the England of Elizabethan times, the rule of the queen, life of commoners in London (where Shakespeare lived while working as a playwright), the personality of the queen, her relationship with the arts and artists (she was a patron of theatres and a tyrant too) and how theatres were run those days.

Bryson has handled his research material so well that you hardly feel there is very little Bryson has to offer about the main subject – Shakespeare. In fact, you will feel a picture of how Shakespeare would have lived his life in 16th century London taking shape behind the details of the times he lived in.

But Bryson has had to depend on this method mostly to describe Shakespeare’s life while he stayed in London because almost nothing is known about the part of life Shakespeare spent in London. Albeit, there are other parts of his life one can track through piecemeal records like court and marriage records and what is documented by earlier biographers.

Shakespeare was born in Stratford and went to school there. His father was a merchant and although the Shakespeares weren’t rich they didn’t lack for anything; however, William’s father fortunes declines towards the end of his life as fell upon hard times with his business failing leading to mounting loans. Shakespeare was a decent student and showed flair for Latin early on.

Shakespeare was an actor and a playwright. His entry into the world of theatres was dramatic. A troop was travelling to Stratford to stage a play and a fight broke out between two actors on the way. One actor died and when the troop reached Stratford, it took Shakespeare as a replacement.

Shakespeare’s plays were not greatly regarded in his days; some of his contemporaries’ plays were regarded more highly than Shakespeare’s. Not much literary value was attached with plays those days and they were considered means of earning a living through quick entertainment. This explains why Shakespeare’s works were not compiled with an intent to preserve them within his lifetime. Long after the death of Shakespeare someone compiled them as First Folio and later subsequent Folios were published by others.

The most formidable challenge Bryson has had to deal with in the book is to arrive at a conclusion on whether Shakespeare wrote his plays or someone else did it under the Bard’s identity for some consideration or other.

The jury is out on this to this day. There are two lobbies, one believes Shakespeare wrote those plays and the other that Shakespeare wasn’t educated and experienced enough to write those plays; that they had to be the work of a person who enjoyed a higher standing in the society (possibly an aristocrat) than Shakespeare did and due to his social position was better connected than Shakespeare; had more access to the workings of royal courts (to have written about court intricacies in the plays) and, of course, was better educated.

Detractors of Shakespeare have found many to have these qualifications who lived at or around the time of Shakespeare and each one of the detractors has his/her own Shakespeare number two and individual theories to establish their claims.

Bryson has used many arguments to debunk the claims and the central one is, although Shakespeare hadn’t received any university education as there was no university in Stratford, he had finished his school education. Overcoming his deficiencies to write those plays would be, in any case, a great achievement, which, however difficult, wouldn’t be impossible, Bryson observes.

And there are country scenes in Shakespeare’s plays whose inspiration could be traced back to his growing years in Stratford. Bryson finishes the book by concluding that it was none other than Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems we attribute to him – “whoever he was”.

A deficiency of the book is that Bryson didn’t tell much about the division between Latin and English and why exactly even plays enacted with the royalty in audience was played in English while Latin was the court language.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

I have written on Jhumpa Lahiri on this blog. I found out a book review I had written in 2014 on a book – The Lowland – by her which had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize the same year. Sharing it here.

 

I had heard and read about Jhumpa Lahiri, but had never read her works. Recently I finished her Lowland, her latest offering, which was nominated for the Booker prize. I am happy that I have arrived if a little late. Lowland deals with the Naxal period in Bengal and peels one layer after another off the movement to show its various sides.

Let me first admit that my interest in the book owes itself to this subject, Naxalism. Taking the movement as the center, Lahiri’s plot uncovers how Naxalism changed the lives of people involved in it, its impact on their families and later generations.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in the 60s, in a middle class family where not wealth but education is valued. The brothers share a strong bond and their relationship is one without any sibling rivalry. As the two grow up, while Subhash remains chiefly interested in studies, the storm of Naxalism that’s building up in the city gradually attracting impressionable middle-class Bengali youth into its vortex, slowly draws Udayan into its fold. And Udayan starts moving away from his studies and family plunging into the world of Marxist and Maoist ideas. On the other hand, Shubash goes to the US to pursue higher education.

After Subhash leaves for America, the story gets split into two parts, Subhash’s life in the US and Udayan’s in Calcutta. Subhash, now staying in America, loses day-to-day touch with Udayan’s life in Calcutta, only staying updated with it in snippets through Udayan’s occasional letters.

One day, Udayan writes about Gauri, the girl he is courting, although Subhash keeps his brief affair with an American middle-aged lady a secret from his parents and brother. Another day, Subhash gets a letter from his parents, written in a laconic manner, telling him that Udayan has died and that he should come to Calcutta immediately.

From here on, the style of narration changes, moving back and forth in time, to reveal to the reader, bit by bit, the circumstances in which Udayan died.

Back to Calcutta, Subhash finds Udayan’s widow in a neglected condition and decides to gives her a new life by marrying her. They get married and as Gauri starts her life in America, Lahiri frequently moves back in time to chronicle the circumstances in which Udayan had met with his end.

Udayan’s Naxalism-affected life forms the spine of the story and Lahiri has revealed it in small doses keeping her readers looking out for more and refusing to quench their thrust until the last page of the book.

Shubash’s and Gauri’s life in America on Rhodes Island, has a lot to offer to the reader, too. Just as Jhumpa Lahiri has described Calcutta very well, her descriptions of Rhodes Island transport you to the place. In that, Lowland is a novel that constantly explores the differences in the two worlds and how they shape the lives of people inhabiting them.

As the story progresses, Jhumpa sometimes skips important bits of some incidents as they unfold and covers them later, springing a surprise on you after you have reconciled to having been shortchanged by the author. Later, you realize that sparing you some details involved in an incident keeps you interested and when you are finally thrown those details at, you feel your thrust has been pleasantly quenched.

She narrates key incidents related to Udayan’s death several times over, each time through the perspective of a different character, making the same incidents look different each time and thus bringing the story full circle or as a  Hindi reviewer put it, giving you a Sampurna Anubhav (a complete experience).

Perhaps the thing I liked the most is that she has not tried to eulogize Naxalism calling it a fight between rich and poor to create an equal society. Instead, she has handled the subject unsentimentally blaming all sides, sparing none.

Are Social Media Sites Class Driven

Social media platforms are considered progressive and egalitarian where anyone can create a profile, connect with anyone, follow anybody and be followed. At least as far as the technology is concerned they are progressive and egalitarian slapping no restrictions on anybody to do anything that’s in keeping with the platform’s intent and within the bounds of acceptable behavior (the trolls may stretch the definition of acceptable behavior but that’s another discussion).

There are no restrictions on who you can follow, whether you know that person or whether even that person approves of you following him (mostly we don’t care who is following us unless the person the indulges into inappropriate behavior).

Who you can have a reciprocal relationship with is, of course, dependent on the other person’s choice whether he wants to connect with you – but that hardly undermines the purported egalitarian nature of social media. It promotes it.

What undermines it, however, is the homogeneous sphere within which exchanges take place. A celebrity (which can be anyone with a considerable follower base and mostly real world celebrities have them) only talks to another celebrity. There are very few instances of a celebrity engaging in an interaction with a non-celebrity. There may be exceptions to it. But they are that: exceptions.

However, what’s more unfortunate is this practice of interacting with only your own ‘types’ is not restricted to celebrities – this is the general norm.

Take FB. You may have a network of 1000 people but you will interact with only a few of them, probably only with people you mix with socially – family members, close friends etc. – restricting your interactions to the social pocket you come from (which in India may not be independent of caste, religious and recently, political considerations).

Twitter, being an interest based networking site, unlike FB, and attracting, as a result, people with a penchant for ‘political correctness’ may be more secular and cross sectional in terms of the interactions that take place on it, but it’s cross-sectional nature is horizontal not vertical. A celebrity (famous journalists, film stars, politicians, public intellectuals etc.) may have an conersation  with a celebrity from another walk of life, but not a pedestrian like you and me.

Non-celeb Twitter guys with a small follower base below, say, five hundred spend most of their time on the site retweeting the tweets of celebrities and only on very a few occasions do these celebs return the favor by retweeting the tweets of their lesser known followers. Undeterred, the anonymous brigade goes on retweeting celebrity tweets.

Once a friend had told me how a reply he had sent to a famous writer’s tweet on a book the latter had recently published complimenting the writer on it, had gone unreplied by the writer, while the same writer, on the same day and probably around the same time, had thanked a tweet by a famous filmstar praising his book.

I myself have been through similar experiences several times – feeling unresponded, unappreciated and feeling that the trolls are so much better – they at least ignore the common man because of a visible reason: the lack of impact they have given their small follower base.

Being ignored by the celebs who count on their less exalted followers’ support to develop and sustain their online clout is utter class snobbery. But that is how stratospheric the world of Twitter or social media is.

There is no cross-sectional exchange – you scratch my back and I will scratch yours only if it is big enough to equal my stature.