Murder on the Orient Express – A Decent Watch

What recieves no credit for a movie’s success is the fact that the commercial success of a movie depends on which other releases it has to compete with. I don’t agree that there is audience for all kinds of movies, so the success of one movie doesn’t come at the expense of another. Movies catering to similar taste buds always snatch audience from each other to succeed commercially. How many viewers a movie is able to snatch may vary from movie to movie.

The only exception to this rule is detective movies, especially those with famous detectives and authors behind them. My belief was confirmed when I watched Murder on the Orient Express based on an Agatha Christie novel by the same name – on a night show and found the hall packed to capacity.

A murder has happened on a train and Hercule Poirot is looking for the killer only to find that all the passengers on the Orient Express have collectively murdered the person, a man who kidnaped and then killed a child some years ago which in various ways affected and altered the lives of all the passengers who have boarded the Orient Express to avenge the murder.

The problem with a literary detective character which has spawned numerous movie adoptions is that you have to convey your interpretation of the character to the audience very clearly without any shread of doubt, so that when the pecularities recur the audiences can immediatly spot them and react collectively unlike with slightly more literary characters which allow wider or open-ended interpretation.

The movie A Murder on the Orient Express does that right away starting with an investigation by Hercule Poirot where he detects the miscreant behind a theft from an ancient synagogue in Jerusalem by spotting on a fresco an imperfection, a cleft made by a pointed shoe. The style of investigation and a few scenes preceding it convey to the audience the personality traits and idiosyncrasies of the sleuth: a maniacal quest for perfection.

Orient has many more gems. The story has a large canvas – with multiple characters – all present together on Orient Express – each one with a backstory. The period – the 1920s – has been created well with the help of political and cultural references, setting and costumes. Kenneth Branagh is convincing as Poirot particularly his accent. Johnny Depp has done an awesome cameo. And all the other characters have contributed to the movie. But what I liked particularly are the references to the prejudices and ethos of the times the story is set in…which lift the movie above an average detective story.

Salman Rushdie, Now Padmavati – Free Speech Being Trammeled upon Nothing New

In India freedom of expression coming under attack is neither new nor rare. Each time a book or a movie offends someone, hurts someone’s (or a group’s) religious/community sentiments, things go up in flames. Processions hit the streets, effigies are burnt, threats given, normal life disrupted. The government (regardless of which party is in power or whether it’s a state or central government) observes the situation for a while expecting it to abate…Sometimes the government also asks the two parties to talk and arrive at a settlement.

When after sometime the situation doesn’t show any signs of abetment, the government does what is politically safe to do: bans the movie or insists on its release after putting it through so many cuts as to emasculate it completely, so that neither it insults nor informs: Only Entertains.

However, there is an interesting angle to the crisis this time. Padmavati is not a serious film; it’s a commercial film with no serious intent expect entertaining people. It’s on a character which never existed. Padmavati is a fictional character created by a poet (Jayasi) in a poem which fictionalized the invasion of Chittor by Alauddin Khilji, who ruled Delhi in the 12th century. The poem says Khilji, who was besotted with Padmavati after hearing about her magical beauty from a Brahamin who had a score to settle with Padmavati’s husband – attacked Chittor to capture Padmavati and take her with him.

However, once Padmavati’s husband died fighting Khilji’s invasion, Padmavati together with all other women in the fort set herself on fire to protect their honor against Khilji. However, historians who accompanied Khilji on his invasion of Chittor don’t mention any such incident in their account. In fact, Padmavati’s name is not available in any record or account contemporaneous to the invasion. Her name is only found in this poem by Jayasi which was written more than two centuries after the invasion.

However, I had written the blog below Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India written in 2012 when a similar frenzy had gripped the country albeit for a shorter period: Salman Rushdie was invited to visit Jaipur Literature Festival – and some Muslim groups felt the author’s visit would hurt their religious sentiments – and the government (it was a Congress government both at the center and state – Rajasthan) armtwisted the Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to drop from their invitee list.

The situation was similar in many more ways. Several state assembly elections are going to take place shortly (Gujrat being the most important one), as the Padmavati row unfolds. At that time, in 2012, UP elections were nearing. UP has a sizable Muslim population. Now, in 2017, in view of the forthcoming assembly elections, hurting majoritarian sentiments (although Padmavati is specific to Rajasthani and Rajut pride, it can easily be drummed up into something bigger and polarizing in election times) may not be a good idea now.

And yet we know it’s nothing new. Freedom of expression has been a casualty of electoral interests in the past and it will continue to happen no matter which party is in power as my blog below will make clear. So what do the public intellectuals, in India, really mean when they blame the current regime for attacks on free speech?

 

Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India

Recently the Indian government armtwisted Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to have Salman Rushdie dropped from their invitee list. The government has justified its decision by saying that Rushdie’s visit will hurt Muslim sentiments thanks to his book Satanic Verses which insulted Islam by caricaturing the Prophet Mohamed.

Rushdie has been coming to the festival since it started, but it’s the first time the government wants us to believe his visit will wound religious sentiments. UP elections are near and UP has a sizeable Muslim population. UP is a place the Cong, the leading party of the ruling coalition, can ill afford to lose because being among the largest states in India, UP has a big impact on general elections.

The Rushdie controversy is not an isolated incident. It’s the recent installment of a series of incidents in India where outfits of all political hues or their affiliates have attacked people or work (books, movies , paintings, etc) opposed to their strain of beliefs.

The reasons for the outbursts are varied. Sometimes it’s a political party desperate to retain its political space, sometimes a political newbie trying to make a mark for himself, sometimes a political party making a desperate bid to woo a community (Hindu or Muslim).

Three incidents related to books will help you understand the pattern. 

Around seven years ago, Taslima Nasreen (the writer of Lajja) had been forced out of Bengal by the Left government and then out of the country by the central government which refused to renew her visa. Why? Because Taslima had expressed blasphemous views in her book Lajja and mobs had taken to the streets demanding her ouster from Bengal when her visa was due for renewal. The Left government justified its decision saying her stay would have led to communal riots.

About a year ago, a political aspirant from the Thackeray clan (a family that founded and heads a regional political right wing outfit which models itself on Hindu nationalism and chauvinism) got together a mob which burnt the copies of Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry alleging the book to have provocative material (not sure to provoke whom) demanding the removal of the book from English honors syllabus. The authorities obliged (apparently to quell the mob).

And then came this Rushdie controversy.

As the instances above demonstrate, it’s not just parties coming from one strain of political or social belief who demand book bans and persecute writers (or creative people guilty of challenging popular beliefs through their work) for their ends, but parties of all political colour (from left to right) partake in them and frame their demand and actions according to their constituency.

If you read the books as against the claims that the ban-seekers make, you will know that they don’t read the books they seek ban on. Lajja has nothing against Islam in it; it’s a story about a Hindu Bengali family in Bangladesh; and Such A Long Journey was published in the 70s (and demanded a withdrawal of in 2011) and is loosely about Congress politics in Bombay, in the 70s, a party which the Thackerays are anyway hysterically opposed to. (I have read Lajja, but not Such a Long Journey.)

This hostility on books or any creative output works on a certain belief. 

Banning of a book or movie doesn’t hit people’s interest in the way, say, closing of a factory does. So whether you are part of the establishment imposing a ban or forcing out an author or you are part of sloganeering mob demanding a ban or an ouster, the belief on either side is since the common man won’t be hurt beyond, say, the denial of a book or a movie, they will move on and the intelligentsia will stop shouting on TV once the media get another story. Elections are won and lost on more immediate and tangible issues, not on books, after all.

And, of course, there is the additional gain for the political party of ingratiating itself with a group/community (whatever) through the emotive route, which has a long-lasting electoral value, where reason is always a casualty.

What the establishment overlooks is each time you yield to a bullying mob, you concede a space that is hard to retrieve. What they also forget is when application of force becomes an accepted means to silence a contrary voice, you lose the ability to tolerate because you don’t need to stress your endurance to tolerate; an easier option is available – force.

It’s one thing to brag about having great values (in this case, freedom of speech and free thought) as a nation; it’s another to be ready to defend them at whatever cost they demand. Great Britain gave knighthood to Rushdie in the teeth of opposition from the Islamic world. France gave political asylum to Taslima Nasreen after she was hounded out from India.

Why Snap Soft Skill Courses Are Useless

Soft skills are always difficult to learn, especially in a snap attempt.  Each one of us have our own way of practicing these skills based on our natural (and sometimes acquired) style and personality types. You can’t talk like anyone else unless you consciously copy someone’s style and practice it but it may lead to  loss of your own style or a slow merging of your native and acquired style creating a new style altogether. It’s the same with thinking. Thoughts form in different ways in each one of us depending on how we perceive things – which involves both structure (how you place one slab of comprehension upon another to arrive at a whole) and depth. These are the building blocks of soft skills.  This is what makes all soft skill courses useless.

And the funny thing is people who conduct them know it. That’s why, if you notice, all soft skill courses are mostly fluff. It’s only stuff flicked from Google peppered with stories and anecdotes.  Some of them even use these courses as platforms to crib about their former colleagues and hear favorable reaction from an obliging audience. And they call it interaction.  I had attended a workshop on presentation skills and the trainer, a lady, was mostly talking about her former colleagues she didn’t like. I attended a workshop on creative troubleshooting and it was mostly generic talk on how to be out of box together with standard industry models of problem solving. Doesn’t discussing standard models defeat the purpose of a workshop which insists you to be anything but?

Then, why do companies spend money on arranging for these two-hour or one-day soft skill workshops and why we attend them? Because we cherish our technical skills and believe learning smattering of soft skills will help us further our career – be creative, good communicators and so on. The problem is soft skills are more intricate than technical skills. Technical skills are easy to acquire because they involve clearly defined instructions but soft skills don’t.

Sustained exposure to soft skill professionals where they are embedded in an environment (a close-ended one like a team) or a broader one like an organization and they closely observe people in action and discuss their findings with them later and then again observe as the latter apply them, will help. But the resource and logistics it will need may make it difficult to implement. That’s where you need creative problem solving.

Communism – 100 Years of the Revolution

A few days ago Russia celebrated 100 years of the 1917 revolution. In these 100 years communism has gone from being a leading political ideology to a failed one. In whichever country the ideology has been applied, there has been dictatorship, corruption, economic stagnation, bloodshed and so on.

Yet universal brotherhood, a world free of religion and other discriminatory ideas, selflessness, sacrifice for a higher cause, economic equality – are some of the loftiest ideals a man can ever live for.

Therefore it is little wonder that communism had looked like a panacea in a 20th century world torn by wars, bigotry, narrow nationalism and economic inequality. Soviet Russia’s impressive GDP year upon year had convinced world leaders of the merit of communist economic model. The global intelligentsia had appreciated its educational and social reforms. Their space projects had earned lot of global admiration (remember Sputnik?). But there were flaws in the system and the cracks began to show up soon.

Today it is surprising to see how the lofty ideals, when applied as state policies, degenerated into completely different things not just in Soviet Russia but also other pockets of communism in the world: a constant thirst for power expressed through annexing regions or bringing  them into communist sphere of influence, state censorship (and other forms of freedom-denying activities), ruthless directorship (Stalin, Mao and so many  other communist leaders), personality cults (Fidel Castro, Mao etc), state-level corruption, people in positions of power growing loathsomely wealthy (in China but there are numerous other examples), a dead economy (Cuba’s highest source of revenue is the remittances sent by Cubans staying in the US), the list is endless.

Frankly, if we compare them with the sins of capitalism, capitalism will hardly fare any better: two world wars, imperialism, Hitler, economic inequality, absence of financial support for the elderly (in purely capitalist societies like the US) and so on. But capitalism has bounced back each time. There wasn’t a third world war. The world didn’t see another Hitler (at least none who wreaked havoc on a similar scale). There is no 20th century scale imperialism any more.

Yes, capitalism is responsible for economic inequalities, but it has also created pockets of economic excellence, like Microsoft, Google, Apple and so many more, which provide economic opportunities to so many across various countries. (One can even argue the more capitalism the better: after all, less capitalist societies like Sweden and the Netherlands have not created these gems.)

On balance capitalism has done better than communism. But why? I think it’s because at the core capitalism is a simpler ideology which is mainly about economics (private enterprise and free market) and is silent on other aspects of life whereas communism seeks to control every sphere of life, the personal, professional and even the spiritual. (We know what happens of powerful religious ideas that lay out rules for every aspect of a man’s life and insist on complete compliance.)

This regimental nature of communism not only denies basic freedom but also stores too much discretionary power in the hands of those in power. And because communism doesn’t accommodate democratic practices like participatory politics, the power stays with a few who, to continue being in power, plug in all ventilations within the system blocking free passage of air – and slowly rot sets in.

In newspapers, we keep reading about corrupt and nepotistic high officials in China – and the Chinese administration trying to cleanse the system. Gorbachev had attempted Perestroika and Glasnost to cleanse the Soviet system of similar rot leading to an end of Soviet Union in December 26, 1991. The end of communism, however, had started a year earlier, on 9th November 1989, when the Berlin wall had collapsed uniting West and East Germany.

Is Bangalore Going the Bombay Way

On 1st Nov, on Karnataka Rajya Utsava, while I was entering a shopping mall, a person with a wad of thin books in his hand whisked one into my hand. I waved him away without any consideration. Few steps later, I stopped turned around, walked to him and asked for a copy of the book he was distributing free. It was a postcard size book on how to learn Kannada.

A day later I read the Karnataka CM’s (a Congress CM) Rajya Utsava speech in paper. He said everyone staying in Karnataka should learn Kannada and consider themselves Kannadigas. Karnataka is also going to become the first state in India to have its flag.

I am from Calcutta and have been staying in Bangalore for last 12 years now – and from time to time have seen manifestation of provincial sentiments through violence sometimes owing to something as innocuous as death of Kannada movie icons and sometimes slightly more tangible issues like water sharing with neighboring states.  The targets are generally ethnic groups to establishments like malls, restaurants representing a culture perceived to have overshadowed the local culture or representing  those who are insolent towards it.

But the best part about these conflagrations is they fizzle out in a day or two thanks to the fact that they are mostly carried out by small chauvinistic groups with little or no impact on mainstream politics.

Only twice, in my so many years in Bangalore, have I seen chauvinistic disturbances targeted towards a particular group or community go beyond their one-day routine.

One of them involved the Kaveri water sharing issue. The Kaveri water sharing  issue has been a source of disturbances for sometime recurring almost once every year but none has taken so long  to calm down. The trigger was a Supreme Court order asking Karnataka to share more cusecs of Kaveri water with Tamil Nadu than the state was ready to do.

My wife and I were touring Chikmagalur, a nice hill station in Karnataka with lot of coffee plantations but little known outside south India. We left for Chikmagalur a day after a state-wide bandh over the Kaveri issue.

Roughly two to three days later, sitting in a restaurant in Chikmagalur overlooking the road in front, we saw a flock of people shouting slogans, a column of black smoke rising up from amidst them. Curious, I asked the restaurant manager what it was.

He said they were protesting the Supreme Court order which had gone against Karnatka assuring us that they would not cause any harm, that it was just a protest.

Later we realized it wasn’t ‘just’ a protest. It took a week or so for normalcy to return. Some IT offices were forced shut by vandals, people killed, vehicles particularly those with Tamil Nadu number plates, set on fire.

The other one was over passing away of a famous Kannada movie star, Rajkumar. Within an hour of the death news becoming public, in anticipation of trouble, our office was called off and we were asked to return home. A few hours later, city life completely collapsed. Malls were attacked; foreign brand outlets were vandalized. It took sometime for normalcy to return.  (Some years earlier the same superstar had been kidnapped sparking similar reaction from his fans across the city.)

For the last 20 years or so, Bangalore has seen an excessive influx of migrants from different parts of the country mainly due to IT but also other industries and work streams. This influx of people from other places has meant the local culture now has to jostle for space with other cultures. This marginalization expresses itself through outbursts of regional sentiments whenever there is a provocation.

Another city where provincial chauvinism expresses itself through violence towards ‘outsiders’ is Bombay, another place which offers economic possibilities. Beating up poor migrants and attempts to force the local language on everyone are common.

The difference between Bangalore and Bombay, though, is in Bangalore the troublemakers don’t continue for too long. Also, the level of cynicism and organization that characterizes the chauvinistic flareups in Bombay is not to be found in Bangalore.

Perhaps a little bit of regional chauvinism is inevitable in a city which goes through economic prosperity on the scale Bangalore has over last 20 years or so. What is important is to avoid touching the raw nerve.

That’s why the chief minister’s brazen exhortation to everyone staying in Karnataka to learn and feel Kannada – doesn’t help unless he wants to convert Bangalore into Bombay. He should stop doing it.

In the meantime, I will try learning a little bit of Kannada using the book I got.

Whose Data is it?

Online advertising is going to change completely. Today online advertising works based on user data gathered from users’ browsing habits. This model places very less or no importance on the privacy of the average user. Apple and Google are rolling out updates to their web browsers, Safari and Chrome, which prevent a user’s browsing habits from being tracked with Intelligent Tracking Prevention.

Given how central tracking users’ browsing habits is to online marketing (and when I say marketing it’s not limited to products companies sell but also online campaigns, including political campaigns, how online news portals gauge reader preferences and target them with content accordingly and so on), the Google and Apple development is totally disruptive, which empowers the user undoubtedly but also severely disadvantages online advertisers.

But there is a bigger question here. Whether gathering my privacy data is bad or not is dependent on whether I’m okay with my data being tracked. Most people are okay with their data being tracked as long as the data is not financial. Apple and Google may have prioritized data privacy to arrive at a standard global model based on European preferences. (Google has been asked by European courts to ensure privacy of user data.) But a European preference for data privacy mayn’t reflect a global attitude towards data.

Today we happily share lot of personal data with governments for security, citizenship and welfare related reasons. Undoubtedly, it’s one thing to share data with government, another to share it with corporations, but we in India are comfortable with the quid pro quo philosophy of data sharing as long as it doesn’t endanger sensitive financial details.

There is another aspect to this development. Intelligent Tracking Prevention will help the internet giants prevent tracking of user browsing data by average online marketers, but will it also stop Apple and Google from capturing user data which is central to at least Google’s online business model?

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.