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.

On William Dalrymple

All I remember from history I read in school and BA are names and some stray events and years (only the big ones). Conversely, I remember the whole narrative and the main characters of the one history book – The Last Mughal – and several articles on various topics of subcontinent history by William Dalrymple I have read over the years.

This is the difference between telling history in a didactic manner as is taught in our schools and colleges and in a story telling manner.

Dalrymple chooses a passage of time / event, researches it deeply down to finer points about each character and writes it like a novel where the emphasis is on characters and how their traits shape the historical narrative.

In the book I am reading now, The Return of a King, Shah Shuja a literature lover who is kind and considerate departs from the general Afghan practice of blinding a defeated and captured enemy spares a person from the Barakzai clan a rival group who had revolted against his rule and merely keeps him captive in a fort.

Later this person escapes from imprisonment, joins Shuja’s rival and captures large swathes of his empire eventually bringing an end to the rule of the Durrani Empire to which the Shah belonged.

William Dalrymple is a Scott who has been staying in a farmhouse near Delhi for many years. In his early years in India as a historian he said his books shed new light on subjects that had been earlier written on by Indian historians, thanks to his use of research material that were left unused by his Indian counterparts  “who were too lazy to use them”. The statement enraged the literary establishment and Dalrymple immediately came under attack.

Sobha De said the White Mughal, among Dalrymple’s early books which tells the story of a love affair between a British officer and a girl from Muslim nobility which took place almost 100 years before the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny when there was lot of camaraderie between the British and Indians which declined slowly because it was frowned upon by England and slowly disappeared resulting in complete gulf between the two sides – was imitative of The Far Pavilions which dealt with the same subject more competently. And Ramchandra Guha said Dalrymple’s books are factually inaccurate.

Dalrymple largely ducked the attacks complementing Shoba De for defending her beauty against age and calling himself poorly placed to return the barb of Guha because “Ramachandra Guha writes on cricket and I hardly know anything about the subject.” It was Guha’s pre India After Gandhi days.

Accusing Dalrymple of factual inaccuracy is slightly missing the point. Of course, accuracy is the primary responsibility of a historian or any nonfiction writer but given the way in which Dalrymple writes history there has to be some space for interpretation.

Dalrymple has done to history reading what Chetan Bhagat has done to novel reading: both have attracted people from outside traditional base of readers to the form. A large section of Dalrymple’s reader base are people like me: history lovers but not historians (aspiring or otherwise).  They enjoy a good narrative and don’t consider little liberty taken with facts or interpretation creeping in as sacrilege.

But what research material does Dalrymple blame fellow historians for not using? As much as Dalrymple makes use of official archives and site research to construct the larger grid work of his narrative, he relies heavily on things like personal letters exchanged between characters and accounts left by contemporary travelers / observers for the inner lives of his characters. In Victorian times there was a custom of writing long letters, he had said once.

Enyd Blyton in Chikmagalur

Let me start with an admission: I have committed a literary sin. While touring Chikmagalur I walked into an old ramshackle book store in the corner of a street and found myself looking at dusty, cheap copies of biographies, science books, old classics etc. Further into the shop, and I saw a bunch of slim colourful books with glossy cover bunched up in a corner. They were Enyd Blyton books.

I started reading novels very late. I read my first novel – Five Little Pigs or something, an Agatha Christie one – when I was in class eleven. Not sure what reader category that puts me in. And after that novel I took baby steps in to the world of fiction – picking up new books liking some of them not liking the others while not managing to get very far with some of them. I tried out several commercial writers from America and England those days – John Grisham, Arthur Hailey, Jeffrey Archer, Sydney Sheldon, Jackie Collins. (I continued with John Grisham until very late – and even now miss some of books.)

I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation, whether someone was a commercial or literary writer, his/her position in the world of literature etc. I developed these pretentions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

But that day, at that bookstore, when I held up the Enyd Blyton bunch and drew out one from the middle of it, I wondered despite my lack of class consciousness so many years back why I didn’t try out Enyd Blyton, a writer of racy children’s fiction. The answer is I wasn’t class conscious but age conscious back then. I had taken to books to grow up – and a children’s author wouldn’t do! In later years, when I developed a fetish for serious writers, Blyton was out of the question. But my indifference to writers like Blyton didn’t prevent my brushes with Blyton.

In my early reading days, when I used to buy or rent my books from street side book stalls selling pirated copies, the sight of Enyd Blyton books stacked up in a corner was unmissable. In later years, when I started reading articles and reviews in literary magazines (and still do), a mention or two of Enyd Blyton came in almost in every piece on Indian writers writing in English – where Blyton was mostly recalled with nostalgia – as a forgettable writer who had got the Indian English writers interested in reading but was forgotten soon after. A few years back BBC called her the dumbest writer of the 20th century (or something similar).

That day at that ramshackle bookstore in Chikmagalur I decided to make a break with the past. Three Cheers, Secret Seven was…yes…no great literary piece making timeless observations on society as it existed at a particular point of time…or human nature…but a simple mystery story involving a bunch of children (the Secret Seven) set in provincial England. Susy a socially awkward girl who is not a part of the Secret Seven group but is a constant presence in it, thanks to the fact that Susy is Jack’s brother, a Secret Sevener, gets a toy flying airplane as a gift.

It’s a beautiful gift which some including Jack fail to resist. And Susy lends it to them to play. They fly the miniature aircraft and it goes and gets stuck on a tree located inside the garden of an abandoned mansion. The Secret Seven approach the caretaker. He refuses to return it. At night, stealthily, they go in and up the tree and retrieve the toy. However, while atop the tree on which the aircraft was, Peter, the group leader, sees a strain of light peeking through the slit formed by two curtains drawn together  – suggesting that someone could be inside. But who? And why? A lot of investigation later they discover it’s the mansion caretaker with his wife.

There is a moral and social justice angle to Three Cheers, Secret Seven. The caretaker’s wife was suffering from poor heath due to the cold and damp hovel they stayed in and the caretaker had been asked by the doctor to move her to a warmer place – hence their presence in the uninhibited mansion.  But for all the moralizing, there is that old school patronization for characters that don’t fit in to the conventional mold. The character Susy comes in for a lot derision because of her awkward personality. A modern author would have dealt with Susy more gracefully.

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and since they don’t go beyond 100 to 120 pages, most of them over weekends.

The Artist of the Floating World – A Different Kind of Experience

Generally novels dealing with abstract themes without any tangible storyline don’t make very arresting reads. The Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro is an exception to the rule. Set in a post World War 2 Japan, the novel deals with multiplicity of themes.

How accepted values of the past come to be frowned upon by subsequent generations; how a war can change a country not only in terms of its physical landscape but also values; how a current generation can blame a former generation for something without fully appreciating a situation; Japanese art and culture. It almost has everything under the sun. Yet nothing seems forced. Every theme seems to fit into the larger architecture of the novel.

Ono worked as a propaganda artist during World War 2. Now retired, he ruminates on his past – about the friends he once had, the slow decline and disappearance of the pleasure districts he once visited regularly – his ruminations work as a window to the reader into different aspects of not only his own past but also that of the country.

Told in the first person, the recollections don’t flow in a chronological order but appear in a haphazard way triggered sometimes by a stray thought or by an unlikely object – progressing for some time to form a full-bodied theme and then when seen by the reader after it has run its course the sub theme appearing to be in sync with the larger theme. In the foreword Kazuo Ishiguro says he wanted to deal with memory like Marcel Proust.

As an Asian I sometimes find Western novels culturally alien – oh, that sort of thing would never happen here. We treat our parents more respectfully than that etc. – but Japan seems too familiar. Arrange marriages, stiff respect for elders, conformity, everything is so similar to how India is. I had the same feeling when I had read Memoirs of Geisha by Arthur Golden, although it was on a different subject.

If there is any constant theme running through the book it is Ono’s concern about how others see his role during the war. His younger daughter’s marriage negotiations suddenly broke under rather mysterious circumstances.

One day while the marriage negotiations were still on he had a chance meeting with his would-be son in law who told him that the president of his company had committed suicide as an apology to the current generation on behalf of those who were responsible for the war. Ono had a long conversation with his future son in law about why should anyone be apologetic for the war trying to steer him away from his beliefs. Soon after this incident, the son in law’s family withdrew from the negotiations.

Ono suspects the husband of his elder daughter blames the previous generation for the war and believes his daughter shares her husband’s views. He goes through a moment of bitter introspection where he feels frustrated and angry about the accusatory attitude of the current generation towards his and decides to write an angry mail to his daughter and her husband.

Had it not been for Kazuo Ishiguro’s light and easy style of writing the book would not be an easy read. The Artist of the Floating World is the first novel I read as an ebook.

Lenin’s Statue in Belonia

Of all the statues torn down last week in various parts of India, tearing down of Lenin’s statue, in Belonia, Tripura, which triggered a series of reactions across India where mobs brought down statues of icons –was the most significant one.  The differing ideologies that the icons represented notwithstanding all of them had something in common – they were all Indians. Lenin was the only one of foreign origin.  India is not the only place in the world to host statues of icons of foreign origin.

You will find statues of foreign icons with global stature in all countries. For example, there are several countries in the West that have statues of Mahatma Gandhi. But there is a difference even between these globally celebrated icons and Lenin.

They largely represent an apolitical message of universal humanism; Lenin represents a specific political ideology, which many people across the world associate with severest form of authoritarianism, disregard for human liberties, lack of economic opportunities and its attendant problems and so on.

There is no denying that destroying the statues was an act of vandalism but to the extent that it was an effort to wipe out the remnants of a political ideology opposed to yours, it is not something that the Left is not guilty of, only their methods are more gentlemanly and sophisticated.

There is almost no party that can equal Left’s hostility  towards icons (both political and otherwise) who represent a different strain of political belief or have a towering stature in the states Left rule. While the Left ruled Bengal, Subhash Chandra Bose and Tagore were always fair games.

But an outrage towards a political belief which represents hegemony was only one component of the anger which led to bringing down the Lenin statue in Belonia. The other was a sense of despair and helplessness lack of opportunities create in a Left-ruled state among the youth.

And Tripura has all the hallmarks of a Left-ruled state. Most people are employed with the state government and there are no private sector employment opportunities – which means majority of the youth population is jobless. This is not a new problem in Tripura; it has coexisted with Left rule for several years, in fact, decades. Left has ruled the state for roughly 20 years, which means for most of its time in power it has sat on the problem and let it grow.

It’s not as if the next government will be able to change everything overnight but at least a beginning has been made. One of the emotions that swayed the delirious mob which exhorted as the statue of the Russian revolutionary was bulldozed to ground was hope.

Lies That Help Us Live

Taken from Pixabay

Many of us look down upon fiction. You will hear many people say smugly: Fiction is not for me. What is there to learn? They are stories after all. But those of us who do that don’t understand that fiction serves a vital need of our lives: it gives us the lies we need to live. It’s not that only those who read fiction resort to living in lies. All of us need our  fantasies.

Either we get them from the novels we read or movies we watch or we manufacture them ourselves. Remember the guy at the school whose uncle brought him things from around the world, or never stopped travelling to beyond-the-horizon locations, or did more incredible things, or the college friend or office colleague with a friend who partook in sexual escapades with wives of rich men and celebrities?

There are two things that characterize these lies. One is they are always about things we aspire to at a social or individual level and the other one is platforms used to set the lies on – it’s always an uncle or aunt, people who have floating presence in our lives, our lack of accountability for their actions making them perfect figures to build stories around or a distant friend who no one has seen and will never see because the person doesn’t exist just like the uncle.

The aspirational part is worth exploring. These lies or fantasies may come from unfulfilled (and in some cases unfulfillable) aspirations, but they also come from a yearning for social/economic equity. It can sometimes be targeted at an individual but that individual is a representative of a social class or is someone who aspires to a higher social class (pretention in fact is more enraging – because it adds an extra thing to the mixture – pseudo-ism).

These sentiments cut across age. With age, in some cases, the stories become more grounded.

However, it’s not that people who don’t wage their proxy wars through fantastical lies – and most of us don’t – don’t need lies. They also have their own lies – the only way their lies differ from those of their more colourful counterparts (like the ones told by the imaginative school or college friend) is that they are subtler.

Unlike their more colorful and incredulous counterparts which stem from iconoclastic convictions, the subtler lies enjoy greater social acceptability, questioning them can be frowned upon collectively.

Infallibility of community beliefs, glorification of simplicity (which can be anything from low brow-ness, general ignorance to earthiness), an extremely pious concept of honesty, dishonesty (which comes from an ‘ends being more important than means’ conviction – people subscribing to this belief generally look down upon honesty but they will support a govt on social media which claims to stand for it).

In fact, these sentiments are so universal that they sustain industries and careers. People idolize public figures – mainly film stars and cricketers – who they believe embody these attributes and take any criticism against them personally.

These lies are not eternal beliefs. They change or lose their hold on us but it mostly takes a generation. The subsequent generation looks back upon the follies and foibles of the prior generation with a critical approach. But then the subsequent generation falls prey to its own lies depending on the needs and aspirations of the times. And the cycle continues.

Lee Kuan Yew: a Dictator or Visionary or Both

I had written this blog two years ago when Lee Kuan Yew the premier of Singapore had passed away. The world press was divided on the leadership of Lee Yuan Yew, some calling him dictatorial and sadistically capitalistic, others hailing him for building Singapore from scratch and making it what it is today. I will have you read the blog and decide which side was true or whether truth lay somewhere in the middle.

However, my main reason for sharing this blog now is Lee Kuan Yew ‘s leadership style was very similar to some of the top world leaders of today who have come up in last few years – Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Edip Erdogan – tough, dictatorial, unapologetically capitalistic, retaliatory, no nonsense and nationalistic. And the international press today is as divided on their style of leadership and policies as they were on Lee’s leadership legacy after his death.

The blog takes you through the historical circumstances Singapore went through, the policies Lee adopted, the countries he befriended and those he offended, and the mortal blow he dealt the local media with for being critical of him. Enjoy. 

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Formerly published on another blog platform on April 15, 2015

Recently, Lee Kuan Yew, the person responsible for making Singapore what it is today, died. We in India, particularly those with scant awareness about foreign affairs, were familiar with Singapore as a place of prosperity and aspiration, lights and glitz, long before we woke up to the global significance of China and the vulnerability of America as a super power.

In India, various political leaders at different times have told us they would be making our cities like Singapore if brought to power but none have.

But the bigger question is why Asian countries aspire to be like Singapore? It is not just Singapore’s economic success but the fact that it combines all the virtues of a desirable place: cleanliness, discipline and great law and order.  Even the great Western democracies fall foul on some of these counts.

Law and order may be different and even cleanliness is achievable in many places but discipline , as many of us know, may not be easy to bring about in a democratic society, which is by nature chaotic. In fact, the existence of such societies depends on absence of discipline. There is little doubt that Singaporeans had to pay a price for the kind of economic success Singapore achieved, for which you have to both thank Lee Kuan Yew and call him lucky.

Thank Lee for Singapore’s success because after its independence from Britain and following its ouster from Malaysia in 1963, he steered his nation in the direction which was unique in those days, the 60s, and also frowned upon by others. Among the countries that won freedom at the time Singapore did, Singapore was the only one to embrace market-economy, in its most unapologetic form.

Call Lee lucky because even with Lee’s sure-handed capitalism, Singapore would not be possible without Singapore’s advantages – a largely homogeneous society, a city state, etc – quite unique to Singapore.

But many of these attributes were disadvantages to start with. When Singapore had been dispelled by Malaysia because of racial tensions (Lee its premier was in his early 40s then), it didn’t have any army to defend its borders; it didn’t have any economy to speak of. Its small size – and therefore less significance – would have made it vulnerable to a takeover – or at least an invasion – by a bigger power, particularly one from the Soviet bloc. Fearing it, Lee befriended the US.

To make Singapore militarily strong, Lee sought the help of Israel. He created a police-judiciary to eliminate corruption. To the same end, he raised the salaries of officials to the level of those in high positions in private sector – and said, “If you pay pee nuts, you attract monkeys.” He removed political opposition by reducing Singapore to a single-party polity.

He made spitting on road, littering chewing gums on road etc. punishable offenses.

(Remember, we heard, in our growing up years, that in Singapore you would be punished for throwing chewing gum on road?) He told Singaporeans to speak good English and develop clean habits.

He completely muzzled the press. Singapore Herald’s license was seized because of a critical article it had carried about Lee’s government and three years later the government amended its constitution to make it mandatory for media houses publishing out of Singapore to renew their license yearly. And publications of foreign media houses critical of the Singapore government but without any production base in Singapore were simply banned.

Although Singapore never saw the likes of Tienanmen Square or Capture Wall Street, winds of change are blowing in the island nation. Living costs are very high in Singapore and the gap between poor and rich has grown over the years.

There is a groundswell for more inclusive policies. It led to a slump in Lee’s party’s (People’s Action Party of Singapore) popular vote, following which Lee stepped down making way for his son. Any nation, however successful, yearns for change in a passage of 40 to 50 years. Singapore, however different it may be from the rest, should not be an exception. But Singapore will always consider itself lucky to have had Lee in its formative years and not the other way around.

Short Reads: Ops – It’s Someone Else’s

Taken from Pixabay

Have you ever worn a stranger’s trouser? I have – and have even attended an interview wearing it roughly seven years ago.

I had two formal trousers and a pair of jeans back then to take me through a week.

For my vacation in Calcutta my home town, I had carried all three of them with me. The three trousers together with the few trousers I had at home would be enough to take me through the two-week long vacation. It proved to be a little more than sufficient.

I went through the vacation, with one day to go, without even having to touch the brown corduroy trouser I had carried with me from Bangalore.  It was my costliest one which I wore only if I felt the occasion warranted it.  On my last day in Calcutta, an occasion rose which made the cut.

At that time, I was searching for a job in Calcutta so that I could finally return home ending my stay away from home for several years.  I am still trying. On my third day in Calcutta I got a job interview. It was a test I had to go through to qualify for further rounds of selection.

I fared alright and felt I would get a call for an interview but when even after a week or so I didn’t hear from them I dropped the hope and then forgot about it. The call arrived on my last day in Calcutta, later that day I was to fly back to Bangalore.

I asked for a telephonic interview later but the caller insisted it wouldn’t take very long and that they would arrange for my drop at the airport, the office being not very far from there. I was flattered. It was not the convenience but the honor. It must be the test, I felt.

As I was putting on the brown corduroy trouser, my legs zipped through it to the other side with an unusual pace and ease. After putting on the waist button I realized it didn’t quite fit me – it was a little too loose. I tied my belt tighter – and the trouser looked like a tent. It was originally a comfort fit – and I was at a loss how it had metamorphosed into a lungi.  Was it magic?

When the interview was over, quite happy with my performance, I swaggered to the reception having been asked to wait there. My performance in the interview had put me in such a buoyant mood that when I spotted the receptionist seeing the strange thing I was wearing, it didn’t make me uneasy.

After sometime when no one approached me about the promised drop to the airport, I felt reluctant to check with the receptionist and decided to leave – later I could call up and check the status. The company contacted me later but it didn’t materialize.

The next morning, in Bangalore, when I went to the laundry to give my clothes for wash, the laundry man said what I had remotely suspected: that when I had collected my clothes from him before I went to Calcutta, he had mistakenly given me someone else’s trouser. “The colour and texture of the other trouser were exactly the same as yours, sir.”