An Encounter with a Pickpocket – short reads

Taken from pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

The Moon and Sixpence – Somerset Maugham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How India and Turkey are Similar in More Ways Than One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stephen King on Writing

Source: Google

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Will Automation Take Us

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So where are we headed?

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

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

The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee

The Lives of Others has two strands – one tells the story of the Naxal movement in Bengal and the other the humdrum of the daily life of a Bengali upper middle class family. The Ghosh family, a business family based in Bhawanipore, Calcutta, are into their third generation and they have seen better days: their business is smarting under debts they can hardly repay, some of their factories have closed down and some are on the verge of closing.  Amidst this, a Ghosh scion is constantly grappling with the questions of class difference.

As someone who has grown up in Bengal I never believed I had anything new to know about Naxalism, the left extremist movement which rocked Bengal in the 60s, thanks to the countless oral accounts about the movement I heard in my growing up years. Naxals, although Naxalism was a dead movement by the time I was into my formative years, were never untouchably far from our lives. Almost every one growing up in Bengal knew (or heard about) someone from the earlier generation who had participated in the movement and had led the life of a fugitive for some time. Depending on the school of belief you came from, the accounts would either be told with admiration or sympathy.  Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Low Land added a literary flavor to my knowledge on the subject. But Neel Mukherjee’s The Lives of Others left me humbled.

The book’s dealing with the subject of Naxalism is not the only humbling factor; it has many other things to offer.

What Mukherjee has written about Naxalism is an outcome of thorough research on the subject, but what he has written on Bengali life must be a product of firsthand experience. (Neel grew up in Jadavpur south Calcutta, the same part of the city the book is set in.) The book is an encyclopedia of day-to-day details of Bengali life, so much so that it sometimes feels too close for comfort. The Ghosh family has every species you find the Bengali society. The wastrel, slothful, revolutionary, genius, the list is comprehensive.

Adinath is an average business man. Bholanath is an aspiring writer without any business acumen. Somnath is a wastrel with insatiable libido. Prafullanath, the Ghosh patriarch who built the business the Ghoses owe their wealth and position to, now confined to bed owning to old age ailments, wonders why while subsequent generations of Marwaris build upon the wealth and power accumulated by earlier generations, it takes only one generation for Bengalis to completely destroy what the former generation built. Everything that happens in the Ghosh family, in the novel, seems to support this reflection of the old patriarch. On the other hand, it shows the class-difference practices ingrained in Bengali society.

The two aspects of the plot unspool alternately as if neither of the sides is complete without the other, together they make a whole, though they deal with worlds that are worlds apart. Before the narrative splits into two, Mukherjee explains the plight of the rural folk.

Forced out of their villages by poverty and lack of opportunities when they come to cities in search of better lives, the city gives them an equally raw deal. They take up low-paying menial jobs and stay in sub-human conditions. Some of them, the luckier ones, manage to get employments through their city-based contacts in houses of the rich as domestic helps tying themselves up with a lifelong commitment to serve their masters. Their prospects don’t improve but they escape staying in poor quarters of the city where their unluckier country cousins subsist their whole lives unless they return home. And the luckiest ones succumb to city destitute soon after arriving and die.

Madan the maid at the Ghoshes’ is among the luckier ones, who, through a contact, got a shelter, upbringing and later employment at the Ghoshes. After years of service to the Ghoshes, Madan managed an employment for his son, Dulal, at one of the factories of the Ghoshes.  Many years later, Dulal becomes a union leader and forces a Ghosh factory shut to force the Ghoshes to reinstate a factory worker who had been sacked following an accident in the factory to which he lost a hand. As the novel moves closer to a conclusion, the Naxal movement having turned excessively murderous and violent slowly hurtles to an end in the wake of a military crackdown by the state government on the rebels.

The Naxalism part of the novel is narrated in the first person, unlike the other part. And also unlike the other part, which slowly emerges from chaos amidst too many characters doing too many things, the Naxalism part builds up from a minimalistic setting.  Supratik narrates his own account of how he became an ideologue and got drawn into the movement (a reflection of the youth of his time) – and slowly builds up from there drawing the entire picture of rural landscape comprising the exploitative power structure of the landowning gentry and the impact of their actions on the poor peasants. Gradually Supratik becomes comfortable with the idea of killing to server larger goods.

The book is too detailed and wading through them sometimes can be a little tiresome. I particularly struggled going through the details about female politics in the Ghosh family. The murder scenes are too graphic and sometimes can be very disturbing. The lives of Others is not an easy read but is certainly worth reading.