Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Collapse: Documentary of the year

We all try to make sense of the world in our own ways. We try to understand the world through the information that we receive from our newspapers, TV and internet portals. We see the world through the prism of consciousness or awareness that we build after gleaning information from these sources.

But how much can we rely on the mainstream media to know what is really going on? How much is BS and how much the truth? Is the truth somewhere else? Are things being hidden from us? Are there vested interests that want us to know things partially or differently? We want to know all these and more because we don't know what the future holds for us. Because we care about our future.

Don't believe in anything blindly just because someone is saying it. Always remember this. Use your own brain. Verify what has been stated. Look for evidence and analyze things on your own. Then you might get to the truth. Truth often lies buried under tons of lies and misinformation.

That's why it is important that we question every bit of information that is put forth for our consumption (to manufacture our consent). Remember, we must be skeptical or the truth will evade us. We live in dangerous times, there is no doubt about it.

When things are so complicated, there is a theory that can simplify things for you. In fact, there are many theories going around these days. Let us start with this one. It is a theory by Michael Ruppert, a former US police officer.

If there is one documentary you must watch this year or the next, it is this one: Collapse. It will make you see the world a bit differently. It is based on Michael Ruppert's theory.

On Collapse, America's most respected film critic says, "I don't know when I've seen a thriller more frightening. I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen. "Collapse" is even entertaining, in a macabre sense. I think you owe it to yourself to see it."

Here is the full review.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Interview with novelist Mohammed Hanif

Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan. After leaving the Pakistan Air Force Academy to pursue a career in journalism, he worked for Newsline, India Today, and The Washington Post. While heading the BBC Urdu Service in London, he penned his first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes. Here, he is in conversation with Zafar Anjum, co-editor of Writers Connect, in Singapore. The author was in Singapore to attend the Singapore Writers Festival this year.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Why Copenhagen must fail

Looking at the leaked secret Danish document, Copenhagen seems more about money (carbon markets) than about climate change

By Zafar Anjum

I am not a climate change denier. Climate change is a reality because climate is meant to change. It is a dynamic phenomenon of nature and it has been changing ever since it came into existence.

When we talk about ‘climate change’, we refer to the phenomenon of global warming due to the greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a major component of the greenhouse gases.

The question is whether it is the humans that are emitting the excessive carbon dioxide that is polluting the earth and making it an unsustainable place.

For years, this was the main question in the climate change debate: one group blamed the humans, another the sun (the sun argument being that the sun was getting hotter and hence was the main culprit behind the earth’s rising temperatures.)

Proponents of both sides of the argument have been championed and funded by vested interests. The ‘humans being responsible for the climate change’ side has been championed by the green brigade. Some political groups even brand them as “the green fascists” who want “to impose their de-industrialisation agenda to kill people”. The other side, the climate change deniers, are often backed up by the traditional energy—oil and coal—industry.

There are climate change scientists in both camps to argue for or against the motion. The common man was confused, not knowing which side to support. Until Al Gore walked into the picture.

Due to a concerted global media campaign, the climate change sceptics kept losing the ground. Once Al Gore went around the world with his documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the room for scepticism shrunk considerably. From AP to the New York Times to CNN, the world’s agenda setting media spoke in one word: Climate change was real and we humans must do something about it! The world’s timid and copycat media repeated what their leaders asked them to print and speak. The global consensus on climate change was thus built.

It didn’t take long for the Nobel Committee in Sweden to award a Nobel Prize to Al Gore and the IPCC, the United Nation’s body studying and building global consensus and policies on climate change.

A few months ago, when Obama won the Nobel Prize for Peace, I was reminded of Gore’s Nobel. True to my gut feeling, within a few weeks of winning the Nobel, Obama ordered a 30,000 troop surge in Afghanistan. More war for peace—the classic Orwellian doublespeak!

Sorry for the digression but I couldn’t help making the remark.

Once the consensus on climate change was built, the world’s most influential people started using the IPCC to push through their agenda. Kyoto happened. It was decided that all countries of the world will have to cut CO2 emissions and a quota system was developed. That’s when climate change stopped being about climate change.

Copenhagen: About climate or about money?

Weeks before world leaders would meet at Copenhagen in December this year, e-mails from scientists working on data gathering for the IPCC at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, were leaked. The leaked e-mails, among many other despicable malpractices, established that scientists at UEA were tweaking the data to suit the argument that the temperature on earth was rising.

The leaked e-mails created a brouhaha, casting deep mistrust on the science behind the climate change movement. Regrettably, it didn’t change much at Copenhagen. Only Gore had to cancel his ticketed speech.

But that is not my point. No matter what the science says, we all know that greed is not good. As Mahatma Gandhi has said, there is enough on this earth for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed. Unfortunately, in today’s world of globalised corporatism, we live through the constant cycle of consumption and production. We can’t afford a slowdown and it means we have to keep consuming and keep growing. That means more pollution for the earth.

One quick little example: In New Delhi, the government has tried to combat the pollution problem through CNG (compressed natural gas) buses for public transportation. What it achieved in eight years was washed away by the pollution generated by the cars that joined the roads of New Delhi in just one year! But can you ask the Delhiites not to buy cars? That is against the idea of growth.

So, under Copenhagen, countries such as India and China will continue to grow and pollute. So will the developed countries. Only they will have to buy some carbon credits from poor nations where people don’t have enough money to buy cars and run factories. The rulers of poor countries don’t mind this arrangement as long as they get their dirty hands on the moolah! Enter the world of carbon credits and carbon money managed by the World Bank!

Danish text leaked

The leaked “Danish” text, that became available to UK-based newspaper, The Guardian, clearly points out what the world is going to achieve at Copenhagen. The paper reported: “The agreement, leaked to the Guardian, is a departure from the Kyoto protocol's principle that rich nations, which have emitted the bulk of the CO2, should take on firm and binding commitments to reduce greenhouse gases, while poorer nations were not compelled to act. The draft hands effective control of climate change finance to the World Bank; would abandon the Kyoto protocol—the only legally binding treaty that the world has on emissions reductions; and would make any money to help poor countries adapt to climate change dependent on them taking a range of actions.”

The text’s main points include:

• Force developing countries to agree to specific emission cuts and measures that were not part of the original UN agreement;

• Divide poor countries further by creating a new category of developing countries called "the most vulnerable";

• Weaken the UN's role in handling climate finance;

• Do not allow poor countries to emit more than 1.44 tonnes of carbon per person by 2050, while allowing rich countries to emit 2.67 tonnes.

That’s why it is not surprising that James Hansen, the world's pre-eminent climate scientist, said “any agreement likely to emerge from the negotiations would be so deeply flawed that it would be better to start again from scratch.” He is “vehemently opposed to the carbon market schemes—in which permits to pollute are bought and sold—which are seen by the EU and other governments as the most efficient way to cut emissions and move to a new clean energy economy.”

“Hansen is also fiercely critical of Barack Obama—and even Al Gore, who won a Nobel peace prize for his efforts to get the world to act on climate change—saying politicians have failed to meet what he regards as the moral challenge of our age.”

Hansen says climate change allows no room for the compromises that rule the world of elected politics. "This is analogous to the issue of slavery faced by Abraham Lincoln or the issue of Nazism faced by Winston Churchill," he said. "On those kind of issues, you cannot compromise. You can't say let's reduce slavery, let's find a compromise and reduce it 50 per cent or reduce it 40 per cent."

I don’t see any reason why one shouldn’t agree with Hansen. If we can’t throw the politics and greed out of Copenhagen, then it must fail for the good of the larger humanity.

(Published as a blog at www.mis-asia.com)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

‘Format the story before you start writing it’: Mukul Deva

Indian thriller writer Mukul Deva’s first two novels, Lashkar and Salim Must Die, are bestsellers in India. His third novel, Blowback, is releasing in January 2009. And he has already finished writing his fourth, the last book in a four-part series on global terrorism.

Mukul is an ex-Indian army officer and a security consultant who, before turning to writing novels, wrote a few books on corporate management. You can find more about him here.

Writers Connect co-editor Zafar Anjum had an exclusive conversation with Deva at his residence in Singapore in November this year. In this interview, Deva shares his insights on writing thrillers and also talks about his journey so far as a writer. If you want to be a thriller writer like Deva, he has some special advise for you.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cormac McCarthy: On the road to hell

Cormac McCarthy, the author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, on the human race's future, life and writing in general:

If you think about some of the things that are being talked about by thoughtful, intelligent scientists, you realize that in 100 years the human race won't even be recognizable. We may indeed be part machine and we may have computers implanted. It's more than theoretically possible to implant a chip in the brain that would contain all the information in all the libraries in the world. As people who have talked about this say, it's just a matter of figuring out the wiring. Now there's a problem you can take to bed with you at night.

People apparently only read mystery stories of any length. With mysteries, the longer the better and people will read any damn thing. But the indulgent, 800-page books that were written a hundred years ago are just not going to be written anymore and people need to get used to that. If you think you're going to write something like "The Brothers Karamazov" or "Moby-Dick," go ahead. Nobody will read it. I don't care how good it is, or how smart the readers are. Their intentions, their brains are different.

Your future gets shorter and you recognize that. In recent years, I have had no desire to do anything but work and be with [son] John. I hear people talking about going on a vacation or something and I think, what is that about? I have no desire to go on a trip. My perfect day is sitting in a room with some blank paper. That's heaven. That's gold and anything else is just a waste of time.

I'm not interested in writing short stories. Anything that doesn't take years of your life and drive you to suicide hardly seems worth doing.

I don't think goodness is something that you learn. If you're left adrift in the world to learn goodness from it, you would be in trouble. But people tell me from time to time that my son John is just a wonderful kid. I tell people that he is so morally superior to me that I feel foolish correcting him about things, but I've got to do something--I'm his father. There's not much you can do to try to make a child into something that he's not. But whatever he is, you can sure destroy it. Just be mean and cruel and you can destroy the best person.

Creative work is often driven by pain. It may be that if you don't have something in the back of your head driving you nuts, you may not do anything. It's not a good arrangement. If I were God, I wouldn't have done it that way. Things I've written about are no longer of any interest to me, but they were certainly of interest before I wrote about them. So there's something about writing about it that flattens them. You've used them up. I tell people I've never read one of my books, and that's true. They think I'm pulling their leg.


Friday, November 13, 2009

Theatre review: Sofaman

Sofaman is a collaboration between Singapore’s The Necessary Stage and The KnAM Theatre from Russia. This intercultural, multilingsofaman_smallual collaboration incorporating soundscape and multimedia focuses on the fundamental questions of today’s postmodern life: what are people looking for? Is the material progress made under the canopy of the globalised and capitalist marketplace that the world has become—billions of consumers, cogs in the wheel of capitalism—enough to satisfy our human yearnings?

The play involves a storyteller and the characters of his stories. The storyteller is the title character who sits on a wheel-chair like contraption and wears a white oversized headgear with a little light in it. He tells stories to a man with a suitcase. In turn, the man with a suitcase exchanges stories with him. But the play comes to life through the stories of the sofaman and the characters that dwell in his stories.

As the play progresses, a Singaporean woman and a Russian man fall in love but they quarrel about where to settle down. Their expectations from life are different, as different as summer and winter (snow). A Western woman develops a bond with a Malay Singaporean who has speech difficulties. Crossing barriers of language, they touch each others’ souls, give comfort to each other. How does it happen? Why does it happen? That is what the play seems to make us to think about.

The play’s characters, set in a mall (or a marketplace), remind us of our disjointed, cold urban lives. Their lives—full of chores, some travel but no family bonds—remind us of the perils of urbanization and how it can create vacuum in our souls. At the same time, the man from Russia, who presumably comes from a less urbanized setting, is consumed with the warmth and opportunities in a new, hyper-urbanized location (read Singapore). It is the juxtapositions of these two worlds—and the conflicting expectations of its inhabitants—that form the core of this drama. The play successfully brings forth the idea that love and rootedness, no matter how much progress we achieve in terms of materialism, will remain the eternal magnets for human souls.

In a way, the play recognizes the ills of life under capitalism. As German economist Sombart observed in the 19th century, even though capitalism enhances productivity and creates a higher material standard of living, it also cause loss in quality of life, robbing people of inner peace, of their relationship to each other and to nature and of the faith of their father. The play might not advocate people to overthrow the capitalist system but in a way it does question the illusions it perpetuates. It portrays the waking of workers (characters) from “thingafication” or “reification” (a construct by 20th century Hungarian philosopher and economist Georg Kukacs), “the inability to see that the human relations created by capitalism were the results of particular historical conditions that could be changed by human will.”

In well over 80 minutes, the play takes us through a surfeit of images and sounds and emotional landscapes of different shades. The audio-visual work is brilliant in the production. But this sometimes takes away from the emotional impact of the story as it interrupts our continuous dream.

This is a complex production and directors Alvin Tan and Tatiana Frolova and writer Haresh Sharma deserve full credit for weaving this intricacy in a presentable, less abstract avatar. In the cast, Siti Khalijah is outstanding but other actors such as Elena Bessonova, Dmitry Bochanov, Vladimir Dmitriev, Julius Foo and Jean Ng shine too. And the cameo by Charlie Chaplin is certainly a casting coup!

Performed in English, Russian and Mandarin
Get your tickets at www.sistic.com.sg

5 - 7 Nov & 11 - 14 Nov 2009, 8pm
7 - 8 Nov & 14 - 15 Nov 2009, 3pm

The Necessary Stage Black Box
#B1-02 Marine Parade Community Building

$27 | $22*

More here

Thursday, November 05, 2009

P. N. Balji: On journalism, journalists and Sri Lanka

Journalism today is under attack everywhere, both in physical and ethical senses. Newspapers are dying in the developed countries. The internet model is still being figured out. Journalists are being fired as newspapers fold up city after city. From the readers' perspective, corporate-controlled media carries less and less credibility.

In the developing countries, the situation is different. The media is struggling between censorship and greed. In India, where the media sprawl is stupendous, there are reports of unethical practices (News for sale: How media is squandering its credibility). In Sri Lanka, both the profession and the professionals are feeling the squeeze.

Veteran Singapore journalist and editor P N Balji shares his views on journalism in the context of the situation in Sri Lanka in this interview with a Sri Lankan paper. His remarks on journalism and his advice to journalists are pure wisdom--something all journalists and editors anywhere in the world should read and keep in mind:

I recommend objective activism. By that I mean present as many sides as possible. And let the readers decide. Media can never give the truth. It can only give some truths. Make sure you give every shade of opinion on a subject. Don’t rush into print with unconfirmed stories. Check and double check. Make corrections the next day if there are inaccuracies.

If you don’t have the passion for the profession, please don’t get into it. With the world becoming more complex and major shifts taking place, we need journalists who can slice and dice the issues and say with confidence and some certainty what it all means to your reader.


Monday, November 02, 2009

‘I would rather settle for a mediocre novel…’: Voices from chaos

The Singapore Writers Festival 2009 came to a close on Sunday (1 Nov). Between the opening (23 Oct) and closing of the festival, scores of writers from across the world held forth on literature and writing. The star of the festival was clearly the fantasy writer Neil Gaiman who attracted long queues for autographs. His session was held exclusively in Victoria Theatre and all the tickets were pre-booked. I don’t read fantasy fiction so this did not mean a thing to me. But Singapore’s young readers found an idol in him, this cannot be denied.

Honestly, I did not get to meet all the writers—it was not possible for me. Therefore, I focused on only those writers who interested me. In this post, I am not going to talk about individual sessions. I will freely refer to writers or themes that seem most relevant to my interests or sensibilities.

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Undercover’. Of course, this theme lends itself to myriad semantic possibilities. But personally speaking, ‘Chaos’ would have been a better choice. Indeed ‘Chaos’ was one of the themes of a discussion that included writers from the sub-continent, namely, novelists Mohammad Hanif (A Case of Exploding Mangoes), Elmo Jayawardena (Sam’s Story), Shashi Warrier (Hangman’s Journal) and Ahmede Hussain (Editor, The New Anthem). The discussion was moderated by the Hong Kong-based Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, the articulate and charismatic author of The Long Walk Home.

Except for Captain Elmo, all these writers were new to me. I had exchanged emails with Hussain before but that was like two years ago. I had met Hanif several years ago when he was with the BBC’s London office. I tried to remind him of our meeting that he vaguely seemed to remember. Or was he being polite? I don’t know. Anyway, I did not want to press on it as it was a brief professional encounter. I was glad I could meet him again, that too in a new avatar, I told him.

Throughout the festival, I was looking for one word or one term that could summarize the essence, the zeitgeist of our times. I looked at the books that were there on display in the Arts House bookstore. I tried to listen to the questions that people posed to their favourite writers. What was the gist, what was the spirit, I tried to figure out.

Looking at the titles on display, one of the themes that strongly emerges is that of political power, violence and tyranny. While Elmo’s Sam’s Story (republished in India by Penguin) deals with the futility of ethnic conflict and war, Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes deals with the life of a dictator and state repression. Manreet focuses on the violence in Punjab in The Long Walk Home and Warrier’s recent books study the human condition in the Indo-Pak conflict zone, Kashmir. Hussain, in his first anthology of short stories from many new and well-known sub-continental writers, collects voices that again raise issues of conflicts and fundamentalism of all stripes, among other themes.

Writers are not supposed to offer solutions. They are supposed to ask questions, pose moral dilemmas. This is what these writers have done with their novels—I have not read all of them but that is the sense I get (I have read Elmo’s great novel and have reviewed it here; I have also read Hanif’s novel and it is marvelously funny and biting). Still, emerging from the sub-continental chaos and America’s war on terror, there isn’t a single theory or philosophy or vision that can inspire us to a new future. From these books, from the discussions that these books spawned, the absurdity of violence is evident. But where is the hero or the protagonist that can show ‘us’ in our complete nakedness? We can laugh at General Zia’s antics but what about our passive collusion in this chaos? Where is the rebellion? Where is the man or woman who refuses to go along with the side of cruelty?

The most dangerous place on earth

During Hanif’s session, most people were curious about the daily life in Pakistan. How quotidian was it? Hanif satisfied people’s queries with his quintessential humor. People in Karachi still went out for dinner with family and friends, he said. Their discussion would range from fashion shows to the next possible bomb blast. He said that the 24 hour news cycle had made the things worse. Journalists are excited when there are terrible stories to tell but they feel crestfallen when it is quiet for a few days. Hanif, who lived in London for about a decade, now permanently lives in Karachi. I wish for more peace, more normality, he said.

Hanif said that he was suspicious of lists such as the top 10 most dangerous places in the world and the top 10 most beautiful people in the world. These lists keep changing, he said.

Should writers become activists, I asked the ‘Chaos’ panel. I had Arundhati Roy in mind when I asked this question. I don’t feel any moral responsibility, said Hussain. ‘I see, I don’t touch,’ is his motto. Hanif said that writers are generally self-centered people who care more about a turn of phrase than an actual cause. But I do what I can, he said. Warrier was also of the same opinion. It was only Captain Elmo who said that he was actively engaged in charity work in Sri Lanka.

Someone from the audience asked if chaos was necessary for creativity. This question came in various forms in different fora: Singapore, despite being an advanced country with all kinds of material comforts, does not produce much literature, whereas the sub-continent, despite the chaos and fracas, creates world-class literature. Why is that so? According to Warrier, the problem is essentially arithmetical. India alone has more than a billion people while Singapore has about 5 million people. So, a billion people naturally produce more writers. Also, there are many regional languages in India which support the culture of reading and writing. Print runs of vernacular titles go in the range of 20,000 to 200,000 whereas novels in English become best-sellers when they sell more than 5,000 copies.

According to Hanif, chaos does not necessarily help create great literature. The Swedes still manage to get out some decent novels, he said. Prosperity is good for writers, Hanif said. I would rather settle for a mediocre novel in a less chaotic situation than a great novel in a chaotic and violent set up, he said. One could understand where Hanif was coming from. Father of an 11-year old son, the safety and security of his family must be most prominent for him. I found both Hanif and Hussain ruthlessly honest—only Hanif is more humorous and Hussain a bit more philosophical.

On and off stage, Elmo voiced his concern about the difficulties that first time writers face in finding publishers. A first time writer’s failure (in getting published) discourages many other would-be writers, he argued. He also lamented about the greed of publishers who sold books with marked up prices, taking them farther from the reach of ordinary readers. He wants the gram sellers in Sri Lanka to become book-sellers!

I also had an opportunity to listen to Qiu Xiaolong (Death of a Red Heroine) and Naldo Rei, East Timorese resistance fighter. Both talked about political repression and violence. Xiaolong’s father suffered during the Chinese cultural revolution and his brother never recovered from it. What if I was in his place, wondered Xialong. He also mentioned the censorship in China that he faced while getting his books translated for the mainland.

Naldo is a different case. He was a freedom fighter and a torture victim during the occupation of East Timor. He was imprisoned when he was 9. Later he became a student leader and learnt English in Australia. His poetry now inspires thousands of his countrymen.

Though my interactions with the writers were personally enlightening, I came home depressed because I have a feeling that the chaos would not end anytime soon. Did people between the two Great Wars feel the same? Only, we don’t have the Camus and Sartres of our age to explain the chaos to us. The world is becoming more violent and life more absurd by the day and there are no heroes to look up to in the post-modern anarchy. It is a difficult challenge for any writer to make sense of the world that we live in. I only wish more power to the pen of writers like Hanif, Manreet, Elmo and Warrier and Ahmede!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Book Review: The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English

It can be argued that Southeast Asian Writing in English has not achieved as much attention as African Writing in English or Indian Writing in English, even though English as a language reached most parts of the world wave after wave as a result of colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Manila have been major outposts under British and American colonialism, but the output in English from these big Asian cities has not made much impact on the global literary landscape, the same way that writings from India or Africa have. Where is Southeast Asia’s answer to Midnight Children or a House for Mr. Biswas or Things Fall Apart?

Moreover, many colonial era writers made this region their hunting ground for exotic tales –Anthony Burgess in Malaysia, Orwell's work on Burma (Burmese Days), Graham Greene's on Vietnam (The Quiet American) and the stories by Somerset Maugham (The Casuarina Tree), to name a few expat writers. Did they leave any impact on the local writers? What kind of writing emerged in Southeast Asian countries (mainly, The Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong) in the latter half of the 20th century when colonial powers receded from the region? What kind of themes and issues are being investigated into by contemporary writers and poets in Southeast Asia?

In the book under review, the authors, associate professors in the Department of English and Literature at the National University of Singapore, try to answer these and many more questions. The volume traces the development of literature (focusing on fiction, poetry and drama) in the region with its historical and cultural contexts.

To attempt a volume like this is clearly a challenging endeavour as the authors themselves admit that this kind of literary historiography works within two limiting factors—linguistic and regional. The authors, in their introduction, submit that their aim in writing this book is not for the chimera of ‘objectivity’ but for persuasion and critical awareness.

Post introduction, the first two chapters in the book provide historical and literary contexts of writing in English in the region. The fourth chapter surveys Malaysian and Singaporean writing up to 1965, followed by a chapter on Filipino writing to 1965. Then there are three chapters, each providing a regional overview of narrative fiction, poetry and drama between 1965-1990 in Southeast Asia. After this, there is an independent chapter exploring the expatriate, diasporic and minoritarian writing—this is where you can read about the writings of Burgess or Maugham. The last four chapters look at contemporary fiction, poetry and drama. It also explores the prospects of Southeast Asian writing in English (where does it go from here) in indulges in future gazing. This last chapter also includes some details on publishing in the digital medium—the medium of the future—and how it is not just replacing text but has also led to increased generic experimentation and creation of a larger audience. It is a good sign as it indicates that the authors understand the increasing importance of digital media’s role in the dissemination and consumption of literature.

Overall, The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English is a very useful companion for those who seek a handy understanding of Southeast Asian writing in English. The astute authors of this volume have enriched it with maps, box items, a glossary of terms, and references. There is also a guide to further reading that can help quench the thirst of those who want a deeper understanding of the Southeast Asian literatures and cultures.


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Before we get to talk about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), let’s have a quick quiz. Who, among the three infamous dictators—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—caused the maximum number of civilian deaths in his country (“democide”)?

If your answer is Hitler, then you are wrong. According to historical estimates, the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s policies and actions led to the deaths of nearly 77 million of his countrymen, surpassing those killed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (20 million) and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (61 million).

And yet how many Hollywood films are made with Mao as the arch villain? Or even Stalin?

It’s not that Hitler becomes less evil because he killed less number of people than Stalin or Mao did. The German dictator’s genocidal atrocities or policies of eugenics were despicable. Still, the constant projection of Hitler as the only evil doer in the western man’s consciousness baffles me. Excepting Idi Amin, I haven’t seen Hollywood going after other dictators as vigorously as they go after the fuehrer.

Clearly, Hollywood is fascinated by Hitler: Almost every year, Hollywood studios plan a slate of anti-Nazi movies. Last year, the offerings peaked (with "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Adam Resurrected," "The Reader," "Valkyrie") as The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott noted: “A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance…” (Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?)

Scott goes on to ask: “The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?”

Perhaps Scott wrote the piece too late in the day. Or maybe the failure of Death Proof hastened it. Apparently Tarantino had been working on the script of Inglourious Basterds for ten years, even before he did Kill Bill. He is said to have delayed the project because he was not finding the right ending. I can understand his dilemma but he never resolved it. In a relatively well-made Holocaust revenge film, it is the ending that rankles, that seems a bit forced and contrived. A brilliant opening sequence should have been offset with a masterful last scene but it doesn’t. It is a narrow miss that prevents a good Inglourious Basterds from leapfrogging to being great.

I was curious about the film’s title from the beginning (and thought Vishal Bhardwaj stole it for his Kaminay) but like most other motifs in Tarantino’s films, this too turned out to be derivative (or homage, whatever you may choose to call): It comes from a European film Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978) which was released in the USA by the title The Inglorious Bastards. Maybe that’s the reason why Tarantino film’s title is slightly misspelled. Major change that one, huh?

Set in the second world war, Tarantino’s fairy tale Inglourious Basterds(it was earlier meant to be titled as "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France") has a four track narrative underpinned by a main villain—Christoph Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa, a polyglot evil genius and a Jew-sniffer par excellence. There is the perpetrator (the Nazi occupiers of France, represented by Col. Hans), the victim (Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus), the spy (Diane Kruger as double agent Bridget von Hammersmark) and the avenger (Brad Pitt and his team of Inglorious Bastards).

As I have mentioned earlier, the opening scene of the film is excellent, classy as a masterpiece, more visceral and evil than scenes of scalping mined throughout the film. Christoph Waltz establishes himself in this very first scene and you look forward to seeing him time and again on the screen. After Waltz’s introduction, when Pitt and his mates make their onscreen appearance, they don’t make that much of an impact—even though Pitt’s voice and body language are well-directed. Eli Roth (as Sgt. Donny Donowitz), with his deadly clubbing scene, is chilling—more chilling than the scalping scenes that looked a bit fake to me.

When it comes to violence and bloodshed, Tarantino seems to take unpretentious pleasure in making people suffer and bleed. He did it with some sophistication in Jackie Brown (Samuel Jackson’s killing of Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro) but it has all been gruesome and in-your-face in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2. His films, one can argue, document the ways in which violence can be inflicted upon people, good or bad. Inglourious Bastards abounds in some new (different from his past oeuvre) methods of sending folks to the next world: scalping, clubbing and even the good old technique of strangulation.

What redeems Tarantino’s nearly B-grade penchant for portrayals of violence is his great ear for dialogues. And there are plenty of clever lines in this film. I loved the line by Goebbels in the film when he says, ‘America’s gold medals can be weighed in negro sweat’. But my favourite still remains the Harvey Keitel line from Reservoir Dogs: “If you shoot me in your dream, you better wake up and apologize to me.”

Despite the unusual screen time (nearly three hours), the revenge drama flows smoothly. As the scenes roll out, you recognize the typical Tarantino stamp on them: the book-like chapterisation, the set-piece of the theatre’s burning down (the revenge), the shootout scene in the restaurant (reminiscent of the garage scene in Reservoir Dogs but amazingly executed), and the imagined sex scene between Goebbels and his assistant (reminiscent of the sex scene between Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown). Tarantino’s favourites Samuel L. Jackon and Harvey Keitel are also present in this film through their voices.

Even though cinema is all make-believe and cinematic reality is different from historical reality, it is the film’s ending that is dissatisfying—or more than dissatisfying, irrational (yes, even fiction, to succeed, must make us suspend our disbelief!). Why would a hardcore Nazi officer change side? If he did not believe in Hitler’s philosophy, why did he comply with his orders for so long? Oh, yeah, he was just doing his job and somebody tipped him offscreen that the Hitler was anyway going to lose the war!

If you don’t have a higher threshold for suspension of disbelief, you may as well forgive the film’s somewhat irrational ending (or not even notice it) and come home thoroughly entertained. As for me, I would like to ask Tarantino what was the alternative ending that he had in mind.

Friday, October 09, 2009

War, love & sex

The Deer Hunter, a 1978 war drama co-written and directed by Michael Cimino, is not your typical Vietnam war film. It's not your Apocalypse Now or Platoon. Perhaps its appeal lies in its small town characters, primarily factory workers, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and some other actors. Meryl Streep plays the love interest of Christopher Walken. Robert De Niro is also interested in her. The innocence and playfulness of their lives suddenly vanishes when they are thrust into the Vietnam War. The war upturns their lives and they are never the same again. The scenes in Vietnam, especially the underwater prison scenes and the Russian roulette scenes, are unforgettable.

More than the performances (though Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and streep have given fine performances in this film), it's the film's structure and its editing that struck me as unique. The film starts with scenes of happiness, a bunch of wild, playful factory workers, wedding and frolicking scenes in the small town and ends with a death and a funereal atmosphere engulfing the townsfolk. But life goes on. The editing is without frills. Notice it especially when the story goes back and forth between America and Vietnam.

It is difficult to imagine soldiers like Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken, John Savage and many others coming to Singapore for R&R during the Vietnam war. But this is largely what happens in Saint Jack, a 1979 film based on 1973 novel by Paul Theroux.

The movie, which was banned in Singapore until a few years ago (2006), is about Jack Flowers, an Italian American pimp in Singapore, who tries to make money by setting up his own bordello. His plans go awry when he is beaten up by the Chinese mafia and his brothel is destroyed. He goes a little more deeper into more humiliating circumstances before he finally wakes up to his own dehumanization and finds his moral compass.

Ben Gazzara plays the main character in the film, and I loved his performance. He is totally into the role. The film's director, Peter Bogdanovich, has done a great work--at least it shows us the Singapore of 1970s. This was the first Hollywood film to be shot on location in Singapore.

According to the director, the film was suggested by Orson Welles to Peter's Guru, Roger Corman. Corman bankrolled the project and Peter came over to Singapore to shoot the film. The Singapore government was opposed to the film's shooting. Peter had to create a fake synopsis (more than 35 pages long!) for a film called "Jack Of Hearts". The film was shot and made purported to be "Jack Of Hearts" and not Saint Jack. Peter counts it as one of his two best films (his most famous and acclaimed film being The Last Picture Show, 1971). It won him the best director award at Venice.

The film is part of, as it were, Singapore's history now. Though there is some nudity in it, there is an uncanny charm in Ben Gazzara and his friend's character, who dies in the film. Even Peter Bogdanovich plays a part as Eddie Schuman.

There is something in the picture--maybe it is Ben's moodiness, his interpretation of the Jack character, his walk and talk, his gait, his soulful gaze, his philosophical smile--that makes you aware that you are watching a classic. I was moved (and disturbed) by the scene where Jack sends his dead friend's ashes to Hong Kong via post and the post office girl flicks the pack (Jack says the packet contains personal effects) into a pile of postal stuff. Life, gone--just like that! What if it were me in that box? Is life so meaningless that it could be flicked off and forgotten like that? It is elements like these that ennobles the film, despite its seedy setting, and in turn, the viewers.

Monday, October 05, 2009

In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

I recently published a review of Daniyal Mueenuddin's collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, at Writersconnect.org. To read the full text of the review, go here. Excerpts:

Though the stories do reveal and expose the poverty and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, and the human desire of doing better in life, escaping the trap of being limited by one’s circumstances, they also tell us about the dying feudal world of Pakistan—“the farm and the old feudal ways, the dissolving feudal order and the new way coming, the sleek businessmen from the cities.” All this is happening in a Pakistan which was supposedly carved out of India to develop as an exemplary Islamic country (with secular values). Instead of establishing an egalitarian society, Pakistan came to be ruled by the feudal lords who control all levers of power in the country. The vast majority of its poor citizens, as a result, suffer, struggling for their survival, conniving and scheming to come up in life by any means. Religion is the last thing on their minds.

For an Indian, it is not difficult to understand the moral ambiguities of the feudal rich. But what surprises me, and must would have done to most other readers of this book in the West, is the lack of morality—be it in business dealings, law enforcement or matters of sex and matrimony—in the characters, cutting across layers of society (even though, perhaps Daniyal is a little biased as he shows Helen, an American in love with a Pakistani Sohail, in Our Lady of Paris, to be morally upright, and not deviant as he shows Husna in In Other Rooms, Other Wonders or Zainab in Provide, Provide).

One might read a book on Pakistan and expect to read a story or two on fundamentalists and Islamic terrorists (his three fellow expat Pakistani writers’ recent books directly or indirectly deal with terrorism: The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamshie, and The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam). Daniyal’s book is about Pakistan but there is not a single character in his stories who is a fanatic. There are devout Muslims, they tell their rosaries, say their prayers but they still indulge in amoral acts. This juxtaposition, this revelation, must be interesting to most readers, affording one the satisfaction that Pakistani Muslims too are like any other people—the rich and poor not necessarily being gentle, innocent and benevolent. This (realization) was so at least in my case. That was the biggest reward of reading this book.

What do you look for in a great, even good, writer? A unique and exact way of looking at things and finding the right context for expressing that way of looking, as Raymond Carver once said. In Daniyal’s case, that talent is very much on display. I rate Daniyal’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders very highly and can safely say that this debut collection can be put in the same league as The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri (US/India) and A Thousand Years of Good Prayers by Yiyun Li (US/China). With his very first book, Daniyal has shown the talent of a special way of looking at his universe. A writer like him should be around for a time. I wish him longevity.


Thursday, October 01, 2009

Suhayl Saadi Uncensored

I met the Scottish novelist and writer Suhayl Saadi (he was born in Yorkshire in 1961 of Afghan-Pakistani parents, and grew up in Glasgow, becoming a medical doctor) a couple of years ago in Singapore during a lit fest. He came across as a very charming, fearless and articulate speaker during one of the panel discussions. It's been a while since I caught up with him, but when his new book, Joseph’s Box (2009) came out, I could not resist the temptation of asking him a few questions. Always courteous, Suhayl obliged and the result is a fascinating interview with this writer who treads a path less traveled by most authors of South Asian descent. Please read the full interview here to understand what I mean by the road less traveled in this case.


What is your take on e-publishing and the future of books? Will e-publishing and Google’s espresso instant books (machines can print and bind a paperback in 4 minutes flat) change the future of publishing, how writers distribute their books and reach out to the readers? Will the publishers cease to be the gatekeepers of content?

I hope so. It needs a revolution. I would like to (here, I have delusions of Sidney Poitier) ‘knock that big old white bastard off his hill’. Let’s democratise but try not to continue to dumb-down. There are far too many stupid, and stupefying, books out already by chefs, gardeners, estate agents, DIY experts and vacuous ‘celebrities’ which are heavily promoted in the ‘front fifty feet’ of bookshops and this mirrors the inanity of much television. Give ‘em what they want! is a big lie and is a recipe for the incipient snuff-movies and ritual humiliation which now pass for entertainment and which, ultimately, are tools of social control and mechanisms for the concentration of wealth. It’s not really about gatekeeping - that’s merely an instrumentalisation of these strategies - it’s really about what kind of human society, what kind of world, we want. The bottom line is that writing, invented in Iraq 5,000 years ago, is important and at some level, is feared by those in power. Stalin, the one-time published and acclaimed poet, knew - and stated - this perfectly well when he attempted to justify banning Dostoevsky’s works. Stalin was terrified of Dostoevsky and even eventually, of Gorki. The process of capitalist censorship is more systemic, less directed, more subtle, less obvious, but in the end it is even more effective in the engineering of pliant societies. Of course, Google is a big white corporation, too. We have to be attentive - to paraphrase from the Spanish writer, Ibn Tufayl, in order to stay alive, we have to remain awake!


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Forgive but don't forget

From Murders most foul (Frontline)

Internationally, studies have shown that abuse of the human rights of terror suspects increases terrorism by alienating the government from members of the population who could provide it intelligence about terrorist groups; by causing conflicts with other political forces in the country thereby damaging the efficacy of the government’s counter-terrorism policy; and by reducing international willingness to cooperate with the government.

Observers have warned that state violation of human rights augments grievances of the constituency on whose behalf the terrorists claim to act and makes their appeals for support more effective. Such violation has been found to alienate people from the authorities to such an extent that they either actively support terrorist activities or turn a blind eye to them.

Fortunately, so far, the family of Ishrat has been brave enough to resist such tendencies and to maintain their belief in the legal system and fight the culture of impunity of the police with determination. As Vrinda Grover, counsel for Ishrat’s mother, says:

“It has been very difficult, but I think that the people, regardless of their religious denominations, see themselves as citizens. They see the courts as their forums for justice. They do not feel that they are not part of this country and I think there is a serious responsibility of the judiciary to deliver justice.”

From To Defuse A Train Of Gunpowder (Outlook)

The absence of justice is inordinately difficult to accept for countless victims, particularly women and children. Muslim leaders must handle these cases with utmost sensitivity to prevent any violent reaction. The Quran urges Muslims to fight against injustice. But if they fail to secure justice on earth, they should leave it to Allah. Muslims must grant unilateral forgiveness to those who carried out these horrors. That is the essence of Islam. That will please Allah, and He will compensate the victims, while inflicting His own severe punishment on the oppressors. Muslim pain and trauma will gradually become a memory as they turn their attention to quality education and business.

Forgiveness may also serve to awaken the conscience of Hindus, both in Gujarat and across the nation, to the enormous damage done to Hinduism by the tragedy of 2002.

Vedantic Hinduism is a vast ocean of spiritual grace and beauty. It is best exemplified by the life of the greatest Gujarati of all time: Mahatma Gandhi. In this frenzy of hatred toward Muslims, Narendra Modi and his parivar may have done great harm to their own faith and to the memory of Gandhi.

Forgiveness does not imply we forget. As Harsh Mander rightly quotes the philosopher Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. This is very relevant in the present context, with Narendra Modi poised to play an important national role in the future. Eternal vigilance is the only way to handle Modi.

Muslims have changed a lot since 2002. The fear is gone. There are over 650 Muslim schools today as against 250 seven years ago. There is a sharp rise in the number of Muslim engineers and doctors. There is a renaissance within the community. But we will never pardon the Sangh parivar for its perfidy.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Anatomy Lesson

In Philip Roth's The Anatomy Lesson (a 1983 novel, the third one from Roth to feature Nathan Zuckerman as the main character), writer Nathan Zuckerman, having badly injured himself, suffers from terrible neck pain and is reduced to having sex with a variety of women on his playmat. His mind wanders and he undergoes a mid-life crisis and decides to change his profession: he now wants to become a doctor at the age of 40!

He apparently was inspired by Thomas Mann to become a writer. Mann had come to his university and had lectured on writing: "Writing ... was the only worthwhile attainment, the surpassing experience, the exalted struggle, and there was no way to write other than like a fanatic."

"Without fanaticism, nothing great in fiction could ever be achieved," concluded Nathan. But soon, the daily struggle of filling up the next page bored him to death.

So, off he goes to Univ of Chicago to enroll himself in medical school. On the way, he pretends to be a porn magnate, a competitor to Hugh Hefner whom he despises, and wisecracks with an unsuspecting co-passenger. He does the same with the female chauffeur of the limo that he hires at the airport. Quite hilarious!

I loved this passage on marriage from an early part of the novel:

"Marriage had been his bulwark against the tremendous distraction of women. He'd married for the order, the intimacy, the dependable comradery, for the routine and regularity of monogamous living; he'd married so as never to waste himself on another affair, or go crazy with boredom at another party, or wind up alone in the living room at night after a day alone in his study. To sit alone each night doing the reading that he required to concentrate himself for the next day's solitary writing was too much even for Zuckerman's single-mindedness, and so into the voluptous austerity he had enticed a woman, one woman at a time, a quiet, thoughtful, serious, literate, self-sufficient woman who didn't require to be taken places, who was content instead to sit after dinner and read in silence across from him and his book."

Friday, September 04, 2009

Coming soon to your computer screen

If talks between Hollywood studios and YouTube don’t break down, film buffs would have less reason to make a trip to the pirated video sellers.

More on my MIS Asia blog

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The men who stare at goats

What gets your goat?

In my case, it's many things but goats. I keep reading about goats, specially when I read stories to my daughter before bedtime or otherwise. There is the Billy Goat Gruff story. There are goats in Heidi's story (I once borrowed the Heidi DVD from the library but had to return it--now my daughter cries for it whenever she remembers it).

When I was a kid in school, I had read a story: Abbu Khan Ki Bakri (Abu Khan's Goat). And there was another famous story of Lali, the goat that goes missing one day.

Even these days, I think and read about goats. There is a goat in one of my short stories, The Rats (you can read it here). And I recently spotted a goat in a story, Saleema, in Daniyal Mueenuddin's brilliant collection of short stories, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders. In that story, the goat is just a part of the backdrop, like a piece of furniture in the mise en scene. In a completely bare single room belonging to Saleema's mother, is a goat, tied to a stake, nibbling at a handful of grass.

Now, I hear about this George Clooney movie, The men who stare at goats, with a strange plotline, involving the US armed forces and techniques of psychic killing (by staring at a goat, a man can kill the poor creature). You can see it in the trailer itself:

But perhaps, Clooney & co. don't know that there is one more type of people who stare at goats: the microfinance people in Bangladesh, inspired by the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus. In the global financial crisis that has engulfed the world, these people (of Grameen Bank, Bangladesh) who are betting on herds of goats (and staring at them, to speak figuratively, for good returns) are seeing almost 100% returns. So, staring at goats does have its profit. Here is the story: It's better to give out 'loans for goats'.

Monday, August 31, 2009

On autobiographical elements in novels

Visiting Professor Amitava Kumar's blog is always a good trip--it results in my coming back with some new information, novel insights.

In one of his recent posts (inter alia, referring to a post at Maud Newton), he talks about William Maxwell and his mining of experiences from his own life and dressing them up as fiction. Is that a moral hazard? Are there any limits of doing it? Many questions arise.

Then I follow a link to Maud Newton's blog and to an article on Maxwell in The Washington Post. It's a review of Maxwell's novel, 'So Long, See You Tomorrow'. Some sentences strike me further: The reviewer makes fun of memoir as a genre: "But Maxwell doesn't use this lurid tale to launch on the kind of self-dramatizing sleuthing that has made the memoir more of a recovery workbook than a literary genre."

Anita Jain, author of Marrying Anita, had mocked at certain kind of novelists when she was in Singapore: Why do they hide behind novels when they could write a memoir, she had asked.

Is there something in here for Anita, I innocently wonder.

"In talking about the past," Maxwell writes, "we lie with every breath we draw."

Does it mean that even if we write something from our own lives, it changes in writing: the mere acting of putting "the reality" in words changes the reality?

Maxwell says: "I wrote about my life in less and less disguise as I grew older, and finally with no disguise — except the disguise we create for ourselves, which is self-deception."

This reminds me of one of my own short stories, The Revolt. In the story, a character rises against the writer in revolt and takes his revenge on him for portraying him in a certain light (obviously, not very flattering). It was written some years ago--before I had heard of Pirandello.

Anyway, here's an example of how Maxwell changed reality (of a character) in one of his novels.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Crasta Sutra

[From Kitaab.org]

Among the bunch of famous Indian novelists and writers, Richard Crasta’s name might not be as widely recognized as that of a Seth or a Rushdie, but few would come close to him in being funny, witty, satirical and daring–all at the same time. If you don’t believe me, I can get American legendary novelist Kurt Vonnegut to vouch for him who found his first novel, The Revised Kama Sutra, “very funny”. After Khushwant Singh (who is 90 plus old but still active as a below the belt heavy hitter), if any Indian writer has pushed the boundaries of satirical writing, with dollops of sexual humour (and satirical writing on a lot of other serious stuff) in his own distinctive style, it’s Richard. But, in fairness, his writing is more than that, and multifaceted, covering areas as wide as, in his own words, “autobiography, humor, satire, political critique, sexual critique, and literary criticism.”

In the early 1990s, when a new breed of Indian writers in English were taking birth (most of them midwifed by Penguin Books, India, under the watch of David Davidar), bursting forth with all kinds of coming of age or cultural or exoticised tales from Indian life, Richard Crasta chose to take a daring look at Indian sexuality. One of the funniest and most talked about novels to come out of India, he subtitled The Revised Kama Sutra, as a “Novel of Colonialism and Desire with Arbitrary Footnotes and a Whimsical Glossary”. It was one of the most talked about books when it came out, and was loved as much, if not more, as Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August. By the way, both the novelists are from Indian Civil Services, the only difference is that Crasta is now an ex (civil servant).

Richard’s writing is uniquely hilarious, and believe me you, this is not a hyperbole. But in terms of recognition, the man was just a blip in India’s literary firmament. For years, he has been out of the Indian mainstream media’s radar. What went wrong? Plenty, we are told. He was embroiled in controversies. Mainstream publishers shunned him. He became a writer without a platform.

But Crasta did not feel crestfallen. He was in the USA, doing his own stuff–writing more books and publishing them from a publishing house that he owns. And ever since, he has kept at it. After writing 6 full-bloodied books, his latest book is The Killing of an Author, of which veteran journalist Kuldeep Nayar says that this is a must read.

In this exclusive freewheeling interview with Kitaab’s editor Zafar Anjum, Crasta not only talks about his new book but also looks back at his past, his beginning as a writer, his tribulations and his future plans. For the readers in South East Asia, the good news is that one of his in-the-works novels is based in Thailand and Indonesia, and is, in his words, “almost as funny and sexually daring as The Revised Kama Sutra.”

True to his name, Richard in this interview is bitingly honest, lucid but insightful, funny and provocative. Here is the transcript of the interview. Have fun!

When your first novel The Revised Kamasutra appeared in India , it made quite a splash. Is it fair to say that the books that followed your debut novel did not get that much attention in the country of your birth? Was there any particular reason for this kind of reception?

I feel gratified that the huge response to my novel came from common readers and middle-class reviewers. It was not engineered from the top, or from London or New York; Indians found themselves loving the book, though they were shocked and sometimes embarrassed by the title or the contents, and its reputation spread by word of mouth. With many later writers, the hype started with a megabucks Western advance. Hype has a way of becoming self-fulfilling, and one can never be sure how those books would have performed had the huge advances and media coverage not preceded the reading of the books themselves.

To be fair, I spent eight years on The Revised Kama Sutra and an average of 18 months for the subsequent books, so the former is naturally richer, denser, and more multi-faceted. Having noted this, there was still, for other reasons, a difference between the reception for the first book and subsequent books: Because The Revised Kama Sutra is fiction, and some people—including my Penguin India editor—thought the book would become a worldwide sensation, and make plenty of money, they could wink at its anti-Establishment tone, which did not directly target either my publisher or his Indian friends. Also, the humor was a cloak, which allowed you to treat the book as a joke. This changed with the second and third books, Beauty Queens and Impressing the Whites; the latter is a no-holds barred satire on the culture of sycophancy and subservience and of giving white people and Western honors far greater legitimacy and respect than equivalent Indian ones. Once my second and third books hit home, my fourth, fifth, and sixth books, especially What We All Need and The Killing of an Author, simply didn’t have a chance.

Read the complete interview here

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

On Ayn Rand, capitalism, and altruism

Professor Amartya Sen says that it is good to have debates and discussions and it is good to argue with others on topics of importance. I didn’t have exactly this in mind when I forwarded an article, “Why Ayn Rand Is Still Relevant”, to one of my Singaporean colleagues (I have given his name here as K). He has been recently reading books by Ayn Rand and I thought he might be interested in it. I had read one or two books by her when I was in college and by now I did not exactly remember what she preached in those books which were very popular among the English-speaking students (what I remembered was that she preached capitalism even though it meant the rule of the robber barons). K got back with some feedback on that article and I reverted with my own comments and this way we had a good exchange. Here is the transcript of that exchange.

After this exchange, which ended in an honorable disagreement, I watched some interviews of Ayn Rand and got to know her philosophy better. You can find many videos on her on YouTube. I don’t think major economists or philosophers have taken her philosophy that seriously. And I am sure there are many, like this scholar, who have challenged her views. I have my own philosophy which, in Rand’s epistemology, can be called rational-mythological. Share with us what you think of Ayn Rand and how is her philosophy relevant today?

Her theory or philosophy, to me, comes across as anti-egalitarianism and anti-welfarism (the greater common good is not important for her) and she says many things that Milton Friedman also has said later on.

Me: "From the time we’re young we are taught that the essence of morality is to sacrifice one’s own interests for the sake of others, and that to focus on one’s own interests is immoral and destructive...."


I ask, if this is the essence of capitalism (according to Ayn Rand's philosophy of objectivism), how can it be reconciled with Biblical teachings? I think both extremes (extreme capitalism on one hand, extreme socialism or collectivism on the other hand) are bad. There has to be a balance. Middle path, preached by prophets like Buddha and Mohammad, are more reasonable. Enterprise with humanity is more reasonable than enterprise supported by rapacious laws (think of debt prisons or seizure of properties).

From K:

The intriguing perspective I feel I'm taking in regards to Ayn Rand's views and how it would connect to the Biblical perspective is that at the end of the day, sacrifice is not the best ends to make things work out in our relationships to people and ourselves. Perhaps sacrifice is required in many scenarios, but just because 2 - 1 = 1 on the other side of the equation doesn't mean it's the best methodology to help others. Her view that in being 'selfish' to our own goals, we invariably create conditions that would help others as a by result. It's a pictorial of the golden goose - a goose lay eggs not because of sacrifice but self-interest and preservation, yet but lying the eggs, others benefit from her production and output. To sacrifice her for a meal would surely be beneficial for a moment to others, but the cost is great. I recall Jesus saying that when he was hindered by the religious community in healing a man on the Sabbath, he asked,'Is the Sabbath for man, or man for the Sabbath?' The crowd wanted to sacrifice the sick man's welfare in order to preserve their 'religious laws' but Jesus' response was that they got the idea all wrong.

I think beneath the common call for sacrifice, one might sometimes do better by taking a rational view of how other methods might be more effective and proper towards the end result. The Bible mentions that 'as a man thinks, so he is' - that isn't all that different from what Ayn Rand's John Galt is preaching. I think I'm attracted to her views because it's extreme... somehow, I think that might actually be a good medicine for society, which tends to self-destruct and most of the time while it's doing so, lukewarm theories hardly have a chance in altering their march to death.

Just my views though :)

Me: Interesting views and this is exactly how the world is working, and this is where we are headed. Capitalism marches on. But in my view, it is not an absolute view or solution.

Here is my understanding of things:

It is not just sacrifice or just profit. The two don't necessarily have to clash. That's my point. When Jesus says Sabbath for man or man for Sabbath, he is perhaps talking about making a choice. So you have to make a choice--a rational choice depending on the circumstances. But if it is just the profit motive, is infinite profit the good thing? That's my question.

If you are smart/powerful and you amass all the goodies and all your neighbours are hungry, what will you do? You will share your things with your hungry neighbours or you just won't do anything?

The capitalist will open a bank and the socialist will open a cooperative. But you need a government in both the cases to ensure that there is no injustice/rapaciousness in the system. How little or how big the govt will be, let the people decide. The extreme capitalist (free market advocate) will say--very little govt so that it can exploit everybody--make you work as a cheap worker, with minimal rights. It will break the families, make everyone a worker and create a consumerist society and culture (free to pursue what makes you happy). And when people begin to fail to pay the bank debts because they lose jobs (because of its in-built cyclical booms and downturns), they will be put in debt prisons. Then they will use the "little govt." to catch the small guy and put him in jail or seize his property.

I am not saying you sacrifice everything (You can have both--profit with underpinnings of morality). But you MUST have a check on the capitalist. Don't let the market run amok. That's my point. No matter what Ayn Rand and her acolytes say, that is what the current downturn has proved.

K: Indeed, there're multiple views to the idea. But I think it can be easy to dismiss Ayn Rand's views simply due to the unfavourable 'words' she has used to establish and evangelise her cause. Her view of capitalism is not about just inifinite profit, but 'earned' profits - money that one exchanges on a fair weighting based on the simple laws of economics - supply/demand/scarcity/abundance. If a capitalist would exploit people, then it's simply a 'looter' in her terms - the exchange is not fair, but forced. Look to the man of Hank Rearden in Atlas Shrugged - he is a capitalist in every sense, yet nowhere do we see exploitation. It's easy to be biased and think that when one man is made rich, the rest will surely suffer. That is what perhaps she is trying to fight - that the idea of true capitalism is not a dirty word, and any other variant (corrupted) of capitalism that does not base its exchange fairly is not true capitalism at all.

Should the people decide? I've heard from my parents each time the election is near to cast the vote for the opposition, from countless taxi drivers that we should have more say. Ayn Rand's argument is that the voice of the crowds doesn't necessarily count as just, and I agree with it. If Lee Kuan Yew gave in to every whim of the people, where would we be? Can democracy really be the answer? I remember reading somewhere in a crowd psychology book that says the level of the crowd is as high as its weakest link. I read about the witch hunting that led to the massacre of innocent people. I read about how women are abused and oppressed in Tehran for ages because of such a voice.

Are what we view easily as 'oppression' today really that? When a man fails and gets into debts, what proportion of that disaster is his responsibility? None? No, if he is true he understands the risks of his undertakings, both good and bad. So many have preached that the world is to be a fair place, but is it? How do we view justice? Ideal or practical reality? The fact that in Atlas Shrugged all the true capitalists pulled out and went into hiding was because of the misguided voice of the crowd. Is the market amok today because of 'capitalism', or is it really just an easy scapegoat so the masses can point a finger at when things go wrong? Did the average retailer make accusations when times were good? Did the average person refrain from excess when he had bonuses and payouts? The masses' failure to embark on Joseph's lesson from the Bible of using the '7 years of good to prepare for the 7 years of lack' is what caused them their misery today, not capitalism.

If capitalism is truly evil, then the children of Africa should have been spared. The children of China should not be progressing onwards to this evil since Mao. They should be blessed in their previous run, why rush towards capitalism like lemmings to their fall? The current downturn is not to me a byproduct of capitalism, but of foolish indulgence. It's like the kid who screwed his life up with drugs and stuff and points at his own family and calls them dysfunctional and responsible for his downfall. It's the evading of responsibility that has cost us, not the desire for self-interest. If a country suffers, the people cannot evade responsibility. Whether they are ruled by a dictator or not, the truth remains - Hitler is an easy scapegoat, the true culprits are the masses who appointed him their puppet for the promise of a chicken in their pot.

To think otherwise, is to insult the martyrs and revoluntionaries who paid for the truth and their responsibility in blood.
P.S. Seriously though, by not allowing banks and crap companies to fall, isn't it beginning to look like Atlas Shrugged deja vu?

Me: Good debate.

I can see where you are coming from. But you are confusing a lot of issues--I can see that too. The systems (mark that word systems pls) in US, Singapore and Iran are very different. I will not go into details.

I don't know what exactly Ayn Rand preached (but can take her as a preacher of free markets), but perhaps I have some understanding of capitalism (and free markets). Capitalism is just not about money or banks--it is the whole ecosystem that you see in a society. The American kid that grew up there, learnt to have drugs and learnt to run his life on credit--did all that within that system. Who taught him that? Why did he behave in that way? Why did others in other countries not behave that way? Ask yourself that question.

So, you can see where I am coming from.

By blaming the masses for their choices (are there real choices? Even that is debatable) you are delinking democracy from capitalism. That is again a big subject. And let us not go into China or totalitarianism (Hitler, etc).

So, basically, answer these two questions:

1. You believe in capitalism without democracy? If there is no democracy, what will be the form of govt.?
2. If a poor guy, because of his stupidity or for some systemic reason (say downturns or layoffs), falls on bad times, will you let him suffer and die or will you extend a helping hand to him?

With answers to these two questions, we can conclude this discussion.

K: Ok,

1. I believe in capitalism, and the freedom to every man for himself. Let each man govern and be fully responsible for their own actions. Perhaps that may lead us down the trail towards the survival of the fittest, but nature hasn't complain for a while, maybe it's not too bad.

2. I refer to the proverb - 'Give a man a fish, you feed him a day. Give the man a rod, you feed him for life.' I believe in extending a helping hand if he can embrace change and help himself, or else better die a victim, then live a persistent fool.

Africa and the New Colonialism

In his brilliantly written essay Capital Gains (Granta), novelist Rana Dasgupta makes us meet MC who is just 28. He operates five shopping malls across India, and he has another 1,400 acres under development. MC tells Rana that "that is just the beginning" and that "he is moving on to much bigger plans". What are these bigger plans? Let me quote from the essay:

‘We’ve just leased 700,000 acres for seventy-five years; we’re opening up food processing, sugar and flower plantations.’

He is so matter of fact that I’m not sure if I’ve heard correctly. We have already discussed how laborious it is to acquire land in India, buying from farmers at five or ten acres a time. I can’t imagine where he could get hold of land on that scale.

‘Where?’ I ask.

‘Ethiopia. My father has a friend who bought land from the Ethiopian president for a cattle ranch there. The President told him he had other land for sale. My dad said, This is it, this is what we’ve been looking for, let’s go for it. We’re going in there with [exiled Russian oligarch] Boris Berezovsky. Africa is amazing. That’s where it’s at. You’re talking about numbers that can’t even fit into your mind yet. Reliance, Tata, all the big Indian corporations are setting up there, but we’re still ahead of the curve. I’m going to run this thing myself for the next eight years, that’s what I’ve decided. I’m not giving this to any CEO until it meets my vision. It’s going to be amazing. You should see this land: lush, green. Black soil, rivers.’

MC tells me how he has one hundred farmers from Punjab ready with their passports to set off for Ethiopia as soon as all the papers are signed.

‘Africans can’t do this work. Punjabi farmers are good because they’re used to farming big plots. They’re not scared of farming 5,000 acres. Meanwhile, I’ll go there and set up polytechnics to train the Africans so when the sugar mills start up they’ll be ready.’

Shipping farmers from Punjab to work on African plantations is a plan of imperial proportions. And there’s something imperial about the way he says Africans. I’m stunned. I tell him so.

‘Thank you,’ he says.

‘What is on that land right now?’ I ask, already knowing that his response, too, will be imperial.


If you read the essay, and you should, you will also find MC later admitting that there are many many super rich young businessmen like him in India.

It's not just MC and rich businessmen like him who are eying Africa. There are many countries who are leasing land in Africa to ensure their food security. A new land grab is on as food is becoming the new oil:

Governments and investment funds are buying up farmland in Africa and Asia to grow food -- a profitable business, with a growing global population and rapidly rising prices. The high-stakes game of real-life Monopoly is leading to a modern colonialism to which many poor countries submit out of necessity.


But what happens, as Horand Knaup and Juliane von Mittelstaedt ask, in a globalized world when colonies arise once again? We will have to wait and see but it may not be a peaceful reaction.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Naseeruddin Shah on Theatre and Dastangoi

These days I have been reading some of the plays written by Singapore playwright and director Elangovan. He often goes for very provocative themes (The Gandhis of India being the subject of his latest production) which sometimes lands his plays in unsavoury situations. Most of his plays have politics for theme which is always interesting but a risky exercise. I assume that he enjoys that element of risk and provocation in his creative work--he is an adventure sportsman of theatre, if I may say so. And when I say this, I'm not being mean or disparaging.

His plays, I found, are rich in information but that makes them very verbose (he would have made a great investigative journalist). I don't know how his actors manage to deliver their lines as dialogues in his plays sometimes run to several paragraphs or even more than a page! A tough act! Nevertheless, his plays are important because they record things that nobody else will say or write.

But this post is not about him or his plays. Maybe I will write about that in future. What I want to relate here is that in Singapore, I got the opportunity to watch some theatre, follow some action in this line and I intend to keep doing that.

I had very little exposure to good theatre in school or even in college. At Aligarh, some of my friends were doing theatre but I hardly went to see any. I wanted to join theatre in college but unfortunately I did not read the list of selected candidates for the drama group@JNU and lost my chance. Never tried again. I was too lazy or too worried about my career. So, Mumbai, you are one 'struggler' less. More on that some other time again.

This post is about a man, an actor, who I have always admired. One of India's greatest actors, Naseeruddin Shah reminisces his past and present engagement with theatre as an art form, in a personal piece in Tehelka. Here, he reveals his love and respect for Geoffrey Kendall and his group Shakespeareana. In this piece, he also talks about Jerzy Grotowski, a great theatre actor, director and teacher whose style of theatre expounded in his book Towards a Poor Theatre greatly influenced Naseer:

Grotowski had extreme contempt for Broadway. Theatre can never match cinema’s illusion, so why was it competing to be the same? He asked three big questions: Is what theatre could do being done better than cinema? The answer was no. Then what was it that theatre used to do before the advent of cinema? And third, where had theatre sprung from? Theatre, he said, began with man’s need to communicate, not to dazzle. And in order to communicate, you don’t need huge castles disappearing on stage and helicopters and gondolas. The essential magic of theatre was to stimulate the imagination. Our poverty of resources should be our strength, not our weakness, he argued. If you remove everything extraneous – sets, lights, props, costumes – all you need is one actor in a black suit willing to work his butt off, and you have theatre. When you have two people who meet and talk, you have theatre. In his later life, Grotowski extended this argument so far, he began to dispense even with dialogue. He went on a different trip, searching for the primal state and sound. Theatre became synonymous with life – to a point where you couldn’t get a straight answer from him to any question, like what time of day it was.


Now, Naseer wants to stick to Dastangoi. I am eager to see him do it--I hope his group performs in Singapore in future. View this dastangoi clip (the only one I could find on Youtube) and tell me what you think of it. Do you also think that something like this could have inspired the great Dev Anand to speak the way he does (he delivers his dialgoues in a trademark Dev Anand style) or vice versa? I don't mean any disrespect to anyone but that's what came to my mind when I saw it.