Monday, December 5, 2016

The I and We of Demonitization

It’s been sometime I have been at the receiving end of the effects of demonetization. I still am confused whether what the government is telling is right, that it’s today’s pain and tomorrow’s gain. Or what the opposition parties are claiming is true, that it’s not going to serve the intended purpose of eliminating black money, that it’s legalized loot, that nothing will prevent counterfeiters from counterfeiting the newly introduced notes and so on. 

Whichever side of the argument you are on, a few things are very clear. It’s almost a month since  demonetization and the situation on ground is still not back to normal. Most ATMs are not functioning, barring a few located in prominent places per area. The load on these few functioning ATMs is so high, as a result, that they are running out of cash within a few hours of refill. I stood in long queues of several such ATMs and the cash ran out when my turn was two to three people away. The luckiest ones walked away with 100 rupee notes, the luckier with 2000, some (including me) had to return emptyhanded. Even if you are lucky to get some cash, there is restriction to how much you can draw. Until some time ago ATMs cards from banks other than the host bank were not working. Now they are.

Like many of you, I am tracking this development closely and have read several articles and heard some interviews. Posthumously, they say a range of things which could have prevented or at least brought down the scale of the crisis. Instead of banning both 500 and 1000 rupee notes, they say, the government could have banned one – preferably  1000 – and left the other, which would have would have given them time to replenish the banned notes and also the option of targeting the 500 rupee denomination later. If they had taken some time to make all the notes the same size, which is how it is in many countries, the ATM machines would not require recalibration, they say.

These ‘should have beens’ may not bother us much now that it’s too late, but at a national and personal level there are a few possible outcomes of them. The happy political consensus over GST seems to have dissipated and reorganized itself as a pan India opposition against the government over demonetization. No one seems to mind the purported goals – end of black money, cashless economy etc - of demonetization; given their lofty nature, they are slightly unchallengeable. The opposition parties seem to smell a political opportunity in how demonetization has been carried out. And that seems to be the bone of contention for the amm janta too…who may think, if the mainstream media reports are to go by, that little bit of pain is worth the long term gains. But as each day goes by without the situation coming under control, the concern that’s becoming bigger and bigger is: how long the patience will hold out?

The answer to that lies in several things. How long will the government take to pull the situation under control? How soon, in what forms and how tangibly will people see the benefits of the pain they are undergoing? How long the government will be able to prevent the growing voice of a uniting opposition into becoming a nationwide roar (something like the G scams)?

A lot of this will require perception handling. Also, as the government works towards getting things in order, care has to be taken to make sure that nothing undermines the ground which is being covered on the way to normalcy. The system has countless holes through which illegal money can travel back and forth having a termite-like effect. And there is enough evidence that this is happening. New notes worth over Rs 4 crore have been seized in income tax raids in Bengaluru. Similar incidents have been reported from other parts of the country. And there are inherent challenges. One of them is the unorganized economy in India is intricately entwined with the mainstream economy and the former is mostly (unless it is illegal) cash based.

On ground a few things need to be made smooth so that after I get a 2000 rupee note it’s easy for me to find change or there are enough 100 notes in ATMs. The number of functioning ATMs should start growing so that I don’t have to stand in queues for too long. If the problem is to linger for a few more months, then special arrangements should be made on payment days, either by pumping in more currencies or devising ways to identify and move as many as possible to crediting their stuff salary into their accounts.  None is easy. And what makes it difficult is this hydraheaded monster has to be tamed FAST.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable by Amitav Ghosh

There are very few books that fill you with a sense of urgency to write something on them before it’s too late. Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which marks the author’s return to nonfiction after a long while, is one such book. The Great Derangement…delves into history (literary and political), analyses contemporary practices, our choices and preferences...and tells us how they are collectively responsible for forcing the nature to unleash destructive forces - like earth swallowing floods, monstrous earth quakes, gales with never-heard-of speed and ferocity – and have brought us to the edge from where a return journey is not possible unless we immediately stop the ‘march of modernity’.  

The book blames several things for the climate challenges we are faced with – one is history, another is indifference of serious fiction towards climactic matters, another is the apathy of governments to climactic concerns, still another is our lack of awareness about the havoc climate change can wreak in our lives although there is no dearth of evidence around us.

Ghosh is most morbid about the middle class when it comes to suffering from impact of climate change. He says the rich will fly away in airplanes, the poor will go away to their villages, but where will the middle class go given the fact that they have built their lives in cities? In other words, Ghosh says cities are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

And particularly those that are close to sea or other forms of water bodies, like Mumbai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Calcutta. Most of these cities were built in colonial period to act as good trade and commerce centers because of their proximity to water. And somehow this preference for proximity with water has crept into the elites of these cities, who tend to build their settlements close to water. The richer the closer.

This love of the rich for staying close to water makes the sea-facing locations most coveted real estate pieces. And, Ghosh observes, this desirability of these locations as real estate properties, anywhere around the world, makes it difficult for governments (or municipal bodies) to create awareness about the perils of staying close to water bodies, thanks to the political clout the real estate practitioners enjoy everywhere.  

For Ghosh the peril of this proximity was best exemplified when he travelled to Andaman and Nicobar islands to report on the impact of tsunami.  He visited an army settlement located close to the sea. He noticed two things: a) the higher the rank of the occupant, the closer his dwelling was to the sea leading to the highest rank holder staying closest to the sea (and vice versa); b) those closest to the sea were affected the most by tsunami.

Ghosh observes that in the pre-colonial period people lived away from water, but with the city-building projects the colonial masters took up, the preference slowly reversed.

One of the most original points Ghosh makes in Derangement is the indifference of literary fiction to the concerns of climate change. According to Ghosh, some of the practitioners of serious fiction in the 19th century consciously moved away from using fantastical elements – like flying carpets or a rising sea gulping a landscape – as a means to tell stories, in order to focus on more prosaic day-to-day affairs of life. This prosaicity fulfilled the requirements of serious fiction. So describing minor details of landscape and how people lived their lives became fashionable. Amitav Ghosh says this shift from writing about fantastical occurrences to more mundane motions of life had to do with the emphasis of the Industrial Revolution on betterment of human lives.

This shift made the fury of nature, like floods, cyclones etc., an untouchable terrain for serous fiction – because, as Ghosh observes, the gigantic scale of these furies of nature lend them a fantasy-like incredulity not to be dealt with in the type of fiction which swore by credulity.  

Writing on furies of nature fell to less-respected a form of fiction, genre fiction. And, Ghosh rues, it continues to this day. That is why thrillers and science fiction have addressed climactic concerns; but sadly, the author says, because genre fictions hardly receive any serious literary award, the issues they address don’t receive the attention they deserve.

One of the things responsible for pushing us to the brink is replacement of coal with petrol as a fuel. Petrol is a more versatile fuel than coal but that is not the only thing which explains why petrol usurped coal’s position as a primary fuel: the reason is petrol is a politically safer fuel than coal – and what makes coal a politically volatile fuel is the highly visible mining process involved in it unlike the refinement process of petrol which is very opaque.

Remember the blackened face of the 20th century coal miner melancholically looking at you from a black and white photo? This visibility of the plight of coal miners is responsible for the revolutions that coal mining has led to unlike the plight of petroleum refinery workers which suffers in obscurity. And the political elite of the Anglosphere the Churchills and Roosevelts of this world knew about this disadvantage of coal mining, Europe having experienced many of the coal-triggered revolutions, and ensured that coal was replaced by petroleum as a primary fuel.

But as always Ghosh’s favorite whipping horse is once again colonialism. He says Britain made sure that the benefits of the industrial revolution were denied to its colonies – and that’s the kind of development that took place in the Western world didn’t take start in Asia until the 1950s when the colonies started getting independence. But, according to the author, the earth can’t withstand the rigor of another round of Western-style development.

That’s why, in climate negotiations taking place among nations, the Western nations insist the poorer nations to take a different route to development.

Ghosh says governments across the world, particularly the democratic ones, come to power on the promise of fulfilling people’s aspirations – and therefore are ill-placed to ask their citizenry to view their actions in the light of their moral responsibility towards saving the earth from going over the edge. It’s only religious groups that can do that. And Ghosh praises the book Laudato Si written by pope Francis in this regard and does a comparative study between the papal book on climate and another important treatise concerning the same subject, The Paris Agreement - and concludes that Laudato Si is much more lucid and readable of the two.

You can take The Great Derangement in many ways – as a book which preaches, prophesises, disparages - by asking us to happily forgo the type of modern development the Western nations have taken for granted. And I am afraid seeing the book in any of these ways will obscure you to its merit as a well-researched book which forcefully holds a brief for climate and makes some unique points along the way. But it does so not without occasionally sliding into ideological slots avoiding which would have ensured a wider acceptability of its views which are certainly worthy of attention.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Making a Break with the Past with Enid Blyton

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

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

Back then I wasn’t bothered about writers’ reputation or whether someone was a commercial or literary writer. I developed these pretensions in later years. Those days a good synopsis was enough.

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

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

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

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

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

Complexities apart, I enjoyed the book and wish to read more Blyton books – and mostly over weekends.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh

I have read several trilogies but with almost all of their later versions in the series I got the feeling that the narrative had run out of steam, that there was hardly a second or a third installment and one was made only to capitalize on the success of the earlier books. Amitav Ghosh’s Flood of Fire, the third and final book in the Ibis trilogy, which started about seven to eight years back with Sea of Poppies, never made me feel the same way.

The first two books in the series deal with the period leading to the Opium War and the third one – Flood of Fire – with the war. The Chinese authorities alarmed at the damage opium has caused to the youth of the country has decided to stamp out the British merchants dealing in opium from its shores little knowing that about a year or two later the merchants will manage to get the British government to invade China to force opium back on the Middle Kingdom.

And when the invasion comes the Chinese find themselves ill prepared to face the might of British attack. The period leading to the onset of war is revealing in many ways. The man responsible for upsetting the apple cart of opium trade, Commissioner Lin, an upright and incorruptible high official sent in by the Chinese authorities to deal with the menace of opium, is abruptly removed from his position under fabricated charges of foul play and replaced by his deputy, a pliable man, who is also awarded the responsibility to conduct an inquiry into Commissioner Lin’s wrong doing. 

What a humiliation! But what is the actual reason for Commissioner Lin’s ouster? The British opium merchants had petitioned the local Emperor that Mr Lin had been obstructing free trade (by preventing them from carrying on their opium trade). Defense of free trade, free will, God's will etc are the ruses used by the British to justify the campaign of war. This is the larger point behind Ghosh’s trilogy: unsavory means imperialism uses for its sustenance and expansion. 

Ghosh had turned down the Common Wealth Prize because, as he later said in an interview, it’s a commemoration of the Empire. Ghosh is one of those writers whose subjects change but the central muse remains the same. Take any of his works, and you can trace it back to the effects of imperialism, which includes his latest nonfiction offering – The Great Derangement – where he has blamed imperialism (or its less extreme version capitalism) for the environmental challenges we are faced with.

Despite this larger theme in the background, however, Ghosh has dealt with his character and events with an ideological detachment, just narrating the events as a raconteur avoiding getting self-righteous about anything. As a result, the opium merchants come across not as evil souls but men of their times using a business opportunity.

Almost all significant characters have been carried forward from the second installment – River of Smoke – and some are a continuity of the first. Ghosh has brought them and their related sub plots (and there are many of them) to conclusive end in Flood of Fire. In doing so, however, he has sometimes tried too hard, reading a little contrived in the process.

He has put three important characters to death because their prospects beyond the plot were not too bright or clear. He has made two characters - who had existed in the second version but hadn’t met - fall in love and marry because there was no other visible possibility arising out of their meeting. Many characters which had been given a short shrift in the first and second installments have found sizable space in Flood of Fire.

But that hardly takes away from Ghosh’s strength of characterization. In fact, Ghosh has established his characters with his readers so well that it took me only one or two introductory sentences to recall them upon their first appearance in this edition. 

Neel a scion of a feudal family who started off as a debauch in Sea of Poppies and is arrested for being a defaulter goes through a range of experiences in China where he had ended up after fleeing the ship – the Ibis – which was transporting him to Mauritius to be an indentured laborer – completely redeems himself. Zachary a poor but personable American sailor, in the first book, becomes a wealthy businessman in the last. Aaa Fatt an opium addict and a love child of a successful opium merchant gets killed by a mafia don who had started looking for him in River of Smoke – the second book in the trilogy - to avenge the fact that Aaa Fatt had seduced his lover. And like them there are other characters too whose lives are transformed in the course of the trilogy.

Flood of Fire is not bad but the second one of the pack – River of Smoke – is the best of the three books, with its unhurried and intricate narrative without any attempt to be a thriller.   

Friday, August 26, 2016

Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told - a Collection of Bengali Short Stories

A collection of short stories written by writers writing in the same language and coming from the same place can often cover the past and present of a place more widely than it is possible for a novel which, even those moving back and forth in time to cover a long period, mostly takes a linier trajectory. 

The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told translated by Arunava Sinha do something similar: the collection brings together the work of the most famous and not so famous Bengali writers coming from different periods and places of Bengal and covering a huge landscape from Bengal’s past and present.

Alas, it is hard to understand whether it is by design or accident. Sinha informs us, in the introduction, that his choice of stories isn’t based on any scholarly or thematic consideration; instead on what he considers best stories or stories he has been able to place himself.  On a more informative note, he informs us that Bengali short stories can’t be traced to any particular period or group of practitioners of the form; they were always being written; they were always there, evolving with time.

The first story in the collection is Rabindra Nath Tagore’s famous Kabuliwallah. Having seen its movie adaptations, which were lengthened by songs, I felt the story ended too soon, although it  read surprisingly fresh.  Mahesh, by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, tells the story of a Muslim man who owns a cow called Mahesh and takes care of the animal with fatherly affection and care. One day, due to Mahesh, misfortune visits him and enraged he hits Mahesh on its head killing the animal. The village turns against him accusing him of cow slaughter. It was written around a century back.

Einstein and Indubala deals with our preference for entertainment over scholarship. Einstein visits a small town to deliver a lecture. On the day the lecture is scheduled, there is another event in the town which everyone is awaiting: a live performance by Indubala, a cine sensation.  When Einstein arrives at the lecture venue he finds all the seats empty. 

The guard informs him that everyone would have gone to watch Indubala perform.  Finally the scientist goes to the place and finds the organizers of his lecture sitting there. Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay had written it based on a report he had read in a newspaper.

I found Sunil Gangopadhay’s Post Mortem too incoherent. It reminded me of what the writer had once told about writing short stories. In his initial days as a writer he was reluctant to try out short stories, until a friend told him one day that writing short stories was easy: write what you do in a day, from the time you get up to the time you go to bed, and stop somewhere, and you have a short story.

Swapan is Dead, Long Live Swapan by Udayan Ghosh deals with Naxalism, the only story in the collection to deal with the socio-political issue which had rocked Bengal in the 70s. I also liked Mahaswtha Devi’s Urvashi and Johnny which is about people who call streets their home. There are a few more in the collection.

The literary merit of the stories notwithstanding, the book’s title -The Greatest Bengali Stories Ever Told - could be a little more understated as also the title of its introduction where Sinha justifies putting together the collection – My Love Affair with Bengali Stories.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Gachar Gochar - the Problems Wealth Brings

Usually we blame our problems on lack of wealth. Gachar Gochar, written by Vivek Shanbhag in Kannada and translated into English by Srinath Perur argues the opposite: wealth brings problems it its wake. Gachar Gohchar manages to make its point very succinctly, in only 115 pages through the story of a Kannada family which goes from lower middle class existence to prosperity following the success of a spice business the family starts with the corpus received from the forced voluntary retirement of its sole earning member.

The narrator, a member of the family, takes you through how the family gradually loses its coherence as wealth comes in. The spontaneous family gatherings stop, the dependence on each other goes, minor differences which had found scant attention earlier start developing into prominent fissures, some of its members scuttle their responsibilities and settle for easier choices money and power can provide; gradually middle class values, which had held the family together earlier,  erode. The narrator makes timely interventions stepping back from the story and giving observations on the happenings to press home the point: that it’s the new entrant money which is behind the changing complexion of the family.

Despite the seriousness of the topic, Shanbhag manages to make you laugh for most part of the book with situations that are common to all middle class joint families. But what impresses you the most is the rootedness of Gachar Gochar into the world that it belongs to. 

Vivek has captured the idiosyncrasies of a middle class family excellently through their day-to-day habits and practices, like a discussion started at the dinner table far outlasting the food and the family members hearing engrossed even as the remnants of the food is caking up on their fingers or a member absent-mindedly picking up grains of rice from his plate and putting them in his mouth one by one as he his listening to what’s being told.

The story is inconclusive, in that the family doesn’t lose the acquired wealth and return to poverty; but towards the end, a sudden outburst by the narrator’s wife, Anita, the only daughter of a professor, and ill at ease in the atmosphere of new money that is her husband’s family, against the patriarch of the family (Chikkappa) who takes care of the spice business and whose authority in the family never suffers a dissent - throws the faultlines into sharp focus: that new money also creates a certain power structure of which others live and to ensure continuity of their vested interests they avoid challenging it, however unscrupulous be its way of ensuring that continuity.  

Following the outburst by Anitha the suffocating silence maintained by the family members on Chikkappa is broken – and in a throwback to the old times, the family gets together again around Chikkappa to hear his stories.


The end is like outpouring of rain following a parched day. Gachar Gochar is another example of the gold mine that is our vernacular literature. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The New Type of Leader in the World of Politics

There is a new type of leader finding acceptability in the world of politics. Political rhetoric has always been one of appropriateness where conventional or traditionally acceptable views are considered safe. Issues change but how they are talked about by the conventional political leader remains the same. 

The new type of leader is breaking this mould. They don’t care about traditional views. They are blunt. They say the unsayable. They often put their foot wrong with their comments and earn all round derision, but get up, shake off the dust and start walking again. They apparently don’t care about their image but end up creating one for themselves. And surprisingly, this new type of leader is finding political success.

With every passing day, Donald Trump is inching towards becoming the Republican candidate for presidency. And as the silver-haired American millionaire spouts one politically blasphemous statement after another, Indians are saying: “Doesn’t he remind us of someone closer home?” 

Conservative French politician, who is now an MP, Marine Le Pen, who is often called xenophobic, is another example of modern day politicians who are not afraid of expressing unconventional (or even unpalatable) views.

A general brashness, though, is not the only attribute characterizing all of them. Some of them, in fact, may appear like a chip off the old block, in terms of general behavior, but occasionally, when an issue warrants, they show scant regard for tradition. Roughly six months ago, David Cameron said ‘it is because of these important religious roots and Christian values that Britain has been such a successful home to people of all faiths and none.’ And despite the instant disapproval of British intelligentsia, he never apologized or tried to explain himself.

However, if you see beyond the bravado and examine the comments of the brave hearts in the light of current global realities, the brave hearts will appear less foolhardy and more pragmatic. You will realize they are making unconventional statements because they know they reflect the opinion of masses, that even if they are lambasted by the cognoscenti, they will gain politically. And it is working. People feel these leaders are less pretentious, that they say what is obvious but unsaid. When they speak people feel heard. Elections after elections have shown that these sentiments convert into votes. 

This trend is a fallout of mainly two geopolitical realities. One is growing Islamic extremism and global financial crisis – which none of the conventional political leaders and parties have been able to handle very effectively. Growing Islamic terrorism has meant many things – security concerns (as a direct effect of the phenomenon), cultural insecurities (due to immigrants from Muslim countries pouring into Western countries that they culturally share very less in common with), opposition to a common currency in Europe, etc.

To address the fallout of some of these issues, conventional parties have been seen shifting their ideological position. Conservative European parties have shifted towards the left from their right ideological position, and vice versa. Angela Merkel, in a move inconceivable of a conservative leader, opened the gates of Germany to immigrants from Muslim countries. Hollande, the French president, his socialist ideological moorings notwithstanding, has had to resort to war mongering and strict security measures (affecting the Muslims). In Britain, the Conservative Party led by David Cameroon has had to go soft on some of the traditional conservative values. This shifting of ideological position, particularly by the conservative parties, has left a vacuum on the far right, which, many say, has led to the rise of far right leaders.

Although American politics is a little simpler than Europe with only two parties occupying the entire ideological space, America shares some problems with Europe, mainly those related to security and economy. And its conservative party – The Republicans – being an establishment party, has not been able to veer too much off the beaten path on these issues.  Donald Trump is a result of that.  

The number of the new type of leader will grow and the number of people feeling represented (or their views and sentiments reflected by them) by them will increase too if mainstream politicians and political parties continue to be wishy washy when it comes to certain issues that directly affect the lives of citizens. Conversely, it is also true that if these leaders become part of establishments they will acquire a political sobriety which now typifies the conventional politician. Either way the new type of leader will leave the political firmament transformed in many ways.

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