Saturday, March 22, 2008

Oil’s Not That Ends Well

By Sunil K Poolani

As a ‘secular’ Indian one should, of course, be wary and concerned about neo-Hindutva’s cataclysm and its despicable pogrom programmes, however tinny and wan they might appear. But what baffles one is the contemporary Islam’s (and its various mutations’) tryst with the world order.

Reams and reams have been written about the influence (read: oil money) Saudi Arabia has over the developed world. Ditto, World Police USA’s duplicity in targeting, destroying and then rebuilding Islamic countries under the illusion that these countries possess ‘weapons of mass destruction’.

As Michael Moore and the late Hunter Thompson have had reminded their brethren a zillion times, all these wars are not fought because there is an (invisible) enemy in the wastelands of Afghanistan (or is it Pakistan?) but because the Americans are strung-up with the thought that one day their oil will evaporate; and they cannot run their BMWs and Rolls-Royces with water.

A geographical overview: Iraq is done with; Afghanistan is in a shambles (but there is drug money, nonetheless); Iran is next in line; there are promising targets like Venezuela and North Korea; and, yes, why not Russia? What do these countries have in common, save Afghanistan? They have oil; so the US conveniently finds cock-and-bull excuses like Islamic fundamentalism and communism to ‘tame’ these ‘rogue’ nations.

The US, as any third-grader would tell you, is the rogue nation. Now, forget what America is and how far it can lower itself. But, pray, why an oil-rich kingdom like Saudi Arabia does not come under the US bombardment schedule? Reasons are aplenty. Three emerge plausible.

1) Saudi stumbled on oil decades ago and the gold rush started; it has enough oil to keep the whole world running for decades to come. Along with oil, the Saudis’ business interest, too, rose. And the US became their perfect partner in this business. The Arabs’ oil money and the Americans’ thinking power (well, do not go by Bush’s face) resulted in several business partnerships taking shape. So it’s natural that the Bush family has business relationships with the bin Laden family (remember: the bin Ladens were safely allowed to leave the American soil few hours after the 9/11 terror attack).

2) The Americans want a military base (along with financial and oil support) in the Arab region — a dual gain for the US and Saudi. The US can target and bomb (consider: the commissions from the arms- and ammunitions-makers) Arab nations that are a ‘threat’ to world peace. In the process, it can gather oil from Saudi and adjoining sultanates (for at least a short time). Once the destruction job is over, America can commission, ahem, multinational companies the job of rebuilding the battered countries. It doesn’t matter whether Iraq is Sunni-dominated, a la Saudi Arabia; ultimately, once the US gets tired of the Arabian desert and leaves the coast these oil rich lands will fall in the lap of Saudi. Moreover, when it comes to attacking a Shia-majority Iran, Saudi would gleefully extend any help.

3) A school of thought believes that Bush & Co were (and are) party to all the so-called ‘terror’ attacks happening all over the world. The US does realise that the real terror attack will happen if they treat Saudi like, say Iraq or Afghanistan. After all, Saudi is the holy land of all the Muslims across the world, and US would never dream of waging a war against the kingdom.

These questions are too relevant in today’s global politico-sphere. Where do we stand and where are we headed towards? Oil has the final answer: it made certain countries rich, and that richness helped a certain religion a fearsome force to reckon with — across the globe. Today the West and the Hindu Indians eye the Muslims differently: with fear, loathe, envy, not necessarily in that order. The followers of the present form of Islam, cash rich and clueless about how to sensibly utilise it for the betterment of world peace and growth, have enjoyed all the momentary joy money can buy and are now on a rabid trip of self-destruction, blowing millions in the process.

If narcotic money once made Afghanistan strong enough to fight the ‘infidels’, oil is continuing to do the same thing for certain Arab nations. Oil has become the new opium of the masses — Arabs and Americans alike.

Keralite: Left High and Dry

By Sunil K Poolani

On a recent visit to Kerala, in south India, after some years, one was baffled to see the change in the political zeitgeist. The once-politically vibrant Keralite has not only become unrepentantly indifferent but no longer shares any excitement about the chameleon-type political parties — across spectrums. The reason: the political parties’ sheer lack of ideology.

Even before the final formation of the Kerala state, the then political parties, whether the Indian National Congress or the undivided Communist Party, had individual identities, say nationalism or class struggle — reasons that ensured them a loyal mass support.

People’s commitment to ideological polity was one of the reasons why Keralites preferred to elect communists through the ballot box, a maiden event in world history. Also, some sort of commitment from the opposite camp led to Vimochana Samaram, or liberation struggle, which led to the ouster of the first communist government.

Coupled with commitment, rich general awareness and high literacy levels made Kerala a role model, an example of how polity can influence and affect common life; for a Keralite, ideological politics was something more important than basic amenities. The result, though of no consequence in the long run, was revolutionary: the Land Reforms Act, high education and literacy, low death rates and above all public awareness.

Now, decreasing value politics, dirty alliances and the redundancy of the very existence of political parties have led to a situation where educated Kerala electorate, who have enough time to spare at their hands thanks to chronic unemployment and reluctance to do manual labour, are left ideologically abandoned.

Kerala does have the history of not consequently electing a government — whether it is the United Democratic Front (UDF) or the Left Democratic Front (LDF). But that definitely is not the reason why the electorate would prefer the UDF over the LDF, or vice versa. The reason is that more Keralites do not find any reason why a party with a philosophy like communism, which is almost non-existent worldwide after the effete putsch in the erstwhile Soviet Union, should be trusted. The mass realisation is that ‘communism’ may have been of some contribution to the Kerala psyche and identity, but it did more harm than good: destroyed economy, reduced employment opportunities, shut industries down, encouraged militant trade unionism and moreover left a huge void of individual idleness which is difficult to be filled in decades to come.

And in Kerala’s case, after the death of AK Gopalan, Krishna Pillai and EMS Namboodiripad, there was hardly a mass communist leader whom the janata could look up to. All they had was E K Nayanar, the Kerala counterpart of Laloo Prasad Yadav, whose ‘charm’ even the present LDF chief minister, V S Achudanandan, does not have.

That doesn’t mean the UDF is above suspicion. If at all the Congress-led front came to power it was either due to the disenchantment towards the communists, or, mainly, because the ideology-lacking UDF meant business — whichever way one takes it. People, of course, realise that the Congress in Kerala, to live up to the name it has carved elsewhere, has institutionalised corruption and if elected they’d repeat what they were always good at: enjoying the fruits of power. Antony, as many claim, might have ensured probity in his own life, but, well, less said the better of the rest of the clan in his party.

And that leaves with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Though LK Advani was always optimistic of opening an account in every assembly and Lok Sabha polls, it’s easier said than done. Here, too, ideology rules: for an ordinary Keralite, Lord Ram is an alien, and Ayodhya is as alien a place as Antartica. Fanaticism can never run in this land — created, as epics say, by Parasuram, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu and the one before Ram — and obsessed nationalism, which the BJP is trying to inculcate among the masses, is not something Keralites followed even in the time of the Independence Movement.
-- Mint / Oman Tribune

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Black Humour

By Sunil K Poolani


Nicola Barker

Harper Perennial

Price: 495; Pages: 838

Phew! Honestly, ever since I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1,400 pages) and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy (1,488 pages), I have never read a book as voluminous and equally tiresome as Darkmans. Like its above two brethrens, Darkmans cannot be read at one go — main reason for me to write this review so late — it has to be tasted in bits and pieces. That doesn’t mean the taste is altogether good; only in bits and parts. More of it later.

The raison d'ĂȘtre behind the book getting reviewed across the globe and, in the process getting sold despite its sheer shape, is because, you guessed it right, it was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2007.

Barker’s novels and stories have this quality: they are occupied by protagonists and characters who can’t stand each other. In the initial pages of Darkmans, a Kane gets irritated with Elen, a chiropodist. The reason? She hates the way he uses his mobile phone. This prompts him to believe that she lives without technology and chatter.

Then there is Daniel Beede and Kane is his drug-peddler son. Kane employs Gaffar, a Kurd who dislikes salad. Then comes Kelly Broad, who has a broken leg and is Kane’s ex-girlfriend; Gaffar wants to bed her. There’s Elen, Beede’s chiropodist and her husband, Dory, who is German. They have a son, Fleet, who is a child prodigy and a brat.

A woman called Peta Borough argues that modern life has become medieval. She connects the modern obsession with gratuitous consumption to medieval feasts and suggests that ‘courtly love’ literature is mirrored by the popularity of sequences such as Harry Potter and Star Wars. Barker’s character, predictably, believes the locus of change is language, with several plays on the way that text-speak and pop-culture references resemble the mutability of medieval spelling. Her interest in sociolinguistics has long been part of her fiction, but here this concern is central to the plot.

The hip, the square and the crazy trip over their pasts and each other in this boisterous latest from Barker, The primary focus of the novel, set in Ashford, England, near the Channel Tunnel, is on two families. Kane is a cool prescription-drug dealer. Beede is stuffy, civic-minded and pedantic; he supervises a hospital laundry. They tolerate each other warily; their one great crisis occurred when Kane’s mother (Beede’s divorced wife) died painfully after a botched suicide attempt. The other family consists of Dory, Elen, Fleet. Dory is a complete mess, narcoleptic and paranoid. He suffers dangerous episodes of which he has no memory. At times he is possessed by a medieval jester called John, who once burned down a barn with people inside. Tiny Fleet is weird, too (he knows about John).

The sane one is Elen, who radiates calm and commonsense. She’s a podiatrist who has treated Beede and Kane and is the link between the families. There is a third family, the Broads, a collection of lowlifes. Foremost among them is punk, anorexic Kelly; she has a big mouth but a good heart. The novel generates heat but no light. The hijinks (searching in a haunted forest for Dory, for example) are enhanced by playful typography and counter pointed by erudite riffs on, among other things, similarities between the medieval and modern worlds. The past weighs heavily, even on the Broads.

The questions pile up but go unanswered; projected climaxes (a rooftop encounter between Dory and John) fizzle out. As in her previous work, Barker is still seductive, idiosyncratic and infuriating.

Barker pursues many other interests, including chiropody, scratchcards, sex, dogs, gardening, religion, cars and class. Although her characters, on the whole, travel only small physical distances, they constantly make mental connections back and forth in time and space, living in fear of psychic forces that seem to lead to the “darkmans” of the title.

People come and go like you witness in Victoria Terminus, the narrative leads off in one direction before fizzing out and being, sometimes, resumed at a later point. There are ambiguous interjections in paragraphs — mostly just monosyllabic grunts and the whole prose is weighed down by a knowing overuse of clichĂ©, adverbs, and speech tags.

Darkmans, like many of Barker’s other works, is all about chatter. Her characters launch into aggressive conversation as they meet, and in their anger and frustration resemble characters from drama as much as literature, refugees from Mamet or Pinter. This chatter is amplified by Barker’s digressive, gossipy authorial voice, which prevents the reader from feeling any distance. There is a constant sense she might launch us into the mind of one of her psychotics and leave us there, and this gives her books a fearsome energy.

Buy Darkmans and read it if you have a 10-day vacation and nothing important to do.

Sahara Time

Wait and Gain Weight

The Waiting Room

Anupa Mehta

Penguin Books

Price: 195; Pages: 156

By Sunil K Poolani

The ‘mistake’ of Arundhati Roy’s and Kiran Desai’s ilk was to encourage Indian ladies (and men, too) of all ages and design to churn out works of ‘fiction’ that they think will take them to instant stardom and help procure them fat advances, if not for their debut work, then at least for the ones that they threaten to write later.

Most of these kinds of chic-lit stuff are not even worth writing, let alone publishing. And when you have respected Indian publishers like Penguin and Rupa start promoting a ‘literature’ of this variety the circle is complete; this augments the high expectations of wannabe writers to furiously pen more and more, consequently filling the metropolitan bookstores which have these days started looking like multiplex cinema halls where movies come and vanish, for ever, in just few days.

The Waiting Room by Anupa Mehta is one the latest in this genre. Akin to the title, the hapless reader waits — and waits — from the beginning of the novel to the end (if at all s/he manages to reach there, which is unlikely) to figure out what the story is all about. Story, did one say? Sorry, there is hardly anything. Nevertheless, a review demands the reader know something about the novel and the characters presumably playing a part in it. So here it goes.

The book is about Maya, who keeps meeting a physiatrist (and she waits in a room for that). The problem with her is that she is depraved of soulful love and good sex. She and her hubby, Sameer, a year since their wedding, had slipped into a routine life, without physical intimacy. Now, this physiatrist guy, Nayan, is a Casanova par excellence: Nayan helps Maya have sex. How did it go? Listen to her narrative, which is mainly in the form of diary (an easy way to write fiction; please take note, aspiring writers): “Yes, it hurt. I do not want to remember the weight of his body, or its smells or the jabbing, excruciatingly painful thrusts.” As the book progresses other patients too get fornicated by Nayan.

In between Maya gets a child, Sanjana. But Sameer has become more and more abusive: “Fucking shit… Goddamn bitch… Stupid c**t…” Aniket Nair is one person she had met in her long, sad years of hopelessness and physical craving. Though he slips easily into the role of confidant and guardian, he never makes love to her. Years later, he sifts through the journals where Maya wrote her life story to unravel what went wrong in her life. And here is where the novel falls flat: nothing is made out of the jottings.

At one point of time, Maya gets emotionally and physically attached to one Mir. Then comes one Dayal, whose relationship with Maya remained unconsummated, although they wooed each other over a few months, whatever it means. The lovers and paramours and sympathisers come and go like the passengers you witness in Howrah Station. As the novel meanders, it seems even Anupa Mehta, too, gets bored of Maya. So Mehta decides to kill Maya. How: “The visiting psychiatrist declared her condition ‘a case of acute melancholia leading to premeditated self-abnegation’ — a conclusion drawn from the fact that Maya stopped eating and drinking ten days before she died.” Then Mehta manages to get Sameer killed in a fatal car accident. Sanjana is remaining. Mehta is kind enough to have Aniket adopt her. And that is the end of the story (or the lack of it).

Statutory Warning: Read this book at your own risk, lest you might end up in a psychiatrist’s chamber. And if the psychiatrist is somebody like Nayan, you had it.

-- Deccan Herald

Single in City: Missing that Nagging Feeling?

By Sunil K Poolani

Nana, a character in Khaled Hosseini’s path-breaking novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, mouths this line: “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.” That story took place thirty years ago in a remote Afghan village.

In twenty-first century (circa 2000, to be precise) Mumbai, the needle took a 180° pyrotechnic turn — in my case. That was the ‘famous’ year my soul was decapitated at the altar of matrimony; a chronic misanthropist, an undisciplined, self-destructing guy from the south of the Vindhyas met and married (for no physiological or psychological reason) a regimented, career-ambitious and perennially chirpy, short girl from the lap of the Himalayas.

The comedy of tragedies didn’t take much time to turn into a tragedy of comedies. Four years of bonded marriage followed, and I was thrown out of the house by my exasperated partner in crime. I am now celebrating three years of Independence after a four-year-old subjugation. On this historic occasion, what you are about to read below are some (im)pertinent thoughts that cropped up while enduring the most gruesome system invented by man(un)kind. So here they go:

(Nevertheless, my sincere request to all bachelors is, you should [at least once] get married to an urban girl [the more horrible, the better] and then get divorced [never have kids; never pay alimony] in order to enjoy the true pleasures of bachelordom.)

1) If you are an entrepreneur you can start or finish your work whenever you want. Bunk work. Or overwork. No questions asked, unless you have another niggling incarnate: your mom. Even if you are a pen-pusher reporting to a snooty boss, it is much better than that nagging feeling home.

2) After a day’s long (pretentious) work, it is time for a much-deserved drink with your old chums. Wow! What a feeling; no threatening calls on the cell phone (who invented this?); no surprise raids at the favourite neighbourhood bar by a seething wife with a panting pup on a leash; and if you are back from an office party there are no scowls by the wife if she discovers a bindi on the sleeves or a faint smell of girl’s perfume on the collar, and if she finds a long hair stuck anywhere on your cloth, it’s advisable to take the next train to Thrissur.

3) Pre- or post-matrimony, the greatest advantage of living single is that, to borrow Khushwant Singh’s line, fart without getting embarrassed. Why just fart? You can burp, pick your nose or tooth, groom a stubbled beard, fearlessly drop the cigarette ash on the floor, have magazines and Sunday glossies, along with empty beer bottles, strewn around, allow dust to gather on unread novels meant for reviews, shop, cook or eat when your hangover subsides, bring friends (of both sexes) home without eyebrows rising… the list is endless.

4) Then the real pleasures. You do not have to make yearly, yawn, visits to your in-laws and touch their feet every time you step into the house after puffing on a local bidi. And, you do not have to listen to silly talk such as: “Since you are a journalist, please introduce me to Amitabh Bachchan and also some underworld elements when we are in Bombay next”; “Please speak to the Union petroleum minister and help allot my son a petrol pump”; “You should be knowing Trilokji at Dainik Kesari; he is a reporter in Hoshiarpur and a friend of mine.”

5) Then the true pleasures. The wife will not force you to sign a form while you are pretending sleeping (transferring your money into her account or changing the LIC nominee’s name from your mother to the wife). Neither will the wife complain that your mother consumes lots of pickles, that your brother does nothing but watch Asianet on the telly, that your cousin sister is demanding some bit of money for her kids’ education, that you no longer can sponsor a girl child, that you cannot feed pariah dogs as it costs money (Rs 2 for a small packet of Tiger biscuits).

All the above might work if you get out of the marriage unscarred. Which is, often, not the case. Several of my brethren are destined to remain eternal bachelors for sheer lack of social skills coupled with misogamy. And they think that matrimony is merely a ‘matter-o-money’. “It’s high time,” they plead, “we should demand ‘patri-money’.”

For the time being, folks, there is no confusion, when I wake up slit-eyed, that I am not using the wife’s toothbrush.

Math and Fiction

By Sunil K Poolani

A Certain Ambiguity

Gaurav Suri + Hartosh Singh Bal

Penguin Viking

Price: 450; Pages: 282

Did you notice the plus sign above, between the authors? That’s where the over-abundance (which can be mistaken for profundity and fecundity in the beginning) of mathematics starts in this extraordinary novel. And it flows and flows, cover to cover.

The novel is ‘extraordinary’ for the simple reason that it is not really a novel, but non-fiction, camouflaged as a history book (of mathematics). (By the way, there is an Author’s Note in the beginning; I thought there were two authors.)

And who better to pen this book other than Gaurav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal. Suri and Bal hold a master’s degree in mathematics from Stanford and New York University, respectively, and have been friends since childhood. And this book is the fruit of their enduring childhood.

No doubt, it is a novel attempt and in some respect the authors do succeed, too. My quarrel is, why did a book that is so rich in making math simple to the layperson had to be written (fruitlessly, nevertheless) in a fictional format? Knock, knock… No answer.

If it were a pure work of fiction minus the mathematical ‘ambiguity’, the storyline is something worth a dream. Ravi Kapoor studies at Stanford (in the late 1980s) and he takes a class on infinity. Here is where he faces the dilemma (both mathematical and philosophical) which his grandfather (Vijay Sahni, who too was an avid mathematician) had faced, many decades earlier, for which he had to land up in jail. Why jail? Because Sahni was charged under an “obscure blasphemy law in a small New Jersey town in 1919.”

What Kapoor and Sahni, which we gather as the pages are flipped through, have in common is that they stumble upon the power and weakness of Euclidean geometry, which has been considered to be the height of human certainty for eons. In the process the duo had to shed the basic beliefs and choices of mathematics.

The first-half of the book (primarily fiction) reads much better than the second half (largely mathematical quotients, theories and, yes, diagrams and research). Once a reader starts the book s/he is taken on a rollercoaster ride, adrenaline rushing; that is if the reader has an aptitude for decoding and savouring the infinity that is mathematics.

So is it meant for the lay reader? To be fair, the authors are successful in making complex mathematics ideas available. Like? Sample this: Enter a number, say, 342. Type it again and you have 342342. It will be divisible by 13. And you get 26334. It would be then divisible by 11. So you have 2394. Divide it by 7 and finally you get 342. This works in almost all the numbers. Cute, isn’t it?

Yes, the book is full of these little tricks, but the tricks become serious riddles and cerebral as you turn the pages. One reflective conclusion that can be drawn out of mathematics is how much ever ambiguous it might seem, the more you delve deep into it, with a pinch of modesty and decorum, and more are the chances of solving them and, in the process, enjoying them.

Mathematics is like any other stream of arts, be it literature, performing arts or plastic arts. There is an infinity that is mind-boggling and there lies the beauty; a realisation that more you analyse and solve the mysteries of the game, the more the awareness that it is vastly and hugely endless. Galileo, Plato and our own Ramanujam realised it, so do most of the contemporary mathematical brains. But it is true that mathematics, like any other art form, is losing its relevance; precisely for that reason this attempt to revive and regenerate interest in this stream of science should be welcomed.

-- Deccan Herald