Thursday, January 3, 2019

Everything Under - Daisy Johnson

Everything Under

Daisy Johnson’s book is about the dank underside of England, of people who drift and understand predestination quite differently from their imperial forefathers.

‘Everything Under’ is the story of Gretel, struggling to care for Sarah, the mother who abandoned her, while trying to unravel the mystery of the initial desertion, in a race to the finish with the Alzheimer’s that is fast claiming Sarah’s mind. Interspersed is an account of Gretel’s search before she finds Sarah again and the discoveries she makes along the way; intertwined are tales of Charlie, who could have been Gretel’s father, of Margot, of Marcus, his backstory, and most importantly Marcus’s destiny. The narrative is suspenseful and makes for gripping reading, if only by the author’s device of breaking up all accounts down into bits and strands and jumbling them up into a glorious jigsaw puzzle that Margot might have liked.

Warning: The end is mildly anticlimactic, given the plot twists that precede it.
In all this, Everything Under is also a story of people blown to river-shores by the draughts of modern life, living on boats in generally wild and uncomfortable conditions. These people are sort of outside the pale of society, the authorities having given them a wide berth, many times because they do not even know of their existence. They apparently have their own amphibian society and code, and at first glance are not very different from the gypsies of yore or favelas of today. The difference however is that of agency. People who choose to live on riverboats in this day and age, in particular the personalities of Charlie, Sarah and Marcus are stamped with an individuality, which is not the province of your everyday slum-dweller/ trailer-homeowner. And that is where the question of inexplicability arises. Sarah styles herself as a giver upper and leaver and one could do that – taint them with a flaw and condemn them; or one could ponder like Daisy Johnson on why people do the crazy things they do. If these otherwise competent persons cannot help make their eccentric and sometimes terrible choices, is it then written in the stars, in the constellations that Gretel has pored from under as a child? Is it prophesied and is it impossible to escape the clutches of what is meant to be? The author looks to Greek tragedy for inspiration to explain the inexorable forces that make people do bizarre stuff but the actors in her drama are not looking to Sophocles – they understand that fear drives them and they have a name for that which is feared: the Bonak.

I read the book on the banks of the Douro River and as I walked in the twilight along its towpath, looking for a stone wall to break my coconut (a Friday ritual of mine), I shivered. There is something unnerving about the riverside at night. But Johnson’s descriptions of the Bonak are underwhelming – they certainly do not capture the eerie essence of the man versus nature dynamic in the night. One gets it, because one has experienced it and it is in one’s culture – in Africa and South India, you never say the word “snake” at night, for you may conjure it like Gretel thinks they might have with the Bonak— but the book does not convey it and that takes away its punch.

What comes through however, without much fanfare, is the solitary steeliness of these ignored ‘feckless’ people, and an unyielding non-conformism that is as baffling as it is awe-inspiring in today’s mapped out, fully googlable world.

That is the good part. On the flip side I could not shake a suspicion that this is a book constructed for publication. It is too similar to Tinkers, (reviewed elsewhere) in its take on forgotten people who are out of the mainstream. Perhaps their time has come at last. Or it is just a clever choice of subject being turned into Booker material by infusing Greek myths – the oldest creative writing exercise there is by the way. And it is not lost on me that Daisy Johnson too, like Tinkers writer Paul Harding has studied Creative Writing, that she belongs to a species of people who are writing for the art of it, whether they have a story to tell or no. I am not at all sure if that is a great thing. Also, I can do without the pages devoted to lexicography, paper making, typesetting, and other abstruse professions I have no interest in, that I am forced to read about because authors think they add "the lyrical". Irrespective, just as most western reviewers are struck by the mythical/ pagan angle in Everything Under, I as an Asian am curious about the river people. I do not really know what it is to be a recluse yet and such people intrigue me. If they are simply a ruse to lure a reader in, place a plot in, then the book becomes a sham for me. Tinkers had authorial authority; I am afraid Daisy Johnson has appropriated the river people for her literary ends and I do not like it.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Two books

The cover glows in the dark
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A twenty-four year old in San Fran, detritus of the great layoff of 2008, finds a job as a night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and in its eponymous novel, thence the adventures begin. If you have read the blurb or other reviews, you probably know that the bookstore is really a front for a cultish society devoted to deciphering a centuries-old code that is supposed to hold the key to life, the universe and everything. Books are by the way – it is book making and decoding that take centre-stage; this is a story for the millennial age, where Google and Young Adult Fantasy fiction jostle for page-space with a brilliant exposition on how the brand new world works. It is the story of a world where networking and crowd sourcing intersects with individual brilliance, where unbounded ambition and confidence mixes with sweet humility (oh please produce a Hadoop will you!), where nothing is done because one ought to, but where all (after a fashion) is achieved because one wants it. ‘It’ is whatever takes one’s fancy – delving into typeface, locating a corporate building from a logo, building mini cities in living rooms, or climbing walls in bookstores. It is in a way, a show of youth when everything is within grasp, (and nothing is at stake?), when the best of us is (was) on display.

Someone said that most books fall within two categories – the siege book or the quest book. This book is undoubtedly about a quest, and there is a magical and celebratory quality to it, which is refreshing in our gloomy world of hard and gritty writing. People are in general nice and delineated by flaws in perspective rather than character. The protagonist is one of the most lovely, sorted individuals I have met on a printed page, who ever got to tell a novel. Oldies are benign and women have none of the angst and general PTSD that I have been reading of lately- in fact young women are represented as almost otherworldly, be it Ashley the android or super-powerful Kate Potente. Very interesting and new age. (There is a boys and their toys aspect to the novel, but I will gloss over it).

You have guessed it – I am a woman skidding to her fifties, who gets off on Dostoevsky and Austen. Give me the siege novels that I can brood on forever, the human condition in full detailed horror interests me and if I do not get that in books, I trawl confessional posts on Facebook groups for Moms and “Human interest” stories on Wapo. I loved Douglas Adams for his humour and imagination but I associate his books with a different time, and how they helped me connect with guys, really. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore takes me back to that time in my life but half immerses me there – there is the millennial age realistic piece, like I said, which only sort of grabs me.

[This piece was typed on MS Word using the Cambria (Body) Font. It was then transferred to my blog dashboard in Trebuchet in order to obtain the Garamond typeface on the Blog for when I (and you) access it. Do not ask me why I have to type in Trebuchet to achieve Garamond; I love Garamond and I got a kick when I googled Gerritzoon, the hero typeface in the book, and my Wikipedia quest thereon (Internet has made questing easy for sure), led me to know that Type designs based on work designed by Francesco Griffo and commissioned by Aldus Manutius include Bembo, Poliphilus, and Garamond! Hurrah - that last was typed in Tamil MN – we all are millenials inside, are we not?]

[Edit - It is not Garamond that I get anymore but Cambria! (new version during my three year hiatus from blogging). So ignore the gibberish I have written in the previous para and I will not be grasshoppery any more and try to unravel the typeface pathways on blogger but go harass my son over Chemistry - oh why won't my children learn from me?]  

Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

I found Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore too bright eyed, so I reached out for an oldie. Lucky Jim, which I now realize won the Booker in 1951. I first read it in 1993, when I was the same age as the leads in Penumbra and Jim. It was a lonely existence. I was by the standards of the time well off, and more importantly set up at the start of a lucrative career in investment banking. Yet, I had no idea how to spend my earnings – a Tambrahm middle class upbringing had taught me to not only fear but also sneer at consumption– I was irretrievably dowdy and dorky. Since popularity and awkwardness are inversely related, I was single and unattached, and like I said, lonely. I shared PG (paying guest) digs in South Bombay (not SoBo then) with someone who whizzed off on trips to Goa and Bangkok every weekend or so it seemed. I on the other hand went to the local phone booth and made calls to people from my little black book to see if someone was ok to meet up, and if they did I made trips on local trains to meet them in Malad and Santacruz and sometimes we planned trips to Gorai. Now without the neurotic wiles of a Margaret or the exceptional attractiveness of Christine (female characters in Lucky Jim), calling up people every weekend to pass your time does not always work. For one, young men tend to look askance at twenty four year olds who want to be one of the guys; and then making a community of footloose and fancy free women in a new city takes time. Six months is a long time when you are only twenty four and in that lonely period, I became a member of the British Council and checked out execrable books that I perused diligently. I was more than quarter of the way through Lucky Jim, when I realized I was laughing out loudly instead of battling boredom. The book unfolded on me in just the perfect way– I love it when that happens. Good antidote for missing a thread of sexual tension under my nose – like Robin Sloan’s most endearing protagonist Clay Jannon.

Twenty years later, I found myself laughing sooner into the book – I was ready to be entertained unlike the first time round when I obviously read in that dazed way of my son. God knows if I would read it if I were my son, more the pity, but I laughed aloud through, startling my pedicurist. But all the world loves a laugher and she was very indulgent towards me.

Jim is a desperate young man in the world of academia, hampered by distaste for humbug, and a nose for mediocrity, not least his own. To make matters worse hormones and a kindly disposition threaten to entangle him in an unsuitable match. Jim seems depressingly done for. Batting for him however is a mad and wicked sense of humour and that is enough to keep us in splits. Yes you will find Waugh and Wodehouse and even Tom Sharpe here. The best of the British. You can go for it, and if the women are typecast as either good eggs or hysterics, well do try and remember that it is the year 1951, men had just died like fleas in the war, and were probably suffering from severe PTSD and envious misogyny. Do what women have done from times immemorial – ignore the dissonance and have fun! There is even a Gussie Fink Nottle speech.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Aurangzeb and his contribution to India

He was a handsome man!
There has been a lot of talk over a plan to change the name of Aurangzeb road to Abdul Kalam Road. To many this is another example of Indian history being rewritten by rightists.

Sometimes history needs to be rewritten. We need the honesty and the courage to look back in time through our current lenses and decide if the nation needs to honor someone anymore. And what do we see when we look back?

Aurangzeb was the sixth Mogul emperor in Hindustan, the land beyond the Indus as we have been characterized through history. He was the third son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Begum Mumtaz Mahal (of Taj Mahal fame). He was personable and brave. The education of a Mughal prince of the first blood could not have been complete without a good understanding of the rules of poetry, of music, of art and calligraphy.  Aurangzeb moreover was a seasoned general, a good leader of his men and a moral man.

He was brave (facing a must elephant as a teenager).
And so were they all. That was part of the Mughal allure. This dynasty produced six men who were not just competent rulers managing to keep a diverse country together – that is what a dynasty does – it consistently produced men who were personally talented, brave, intelligent and refined.

And so Aurangzeb was not alone in having “princely” traits. He had tough competition from his three full-brothers – Dara Shukoh and Shah Shuja who were older than him, and Murad Bakhsh who was the baby of the family. They were all courageous, intelligent, talented and good-looking, extremely well educated and bred to be Kings. Shuja and Murad were reputed to be cleverer generals, while the crown prince Dara was the liberal intellectual. Aurangzeb for his part brought in a certain resoluteness. And they all jostled for power.

By anointing his oldest son Dara the heir apparent, Shah Jahan perhaps provided a focal point for the ambitions of his three other sons, who revolted. When the dust settled, Shah Jahan and Murad were in prison, Shuja had been driven into exile and Dara had been captured. The man who had declared all along that kingship was not his aim, Aurangzeb or “hazrat ji” as he was called by his brothers-in-arms, had triumphed.

But so what if Aurangzeb had been treacherous — overthrowing his father and betraying at least one brother? Regular history stuff, we could say. ‘Price of power’, ‘win some, lose some,’ ‘live by the sword’ and all that. But I am not dealing in aphorisms here, I am not here to say, ‘Look at this man, he killed his brother!’ Indeed worse things have gone on in this world. Instead let me point to how Aurangzeb rationalized his actions. You see Aurangzeb was a moral man — deposing his father and eliminating his brothers required carefully thought out explanations.

He had not coveted power, he claimed. Whatever he did he had done for the righteous cause. Let us hear in his words, what that cause was:

(Extract from Aurangzeb’s Letter 1 to Shah Jahan from Adab e Alamgiri)

As, during the extreme illness of your majesty, the reins of power had dropped from your hands, and the eldest prince, who had not even the resemblance of a mussulmaun, having obtained arbitrary rule and authority, exercised unlimited controul, and revived the customs of infidelity and atheism throughout the empire; thinking it lawful, politic, and just to overthrow his designs, I advanced to these parts. My first battle was with wicked infidels, who had destroyed mosques, and erected on their sites temples to their idols. The second engage­ment was against the evil-acting atheists; and, as my intention was virtuous, in each, with an inferior force, I became successful, and preserved without a wound.”

And so a charge of apostasy was brought against Dara and he was executed.

Prince Dara was inclined towards Sufism and his religious propensities and obvious intellectualism might have alienated him in court but he had been as generous and liberal a prince as could be wished for, and greatly loved by the people. They rioted when they saw him in chains and they surely realised when events panned out as they did, that they had probably written his death warrant by showing their support for him.

In a land where Akbar had stated that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion’, the first prince of the land, an intellectual and an aesthete, a man popular by all accounts was put to death for heresy. Imagine what this could do to the psyche of a nation. When events play out on the public stage, who wins and who loses becomes important. Aurangzeb came to power in outrageous fashion like King Richard III of England. Unlike Richard III he got away with it, but I cannot believe he did not damage India when he did.

Aurangzeb ordered Dara’s headless body to be paraded through the bazaars. I suppose people used apathy to cope with the depression that undoubtedly loomed over them. These are the kind of things that can bring a country down, sway it from the free and joyous path of curious inquiry and set it on a self serving, disengaged course. You distance yourself from the power centre because you do not believe you can influence it, and you understand that it does not care for you.

As Abraham Eraly, the noted historian says, “Dara’s promise was of a humane progressive future. When he was executed what was involved was not just the death of a prince but the death of a future.”

Having become King, Aurangzeb used the state machinery to decimate his opponents. A charge of murder was made against Prince Murad and the Kazi was instructed that the  Shariah law of blood for blood should be enforced. Murad refused to plead his cause— it was lost already — and he was executed.

And it did not stop there. Aurangzeb had come to power on a religious agenda, and he strove to prove all his life that he was the upholder of the faith. He gradually adopted an ascetic lifestyle, shunned ostentation, and moved away from proscribed matters. He disdained Paan chewing, disapproved of drinking and advised women not to wear tight trousers like men. Which was a departure from the tone set by his liberal ancestors, but he also differed from his forbears in the matter of managing his Hindu subjects. He reimposed Jizya, the tax on non Muslims in the face of almost universal opposition from his people and against the specific advice of his ministers. This was not realpolitick or statecraft but the result of  Aurangzeb’s single minded attachment to his agenda. Of course he destroyed temples too. Only unlike his predecessors he did this in a systematic manner, as an instrument of state policy. Thousands of frankly incendiary remarks and actions are directly attributed to him and the reason I will not sit and quote from his letters or give instances of his actions is because I do not want to set up a Hindu vs. Moslem dialogue. There are enough sites which do so but if you are a student of history look no further than Check out Akham I Alamgiri and the Adab E Alamgiri.

Aurangzeb was a bigot, who applied his bigotry as state policy. He was also soft spoken and gentle, thoughtful in many ways and humble but that is not the point. Aurangzeb felt no kinship with the majority of his people and he tried his hardest to radicalise his country. Enough said. Regarding some of the other points made by his apologists:

  • That the Marathas plundered Bengal in 1740 – Agreed. Does that make Aurangzeb a great King?

  • That Aurangzeb destroyed less temples than other Mughal rulers. I could not find any credible references for this assertion and the even more outre one that he had actually built temples in Bengal. Aurangzeb followed a rigorous policy of allowing old structures to stand but not allow any new temples to come up. Aurangzeb’s letters suggest a sort of temple thirst that I have not seen in Akbar or Jahangir but who knows.

  • That music flourished in his time. Yes music flourished but that was despite, not because of Aurangzeb. Patronage for the arts gradually shifted to the provinces – to Oudh Kangra Mysore and Hyderabad, away from the Mughal capital and this shift in focus created additional faultlines along which the empire imploded.

  • That Aurangzeb employed more Hindus than other Mughal Kings. Well he should have, as the empire was more entrenched in India by his time. Besides, sources of Uzbeg and Iranian talent had dried up because of Shah Jahan’s ill advised war in the Balkh. Aurangzeb was unable to regain Kandahar and feared an Iranian invasion. His land hunger turned inwards  and he expanded his empire within the subcontinent – of course he employed more Hindus – he could follow no other course. But even in this matter it is his attitude which is important. He chafed in the circumstances and managed to offend most Hindu groups, in particular the Rajputs like in the case of the famous Ajit Singh-Durgadas incident. As the Rathods and the Sisodias became disaffected, his reliance on the Marathas increased which came with its own set of problems. The following should give you an insight into his mind,

“To employ a Hindu when you can a Musalman is a sin.” (Aurangzeb in a letter to his son)

“Do not allow the despicable infidels to repair their old temples”

Daily News of 11/1/1705 “The Emperor…ordered…to demolish the temple of Pandharpur, and to take the butchers of the camp there and slaughter cows in the temple…It was done.”

In 1671 Aurangzeb ordered that revenue officers of crown lands could only be Muslims. Because he was unable to fill the positions, he modified the rules to allow half of them to be Hindu.

I cite these instances not to demonise Aurangzeb as partisan - he was a product of his beliefs and of a time where his beliefs had legitimacy. I am trying to counter a rather silly point made by his apologists - that he employed more Hindus than his predecessors. I am merely pointing out that Aurangzeb was not very proud of having a record number of Hindus in his employment. But let us get back to the other arguments on his behalf:

  • That Aurangzeb was Hindi. Whatever. When he came to power, his family had been in India for more than hundred years, and he had a rightful claim to Hindidom. But he did not stake that right. To be Hindi was to think of all Hindustan as one’s own – regardless of sect. It was not the Indian nation Aurangzeb thought of – like Akbar did when he revoked Jizya, Jahangir does when he writes with such interest and curiosity of Hindu customs. Aurangzeb focused on a narrow Islamic-centric definition of what a Sultan should be, which left him little scope to be “Hindi”.

  • That the jizya was not discriminatory for its time. Nonsense. It was reinstated one hundred years after it had been abolished by Akbar. The highest of Mughal amirs opposed Aurangzeb on this matter. Soon after the decree there was an earthquake and the amirs who felt it was an omen, again entreated with Aurangzeb. So did Jahanara, his own sister. From time to time there were requests from his officers for exemptions, requests that were routinely rejected by the emperor himself.

  • That Brahmins were exempt from jizya. No they were not, the other Hindu castes volunteered to pay jizya for them when Aurangzeb refused to accede to their demand for exemption!

  • That the zakat tax on Moslems makes jizya alright. I find the whole argument infuriating. It is like making non Jains go veggie during Paryushan.

  • That he was alright for his time. For that time? What are we talking about here? This was fifty years before the Industrial revolution started in earnest and a good four hundred years after the European Renaissance, before the emergence of Nation states in Europe. Aurangzeb was situated at an admirable time where he could have led India forward. Instead of a unifying figure, he turned out to be one of the most divisive sovereigns to have sat on the throne at Delhi.

  • That caste Hindus committed atrocities too. Agreed. Is that the only defence for Aurangzeb - that the Hindus deserved it?

Many of my friends do not think about Aurangzeb at all but about the principle of it… They say, enough already, let us move on. Why change Poona to Pune and Madras to Chennai, why say Mumbai when Bombay falls easier from my lips, they ask. It is sometimes wiser to let sleeping dogs lie. I should not bring up Khilji’s conquest of Gujarat, or the execution of the Mughal princes at the Khooni Darwarza. Then again, if something long buried has been raked up, it is probably time for an inquest, to set matters right as we see it, here, now.

Some References

The Great Mughals by Abraham Eraly
Alberuni’s India
Akbar Namah – Abul Fazal
Muntaḫab al-tavārīḫ by Badayuni
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Websites that I use