Monday, September 26, 2011

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer

I have bad knees and cannot trek anymore. The announcement at the physiotherapist’s clinic that my hiking days are over, that I had to look at life from a completely different vantage point still aches inside me. From eschewing mountains to avoiding stairs, I have a come a long way down, but reading Jeffrey Archer’s 2009 novel brought back memories of the mid-nineties when armed with enthusiasm and Aachi, I tackled the Sahyadris.

Tavli is marked by a triangle in the guidebook and it was a good thing that, not having read it, I did not realize I was attempting one of the tougher hikes in the Western Ghats. The weak link, I lagged behind Aachi and his friend from Schlum (berger), and after waving them ahead, stopped to admire the parched countryside. I stepped on a makeshift log bridge to cross a dry riverbed, and felt it give a little. The fall could not have been more than five feet and I could have scrambled up and back on the path, albeit through thorny bushes. I chose to find a different route. In thirty minutes, I had climbed up a different hill, found two dead ends, and slipped from a dry ledge which came apart under my feet, missing a fifteen feet fall this time, by holding on to some plants, one of which came off by the roots in my hand. I clambered to relative safety and after dusting myself down called out. I was far away from my trekking partners and I was lost. I had no cell-phone, I have a poor sense of direction but I was calm, maybe because it was noontime and there were no wild people or animals about. I spent about ten minutes twiddling my thumbs and then I heard Aachi calling out- he later said it must have been a wind tunnel that allowed our cries to travel perfectly- and I shouted back and he soon came to the rescue. I remember his words- ‘Respect the mountain. Between man and nature, nature will win,’ all the more because one did not associate Aachi with such grand statements. We reached the Tavli cave through an arduous climb and started back around 230 P.M. The way down was very dangerous - refer–-pilot-trek-to-tavli-fort-with-nature-walk-india/. I probably imperiled those boys as we crawled down a steep incline, scrambling for toeholds and palm holds on the rock face. Paths of Glory brought me face to face with the risks I had taken on that expedition and on our subsequent hikes to Rajmachi and Singhgad when we ran out of water and lost our way and walked through the moonlit countryside to a most delightful inn deep in rural Maharashtra- yes these places exist. Much could have been. Much was.

Paths of Glory by Jeffrey Archer - The mesmeric fascination of a tragedy.

As a child I thrived on simple definitions. Happy endings were comedies, sad endings, tragedies. As I grew up, I picked up on the nuances of the comic genre but tragedies were something else. I did not like them and I did not see the point of them. I suspected that most people were like me, which is why there were not so many tragedies to pick up and peruse, or watch and dissect. The novel form I decided could not create a perfect tragedy, reflecting as it did life- I was optimistic enough or stupid enough if you will, to believe that while life could be a joke, it could not be a tragedy. Well, opinions are made to be changed.

I discover now that tragic stories fascinate me. Devdas, Gatsby, Othello, Hamlet.


‘Paths of Glory’ is the story of George Leigh Mallory who perished while attempting to scale Mount Everest in 1925. It is believed by many people that he succeeded in his mission, but that he did not live to tell the tale. For my part I was hooked from the Prologue.

Personable and chivalrous, and a gentleman bred in the English sense of the word in the days of the Raj, it is not surprising that he caught the romantic imagination of the western world. A passionate climber from the beginning, he was the obvious choice to lead the English sponsored Everest expedition. Mallory was possibly the last man from Europe to conquer uncharted territory and his end and that of Captain Scott in the same decade underscores the risks taken by western man in exploring the world, a risk that has been amply rewarded through world dominance and cultural hegemony. But Mallory did not think like that- he climbed a mountain because “it is there.” And Archer too does not over-analyze the story of Mallory. He seems to tell it like it is, and leaves us free to fill in the blanks, to complete our summations- his strategy in ‘Paths of Glory’ is to hook us with a suspenseful premise, warn us of the impending tragedy and then take over. He gives us a straightforward story, taking care to keep us on the edge, a dropped clue here, a red herring there, the mesmeric fascination of impending doom doing the rest of the work. It is twenty years since I read my last Jeffrey Archer, so I cannot say if his narrative style has become more screenplay-friendly but the book- down to all the conversations- reads like a British movie. Think Chariots of Fire. Which is not a bad thing, necessarily.

The description of the bureaucracy in the selection process for the Everest Committee is outstanding, and resonated with my own experience as an analyst in India for British multinational companies that have not yet shed the vestiges of their imperial past.

If the novel has any drawbacks it is probably in the development of vulnerabilities in Mallory’s character, that could have contributed to his ultimate downfall. He is portrayed as a heroic and a good man, a Fabian whose views should help buttress Archer’s Indian constituency as well as the female readership, but only the first and last chapters bring alive the sheer madness and ignorance of danger that drove Mallory. After all a tragedy owes some of its pull to the inexorable inevitability of it- Hamlet’s indecision, Macbeth’s ambition, Othello’s suspicion, Gatsby’s aspiration. And Mallory’s passion, and his sense that he was running out of time. Remarkably, Archer mentions time and again the mountaineer’s absent-mindedness and habitual lack of punctuality but does not connect that up to the final dénouement, something many members of the mountaineering community have done before. But then again, he does not have to, the story tells itself and we are enthralled. Therein lies Archer’s triumph.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

In Mumbai for a day

I first traveled out of India in’95. My trip was to Beijing and in all the excitement of new discoveries, I remember missing the Roman script most. My eyes would vainly scour the urban landscape, searching for something that would talk to me. Sixteen years later, things are different and I want to know if I can say the same about Mumbai.

I am in Mumbai for the day. It is years since I last touched down in this city.

Mumbai too has seen some change. Prodded by the right wing, the predominantly English signage has been recast in a bilingual avatar that could have been masterminded from Beijing, so close is the format. But English and Hindi are both written from left to right and this creates a problem. The Hindi sign starts from the left of the board after which there is a no-man’s blank space; thence begins the English signage. I find it disconcerting to move my eyes over this tab-width space to read the English sign. On my effort scale it ranks on par with deciphering Devnaagri, “the celestial script,” used for Sanskrit and Hindi. I do a bit of both.

Most international flights arrive into India in the dead of night, and mine is no exception. The airport is new. The floor is polished to a glossy finish but the cleaning rota has clearly not been assigned. The Bureau of Immigration provides separate queues for club class passengers. Someone mutters angrily, “Where did all the socialism go?” Quick as a flash an official counters, “International travelers do not need socialism miss.” I am struck by how voluble we are. Or maybe I hear better in my homeland.

Airport officials accost weary travelers every step of the way with unsolicited, at times useful information. There is a strong need to appear purposeful. This need for validation has not spurred anyone however, to rationalize the number of security checks. Immigration formalities completed, I have to line up one more time to show my passport (why, why?) to an official. Then there are the forlorn cops at the exit trying to bully mystified visitors: many travelers do not realize that the customs form, a part of the arrival card, is still inside their passport, and needs to be given to these cops. Woe betide those that have misplaced that little slip!

The madness of the pick-up point seamlessly segues into a snails-pace drive through blaring horns and revving engines. Thirty minutes later we have hit the Western Express Highway, which at midnight, is not a bad place to be. I notice for the first time that the residential buildings on either side are pitch-dark just like in interior Shanghai. No giant lamps in the sky here. The fastest growing economies of the world have not taken burgeoning power consumption retail. Not yet.

I race past late night revelers. Ganapati, I speculate. Mount Mary fair, he suggests. Ice broken, we talk of Anna Hazare and cricket. I ask him about digital IDs being issued to citizens. He has not heard of it.

The next morning is a whirl of meetings and now my work is over. I consider my leisure options. My driver asks me if I have seen the movie “Aarakshan”. There is a glint in his eye. I have not I say, maintaining an inscrutable expression. ‘Aarakshan’ is about affirmative action for Dalits, the untouchables of yore. It is called Reservation in India -of jobs, seats in educational institutions etc. I decide to shop.

We make good time. Church signs flash past, competing with messages from Mumbai Traffic Police. “The only waste that cannot be recycled- waste of time,” says the Novena Church board. “Dnt ct shrt ur lfe. Don’t drink and drive,” exhorts Mumbai Police.

The Phoenix Mills Compound resembles a fairground rather than a mall. “I am a safe toy” stickers are displayed prominently. People are beautifully dressed. Fusion-wear has moved west. Prints are bolder and more colorful. I stop and ask for directions, converse with total strangers, give unsolicited fashion advice to fellow customers (which is received and leads to more talk), answer questions directed at others. New York is the only other city where I can speak out of turn, and feel happy after. I have always felt this way in Mumbai. The difference this time is the China complex. Again and again I overhear unflattering comparisons with China. I catch at the same time, a nationalistic fervor.

On my way to lunch, I pass a family on the pavement, crouched under a plastic awning. They catch my eye because this is not a row of shanties or a settled slum. I have not been away so long that I have lost the knack for protecting myself from a ringside view of human misery. Then again maybe I have- the bright blue plastic should have been warning enough. They are darker skinned than the average Mumbaikar, sturdy in a country sort of way. The mother stares grimly into the horizon, her belongings around her in cartons and bundles. One girl - she could be fifteen – relaxes on a mattress placed crossways on the pavement. She lies back, arms folded across her stomach, looking out indifferently. A naked toddler squats next to her, his wondering eyes following the pedestrians as they come and go. The baby has a potbelly but he is fat all around and that confuses me. The father wears a stunned, exhausted expression; sunlight percolates through the awning, highlighting them in blue. The passers-by seem oblivious, yet they never tread on the bit of mattress that sticks out from under the shelter. It is the monsoon season but the mattress is dry.

I know their expression. I have seen it on stranded passengers in airports. Rural migrants from Andhra I muse, as the traffic lights change and we move on. I have a fancy meal with my friend and we ponder our mid-life crises. We shop. Carry bags are low thread-count cotton, with jute drawstrings. Everywhere is thrift, labor, and beauty melded in one. I buy.

It’s time to get back. I squelch my way to the improvised car park cursing my impulse to wear white. The wet and muggy heat does not help. The security guard at the parking lot wants baksheesh. I see beads of sweat on his forehead from the clean and dry, air-conditioned comfort of my car. He too can see my shopping bags. I borrow ten rupees from the driver and hand it to him. He wants fifty. My driver is unsympathetic. “Ma’am, ignore him- he should not be hounding you.” I can’t think. I fumble with my wallet, picking up and putting back a five hundred-rupee note. The guard has seen it though. “Madam give me the note, I can change it for you.”

“Can you?” “Ma’am, don’t trust these thieves.” “Do it in a trice madam.” “Ok…” I am handing over my note to the man, through a two-inch gap when the driver raises the windshield, crushing my finger. The note falls on my side- the guard looks fed up; the driver is completely abashed. It cannot be bad, I think, until I see a bit of flesh hanging out and lose heart immediately. I clutch my hand tight and keep my head down through the throbbing, while the driver apologises profusely. The tears start rolling down as the car pulls off. A few for the bright blue family- the girl surveying the world from her little hospital bed on the pavement, her father, little brother and mother. I see you, as the Na’vi would say. The rest of the tears are for a woman with her head down, flying back to the comfort zone.