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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

China, India, Chindia?!...

When I was in class seven (already an avid reader of newspapers) Mao Ze Dong, the ‘Great Helmsman’ who had transformed China and in the process become certainly among the ten most important men of the 20th century (for better or for worse) died at a ripe old age. His proteges, most prominently Deng Xiao Bing, who collectively stepped into his shoes, promptly launched that vast and ancient nation on a course of reforms, which, though they preferred to call it incrementalism or gradualism – no more than a bit of timely and much-needed tinkering with the system Mao had put in place – took the world’s breath away over the next three decades. They called it ‘market socialism’: a system whereby politically they would continue to be ruled by a single party wedded to a pretty rigid ideology of centralised socialist dictatorship, while economically they would loosen up, capitalist-fashion, to harness the energies of a ‘hundred million entrepreneurs’, the advantages of every kind of modern technology, and the disciplined hard work of the most gigantic labour force in the world. Their determined and single-minded aim was to increase the gross national product by leaps and bounds. I shall not, right now, go into the politico-economic nitty-gritties, nor all the social costs that had to be (or were alleged by all kinds of detractors to be) paid. What mattered to those who mattered in China was to set a sizzling pace of overall growth for the span of an entire generation or more: and they did it. By 2000, the United States (like most other rich countries) was swamped with cheap, good-quality Chinese imports of every description, from dolls to computer hardware: some said US soldiers went to war wearing uniforms stitched in Shanghai, and more sophisticated observers muttered that China was buying up large and precious chunks of the US economy itself with its incredible horde of trade-surplus dollars! Meanwhile, glittering cities of chrome-and-steel skyscrapers, along with vast new powerplants, canals, highways, airports and ports are coming up all over China like mushrooms in wet weather: recent visitors can hardly recognise the country they last saw thirty years ago.

Within the last couple of years, according to some estimates, China has become the second largest economy in the world (though, because of the gigantic population, her per-capita income is still far below that of the US, leave alone the really rich tiny countries like Liechtenstein); she is the world’s largest producer of steel, the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, probably the largest market for expensive cars and snazzy mobile phones; she has the world’s largest army (more than twice the size of the US army) which, though technologically more comparable with ours than the American, is also modernising at breakneck pace (it is said they already have pretty accurate nuclear-tipped ICBMs which can hit west-coast US cities across the Pacific if ever the need arises); she is rapidly emerging as one of the largest aid-dispensers in the world (most prominently in Africa), having learnt that aid is the best way not only to open up trade which is highly advantageous to her, but to win pliant allies, or at least neutrals – which is already showing up in the way the US is continuously losing ground to her whenever there is voting in the UN General Assembly. Her hunger and zest for growth is still undimmed, and many of the best scholars around the world are predicting that she will outstrip the US to become the largest economy of all within the next twenty years. God knows what will happen to us all then, and the world as we knew it!

While China’s miraculous emergence as a global giant (‘The Dragon Awakes!’) has caused first disbelief, then awe and fear and an incredible amount of criticism from both within and without – “she’ll be the death of us all with so much pollution!/ she’s making a hundred thousand tycoons and grinding several hundred million into the dust in the process – Karl Marx must be turning in his grave!/look at what horrors she has unleashed in Tibet and what more horrors she is winking at in Darfur, Sudan!/God help America and the western way of living, democracy, human rights and all/ Don’t forget Tiananmen Square and the Falun Gong!…” it seems, from the writing of more keen and sober observers, that an enormous number of ordinary Chinese are not only participating more or less willingly in the continuing miracle but are very proud of their ever-growing global stature, and would like it to keep on growing, no matter what.

The following links are only two of the many score that I have read in the last few months:

‘China’s new intelligentsia’

‘Inside the Dragon’

The former is an article in the March 2008 issue of a British thinking-man’s magazine about contemporary Chinese intellectuals, who, it seems on the whole, are not about to overthrow the system they live in at all. They are (unlike ours!) almost unanimous – in this day of globalisation (western-style) and dissolving national borders – in their desire to see China emerge as a confident and vigorous new superpower on the world’s stage. Internally, though they argue and bicker a lot (there’s apparently much more space for dissent, at least among educated and non-violent circles, than many west-aligned people would like to believe), they seem to be agreed, too, that the system only needs more tinkering, sometimes a little towards the right (dismantle all remnants of the public sector), sometime a little to the left (spread the social security net much wider, care more for the environment). The second link is to an article in the May 2008 issue of National Geographic magazine – itself a phenomenon I can’t remember seeing ever before, a whole issue, every page of it, devoted to the developments in just one country!

China has been going flat out over the last few years to make such a grand and perfect spectacle of the Olympic Games she’s going to host this year (beginning about a week from now) that the rest of the world might remember her emergence dead-centre of the spotlight for a long time to come. All the magazines I see, Nat Geo and Reader’s Digest included, are full of it; apparently China is not only prepared to dazzle the world with spanking-clean modern cities and the most ultra-sophisticated security and highspeed transport systems and sports stadiums but is also determined to sweep the medals tally ahead of all the rest (nobody doubts that she’ll have the second-largest tally at least: the former Olympics have seen to that).

All this makes me proud as an Asian (it is certainly high time, historically speaking, that the Anglo-Saxon hegemony on global economics and culture was broken), and glad for the Chinese people, but rather sad when I turn back to look at my own country (I shall, at this point, ask the patient reader to read, or re-read, the little essay titled My India earlier on this blog: just type it into the search bar on the right, please). I know everything’s not all right with China, not everything that she’s doing is worthy of admiration. I know that someone of the stature of Amartya Sen believes that we Indians ought to be proud of two very great achievements: despite our grinding poverty, enormous disparities, repeated wars and widespread illiteracy, we – unlike China – have succeeded in avoiding giant famines and in preseving democracy, and I don’t entirely disagree with him. I know that India’s own brand of reforms started 13 years after China’s, and that we too have been growing at a pretty fast clip of late – indeed, many of the developments I can see all around me, from the proliferation of cellphones to ever-worsening traffic snarls on the roads to better clothes for the urban working class to increasing obesity and heart-disease among the rich and upper-middle classes, it’s all pretty much like what’s happening in China. And yet, and yet…

First of all, our growth is far too slow and sporadic; at this rate, leave alone the US, we don’t have a hope of catching up with China within the next 25 years, if we ever do. Second, the growth is, I believe, far more uneven than in China: so our rural sector (where two-thirds of our people still live) is seriously languishing, our infrastructure (roads, water supply, sanitation, housing, power, transport) is incredibly inadequate and creaking with age and lack of maintenance; we are miles behind China in this regard, leave alone the fully ‘developed’ countries, and as Manmohan Singh himself worries (but seems to be unable to do much about!), that could choke off our growth too soon, besides the fact that it keeps the vast majority of us permanently condemned to a very poor quality of life. Other than a few sectors (such as IT – which is too dependent on the health and whims of western economies, and too small to take the burden of the entire economy on its shoulders), too many areas have hardly seen progress of any kind. We boast of a handful of IITs, and half our population remains functionally illiterate. In the fields of military power and sports, the less said about us the better; in terms of new products, patents and theories, India (despite its millions "studying science" in high school) has hardly contributed anything at all to the world of science – our pathetic submission to the US’s dictates via the recent nuclear treaty, for instance, would be an open admission that our 50-year long nuclear ‘research’ has been a farce, we cannot build N-power plants without American help, virtually all our cellphones and car engines have been designed or even manufactured abroad, and I haven’t seen a computer using an operating system developed in India yet, or high-grade surgical instruments designed and made in India for that matter. As for the number of Indian scientists from India who win high acclaim for original papers published in the world's top peer-reviewed journals, compared to our population-size and our endless boasting, ha ha ha!

But far worse than mere techno-economic achievements (or lack of them) I believe where we have really fallen behind with little hope of redemption is that, unlike Japan earlier and China now, we neither have a national will to greatness nor any faith that we could do anything by ourselves. Everything from baseball caps to slang to textbooks to popular music tunes to machinery must be begged, borrowed, copied or bought from the west; the only things we are determined to preserve are the very things about our tradition that hold us back: religious bigotry, casteism, superstition, cheating the public to benefit the family (or, even more narrowly, just me!), allergy to regular, disciplined and meticulous work, unwillingness to take the slightest of risks, whether as individuals or as organisations, and complete lack of shame about everything we are bad at (punctuality, cleanliness and good manners, to name just three). Even if we are sometimes painfully conscious of our myriad shortcomings, we happily pin them all on ‘corrupt’ politicians (as if they don’t reflect us, as if they are found only in India), and dream and pray that we, or at least our children, may escape for a better life to America (I hear millions of Chinese have done that too, but then they keep ploughing back far bigger investments into their mother country than our huge Indian NRI community has ever felt like doing, though they too are very well-off indeed). I had a hope of seeing India taking a place at the high table of the world’s leaders in my lifetime: that hope is growing fainter with every passing year. To be a world leader it isn’t enough to be rich, or even to be (militarily) powerful, you must have something to give to the world, to teach, to be admired for. What have we got? In the first of the two articles I read that today’s Chinese intellectuals are dredging their ancient classics and sages (that would mean everything from the Tao te Ching to Confucius, Mencius, Lao Tse and Sun Tzu) for every pearl of wisdom they can find: how many young educated Indians could teach foreigners a thing or two from books like the Dhammapada, the Mahabharat, the Arthashastra, the Brahmasamhita or Abhignyan Shakuntalam?

And finally, there’s a bit of worry, or even fear, nagging at the back of my mind. China has never liked India – not, at least, since we gave shelter to the Dalai Lama in 1959, and India has been suspicious and uneasy about China’s real intentions ever since our military humiliation at their hands in 1962. Publicly top leaders on both sides keep saying they are keen on building bridges, and of course it would be a wonderful thing if China and India (along with Russia, too, perhaps) join hands to counterbalance the overwhelming might and influence of the west and create a really effective UNO – that would be the biggest step on the road to the ultimate desideratum of all, a truly fair and good world government for the benefit of all mankind! But idealistic dreams do not realpolitik make. China has always favoured Pakistan as a geopolitical counterpoise to India; she is making no secret of her desire to hem us in and keep us confined with her giant armed might, unable to spread our influence wide; she is publicly unhappy about any moves we make to cosy up to the US. In her bid for world dominion, she will probably do anything in her power to keep us from emerging into a rival, even a peaceful one. And the fact that we are falling so far behind in the race for prosperity, power, self-confidence and glory does not augur well for us at all! Merely having a lot of fat Indians going around in jeans, chewing gum, listening to hard metal rock on iPods, mall-crawling and saying ‘yo man, cool rags!’ to one another when they meet is not going to help us catch up with anyone.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Bucket List

First movie review

The Bucket List

[Director: Rob Reiner, Writer: Justin Zakham. Released in the US: 11.01. 08. Edward Cole played by Jack Nicholson, Carter Chambers played by Morgan Freeman, ‘Thomas’ played by Sean Hayes. Distributed by Warner Brothers.]

Two old men have got cancer. One is an irascible, egotistical and lonely white billionaire (Edward), divorced several times with an estranged grown-up daughter, the other a firm but quiet black man, a very sharp, very well-read car mechanic who has missed out on college and struggled all his life to give his wife and children the kind of decent middle-class lifestyle he had missed growing up in (Carter). They share the same hospital room while they are undergoing surgery and follow-up chemotherapy. It so happens that Edward owns the hospital. Eventually they are both told they are condemned men, with six months, maybe a year to live. The relationship starts off unpromisingly, but it evolves into something a little less than friendship, a little more than mere nodding acquaintances. Carter had drawn up a ‘bucket list’ - of things he would like to do before he kicked the bucket (this was before he knew his days were numbered). Edward chances to find and read it, and his imagination is fired. He proposes to Carter not only a sudden close friendship but an idea: let’s live it up, doing all the things we had never thought of doing, or thought and laughed away, together, in the little time left to us, and with the vast fortune I have at my disposal (‘it’s all I’ve got!’). There are many things they agree upon, sometimes after a little dithering and bickering: going skydiving, racing the cars of their dreams, and visiting the great tourist hotspots around the world – lording it about in Cole’s private jet, his faithful factotum always in tow, staying and dining in the best places, even pretty and bright young girls at hand, should they be needed. Along the way they have such arguments about God, life, family, love, religion and death, and help each other out in such little but terribly important ways that, although they temporarily cut short the trip and part in a huff (more anger on Edward’s part than on Carter’s), they both realise that they have found something precious and rare in the relationship. While Edward enjoys full remission, Carter has a stroke the very night he has been happily reconciled with his family. The cancer has reached his brain, and despite the best medical efforts and most earnest prayers, he dies on the operating table. But he had fulfilled one of his last wishes on the bucket list before that, ‘laugh until I cry’ (having proved to Edward that he can be a fool!), and he had been smiling contentedly at his wife of 45 years when he was wheeled into the OT, so I guess we might say he was happy when he died.

Carter had left a letter for Edward whose message the latter couldn’t ignore, and so he swallowed his pride and fear and attempted a reconciliation with his daughter. It worked like a charm, and he got to fulfil one of his bucket list wishes (‘kiss the most beautiful girl in the world’, his little granddaughter). While attending Carter’s funeral service with a huge lump in his throat (he was discovering – or, rather, finally acknowledging – a little seen dimension of his character), he decided to cross out yet another, something that Carter had put into the list: ‘Do some good to a complete stranger’, and now that stranger’s memory was the best part of him, and he knew, and publicly admitted ('I loved the man...'), that he was a much better man for it. Carter had insisted upon faith, had told him a story about how in ancient Egypt they said you are only allowed into heaven if you could say yes to two questions: ‘Did you find joy in your life?’ and ‘Did you give joy to somebody?’ Now, Edward felt, he could not only face those questions unflinchingly but say yes to both. Life, not despite the cancer but because of it, had been good to him.

Edward Cole died at the fairly ripe old age of 81, and his ashes were buried (according to his last wish, and against the law, which would have pleased him greatly!) on top of a snow-capped mountain, beside those of his best friend.

I found this movie to be wonderful, the mush and the bad temper notwithstanding. Both Nicholson and Freeman have given superlative performances (how some old men can still show the world a thing or two!); so also Sean Hayes in the role of the quiet, dour, long-suffering personal assistant Thomas (‘actually it’s Mathew, but Edward finds it too Biblical’!) – I couldn’t have imagined that it would be he who took the risk and trouble to climb the mountain and put Cole’s ashes in their final resting place. How much money buys that kind of loyalty, I wonder, or how much love? I am also disappointed to find on the net that Roger Ebert, a critic whom I had come to respect for his generally very balanced, informed and cultured views, has trashed it. Reading his comment (http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080110/REVIEWS/801100301/1023 ), my regard for him has come down several notches. I shall be glad to go into details with anyone who has watched the movie and read through both this review and Ebert’s, but for now let me point out a few things that irked me about Ebert’s comments:

1. I wouldn’t have expected someone of his stature to mix up personal likes and dislikes so badly with what one expects from true criticism: the fact that he starts of by talking about ‘two old codgers who are nothing like people’ gives away his personal distaste, which has little to do with what the movie is really like. The fact that I personally don’t like the colour red or a particular flavour of icecream is okay, but that doesn’t give me a right to say that everybody ought to have the same tastes!
2. He has (deliberately?) ignored facts in his urgent haste to badmouth the movie: unlike what he saw (or thought he saw), there was suffering even during remission, and the wife did take her husband’s sudden truancy hard: Ebert would have liked her to make a much bigger song and dance about it, maybe, but again, that’s entirely a matter of personal taste, not a valid cause for judgment.
3. Ebert has posed as more of a know-all than he is. Okay, he has been through thyroid cancer (though without chemo) while I haven’t, but again, he is wrong to declare, god-like, that he knows how morosely and fearfully all cancer-sufferers behave, and therefore, since these men don’t comply, their story is just a fairy tale. I have someone in my own family who has been battling cancer for the last fourteen years, and her resilience and ebullience could stun Ebert. Maybe someone should tell him to read Tuesdays with Morrie, or Art Buchwald’s Dying is such fun!
4. He calls the two men’s discussions ‘pseudo-profound conversations about the Meaning Of It All’. I have read enough of poetry, philosophy and religion to know that there was nothing ‘pseudo-’ about it. It’s silly and rude teenagers who use that word as a kind of abuse for things they don’t understand and don’t want to: Ebert has some serious growing-up to do.
5. I was much saddened to see that Ebert doesn’t yet know – or want to know – that fairy tales (or rather, more broadly speaking, parables/allegories) serve some very important purposes. Without them, life would become too much of a drag – perhaps not for the likes of him, but they are not the only kind!
6. Finally Ebert writes: ‘I’m thinking, just once, couldn’t the movie open with the voiceover telling us what a great guy the Morgan Freeman character is? Nicholson could say ‘I was a rich, unpleasant, selfish jerk, and this wise, nice guy taught me to feel hope and love.’ Yeah, that would be nice. Because what’s so great about Edward anyway? He throws his money around like a pig and makes Carter come along for the ride. So what?’ Precisely that has been said in the movie, but too quietly for Ebert to hear. It is ironical to see that Ebert condemns Nicholson for 'overacting', because he seems to have gone deaf: he can’t hear things unless they are yelled into his ear. And again, all that comes through his ranting is that he hates (and maybe envies?) all rich men, insisting that their riches prevent them from being good and even hoping for salvation. That’s Bible-belt bigotry of the crudest sort!

Despite Ebert’s comments, the movie seems to have gone down well with ordinary viewers at large, judging by the box-office takings in the first few months (if wikipedia has got it right).

Moral of the story: I am reminded again of Virginia Woolf’s dictum about which books to read (it applies with equal force to movies): the only advice to give is that you should not take anyone’s advice too seriously. Read/watch with an open, attentive and refined mind, then judge for yourself! – I am glad that an old boy of mine, much younger than Roger Ebert and much less ‘learned’, found this movie good enough to persuade me to see it. A big 'Thank you' to him. This was definitely not one of the ten best movies I have seen, but it's definitely not a waste of time either.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Indians and English, Indian English!

In its July 2008 issue, Reader’s Digest published an article which concerns an issue very close to my heart, and invited readers to write in their comments. I have just emailed a long comment to them. They might publish it in full (they sometimes do), or they might not, or they might cut it short to the bare essentials (in their opinion, not necessarily mine!) I thought I should post the whole thing I wrote here, for the benefit of the blog readers. I shall be glad for all the sensible comments that I get. Here goes…

I am writing this in response to your invitation to comment on the article titled 'The Americanization of Indish' written by Mohan Sivanand in your July 2008 issue. As someone who adores the English language, and has been making a living teaching it not only to high-school children but also those appearing for tests like the CAT, the UPSC, the GRE and TOEFL for more than 25 years, I thought this was a chance I should not miss.

I have no problems with Indians adapting from both British and American English, nor with Indians, including Indian writers, who boldly experiment with Indian images, metaphors, allusions, special/untranslateable local expressions, and peculiarly Indian themes/concerns as they work with English: in that sense I am no rigid purist; I know that any rich and vigorous language does and must keep evolving, for the benefit of all concerned. I am proud of the works of the whole long tradition of Indian writers in English from the time of Michael Madhusudan Dutt and Toru Dutt to Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarojini Naidu to Kamala Das, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Khushwant Singh, Anita Desai right down to the contemporary tribe of writers for what they have done and are doing with English literature. No one will be happier if because of their efforts, along with the contributions of millions of ordinary Indian users of English, a genuine 'Indian English' evolves and is recognised as such by the whole world someday.

What I object to, and cannot help lamenting over, is the fact that vast numbers of today's nominally educated adult Indians - and that includes millions of successful professionals (alas, even teachers!) - think nothing of mutilating the language for no rhyme or reason, or rather because they have simply never bothered to learn the language well, and are quite blase about passing off whole pages and speeches of bad, clumsy, unidiomatic, misspelt, mispronounced and just plain wrong English as 'our kind' of English, or simply shrugging it off as a matter of no consequence. Semi-literate poster writers (the kind who have been mocked at in the caption accompanying the photograph at the end of your article) can be easily forgiven for wretched spelling; should you do the same with editors with postgraduate degrees who cannot remove bad spelling from books they supposedly go through with a fine-toothed comb (and probably using the MS-Word spell-check facility, too!), and college graduates who apparently have so pathetic a grasp of the fundamentals of the language that they have to be tested for not just spelling but punctuation, correct syntax, proper use of tenses, gender, number, articles and punctuation, besides vocabulary? - witness the contents of the typical CAT conducted by the IIMs. This is a basic literacy test, albeit conducted at very high speed, and yet these institutes ask such questions of those who are supposed to be the cream of our student population! What does that say about the quality of English education given in even the best schools in our country these days?

I am compelled to deal, day in and day out, with 'highly educated' adults who can neither read and speak their native tongues without continuously (unconsciously and unashamedly) interspersing them with English words and phrases, nor can speak or write English for any length of time without lapsing into gross errors of the sorts mentioned above, besides caricaturing the language with silly and ugly Indianisms, most of which are too familiar to mention ('We are like that only'/'Please pull my photo'/'He won't leave me unless I say sorry'/ What is your good name please?'/ 'Open your shoes here'/ 'We charge Rs 500 a day for fooding and lodging'/'My cousin brother is coming'...!) What does it say about our national psyche? Do the Chinese or the Russians or the Japanese or the French habitually do the same, or indeed the British and the Americans?

And have you surveyed the kind of rude, crude sms text they write instead of English on forums such as are provided by social-networking sites like orkut on the Net? Given that the average orkuter is in his or her early 20s, what does that augur for the standards of English that are going to prevail over the coming decades? I heard once that a New York politician who could spell 'cat' was called talented. Is that what the new generation of adult Indian users of English is going to be like?

I believe that this is not a facile question lightly to be ignored. Language is not merely the vehicle of communication and the bedrock of culture; it is the very framework of thought. A whole nation which has become so frivolous, so disrespectful of standards, so callous with language, whose citizens have nearly forgotten their native tongues and made a hash of English at the same time, is not likely to prosper rapidly and robustly in any other walk of life. I can vouch from personal experience that someone who matriculated from a Bangla-medium school 75 years ago (my own grandfather) could write at least more grammatically and idiomatically-correct English than 95% of postgraduates I meet today, though he could not have spoken with a pseudo-American twang, and flavoured his speech with so much currently-'in' slang as the young do these days. This development is certainly something to ponder about!

Yours truly,
Suvro Chatterjee
July 21, 2008

Friday, July 11, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

Book review: Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, Random House India 2008, Rs. 450

I have just finished reading this book, and thought it might be as good an occasion as any other to pen down a review, seeing that so many blog-readers have been asking why I stopped writing reviews after just one.

As a rule I do not think very highly of the current crop of Indian writers in English – I find them too recherché at times, and clichéd at others, I feel they write too exclusively about NRIs for other NRIs, they take too little direct and involved interest in Mother India (probably because that doesn’t pay, as so many Indian writers in Indian languages have found out the hard way!), that they have too much sauce and too little substance, in contrast with the earlier generation, R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Khushwant Singh, Naipaul et al, who had a lot to say, and knew how to say it simply yet impressively… I am, of course, willing to pay tribute where I feel it is due; I have spoken and written highly of such works as Rushdie’s Haroun and the sea of stories, Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music, and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. Jhumpa Lahiri did not strike me as great stuff with her first volume, The Interpreter of Maladies (despite the fact that I couldn’t help being both very surprised and very proud that it had won the Pulitzer, putting an Indian in the elite company of titans like Hemingway – God knows how that happened!) though I did feel she had promise, and might go on to surprise us pleasantly with works that kept getting better as she kept thinking, observing and polishing her art. Even in that first book, the story about 'Buri-ma' and the one called The Third and Final Continent struck me as very good and sincere writing as soon as I read them: here, I thought, was a fine writer in the making. Since then The Namesake has appeared on the market, made waves and won accolades: it has also been turned into a movie I can vouch is worth watching. Now I have this latest collection of short stories (for want of a better expression: they are not typical short stories, but rather ruminative essays/travelogues/partial autobiographies) on my table, and I can say with conviction that Ms. Lahiri has definitely lived up to my expectations. This is good if not excellent writing. Indeed, if only the Indian diaspora knew a good thing when they saw one (or rather, if enough of them read books at all – far too many of them, alas, are money-minded and ‘busy’ doctors, engineers and traders to think of higher things such as books), they would have left no stone unturned to ensure that this writer became a global celebrity as, for instance, so many Latin Americans have managed to become. I am proud when I hear that an Arun Netravali has become director of Bell Labs, a Vinod Khosla has financed Sun Microsystems or a Vikram Pandit has become CEO of Citibank, but an Indian author who is acknowledged as great worldwide, as Tolstoy was, and Marquez is, would please me infinitely more. Tolstoy and Tagore are remembered as no tycoon or technical man of their times is – that’s the way of the world!

Other than being keenly observant and sensitive as any writer on lives, lifestyles and manners should be, Jhumpa is admirable for the many different ways in which she has portrayed the human condition of Indians abroad (and their families back in India). She writes not only about lonely children trapped and struggling between two cultures, but about fathers and mothers, wives, sons, daughters, in-laws, family friends and colleagues, and how they cope, each in his or her own distinctive way – though with many common features too – and how so many lives are crushed by failure and misfortune, and how happiness occasionally blooms despite everything, even if it is fated to be transient. I found the sister being forced to throw out the alcoholic and criminally-irresponsible brother truly tragic, and the way Kaushik is taken out of Hema’s troubled love-life by the tsunami of December 2005 is wrenchingly neat. The mother’s lifelong secret crush on her father’s young colleague forces a sigh from many of us who are old enough to know, understand and forgive such things: it happens all the time inside India, too; the setting on alien soil only makes it more plausible, and more poignant. The way Amit deals with Megan, or Sang with Farouk might not make great stories, but it tells us that some Indians have managed to become so thoroughly Americanized that their problems and solutions no longer have anything very specially Indian about them, either in their follies or in their triumphs. Truly, a new sub-species of Indian has been breeding over the last half-century, and society and politics in both India and America would sooner or later have to engage seriously with them! It is something important for both countries to know, and Jhumpa Lahiri will be remembered for being among the first writers to point out the phenomenon.

I have been reading up on Jhumpa on the Net. It seems she is quite candid (and why shouldn’t she be?) about the strongly (though fragmentarily-) autobiographical element in her stories. The protagonist of The Third and Final Continent was supposedly modelled on her father, just as The Namesake reflects much of her own youthful agonizing over her difficult double name (it was originally Nilanjana Sudeshna) which made her so uneasy and guilty in the American milieu that she replaced it with the short one they called her by at home!

I have started liking her for a number of reasons. First, she writes good, correct Standard English devoid of mannerisms, currently ‘in’ slang, prolixity, excess of innuendos, fanciful ornamentation and over-use of Bangla words in italics, yet manages to be as elegant and expressive and impressive as she would like to be: all worshippers of cant, jargon, bombast and ‘Indlish’ (including the likes of Kiran Desai and some blog writers I know!) may please note. It doesn’t stop her from winning prizes, either: I find that a most reassuring thing about contemporary critics and readers alike. Second, she writes about things she knows, understands and empathises with, and (contrary to what I have been hearing some people saying – ‘She’s writing about the same sort of people and issues again and again!’), I believe that’s exactly what an honest person who wants to be a good writer should do. It’s nothing new, actually, only people have forgotten: Erich Maria Remarque went back again and again to the lives of the generations in Germany torn asunder by the First World War, and Dickens wrote only about the middle- and lower middle classes struggling, losing out and profiteering out of the Industrial Revolution raging like a hurricane through early 19th-century English society – and oh my God, what books they have left behind! So more power to Jhumpa’s elbow. Maybe though, she should write about other Indians in America, too: till date, she has focused too narrowly on Bengalis. And while some critics back in India have accused her of not portraying our NRIs in a sufficiently positive light (long ago Nargis accused Satyajit Ray of ‘showcasing India’s poverty' through Pather Panchali! Some people never learn…), I would rather say she should take off the kid gloves and start telling the truth more like it is; not just mention but criticize, or at least laugh at all the petty spites and jealousies and backbiting and one-upmanship and little cruelties and provincialism that make up and embitter so large a part of the collective lives of all Indians in the US of A. (baggage that has been carried over and intensified). Without that, we would have become at least as strong a force in American social and political life by now as the Jews and the Chinese have managed to become! It is essential for a writer who wants to be remembered to be bravely and unashamedly didactic.

As for all folks back here at home, I wish more and more parents in my country (and in my little one-horse town) would read these books. They would then begin to wonder whether it’s really not quite silly, despite all the material goodies on offer, to boast of one’s son having moved to ‘Umrica’. A few of us have always known that it’s not the same thing as going to paradise; now the likes of Jhumpa Lahiri are telling us all why not. May her tribe prosper.

P.S.: here’s one interesting link to an article about J.L.:


Also, I read the following in wikipedia: “Upon its publication, Unaccustomed Earth achieved the rare distinction of debuting on The New York Times best seller list in the number 1 slot. New York Times Book Review editor Dwight Garner stated, ‘It’s hard to remember the last genuinely serious, well-written work of fiction – particularly a book of stories – that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.’ ”

Finally, many thanks to young Abhishek Das, who has just finished class 10 with me, and who very kindly lent me the book to read. I was thrilled to bits to learn, too, that he has a mother who, despite being a doctor, has time to read books like this one. I wish her a long life of happy reading.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The blog writer looks back

Now that I have been blogging for two continuous years (and an enormous number of people, including lots of celebrities both in India and abroad are doing the same), let me look back and reflect upon the experience.

Many people now have access to reasonably fast internet connections (in India it started happening only about five years ago, but that’s not much behind the west), and there are lots of web services like blogger.com to provide the necessary technical support very cheaply or for free, so I suppose it is natural that all sorts of people would start writing diaries on the net. A couple of savvy old boys got me interested, I made a tentative beginning, it took some time before my blog (or weblog, to give it its original and already-almost-forgotten name) started drawing people’s attention (mostly my ex-students, but also some of their friends/mentors/relatives) and comments, and then I was hooked. Since July 2006 I have posted 60-plus articles on all sorts of subjects, from religion to Harry Potter to poetry to career counselling to humour to personal reminiscences, short and long, at the rate of about three posts a month in recent times. Till date the blog has been visited almost 15,000 times, counting the 4000+ plus that the previous sitemeter had logged before I accidentally uninstalled it (which I consider rather good for a provincial non-celebrity who refuses to make his blog look sexy), and on average each post draws about 20 comments. I have just installed a poll for people to tell me why they like it, and I got twelve votes within the first two days (do vote; or let me know by email that it’s not working). I get a lot of hate mail, too; the less said about it the better. I prefer to laugh it away as the price of fame (however modest that might be in my case)! I am also toying with the idea of linking my blog to a Google program called Adsense: they supposedly pay you every time someone clicks on your blog. The only thing that’s holding me back is the thought that my blog would be cluttered up with advertisements yet not make me any significant money, because it’s just not popular enough on the scale that Google is looking for. But it feels good to be able to stay in touch with lots of people whom I could never have otherwise chatted up with, home-bird that I am, and my interlocutors scattered around the world. So long live the internet: it was created with just my kind of person in mind! I have written a diary since I was seven, and continued the habit till I was almost thirty; now the net has got me back again, only this time there are scores (or maybe even hundreds) of others who are following my thoughts around, more or less keenly. I wish, though, that more people would get back more often with intelligent, informed and sympathetic comments.

Here are a few discoveries I have made as a regular blogger:

1) Net penetration in India is still abysmally low (especially if you compare with the degree of penetration that fridges, mobiles, motorcycles and TV have achieved). That’s one genuine reason why many people cannot keep in touch even if they might wish to; 2) most people who visit don’t read closely and with understanding, which I can make out from the average time spent by any visitor after clicking on to my homepage, as my sitemeter informs me; 3) few people have the time, energy and opportunity to write long and serious comments (yet a lot of them apparently have enough of all three to write abuse); 4) Most net users are young people (and naturally ill-informed and having little experience of real life, which they try pathetically to cover up with an arrogant attitude); the comments would have been, I think, far richer, more frequent and more varied if people of my generation and older had logged on in large numbers, but they don’t (why, I wonder? They are quite comfortable with all kinds of other gadgets like cars and mobiles and iPods and microwave ovens, as I can see all around me. And of course very few of them are genuinely busy as they claim: otherwise so many fathers and mothers could not have waited patiently outside my gate for their children at my tuition day after day, year after year. And they always have time enough for their gossip-circles, clubs, parties and every wedding in town – oh, and by the way, I have checked out for years and years that these parents as a rule don’t read newspapers either). I have been an oddball in all sorts of ways, now I have found out yet another! 5) Few bloggers read others’ blogs. Westerners, in particular, don’t as a rule read blogs by Indians. So, alas, the Net is not really succeeding in forging a global village inspired by mutual knowledge, respect and understanding – not, at least, as yet. 6) The most traffic is drawn by blogs with a lot of pictures/cartoons (especially of the porn/soft porn variety), or those offering fashion tips and updates on the latest gimmicks and gizmos on the market (‘Boys’ Toys’, as Discovery Channel called them), not those discussing serious grown-up stuff (like, say, politics – unless it’s all about mudslinging – economic affairs, philosophy, literature, art, high-level science or charity). Says a lot about mankind, doesn’t it? 7) Hurry, pretence and bad manners give wrong impressions very quickly, and turn people off – it does to me, and I am sure a lot of other decent people react the same way. Too many people have this silly notion that on the Net you can pretend to be whoever you like, and be as rude and brusque as you like, and lie as much as you like, and nobody will find out, and nobody will mind if they do find out (that includes current and ex-students of mine who say the kind of rude things – often unthinkingly – to me over the net which they wouldn’t dream of doing face to face). So this is a reply to a question put to me by Rupam Mukherjee recently: it is indeed difficult to have genuine conversations (leading up to genuine and good relationships) over the Net. But we mustn’t give up trying too easily, must we? 8) people these days are so not well-read, yet they have neither any shame about it, nor fear that they might fall by the wayside (I said in one of my posts in my orkut community that ‘leaders are readers’), nor stop to think that they owe a well-read and much older man the courtesy of at least reading up a few things before they start shooting their mouths off at him, even though they hardly know what they are talking about (a little boy doing physics, who by his own admission has read virtually nothing but physics – not a word of whole libraries on theology, metaphysics, epistemology, semantics, logic, dialectics, history, you name it – presumes to tell me that I don’t know the difference between causality and determinism, when an hour’s face-to-face discussion would have convinced him that I have forgotten more about the subject than he in all probability will ever learn!!! Talk about empty vessels). I contrast this (alas, now all too common) type with the Upanishads categorically specifying humility in front of superior wisdom as an absolute essential for the progress of learning, Socrates declaring that the only thing he was sure about was that he wasn’t sure about anything, Newton comparing himself with a child collecting pebbles on the seashore, Russell saying that the highest hallmark of civilization is always remembering that I may be wrong, and Steve Jobs urging the young to ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’. What lesson does the contrast teach me about today’s ‘educated’ people? I know now why so many wise folks sneeringly refer to doing a PhD as ‘phudding’ (Many of these will soon be bringing over their kids to my tuitions, and resent it that I deal so dismissively with them!)

You will notice that there is only one entry under the label ‘Books and Movies’ so far. A few people – keen readers and serious movie watchers themselves – have asked why I haven’t written many more essays of the same sort. Just look at the number of comments (and check out Abhirup’s experience after writing an ‘evaluation’ of a good movie by clicking on the link called ‘Thoughts of an idiosyncratic mind’ given here under the heading ‘I frequently visit…’) and you will understand why. The hardest thing to find in today’s world is people who can think and feel, and books and movies call for thinking and feeling in a very serious and sustained fashion. I wish my blog could draw such rare people to me: that would create a community I could cherish. I keep getting the depressing feeling that we are drowning in an ocean of philistinism, a world full of people with money in their pockets, degrees galore under their belts, and nothing (other than technical manuals and the grossest of basic instincts – greed, sloth, vanity, envy, spite) in their heads!

One more thing. Do visit the blogs of a few of our celebrities – compare those of Shah Rukh Khan and Amitabh Bachchan, for instance. Just find out what ‘turns SRK on’. What does it say about his personal culture, and that of his family? And if these be our cultural leaders/icons, can there be any doubt that we as a nation are going to the dogs?

On the whole, the net reflects the world as it is in microcosm, except for the fact that is still populated too heavily by the young, uninformed (in all matters other than the purely technical – my daughter picks up the tricks of using every new gadget I buy much faster than I do, and I use her youth to advantage, but that is not a reason I respect her for! She’ll have to accomplish much bigger things first), irresponsible and fancy-free, and that people take more liberties there than they generally do in real life. Maybe things will get better with the passage of time, as net users age and mature and learn some good things (such as manners – vastly harder to pick up than software code!) the hard way.

Despite the disappointments and unpleasantries, my own experience hasn’t been too bad on the whole. I have got back in touch with a lot of good people – sometimes even been happily surprised that they remember, care and listen still – and I keep getting very nice comments and requests and suggestions for more, and thanks for putting me in touch with other interesting blogs/websites (it also amuses me to see that some people – nominally adult and supposedly employed, even in government! – go to great lengths and waste their precious time just to tell me they don’t like me). A lot of people who for one reason or another won’t write comments have assured me by email, over the phone or face to face that they eagerly keep track of whatever I am writing, and I mustn’t stop. Some (including current pupils of both sexes) have told me that reading all those posts – ‘What sort of person am I?’ in particular – has helped them to know me much better than they otherwise could have, and they are glad they took the trouble. So I have decided to carry on blogging for some more time. Someday, maybe, the blog is going to become an important adjunct to my tuitions. Meanwhile, here’s wishing more power to both admirers and detractors. I only wish the latter would write some sense. Even invective is welcome, if only it is informed, relevant and flavoured with wit (and of course, on my blog, I decide what is and what is not – that’s elementary, isn’t it? Some people are so intellectually-challenged that they have trouble understanding even that much!). Otherwise, as Professor Dumbledore told the house elves, you can call me a barmy old codger if you like: if that says anything at all, it’s only about you, and I’d much rather not know! Nature abhors a vacuum; so empty minds quite naturally fill up with nonsense and filth. Not something you ought to exhibit to the whole wide world.
[P.S.: My daughter very kindly took a few minutes out of her busy schedule to draw the Happy Birthday cartoon for the blog on top of this post]

One more thing, July 08: Do look up Stotra's comment after this blogpost!