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Friday, February 28, 2014

Two different kinds of book

I read J.K. Rowling’s debut detective novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, and wasn’t too impressed. Yes, she has introduced a new kind of private eye – not an easy thing to do in this day and age – and managed to make him a fairly sympathetic figure, warts and all. She plans to develop the template into another seven-part series. Let us see how it fares with the readership: I shall keep my fingers crossed. The first book, it seems, has sold well, though it’s not a patch on the Harry Potter series, and one swallow doth not a summer make. The fact that Ms. Rowling tried a pseudonym first and then quickly ‘leaked’ the fact that it was she because otherwise the book was not selling is a worrisome datum. A rather interesting relationship seems to be developing between the detective Cormoran Strike and his new young secretary Robin Ellacott, so that is one thing I shall watch with interest. Ms. Rowling knows a great deal about the high life in London, and that comes across rather well, as well as her visceral hatred of the paparazzi, and her rather low opinion of womankind in general, which I find both just and admirable. The storyline is rather thin: if you plan to enjoy the book, you must be prepared to do so for the sake of atmosphere rather than plot. What I found most deplorable and utterly unwarranted – unless Ms. Rowling has assumed that her readership is slightly sick – is the endless and intense use of obscenities in virtually everyone’s conversation. If this has been done for the sake of ‘realism’, I have two observations about this: a) one might as well condone detailed descriptions of excretory functions in movies, for they are of course a necessary and permanent part of ‘reality’, and b) Ms. Rowling has herself demonstrated, as have many others, that perfectly good writing can be achieved without it. Also, if this is the kind of conversation I must hear all around me if I am ever in England, I am glad I won’t have to go there. Things are bad enough in the streets of Bengal… one thing I can definitely say is, unlike with Sherlock Holmes, or Hercule Poirot or Dr. Thorndyke – or even Harry Potter – I won’t want to re-read this book over and over after gaps of a few years.

I have also just finished the second book in the Ibis trilogy series by Amitav Ghosh, River of Smoke (Sea of Poppies I read a year ago). I have deeply admired Ghosh as perhaps the finest of living Indian authors in English ever since The Hungry Tide, and my admiration has been redoubled since. He is writing a grand saga in the classical style, not afraid to make each volume several hundred pages long and demanding intense and focussed attention from the reader all through – that he can make a living that way, as can Khaled Hosseini, tells me something most reassuring in the age of twitter.

Every good book leaves you a little wiser, a little better, a little changed. Ghosh’s writing is definitely of that category: he does not write for a moment’s sensation. I pride myself on my knowledge of history, yet he has  humbled me with a delicious and highly digestible history of India and China around the 1830s. And the books are a veritable feast for the gourmet of detail, be it about food or ships or flowering plants or paintings or the marvellous and intricate richness and variety of languages (for a lot of readers, of course, that would be the major turn-off: I am glad that to Ghosh as to me, such readers’ opinions don’t count). In the tradition of the best writers of all lands and ages, he has also created a very wide variety of characters who are live enough for you to empathize deeply with. And he left me wondering impatiently what new twists and turns the story would take when I had reached the last page, knowing that the third book, Flood of Fire, is going to be released not before spring 2015.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Happy hour

Ankan (Saha), a very favourite old boy, came visiting yesterday. His classmate and one-time batchmate Raunak Chandak the budding businessman and car aficionado who never forgets to let me drive the latest acquisition of his accompanied him. We had a fun three hours chatting.

Ankan was a whiz kid all through. He sailed through school, studied at IIT Kanpur on scholarship, flew off to the US, got a PhD in computer science from the U. of Chicago, is currently living in the San Francisco Bay Area and commuting to work at Mountain View, working on research at Linkedin. By Indian middle-class standards, he is, of course, top of the heap. Thinking of a startup: who knows but sometime soon he might be another zillionaire. But that is not why I have always had a soft corner for him…

First, despite rough patches and long gaps, he has always been fond of me (I think) and kept in touch. Second, it was he who got me into blogging: this thing owes its existence to him. Third, the poor boy lost his dad too early, and the coping has been hard, but he seems to have done well. Fourth, though unlike his batchmate Nishant (Kamath), we talk much less often, it is always good when we do. Three hours passed by in a flash: I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did, Ankan and Raunak. We talked of – let me see – science, math, computers, economics, big business, history, movies, marriage, culture or the lack of it where we respectively live, books we have read recently, exercise, travelling, batchmates of theirs whom I know and how much they have changed or not, fun aspects of social psychology... I forget the rest. It set me wondering what it is about female ex students that they rarely visit, and hardly have anything interesting to talk about!

Thank you for coming, Ankan. And thanks for City of Djinns (Nishant, if you are reading this, we collectively remembered how good the Colorado whisky was! So thank you, too). Take care. May life shower its choicest blessings on you all. And keep a little more closely in touch…

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Love is a bore

Look this up in today's edition of Anandabazar Patrika, all my Bengali readers. There is a reason why I put this up here instead of on the other blog.

If you want a further belly laugh, click on 'translate' at the top of the linked article and check out the result. Long live IT-geeks...

Monday, February 10, 2014

Musing over the weekend

         (the road from Ilambazar to Shantiniketan. My local favourite)

Winter is going away too fast. The chill vanished with almost military punctuality on Saraswati pujo day. There is the all-too-evanescent spring in the air, it’s terribly dusty all around, and if it doesn’t rain soon, yet another awful summer is going to be upon us within weeks…

My old faithful scooter wrought a miracle yesterday. I drove to Shantiniketan on a whim with someone riding pillion, and yet it went all the way and back without so much as a hiccup, only to break down virtually when I was back home (minor hitch, soon resolved). I am not going to exchange it for a new bike in a hurry!

I was visiting Shantiniketan after quite some time. The grounds look much tidier and more colourful with trees and flowers than I remember seeing them ever before. Someone is obviously paying attention to these things at last. And there were Ananda pathshaala classes going on in the open air as always. But the museum at Rabindra Bhavan was a disappointment. Many of the exhibits have been put beyond the public gaze, apparently after the original Nobel Prize medallion was stolen: a classic case of shutting the gates after the horse has bolted if ever there was one!

I am missing some of my frequent comment-writers here. Where have you folks gone?

My yearly admissions will begin on February 22, and for more than a week the house will be swarming with people. The notices are up on display at the gate, and folks are ringing up at all hours to find out when they must turn up and what they must do for their kids to get in. Every year this time gives me a rush of mixed feelings – wonder, about why they keep coming year after year in such numbers, profound thankfulness that they do, discomfiture over how much I’ll have to talk and how much silliness and worse I’ll have to deal with until the admissions are over, trepidation over whether I can do my thing with the fresh batches as well as I have unfailingly done all these years (I started in Durgapur in 1987, and the batches grew large from 1992), pride that I must have made some name for myself doing something that many people have found worth their time and money, else this would have been just a figment of my imagination, gladness that not a few have taken away so much more than merely a few notes and marked exercises for some piffling examinations, sadness that so many have not (or have forgotten since leaving my classes, or simply never told me how I helped to make their lives better in some lasting sense)… it’s been a good life, and I am looking forward to retirement in a few years’ time, and so many people’s voices ring in my ears, too, saying ‘Sir, you can never retire!’

Monday, February 03, 2014

Is there going to be a 'Great Leap'?

Rajdeep sent me this link all the way from Japan. He has noticed – as I hope some others have, too – that I have been writing in the same vein for a long time now. Good to see that a hot-shot ‘with-it’ management consultant is saying the same sort of thing now, and though he thinks of himself as an outlier still, he can hear his echo in as stolid an establishment figure as Larry Summers, and his article has been published in the Harvard Business Review, as dyed in the wool as they come this side of the Pope (am I being unfair to the Pope?)

The whole of the current young generation faces Stagnation, with a capital S, regardless of how many overnight puppy-billionaires in the Mark Zuckerberg mould our global freakonomy keeps throwing up.To quote Haque, “Stagnation means, in plain English, that living standards in many rich nations are going to fall for young people. That’s a fancy way of saying that life is going to get shorter, harder, nastier, dumber, and bleaker. No, sorry, just because you can buy a gigantic 4D plasma TV on 4000% APR credit and a bag of Doritos the size of an Escalade for 99 cents doesn’t mean you will live longer, be healthier or happier, or be able to afford an education for yourself or your children”. And that’s the bright picture, because he is talking about rich nations here. There’s a couple of lines about IT-hack types in India and China, too: find them yourself. I worry, for my daughter is on the threshold of adulthood, and has been brought up to be unusually aware and sensitive.

There are two sad things about this situation. One, that even the Umair Haque types have no concrete agenda (read the third paragraph from the end), just as the Arvind Kejriwals and the ‘We are the 99%’ gangs don’t. So, in Rajiv Gandhi’s long-forgotten words uttered in another era and another context, ‘the future is being determined by drift and not by direction’. At least the Bolsheviks had some sense of direction back in 1917, or thought they had. Hard to believe it’s been almost a hundred years since…Two, it makes me feel horrible to think that 99% of those who read stuff like this are those who can afford to live in denial, either because they have got slightly better-than-average jobs-plus no family responsibilities (there’s an incredible number of this type around these days among under-35s!) or because they are still living on mummy-and daddy’s support (a lot of them ‘disguised unemployed’ – oops, I meant doing PhDs), or in low-paid-dead-end jobs and piling up debts with no thought of the morrow, and therefore hate to be reminded. If change for the better comes about in my lifetime, it will not be their doing. The sans culottes, or their latter-day equivalents, don’t read blogs on the internet…

Ah well. I shall keep faith in my old guru John Maynard Keynes, who once famously wrote ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler… sooner or later, it is ideas rather than vested interests which are dangerous for good and evil’.

Thank you, Rajdeep.