Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Indian Bloggers

A great initiative. Do check it out! (via DesiPundit).

Monday, November 21, 2005

Memories of My Melancholy Whores

Yesterday I read Marquez's latest offering. The novel is tiny (115 pages) and overpriced (Rs. 425). And since it is both tiny and costly, I read it in the bookstore in one go over two cappuccinos, and rewarded the store by buying a Banville instead. I found the book a very satisfying read and I would definitely recommend it especially if you are a Marquez lover.

The story in a nutshell is about a 90 year old not-so-successful journalist/scholar, with a 75 year old rich history of sexual encounters, finding love for the first time in his 90th year. On his 90th birthday, he decides to have sex with an adolescent virgin -- a 14 year old poor girl ("disagreeable to contemplate", Updike writes in his review), and gradually falls deeply in love with her. The novel is centred on the developments in the next one year.

Of course, with Marquez, one doesn't know for sure what's real and what's unreal. (A character's memory cannot be completely trusted to detect the real from the other. Just as one forgets certain things that happened at some point, one may remember certain things that did not happen at all.) For instance, the protagonist gets an old cat as a birthday gift. That of course can be real. The cat does a lot of funny things, and that must be real. Then the cat is lost at some point. But in the final 'happy ending scene' (see this neat review by Falstaff for more on the 'happy ending'), the cat is suddenly there, "resuscitated". One wonders whether the final scene is real at all. Is that just a dream? But then why not? What can be more real than the lost cat reappearing at the end, when an old man is resuscitated in his 90th year, when he learns, for the first time, many things about himself?

I, for one, have started to believe that whatever Marquez writes is "real"! When I read several Marquez works in the early 90's, at one point, it struck me that the novelist could visualise the situation where the amputees feel the itching in their amputated parts. Only much later, after Vilayanur Ramachandran's popular book appeared, that I realised that the 'phantom' is something that's 'real'. I skimmed through the 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' to locate the phantom reference. It wasn't there. Then I re-read 'Love in the Time of Cholera', and I saw that Dr. Urbino had mentioned about it to Fermina Daza. I can think of a few other instances as well where I disbelieved Marquez only to correct myself later!

And Marquez is the only writer who has earned my trust to this extent. These days, I don't question him. If Dr. Urbino sits on the toilet seat while urinating in order not to wet the rim (since he can't focus the stream), I feel bad about his prostate gland. And I'm happy about the 90+ protagonist of 'Melancholy Whores' who doesn't have a prostate condition despite the very old age (though he was toilet trained this way too from an early age)!

I must point out that several admirers of Marquez aren't happy about the novel. Here are the links to a few reviews -- bad and good.

  • Alberto Manguel in The Guardian:
      ... take the theme of an old man's longing for the idealised wholeness of youth and turn it into powerful fables on human frailty. Memories of My Melancholy Whores, however, never seems to extend beyond the mere smutty story. It is as if the naming of the object of desire sufficed to justify the text: no attempt is made to dig beneath the surface, to question the passage from fantasy to deed. ... ... In Memories of My Melancholy Whores, García Márquez allowed his old Charon to forget, and the resulting memories are not melancholy, not even sad, but merely pitiful and disappointing.
  • Amanda Hopkinson in The Independent:
      The scenes and descriptions when the writing ignites are fewer and further between than in any earlier Garcia Marquez. This is matched by a variable translation that reads as if rushed. ... ... Edith Grossman is a past mistress of translation who has a dozen tomes by Garcia Marquez under her belt. But neither translator nor, more seriously, the author are truly on form in this, the slightest of their many works.
  • Theo Tait in The Telegraph:
      The circular narrative is oblique and hard to follow, but it undeniably builds up an eccentric momentum, all the while dropping in pearls of what might be wisdom, or might just be senile dementia. Memories of My Melancholy Whores seems like an old man's fever dream, full of bizarre, arresting meditations on love, nostalgia and mortality.
  • Andrew Holgate in The Times:
      ... Such unsteadiness is sadly typical of the book as a whole.
  • Ruth Scurr in The Times:
      Magic and cynicism, love and power, corruption and redemption: these abrasive pairings are hallmarks of the magic realism that García Márquez is famous for pioneering. Yet his voice is never genre-bound or predictable. There is not in this slender book one stale sentence, redundant word or unfinished thought.
  • John Updike in The New Yorker:
      ... a velvety pleasure to read ... it has the necrophiliac tendencies of the precocious short stories, obsessed with living death, that García Márquez published in his early twenties. ... ... Márquez has composed, with his usual sensual gravity and Olympian humor, a love letter to the dying light.
  • Falstaff @ A Considerable Speck:
      ... a beautiful, evocative and deeply satisfying read. And if Marquez, having brought us so far, allows himself to be optimistic, allows his concern for his characters to get the better of his judgement, this is only an old man's fooling, the harmless little joke of a world weary writer that we can only smile at sadly, because we bear him too much affection to scorn him something so small. There's a point in Memories of my melancholy whores where the narrator's old maid, tired of his ceaseless importuning says "Have you thought about what you'll do if I say yes?". It's this generosity of spirit, this sort of genial and kindly magic, that makes Marquez a writer you can't help being touched by.
I can't agree more with Falstaff there.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Toxic truths from the Iraqi battlefront

Check out Siddharth Varadarajan's essay:

    One of the collateral benefits of defeating a country in war is that victory brings with it not just Victor's Justice but Victor's Book-keeping as well. Thanks to Paul Volcker and the CIA-run Iraq Survey Group of Charles Duelfer — which preceded him and couldn't find WMDs and so decided to find a corruption scam — we now know the fate of virtually every farthing paid into and out of the Iraqi oil-for-food accounts. What we don't know is how many Iraqi civilians have been killed in U.S. offensive operations — "We don't do body counts," General Tommy Franks had famously said — or how they died and are still dying. After Nuremberg, all aggressors have realised the value of sloppy record-keeping.
The essay is about the recent allegations that the US has indiscriminately used White Phosphorous munitions -- dangerous chemical weapons -- in the Iraq war, and how the US media, by and large, ignored this piece of news.

Siddharth Varadarajan is one MSM journalist who understands the powers of the blog medium. He uses his blog essentially to archive his writings, but with links enabled to many of his sources. Needless to say, the links to the primary sources on the net wherever possible, enhance the power of these essays.

Update (Nov 17): George Monbiot writes (Thanks P&J):

    Saddam Hussein, facing a possible death sentence, is accused of mass murder, torture, false imprisonment, the embezzlement of billions and the use of chemical weapons. He is certainly guilty on all counts. So, it now seems, are the people who overthrew him.
Also check out Baghdad Burning.

Went for the Bombay bloggers ...

... meet the last Sunday. Had a nice time. Here are links to a few accounts of the meet: Amit, Anthony, Solzaire, and Ravikiran.

Monday evening, I attended a talk by Fali Nariman at the Nehru centre. The talk was on the occasion of Nehru's birth anniversary, and it was titled "The Challenges to Indian Democracy". The talk went very well (except for one or two factual mistakes that Nariman made). The most appealing part of Nariman's talk was his fine sense of humour. It was poorly attended though. Perhaps because the talk was on a working day, perhaps because not many are interested in Nehru these days, as Dilip was telling me the other day. I would have loved to link to a few media reports of the talk, but unfortunately I can't find any.

On the topic of Nehru, here's a fine article by Dipankar Gupta on Nehru and his vision (link via e-mail from Pradeep). Some of the points that Fali Nariman raised are broadly in agreement with Gupta's viewpoint. Nariman was categorical that the system did not fail us. With our present standards of public morality, any system wouldn't have succeeded more than this, he said. It's quite fashionable these days to accuse our founding fathers for today's problems. According to Nariman, the problems aren't due to our founding fathers, they are rather due to the shameless sons of today!

Update (Nov 22): Excerpts from Nariman's lecture were published in yesterday's The Indian Express.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

KR Narayanan (1921-2005) and memories of 1984

Indira Gandhi's death is one of my earliest political memories. I was in the fourth standard then. Our classes were suspended, and we were asked to go home. I remember watching her funeral on TV. Only two houses in our neighborhood had television sets. The house two or three blocks away from our house had a black and white TV. The house three more blocks away had a color TV. Incidentally, the professor who used to live there, is presently the chairman of the University Grants Commission. I watched the funeral on the B&W one. I don't remember seeing or reading anything about the Delhi riots. I think the school restarted after a week or so. The school assembly went on for a longer period as a few of the khadi clad teachers were in no mood to end their eulogies. My sister was in the first standard. On the day of her exam, a month later, I forced her to remember whatever little I knew about Mrs. Gandhi's death. I wanted her to be the first in the class even if there were a few questions outside the text book! She did well but she didn't need to know anything about Indira Gandhi; it was enough to know the color of hibiscus and how to add single digit numbers. My sister and I (mostly) studied in the same school, the same college, the same university, and we chose the same subjects. Thanks to my over enthusiasm on the day of her first exam, never later she took any exam related advice from me!

The general election, my first election (!), was during our vacation break. This is the time I really started reading newspapers. We used to subscribe to The Hindu and three or four Malayalam newspapers. I would read only the Malayalam ones. This is also the time we bought our first transistor radio. The idea of elections charmed me. Over the years that charm has only increased. Back then I did the tabulation of results myself -- losers, winners, majority, number crunching, everything. One had to sit next to the radio not to miss the details of the frequent election bulletins. Now Prannoy Roy does the statistics. Following the elections has become more of a laid back affair.

One newly elected MP from Kerala of the 1984 elections seemed to me to be commanding a lot more respect than others. I sensed this over the dining table talks. This MP won from the Ottappalam loksabha constituency, which is part of the Palakkad - Trissur districts of Kerala. His name was K.R. Narayanan. Thus I knew, from very early on, that the elections are not just about numbers. Individuals matter.

That was K.R. Narayanan's first election too! He went on to win from the same constituency in the next two elections as well, in 1989 and 1991. His succeeding elections of course took him to the highest offices of India. He became the Vice President of India in 1992, and in 1997 he was elected the President. A few years after the 1984 elections, I gradually came to know more about K.R. Narayanan. The respect he commanded made perfect sense.

Here was an intellectual of the highest order who reached the higher echelons despite all possible adversities. Getting educated was a struggle. Being an 'untouchable' of course added to the ill effects of poverty. Each new opportunity came with its share of insults and humiliation. His strength of mind and perseverance prevailed in every fight. See this wiki entry for details of his illustrious career; JRD Tata fellowship to LSE, interactions with academicians of the stature of Harold Laski, Friedrick Hayek and Karl Popper, a brilliant diplomatic career, and brief stints in academics at DSE and JNU. The wiki has also a collection of informative links including Narayanan's 1945 interview with Mahatma Gandhi.

His years at the top saw a lot of churning and restructuring in all spheres in India. The economic reforms, the Babri Masjid demolition, the Gujarat riots and other religious and casteist violence, and the Pokhran blasts, immediately come to mind. His stand was always firmly secular and this did not endear himself to the ruling party leaderships of the day. Narayanan tried hard to remind everyone to abide by the constitution, and he did not always restrict himself to be a ceremonial president. When there was a concerted attempt to tamper with the progressive elements of the constitution, the president had famously suggested that we needed to ask ourselves whether the constitution failed us or it's we who failed the constitution. Several commentators agree that Narayanan was a president who realized the power of his post, and he set many positive precedents. Let me just highlight two of the wiki links on Narayanan's presidential years: articles by Sukumar Muralidharan and AG Noorani. Sukumar Muralidharan summarized Narayanan's term well:

    ... the greatest tribute to his record in office is that he has in difficult times established a pattern of presidential conduct that will remain a standard for reference far into the future. He has never transgressed the constitutional limits of his office, but he has declined to be confined to a purely ceremonial role. He has advised when required, put forward his ideas with appropriate discretion when able, and spoken out at every opportunity for the constitutional values of which he was the chief trustee.
Some of the Narayanan interviews also give us a sense of the warmth of his personality and his openness. This conversation with N. Ram on the occasion of the 50th year of independence deals with many topics including the economic reforms, religious sectarianism, and the Pokhran blasts. In that conversation Narayanan also spoke of the role of the president:
    The President has a constitutional role to play. My image of a President before I came here, and before I had any hope of coming here, was that of a rubber-stamp President, to be frank. This is the image I got. But having come here, I find that the image is not quite correct. I thought, I will have lot of time, leisure for reading, writing, walking etc. But somehow I find I can't get it now. So, my image of a President is of a working President, not an executive President, but a working President, and working within the four corners of the Constitution. It gives very little direct power or influence to him to interfere in matters or affect the course of events, but there is a subtle influence of the office of The President on the executive and the other arms of the government and on the public as a whole. It is a position which has to be used with the, what I should say, with a philosophy of indirect approach. There are one or two things, which you can directly do in very critical times. But otherwise, this indirect influence that you can exercise on the affairs of the State is the most important role he can play. And, he can play it successfully only if he is, his ideas and his nature of functioning are seen by the public in tune with their standards.
He was very candid in his recent Rediff interview. A bit about his presidential years:
    As the President of India, I had lots of experiences that were full of pain and helplessness. There were occasions when I could do nothing for people and for the nation. These experiences have pained me a lot. They have depressed me a lot. I have agonized because of the limitations of power. Power and the helplessness surrounding it is a peculiar tragedy, in fact.

    But I have never felt guilty about my decisions as President of India. But there were certain decisions of mine, which resulted in big setbacks making me think I should not have taken those decisions. For instance, I returned the Gujral government's request to dissolve the Uttar Pradesh assembly and government. I did it because I felt Constitutionally I was doing the right thing. But the occurrences later on proved that politically what I did was not correct.

Also check out this moving anecdotal lecture where Narayanan reminisces about his JRD Tata fellowship. This Asiaweek feature covers a lot of interesting material too. Here's an incident from the Asaiweek feature:
    V.K. Madhavan Kutty, a veteran Malayalee journalist based in Delhi, [recently] received a phone call from Narayanan. Kutty casually mentioned that a common friend staying with him was unwell. "Within half an hour, Narayanan showed up at my door," says Kutty. Subsequently, a police team came to ensure that Kutty's house was secure. "They said a VIP has to come here," laughs Kutty. "I said the VIP has come and gone."
Narayanan was a true Nehruvian in his outlook. India loses this statesmanly voice at a time when it is most needed, when the country is passing through a tumultuous and fast changing period.

Here are two initial obits: Rediff, Outlook.

Update (Nov 11): P. Sainath's tribute to Narayanan in today's The Hindu:

    Though he never once mentioned it, just being who and what he was, achieving all he did, trashed the worst stereotypes of caste. This Dalit from Kerala could not find a full time job there despite being a top student, a gold medallist from the University College, Trivandrum. The discrimination he faced in the era of the Travancore royalty was vile and humiliating. Yet, the man who refused to accept his degree certificate in protest would go on to being one of India's finest diplomats and its best President ever. The Merchants of Merit (aka caste hatred) skipped mention of him in their diatribes. For his very existence and stature destroyed their real argument. A casteist denunciation of Dalits as unfit for higher things.
Read the full thing: Compassion at the top.

Update (Nov 23): A few more links (thanks P&J and Annu):

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Paris riots

Olivier Roy writes in The New York Times:

    The rioting in Paris and other French cities has led to a lot of interpretations and comments, most of them irrelevant. Many see the violence as religiously motivated, the inevitable result of unchecked immigration from Muslim countries; for others the rioters are simply acting out of vengeance at being denied their cultural heritage or a fair share in French society. But the reality is that there is nothing particularly Muslim, or even French, about the violence. Rather, we are witnessing the temporary rising up of one small part of a Western underclass culture that reaches from Paris to London to Los Angeles and beyond.

    ... ...

    ... we are dealing here with problems found by any culture in which inequities and cultural differences come in conflict with high ideals. Americans, for their part, should take little pleasure in France's agony - the struggle to integrate an angry underclass is one shared across the Western world.

Making bright ideas happen

A Frontline feature on TIFR. First photo by Nrupen Madhvani. Second by Pablo.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Doubts are undoubtedly important

That was Amartya Sen's seemingly paradoxical dictum at the end of a brilliant hour long lecture at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, yesterday evening, titled "Science, Argument and Scepticism". Sen's talk, very serious in theme, somewhat heavy with quotations from ancient Indian texts, but frequently punctuated with great humuor, charmed the 1500 strong audience that included many luminaries from different walks of life. R and I were there on Uma's invitation, and we had an extremely satisfying evening out there.

A major part of the talk was based on parts of his magnificent work -- The Argumentative Indian, sprinkled often with entertaining anecdotes. He said the title could look a bit intriguing but there are at least two reasons for him to bring this topic up. Firstly, argument and scepticism are central for the two way relationship between science and society. Science generates knowledge. Now knowledge could be practically useful to the society. Or its purpose could be to quench curiosity, even idle curiosity. The latter aspect is no less important than the former aspect. The point of science is also to ask new questions that the society has to face. On the other hand it is the unwillingness of the society to remain satisfied that propels science. Secondly, Sen wants to trace the relationships among science, argument and scepticism in the phenomenally rich Indian intellectual tradition. This first of all springs out of personal curiosity. But this is also essential as the perception of our past is dominated currently by two opposing trends. One is the sectarian voice of the traditionalists which includes the advocates of the Hindutva. The other is the historical naivety of the obdurate modernists. If one is forced to choose between the two, Sen would undoubtedly choose to side with the modernists. But why choosing between these two, when we can do much better, Sen asks.

That we can do better is apparent when we begin to reexamine India's intellectual history. India has had a truly exceptional legacy which is fairly comprehensively neglected. A legacy of questioning, verifying, infering, a legacy of the pursuit of truth. This legacy is rejected by the tradionalists as they want to emphasize only on faith. Faith suits them, but, not doubts. This legacy is rejected by the modernists as well, who do not wish to go beyond Western knowledge.

Sen now spends considerable time and effort to scrutinize the available ancient texts. His many examples include themes from the Rig Veda, the philosophy of Buddhism and Buddhist texts, the rich Indian atheistic tradition, the Lokayata, the Carvakas, their texts as summarized by Madhavacharya in the Sarvadarsanasamgraha, the stories from the Ramayana, the Mahabharatha and other literary texts. Then there's the large corpus of scientific and technical writing in Sanskrit, for instance, Aryabhata, Brahmagupta, and Varahamihira. Sen's companion in closely understanding their period is Al Biruni. In fact Sen rates Al Biruni's Tarikh-al-Hind as the best text on India that he has ever read. This part of the talk was intellectually stimulating as well as taxing. I have read The Argumentative Indian, and yesterday I attended Sen's talk, but I must admit that I have acquired only a nodding acquaintance with this central part of the talk, and I would direct an interested reader to The Argumentative Indian as well as the many references therein.

What's the persistent feeling that one gets after a perusal of all these material? There's a rich history of scepticism in ancient India and this has played a constructive role in the spectacular success of ancient Indian science. Conversely, ancient Indian science has played a constructive role in the growth of scepticism. Amartya Sen also stressed the point that the connections that one is trying to establish are intellectual and not always documented. We need to find newer methods for a better understanding of this facet of our past. But as Sen said at one point, "motivation is half the battle". Perhaps taking note of the controversies that his book has generated in the intellectual circles, Sen did not forget to assert that we cannot and should not justify contemporary policy by invoking historical tradition. That'll be the wrong way to shape today's policy. For instance, even if we did not have a tradition of science and mathematics, we need to develop these subjects, because our present demands that.

Amartya Sen ended his talk by stressing the role of scepticism in the field of social sciences. In the social sciences, the very formulation of questions need to take care of the inherent ambiguities. The aim of good research should also be to plant new questions. Narrow specialisations, more often than not, are counterproductive. He mentioned his own work on famines to shed light on the role of scepticism. One had to doubt the prevailing wisdom, had to start thinking counterintuitively to finally conclude that famines have not much to do with the supply of food, but they have more to do with lack of entitlement and gainful employment.

Sen remarked that the same way we may be able to get new insights into the topic of women's skills and abilities if we go beyond the hold of established beliefs about women's inferiority. We need to take a shift in the establishment approach, and he felt that the statistics of how women have performed in a specific field under the current establishment may not have much relevance in understanding this topic. His second example where we could get new insights was regarding the problem of ill health, specifically the dichotomy between self perception and medical examination.

This excellent talk was followed by a lively Q & A session. Free of the written document, where he could only insert a funny comment here or there, now Sen was at his humuorous best. The session saw his remarks about the value neutrality of science, the distinction between good science and bad science, why the scepticism of the materialists, and not that of the spiritualists or the idealists, is more important in the Indian context, his own interests in mathematics ("pure" mathematics is more useful to an economist than "applied" math as "applied" math grew with applications in physics in mind), investments in basic research, Thomas Kuhn, the possible absence of the spirit of give and take in medieval and modern Indian intellectual scene, scepticism vis a vis ensuring decisive actions, the question of population in India, and the role of the President of India!

Note 1. This is a free rendering of some of the main points of Amartya Sen's talk, as I understood it. There could be mistakes, significant or otherwise. You are welcome to point it out, if you find any.

Note 2. My post about Sen's book The Argumentative Indian is here. It's actually an attempt to critique Ram Guha's review of Sen's book. Links to Guha's review and a few other reviews are also there.

Note 3. The high tea that followed also saw a mini blogger (& blogger-spouse) meet. R and I had some nice discussions with Uma MD and A, Rashmi Bansal and Y, and Matthew Daniels.

Update: The Hindu has a good report of Amartya Sen's talk at TIFR.

Stotra gems

I'm pointed to this webpage -- stotraratnas -- maintained by PP Ramachander. Shri Ramachander has English translations of a collection of stotras, with the original, out there. I'm sure those will be of interest to several readers of this blog.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Horrible journalism?

The Indian Express reports on the Natwar Singh - Volcker controversy:

    Even before the government decides to ‘sacrifice’ External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh, people across the globe have given their verdict.

    According to an opinion poll conducted by, 88.05 per cent of the Netizens have given their judgment in favour of Natwar Singh’s resignation. While 10.53 per cent have given him a clean chit, 1.42 per cent readers have reserved their view.

    The glaring question is, as the country’s External Affairs Minister, how can Singh continue to chair such a prestigious post. Being implicated in a UN report, he has lost the credibility to handle India’s relations with the outside world and has become more of a national embarrassment.

The Indian Express conducted an opinion poll? Where are the details of the poll? What was the sample size? There are certain basic things that go into the design of a poll, right? Where are those details?

It turns out that Expressindia is talking about the poll conducted at their website. See the results here. It's amazing that Expressindia doesn't bother much to spell it out clearly that this was an online poll with "self-selected" participants and not a scientific poll conducted with "randomly selected" participants. Obviously an online poll doesn't have much value as everyone understands that it reflects the biases of the visitors of that particular website.

Asking for a minister's resignation based on such a poll is very funny! In their earlier polls, 53% agreed with Shiv Sena that the page 3 culture resulted in an increase in rape incidents, 73% were against the state mourning for Pope John Paul II, and 59% thought the US shouldn't have denied Narendra Modi a visa. Did the Indian Express advocate their readers' opinion on these matters on their pages? 85% of the online poll participants supported the slum demolition drive in Mumbai. Now that says a lot about the disconnect between online poll outputs and what the public think. [Link.]

It's disgusting that a premier newspaper cheats its readers like this. Journalism of courage? Indeed!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

John McCain on Gandhi

Read this post at Sepia Mutiny. Makes me wonder whether Hillary's mention of Gandhi was after all just "a lame attempt at humor"!

Update (Nov 3): Alex Cumberbatch writes in saying that he has sent a note of protest to McCain. If you like to do the same, do it here.