Saturday, December 27, 2008

Death of a Salesman - Arthur Miller

Couldn't get a more appropriate book for a sales guy at the end of his financial year. Drained of energy and waiting for this year to get over, to start again with clean sheets. Death of a Sales man is one of the most sold plays of Arthur Miller, released in 1949. What is surprising is that the relevance of the book at the current times.

The story and synopsis can be read here and I'm not getting into it.

There are multiple angle to this play. At one level , it is the sales man and his relationship with his employer. Despite serving him for 35 years, he is not wanted in that organisation. The same person who build their business empire in New England from scratch, was now fired for non-performance. For the sales guy, the customers with whom he has build a rapport and business are all retired or replaced by newer younger people, nullifying his influence. The old hand at the business is no more and his son who runs the company now, do not value the heritage and the people who build the company.

The other side is the strained relation between the father and son. Willy is blamed (or he takes the blame) for the failure of Biff to graduate after he flunked Maths. Biffs exposure to fathers illicit relationship with a lady in Boston, and his anger and disappointment has lead to his later failure in life. Even at 34 he is unable to settle in any job or place.

Linda, Willy's wife fit in at the perfect house-wife role. All understanding , always supportive to her husband, never complaining and always encouraging. Even when she realises that Willy's frequent car accidents are not mere lack of concentration, but a planned attempt, she does not loose her composure with him.

Willy himself is under hallucinations and day dreams. He move in and out of worlds of real and imaginary, often criticising himself on his inability to live a life like that of his now dead brother ( who comes in his dreams very often). His attempt to resurge his career is turned futile, his hopes on his sons to be own their own and support the aging parents fails , leading him to despair , eventually leading to his death.

Though written about the period 1928 and 1942, the plot is still the same. The middle class life run on mortgage payments and by the time you finished your payment, you have to start all over again. And I don't think it can end any better..
"Forgive me, dear. I can't cry. I don't know what it is, but I cant cry. I don't understand it. Why did you ever do that ? It seems to me that you're just on another trip. I keep expecting you...I search and search and search, and I cant understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there'll be nobody home. We're free and clear. We're free.. We're free..We're free."
Death of a Salesman
Arthur MillerUBS Publishers Distributors Pvt Ltd

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Petal of Blood - Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o

"Today, children, I am going to tell you about about the history of Mr.Blackman in three sentences. In the beginning he had the land and the mind and the soul together. On the second day, they took the body away to barter it for silver coins. On the third day, seeing that he was still fighting back, they brought priests and educators to bind his mind and soul so that these foreigners could more easily take his land and its produce."
Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o , tells us the story of Kenya, on a larger scale the story of Africa , or the story of every country being ruled by colonial power for the major part of second half of last millennium.
Munira, arrives at the small village of Ilmorog far away from the cities, inhabited by elders and kids, to set up and run the primary school. All the previous teachers who arrived there did not last a week. He too was welcomed by the villagers with a "mountainous shit-dune" in the school compound. Slowly he gets the acceptance of the locals and starts his effort to teach the children. The other non-native of the place is the one-legged Abdulla, who runs the lone petty shop in the village, supported by Joseph, the orphan he rescued during his journey. All the men and women of the village are taken to the towns to work in the new enterprises, farms and factories run by wealthy individuals and foreign collaborators. To this set up, comes the beautiful Wanja, to stay with her grand mother, the powerful , old leader of the village, whose husband was hanged by the Colonist for opposing and fighting them. Soon, Karega joins Munira in the Village, who like Munira is from the Siriana school and have been expelled after a students strike, repeating the history of Munira. The foursome , now the integral part of the village become their voice, light and their hope.
Why are they here ? What brought these four to this place which receives no visitors. A place, where the inhabitants wants to escape and never returns. A place where the member of the constituent assembly comes with promises just before the election. Each of them are trying to escape from their past. To take refuge in a place far away from the world , away from those tormenting memories. Each of them have a past unknown to others. A past of resistance, rejection, failure, humiliation and torture. Of disappointment, a past of shattered dreams and hopes. Each of them had gone suffered the loss of people close to them, people who are interlinked, related to each other.
The fate and fortune of Ilmorog is all set for a change. The village has been stuck with drought and famine. Their farms are dry and have not yielded any crops this year, to feed them all. The reserves are depleting, the cattle are skinny and dying. It hasn't been rained for months. The offers to gods and the sacrifices of their beloved sheep have not satisfied the supreme. Does the bad omen come through the Donkey of Abdulla ? The village elders have decided to sacrifice the donkey, against Abdulla's pleas. This is when the intelligent among them ( of course , the Teachers an Wanja) suggest that they send a delegation to the City, and meet their MP and request help. They have been supporting and voting him to power every time, and it is time he reciprocate and help them. Thus starts the long journey. A journey that bond them, but help them to understand each other better. Abdulla , Karega, Wanja and Munira re-live their past life to each other during this journey.
The trip to Nairobi did not end all that well. MP while addressing sensed a rebellion of his people. Was it triggered by his opponents ? Who are these four outsiders ? Why are they so worried about the people of Ilmorog ? Why will some one go to such goddamned place ? Naturally, all the four leaders(?) end up in police station, only to be released with an intervention of a progressive lawyer.
The journey did not yield any results. There was no help from the government, but the rain gods were sympathetic. It rained , and rained so hard bringing a new life to the province. Crops were good, agriculture produce was the best in the recent years. Along with this came the progress of the village. Government set up a Police station and the Christian missionary set up the first of its prayer hall. Then came the Trans-Africa road construction along with workers. People started pouring in and soon Ilmorog has more outsiders than the native. Karega is expelled fro the job and leaves the town.The business ( making the local brand of alcohol Theng 'Eta ) of Abdulla prospered, now joined by Wanja. The all open fields were slowly being occupied and converted to individual properties. Slowly, people started loosing their own properties. Lured by the African Development Bank, to take loans for business and agriculture, the uneducated people were made to sign documents only to loose the property to the Bank on non-payment of dues. Abdulla and Wanja lost their business and the right to produce the Theng Eta , which are now being controlled by 3 directors Chui , Kimeria and Meizo ( same people who were once the reason or part of their destruction in their early life).
The novel starts with the interrogation of the four suspects in the murder of the directors. They were burnt alive in the house of Wanja, where she now run a profitable business of flesh trade. The story is being described as narrated and re-collected by Munira over the past 12 years.
This is the Kenya after the Independance ; the colonial power ( " Christianity, commerce, civilization.; the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy trinity " ) has been replaced by the indigenous 'colonist'( those who worked for the European Rulers and on their departure became the owners of the property). The strong sense of betrayal among the native Kenyans as the entire resources are controlled by few individuals. The leaders are engaging in pitting one tribe against other and celebrating the new found richness.
"Big shots from the different communities sat together and talked only in their own mother tongues... Every group talked about the danger of other groups. They were grabbing everything.. they have taken all the white highlands. Then about a month ago the groups from other communities suddenly stopped coming to the place. So the cars were fewer. Now the talk changed a little. We shall fight: we have fought before....the other communities want to reap where they never planted."

"Educators, men of letters, intellectuals; these are only voices - not neutral , disembodied voices - but belonging to bodies of persons, of groups, of interest. You, who will see the truth about words emitted by a voice, look first for the body behind the voice. The voice merely rationalizes the needs, whims, caprices, of its owner, the master. Better therefore to know the master in whose service the intellect is and you'll be able to properly evaluate the import and the imagery of utterances. .. If you would learn look about you: choose your side".
Very powerful and political story in the backdrop of a small time Kenyan Village Ilmorog, which transforms itself to a tourist town. Every inhabitants of the place have lost their land and people due to some manipulations of the few powerful individuals. Was it the new Kenya they all have fought for ?
Very deep , engaging and hard-hitting novel about Kenya ( and African continent in general) post independence and of its disappointments. Of the exploitation of the people by the rulers , the corruption and treachery. At first at the hands of the Europeans : "God save the queen, they sang after every massacre and then went to church for blessings and cleansing: it had always fallen to the priest to ordain human sacrifice to appease every dominant God in history". Then at the hands of the new rich and powerful political and business leaders.
Ilmorog represents the post independence transition of Kenya. it represents the ordeal of the common man. It give us a bleak view of the what the realities of the freedoms were, and how soon the hopes of the people were shattered. Ilmorog is a metaphor of modern Kenya, faced with harsh realities. But the author definitely displays his anger, however does not provide us with any positive of bright outlook of the future. He make some strong statements here (he was arrested and jailed in Kenya in 1978, post this novel - not sure if there are any connections with this book).
Beneath all these strong political views, lies a beautiful story supported with a sublime narrative.
Petal of Blood
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o
408 Pages
Rs 435
Further read: Study , Biography ,
PS :
"Where have you been?" she asks him, trying to remove the KAR hat pin-folded on one side from his head.
"Burma....India....Japan... lands far away, soldier fighting for the king."
"Whom were you fighting?"
"Italians, Germans, Japanese."
"You had a quarrel with them ? Oh, you must have been angry."
"Why then were you fighting them?"
"A soldier does not ask questions... he obeys orders and dies, dies fighting for the king."
"Which king ? Does he also fight ?"
"Oh, stop it, little girl. You ask too many questions."

Saturday, December 20, 2008

It happened in India - Kishore Biyani

I think it was towards the end of 2006. I was on my way to Office and an unexpected traffic jam on the Hosur Road, at the Madiwala Checkpost junction caused all my days plan in a spin. The nerve-centre of the jam was the BIG BAZAAR store situated next to the Forum Mall, which I understood later, have launched another innovative campaign of theirs called 'subse sasta din' or so. The crowd was uncontrollable and spilling over to already heavily trafficked Hosur Road. The visual and print media covered this with lot of enthusiasm and I heard the scenes were as bad if not worse in other centres across the country.

As I was reading again of these incidents in Kishore Biyani's book, it revealed a whole lot of new concepts successfully deployed by his team over the years, which I have seen and dismissed as any other campaigns.

Retail is the catchword these days. With the increase in the income and the all too powerful middle class consumer rise, the avenues to spent have to grow in a similar manner. The growth of organised retail in India has to be discussed along with these lines. Though there are many early entrants in this field, supported and funded by big industrial houses in country, the result , barring in the textile sector (to an extend) hasn't been all that great. Many traditional so called 'departmental store' chains have struggled in scaling up their operations and/or in measuring up to the new bourgeoisie communities demand and aspirations. Many of them have had an early death and few remained, to my understanding, are still struggling for existence. The history of the global players too haven't been all that lucrative.

There are few who remain competitive and prosperous in this environment. Future group is definitely one of them with their 'Pantaloon', 'Big Bazaar' and 'Central' stores. This books is the story of this empire from its early days of conception to the behemoth it is today. Kishore Biyani takes us through his experience of building one of the largest retail empire in India, from near bankruptcy and rejection to be one of the role models of the industry. Being a trader and an in born talent, there is no doubt about his penchant towards business. I was particularly interested in his words on the concept of Big Bazaar, which he attributes to the 'Saravana Stores' in Chennai. The created chaos of the stores, the various campaigns being run by the organisation, the early identification of the demographic split of the customers he planned to target and attract , the meticulous planning of location and the goods to be carried in each stores - all of which are quite impressive. Two things stand out in the whole affair; one his knack in getting the pulse of the buying behaviour of his customers, and the speed and accuracy of execution.

Well, this is not a business study ; we are discussing the book here ! Written and announced as an autobiography, it is more of the story of Future Group and the retail business in general, less on the person by himself. It also carries the testimonials and remarks by his associates, employees, contractors and investors, in the expected lines (!). While not commenting on the business side and the personal side of the book, it is an interesting insight to the changing retail scene and the buying behaviour of the people during one of the most eventful period of India growth story.

It happened in India
Kishore Biyani ( with Dipayan Baishya)
Rupa PublicationsRs 99

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The caretaker - Harold Pinter

This is arguably, one of the most popular plays by the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter. Originally written and produced in 1960, first major success as a play write.

Confined to a room and three characters, brothers Aston and Mick and an old homeless Davis. As we understand later, Aston rescues Davis from a Cafe before being beaten up and take him to his house. He allows Davis to spent the night in his room and later allows him to stay until suitable alternates have been made by the later. Mick the younger brother, arrives later to the scene and virtually makes things uneasy for the old man. It hasn't been a smooth relationship between the brothers as they hardly speak to each other. Davis is offered a role of a care taker by Mick , provided he is able to establish his identity and credentials.

As things turns out in a couple of weeks, Davis trying to establish himself in the house by playing between the brothers. His changed behaviour and mannerisms puts him into trouble with Aston , which leads to Aston asking him to leave the place. His attempts to garner support of Mick also fails. Davis tries his luck with Aston again, pleading to allow him stay, unsuccessfully.

Typical of Pinters plays, bit absurd, conflict among the members , the abrupt change of character are all in this small play. A tramp with his racial blurts ( his comment on the Indian neighbours and calling them 'blacks') and perennial greed, a mentally challenged young man ( as we understand from the communication between Aston and Davis, where he talk about his stint in the mental hospital and being subjected to electric shock treatment) and a self employed youth trying to establish his authority over his elder brother all makes the undertone of this quite interesting.

Short and fascinating read, and I am sure will reveal more in re-read, which I intent to do.
The Caretaker
Harold Pinter78 Pages
Further read : Literary Encyclopedia , Culture vulture

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswani

Originally published in 2002 in Egypt, this book has been a best seller in that part of the world ever since. However, it took few years to get this translated into English, and was popular in the rest of the world as well.

Yacoubian Building, the novel based on the life and events of a cross section of people living and dying in this building in the downtown Cairo. According to the notes, this building still exists in Cairo to whom the description of the book relate ; however, the rest of the story and characters are fictional.

This is the story of the contemporary Cairo or Egypt , even though set in the time of the first Gulf war. The inhabitants of the building is from a cross section of the society. It has businessmen, ultra rich elites, old men, people of different origins, intellectuals, with different religious back ground, sales men. It also have loads of poor families settles on the terrace of the building in tents, sharing common amenities. They share the life on the terrace which is more colourful and real with their quarrel, their stories, their jealousy.

The novel traces the lives of these families in few distinct threads. An old bachelor Zaki, a Paris return elite, flirtatious and womaniser, in search of true love at the twilight of his life, a young boy Taha, son of a door keeper, who cherishes the dream of joining the police academy, passing the intermediate with exemplary result, to be rejected for being the son of a door keeper. He later turns himself into the hands of the religious fundamentals ; indoctrinated , trained and sent for a mission. His girlfriend Busayna , forced to work as a sales girl , exploited by the owner, keeps her family of mother and siblings from her earnings. Her conscience does not allow her to continue her love for Taha, manages to break their friendship. The opportunities and events lands her as a secretary of the old man, assigned by a task of stealing the house from him in the event of his death. She is determined , not to get carried away with sympathy for the old man and of her task at hand. As they get to know each other, she developed a liking towards the old man , eventually marrying him.

The parallel thread follows the life of the businessman Hagg Azzam , who wake up one day and realised that he has been having wet dreams and his potency is as active as in his old days , which he is not able to get satisfied with his wife. His friends and men of religious authority advises him to marry , as it is perfectly legal under the Islamic texts. His sons, finds him a young bride whose husband has not returned from the gulf. He has been missing without any trace for a while and the authorities have granted her the divorce. She had been put up in a separate apartment after the wedding, out of sight from his first wife, where he spent his afternoon, before returning home at night. With the help of bribe and powerful allies, he manages to get elected into the Egyptian House of Representatives, but soon realise that his business fortunes have to be shared by the Supreme leader of the country.

There is also an gay editor in chief , who frequent the gay joints and other places of similar nature while leading an intellectual public life. He falls to the beauty of a black Egyptian Army cadet, living his nights with him. As the military training comes to an end , he manages to fund a kiosk for him thus keeping him under his control and charm. Though he brings his wife and kid to live with him in his new place arranged by the Editor, he is not able to get himself free from the clutches of power and lust. The unfortunate death of their kid and the scream of his wife, forces him to abandon the kiosk and the company of the Editor, moving back to his town. The regular income and the money has dried and soon living has become difficult. This is when the desperate Editor traced him and offered him another job, with a plead to spent another night with him , after which he is free to choose his future. The passionate night turns itself to the unpleasant arguments resulting in the death of the editor.

This book is a tale of love, of desire, of lust , of power, of poverty , of corruption , of terrorism - all in one. It is the tale of distress, of exploitation of the poor , of the systematic failure of the authorities to bring development and hope to the vast majority of people. Yacoubian Building itself - Once grand a symbol of aristocracy - is now ruined carries the current state of the affairs of the country. It is also of people , forced to make the choices out of compulsion, against their conscience, later convince themselves with made up excuses.

Alaa Al Aswani, has managed to portray the current social spectrum of Egypt with some good writing. As a reader, I was left with this impression as Zaki says to Busayna, "You know, I feel as though I owned the Yacoubian Building. I'm the longest resident in it. I know the history of every individual and every square meter in the building. I've spent most of my life in it. I lived my best days in it and I feel as though it's a part of me. The day this building's demolished or something happens to it, that'll be the day I die."


The Yacoubian Building

Alaa Al Aswani ( Translated by Humphrey Davies )

American Univ in Cairo Press

253 pages

Rs 295


More Reads : Complete Review