Saturday, February 28, 2009

Allah is not Obliged - Ahmadou Kourouma

The full, final and completely complete title of my bullshit story is: Allah is not obliged to be fair about all the things he does here on earth. Okay. Right. I better start by explaining some stuff.

First off, Number one . . . My name is Birahima and I'm a little nigger. Not 'cos I'm black and I'm a kid. I'm a little nigger because I can't talk French for shit. That's how things are. You might be a grown-up, or old, you might be Arab, or Chinese, or white, or Russian — or even American — if you talk bad French, it's called parler petit nègre — little nigger talking — so that makes you a little nigger too. That's the rules of French for you."
thus, starts this magnificent novel by this Ivory Cost writer, about the war ravaged Western Africa.

Birahima, "the fearless , blameless street kid" , narrates his experience during his journey through the war affected countries as a "child soldier , small soldier, soldier-kid", under multiple warloads , in his raw, foul mouthed , unsympathetic narrative, using various dictionaries for help (Larousse, a Petit Robert, a Glossary of French Lexical Particularities in Black Africa and a Harrap's, picked up towards the end of his travel).

After the death of his mother, who as he describes, "moved on her arse like a caterpillar", after her leg is amputated ( because her soul was savouring on her on body) , "the fearless blameless street kid" has to leave his home and go in search of his aunt who presumably lives in Liberia. The once sorcerer ( gri-gri) , criminal, money multiplier Yacouba, "the crippled crook" agrees to take him there. As is the case with in any journey through Liberia, the truck they were travelling was also intercepted by the Child Soldiers of a Liberian warload and he end up as a child soldier in their camp. Few desertions and in certain cases the deaths of the chiefs, make him and Yacouba to travel across the countries of Liberia,Ivory Cost and Sierra Leone in search of his aunt, associating with various factions as a child soldier in the process.

Even though it brings strong memories of other memoirs of child soldier ( like "A Long Way Gone" by Ismael Beah ), the difference here is in the narrative and the fictional writing qualities. While the writer uses the child soldier as the central character and the protagonist , we often listens to a strong political and social writer taking over the narration. That is also a draw back of the book, where many a times, the writing takes a turn, which to me is in-comprehensible to a 12 year old boy.

The real ( various war-leaders of Liberia , Sierra Leone and other heads of states) and the fictional characters comes alive in his story. The reality and the fiction are very closely interlinked. Very political, tragic novel about the human crisis in Africa. The the author does not mince any words, literally abusing the war lords, the international agencies, the peace keeping force and the people with all his strong conviction. He describe peace keeping forces as " when a country is allowed to send soldiers into another country to kill innocent victims in their own country, in their own villages, in their own huts, sitting on their own mats."

"The peace keeping forces didn't keep the peace, they don't take any unnecessary risks. They weren't bothered about details, they just fired at random, they fired shells at the people doing the attacking and at the people being attacked. They bombed right into the crowd , into the chaos. In a single day , they produced loads of innocent victims, more victims than a whole week of rival factions just fighting with each other."

While the economics could be the real motive behind the tribal war, what is at hand is a humanitarian crisis. "All the villages along the way were deserted, one hundred percent deserted. That's the way it goes in a tribal war ; everyone abandons the villages where humans live and go and live in the forests where the wild beasts live. Wild beasts have a better life that people."

The story also takes us through the multiple individuals whom the boy meets and interacts, which also gives you an insight to the people involved and affected by the on going war. As on of the boy reasons him being a child soldier :
"Next morning when there was no more noise , the children dared to go back to the family huts, to find out his fathers throat cut, his brothers throat cut, his mother and sister raped and their heads bashed in. All your relatives, close and distant , dead. And when you have got no one left on earth, no father , no mother, no brother, no sister, and you are really young, just a little kid, living in some fucked-up country where everyone is cutting everyone's throat, what do you do ?
You become a child-soldier of course, a small soldier, a child-soldier so you can have lots to eat and cut some throats yourself; that's all your only option.

Fascinating novel by this Ivory Cost writer. Interesting use of languages and style, at times getting into a political commentary ( where the author takes over from the kid who is narrating) , some nice poetic repetitive use of phrases ( you see this in many places) makes it a good read. While it makes a strong political and humanitarian crisis statement, here is also a superb writer using a non-standard language and mixing the local words ( for which he gives us the translation, mostly for local abuses) and with few amusing use of repetitive phrases and sentences.
Allah is not Obliged
Ahmadou Kourouma
( Translated by Frank Wynne)
Anchor Books
215 Pages
Rs 455
Further Read : wordswithoutborders , Guardian

Monday, February 23, 2009

Revolutionary Road - Richard Yates

This book has kindled my interest of many after the adaptation of the work into a movie ( about which my friend Sri made a nice note here) and the recent discussion of this book in this forum. This book was originally published in 1961 and gained acceptance after his death in 1992 as a re-discovered classic.

The usual sub-urban life, married young couple with 2 kids, a steady job, a home and the regular monotonous life , with occasional visits by local friends. A typical middle class urban life. The post world war American life, crippled with issues of personal security and the quest to try shake out the set pattern of life , the inability to carry on with your plans are all the same anywhere in the world.

Frank in his late twenties and April Wheeler, are nothing exceptional from the usual 1950s middle class America. The same usual life, the silly quarrels, the hopes for a better future and the plans to escape from this rigid life to explore pastures in Europe.

The plots and the synopsis can be read here.

Frank does not particularly enjoys his job. He does not even know what is his real job there. As he answers his wife on the job after he is appointed,
"The sales what?" "Promotion? I don't get it. What does that mean , you are supposed to do?"
"Who the hell knows? They explained it to me for half an hour and still I dont know, and I dont think they do either".
April is home looking after the kids and preparing for Franks return in the evening.

Unlike others, they are not waiting for things to happen on its own. April, takes the initiatives and plans for their future in Paris. She does all the ground work, letting kids know, enquire with the travel agents, buying elementary French for herself and advanced French for Frank , discussing the possible selling of the house with Mrs.Givings, make appropriate announcement to the friends..and all. Frank on the other hand allows her to take control over these , contemplating his own move in office with his imminent leaving of the job.

Well, an unwanted pregnancy puts a halt to all the preparations. While April wanted to abort this, the more catholic Frank dissuades her from it. They now have to re-track all the preparations. This, with the new found importance of Frank in Office, has made things to deteriorate between them till the point of total break down. the only was April see to come of it is to execute her plan to abort the kid. The attempt ends her up in the hospital where she succumb to the bleeding.

What makes this different is its closeness to reality. There is no pretence , no over-hyped characterisation ( even the madman John is well within the realistic limits). There is no good or bad people , there are only real people. While it looked more like a personal tragedy of the Wheelers family, as the author puts it, it is the tragedy of every single human being. "If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy."

A very realistic novel supported with extremely polished and attractive prose, makes it a good read. There aren't any outstanding passages, or incidents for people to keep quoting as in the case of other great novels. But this has some sublime beauty , that keeps you glued. While I agree with others in their judgement as a fantastic book, it might not appear in my 'top 25' books selection.

On a lighter note , what I found startling, is this description, which has lot of my personal attributes. " Shep Campbell gained a reputation as a snob. He antagonised Milly, and frightened her, for he had become a moody listener to classical music and a sulking reader of literary quarterlies."

Revelutionary Road
Richard Yates
Vintage Classics
337 Pages
Rs 315
Suggested Read : NY Times Review, Guardian Review, Boston Review

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Land of Five Rivers - Khushwant Singh

Edited and Translated by Khushwant Singh: A compilation of 21 short stories from Punjab. Stories written over a preiod spanning 40s and 70s, includes stories by some prominent writers such as Sadat Hasan Manto, Amrita Pritam ( winner of Jnanpith award) , K A Abbas, Yashpal and Khushwant Singh.

Punjab to me is a very interesting place. Spread across 2 countries ( India and Pakistan) , with 3 languages spoken - Urdu , Punjabi and Hindi ( to a lesser extent) , and population split into 3 religion ( Hindu , Muslim and Sikh) is one of the most suffered region during the painful separation of India and Pakistan. Not surprisingly, many of the stories in this book with this as the main theme. And it is around this, many of the writings from Punjab has nourished.

The book starts with the popular story by Sadat Hasan Manto ( Toba Tek Singh , translated as 'exchange of lunatics' in this book) , which is about the plan of the newly formed governments of India and Pakistan to exchange lunatics held in the asylums, to the respective countries based on the division which set two countries separate. An outstanding story, talks of the plight of the common man in the hand of lunatics, in a very powerful way.
"On one side, behind barbed wire, stood together the lunatics of India and on the other side, behind more barbed wire, stood the lunatics of Pakistan. In between, on a bit of earth which had no name, lay Toba Tek Singh. "

There are few noteworthy stories, especially Lajwanti by Rajinder Singh Bedi, Death of Shaikh Burhanuddin by K A Abbas, One Passenger, Ho! by Santokh Singh Dhir.

As in a case of any compilation, this too have some superb , some mediocre stories. While this might not have covered the entire spectrum of writers fro mPunjab, it did give the glimpses of the section of the post independent Punjabi writers.

Contrary to the usual translation from Indian Language to English, which I always found a bit low in standard, this book was translated brilliantly and does not leave a taste of the local language to the reader. Most of the writings are around the partition and the struggle, hatred , violence, loss, bravery and compassion of common man it does come out quite visibly as a non - articulative and natural style of writing. While it does not have the contemporary writers in its list, it is an important collection to for the rest of India and the world to have a peep into the Punjabi literature.
Land of Five Rivers
Selected and Translated by Khushwant Singh
Orient Paperbacks
199 Pages
Rs 175

Friday, February 06, 2009

Illicit - Moisés Naím

The world of illicit trade is known for centuries and it is not new to us. We are living in a world of so called "Black Economy". One of the arguments floating around here that despite the global financial meltdown, India is largely isolated ( barring the IT sector with huge dependency on the US) because 70-75% of all the transactions in India are on Cash. While I am not certain about the figures, I do presume that many a transaction in India are done on hard cash.

Recommended and forwarded by my uncle, this book, by Moises Naim, former Minister of Trade of Venezuela, World Bank Executive Director, is bringing back our attention to the alarming issue of illicit Trade, which had been there since the day regulations are in place, and the extra ordinary proportion it had grown itself into, beyond the comprehension and control of the governments and the law enforcement authorities around the world. While every facts and numbers projected here are alarming, what is a greater concern is the inability of those in control to do anything about it.

In the initial chapters, he gets into the details of the various illicit trade such as Arm and ammunition, Drugs and Narcotics, Terrorism, Counterfeit Currency , Money Laundering, Intellectual Property violation, Prostitution and Human Trafficking, animal & timber, citing examples, giving facts and data from all over the globe. While they all look isolated and with independent identity and execution, most of these trades are interlinked and the operators are usually involved more than one trade at all times.

Why are they so difficult to identify , isolate and control ? Naim, gives us few reasons.
a) There is very finite divide between licit and illicit trade. Unlike the earlier days, these are not black and white any more.
b) The practitioners of these trades have both licit and illicit transactions and they hide behind the licit trade in front of the authorities. Eg, the same Nike factory in China, does involve in low quality low value fake shoes , usually operated in a night shift.
c) They have infiltrated themselves into the low enforcement agencies, governments and the trade bodies, thus controlling the outcome of the actions. In many countries, high ranking officials and ministers are involved in such business.
d) Many government themselves are involved / supportive of these business ( eg , North Korea / Afghanistan in drugs, China in human body parts , US and few European countries in Arms , Many of the erstwhile USSR countries in Nuclear and other arms / rockets)
and so on..

The change in the global trade after 1990s and the new onslaught of globalisation and technological advancement have made this trade more lucrative. These trade are now more globalised than ever before, often supported by the state of the art commincation tools, encryption methods and de-centralised operations.

While there are efforts and actions against these people, by nature of their operations, they are able to shut their operations in one location and start at another with ease and with speed, that are not matched by the governments. The sources are multiple ( for each of these business) , the middlemen are at far flung places with no direct connection with the traders, the users and the suppliers; traders are all across the world ; transit points are constantly shifted and the users are across continents. Hence a system to control and monitor all these are beyond the current capabilities of the Governments.

What makes them so elusive and better equipped than the governments ? It is the way they operate. Speed and trust are the key. Each operation is in nimble and isolated with no more informed than the in and out contact. The producers does not know the user. The hierarchy is defined and never questioned. They are so de centralised, even if one of the transit point/hub or the source is tracked and closed, the business is not affected.
Why are the governments failing ? For multiple reasons. Government bodies are controlled by processes and guidelines. There is also an element of bureaucracy in the government functions which make it slow in response. The counter / restrictive activities against these trades need an international action, by virtue of their behaviour. This is one hard nut to crack. Each country have their on priorities and views on multiple aspects and to have a common ground of operation is eluding for a long time now. Importantly, within a country various agencies ( anti-terror cell , narcotic bureau , IP right protection , immigration ) operate within their boundaries and there are no combined effort to comeout with a unified plan.

However, there are efforts by individuals and NGOs in exposing, creating awareness, preventing the trade and use all over the world. In many instances, they are more effective than the government agencies. Many individuals, mostly from the press community , have been victims of the wrath from the cartel. It will be interesting to note that many of these cartels / businesses do have their own front end NGOs and Media coverage to camouflage their real intentions.

As an individual, what can we do ? You dont need a study to tell you that more than 90% of the populations in the world ( more so in the developing world) are at some point of their time, have been the beneficiaries of one of such trade. I can remember the Burma bazaars, the street side book sellers, the pirated and downloaded movies, fake T-shirts and watches. While the governments are trying to prevent the production and distribution network, there aren't many actions done at the users level. Few actions like reducing trade barrier, penalising the users along with the practitioners ( like in prostitution, narcotics) etc have helped to a small extent, we need to have a larger scope of work in creating awareness among larger population.

According to Naim, the new world conflicts are not going to be between religion, ethnic, rich versus Poor lines. He says, it is going to be between "Geo-political Bright Sopts Vs Black holes". Those countries, regions with the lack of law and order where the production and distribution of such trade/products flourish , with those regions where there are growing demand for the output of such trades. The conflict around the world is likely to be on these areas.

Very informative book with a lot of insight to the illicit trade and its propagation, the effects and the actions , and its future in the world as a whole. Moises Naim, captures one's interest and attention to the details and makes it a fantastic read. The outcome is alarming, to the world economic and political scene, and re-iterates the necessity for a new global co-operation among the member countries.
Illicit - How Smugglers, Traffickers and Copycats are hijacking the global economy
Moisés Naím

Arrow Books
340 Pages
Further Read : Popmatters , Foreign Affairs