Saturday, July 31, 2010

The Body Artist - Don DeLillo

Rey Robles, an unsuccessful film director, dies in his first wife's apartment one morning. He and his current ( third) wife, Lauren HArtke, are living in an isolated house near the coast, away from the New York City. Their day began as routinely as always, with them having the breakfast, he stirring his coffee and the newspaper, she opening and closing cabinets opening and closing taps.

"I want to say something, but what".. he said, "About the house. This is what it is, ..something I meant to tell you".. but she wasn't listening.

That was the last morning of them together. Same morning he committed suicide, in the Manhattan apartment of his first wife, shooting himself.
Alone, in a large house, whose tenure is another couple of months far, Lauren returns back to her life of uncertainties. A celebrated body artist, who defies the limits of the physical body elevate herself to a performance level, Lauren now has to find her way all by herself. Often loosing herself in her thoughts and through the question of her own existence. She consciously isolate herself from the rest of the world and her only interaction with the external world is during her routine shopping trip for essentials.

It does not remain so for long, when she realises a there are noise and footsteps on the top floor. She finds an unusual looking young man, short and skinny, retarded, possibly living there since they have moved in. He seldom speaks and the only sound escape his mouth is those once spoken by Ray himself. Now her existence has a definition, through this unknown creature living with her, often missing and reappearing. Lauren now, re-live her live with Ray, through the recorded conversations on the tape and those spoken by her unknown companion apart from the birds which perks on her window.

Is he real ? Is he a ghost (of Ray , refusing to leave her) ? Is he a creation of Lauren's troubled mind ? There is no definite answer. Was he there long enough hiding from the couple and listening to their conversations , which he now repeats ? Or is he an alien trapped in her house? DeLillo does not give any definite answer, but play the scenes through her mind. Neither does the writer gives us any indications of their life together and the circumstances of their marriage, the only references of her life is through the 2 random notes, one by her friend and an obituary.

A short novella by the master novelist, his first in the new millennium, is surrealistic and tricky. The metaphoric use of birds and the possible symbolism using nature ( the trees, leaves , see along with birds) and covers up for the lack of depth in the story. The narration develops itself, with some tactical use of style and language.

Its a strange and cunning novel, very seductive and moving. This might not represent the best of Don DeLillo, but an interesting work of fiction, nonetheless.

The Body Artist ( 2001 )

Don DeLillo

Scribner Paperback
126 Pages


Sunday, July 25, 2010

Confessions of a Thug - Philip Meadows Taylor

Thugs, or the Thugge culture was prominent in India for ages. 17th to 19th centuries were the prime time of their activities. India a vast land with very minimal public transportation, made their existence and survival easier. People travelling from one town to the other often taking the village roads, where subjected to their attack and loot, after being killed in a gruesome manner. Vast expanse of land and no means of communication and an absence of a single entity for law and order made it easy for them to escape the rare occasion of control. India having divided into numerous small kingdoms and the local feudal lords, had no way of consolidated efforts to nab them and bring them to justice. The fact that, they often operated underground, and the victims fate reached the concerned relatives( if at all) took too long, did not help in identifying and capturing them. It is also said that most of the small kingdoms fostered and nourished their own thuggees for both military and financial means.

When published in the year 1839, this book supposed to have taken the English reading population by storm. It was considered a huge success, even become a favourite book of the Queen of England. Philip Taylor had come to India as a clerk to a Merchant in Bombay, later joined the services of Nizam of Hyderabad. During the famous hunt for the Thugs, where he was the clerk in the commission of their capture and punishment, Taylor used the knowledge to write them to "to expose, as fully I was able, the practice of the Thugs and make the public more conversant with the subject" and not to "gratify a morbid taste in any one for tales of horror and of crime".

It was in the first half of the 19th century , a formal effort to bring an end to this was organised under the the East india company. The statistics shows that they were largely successful. From the year 1831 to 1837 , a Total number of 3266 thugs were caught and sentenced to various punishments ( transported to Penang, killed, imprisoned etc). While this has reduced the intensity of the attacks, the system continued to live clandestinely into the 20th century. Improvement in the public transport and the increased control over the territory by the British Empire, would have reduced their freedom of operation.

Taylor, writes this books are a recollection of Ameer Ali ( modelled after one notorious Thug, who was captured by the British and later turned himself as an approver and informer), as he goes through his life story to his capturer. Ameer, who boasts of committing 719 murders in his lifetime ( "Ah! sir, if I had not been in prison twelve years, the number would have been a thousand"). Ameer's life begins with the Thuggees after he was rescued in one of the attacks and was brought up in the family of Ismail, the leader of the gang based out of Sheopoor, some where in the central part of India. Brought up away from the Thugee culture until he was ready to take oath, Ameer Ali was trained traditionally on the use of weapons and other means of self protection. His early recall of adventure was killing a tiger attacked his village, and that prompted his father to enroll (!) him into the Thuggee gang. His first expedition after being included into the grand gang, included one murder by himself. The murder performed by thugs has the ritualistic order. It is bloodless, using a 'roomal' (hand kerchief), chocking the prey with their grip, thus preventing any noise being heard. They practice the usage of kerchief on animals as part of their induction, before set to use on their victims. They seldom use spears and swords, unless being attacked, even though they are well trained in their use.

The method of thugs are fairly common and simple. They befriend one of the travelling business man , often joining their expedition( for want of a large team to prevent attack) and on appropriate time and location, kill them and take their booty. The dead bodies are buried deep underground with suitable camouflage and safety and continue their journey until they find their next victim. A good thug, then has to be good at identifying, using his charm and words to lure them into the expedition and be cunning enough to find the time and place to finish them off. Women and children are omitted form the murder , albeit occasionally, this rule is broken. The leader is obeyed and there is no scope for rebel in a group. Most of the time, they survive without any loose of their own men, unless the opponents are equally or adequately equipped.

Thuggees belongs to cross religious and cross linguistic origin. In a group, such as the one headed by Ameer ali, has people of Hindu and Muslim faith. Irrespective, the group follow and worship Goddes Bhavani (a form of Durga, Kali - pronounced as 'bhowanee' in the book ) and takes her blessings before each expedition. They also seek omen and set forth only if the omens are right. The rituals and the proceedings are followed with precision. The way of murder, the selection of place, the way the bodies are buried after they are undressed and ornaments are removed et al. The whole affair is executed with precision and with utmost conviction, as there is no room for any second thoughts or remorse.

Ameer Ali, the protagonist himself was a victim of Thugee attack, though he is not aware of it. His father and mother was brutally murdered by the gang where Ismail, his foster father, was involved. Ismail, married for long and still childless, took pity on the young boy and take his to his family, against the wishes of the others in the gang. It was only during his parting comments to his son, prior to his execution, he reveals that to his son.

545 pages of repeated conning , plotting and executing one murder after another isn't a happy read. Except towards the end, where Ameer Ali looses his own family and his fathers execution, we don't see any humane values or discussion through out his narrative.

Taylor shows absolute clarity of India's vast geography ( the direction, naming places and  kingdoms ) and and the various cultural and class issues. The use of Hindi, Urdu and Arabic phrases, which are common among the Muslims was very impressive (The end of the book provides the glossary and meaning of these words). On the socio - political angle, the book also reveals the increasing influence of the British East India Company in India, as region after regions are turned under their direct control, or through the kingdom, they are able to associate with. We can see the changes through the narrative of Ameer Ali, as he says more and more places they are subjected to inspection by the 'Angrez' (Britishers).

The style and prose are similar to the other nineteen century novels, and notwithstanding the nature of the book and the subject dealt with, it is relatively an easy read. In all, it is an interesting insight to the once prevailed thuggee culture, but not a pleasant reading experience.


Confessions of a Thug ( 1839 )

Philip Meadows Taylor

Rupa & Co ( reprint )

547 Pages

Rs 295

Read these for more : Ambiguity and historicism: interpreting Confessions of a Thug, SF Reviews

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Grown up digital - Don Tapscott

The way of our living have changed in last couple of decades. It has always been changing, but what is special about last couple of decades would be the question. In a single world, it has turned digital. Look at every business we conduct, every action we perform day to day, every thing is now controlled or effected by Digital Technology. Way back in 1997 ( I think), when Lou Gerstner, then the CEO of IBM announced e-Business, he was forecasting a future where the business is conducted electronically. Even he wouldn't have believed that the changes would be so dramatic.

I am not getting into statistics in detail. But a recent mail received which talked about 'social media revolution' had some interesting statistics.  (See them here : ). The popularity of Facebook, twitter and similar social networking sites are not only taking active role in our daily life, but also causing dramatic shift in our social behaviour.
While there may be arguments on the merits and de-merits of this phenomenon substantiated with statistics and reasons, there is no two-way about its ever increasing influence in the present day life. Don Tapscott , in his follow on book to his "growing up digital", revisits these facts in this new book, with some interesting insights.

Calling them the 'Net Generation" , after the baby boomers born between 1946 to 1964 ( post worldwar era), the Gen X born between 1965 to 1976 ( Vietnam war), he looks at the characteristical differences and social changes of these people within the Digital World. Net Generation in this book are considered those who are born post 1977 till 1997. With the exponent growth in the world trade and the ever increasing connectivity, and mobile telephony has made this generation leap frog in the social interactions albeit in the virtual world. Abundance of information and the easy availability has made them more informative ( not necessarily improved knowledge, and less on wisdom), making them better equipped to respond and adjust to the changing world order. Tapscott, looks at various aspect of the social life of the Net-Gens and critically looks at the need for the change.

Education : The earlier model of training ( which he calls 100 years behind), is not what is effective to the new generation. Their ability to multiplex, comprehend different aspect, their ability to search and get what is needed makes the whole education system to be revamped. The 'pre-Gutenburg' model of teaching ( the notes written in the book of the teacher passes on to the notes written by the student without going through either brain - or so is the joke) , in the form of lecture has no place in today's education. 'Instead of focusing on the teacher, the education system should focus on the student'. The one-size-fit-all model of learning is no more relevant.

Workplace: As we see daily in Office, many old timers find it difficult to adjust to the newer generation of work force. They are blamed for not being serious and not career oriented and less loyal to the organisation with respect to the earlier generation. With the improved awareness and confidence, the netgen-ers are more critical to their work place. Hence the management strategy on talent development and employee retention need a re-thinking. As many organisations have tried and failed, locking the mail boxes, preventing the social networking sites etc may not yield results, but could be counter productive. According to Tapscott, the organisation need to appreciate the need for a 'digital break' by its employees.

Consumer: With the lesser and lesser viewing of the young, spending more time online, the world of marketting and consumerism need to adopt to the changing behaviour of the youngsters. It was proven that TV viewing is becoming more and more passive, and the advertisements are not registered as it used to be earlier. The common method used by most of the new advertisements, by having banners at various internet sites, too are not yielding results. Peer reviews have shown significant influence in the buying decision of the Netgen youth and feedback from friends and colleagues seems to have positive impact on their buying behaviour. These days, people do online research on the product they would like to buy and the shop experience has only been reduced to the look and feel and convenience.

Family : The changing social order has the effect in the family order as well. It was observed that more and more youngsters in the US are coming back home after graduation and live with their parents, which was opposite to the earlier generation, who would leave home and build their own family elsewhere. Similarly, the improved 'digital knowledge' of the son or the daughter in the family make them superior to their parents in many ways. The need of going out to freedom is now reduced with the available freedom within the family and in their own private space. This has also resulted in lesser drug addition, alcoholism, sexual assaults and other crimes of similar nature.

The net Generation can also have a huge influence on the social, political and civic order. Citing the Barac Obama election campaign, where the net generation have taken active participation, Tapscott explains the positive influence it can be to the democracy all over the world. Revelution in Social media has also made more and more people to be vocal about the mis-practices around the world. They are able to influence and canvas millions of people for a cause, within a short time. Young people for various social causes are garnering global support for their campaign and often managing to get what they wanted. With blogging being popular every one is now a 'publisher' and through you tube, anyone can be a broadcaster.

We have been discussing the possible advantageous and its possible influence for all along. There are innumerable examples of this being mis-utilised. They are also making people internalised and virtual with less and less personal, face to face interactions ( or the so called social skills). They are also more open and have no concern in sharing their personal and some times intimate data in the public domain. The dark sides can also take a book to describe ( As some of them have already published). the fact however remain that there is no going back. There is no point in being one rowing against the wind. Its for the world in total to make use of this phenomenon to the better use.

Grown Up Digital ( 2008 )

Don Tapscott

Tata - McGrawHill Pu blications ( Only for India & South Asia )

368 Pages

Rs 650


Saturday, July 17, 2010

Deep River - Shusaku Endo

River Ganges is considered the holiest of all rivers by Hindus. Varanasi, situated on the banks of Ganges is the holy city for both Hindus and Budhists and is one of the most sacred pilgrimage places for Hindus. Hindus believe that bathing in Ganges remits sins, and dying and performing last rites here, will release the a persons soul from the cycle of re-incarnation ( or transmigration). Hence, millions and millions from various parts of the country reaches the banks of Ganges at Varanasi, for Moksha ( for getting rid of the sins in this life or for dying at this place to attain eternal salvation). This, forms the backdrop for this amazing book by Shuasaku Endo.

Five Japanese arrive at this holy city, part of a pilgrimage tour. Each battling their own inner turmoil, and of various nature. Isobe, is looking after the re-incarnation of his deceased wife; he was made to promise by her on her death-bed. One research paper by an American scientist and few correspondence with him, gave Isobe a clue that a girl called Rajini, near Varanasi is claiming to be a Japanese in her previous life. Kiguchi, a WW II veteran, now a businessman, is still tormented by the time he had spent fighting for life in the Burmese jungles. He too wish to pay homage to his fellow soldiers in the front as well as the Indian and British troops he fought against. His close friend during the war, the one who rescued him from the clutches of death, which came in the form of Malaria, had succumbed to a prolonged illness as the after effect of war. . Guarding a gruesome secret, unable to open up even to his wife or to his close friend, turning himself to alcohol in order to keep himself sane, but loosing his health. Mitsuko, now middle aged, is looking for her childhood friend Otsu, then a wannabe priest, whom in her youthful arrogance, tried to seduce and move away from the spiritual path. Her own personal life had been in a mess, with an unsuccessful marriage behind her. "I can not love anyone", is her excuse, but even while here she really do not know why is she in this place. Numada, an animal lover, believes that his life was a gift from a Myna, who died on the same day of his 3rd operation, the first two being unsuccessful. A writer of Children's stories, which has the animals and birds as the prime characters, he was drawn towards the bird sanctuaries in an around the area of his visit. These four along with a newly married couple, Sonji, being a photographer, would like to gain fame, by taking few photographs, worthy of mention in the western press.

City of Varanasi to the tourist is one unhealthy, filthy place populated with people of old age abandoned in its shore by relatives, people who travel across the land to die, the holy , dirty river cleansing the millions from their eternal sins, by accepting their dirt and flowing silently through the plains. After the initial cultural shock, each of them had been accustomed to the complex nature of Indian way of life ( and its contradictions) and attracted to the myths associated the River Ganges. It reaches to a level where each wanted to redeem themselves at the banks of the same river in their own way.

This book is of an eternal quest for salvation. The salvation for their own troubled selves. Each of them need to cleanse themselves from their committed or inherited sins ( even perceived). After the initial introduction of his main characters, their moments of truth, Endo chooses to alternate between the present and reminiscent tales to some good effect. A book of profound spiritual and religious journey through the Christian , Buddhist and Hindu philosophy threading through the commonality between all religions. He also goes through some fundamental discussion on the concept of God through the unsuccessful priest Otsu , confronting the European priest with their belief ( Probably Endo's own experience with religion and spirituality) who now live a nomads life in the street of Varanasi, bringing unknown bodies fallen on the streets, to the place of burning, doing the needful.

Endo, writes so beautifully through the initial pages. The language is very touching and unhurried, the imagery is very vivid and dense, the spirituality is strong and open. The last few chapters have been a bit patchy and looses the initial magical touch of writing. However, Deep River, on the whole, become a quest of universal oneness of God among Christian, Hindu and Buddhist believes.
Deep River

Shusaku Endo ( translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel )

Tuttle Publishing

216 Pages

Other reviews: Dan Schneider, Three Percent