Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Old House & Other Stories - Chuah Guat Eng

There has been a surge in the English Writings from many of the commonwealth countries of late. India has a thriving publishing Industry for those who write in English. Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are producing more writers who express their art form in the colonial language. Tan Twan Eng's Gift of Rain was my first introduction to the Malaysian Literature ( though he lives in South Africa these days). I was planning to buy his new book, while at a book store in Kuala Lumpur. It was the store manager who suggested I try out this writer. I had no knowledge of her , and that can be a major handicap to appreciate the context of many of the stories.

In a detailed introduction to this writer Prof Mohammad A Quayum, says despite the multi-cultural , multi ethnic and multi religious ambience in the Malay social living, "she is not a polemic writer : she refuses to write maliciously about race and religion". However, people from all religious background appear in her stories. When you look at the stories, these are all common people, living the regular middle class life. These are not those who live in periphery or outside the normal facts of life. Their issues in life are what is experienced in day to day life. Their concerns, issues, hopes and ambitions are nothing different from the rest of the world. What is interesting in this collection is in her ability, to pick moments of interest out of these ordinary lives.

As is expected in any anthology, this too have some good stories and a few very ordinary ones. The day Andy Warhol Died , The Old House, Two Pretty men were very good stories. The old house especially demand a lot more attention. Finding a piece of jewelry in an old house, the nameless protagonist find the disturbing remembrances of her childhood memories. The once hidden nightmares of the ill treatment she experienced at the hands of her step mother, has found a way out of her subconscious mind. Without sensationalizing she told a beautiful story. The day Andy Warhol dies , experiments the possibility of relating two non-connected incidents through the imagination of young kids. Sexuality or the gender relation subject are appearing in many a stories. Be it the subtle homo sexuality hints in two pretty men, Karuna's mermaid, or the infidelity issues which appear in 'Tamarind tree', almost wrong and seventh uncle, are treated with such a great care.

The narration is fairly straight forward and no great experimentation with the structural forms or linguistical ( as we see in many post-colonial writing) freedom of using local dialects. The typical middle class prejudice, greed and moral issues are the major themes of her writing. While the book may not be extra ordinary, it gives us a glimpses to the post colonial life of the Malaysian middle class. In the interview given in the last part of the book, she says : 'When I reflect on the stories I have written, I suppose the dominant theme has resolved around the issues arising from the interrelationship between truth,lies and silences'
The Old House & Other Stories ( 2008 )

Chuah Guat Eng


138 Pages
Eric Forbes

Saturday, November 17, 2012

A Void - Georges Perec

One of the initial impression on this book is that it is a 'lipogram'. Near 300 page book without  the use of letter 'e'. The curiosity did not last long, as the reader seldom feel the absence of the letter in the narrative. However, Perec takes this a step beyond. Creating a void in the narrative technique, takes us through multiple riddles creating the sense of void, the incompleteness , frustration through out the book.  Shear skills in writing and mastery over the use of language, from the writer whose "Life - A User's Manual' , which is considered a master piece in the literary circle.

Anton Vowls goes missing from his flat during a turbulent 1968 in Paris. There seems to be some disturbances in his life before his disappearance. His friends and acquaintances,  search ( or ransack) his apartment to get any clue leading to his disappearance. All he left there was few pages of cryptic writing in the form of a diary. Vowl's interest in wordplay, or lipograms, evidently leave others to fill in what is cleverly left , or unsaid.  His friends work through this puzzles and start their investigations, adding to further twists and turns to the plot. Every puzzle worked out reveal more of them. As the game progresses, most of they too disappear ( or die ) mysteriously, creating further chaos and confusion. Who will remain is the question being asked as the participants gather in an old mansion, speculating ( through their long speeches and story telling), building new connections and relations among them, through these multi-generation narrative, in progress leaving one after the other perish.

The book is full of plots and sub plots, some of them are phenomenally brilliant.  People on trail and on pursuit. The definitions and equation changes constantly. One void closed opens up many more. As a reader, you experience the same sense of void in the narrative. There are missing links, elements of creative uncertainty , the clever manipulation of the theme.

The book is a triumph of literary prowess. A mastery in writing by a gifted writer. Gilber Adair ( himself a reputed writer) brings out  a brilliant translation befitting the original theme and structure. While it is too difficult to grasp being a tough read, one can not stop admiring the clever writing. The regular use of literary allusion ( Moby Dick in the initial parts) and various other references to writers and books can be found through out the book.  In the Post script, Perec says, "My ambition, as Author, my point, I would go so far as to say my fixation, my constant fixation, was primarily to concoct an artifact as original as it was illuminating, as artifact that would, or just possibly might, ast as a stimulant on notions of construction, of narration, of plotting, of action, a stimulant, in a word, on fiction-writing today."

It's an uneasy read, and often leave you puzzled and confused. A narration you never seems to be in grasp. However, it is an interesting book, despite the absence of an important letter E.
A Void  (1969 )

Georges Perec ( translated from French by Gilbert Adair 1994)

Vintage Books

287 Pages
Wiki Entry , Postmodern Mystery,

Thursday, November 15, 2012

ഇടത്താവളങ്ങള്‍ - E M Hashim

'A novel with a Sufi touch' says the blurb. That prompted me to pick the book. He had also published another non-fiction book on Sufism.  The start was pretty brilliant. Following on the life of Abu, who left his home town at 14 , working and living through various parts of the country , having acquainted many faces , some closely and some at a distance. Now, returning to his homeland after many many years ( the writer does not give any hint at this), he reminisce his nomadic days at his attic.

Abu, remembers his progressive father, who for his views and thought, was an outcast in his social and religious circle, denied Abu, the typical life of a muslim boy. Being discarded from the Madrassa, from his neighborhood , forced to lead a life in isolation. His mother, spent her time in the prayer mat or blowing air to the kitchen fire, never to set foot outside. The only sister stayed back after marriage, after her husband went on work to Malaysia. Unable to handle the days of distress, Abu leaves home at the age of 14. As is the case with many of his predecessors, he found his refuge in a small town in Tamilnadu, finding a job as a helper in a sawmill. His journey to manhood and learning begins at this small town of Arumapakkam. Through various acquaintance and  encounters of people with spiritual background, mystics Abu grows in stature and learning. From Tamilnadu to Mumbai and onward to Delhi - Ajmer and other part of the country, we are witnessed to more of these meetings and friendship in Abu's life.

This is the life of almost every young Keralite, who leave the state in search of a living. goes through similar experience. Hashim , adds a flavour of Mysticism to his tale. To all, the journey continue from one place to other, at each "edathavalam' you gain a lot of friends, some  last longer and many for a short time. This continues through out your life, adding newer names and faces to the list dropping few others. Hashim , restricts his tale to 3 cities, but this can continue eternal, or until like Abu, you call it quits and return to your fold.

Hashim is a good writer, and he has some wonderful pages in the book. But that alone, does not make this a compulsive story telling. It lacks in many aspect of a good fiction. Its dependence on the aura of mystic figures appearing and disappearing lack conviction and leaves us with non-interconnected narrative. Many encounters seems forced and unnatural. The shift from one place to other lacks continuity and real reasoning. The story by itself is incomplete.
ഇടത്താവളങ്ങള്‍  ( 2012 )

E M Hashim

D C Books

119 Pages

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Drive - Daniel H Pink

It is an often discussed topic. There were many theories and practices on the subject of motivation. To me, this was yet another book on the cliche'd subject, when I picked this up. However, this turned out to be pretty good book.  What drives people to perform.

In the early days of civilization, it was often the quest for survival. The single aim to be ahead or rather dont be the last one wsa the key driving force. Pink calls this Motivation 1.0. Similar to the new world computers, he says the society too has an operating system that drives the people to do things. From the early days of survival influenced motivation,  the civilization progressed leaps and bounds with the industrialization. The second phase of motivation ( which he calls Motivation 2.0) is based on the reward and punish ( carrot & stick in common language). Higher performances were rewarded and the defaulters and laziness were punished.  This method, deployed successfully over 300 years, are they capable on addressing the needs of the new economy which is beyond the industrialized world. The exponential growth of the information technology related or aided revolution makes leaders to think differently and look at the whole subject of motivation in a different light.

Carrot & Stick method is not as effective as it used to be in the early days. It has its own drawbacks. As it looks at very short term objectives and fails to retain the same level of motivation over long period of time. Money ( any monitory benefits) as many now seems to agree as a Hygiene factor and not a real driving force in a long term. Short term "if-then" type of reward program also makes people to do thinks through short cut, often violating ethical or statutory policies of the organisation.  However, he explains, certain routine based tasks , continue to use the reward program effectively. He advise the use of  'now-that' method instead of 'if-then' in such case. Instead of announcing a milestone, a target based reward, he recommend a use of reward for a good task done. Now that you have achieved this, we are pleased to recognize your contribution.

So, what will drive the new generation. He categorizes this as Intrinsic Motivation and Extrinsic Motivation.  As the name suggests, intrinsic is more personal and are usually associated with virtues. Extrinsic is  mostly to do with physical, tangible and often monitory needs. Since the discussion is towards the next phase ( version 3.0) of motivation, the book concentrate on the Intrinsic ( Type I) motivations in detail.

Type I motivation has 3 key elements : Autonomy , Mastery and Purpose.  Explaining each of these elements in detail, Pink says, autonomy should not be mistaken for freedom or independence to do anything. If managed appropriately, it can unleash the creativity in the team producing results that are beyond your dream. Autonomy is attributed to four areas. Time , task, team and technique. Citing examples from many successful companies, the book provide some interesting case studies to prove his point. Mastery takes to from Compliance ( in 2.0) to engagement. One of the key driving force among the top ranked sports persons ( a la Tiger Woods, Roger Federer) is the quest to master their skill, despite being on top of the world. Mastery he sys, is a mindset, it's pain and it is asymptote ( you never reach the perfection or 100%, but you will be closure to it). 

The book also gives some task based tips to improve the Type I motivation for individual, team ( group or organization) and family. He also provides a chapter-wise summary or recap which I thought a great think to do.  What is the success of this book is in getting a often chewed subject in a different perspective and very effectively. Very good read.

Drive ( 2009 )

Daniel H Pink

Canon Gate

Wall Street JournalWiki

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Scandal - Shusaku Endo

65 year old Suguro, has just been awarded one of the most celebrated literary prize in Japan.  As the contemporaries, lavish praise on him and his writing, he know something is eluding him. One book that is yet to write, which could be his masterpiece. However,  a drunk women, supposed to be an artist, approach him, during the award dinner, claiming that she knows him as a regular visitor to Tokyo's red-light district. She must surely be mistaken ? A reputed writer, as a christian believer, Suguro, has made name for himself and someone surely is trying to malign him on the night of his receiving the award. 

The rumor spread through the publishing industry and couple of his friends , informed him about the going on.  He was sighted at the Shinjuku district known for 'love hotels' and brothels. Initially, he rejected these with his usual air as some one attempting to play with his image, but the continued appearance of his  doppelgänger disturbed him.  It was thus, he decided to investigate and bring his imposter exposed. He visits the exhibition of the artist, whom he met at the dinner where he find his portrait drawn at some ill-repute place. It was at this exhibition he befriend a middle aged lady Madam Naruse, who works as a volunteer at the children's hospital.  during multiple rendezvous over next few days, they discuss the dark side of human's desires and the involvement of Madam Naruse and her friend in some of those sadomasochistic affairs she is involved, after the death of her husband .

He appoint a school girl, who brings to his notice some of the new young living,  to help his wife in doing the house scores. It was after he started dreaming this girl, that made him to explore the other side of the life.  Despite, his personal rejection, he feared that he is unable to resist the temptation to bring the truth about what is going on and possibly expose imposter. It was again Madam Naruse, came to his help here, asking him to come to a Love Hotel to meet his imposter. While there, he see the young girl who works in his home, half naked lying on the bed, and the rest of the event was beyond what he could appreciate. He watches with horror , his own image, his alter ego living out the life he always feared and lied subdued within him for a long time.

Shusaku Endo's novel, examines the darker side of human life. The duality of the public image and the hidden dark side, which comes out unnoticed to the person himself. One has no control on his on adverse side, and its actions. At many a time, one can not comprehend their own behaviour. The revelation of his own darker side was a shock to Endo, at the same time a relief.  Endo, excels in this examination of duality in human life. Its this meditation, its this abandonment to the reality, its this unknown darker side of the human existence, which one tries to downplay, at discussion here. 

His prose is clear and precise, there is constant meditative style, which is I liked. The restrictive writing, even with a subject as delicate as this. Beyond the thriller-type narrative, what was notable was the subtle exploration of human psyche.  On a not so impressive side, Endo deploys the psychological angle to the tale introducing a professor, to give some legitimacy to some of the illogical plots. The novel has the twist with a reporter trying to expose the corrupt writer to the public and a sadomasochistic encounter with a suicide by the member of the circle, to get the story in line of a thriller.

This is a good book. most of the meditative style of writing is brilliant. It is also a brave attempt to look at one's own hidden side, even at the possibility of the reputation being hampered. I havent read a great deal of Endo, but the previous book "Deep River' also explored the subtle human mind. He is one writer, one ought read more.
Scandal ( 1986 )

Shusaku Endo ( translated from Japanese by Van C Gessel 1988)

Peter Owen Classics

237 Pages