Monday, September 26, 2011

Science, Art and Religion: Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance

Robert Pirsig's profound philosophical novel, Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, is a study on the relation between three pillars of thought on which humanity stands- art, science and religion. The novel is an account of a long trip taken by the unnamed protagonist, presumably the author, with his kid on a motorcycle. Lot of philosophic discussions exploring the way human mind thinks, termed Chautauquas are wound in the novel.

At the starting of the novel, the protagonist is shown as a man of reason. His interest to do all the maintenance works of his bike is the point made to demonstrate this. Basically he categorizes people into romantics, who only looks at the beauty of things and classical, who has a more practical approach and loves analysing and problem solving. Also there is the presence of a mysterious ghost whom he calls Phaedrus, who the reader realise on the course of the journey to be the disturbed past of the hero.

The story deals with the philosophical journey on which Phaedrus embark insearch of the meaning of Quality. He goes deep and deep into the subject to the point of insanity. The novel ends with the hero identifying with Phaedrus at the end of the journey. He identifies the link that connects art and science- religion.

Though the book contains exhaustive philosophical discussions and may prove tough and deterring for some one who wants entertainment in his reads, it will be interesting and even rewarding for a patient and serious reader.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

JS and the Times of my Life: Book Review

After putting down Jug Suraiya's autobiography, 'JS and the times of my life- A worm's eye view of journalism', one thought that came to my mind was that whatever I write about this book, Jug Suraiya is not going to give a damn. I may write that he should be awarded a Nobel Prize for this literary masterpiece or I may warn readers to avoid reading this one as plague, but one thing is sure Suraiya is not going to be effected n any way by what I say. One of the responsibilities of an autobiography is to make the reader realize, what kind of a person the author is by taking a peek into his head. And if I can say the statement that I made in the first sentence boldly and confidently, I think this is a successful book.

Jug Suraiya, the irreverent columnist and journalist who write the columns Jugular Vein and Second opinion in Times of India newspaper, is widely regarded as an uncompromising satirist of great talent. This book clearly demonstrates the point. If we see the autobiographic writings of any contemporary journalist or politician, we can notice that, they try to sell the book with some controversial political content which gives a shock value. Another common strand that binds such books are the unabashed servings of self promotion. Many writers try to convince the readers that they are the ones who shaped up the history and they had hands in any important matter that happened to the world, though the truth may be that they did not had any clue about such matters at the time. But Jug Suraiya never tries this gimmick. He starts the book with the revelation that he never wanted to be a journalist and ends by claiming that he never was one. And in between you get a taste of journalist world and how it works.

The title is a smart word play with the author’s name and the two publications he has associated with- Junior Statesman (JS) and Times Of India. (I like to call latter Time-pass of India due to the excess of commercialization and was much amused to find out that even Jug Suraiya seems to agree with it.) Jug Suraiya joined Junior Statesman from the time of its inception as a magazine for teenagers from the house of Statesman which is a more orthodox newspaper based in Kolkata (then Calcutta). JS offered a departure from the journalistic norms of the times by making the matter more interactive. At a time when entertainment was considered a luxury and luxury a crime, JS pioneered the art of ‘infotainment’. But this came with some price as the parent publication was not so cooperative in the adventurous nature of JS. After a while JS had an untimely death. After the demise of JS, Suraiya continued to work with Statesman, though he was not so interested in the work that was offered. Later he was offered a job in TOI which he accepted and relocated to Delhi with his wife Bunny (who needs no introduction). Though he was not so impressed with the business oriented working in TOI, he continues to work there. He tries to make the reader see the reason for the over-commercialization of TOI though in no way justifies it. 
In the book, the author gives a very humorous recounting of all these times with more emphasis on different characters that associated with him from time to time. He keeps much of his personal matters on the background, except his life with his wife Bunny and dog Brindle, and only gives details of such matters when they serve to address some social issue. Other parts that really stand out are the reminiscences about several travels he made outside the country, especially Tibet.

JS and the Times of my Life is a real funny and interesting ride. It gives a glimpse on the history of two interesting publications- JS, a pioneer that introduced Indian readers to interactive journalism and TOI that cashed in on that. It also give glimpses on the change that our nation and its readers underwent in a couple of years. A special attraction is a long list of people whom Jug Suraiya pissed off in his long and illustrious career.     

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at Participate now to get free books!

Monday, September 12, 2011

The memorandum: Language Troubles.

There are many instances in history where a work of art- a novel, a poem or a play, was made for the purpose of criticizing certain corrupt elements of the society, and even after decades, after the society in question is long dead, these works still stand relevant. Like Joseph Heller's Catch 22, written as an antiwar novel, can be an allegory of corruption in any organisation existing today. Or parallels of George Orwell's novels, that were anti communist propaganda, can be spotted in any capitalist or semi capitalist societies in modern times.

The Memorandum is a political satire written by Czech playwright and first President of Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel , to showcase the inefficient and absurd operation of the Communist regime that ruled Czechoslovakia then. Now when the same play is re-watched much of the happenings seems absolutely plausible in any multinational corporate giants' offices. 

The Managing Director of a company Josef Gross, is struggling to make out the meaning of a memo that he received that morning which is written in an absurd language. His secretary informs him that it is a new language, Ptydepe, that is introduced in the firm to make the work place communication efficient and error free. The move is made by his deputy Ballas. Gross wants Ballas to cancel this absurd introduction, but Ballas refuses and gets ready to fight his boss. Some dirty office politics follows. Gross cuts a sorry figure when he goes from department to department to get the memo in Ptydepe translated. The segments were the teaching of the new language is shown is hilarious. Gross steps down as Managing Director when the office watcher, a worker whose job is to spy on others, finds that he broke the rules in getting the memo translated. The new boss Ballas finds it equally difficult to manage things as it goes out of his hands too. Finally Gross is reinstated as MD and ultimate causality is a typist, who helps Gross in translating the text out of pity. She is fired. Ptydepe is abandoned and a new language is introduced to better it. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Are They Deterring Democracy?

United States of America is a nation that has launched attacks on several other countries from the time of its inception. The reason told for most of them is safeguarding democracy. A common factor that can be noticed about most of these attacks is the fact that they were against third world nations endowed with rich natural resources. Is the interest of USA to upkeep the democracy in third world genuine?

Deterring Democracy is an extensive study by Nom Chomsky about interference of United States in the internal affairs of other nations. The book was written in 90's, just after the fall of Soviet Union. Till then the communist demon and its plan for world domination was cited as the major reason for invasion into third world. But even after the fall of USSR, USA continued the same policy with the pretext of saving the world by perpetuating the ideals of democracy.

The book starts with an analysis of cold war period and gradually tries to deconstruct the myth of American effort to maintain democratic practice. Chomsky quotes liberally from politicians, media, policymakers and military sources, whose quotes are in public domain, to contradict the cover up that was done to the public. The book effectively states that all these efforts in several countries were in actual effect detrimental to Free thinking and democracy and has only served to put tyrants who are sympathetic to American needs and wants into power.

Nicaragua, Panama, Vietnam, Iraq, Honduras, Costa Rica, Namibia, Columbia... The list is endless. Chomsky proves that if the rulers are ready to heed to US interests, they are given every freedom to rule however they want. But if that is not the case, even a democratic government will be toppled and someone who is ready to be a puppet will be put to the place. Business is important than human life.

US media also highlights only what the policymakers want to reveal. If a news serves the propaganda, it is highlighted and if it does not suit the purpose, it nowhere features. Many tyrants like Mussolini and Saddam were darlings of government and media when their policies were according to US interest. Once they comes on the way of making profit, immediately the demonizing starts.

What reading Deterring Democracy does is to make us wonder about the possibility of an alternative history, which is much distant and contrary to what we read in textbooks or newspapers..

Friday, September 2, 2011

Khasak's Legend

Khasakkinte Ithihasam is a Malayalam novel written by the late O V Vijayan, who was one of the brightest novelists in India. This novel is considered a landmark in Malayalam literature. No wonder it is the most sold novel in South Asia and on which most studies were done in Kerala. Never was something so huge, profound and of epic proportion created in Malayalam.

Created is the apt word because the whole world of Khasak, though inhabited by common humans, possess some kind of a nightmarish dream like quality. Laden with myths, superstitions and legends Khasak is a village that struggles to come in terms with the diverse communal population that it houses.

The novel starts when Ravi reaches Khasak to open a single teacher school. The school is the idea of the Hindu Nair community of Khasak as they have to send their kids to a distant place for education. It is a blow for the Mollah of the village as even the Muslim kids desert his religious classes to attend the school. The novel deals with the life of Ravi in Khasak and the bizarre characters he encounters there. Also playing havoc in Ravi's life is his troubled past and pangs of guilt to escape from which he taken up the job.

Both Khasak and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Marquez came out at almost same time. The parallels between both cannot be ignored. As this first novel was written in an incredibly long time period, the evolution of Vijayan's intellect can also be mapped as the novel progress to its tragic doom. The picture of a righteous Ravi who comes to Khasak with a guilt ridden conscience and his becoming one with the superstitious people of Khasak by sharing with them their life, misfortunes and beliefs can be an allegory about a confused generation.

Vijayan has himself translated the novel to English as Legends of Khasak. Critics' opine that it can be considered as a standalone work as it differs considerably from the original.

Buy the book:

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Payyan and Chathan: Two Protagonists of VKN.

VKN- three letters are enough to bring a smile to the lips of any well read malayalee. Vadakke Koottala Narayanankutty Nair, is one of the best writers of satire ever born in Kerala. It is a tall praise when we consider Malayalees as a community that enjoys humor, especially satire more than any other. We have not one but two ancient dance forms that are satirical takes on epics and legends- Thullal and Koothu. From the time of the birth of Malayalam language, there were a long array of humorists giving strong doses of satirical blows to society and establishment- from Kunjan Nambiar of mediviel times to Sanjayan, E V and Chemmanam Chacko of recent times. At present, Malayalees crowd for watching comedy movies more than any other genre and the art form that attracts common man is Mimicry, especially skits imitating politicians.

So why VKN isa step above all of them? The one quality is his prose. It is very imaginative, multilayered and precise with lot of quirky word plays enough to give P G Wodehouse a complex. VKN style is a slang word used among academics. Each and every sentence that he wrote is convoluted to such an extent that it does not have just the face meaning. You need to ponder deep to understand the crux. His writing is rich with references from various sources- ancient and modern literature, art, current affairs, local slang from different parts of the state, politics... He has written several long, short, mini and micro stories. I will take two of his most famous characters to illustrate the point.

Payyan is a character who appears repeatedly in several VKN stories, the important ones being in the collection called Payyan Kathakal. He is also the protagonist in several of his novels. Though in most stories Payyan, whose name can be loosely translated in English as 'the kid', appears as a journalist working in New Delhi, there are stories with different backgrounds too. May be those were stories from his early days. Payyan, who refused to join IAS, even after getting selected, decides to freelance as a journalist and make use of his intelligence and wit to mingle with the people inhabiting the power corridors of Indian capital. This he achieves mostly by being in the good books of society ladies, sleeping around with them and using them as sources for exclusive scoops. Though shown as a resourceful man with good hold on the top of political hierarchy, many humorous occasions arise due to his poverty. The stories may seem outright politically incorrect- sexist, immoral and racist. But behind the veil of subtle humor, it is possible to identify the writer's contempt of a society that is boastful, intellectually shallow and on the verge of a breakdown.

Another of VKN's protagonist, Chathan is German (VKN language for Cheruman, a scheduled caste. This is a sampling of his unique style. Such wordplay intertwining many languages and cultures is seen liberally in his stories. Another example is his claim in one of his stories that famous thinker Nom Chomsky is a Nambuthiri- Malayalee Brahmin, because Nom is a first person pronoun used boastfully by them). Chathan stories follow the land reforms introduced in Kerala to disastrous effects. He is illiterate but street smart and highly influential, albeit poor like Payyan. He uses his wit and intelligence fearlessly to create havoc in the turbulent farming scenario of inland Kerala to hilarious effects.

My only regret is for the readers outside Kerala who can never enjoy the unique VKN humor as no translation can do justice to its very local nature.