Jaya Posts

“House of Trelawney” by Hannah Rothschild

‘It may not take the form of sticks and stones or result in immediate action, but if the collapse is as big as I fear, then old orders will be replaced.’ ‘Crashes are like laxatives. There is nothing like a good round of bankruptcies to get the art market flowing. People like me live off the three Ds: debt, death and divorce.
The two sat in silence for a few minutes, one imagining opportunities, the other foreseeing disaster.

Hannah Rothschild’s latest novel The House of Trelawney is ostensibly about the Trelawney’s and their crumbling manor. It is about three generations living together under one roof. The elderly Viscount and his wife, their son and heir Kitto and his family — Jane, his wife and three children. The youngest generation consists of the abnoxious Ambrose, the sweet and lovable Toby and the sharply intelligent Arabella, a complete misfit in her family. Arabella is much like her grand-aunt, Tuffy, who is modelled on the Dame Miriam Rothschild (1908-2005); a brilliant British naturalist and a world expert on the flea.

It has been touted as a comic look at the decaying aristrocrat way of living but then comic forms of work are really a thinly disguised version of supremely intelligent wit. The House of Trelawney is a superb account of three generations of aristocracy, every generation representative of it’s moment in history. As a result what emerges beautifully is how far each generation has “evolved”. The oldest generation has lived and witnessed aristocracy as all legends about it exist. Splendid social gatherings with the incumbent Viscount not having to think of “work”. The Countess was kept busy managing the large household and the guests. The younger generation consists of the children who are really not very comfortable belonging to the upper most social strata as it seems to have invisble bonds preventing them freedom. The eldest, Ambrose, who is set to inherit the title, is very unhappy at the thought of inheriting a worthless inheritance and a ramshackle manner whose maintenance will require more than a penny to maintain. The second son, sweet and gentle Toby, is lovesick but discovers to his dismay that he is in the crosshairs of a rigid social structure which is creating a rift between the young couple. The youngest and of a difficult temperament is the ever-inquisitive Arabella who drives her mother bats but then to everyone’s joy forges a comfortable relationship with her grand-aunt, a renowned entomologist. The sandwich generation of Kitto and Jane have seen their fortunes disappear rapidly except for their social graces and enviable status they have in society. Kitto married Jane for her money and not love although she had been in love with him since they were fourteen year olds. Yet with their crumbling (mis)fortunes, many of which are brought upon the family by Kitto’s ill-advised investments, it is Jane who is the “fall guy”. Jane is responsible for caregiving of the elderly and very kindly maintaining pretences of their past lifestyle, cooking and cleaning for three teenagers — even if it meant buying the economy pack of mince and feeding it them day in and day out, tackling the every growing pile of bills but making little dent in it, managing the chickens, a horse and a labrador — managing it all even if it stretched her, leaving little time for herself. Until she discovered the perfect hideout for her creative outlet — a printing press. She stumbled upon it shuttered up in one of the erstwhile servants quarters.

Jane had found the printing press ten years earlier while trying to locate the source of a leak in the third ballroom. She’d never been to that section of the fourth floor before and was amazed to discover thirty nearly identical rooms, each almost bare save for twin iron beds and a small cupboard, the stapble furniture of junior domestic staff. Opening the door of Room 128, Jane wondered why, and for that matter how, anyone would heave a laundry mangle to the attic so far from the washing rooms downstairs. Forgetting the search for the leak, she examined the heavy cast-iron table with a large metal roller at one end. Using all her strength, she managed to turn it around, forcing the roller majestically and rustily from one end to another. The contraption must have weighed half a ton. Intrigued, Jane opened the neatly stacked wooden crates lining the wall. They contained blocks of typefaces and letters in different fonts and dried-out bottles of ink. In a nearby cubpard she found some fading printed posters, all related to the suffragette movement and specifically to a women’s march from Penzance to London on 19th June 1913. Jane laughed out loud. Someone had deliberately hidden the press in the furthest maid’s room in the attic, where neither the butler nor any member of the family would dream of venturing. It made her happy to think that, deep within the hear of this ancient bastion of absolute male hegemony, there had existed a small and defiant opposition: a group of feminists prepared to risk their jobs and livelihoods for the rights of their own sex.

Let us not forget the cast of characters also include the absolutely atrocious noveau-riche hedge-fund billionaire Thomlinson Sleet; his third wife, an Indian princess Ayesha who is linked to the family of Trelawneys; Blaze, the incredibly successful financial analyst and sister to Kitto and Joshua Wolfe, the discrete but immensely successful financier. It is a fantastic mix of a very interesting cross-section of society, where irrespective of how much wealth they already possess ( or not), their primary focus is on being financially successful. There are incredibly interesting conversations that have been brilliantly etched by Hannah Rothschild. A sharp understanding of how there is an economic basis to every relationship. Inheriting enviable social titles without money in the bank is meaningless just as is having the ability to buy titles with new money while lacking class. At the same time being gender blind as many of the people in the novel are towards the three strong women — Tuffy, Jane and Blaze with Arabella showing excellent signs of following in their footsteps. Whether related by blood or living together under the same roof makes no difference to most of the extended clan at seeing the wonderful qualities these women possess of retaining their individuality, carving a professional space for themselves as did Tuffy and Blaze or managing home and hearth while being sensitive and caring especially towards the elderly as exemplified by Jane. Whereas the men carry on doing what they know best — the ageing Viscount who in his younger days was known for his ways with women but is now a sad grumbling wreck of his former self; his son Kitto who is presumed to inherit the title lives in his own world as CEO of a bank opting to shuttle between London and the dilapidated manor, hoping in a quick turn of fortune rather than putting in the requisite hard work; Kitto’s sons Ambrose and Toby are still in school. Ambrose is the eldest, educated at a posh school and detested by everyone at home for his snobbery. Toby is the kinder soul who is muddled about being born into the social upper crust while his friends are from the local village. The other characters such as the Dowager Countess Clarissa, the grand-uncle and art dealer Tony, the cook and her grandson are equally critical to the story as they are like the chorus of a play. Yet it is the core group of characters that help connect the dots of the rapidly evolving socio-economic order illustrating the changes that emerge in the clash between the old vs new money. Something that the Rothschilds are probably familiar with — The Rothschild Taste ( NYRB, 25 June 2015)

Being the eldest daughter of Jacob Rothschild, 4th Baron Rothschild, Hannah Rothschild is privileged to have witnessed firsthand the manner in which British artisocracy functions. There are moments in the novel that can only have come from experience and not imagination but are so discreetly woven into the story that it could easily pass off as created dialogue. What makes this novel astoundingly remarkable is the cleverness with which Hannah Rothschild has shown the economic usefulness of women along with their keen ability to survive irrespective of circumstances. It is trait that seems to exist across socio-economic groups; the women do not seem to be burdened by an sense of entitlement and inherited prejudices. They just get on doing what they must. The women mirror much of the men in the story as in the women too represent three different generations and old vs new money but the distinctive feature about the women is that they are far more flexible in their wants and generous in their spend.

21 March 2020

*Note: It has been quite a task writing this review. It has taken much, much longer than expected. More than a week. A week that has eerily coincided with the global markets being horrendously volatile in response to the Coronavirus pandemic. This novel too is set at the time of the market crash of 2008 and the Sars epidemic! Uncanny parallels!

“The Cartiers: The Untold Story of a Jewellery Dynasty” by Francesca Cartier Brickell

The Cartiers: The Untold Story of a Jewellery Dynasty by Francesca Cartier Brickell is a family history penned by the great-great-great granddaughter of the iconic jewellery firm’s founder. The Cartiers took Francesca more than a decade of research. It all began when the family gathered to celebrate her grandfather’s ninetieth birthday. Over the years he would often refer to a pile of family correspondence that seemed to have gone missing. At his ninetieth birthday celebrations Francesca went to the cellar to locate the bottle of wine he sought and to her joy stumbled upon a chest. She pried it open to discover it stuffed with letters. She decided to chronicle the family as her grandfather was the last who had actually worked in one of the firm’s branches before it was sold in 1974. She was working as a financial analyst covering the retail sector and raising a young family in London which meant that Francesca had to travel every weekend to south France to be with her grandfather to record his accounts. The result is this fascinating chronicle of a remarkable family that through its determined ambition to rise through the socio-economic ranks of French society got exactly what they wanted. From an impoverished background in the early nineteenth century to being welcomed in the courts of many prominent royal families across the world and counting amongst their clients professionals such as bankers, actors, musicians, politicians etc. Astonishingly this ambition and drive was evident across generations. With a steely determination the family knew what they desired — luxury retail, upmarket clientele, elegant and diverse product range and ensconced in the middle class. The family was clear that they had to remain clear of debt, they had to innovate and be creative and not necessarily always look at their competitors but look around for inspiration and ideas.

Alfred Cartier, grandon of the founder, with sons Louis, Pierre and Jacques

While every generation of the Cartiers had contributed constructively to the establishment of the family as a name to contend with in the jewellery business, it was the fourth generation of three brothers — Louis-Joseph, Pierre Camille and Jacques-Thoedule ( the author’s great-grandfather), who truly made the jewellery firm a name to reckon with. A name that is recognised decades later. Designs created by them continue to be recognised and attract astronomical prices at auctions as evident in the Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence — spanning five centuries — auction organised by Christies, June 2019. Museum quality jewels belonging to Sheikh Hamad Al Thani with 388 lots were up for sale. Another equally successful and prominent white glove sale, consisting predominantly of Cartier designed jewellery, was the sale of the Duchess of Windsor’s jewellery in 2010.

there were twenty-one Cartier pieces in the sale. Eight of them reached over one million dollars. One exceeded ten million dollars. In total, the number of Cartier lots accounted for just 5 percent of the overall number but ended up contributing a quarter of the final $109 million value.

“Cartier” is synonymous with luxury, fine living and power. The jewellery designed by the firm drips with elegance, power and money. It is meant for the rich. The Cartier gemstones belong to the privileged sections of society. But that does not prevent millions of others from appreciating fine craftsmanship, the stunning arrangement of gem stones especially diamonds, and the play of colours as in the Tutti-Frutti range. The benchmark set by the Cartiers for quality of work, excellence, discretion in dealing with clientele and managing the brand globally is astounding as it spans a couple of centuries. Their hallmark is to create stunning designs that wow their customers for their uniqueness. This is primarily due to the Cartier family’s keeness to experiment and look for inspiration elsewhere rather than at their competitors. These decisions helped create an iconic brand whose designs astound the world decades later. A testament to this fact have been the aforementioned auctions of December 2010 and June 2019 where the Cartier jewels were the key attraction.

The Cartiers were responsible for many innovations in their jewellery designs, many of which were a response to the times, but have withstood the test of time. For instance, the Tank watch. Louise Cartier created this watch for pilot Santos-Dumont inspired by the Renault FT-17 light tank, a mechanical hero of the Great War. Santos and Cartier were friends. Santos was an avid pilot who had begun to find it difficult to extricate his pocket watch from his clothes to check the time while in flight. He mentioned this in passing to Louise Cartier who took it on as a challenge to design something that would be convenient to wear, consult without compromising on its elegance. So far wrist watches had been designed for women with the emphasis more on the jewellery designed rather than the watch itself. So the perception in most people’s minds was that it was a feminine accessory. Louis Cartier designed an elegant unisex wrist watch where the only concession to it being designed by a jeweller was the plain sapphire winder on the right-hand side. The simple, functional, elegant lines of the Tank watch made it iconic from the word go, not least because Santos flaunted it everywhere he went. Given that Santos was a style guru of his times, Louis Cartier could not have wished for a better launch pad for a new product. Although an entire range of Cartier Santos wrist watches was released only after some years. Much later Andy Warhol owned one but not for its intended purpose. “I don’t wear a Tank to tell the time,” said the man who invented the concept of 15 minutes of fame. “In fact, I never wind it. I wear a Tank because it’s the watch to wear.” Platinum versions of some of the earliest versions of the watch are collector’s items. Here is a lovely 2017 Forbes article celebrating the Tank watch’s centenary.

Product diversification was a key to Cartier’s success. The family was keen to capitalise on fashionable trends while keeping an eye on marketable commodities without compromising on style, elegance and being recognised as a luxury brand. In order to create new designs and become the leading tastemakers in the market, the three Cartier brothers — Louis, Pierre and Jacques — began to search for alternatives. While the Tank watch is a great example of seeking inspiration from key industrial products of the age; there were other such experiments too. Such as the Cartiers were the first ones to introduce the use of platinum for setting gemstones. Fairly early on they had discovered that the metal is the most ductile of pure metals but less malleable than gold, so a perfect choice to make fine jewellery. The inspiration for using this metal came from their observation of rail carriages where the metal was often employed. It was imperative to focus on creating a range of products for various reasons. Such as the onset of war and affordability of new designs, a surge in demand to remount heritage pieces of jewellery in more modern styles, using bejewelled accessories for different social occasions and not necessarily always extravagantly set pieces. ( Here is an article on the Cartier exhibition of 2018 which showcased more than 300 pieces, many on loan from royal families and private collections.)

Art Deco Diamond Necklace, Cartier (1929)
Grace Kelly, Princess of Monaco’s engagement ring, diamond set in platinum, Cartier Paris (1956)

Using platinum in their designs enabled the Cartier brothers to experiment with fine jewellery. They created tiaras, rings, fabulous necklaces, brooches, hair pins etc. This was a brand new idea in jewellery design. So much so that when they began using it to set gem stones, this unusual use of the metal had not as yet been recognised in this manner ensuring that it did not attract any tax and helped reduce the cost of jewellery being created.

The versatility of the metal helped the wildly imaginative Louis Cartier to sketch extraordinary designs, using a range of gem stones, to create opulent pieces of jewellery, raising the bling factor by many degrees. He also was deeply influenced by the Art Deco movement. He was ably assisted in fulfiling his dreams of creating iconic pieces of jewellery when he hired Charles Jacqueau.While out taking a stroll Louis Cartier had spotted an exceptionally beautiful balcony being installed. Impressed by its avant-garde geometric style and sense of proportion, Louis spotted the young designer on a ladder supervising its installation. He immediately requested Charles Jacqueau to come for an interview to his firm but Louis Cartier’s offer was firmly rejected by the young man as he was already committed to projects. Once done, Jacqueau visited Louis Cartier who set him a test of designing jewellery with three piles of gems — rubies, sapphires and diamonds. Jacqueau excelled in the text. Cartier was delighted his instinct had proved correct and offered the young man a job on the spot. Jacqueau had trained at Paris’s famous art school, the École des Arts Décoratifs. His professional expertise was in large metal structures, not in tiny gems. But he accepted the assignment at Cartiers as he was intrigued by this new type of work.

Charles Jacqueau

It suited both employer and employee to be creatively energised for these were exciting times to be in Paris. The Art Deco movement was in vogue. Also in news were fascinating archaeological expeditions such as Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon’s of 1923 where they discovered King Tutankhamen’s tomb. The Cartier brothers were inspired to create a new range. They would scour antique shops for remnants of ancient Egyptian art. Some dating hundreds of years back. Then these would be incorporated in new settings while being mindful of the original beauty of the Egyptian art. Simple but classic style statements were created such as hair clips, belt buckles, bracelets, brooches etc. Art Deco Egyptian revival jewellery was soon the rage. Today these creations are collector’s items as few were sold and remain in private collections, very rarely are they made available for auction. Many others remain in the Cartier collection. According to a 2015 Vanity Fair article:

… almost a century later, this refined mash-up, known as art deco Egyptian Revival jewelry, is among the most unique, and most highly-coveted in the modern market—and is priced to match. Many are considered masterpieces of the jewelry canon, but few land beneath the glass at the Met or even smaller museums. Instead, Egyptian Revival pieces are often purchased by private collectors with massive budgets and highly developed tastes.

Egyptian-inspired jewels illustrated in a Cartier advertisement, in the Illustrated London News, 26th January 1924, showing “The Tutankhamen Influence in Modern Jewelry.” The copy below the illustration which gives descriptions of the pieces and their faience antiquities, (incorrectly describing the fragment in the fan brooch as a sacred ram) says “Women interested in Egyptology, who desire to be in the Tutankhamen fashion, can now wear real ancient gems in modern settings as personal ornaments.”
Lady Abdy’s rare Egyptian-Revival Faience and Jeweled Brooch, Cartier, London. A glazed faience centerpiece, dated to New Kingdom, 1540-1075 BC, set upside down, and is framed in gemstones.
A sketch of the scarab belt buckle brooch worn by Linda Porter, Cole Porter’s wife. (1926).

Another innovative introduction in contemporary jewellery design was to make the pearl string an attractively elegant accessory. Most often than not the Cartiers excelled in using natural pearls, exquisitely graded and strung so beautifully. From a single strand to multiple strings on one necklace became a fasion statement that has once again survived decades of stylish dressing. Jackie Kennedy Onassis was known for her pearl strings. Equally well-known were the more extravagantly strung 10-string creation made for the Maharajah of Patiala.

The Patiala Necklace created by Cartier in 1928 for Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, was some of the priciest jewellery ever commissioned. It contained 5 rows of Art Deco Chains all completely covered in 1000 carats of ice, 2930 diamonds; contained the 7th largest diamond – a 234 carat De Beers rock! It took 3 years to make but mysteriously disappeared in 1948 and was recovered 50 years later with some of its stones missing, including the Burmese rubies and the massive De Beers diamond.

The Cartiers had a long and lucrative association with some of the notable royal families around the world. Some of their best clients were the Romanov dynasty before and after the Russian Revolution of 1917 and many of the Indian royal families. The Russian market was not easy to cultivate but once done the Cartiers were steadily commissioned to create new pieces of jewellery. Even after the collapse of the dynasty, many of the Russian nobles who fled the country, made their way to Europe clutching bags of jewels. These were then either sold as is or some pieces were remounted in new designs by jewellers such as the Cartiers. A classic example being the Romanov emeralds worn by the Grand Duchess Vladimir and later acquired by Edith McCormack Rockefeller and Barbara Hutton — in that order. Each time the deal was brokered by Cartier and the gems remounted as per the wishes of the client.

The Grand Duchess Vladimir wearing her emeralds for the great Court ball of 1903. Note there are nine emeralds.
The emeralds as set by Cartier into the Art Deco sautoir bought by Edith McCormack Rockefeller
The emeralds as set by Cartier into American heiress Barbara Hutton’s Indian-style tiara. Note there are now only seven stones.

Their association with the Indian royal families influenced the Cartier range of jewellery too. It brought in a profusion of colours which was unheard of in European fashion circles. A burst of colours on a string or a bracelet much akin to Indian kitsch looked good when used with brightly coloured real gems such as sapphires, rubies and emeralds. This range began to be called Tutti-Frutti or the cringeworthy term “Hindou” jewellery, coined by Jacques Cartier. “Tutti-Frutti” as a description of the jewels began to be used only in 1970 despite the first pieces of jewellery being commisioned by Queen Alexandra in 1901 to match three of her Indian gowns.

Daisy Fellowes, the Singer heiress, wearing her Tutti Frutti necklace, commissioned in 1936, using many of her own gems. Fellowes daughter Castéja inherited the spectacular necklace. In 1991, five years after the death of Casteja, the necklace along with a pair of carved emerald and diamond earrings, came up for sale with an estimate of $650,000— $950,000. When the hammer came down at the Sotheby’s Geneva auction, a new record was set for an Art Deco jewel. The final price was $2,655,172.
Countess Edwina Mountbatten, the last Vicerine of India, owned a Tutti Frutti tiara, made by Cartier in England in 1928. When the piece was sold in 2004, The British government placed an export ban on it because the tiara is so significant in the history of British jewellery making

The Cartiers: The Untold Story of a Jewellery Dynasty by Francesca Cartier Brickell is an absorbing account of a family that really carved a niche for itself. The family name became a strong brand unto itself. The generations of men in control of the firm were innovative and creative ensuring that their pathbreaking designs wowed contemporaries but have also withstood the test of time and continue to attract astonishing prices. What is truly mesmerising to read is how every single generation was very focused, determined and ambitious to develop the brand and in order to do so they recognised the need to be prudent in their business plans. For instance when their local partner in Russia was insistent that they set up a standalone store, the Cartiers refused recognising that the investment costs outweighed the profitability of such a venture. Similarly when a brother travelled to the Indian subcontinent to source gems and sell some of their recent creations, the other brothers wanted to be kept abreast of all details, with a keen eye on the profit margins made. Much of these conversations are detailed in the correspondence discovered in the trunk found in the cellar. All these tiny dots in the family’s past are connected well in the able hands of Francesca Cartier Brickell who in all likelihood has brought in her professional expertise as a retail sector financial analyst to understand the Cartiers. It certainly shows in the competent arrangement of the narrative.

The layout of the book is interesting. Peppered throughout the book are boxed extracts from the conversations Francesca had with her grandfather. They help in not only breaking up the monotony of the text-heavy book but also make much of the history “accessible” for these snippets of testimonies by a gentleman who witnessed many of the events documents. Or he recalled family anecdotes that supported many of the facts Francesca unearthed during the course of her research.

Curiously though Francesca Cartier Brickell while being intent on keeping her family’s image intact is unable to bring a modern distancing from the facts shared. While it is understandable that the Russians were amongst the best clients the Cartiers had but to be dismissive of the assassination of “the prime minister ( and Cartier’s good client), Pyotr Stolypin” by a “leftist revolutionary” is just one of many examples in the book where a more nuanced understanding of the socio-historical events in this family history would have been welcome. Another example is consistently referring to the “Hindou” jewellery despite it being factually incorrect as not all the Indian royals were Hindus apart from which it is an uncomfortable term in present times; a simple recognition of which would have been a gracious gesture. While these are tiny editorial details that perhaps were in the author’s control there are some other elements in the book production that do not seem to have been in her purview. It is almost as if many corners were cut to keep the price point of the book “affordable” than take into account the history of an iconic luxury brand which demanded to be heavily illustrated as well. There are innumerable photographs throughout the book. Most of them are in black and white. Unfortunately most of them are shoddy reproductions making it impossible to discern the beauty of the jewellery. For instance on p. 360 there is an image of a group of women wearing tiaras but it impossible to appreciate the beauty of the jeweller’s craftsmanship. There are many examples such as this in the book. Even the two sections of tipped in colour plates are frustrating to read as the provenance of the jewels is not mentioned except in fine print towards the end of the book; making it extremely difficult to consult. Or there are many situations where the text refers to a piece of jewellery but is not pictorially referenced in the text. This makes reading the book a very slow and laborious process for one has to constantly search the Internet to search for references to the jewels mentioned. Perhaps it is symptomatic of the new age of reading — a blend of the print and digital experiences but it is also tantamount to lazy book production by compromising on the quality of such a potentially fine book. It is upsetting too since this is an account of a family that is synonymous with elegance and sophistication but the book production does the Cartiers a disservice for its clumsiness. A tiny detail such as a red silk ribbon inserted as a bookmark custom monogrammed with the Cartier signature would have added a subtly elegant detail.

Be that as it may, except for these tiny hiccups, The Cartiers is an absorbing read. Many will enjoy reading it. There is much to be learned from it.

11 March 2020

Ariana Neumann “When Time Stopped”

…it was during a period he had so much time on his hands that he felt that time had stopped.

How could time have stopped?

‘Because,’ he said, ‘and you will understand this when you are older, sometimes you feel that everything around you has come to an end. You feel that you are completely alone, that time is frozen and that you are invisible. At first, you might feel exhilarated by the sense of freedom, but then you’ll be frightened that you are lost and you will never be able to go back.’

He explained that when he first felt this, he had been isolated and afraid and had prised open his watch case to verify that time was indeed passing. The rhythm of the watch might have been imagined. Sound was not enough, he needed to see and touch it. It was the first time that he had dismantled a mechanism. The turning wheels, ticking each second away, had reassured him.

It was then that he had comprehended the importance of time.

Ariana Neumann was raised in Caracas, Venezuela as a Catholic. Her father, Hans Neumann was an established businessman who was also seen as a patron of the arts. Ariana was Hans’ daughter by his second wife. Ariana had a fairytale upbringing. Living in a large home, stuffed with beautiful pieces of art. She had loving parents and had everything that she desired. It is evident in the book trailer which is based on a series of home movies.

Ariana Neumann’s debut book When Time Stopped is a memoir about uncovering the truth about her father’s past. Despite the idyllic childhood he gave her, there were certain topics that were taboo. One of these were questions about his past. It was during a “spying” game that nine-year-old Ariana had created with her friends that one of her friends/spies reported that they had witnessed her father carrying a cardboard box into the library. Later in the day she decided to investigate for herself. Ariana found the box. Ruffled through its contents. Found it contained only a slim collection of papers. Most written in a language she could not comprehend. Then she spotted an identification document with an unrecognisable name — Jan Sebesta– and a young man’s photograph, an unmistakable likeness to Hans, and stamped below it was also a picture of Hitler. She was startled. She ran to her mother distraught at her discovery. Her mother placated Ariana and told her not to worry. Yet it shook Arian’s world realising that her father was not who he was. After that the box disappeared. She never saw it again. Until her father passed away and she was clearing his drawers. She then discovered the box once more. This time it was stuffed with more papers, mostly in languages she could not read. Equally puzzling were the nightmares her father had when he would scream aloud in a language Ariana could not understand.

Berlin identity card dated October 1943 found by Ariana Neumann as a girl. It had a photo of her father Hans Neumann as a young man on it, but the name stated was Jan Šebesta.

When Time Stopped is a memoir that reads like a well told mystery story as Ariana uncovers the truth about her father. A beloved father who was exceedingly busy and built an extraordinary business empire established first in the paint industry. A father who was so immersed in his work that even his own daughter had to seek an appointment with his secretary in order to have some time alone with him. A father who threw himself into his work that he was effectively able to compartmentalise his life and seemingly not let anything deter him. It was this father whom she had persuaded to visit Prague as part of a business delegation in the early 1990s. She had accompanied him. At the time he had let his mask slip briefly when broke down at the fence of Bubny station.

Hans Neumann’s deportation ticket. He absconded and did not show up at Bubny station in Prague as ordered.

When Time Stops is a fascinating account of how Ariana uncovers her father’s past, discovers he was a Holocaust survivor, who had lost twenty-five members of his family in the pogrom conducted by the Nazis. He had managed to escape by extraordinarily living in Berlin, under the watchful eye of the Gestapo, as a Christian. He was convinced that “the darkest shadow lies beneath the candle”. From there he fled to Venezuela with his older brother. Unfortunately his parents and extended relatives perished in the gas chambers. The Neumann’s had a thriving painting business in Prague. They were Czech Jews whose lives had been upturned with the invasion of the Germans in March 1939.

While researching for this book, Ariana Neuman discovered that she had relatives spread acrosss the world. She contacted them. Also discovered that there was a list of Jews who had perished during the war posted on the walls of a synagogue in Prague. She found her father’s name that had a question mark against his death. When she called and asked him about it, he merely said, “I tricked them”. Ariana also discovers that her paternal grandparents had been sent to a concentration camp that ordinarily operated as a labour camp so rules governing its administration were relatively “freer” than the other camps. Hence her grandparents while being incarcerated inside were able to send letters and parcels to their sons and at times receive illicit parcels containing packets of food and bare essentials. Extraordinarily it is the emergence of these letters after more seventy years that for the first time reveals to many the manner in which these camps operated. They had a well-defined economy and administrative structure. Ariana’s grandparents letter shed light on these internal mechanisms as well as some of the despicable horrors, many of which they were unable to recount, yet alluded to them. Ariana stumbled upon these parcels while investigating into her past. As she reached out to newly found relatives she discovered that they had similar boxes of papers as she had. These contained letters and pictures. Using the services of a Czech translator, Ariana painstakingly translated and read all the correspondence. Then filled in the gaps with her research. Result is this book. This extraordinary memoir.

When Time Stops is about Ariana discovering that the stray remarks fellow students made at school and university questioning her Catholic upbringing and at times bluntly saying she was a Jew were all true. They knew. She did not. It is more than just the passionate love of her father’s for his 297 clocks that he so carefully cared for. He had his own workshop in a windowless room where he tinkered with his precious watches, some of them going back a few hundred years. Yet of all the beautiful pieces he owned, it was an ordinary dull gold one that he was most fond of as it reminded him of the time piece his own father possessed. A link that the daughter put together after her decades of investigation into her past.

While being an fascinating account of a life, When Time Stops is also a horrifying read for the many parallels it has with modern life. Many countries today are questioning the citizenship of their people and creating scenarios that are eerily similar to those described in this book. It is worth reflecting upon. How much of the past needs to be shared and kept alive through memories as a lesson to future generations on the horrors that humans can inflict upon their own? How much of the past that is kept alive is actually used by future perpetrators as case studies? It is a tricky balance to achieve in this grey and gloomy world. Having said that When Time Stopped is worth reading for it stands out as a very well written memoir, balancing extensive research with the personal stories.

*The pictures used in this blog post have been published in the book and on The Israel Times website.

9 March 2020

Aravind Adiga “Amnesty”

A man without rights in this world is still entitled to love.

Award-winning author Aravind Adiga’s Amnesty is set in Sydney, Australia. It tells the story of an illegal immigrant, Dhananjaya Rajaratnam aka “Danny”, who came on a student visa four years earlier but stayed on. Now he earns a living as a cleaner. The action of the novel takes place in less than a day after he realises that one of his former clients, Radha Thomas, has been murdered in her apartment. He is in a pother wondering what to do. He had been on pretty good terms with Radha and knew her secrets quite well such as her long time affair with fellow-gambler, Dr. Prakash. In fact Danny has often accompanied the two on their gambling sprees but only as a companion. Danny was not a gambler. He was also a teetotaller. Two facts about their Cleaner that mystified Radha and Prakash and yet they invited him along.

Amnesty is about Danny in a fix. He is an illegal immigrant in Australia. A fact that many, even his girlfriend, are clueless about. But Danny has learned to survive in Sydney. His predicament on the day Radha Thomas is murdered stems from his quandary about telling the police about Radha and Prakash and coming to terms with the inevitable repurcussions of revealing his presence in the country. It is a horrendous situation to be in as he left Sri Lanka for better pastures given the civil strife. He is also ridden with guilt as his father had managed to collect the handsome sum of over $11,000 Australian dollars to pay for Danny’s education except that Danny chose to stay on as an illegal immigrant. There is so much rushing through Danny’s mind while living in the present. Having occupied this grey area of Australian society where he is visible and yet invisible enables him to observe much more than he lets on or will ever tell. As an immigrant of South Asian origin he is able to witness the incredibly well-defined social structures of society where the whites dominate and is evident in the layout of Sydney’s neighbourhoods. Given his profession as a cleaner, Danny is able to flit in and out of homes, even in the poshest neighbourhoods, and gets a sense of how much variation there is in the quality of living amongst different sections of society. It also fuels his aspirations of being a legal permanent Australian resident rather than return to Sri Lanka. The very thought of returning home is a depressing thought.

In Amnesty the first person narrative is delivered most often as short monologues. At first it is a fascinating literary technique to employ as it helps plunge the reader immediately into a very personal space — Danny’s mind. But with every passing minute it begins to rattle the reader as this flood of memories intermingled with the rapidly unfurling events of the day, is a heady emotional cocktail for it is relentless, unnerving, disconcerting and suffocating. It is as if Danny has neatly co-opted the reader into his quandary. It is disturbing for this is a situation unique to Danny and Danny alone. Unlike with literary fiction where much of the reading experience is completed by the reader’s engagement with the story, here it is a terrifying space to inhabit where the reader is privy to Danny’s every thought and action. Helpless in being unable to guide Danny is an unpleasant prospect for the reader but it is nothing compared to what Danny is undergoing where his internal moral compass strongly suggests he needs to reveal all that he knows to the police but it will inevitably mean deportation to him. It is this fickleness of life and to a certain degree what he construes as unfair that keeps him unsure about how to proceed. Amnesty stems from the Greek word, Amnesia, which is also a play on Danny’s convenient forgetfulness about the visa he used to enter Australia. Yet this one day is critical in his life for it unravels his grit and determination to stay on in the country as he battles his inner self for figuring out what is the right thing to do — share the information he has about the crime committed or not. Ironically it is an amnesty he strikes with himself before taking the decision he makes.

In a sense Amnesty can be construed as a literary recreation of the Stockholm Syndrome which is a psychological response of the captive to align with their captor during captivity. Danny is the illegal immigrant who fears deportation to Batticaloa, the distress in the homeland in his mind is far worse than skulking as a persona non grata in Sydney. The “captivity” of being an illegal alien in a foreign land is infinitely preferable to home. In fact Danny is constantly assessing people by their legal right to live in this city. But he is gripped with worry when confronted with the murder of Radha Thomas. And the drama plays out slowly like a Greek tragedy in the classical one day cycle to figure out what Danny will do. It is very much a modern novel with its global theme of the status of migrants. Literature is able to say much more bluntly that journalists are unable to do or are choosing not to do. Fiction is able to take deep dives into the personal and give a face to the tragedy. Migration stories in journalism present a story that can then be used to influence or change government policies. Literature like Adiga’s Amnesty, Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West keep such uncomfortable conversations alive. They are relevant. They are also an assertion by the South Asian diaspora to use their position in the global literary landscape to be heard.

Adiga seems to subvert the Australian literary fiction canon which is very focussed upon its preoccupations by preferring to show the subaltern’s view of Sydney society — a perspective that is Adiga’s literary trademark. In this case, it is the perspective of the South Asian immigrant trying to find a foothold in Australian society while navigating all the tricky socio-economic spaces. Adiga gives a voice to the minority that is not easily visible in mainstream Australian literature; not to say that literature by the diaspora is not making waves in Australia. It is. There are moments in the novel that may alienate the reader for its minute description of Sydney’s streets. Detailing the local landscape does make the head spin but it also helps in aligning oneself with the confusion that must be prevailing in Danny’s mind. Definitely not easy to read but by having a writer of Adiga’s calibre and literary clout speak of these daily preoccupations in his latest novel will most certainly impact contemporary Australian literature. Wait and see.

7 March 2020

“I write like a reader”, interview with Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves is known for her mystery novels mostly set in Devon and the Shetlands. She has been writing for many years but the recent success of her Shetland novels adapted for TV by the BBC has sparked a renewed interest in her books. It has definitely got her a new fan base.

Ann Cleeves at Jaipur Literature Festival 2020

On 26 October 2017, Ann Cleeves was presented with the Diamond Dagger of the Crime Writers’ Association, the highest honour in British crime writing, at the CWA’s Dagger Awards ceremony in London. In 2006 Ann was the first winner of the Duncan Lawrie Gold Dagger Award for best crime novel of the year, for Raven Black, the first volume of her Shetland series. In addition, she has been short listed for CWA Dagger Awards, once for the short story dagger, and twice for the Dagger in the Library award which is awarded not for an individual book but for an author’s entire body of work.

Her new novel, The Long Call, features a new detective, Matthew Venn. It is set in North Devon where Ann Cleeves grew up. Detective Inspector Matthew Venn is a reserved and complex person, estranged from the strict evangelical community in which he grew up, and from his own family, but drawn back by murder into the community he thought he had left behind. The Long Call seems very contemporary in its writing style, the scenarios presented, the flexibility in character movement, the plot lines etc. There are all the classic elements of a mystery novel keeping the reader in suspense but the modern touches to the storytelling are refreshing too. For instance the vulnerability of Matthew Venn in his personal space is very well done. Juxtaposed with the toxic masculinity he has to contend with while working on a case is fascinating to read. Although it is hard to pinpoint a specific point in the novel but it feels almost as if the recent years of having had many of her previous novels adapted for television has affected Cleeves writing style — although she denies it to be so in the interview below. Be that as it may, the story is fabulous. Read it.

Here is an interview conducted via email:

  1. What drew you to writing mystery stories? Do you prefer writing novels or short stories? And as a reader which form do you prefer? 

Although I’ve always read very widely, mysteries were my comfort books, the books I turned to when I had a cold or was miserable.  I planned to write a great work of literary fiction when I started out, but the novel only really took off when I killed off one of the characters!  I find the structure of the classic detective story rather liberating, and it still allows me to explore the topics which interest me: the family, social justice and the way that place influences the individual.

Short stories are very difficult to write.  Every word has to count.  I can experiment with short fiction, write from the first person, for example, which isn’t a natural voice for me.  I prefer reading novels; it’s a more immersive experience.

2. How long does it take you to write a novel? Does a series arc require extensive planning or do you let it evolve over time? 

I’m contracted to do a book a year, but the book usually takes about nine months to complete. I don’t plan my work at all.  I write like a reader, I think.  I can’t start until I have an idea about the world I’m creating, a vague sense of what it would be like to live there, but the details, even the details of character, come with the writing.  So, I’ll write the first scene and because I want to know what happens next, I write the second.  By the time I’m halfway through, I have a notion about what the resolution will be, but even then I’m not quite sure how I’ll get there.

3. How did you get your first break in publishing?

It was a lot easier to find a publisher when I started out in the late nineteen eighties.  I wrote my book, went to my local library to see who published the kind of novel I’d written, then sent letters and synopses to them.  The fourth publisher I tried accepted it.  It was much harder getting any commercial success.  That took twenty years.

4. The “Dear Reader” format is fascinating. It is a direct acknowledgement of how aware you are aware of the reader. How does this constant awareness of the reader affect your writing style? 

I wrote a letter to my readers at the beginning of The Long Call because it was the first book in a new series and I hoped to persuade the people who’d enjoyed the Vera and Shetland books to give it a try.  When I’m writing I’m not really aware of the reader at all.  It’s a very selfish process.  I write the book that I’d enjoy reading, I’m revelling in the process, in becoming my characters and seeing the world through their eyes.  It’s a sophisticated form of a child playing make-believe.  There’s nothing wrong with escapist fiction, either as a reader or a writer.

5. How do you create characters? Do they evolve once the plot develops as well or do you first create people sketches and then work them in to the plot?

I don’t create people sketches.  Of course I know my returning characters rather well – I’m writing them from memory not imagination – but the individuals who only appear in one book grow as I’m writing.  Then of course I have to go back and make sure that they’re consistent from the beginning.

6. Does the gender of a character make a difference to the degree of insight and work required on your part as an author? (I get the sense that your women characters are far more nuanced than the male characters. Not to say the male characters are not well portrayed but there are tiny details about the women that makes them to be more rounded. It is almost as if at times you are sympathising with them.) 

This is a really interesting observation!  I hadn’t thought the gender made any difference, but perhaps you’re right.  Perhaps I’m rooting for my women and have more understanding of their problems and stresses.  It doesn’t feel any easier when I’m writing them though.

7. Do you like observing people? 

Yes!  I’m perpetually eavesdropping and watching.  I don’t know how you could be a writer if you don’t use public transport, for example.  That’s such fertile ground for observation.

8. Have the recently successful TV adaptations of your books, especially The Shetland series, affected your writing style? 

I don’t think so.  The more recent Shetland TV series – they’re about to film series 6 – have moved away from the books. They retain the atmosphere and the sense of place, but perhaps they’re darker, a little more Gothic in tone. But the theme of kindness, which I hope is at the heart of the novels, is still very much there. The double Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn plays the central character in Vera and we’ve already had ten seasons of those shows.  She absolutely captures my character and I do hear her voice in my head when I’m writing dialogue.

9. Where do you find the inspiration of your stories especially the intricacies of the mystery?

The mystery and the plot twists seem to take care of themselves.  Deciding the essence of the book is the most important thing for me.  For example, I think The Long Call is about powerful men deciding that they’re entitled to cover up a crime.  And in the end the cover up is more toxic than the crime itself.

10. To create the settings of your novels, do you visit the places beforehand to get a sense of the geography and its locals or does it involve a lot of armchair research or a bit of both?  I ask because at times it seems almost as if the descriptions are written down as if you had observed them yourself. 

I can only write about place that I know well.  I have been visiting Shetland for more than forty years and lived there for a while.  I grew up in North Devon and still have friends there and I live in Northumberland where the Vera books are set.  My daughter is an academic, a human geographer, and I think that’s what I do: explore community and the individual’s place within it.

11. What is your writing routine? 

I write best early in the morning, at a laptop on my kitchen table, drinking lots of tea.

12. Who are the writers who have influenced your writing?

When I was younger I read all the Golden Age mystery writers – Christie, Sayers, Allingham – but my real reading passion now is crime fiction in translation.  I think we get a real sense of another culture’s preoccupations by reading their popular fiction.  I’m especially a fan of Simenon’s Maigret books.  They’re so tight and precisely observed.

2 March 2020

“The Cottage by the Highway and Other Essays on Publishing: 25 Years of Logos” Edited by Angus Phillips

The cheapening of information has been accompanied by the decline of copyright, the symbol of the writer’s ownership and instrument of his and the publisher’s protection. Readers are no longer wooed so much as assayed. This should give them more power. However, the increase in volume and accessibility of words has led to a decline in the art of readership. Millions of readers are oblivious to both their power and their responsibility. We need a movement for more responsible readership.

Reader Responsiblity is not dependent on education or intellect. Everyone reads, and everyone can exercise responsibility according to his will and capacity. Responsible reading it in the endthe only way to filter the best out of the computer-generated mass of information, to discipline distorted reporting, careless reasoning, special pleading, tendentious arguments and vulgar expression, all of which are more common in communications today than they were twenty or thirty years ago.

In simpler terms, there is a need to increase quality and reduce quantity. The reader has power to influence this.

Gordon Graham “The Responsible Reader”, Logos 21/3-4, 2010, 9-12

Gordon Graham and his wife, May 2008. Taken at their home in Marlow when I went to stay with them at their invitation.

Logos is a highly reputed journal on publishing that was begun by the legendary publisher, Gordon Graham. He had founded the Logos journal in 1990, upon his retirement from Butterworths where he had served as Chairman and Chief Executive since 1974. Before this Gordon Graham worked at McGraw-Hill, as International Sales Manager in New York, and later ran the company’s book business in Europe and the Middle East. But he had also done a long stint in India with the company. Gordon Graham ran the journal successfully for many years. He had some of the best publishing professionals of the world contribute articles, interviews and book reviews. He had a vision to create an excellent platform where ideas and experiences about the publishing world could be shared and discussed. He began this initiative in the days before email and smartphones were even dreamed of! He would commission articles from contributers via snail mail. Later when dial-up modems began to make their presence felt, he would write the commissioning letters which then his secretary would type and send via email. Publishing is a business that builds upon the creative energies and enthusiasm of many individuals but requires at the same time meticulous multi-tasking to ensure that all the scheduled tasks are being completed on time. Gordon Graham was a fine example of an exemplary publisher, a gentleman publisher, whose knowledge and experience of the industry would sit lightly. He was ever so gracious about meeting new entrants to publishing and always willing to lend an ear to their opinions. He was passionate about the industry even though he was most familiar with the academic form of publishing. He was very clued in about the different kinds of publishing in various parts of the world. All of this was remarkable given that he had accrued this knowledge on the basis of his travels, his conversations, his experience and his vast and diverse reading. A few minutes of conversation with Gordon Graham was pure delight. With this insight in the industry he had the vision to create this extraordinary journal. By the time of his retirement he was already an established publishing legend but to create a journal from scratch required hard work and determination. He made it happen. Today Logos is a journal on the publishing industry which is a fantastic repository of information, case studies, views and opinions. It is the gold standard among journals in terms of the rigour and peer review that goes into maintaining the standard of contributions. During his lifetime, Gordon Graham handed the journal over to Brill, a publishing house that had been at the time in existence for nearly two centuries. Brill is an academic publishing firm with a formidable catalogue of journals as well. So this was a perfect match in terms of strengths and expertise. By the time Logos became a part of the Brill stable, the furious debate about print vs digital had begun in publishing. Gordon Graham vision ensured the journal’s survival in the very capable hands of the editor Angus Phillips and support of Brill.

To celebrate the twenty-fifth year anniversary, a special edition, a book of selected essays on publishing were put together. It is a collection of essays worth its weight in gold. Publishing histories of successful firms or rise of authors at the best of time are tricky to document as these are mostly not documented in the moment of time. So to cobble together histories of iconic firms such as the Paul Hamlyn, Thames & Hudson, or Weidenfeld & Nicholson is a remarkable achievement which these essayists have achieved. There is a fine balance of the personal with the professional. While the histories are engrossing; it is also the realisation that certain principles of publishing do not change — it is technology which does. But through the ages everyone is preoccupied with the marketplace and assessing what readers desire. This is a concern that is of paramount importance. And this is exactly why The Cottage by the Highway is fascinating since none of the essays selected veer too far away from the central idea that publishing is a business. It is not always said explicitly but it understood. At the same time there is no denying the buzz one gets being a part of this industry. It is fun. It is exciting. It is challenging. It is creative. It is dependant upon one’s interpersonal skills. It is an ecosystem consisting of publishers, editors, writers, booksellers, distributors, agents, translators, book designers etc. Ultimately it is the coming together of experience, skills combined with business acumen to recognise where the gaps lie in the market and be prepared to put in the hard work required. For every book is akin to a designed product. It requires patience, vision and hard work for every book published.

The Cottage by the Highway is a treasure trove of publishing wisdom. It is applicable across geographies and book markets. It is much in keeping with the vision of Gordon Graham — of cross-pollination of information and experiences while attempting to document critical stages of publishing. A tiny detail that most publishing professionals forget or are too busy to do for themselves or their institutions. Read The Cottage by the Highway. And if you are a publishing professional or aspiring to be one, learn from it. It is absolutely fantastic!

18 February 2020

“Fern Road” by Angshu Dasgupta

Angshu Dasgupta’s debut novel Fern Road is a coming-of-age novel set in 1980s’ Calcutta. It is a quietly paced, gently told story about Orko who lost his mother when he was very young. He as a very kind, loving, understanding father, a University professor, who also readily makes the time to be a single parent. Orku’s father makes a conscious decision to stay on in the official accommodation to fend for his son himself. He prefers the nuclear arrangement rather than take the easy option of moving back to his own father’s home relying upon the relatives to help bring up Orku. Yet, Orku misses his mother terribly and yearns to be like her. His desire to emulate his mother is not restricted to her personal traits but to the clothes and jewellery she would wear. It is only as he grows older and begins to experience bullying, social ostracisation and sexual abuse that he begins to introspect and realise that he is different to the majority of his peers. Despite their best efforts to belittle him, Orku after some emotional turmoil, begins to be more comfortable with who he is rather than be the butt of everyone’s taunts.

Fern Road is a pleasant enough read that apparently took the author more than five years to write. Portions of this story are emotionally draining to read, so must have been harder to write. Transiting from childhood to adulthood with the hormones going wild during adolescence is complicated enough but to be fraught with confusion about oneself as Orku is, is nerve-wracking. Setting this novel in the 1980s when conversations about LGBTQ issues were taboo is a brave act as it calls upon the writer to create a story that shuts out the present day narratives acknowledging LGBTQ communities. So to focus upon a story that was more than a grey area in social spaces and was deemed a criminal offence till recently in India must have been challenging. Having said that the dissonance between contemporary literature with its focus on LGBTQ lists and Fern Road are stark and impact one’s reading of the story considerably. While it is unfair to expect the author to write authoritatively a coming-of-age gay novel yet the characters could have been made a little more stronger. Same holds true for the incidents that impact Orku such as the rape by his football coach, the bullying by his peers, his concerned and protective aunt trying to tease out of him his worries and his friends ( inevitably girls) referring obliquely to his sexual orientation. While all of this may be true within the context of the novel and the period it is set in, it comes across as very tone deaf since LGBTQ novels of today have attained a very mature style of writing — there is a sensitive, nuanced understanding of the issues at stake and not necessarily refer to modern literature being more explicit . So while it is absolutely correct to acknowledge the politeness with its viciously violent underpinnings towards those who are different from heterosexual norms, it is perhaps equally correct to acknowledge the literary canon within which this novel will be placed. So the incidents considered for the plot could have tried pushing the limits of writing a bit more without making it sound absurdly out of context. Readers will expect a little more. A nuanced recognition at most of current trends of writing, especially in the LGBTQ YAlit space, rather than sticking to telling an old-fashioned story of 1980s Calcutta. For now, in all likelihood, the story will sink rather than stand out as that of a new voice.

Perhaps with his second novel, which is more often than not the litmus test for new writers, will be the confident note that Angshu Dasgupta will achieve. Till then read Fern Road.

15 February 2020

“The Cliffhangers” by Sabin Iqbal

This is my land, this is my country. No one can come between us. Neither saffron nor green can come in our way.

But, they try to.

Debut author Sabin Iqbal’s The Cliffhanger is about a group of friends Usma, Thaha, Jahangir and Moosa. They are in their late teens and early twenties. Moosa is nineteen years old. The ages of the other friends are not mentioned but it is presumed that they are more or less the same age. They are not very well educated. Inevitably have failed school and are hanging around the cliff near their village. There is little for them to do. They are considered kafirs for their free lifestyle and friendships with foreigners and Hindus like Balannan and Vivekannan. They belong to impoverished homes that rely upon remittances sent home from the Middle East. It is mostly the men of these families that have gone to Dubai in search of work. They occupy the lowest rungs of society abroad as drivers, shop assistants, messengers etc. Work which is unappealing to the younger men in India but who realise that it is a matter of time before they too have to join the expat workforce in the Middle East. It helps bring in a regular income and is any day preferable to the backbreaking task of fishing — the only skill their village of fishermen has known for as long as they can recall.

The Cliffhangers have chosen the middle path. We don’t wear symbols of any faith or religion. We don’t tie threads around our wrists or biceps. We wear trainers, sweatpants or tracksuits or polos, which are brought by our relatives from the Gulf.

It is a village on the coast of Kerala where the population lives in relative peace and harmony though the settlement is distinctly according to communal lines. The Muslims on one side and the Hindus on the other. There are no Christians in this village. This is how it has been; till now.

Our village also has religious and political divisions — though they seem blurred and harmless to an outsider, they are as distinct as right and left, and potentially as harmful to both.

So far, the two communities in our village have lived in peace and harmony. It is a delicate peace, which any moment, could crumble like papadums.

The Cliffhangers is a fictional account of how close to the precipice this village is from being torn apart along communal lines. The simmering hatred that manifests itself in by the police picking up the Cliffhanger boys for questioning even if they are innocent. It is just that the shroud of suspicion falls upon these boys most of the time because of their faith. It is never said explicitly but it is understood. A frightening prospect. The boys most often are seen whiling away their time hanging out with tourists, ostensibly to improve their English. So if anything happens to a tourist such as the rape of a young girl or the inexplicable death of an unapologetic HRS supporter like Vishwanathan Thampi, the boys are immediately picked up for questioning. As the Cliffhangers are well aware that as young men with Muslim names, they are a soft target for the police and primary enemies of the HRS ( Hindu Rasthra Sangh). It is a tough and uncertain life. None of this uncertainty is helped by the harrowing news from North India about the lynching of a man suspected of storing beef in his fridge. The Cliffhanger gang is stunned into a worrying silence. Unable to fathom what to make of this dystopic world where you are condemned for your food habits, you are persecuted for your religion –whether observing it or not as the boys discovered for having being caught eating during the day when they should have been fasting during Ramzan, you are lynched if you belong to the “other” in terms of colour, ideology and faith. It is a peculiar world.

Hatred is when you think the other has to be eliminated because of the difference of opinion in faith, customs and ways of life. Or, being the axis of evil as Bush, one of the presidents of America, said.

The Cliffhangers want to be the voice of sanity, albeit our patchy English, in the cacophony of communal insanity that our state has fallen into. As you know, we are not adequately educated to sound profound but we are glad that we are not wrongly educated either to hate the ones under the rival flag. We bear Muslim names and maybe we go to the mosque on Fridays and on Eid, but that’s it. You can cut our vein anyway, I swear to you, none of us have any strain of hatred in us.

This free will is something that the Cliffhangers are beginning to discover they are unable to exercise freely. So much so even SI Devan who would pick them up routinely for questioning ultimately decided to “help” them out in an unsolved case of the rape of a foreign tourist. SI Devan had uncovered the truth that the perpetrator, Balannan, a vendor who sold lemonade but was closely affiliated to the HRS. So recognising the terrifying consequences of arresting the member of the Hindu shaka and the horrific prospect of ripping the social fabric of the fishing village across communal lines, the SI chooses to take the rap himself by the senior police officials. SI Devan closes the file as “inconclusive”. His parting words to the Cliffhangers is the truth but with sinister underpinnings.

Remember, we are living in strange times . . .and, your identity is your enemy!” he said….

When the impetus for a story is the growing hatred of the “other” and the heightened communal tension it unleashes, it becomes frighteningly tough to articulate those fears. Fiction helps in unlocking some of those unnamed fears. Whether as a writer or a reader. But as a writer it helps to be crystal clear in channeling one’s anger and distress at the rapid turn of events. For instance to witness the political machinations of hardliners to further their interests despite locals recognising the foolhardiness of encouraging polarisation among communities. A recognition of each other’s differences is sufficient but to underline it on a daily basis and enforce it using state machinery is a dangerous thought and development. It finally rests upon the free will of the citizens of a democracy to subvert this self-consuming destructive hatred.

“The Cliffhangers” is a name given to the four boys but it works metaphorically too for the precipitous situation Indian democracy finds itself in — whether to retreat from the life-threatening crisis or to take the plunge into the depths of the unknown waters and be destroyed. Despite sagging a bit in the middle of the novel The Cliffhangers is a powerful story for the issues it raises. It would be fascinating to hear a freewheeling conversation between Sabin Iqbal, Tabish Khair, Amitava Kumar and Rana Ayyub on writing fiction and non-fiction in these times.

Till then read The Cliffhangers.

14 February 2020

“Radical Simplicity” by Ken Allen, CEO, DHL

Focus like a laser . . . .

DHL, the courier company was founded in 1969. Before it, nothing like it existed. The three co-founders — Adiran Dalsey, Larry Hillbloom and Robert Lynn ( DHL) — had decided on a whim to create a system by which the paperwork required for international shipments could reach the destination before the cargo arrived. Thereby helping the smooth passage of shipments via customs. It was a simple idea that was executed brilliantly for many years. Between 1989 and 1999, the company grew by more than 1500 per cent, doubling its customer base to more than half a million — and was operating in 142 countries. In 2002, DHL was taken over by Deutsche Post. At that point it was losing €150 million a year, “having never learned how to effectively manag the financial complexity of a global network and operate as a harmonious whole rather than an affiliation of regions”. But by 2007 the company that had a presence in approximately 220 countries was posting gargantuan losses. By 2008, with the global financial crisis on the horizon, DHL Express made a record loss of € 2.2 billion. In the US it was losing over €100 million every single month. In 2009, DHL was 40 years old but was not as yet consistently posting profits. Ken Allen, a long term DHL employee who had quite literally risen from the ranks, was appointed global CEO. The new CEO put in place such a strict turnaround plan to the extent he was not averse to trimming the fat in the company as long as it was better in the long run. For instance, he removed all together the US domestic operations thereby making more than 12,000 employees redundant. Yet, by redoing strategies and thinking out of the box, especially by being sensitive and understanding to cultural differences and insisting service to the loyal customer is paramount as that was the only sure driver of a Profitable Network, Ken Allen managed to make a remarkable turnaround for the company. It meant that by 2011 the company was producing good results and made €1 billion in earnings before interest and tax (EBIT). In 2017, DHL generated €1.62 billion EBIT, a billion of cash flow as well as investing €1 billion in capex ( capital expenditure). In 2018, the business performed even better, delivering a record EBIT margin of 12 per cent and €1.95 billion EBIT.

Radical Simplicity is about this remarkable change in DHL wrought by the clever steering by Ken Allen. It is a book written in first person that allows for the enthusiasm and excitement of the author be palpable to the reader. More importantly it rises above a classic self-help book that has the tenor of a motivational speaker but plucks general examples from here and there. Radical Simplicity is about actual work done and how it transformed the fortunes of DHL. How did innovation and quick thinking to the new economic circumstances of a global economy impact and help the company. The company had its origins in being a disruptor of the postal service but once it grew, it seemed to lose its way and seemed to have forgotten to innovate. Ken Allen documents brilliantly in this book how he had to learn to manage the company but at the same time ensure that every single employee, especially those at the frontline, knew what the company meant and what it stood for. His clarity of thought is evident in the way the chapters are structured and he recaps his basic advice. He constantly reiterates that tough decisions need to be taken but it can only happen if you know the business through and through. It involves a severe amount of cost cutting and constantly being aware of the input costs. Cost will always be “your enemy” but it has to be factored in. This requires the senior management to more than know, be familiar with, the tasks of those reporting to them. Also to be very simple and direct in your approach of dealing with employees and customers. Be frank. Be transparent. And constantly motivate those around you by role modelling. It is not an easy task since it requires focus, determination and grit to remain on track. It can impact relationships and those that remain are really only a handful. While it is critical to be aware of the employees and look after the well being of the firm, it is equally important that everyone looks after themselves especially their health. Be extremely focused. Set goals. Figure out strategies. And you will achieve success. Today DHL employs more than 100,000 people and is posting profits year on year. After reading this remarkable book, I spotted this magnificent Facebook post where noted Australian author, Susanne Gervay mentioned that she used DHL to take a shipment of books to Rwanda and that DHL very kindly reduced their costs considerably. It made it an affordable cost for the NGO facilitating this shipment. The customer truly matters!

Read the book. It does not matter if you are an entrepreneur or not. It is an excellent book for understanding businesses and managing your goals.

13 February 2020

Women writers from North East India

Writing from the north east of India has always had an interesting texture to it. It is distinct. Although the “north east” is clubbed as one region, the variations that exist in the seven states constituting this region are mind-boggling. Much of the writing that is available from this region is a combination of original writing in English and some in translation. Unlike writing in other parts of the Indian subcontinent where there are very distinct literary traditions in the regional languages and those who opt to write in English, this is not always true for the writing emanating from North East India. To illustrate. Writing in other Indian regional languages has a very distinct local cultural feel to it with preoccupations that are understandably of the region. Also the writing is very clear about the local literary traditions. So much of this gets translated as is in to English. When some of these regional writers opt to write in English then they infuse some of their writing with a regional flavour but only mildly so. This is where the differences creep in with the Indian writing in English emulating more of the rules and traditions of the borrowed English literary traditions rather than being confident of their own traditions infusing the English space. Interestingly these distinctions are not visible in these two marvellous collections of writings — The Many That I Am: Writings from Nagaland (Ed. Anungla Zoe Longkumar) and Crafting the Word: Writings from Manipur (Ed. Thingnam Anjulika Samom). These are collections of writings — fiction, essays, poems, illustrations, comic strip — by women from the north east of India. It is not possible to gauge from the tenor of writing which of the contributions is a translation or an original article in English. All the contributions, irrespective of whether a translation or written originally in English, focus upon their local landscape and culture. There is a calm confidence about narrating incidents of the transformation of their society from tribal customs such as head-hunting to becoming Baptists as in The Many That I Am. (“Cut off” by Vishu Rita Krocha) The volume of writings from Manipur throws the spotlight on recent decades of activism by women and many of them being at the forefront of the armed conflict that has plagued the state. The nature of contributions in Crafting the Word is a little more languid and gentler as compared to The Many That I Am which is puzzling; given that Crafting the Word arose out a women’s literary group called Leikol founded in 2001 and so had more time to hone their writing skills. Be that as it may, there is a quiet maturity to the style of writing even if it is not at par with the punchiness seen in most of the pieces included in The Many That I Am.

Zubaan is a legendary feminist press. It is known for its fundamental work on literature by women. Sometimes the contribution of women is expressed in myriad ways. Fiction is a powerful literary form to highlight the position of women and to express their innermost feelings. Many of the stories included in these two volumes achieve this beautifully. The hard labour that women put in to keep their households going as in “Vili’s Runaway Son” by Abokali Jimomi, “Martha’s Mother” by Hekali Zhimomi, and “As Spring Arrived” by Kshetrimayum Subadani ( Translated from Manipuri by Sapam Sweetie) and in many cases helping the next generation fulfil their dreams as in “My Mother’s Daughter” by Neikehienuo Mepfhuo. The essays in these volumes vary from memoirs to fascinating account of the flourishing of women’s writing in Manipur ( “The Journey of Women’s Writing in Manipuri Literature” by Nahakpam Aruna) to how readers access literature — the “outbooks” or the books apart from the Bible and the school textbooks, in a lovely essay by Narola Changkija ( “Outbooks: A Personal Essay, September 2018). An essay in which she reflects upon how her mother banned all outbooks in the home but her father, a police officer, on his travels would fulful his daughter’s wish and buy her the books she desired.

What matters is that his reverence for the written word was catholic, in the very best sense of the term. Literary or pulp fiction, any ‘outbook’ was evaluated and read and appreciated for its unique self. I like to think I have, finally, developed a similar catholic patience towards books, and life, and other human beings. At least, I hope I’ve learned how to value the things worth valuing and let the rest be.

Another one is a poem “Secret Library” by Dzuvinguno Dorothy Chase in a section entitled “What Time Told Me in 2018”.

The Many That I Am is a very powerful collection. It is best read from cover to cover. Impossible to dip in to without wanting to read one more and one more and one more. Here is an example of a performance poem. Timely words. Much to dissect here. Perhaps best left as is to be read, to reflect, to share and to perform widely.

It is challenging to succintly conclude about the magnificently magical power that lies within these two collections. It creeps upon the reader to leave a delicious sense of sisterhood and belonging, an empowering feeling to know that one is not alone in the daily grind of being a woman in a society still governed and defined by patriarchal norms. It is a fantastic feeling to come to the last page of the book and discover the comic strip shown. The joy of finding in pictures the exhilarating feeling of surmouning all those metaphorical mountains and emotional claptrap that is used by many to keep women from achieving.

Buy these volumes. Read them. Share them with not just the converted but a wider audience. Appreciate the writings for themselves. The “-isms” will follow, if they have to.

11 February 2020