biography Posts

Of holy men like Rasputin

Douglas Smith’s Rasputin is a detailed and a fascinating biography of a holy man who was extremely close to Tsar Nicholas II and Empress Alexandra. It is a slow but satisfying to read for it describes Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, decline of the Russian empire, rise of Lenin and the Bolsheviks etc. Rasputin was also shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize 2017. Here is an excellent review of the book in The Guardian.

Of all the lines in the book it was a description of him in the opening pages which are gripping since it could be a description of any other holy man in a different time, nation and culture. Read on:

Pokrovskoe was the home of the most notorious Russian of the day, a man who in the spring of 1912 became the focus of a scandal that shook Nicholas’s reign like nothing before. Rumors had been circulating about him for years, but it was then that the tsar’s minists and the politicians of the State Duma, Russia’s legislative assembly, first dared to call him out by name and demand that the palace tell the country who precisely this man was and clarify his relationship to the throne. It was said that this man belonged to a bizarre religious sect that embraced the most wicked forms of sexual perversion, that he was a phony holy man who had duped the emperor and empress into embracing him as their spiritual leader, that he had taken over the Russian Orthodox Church and was bending it to his own immoral designs, that he was a filthy peasant who managed not only to worm his way into the palace, but through deceit and cunning was quickly becoming the true power behind the throne. This man, many were beginning to believe, presented a real danger to the church, to the monarchy, and even to Russia itself. This man was Grigory Yefimovich Rasputin. 

Even before his gruesome murder in a Petrograd cellar in the final days of 1916, Rasputin had become in the eyes of much of the world personification of evil. His wickedness was said to recognize no bounds, just like his sexual drive that could never be sated no matter how many women he took to his bed. A brutish, drunken satyr with the manners of a barnyard animal, Rasputin had the inborn cunning of the Russian peasant and knew how to play the simple man of God when in front of the tsar and tsarita. 

Douglas Smith Rasputin Macmillan, London, 2016. Pb. pp. Rs 599

11 Sept 2017 

David J. Garrow “Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama”

Pulitzer-prize winning biographer David J. Garrow spent nearly nine years researching and writing Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama. Garrow interviewed more than a 1000 people for the biography of Obama. It is a voluminous 1400 pages with nearly 300 pages of footnotes and bibliography.

Rising Star is true to its name as in excrutiating detail it documents minutely facts about Obama’s life , mostly before he became president of USA. It is a biography that is probably going to be referred to for many years to come for the extensive research put in but the veracity of its authencity will forever be questioned, as pointed out by the Guardian and the New York Times book reviews. Both the articles criticise Garrow for relying far too much on Obama’s ex-girlfriend Sheila Miyoshi Jager for information.

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”( 18 Dec 2014,  )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.”

Garrow won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986).  But since the 1980s till today there has been a tectonic shift in how biographies are written. A good example is the beautifully written biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. Unfortunately it seems Garrow with this particular biography of Obama has been unable to evolve from the stodgy 1980s style of writing biographies.  In Rising Star Garrow fails to do precisely what Richard Holmes delineated — “step back, step down, step inside”. Hence it is easier to read the book in morsels rather than from beginning to end. Rising Star is outdated and dull for modern readers who prefer zippy, well-written narratives that are nuanced with analysis. Though in an interview in Longreads Garrow says it is the  “self-creation” or living a life of
“re-invention” of an individual that fascinates him the most. Undoubetedly it is this mission that comes through clearly except making it very tedious to read.

The nine years spent by Garrow researching this book more or less coincide with the two terms Obama spent at the White House. The book itself was published within months of Obama demiting office indicating a slight haste to reach the market quickly. But given the wealth of information garnered Garrow would have done well if he had spent a little longer editing Rising Star and gaining an objective perspective on his subject. He probably would have had a timeless classic.

Despite it being a dreary read Rising Star will prove to be a seminal book in time to come. It will be the go-to biography of Obama for its meticulous documentation particularly the endnotes and extensive bibliography.

David J. Garrow Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, London, 2017. Pb. pp.1460 Rs 799

28 June 2017

Saint Teresa

Saint Teresa or Mother Teresa (as she was known till 4 September 2016) and her Missionaries of Charity are known for their care of the poor and establishment of hospices worldwide. Many considered her to be a living saint in her lifetime and after her death miracles were attributed to her. By the time she died in September 1997 her Missionaries of Charity had 610 missions spread across 123 countries.

There are plenty of books written about Saint Teresa. The first is Saint Teresa of Calcutta: A Celebration of her Life & Legacy , a beautiful collection of photographs by Raghu Rai. He has an impressive collection of pictures taken while he would shadow her at work and some of her canonisation ceremony in Rome. The few anecdotes he shares of his interactions with her confirm her gentle, charitable nature and her overwhelming desire to do good by people especially those who are suffering. There is a particularly revelatory episode he shares about casteism and caregiving.

Her love was for humanity and was not limited to any one faith, which was why some of her detractors, who accused her of using her work to convert people, did not make much of an impression on the many millions who were utterly devoted to her. It did not matter to her if you were a Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain, believer, agnostic, atheist or Communist — she treated everyone equally. She loved those who needed her without the slightest regard to creed or caste. I am reminded here of an incident that illustrates this aspect of life. Mother’s credo was that she was not a special worker but a mother who took care of all those who needed her. Once, an old Brahmin lady was dying on the streets of Calcutta. The sisters of the Missionaries of Charity wanted to pick her up and bring her to their home for the aged. The woman, however, insisted that she couldn’t be touched by anyone but a Brahmin. When Mother heard about this, she decided she would personally minister unto the woman. As she was about to touch her, the dying woman asked her if she was a Brahmin. While recounting the episode, Mother said she asked herself: ‘Who is a Brahmin?’, to which she felt that anyone who served His people was a good Brahmin, and so she said to the dying woman, ‘Yes, I’m a Brahmin.’ And she picked her up and brought her home.

This anecdote illustrates beautifully her focus on caregiving while ensuring the patient has a dignified closure to their life. It was this generosity of spirit and kindness which enabled her to set up missions around the world. Everywhere she went she was welcomed. Sure she had her fair share of critics. She was accused of siphoning of funds. She was accused of conversions. She was accused of not really investing in improving the health of the people she brought in but focused her energies on tending to them till their death. The fact is she and her sisters of charity offer a social service for the marginalised and the poor, many of whom are shunned by their families and society. This is a stunning photobook from a photographer who in a sense is not only paying his respects to a beloved subject and mentor but is also making  a crucial contribution to history by publicising some of the rare images he was privileged to take. Photography by its very art form can be intrusive and disruptive, yet there is an almost magical quality to the images included in the book as if the subject and photographer had a special relationship.

Conferring the sainthood on Mother Teresa is possibly the reason why Puffin India has launched their  new series, Junior Lives, with a biography of Saint Teresa — Mother Teresa. Junior Lives is a version of the successful Puffin Lives series meant for older children. Junior Lives is meant to be a series of illustrated books created for young readers ( 8+) to acquaint them with world heroes. Unfortunately despite all good intentions at heart the inaugural title of Junior Lives fails to live up to expectations. Beginning with the book title itself launched eight months after sainthood has been conferred by the Pope — how can it continue to be termed as Mother Teresa, why not Saint Teresa? Terminologies have to keep pace with historical changes. Secondly even if this book is meant for younger readers why are facts not spelled out clearly rather than diluted as with the following passage  (Chapter 8):

There are many other examples of how Mother Teresa came to help during a dangerous crisis. In 1984, in Bhopal in India, a large company that manufactured pesticides made a terrible mistake. A dangerous gas leaked out from the factory at night and killed thousands of people. …[Mother Teresa helped raise funds and take care of the injured]. 

Why is Union Carbide as the offending company not mentioned clearly? By soft-pedalling the monstrous manmade Bhopal Gas Tragedy and terming it as a “terrible mistake” by way of an explanation to children is wrong. Children tend to see the world in black and white so why not tell them the truth? Share facts. Not judgements. By swiftly rearranging historical narrative in this manner will contribute in the creation of a new generation who won’t in future see the gas tragedy for the horror it was. This is the converse of what children are taught early that just as every action has an equal and opposite reaction so must children learn that every action of theirs has a consequence and they must behave responsibly. Even if it is a biography about Mother Teresa this passage implies that it was an accident and the corporation is not really to blame but don’t worry a charitable soul like Mother Teresa is ever present to tend to the needy. It is teaching an unforgiveable lesson that mistakes happen and people directly responsible for it are not necessarily to be blamed instead there will be others to pick up the pieces.

Another example of poor writing and editing is a few lines later when she travelled “she went to a country called Ethiopia“. Feeling the need to describe Ethiopia as a country especially when Italy, America, Germany and Switzerland were not qualified in a similar fashion in Chapter 7 is cringe-worthy. This smacks of a cultural prejudice that is inadvertantly being passed on to the next generation and at a time when racial diversity and inclusiveness are the buzz words. It is ironical that such unforgiveable errors have been permitted in a biography of a woman who was loved by millions around the world, irrespective of their caste, colour or creed.

Texts for children are to be put together with great deal of care and thought. Every little aspect needs to be taken into account and anticipated. Young readers tend to engage with the text minutely and every little element in it — whether text or illustration — is scrutinised, queried and discussed threadbare before being imbibed and becoming a critical part of their mental furniture. One can only hope that the future titles meant in this series are created with due care.

Raghu Rai Saint Teresa of Calcutta Aleph Book Company, 2017.  Hb. Rs 1499

Sonia Mehta Mother Teresa Puffin Books, Penguin Random House, India, 2017. Pb. Rs 150 

11 May 2017 

 

 

14th Raymond Crossword Book Award ( 29 November 2016)

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(R-L) Gulzar with Kinjal Shah, CEO, Crossword

The Crossword literary award has been through many avatars but remains one of the most significant literary prizes to be given in India. For years there was decent prize money given to the winners. This year only gift vouchers were handed out.  Nevertheless at least books and writing is being recognised. Here is the list of prizes.) 

ranjit-lal

( L-R) Twinkle Khanna, Roopa Pai and Ranjit Lal

WINNERS: POPULAR AWARD

1.Fiction
Scion of Ikshvaku by Amish wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular – fiction category

2. Non-fiction
Mrs Funnybones by Twinkle Khanna wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award – nonfiction category

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Sachin Tendulkar with the Crossword trophy. (C) Boria Majumdar

3. Biography
Playing It My Way by Sachin Tendulkar (co-author Boria Majumdar) wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for best biography

4. Business and management
Chanakya in You by Radhakrishnan Pillai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in Business and Management category

5. Health and fitness
Body Goddess by Payal Gidwani wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award in health and wellness category

6. Children
Gita: For Children by Roopa Pai wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – popular award for Children’s writing

WINNERS: JURY
7. Fiction
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for fiction

8.Non-fiction
Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India by Akshaya Mukul wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for best non-fiction

9.Translation
The Sun That Rose From the Earth by Shamsur Rahman Faruqi is the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury winner for the best translated book

10.Children
Our Nana was a Nutcase by Ranjit Lal wins the Raymond Crossword Book Award – jury award for the best book for children’s writing

1 December 2016 

Vinay Sitapati “Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India”

Narasimhudu1Ramu Damodaran remembers the moment of change. ‘The first time I got a sense of how self-assured he was becoming was when he started referring to himself in third person. He would say, “This is a situation where the prime minister has to act.” That’s when I knew.’ ( p.198)

Vinay Sitapati’s Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India is a biography of the former prime minister of India. In order to write it the author interviewed many people (some who wished to remain anonymous) and was given access to the private papers of Mr Rao by his family. In the acknowledgements he is grateful to the politician’s family for helping him access the papers “without expecting a hagiography”. In some senses Half-Lion is a straightforward biography documenting the birth-to-death life of a prominent politician despite its overly dramatic opening chapter entitled “Half-burnt body”. Vinay Sitapati meticulously ( at times tediously) records moments in Mr Rao’s life from a landowner-turned-politician of Andhra Pradesh to a powerful politician in Delhi including the few occasions when he was sidelined in politics. Yet it is a fact that Mr Rao was the home minister in 1984 when India ( particularly Delhi) experienced horrendous communal riots following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and later when he himself became prime minister, the Babri Masjid was destroyed leading to widespread communal clashes across India. It was a significant moment in the history of independent India since it marked the rise of the right wing Hindutva forces. Despite this horrendous track record that forever changed the secular fabric of the country there is an undeniable whiff of admiration in Vinay Sitapati’s account of the former prime minister’s role in ushering in liberalisation and transforming the country from a mixed economy and its socialist values of self-reliance to that of free trade. The fact is Mr Rao had no other option except to bring in economic reforms with Manmohan Singh as his finance minister. As journalist Mihir Sharma points out in his column:

…look at his great supposed achievement: the liberalisations of 1991.

The truth is this: in 1991, India had no choice but to reform. Rajiv Gandhi’s over-spending and the oil price crisis pushed India into a corner. Our autarkic industrial and economic policies were unsustainable. Any prime minister with a horizon of more than a few months in office, unlike Rao’s predecessor Chandra Shekhar, would have had to begin the process of opening up India.

What is particularly shameful, however, about calling Rao the “architect of reform” is that Rao did not just do the least he could – but he did it in a craven and dishonourable manner that has doomed the reform process in the decades since.

But did he not provide “political cover” to his team of reformers? No. The centrepoint of the first reform Budget, in 1991, was reform of fertiliser subsidies, which had grown tenfold in cost over the previous decade. The Budget speech quite bluntly reads: “with effect from this evening… there will be an increase of 40 per cent, on an average, in price” of fertiliser. It’s said Manmohan Singh even got Rao’s consent to this particularly difficult reform – the only part of the original 1991 reform process that was actually politically tough – in writing! Naturally, the moment that his Congress MPs raised their eyebrows at this, Rao abandoned his commitment, and it was rolled back. So much for the myth of “political cover”. It has little or no basis in reality.

( Mihir S. Sharma “Don’t praise Rao” Business Standard, 24 June 2016.  http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/don-t-praise-rao-116062400651_1.html )

The purpose of a biography is to not only record the life of its subject but place it within context. More often than not a biography serves another purpose — that of presenting a period in history as being continuous and particularly in the history of a nation to be stable. As Michael Holroyd points out the golden period of writing literary biographies in Great Britain began in the 1950s and continued till the late 1990s. ( Paris Review, Summer 2013, No. 205 http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6223/the-art-of-biography-no-3-michael-holroyd).  It is no coincidence that the art of writing biographies that required considerable scholarship and research began in UK soon after the end of World War II. It was a period of reconstruction and establishing the image of united Britain, one nation. Biographies of eminent people helped bolster this image considerably by seeping into the collective consciousness of people. In addition the scope of these biographies allowed exploration and understanding of contemporary historical, socio-political and economic events too. Similarly it is to be hoped that this was part of Vinay Sitapati’s intention with his Half-Lion since the life of Rao coincides with the birth of independent India, a geo-political entity and a significant player in international politics. Also for the many centuries of its existence India till 1947 had never existed like this as one nation state, a united entity, and certainly not for so long — nearly seven decades. So the significance of biographies particularly of politicians takes on a completely new dimension. In fact “in Telenagana, the TRS has adopted Rao as a local icon in a newly formed state looking for regional heroes. Starting in 2014, the Telengana state government has chosen to officially celebrate his birth anniversary in Hyderabad every year. It has announced that Rao’s life will be taught to schoolchildren, and a district and university renamed after him. In 2015, the new BJP Central government built a memorial ghat for Rao in Delhi.” (p.7)

Vinay Sitapati does what a classical biographer would do — “footstepping” in the wake of his subject to determine and recreate a life. But he lacks the craftsmanship of a true biographer in being unable to journey in to the interior life of his subject while being wholly aware of the historical and geographic. Nor is there any moment of self-awareness presumably because the biographer is too much in awe of his subject. Unfortunately despite the magnificent revelations about the internal workings of the Congress party or that of the tenuous relationship between Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rao, Half-Lion blurs the very fine line between a biography and a hagiography. This is a book that will continue to create the ripples it has caused with its publication in late June 2016 and it will be no surprise if this book is optioned for a film.

I interviewed Vinay Sitapati on 4 July 2016 via email. Here is the interview:

  1. Why Rao? Even after reading your book I am curious to know why this politician? The connect between you and him is missing in Half-Lion and a book of this magnitude requires that pivotal link to keep you going through such a humungous project. 

I am a Bandra boy, and have memories growing up through the changes of liberalisation. But I wanted this book to not be about me. The word “I” is not used in the book, and I wanted it to be an honest, objective book, undiluted by the personal impressions I had of the man. I am not a Telugu-speaker, nor did I know Rao. I am just like millions of Indians who were affected by his policies. The power of the book is in this neutrality. I only relied on evidence gleaned from documentary research and interviews, without having any personal opinions or biases. But if you ask me one emotion that kept me going, it was anger: anger that a man as consequential as Rao has been completely ignored by history.

  1. How many drafts did it take to write Half-Lion?

I completed research and writing of this book in a year. I began in April 2015. After 5 months of research, I began writing. Ramachandra Guha had told me that it takes him about 10-12 days to write a 30-page chapter, once all the research is there. It took me the same. I then circulated the draft of each chapter to about 11 people – from writers and MBA-types to hard-core academics. Their varied feedback both enriched the book and made it accessible to a wide range of readers.

  1. Before embarking on this project did you research the debates revolving around biographies? 

I read about 20 political biographies before I began. I was especially influenced by the book Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by the Harvard historian Ezra Vogel. There were two big debates on biography writing that I learnt from. One: what is the balance between scholarship and accessiblity. This is an academic book, with more than 1100 footnotes. But I’ve also tried to make it fun and simple to read. The second debate was between policy and personality. How much of the book should be about political and policy changes, how much about Rao’s personal life and quirks. Again, I’ve aimed for a balance.

4.Would you want this book turned to a biopic? Or has the book already been optioned for a film? 

I have not yet got an offer, but Rao’s life is ripe for a movie. Imagine: in April 1991 he is closing his bank accounts to become a Hindu monk. Two months later, he is the leader of the world’s largest democracy. You can’t make that script up.

  1. What do you intend to do with the archive you have created while researching this book especially the innumerable interviews you did? 

I have done more than 110 interviews. But more than that, it is Rao’s personal archives which are a national treasure. I’m working with his family to put everything online. That way, can access every single thing Rao wrote – public and private – from anywhere in the world. I feel I owe it to my country.

Vinay Sitapati Half-Lion: How P.V. Narasimha Rao transformed India Viking, Penguin Random House, 2016. Hb. pp.390 Rs 699 

17 July 2016

 

Naveed Jamali & Ellis Henican “How to Catch a Russian Spy”

how-to-catch-a-russian-spy-9781476788821_lgNaveed Jamali’s book How to Catch a Russian Spy documents his life as a double agent. He worked with the FBI but led the Russians to believe that he was working for them. For him, especially after 9/11, as a first-generation American, born of immigrant parents Naveed was keen to serve his country. Ideally he wanted to use his knowledge about computers in Naval intelligence but he failed to pass the test. So when an opportunity presented itself or rather he made it happen, it was the nearest to a dream come true — of being a spy. Having grown up reading spy novels, watching TV shows about undercover work and the James Bond series he was very enthusiastic about spying. Plus, he had the good fortune of his parents company — Books & Research — being strategically significant. It had for more than two decades been visited frequently by American and Russian agents in search of difficult-to-find books and articles.

How to Catch a Russian Spy details the three years Naveed Jamali spent working as a double agent. It is part-autobiography and part-documentation recording those significant years. The operation concluded happily for him. Once the Russian spy Naveed was associated with had been captured, Naveed was made a member of the Reserve force of Naval Intelligence. This book has been so popular that it has already been translated into a few languages and Fox has optioned the film rights as well.

Despite the Cold War having finished many years ago the fascination with spies continues to capture everyone’s imagination. Given how every two years a new Bond film appears to a resounding success and in 2015 the publication of How to Catch a Russian Spy has coincided with the release of the master of spy thrillers, John Le’ Carre’s biography and with the discovery that there was probably a sixth member in the famous Cambridge Five spy circle, Naveed Jamali’s true story is a very fashionable. Unfortunately for all the “truth” it engages with in telling a story how a Russian spy was caught on American soil in the twenty-first century, the book lacks the punchy zippiness associated with spy novels. Instead How to Catch a Russian Spy conveys the boyish starry-eyed wonder of Naveed Jamali at finding himself at the centre of a real-life spy story very well. Naveed is never quite able to get rid of that feeling and who can blame him!

Having said that it is a pleasant read. The film should be interesting to watch.

Naveed Jamali & Ellis Henican “How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent” Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 300. Rs. 699 

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Laws of Medicine”

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Siddhartha Mukherjee is a thinking medical practitioner who is constantly researching, evaluating, placing within historical context and evolving his engagement with medicine. Every time you listen to him deliver a public lecture ( http://www.jayabhattacharjirose.com/siddharth-mukherjee-27-april-2014/ ) or read his books  ( The Emperor of All Maladies: The biography of Cancer), he makes his discipline accessible.   It is not confined to some hallow portals of obscure terms. Siddhartha Mukherjee like Atul Gawande, Abraham Varghese and Preeti Rebecca John are a minority in their fraternity. They work every day in their hospitals but they are also able to look at their discipline in an objective manner and comment upon it.  More importantly they are bringing the discourse about health into the very middle of society.

Siddhartha Mukherjee’s latest book The Laws of Medicine is part of the TED Talks imprint published by Simon & Schuster. The concept is very simple. TED Talk books take off from where the public lecture concluded. So The Laws of Medicine is a continuation of the TED Talk Siddhartha Mukherjee delivered in March 2015. “Soon we’ll cure diseases with a cell, not a pill” TED Talks, March 2015 and here is the link to the interactive transcript http://bit.ly/1O0AcPn

Listen to it. Also read the book if you can. As the author says, “This book is about information, imperfection, uncertainty, and the future of medicine.” But it is also much more. It is about the human being forever being on alert, looking for information and details everywhere and not becoming complacent, letting machines, technology and others do the thinking for you. The brain continues to be important. Apply it to any discipline.

Siddhartha Mukherjee The Laws of Medicine: Field Notes from an Uncertain Science Simon & Schuster, London, 2015. Hb. pp.80 Rs 299

25 Oct 2015 

“Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison” by Dylan Jones

Mr MojoMorrison was the sexiest bookworm to ever pick up a microphone, he was an inspired lyricist and one of the most celebrated pop icons of the sixties. But he was also a wilfully enigmatic, pretentious loud-mouth, a self-proclaimed poet who wore the mask of the drunk. He was the impotent alcoholic, the scarred idol. He was the King of Corn, the consummate showman, the petulant clown. He was too clever for his own good, and often too stupid to care. Masochist, emotional sadist, incurable romantic — Morrison was all of these things. But the T-shirts don’t have room for any of them, instead promoting only the image of the gaunt, all-conquering sex beast, the Crawling King Snake, the Killer on the Road, the Lord of the Dance, the Lizard King, Mr Mojo Risin’.

( p.164)

Jim Morrison belongs to the club of super-talented legendary musicians who died at 27. The others being Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and most recently, Amy Winehouse. In a short span he had made his mark as a musician, a stage performer and for a wild life offstage. There are no dearth of books on the man. From authorised biographies to unofficial accounts to fantastic picture books documenting Jim Morrison’s performances and his life. The classic image conjured up in one’s mind is of this tall, thin, lean singer wearing a black leather outfit, holding onto the microphone with both his hands and singing. His band members seem to be also expressionless and doing their work, but the music that they were producing was extraordinary and decades later continues to sound so fresh.

New generations continue to be fascinated by Jim Morrison. Many continue to make their pilgrimage to his grave in Paris’s Pere-Lachaise Patricia Kenneally and Jim Morrissoncemetery. New fans need to be acquainted with the music, style, origins and antics of this larger-than-life musician. Along with The Doors, Jim Morrison has been a huge influence on subsequent generations of musicians.  But producing older books for a new generation of readers does not always work, so to have a new biography written by award-winning and seasoned journalist, Dylan Jones makes ample sense. This new biography is a slim volume, a zippy and raw account of Jim Morrison’s life, his stage antics, including a long conversation with his former partner, Patricia Kennealy. She was a rock critic who as editor-in-chief of Jazz and Pop interviewed Jim Morrison in January 1969. Later Jim Morrison and she became lovers and “wed” on Midsummer’s Night 1970, at 10:30 pm. It was a Wicca wedding, a ceremony based on ‘white’ witchcraft. Kennealy was a practising member of a New York coven, and the ceremony was conducted by its founders, a high priest and priestess.  Jim Morrison too addressed her as “Patricia, my wife” but they were not “legally” wed. Yet after his death she changed her name to “Kennealy-Morrison”. For the first time Dylan Jones interviews her.

patricia_kennealy_morrison_2003_02_09Kennealy developed something of a reputation with the band and Morrison’s record company, and she had a reputation for being a practicing white witch, so for years after Morrison’s death no one would go near her. As no one had ever interviewed her before — they appeared to be too scared — I began looking  for her in New York. I spoke with Elektra Records, and with the thirty or so people I interviewed for this book, in London, New York and Los Angeles, but not only could none of them point me in the right direction, some advised me to steer clear of her completely. ‘She’s dangerous,’ I was told. ‘She’ll eat you alive.’ In the end it took me about forty minutes to track her down, simply by looking through the New York phone directory. And she was charm personified. 


(p.127) 

Mr Mojo is a biography for a new generation who are discovering a legendary musician for them for the first time. It is a fascinating account that there is no need for any pictures to be tipped into the book — there are none. It is a balanced profile of Jim Morrison contextualising it well, spanning a period from World War II when he was born in 1943, his father a Naval officer went off to the war to the wild sixties, his family cutting him off to his untimely death in Paris in 1970. It is a well-written book primarily because it is not hagiography, a trap many books about successful musicians fall into. This is a class apart.

Read it.

Dylan Jones Mr Mojo: A biography of Jim Morrison Bloomsbury, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 190 Rs 199

(Note: All images are off the Internet. I do not hold the copyright to any of these. If you do know who the rightful owner is, please let me know. I would gladly acknowledge them in this post. )

21 May 2015

Andrew Hodges, “Alan Turing: The Enigma”

Alan Turing, The EnigmaNowadays it is perhaps taken rather for granted that computers can replace other machines, whether for record-keeping, photography, graphic design, printing, mail, telephony, or music, by virtue of appropriate software being written and executed. No one seems surprised that industrialised China can use the same computer as does America. Yet that such universality is possible is far from obvious, and it was obvious to no one in the 1930s. That the technology is digital is not enough: to be all-purpose computers must allow for the storage and decoding of a program. That needs a certain irreducible degree of logical complexity, which can only be made to be of practical value if implemented in very fast and reliable electronics. That logic, first worked out by Alan Turing in 1936 implemented electronically in the 1940s, and nowadays embodied in microchips, is the mathematical idea of the universal machine. 

In the 1930s only a very small club of mathematical logicians could appreciate Turing’s ideas. But amongst these, only Turing himself had the practical urge as well, capable of turning his hand from the 1936 purity of definition to the software engineering of 1946: ‘every known process has got to be translated into instruction table form…’ ( p.409). Donald Davies, one of Turing called programs) for ‘packet switching’ and these grew into the Internet protocols. Giants of the computer industry did not see the Internet coming, but they were saved by Turing’s universality: the computers of the 1980s did not need to be reinvented to handle these new tasks. They needed new software and peripheral devices, they needed greater speed and storage, but the fundamental principle remained. That principle might be described as the law of information technology: all mechanical processes, however ridiculous, evil, petty, wasteful or pointless, can be put on a computer. As such, it goes back to Alan Turing in 1936. 

( Preface, p.xvi-xvii)

Alan Turing: The Enigma a biography of the eminent mathematician by another mathematician, Andrew Hodges was first published in 1983. As with good biographies, it balances the personal, plotting the professional landmarks, with a balanced socio-historical perspective, giving excellent insight in the period Alan Turing lived. Whether it is the history of physics branching off into this particular field of mathematics, Alan Turing’s significant contribution to it, becoming a part of the team at Bletchley Park as a code breaker, and of course his personal life — the bullying he experienced at school, his homosexuality, the friends he made and his relationship with his family, especially his mother.

This biography is so much in the style of biographies written in the 1960s to 1980s — packed with detail. This is the major difference from the twenty-first biographies which are more in the style of bio-fiction than biographies. Yet it is fascinating to see how Alan Turing in a sense has been “resurrected” by twenty-first century concerns such as importance of the Internet, computers available 24×7 and of course his homosexuality, his struggles and his suicide. Then there is Turing’s genius. His gift for fiddling with maths and science. Decoding the Nazi messages. A great deal of credit goes to Andrew Hodges for keeping Turing’s memory alive and updating the information regularly especially at a time when bio-fic is fashionable. This is an old-fashioned biography where details about the life of the person with dates, snippets of correspondence, plenty of research ( constantly updating it as official files were declassified), minutely recording events and visits to places that may have relevance to the book. The book is fascinating for its detailed history of the evolution of mathematics as an independent discipline, the differences between science and maths and explaining how Turing broke away from the shackles of eighteenth and nineteenth century thought where maths was considered to be an integral part of the sciences. Turing’s biggest achievement was the original applications in maths relying upon the principles he learned in physics, especially experiments in quantum mechanics. The book  has footnotes and a preface that has been updated for this special film tie-in edition, to coincide with the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This biography has been in print for more than 30 years. It was last revised in 1992, but this special paperback edition has been reprinted with a new preface by Andrew Hodges, updated in 2014. In fact Newsweek carried an excerpt from it: ( Andrew Hodges, “The Private Anguish of Alan Turing”, 13 Dec 2014 http://www.newsweek.com/private-anguish-alan-turing-291653 ). Graham Moore who adapted the book for the film won an Oscar for his efforts, but as this post from Melville House makes it clear, this script was always meant to win awards. ( http://www.mhpbooks.com/the-imitation-game-and-the-complicated-byproducts-of-adaptation/ ) L. V. Anderson of Slate points out that that the biopic is riddled with inaccuracies. “I read the masterful biography that the screenplay is based on, Andrew Hodges’ Alan Turing: The Enigma, to find out. I discovered that The Imitation Game takes major liberties with its source material, injecting conflict where none existed, inventing entirely fictional characters, rearranging the chronology of events, and misrepresenting the very nature of Turing’s work at Bletchley Park. At the same time, the film might paint Turing as being more unlovable than he actually was. ( L. V. Anderson, “How  accurate is The Imitation Game?”. 3 dec 2014. http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/12/03/the_imitation_game_fact_vs_fiction_how_true_the_new_movie_is_to_alan_turing.html )

Richard Holmes in an article published in the NYRB, “A Quest for the Real Coleridge”, ( 18 Dec 2014, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/dec/18/quest-real-coleridge/?pagination=false )  explained the two principles that govern the methodology for the biographies he writes. According to him these are –the footsteps principle ( “the serious biographer must physically pursue his subject through the past. Mere archives were not enough. He must go to all the places where the subject had ever lived or worked, or traveled or dreamed. Not just the birthplace, or the blue-plaque place, but the temporary places, the passing places, the lost places, the dream places.”) and the two-sided notebook concept ( “It seemed to me that a serious research notebook must always have a form of “double accounting.” There should be a distinct, conscious divide between the objective and the subjective sides of the project. This meant keeping a double-entry record of all research as it progressed (or as frequently, digressed). Put schematically, there must be a right-hand side and a left-hand side to every notebook page spread.”).  Richard Holmes adds, “He [the biographer] must examine them as intelligently as possible, looking for clues, for the visible and the invisible, for the history, the geography, and the atmosphere. He must feel how they once were; must imagine what impact they might once have had. He must be alert to “unknown modes of being.” He must step back, step down, step inside.” This is exactly what Andrew Hodges achieves in this stupendous biography of Alan Turing. Sure there are moments when the technical descriptions about mathematics become difficult to comprehend, yet it is a readable account. The author bio in the book says “Andrew Hodges is Tutor in Mathematics at Wadham College, Oxford University. His classic text of 1983 since translated into several languages, created a new kind of biography, with mathematics, science, computing, war history, philosophy and gay liberation woven into a single personal narrative. Since 1983 his main work has been in the mathematics of fundamental physics, as a colleague of Roger Penrose. But he has continued to involve himself with Alan Turing’s story, through dramatisation, television documentaries and scholarly articles. Since 1995 he has maintained a website at www.turing.org.uk to enhance and support his original work.”

It takes a while to read this nearly 700 page biography, but it is time well spent. Certainly at a time when issues such as net neutrality are extremely important. In fact, yesterday the Federal Communications Commission ( FCC) in USA “voted on Thursday to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, a milestone in regulating high-speed Internet service into American homes. …The new rules, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, are intended to ensure that no content is blocked and that the Internet is not divided into pay-to-play fast lanes for Internet and media companies that can afford it and slow lanes for everyone else. Those prohibitions are hallmarks of the net neutrality concept.” This ruling will have repercussions worldwide.  (“F.C.C. Approves Net Neutrality Rules, Classifying Broadband Internet Service as a Utility”, 26 Feb 2015.  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/02/27/technology/net-neutrality-fcc-vote-internet-utility.html?_r=0 )

Alan Turing and his contribution to modern day technology continues to be relevant even 60+ years after his death.

Andrew Hodges Alan Turing: The Enigma Vintage Books, London, 1983, rev 1992, with rev preface, 2014. Pb. pp.750. £ 8.99

27 February 2015

Anita Anand, “Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary”

Sophia Duleep SinghAs far as her place in history is concerned, Sophia was perhaps her own worst enemy. She never sought glory and disliked speaking in public. Before her death, when asked to contribute to her entry in Who’s Who, Sophia Duleep Singh’s was one of the briefest in the book. Under ‘interests’ she wrote just one line: ‘The Advancement of Women’.  (p.378)

Sophia Duleep Singh was the granddaughter of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, SherePunjab, The Lion of the Punjab.  He was the king who was crowned Maharajah or supreme king, of the new Sikh Empire. It was his empire that Queen Victoria wanted …and got, along with the Kohinoor diamond.  His son, Duleep Singh, was an infant when his father died. His mother was appointed regent but by the time he was fourteen he had moved to the court of Queen Victoria in London. For the rest of his life, except for a couple of visits to India, he remained abroad. Sophia Duleep Singh was born in 1876 to a family that was very well off, except their fortunes declined quite rapidly thereafter. Duleep Singh was frittered away their fortunes, their possessions were auctioned and he abandoned his family for his mistress and moved to Paris. Despite all this, Sophia was well provided for. Her godmother was Queen Victoria.

The few years she spent as being extremely popular on the social circuit, ordering her dresses in the latest fashion from Paris and breeding dogs, especially Pomeranians in the grace and favour apartment Sophia had been given at Hampton Court by her godmother. Then she made her first trip to India. It was a turning point for her. Upon her return she set up the Lascar’s Club where more than 5,000 lascars availed of the facilities. But it was with the Women’s Society for Social and Political Union, a suffragist group, that she became the fierce feminist she was. She refused to pay taxes, marched to Parliament and did not take part in the census, all the time demanding equal rights and vote for women. She part of many violent incidents involving the police and the suffragettes but remained unafraid. Later she moved to the countryside, taking in war evacuees during World War II and died there in 1948.

Anita Anand is a seasoned journalist who has a big advantage in writing this biography — collecting and verifying facts for a story. She has spent a long time researching, speaking to people, including those who knew Sophia, and reading documents in the British Library. To piece together a woman’s life is never easy since there is always a paucity of information. Yet Sophia Duleep Singh  left a paper trail but till now little had been really said or documented about her life or even her involvement in the suffragette movement unlike Emily Pankhurst. Hence Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary is a remarkable achievement of using reliable existing information, verifying it and then putting it together into a coherent narrative. There are moments when the book could have been edited a bit more since Sophia does not really mark her presence in the book till p.168. ( Here is a reviewer who could not read beyond p.175: http://www.dailyo.in/art-and-culture/sophia-dileep-singh-how-to-torture-the-reader/story/1/1319.html ) Till then it is fascinating in its account of Sikh history but a little cumbersome when it comes to retelling of details about their life in the English countryside and of the young princes and princesses, then the narrative takes off once more. It is as if the author is a little concerned about yoking together all that she has unearthed in her research rather than leave anything out. There were moments when I was dipping into A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria ( 2014) to understand facts of this Indian princess’s biography, especially for the period set in the nineteenth century. Having said that Anita Anand has put together a fine biography of a women little understood till now.

Anita Anand Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary Bloomsbury, 2015. 

26 January 2015