biography Posts

Siddhartha Mukherjee, “The Laws of Medicine”

The-Laws-of-Medicine-216x300

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

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

A. N. Wilson, “Victoria: A Life”

image002“…she kept a gimlet eye on foreign affairs and on domestic politics throughout, even at her lowest moments of despair. But the diurnal tedium of her life, which drove courtiers to distraction, is in itself a very remarkable fact. Apart from being the Queen, she had done so very little. It is one of the things which make her such a completely fascinating figure for a biographer, since she compels us to concentrate upon her, rather than upon her deeds. The tempting thing, when trying to make sense of any human life, whether famous or obscure, is to concentrate upon outward activities. Queen Victoria does not allow us to do that, since, apart from being an expert in watercolours and a fairly avid reader of popular fiction, she did not really ‘do’ anything: certainly not in the second half of her life. What a poet of her times once called ‘those years and years of world without event’ made up her drama. So, as well as her life being that of her own times, as must be the case of a monarch in her position, her life was also that of the inner woman, of whom — from the letters and the journals — we have a vivid sense.” 

(p.553 )

A. N. Wilson’s Queen Victoria: A Life, is the first authorised biography of the Queen. This has been written with permission granted to A. N. Wilson by Queen Elizabeth II to access documents, journals, letters, etc related to Queen Victoria. It is a detailed account of Queen Victoria, with a fine balance achieved between giving a personal history combined with the socio-political events of the time. With a historian, novelist and a fine scholar of the Victorian period such as A.N. Wilson writing this account, it is fascinating. For instance when discussing Queen Victoria’s journals, he says: “She began her journals, when aged thirteen, in the momentous year of the Reform Bill becoming law; she makes no allusion to it, any more than Jane Austen, in her novels, alluded to the Napoleonic Wars.” ( p.63)

Queen Victoria straddles a period in history that was a watershed moment for science, technology, social reform, literature, and politics. Her grandfather’s reign was synonymous with the loss of the colonies in America, but by the time she died in 1901, the British Empire was said to be so vast that the sun never set on it and had been crowned Empress of India. When the queen was attending her first Drawing Room, Charles Darwin was on board The Beagle, headed towards the Galapagos Islands. For her coronation, 28 June 1838, “the crowds were huge. Railways had brought an unprecedented numbers into the capital.” (p.86) During her reign, her husband, Prince Albert organised the Great Exhibition in London ( 1851). –“the largest the world had ever seen, as demonstration of industrial design and expertise”. A fabulous description of the planning involved and range of exhibits at the fair– exhibits from India, snowshoes from Canada, gas fittings, brass bedsteads, buttons, needles and agricultural machinery from a new English countryside, photography, iron works, statues and ceramics, steam engines, globes and clocks, French silks, a model of the Niagara Falls and a mass of zinc from America weighing 16,400 pounds, four decorated rooms from Vienna and a fountain which spurted eau-de-cologne… . “By the time the cheaper rates had been fixed only 200,000 people had attended, but the multitudes soon came – some 6 million visitors before the Exhibiton closed.” And a profit of £200,000 had been made.   ( A friend on Facebook told me when I posted this information as a status, her great grandmother went  from India by ship to attend it!)

For the first time there is insight on the Prince Consort, Prince Albert and the influence he wielded in court, over Victoria, in politics, science, and as a patron of the Arts. “When he was dead, Victoria found herself making lists of all the things Albert had been good at — his construction of the beautiful new dairy at Windsor, the laying out of the superb kitchen gardens, the brilliance at the piano, the musical compositions, the building up of the royal art collection, the Great Exhibition of 1851, the creation of the Royal Horticultural Garden, the Kensington Museums, the foundation of Wellington College… And there was all his political involvement, both in Germany and in Britain. This was not to mention his productive work as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, his programmes of social housing in Kennington, his fascination with scientific discovery, and his wide reading in contemporary literature and in philosophy.” (p.218-9) Throughout the book there are details of Prince Albert’s meticulous planning, sharp political moves, his active participation in England and yet, for most of his life he was perceived as a foreigner, who had come from Germany just as the other two notable Germans now living in England — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Prince Albert’s sense that the social and economic injustices of the industrial towns of ‘England’ would lead to communism, meanwhile were shared by two young German exiles who arrived in England during the same year — Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Perhaps the three Germans — Albert, Marx and Engels — were in a better position to get a perspective on the British Isles than some of its longer-standing inhabitants. ( p.146) 

Queen Victoria has been the longest serving monarch in England ( 63 years and 7 months), mother of nine children and grandmother of forty-two and matriarch of Royal Europe, through the marriages of her children.When an authorised biography of a queen has been commissioned during the reign of another monarch, it is impossible not to compare the life written about with the present queen and her experiences. The fact that such a book has been published, allowing personal accounts of the royal family to be made public, making a realistic portrait as far as possible, including references to the scandal-prone Prince Eddy, Duke of Clarence and Avondale, the queen’s grandson. For instance, A. N. Wilson writes, “There was never any firm evidence that Eddy was bisexual, let alone homosexual, but he was the sort of man to whom scandalous stories stuck like burrs. ( In 1962, upon no evidence whatsoever, it was even claimed that he was Jack the Ripper.)” (p.488) Reporting such incidents of indiscretion amongst the members of the Royal family would have previously been unheard of, more so in a commissioned project such as this. Yet the inclusion of these episodes is also a reflection of the transformation the British monarchy has had to experience in the current reign of Queen Elizabeth II.  Dwelling upon Queen Victoria’s relationship with John Brown and her Munshi, would probably not have been permissible earlier. But now ample space, well-documented and researched, has been allotted to the significant presence these men had in the queen’s life.

Entrusting a historian with the task of writing a biography implies that there is attention paid to historical details. For instance in the references to the uprising of 1857, A. N. Wilson in his description brings together various lines of thought about how the incident is perceived — a mutiny or an uprising or “as the first rumblings of Indian nationalism, or merely localized expressions of outrage”. (p.213). As for Queen Victoria read the accounts with mounting disgust. There are plenty of examples of such historical accuracy throughout the book — Crimean War, Africa, Afghanistan, etc. Sure there are moments of hagiographical genuflections towards Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. While describing the portrait made of the couple by Brocky when they were twenty-two years old and had already started to have children, A. N. Wilson says “Brocky …immortalizes a couple who are mythological progenitors, like Abraham, the father of many nations”. (p.100) It presents the life of a queen as an twenty-first century reader would expect — a history, personal anecdotes contextualized by socio-historical events, with a strong focus on the queen as a woman too. It scorches rumours for instance of Queen Victoria’s paternity and how she came to be a carrier of Haemophilia. It introduces the Victorian Era to a modern reader, but at the same time forms an informed backdrop to an account of a formidable woman, who was much more than the dumpy woman, usually portrayed in her widow’s garb of a black dress and the white cap.

This is a biography worth reading. It raises the bar of how biographies should be written, with plenty of detail, without making it turgid to read.

Update ( 16 Oct 2014) 

The manuscript was read by a representative of the palace and commented upon. And the publishers had to have their permission to use all of the material which is subject to Royal Copyright.

 

A. N. Wilson Victoria: A Life Atlantic Books, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 580. Rs. 999 ( Distributed by Penguin Books India) 

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

Zia Haider Rahman, “In the Light of What We Know”

( My review of Zia Haider Rahman’s debut novel, In the Light of What we Know, has been published in the Hindu Literary Review on 6 July 2014. Here is the url: http://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/two-worlds-apart/article6180418.ece . I am also c&p the text below.)

in the light of what we know - zia haider rahmanBefore 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed – not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation. ( p.20)

Many people do know quite a lot about Bangladesh. They happen to be living in the region. I don’t think Indians and Pakistanis are quite ignorant about Bangladesh as the people you have in mind, and they make up a fifth of the world.

What about writing for a Western audience? I asked.

Bridging two cultures?

Why not?

How well will a book about modern India sell to a Western audience, a  non-fiction book about this shocking economic trend-bucking phenomenon, if it were written by an Indian?

You could write against that, with one foot in the East and the other in the West. ( p. 320-1)

In the Light of What We Know is about two male friends, an unnamed narrator and Zafar, who first met as students at Oxford. Zafar is of Bangladeshi origin and his family is not very well off; unlike the narrator is from an affluent Pakistani family whose parents are academics, equally comfortable with the intelligentsia, politicians and high Society of New York as they are in Cambridge. The two friends after graduation went on to become bankers, soon to go their separate ways and lose touch with each other. The book consists of a long, meandering conversation with the men exchanging notes about their past, their careers, their families and their experiences since they last met in New York, when they were colleagues with bright futures at a financial firm. This meeting takes place in London, September 2008. There are moments when the narrator supplements the information with extensive notes he has read in Zafar’s diaries. At times it seems to meander into digressions (also lengthy epigraphs and extensive footnotes) that are packed with discussions revolving around cartography and the quality of translations (“Both of them face the same problem, namely, that they cannot capture everything exactly and they have to give up some things in order to convey anything at all.”); about war, atrocities committed during conflicts, experiences of an insider ( irregular) dealings in trading derivatives with the bankers who were the brains of these operations becoming collateral damage,  discussions about philosophers such as Erich Fromm the Jewish German American philosopher, Western Classical music, science and mathematics such as Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem, a theorem of mathematical logic about the impossibility of proving certain truths.

There is a story, albeit a thin one. It is about the relationship between two friends, a Pakistani and a Bangladeshi, two nationalities, belonging to two different parts of society yet it is a sense of belonging to the Indian subcontinent that keeps them together. Otherwise they have very little in common. Urdu, spoken in Pakistan and by Zafar’s parents, is not the narrator’s “mother tongue” so they resort to using English. These young men are representative of their generation—a South Asian professional of the diaspora—a close attachment and understanding of their own history, but acquire the sophistication required to move with grace in different societies. Along the way these young men become intellectual jukeboxes with sufficient bytes of information and cultural titbits to be accepted in various pockets of the world. It is like being a participant of a cultural tsunami. They encounter people of other nationalities who are like them too—Arab Muslims, Wahabi, Sunni, Israeli and Russian, Pakistani Christians, Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Coptic Christians, Englishmen who were in the Burma War—who in all likelihood have an equally complicated mixed bag of religious, cultural and nationalistic considerations to think about.

Read In the Light of What We Know as a middle class reader of twenty-first century experimental literature. Have no expectations of it being a novel of the classical form—a structured, chronologically told, multi-layered story. It is not. It is probably a biography, but even the narrator is not quite sure what to term it—“current enterprise” or “present undertaking”. The Internet is creating a new kind of fiction where sections of a novel that would work very well as an independent digital long read are being embedded in the architecture of the printed story. Zia Haider Rahman’s first fiction is a sound example of South Asian literature becoming a global novel, not necessarily an immigrant novel. It is at the cusp of the Anglophone novel infused with the confidence and characteristic of South Asian literary fiction. It is unapologetic about its style and is best read like a stream of consciousness set in an absurd drama. The novel could have been reduced by at least 100 pages without any harm done, yet it is a forceful debut—definitely one of the new and promising writers of 2014.

6 July 2014 

Zia Haider Rahman In the Light of What We Know Picador India, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. Pp. 560 Rs. 599 

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Damon Galgut, “Arctic Summer”

Arctic Summer, AlephThe closer he came to those caves, the more he began to falter. He knew that something took place in the dark, a sexual attack across racial lines. The caves held that kind of power. But it wasn’t simply a question of the action; it was what the action arose from — what it meant. The problem was fundamental. No matter how he tried it, the words sat on top of the deed; they had no soil and no roots. There was something wrong with how he had imagined it, something essentially dishonest and out of balance, and as his narrative crept toward the threshold, the rock refused to open for him. ( p.142)

E. M. Forster is known for his novels Howards End and A Passage to India. He also left an unfinished novel Arctic Summer. He began writing it in 1909 but it was never published. More than a century later, South African writer, Damon Galgut has written a fictional biography of E. M. Forster. He says, “I have used actual dialogue recorded by Forster ( and others) in letters or diaries, I have sometimes altered the words a little, on the assumption that nobody recalls conversations, even their own, with complete certainty.”

Arctic Summer begins with a journey that Forster makes to India in October 1912. He was following a young Indian whom he had met in England — Syed Ross Masood, associated with the Aligarh Muslim University. The book is a well-researched account of E. M. Forster’s life, his search for love, living under the shadow of his mother even though he was beginning to be recognised as a successful author. Yet the novel is written so gently and with a great deal of sensitivity, it is also difficult to distinguish between the real and imagined worlds, a credit to Damon Galgut’s fine craftsmanship.

A bio-fic is one of the best ways to know a historical period, apart from getting to know the protagonist/figure intimately. It is probably one of the most demanding genres to be dabbling in. The author has to do extensive research to get the facts right, then creatively build a story, suitable for contemporary readers, bordering on historical fiction but focused upon one person ( in this case Forster) to carry the story forward. Prior to Arctic Summer the seminal biography of Forster was written by P. N. Furbank ( whom Damon Galgut met as well). Arctic Summer though accurate about many details of Forster’s life tends to make details public about his homosexual relationships than probably Forster would not want to acknowledge so openly; though many of his close friends knew of these liaisons.  Maybe Damon Galgut has the good fortune of being able to write Arctic Summer at a point of time when conversations about same-sex relationships are recognised and being discussed regularly in society, albeit some people continue to view such alliances with hostility, anger and outrage. So to take a respected author such as Forster, to discuss his sexual life as being an inextricable part of his career ( since for love he travelled to India the first time), Damon Galgut has taken on a bold aspect of Forster’s life — homosexuality— and created a fantastic story. It is also appropriate to publish Arctic Summer in 2014 when there is  a flood of literature on World War I; this will be top of that heap, probably even on the list of some literary awards. 

Damon Galgut Arctic Summer Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, 2014. Hb. pp. 360 Rs. 595

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

Hanif Kureishi, “The Last Word”

The Last Word, Hanif Kureishi “Talent is gold dust. You can pan among a million people and come up with barely a scrap of it. Commitment to the Word stands against our contemporary fundamentalist belief in the market.”

The Last Word is the latest novel by Hanif Kureishi.  It is about an ageing and a once-upon-a-time-famous novelist, Mammon and his young biographer, Harry. Mammon is living the life of a recluse in the countryside with his second wife,Liana. He is crabbity, cantankerous and unable to rake in money as he did earlier.  According to Liana, he is an old-fashioned novelist who writes his own novels! Mammon is alarmed at the rapidity with which his resources are dwindling while his wife ploughs through it for various expenses. Harry too has his fair share of challenges but he aspires to be a great novelist. So when commissioned by the maverick and brilliant publisher, Rob to ghostwrite a biography (“official portraitist”) of Mammon, Harry grabs the opportunity to do so–he has idolised Mammon from afar, apart from needing money himself to survive. The Last Word is about the relationship and the trajectory of a fading author’s career and a bit about how a flagging career can be turned around with astute marketing.

This novel seems to be based upon on Hanif Kuerishi’s years of experience as a writer, a creative fiction professor, an award winning and acclaimed novelist, and just an ordinary human being who is trying to get on with life. At times there is a strong feeling that this novel is an well-crafted excuse to deliver his maxims about what constitutes fiction. It is at times sparkling with its insights about contemporary literature and the desire to write in so many. He bursts many many bubbles and dreams of aspiring author. He shows the feet of clay that literary figures are supposed to have. He is quite dismissive of novelists as being tricksters, deceivers, conmen…mostly a seducer. He is scathing about the “gossipocracy of agents, publishers and writers, to stock up with as many stories of infidelity, plagiarism, literary feuding and deceit, cross-dressing, backstabbing, homosexuality, and in particular, lesbianism, as he could.” Mammon even invokes Boswell, the first literary biographer. Sprinkled throughout the novel are nuggets of wisdom ( such as the passage quoted above) that Hanif Kureishi has probably gleaned from his lectures and notes on creative writing. It is as if Hanif Kureishi has on more than one occasion uttered these words to his students. It rings true. I would not be surprised if he is invited to deliver the equivalent of the Norton Lectures at Harvard or the lectures on poetics at the Franklin University. Those are really well written, thought provoking and fabulous lectures that novelists of note are invited to deliver for a semester.

While reading this novel, it was difficult to not recall Andrew O’Hagan’s wonderful longread , “Ghosting” in London Review of Books ( LRB Vol. 36 No. 5 · 6 March 2014; pages 5-26 | 26468 words. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v36 /n05/andrew-ohagan/ghosting) It is about his attempts at ghostwriting a biography of Julian Assange, WikiLeaks founder. It was commissioned by Jamie Byng of Canongate. Unfortunately the commissioned biography was never published since Assange did not allow it to be. A response to this was published by the Guardian in early March written by Colin Robinson, “In Defence of Julian Assange”. ( the Guardian,Thursday 6 March 2014 15.24 GMT. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/06/julian-assange-publisher-defence-wikileaks )

It is probably pure coincidence that The Last Word and these long reads about the ill-fated Assange biography were published at about the same time. It makes for a surreal experience to read a novel and reportage echoing each other. A fine dividing line ( if it exists!) between reality and fiction. Hanif Kureishi’s novel The Last Word is recommended reading, especially for aspiring writers.

Hanif Kureishi The Last Word Faber and Faber, London, 2014. Hb. pp. 286. £18.99

3 May 2014 <

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

Abdourahman A. Waberi, “Passage of Tears”

waberi passage of tears

So I read Passage of Tears. My introduction to Abdourahman A. Waberi. What a writer! I am not sure if he worked on the English translation, but after a long time I felt as if I was reading a novel, not a translated piece of literature. It was originally written in French and has been translated brilliantly by David Ball and Nicole Ball. It is a novel set in Djibouti, told by Djibril. He opts to live in Montreal, from the age of 18, but returns to the country of his birth, to prepare a report for an American economic intelligence firm. The story unfolds from there in two dimensions…one of the events happening to Djibril and the second, the life of Walter Benjamin that gets written instead of the testimony he has been asked to note down.

Waberi lulls you into expecting a straightforward novel. The beginning is classical, in it being an ordinary narrative, plotting, placing the framework etc. And then he slowly begins to spin a web around you of different narratives and experiences. And yet are they really? Before you know it, you are sucked into a frightening world where money reigns supreme, in the name of God (call Him by any name you will), relationships are ephemeral. Literature remains a constant. You discover it, you use it, you create it, but words depending on how you view them, they can be inspirational, they can convey stories and histories or they can be viewed as “agents of contamination”.

Waberi’s relationship with Walter Benjamin is extraordinary. How on earth does he vacillate in the narrative from a discovery, to a personal relationship, to being in awe and then coming closer to Walter Benjamin resulting in a conversation bordering on the confessional to that of a disciple with his God/mentor to writing a biography of the man? When Waberi realises some of the similarities in their lives, there is a perceptible calmness that infuses his jottings about “Ben”.

Fiction where the creative license blossoms from reality or a sharp understanding of it, retains a power that cannot be matched with any other. Waberi is such a brilliant writer. Sparing with his words but packs quite a punch. It is not surprising to discover that he was twice a jury member of the Ulysses award for reportage. Now he is due to publish a new novel early in 2014. A book worth buying.

Abdourahman A. Waberi, Passage of Tears Seagull Books 2011, Hb. pg. 200
English translation by David Ball and Nicole Ball.
Jacket design by Sunandini Banerjee

The Convert, Deborah Baker

The Convert, Deborah Baker

http://www.thehindu.com/arts/books/article2420670.ece (first published in the Hindu Literary Review, 3 Sept 2011)

The Convert is about Maryam Jameelah who converted from Judaism to Islam and became a hard-line defender of Islamic values and culture.
The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism is about Maryam Jameelah, the well-known conservative and hard-line defender of Islamic values and culture, currently living in Lahore. She has been publishing books, articles, and pamphlets since the 1960s. Some of the recurring issues are “condemning Western efforts to influence the Muslim world or criticising the ill-begotten efforts of the modernising reformers of Islam” (p.84). The Convert is predominantly about the conversion of Margaret Marcus, as she was born, from Judaism to the Jamaat-e-Islami brand of Islamic ideology.

Margaret or “Peggy” Marcus was born in 1934, but did not begin to speak till she was four years old. By this time, her anxious parents, Myra and Herbert, had taken her to various psychiatrists. When she finally began to speak, it was in complete sentences. Very much like the apocryphal, but well-known story about Macaulay, whose first words were, “Madam, the agony is abated.” Her mother described Margaret as hyper-sensitive and of a nervous disposition, but “she was considered an exceptionally gifted young girl. Her paintings were always praised in school and she had a beautiful singing voice” (p.109). At the summer school, where she was happy learning how to dance, she was severely condemned by the director and requested not to return as she had no flair for the art. Likewise with her painting — upon being informed by Mawdudi that painting was not looked upon kindly in Islam, she gave up painting till the late 1990s. Later, she was unable to complete her course at the University of Rochester as she had a nervous breakdown. By the time she began her correspondence with Maulana Abdul Ala Mawdudi, founder of the Jamaat-e-Islami, she had been diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia and had had a “fifteen-month long stay at the New York Psychiatric Institute and later the Hudson River State Hospital” (p.125). The other correspondents included “mature Arab Muslim leaders deemed reactionary fanatics by the New York Times”, such as Sayyid Qutb of the Society of Muslim Brotherhood and Shaykh Muhammad Bashir Ibrahim, leader of the insurgency against France and a member of the Islamic clergy (p.140).

Exploring Islam

It was after these stints in mental asylums that she began to explore Islam seriously. In fact, “Mr Parr, the librarian in the Oriental Division of the New York Public Library brought her attention to Muslim Digest where she would publish her first essays on Islam. “After reading Islam at the Crossroads by Muhammad Assad, the Jewish convert whose book The Road to Mecca had made such a deep impression on her, Margaret began to articulate the kernel of her argument against modern America” (p.136). But it was Sheikh Daoud Ahmad Faisal, a pure Moroccan Arab and his West Indian wife, Khadija Faisal, who ran the Islamic Propagation Centre of America, housed in a run-down storefront in Brooklyn Heights “who finally convinced Margaret Marcus to submit to God, to obey His commands as set forth in the Holy Quran, and to sacrifice her life in this world for the life in the hereafter” (p.138). It was “Peggy’s paralysing childhood fear of death had forced her to ponder the most profound questions of existence for hours on end. When she grew older she compared the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam for their teachings on the hereafter. Of all these faiths, only Islam provided her the clear assurance that her efforts to live a pious life would be justly rewarded” (p.137-8).

Most of her arguments and tension with her parents were over the formation of Israel, their religious prejudice against the Arabs, the Palestinians and their support for Zionist activities and institutions, though her parents were also to convert later, but to the Unitarian Church. In fact, she began a novel, Ahmad Khalil: The Story of a Palestinian Refugee and His Family, and illustrated it with sketches at the age of 12 but it remains unpublished. Margaret Marcus began to write on Islam and by the time she reached Lahore, “her work began to appear in translation in the Arab daily An Nadwah, out of Mecca; in the Daily Kohistan, a Karachi monthly; in a newspaper out of Kerala…in a few Urdu publications out of Lahore. A collection of essays was released in Istanbul”(p.84).

Margaret Marcus was so taken in with the religion that she converted. Then, at the behest of Maulana Abdul Ala Mawdudi she travelled to Lahore to become a part of his family. Soon the relationship turned sour and she was packed off to Pattoki. But from there too, she was soon transferred to the Pagal Khanna in Lahore. She stayed there till August 1963, when she was released into the custody of Mohammad Yusuf Khan, a Pathan whose family were powerful feudal lords in Jullunder, but post-1947 had fled to Pakistan as refugees. He was “connected with the Jamaat-e-Islami as he was responsible for the publication of the Mawlana’s works and for selling skins of sacrificial goats donated to the party during Ramadan. While the party was banned, Khan oversaw the publication of the Weekly Shahab” (p.157). Later in the month, he married Maryam Jameelah, who became his second wife. They had five children, but it was Yusuf Khan’s first wife who brought up Maryam Jameelah’s children, along with her own brood of ten.

Deborah Baker has based her book on “…the Maryam Jameelah collection on deposit at the Manuscripts and Archives Division at the New York Public Library” and interviews, including with Maryam Jameelah in late 2007. She focuses on the 24 letters written from the 1950s to 1963 and these dominate The Convert. Then the 30 years of Maryam Jameelah’s life documenting her marriage, motherhood and political upheavals are reduced to a few pages. Baker claims that this book is “fundamentally a work of nonfiction”, though she refers to it as ‘a tale’. She says that “unless her words are accompanied by quotation marks and a specific citation, the actual and imaginary letters of Maryam Jameelah do not appear here as she wrote them. … I have also moved an anecdote or thought from one letter to another, or taken an anecdote or thought from an essay and put it into a letter. …I do not make anything up. Some readers might find this simply unorthodox, others may well feel misled. …” Nor did “Maryam …ask to read the manuscript before publication. She trusted, as the reader will have to trust…” (p.225-6). In some instances it is as if writing this book was also for Deborah to understand her own Catholic upbringing, the conversion of her father to Catholicism for love, the family arguments over religion and the answers her siblings found.

Fiction or biography?

If Baker was interested in writing a bio-novel of the kind that David Lodge and Peter Ackroyd have written, then she should have been honest and done so. In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to have a fictional license and insert or embellish parts of the narrative. As David Lodge wrote recently in The Guardian, “…as long as they are compatible with the factual record, and the book is presented and read as a novel, not as history, no harm is done, and something may be gained. Bio-fiction does not pretend to replace biography, but complements it, offering a different kind of interpretation of real lives.” It may have been best if the empirical data had been presented as is, with a good analysis of the subject, rather than intruding into the narrating like a “nosy …biographer” (p.130). Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, co-editor and translator of Atiya’s Journeys: A Muslim Woman from Colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain, says that working on a woman’s memoir is a “fine line between editing a memoir and completely reconstructing her life story —especially around one significant event”.

The Convert: A Tale of Exile and Extremism, Deborah Baker, Viking, 2011, p. 256, Rs. 450.