Saturday, 31 October 2009

Book Review: Paul Theroux's A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta


Paul Theroux is known primarily as a travel writer, though he has published many works of fiction. His latest book, ‘A Dead Hand: A Crime in Calcutta’, is set in, well, Calcutta (Theroux does not even bother to explain why he prefers Calcutta to Kolkata) and though not a travelogue, benefits immensely from Theroux’s travel writing traits. Did Theroux make a trip to Kolkata just to get background material for this book or is it based on memories from an earlier one? I don’t know, but if it is the latter case, then Theroux has a fantastic memory.

The best thing about A Dead Hand is that one gets to see, hear, smell and touch Calcutta through Theroux. It is not always a pretty picture, but it is not particularly negative either. In any event, it is an honest, brutally honest, picture. Theroux makes his share of mistakes (a nanny is referred to by the South Indian ‘Amah’ rather than ‘Ayah’), and some of his ‘stories’, such as the one about a posh nanny who flaunts i-pods, drugs her young charge and makes money begging with the child at a traffic intersection when she is supposed to be walking the child in the park, don’t ring true to an Indian ear. I doubt if any Indian beggar, even one with a drugged child drooling at the lips, would make enough money from begging to buy an i-pod and drugs. Despite such minor hitches, Theroux’s Calcutta tales are splendidly narrated and mostly sound authentic. His reproduction of Indian English as spoken in Calcutta makes it sound lyrical and sweet and Theroux almost gets it right (I think). I mean, I am sure that there are at least a few Indians in Calcutta who speak the way Theroux has imagined them to speak.

The story is narrated by an American writer, Jerry Delfont, who is in Kolkata to give lectures arranged by the American consulate. Having finished his lectures, Delfont has writer’s block and is trying to kill time. He is easily persuaded by pretty, rich, charming, middle-aged and tantric American Merrill Unger to stay on in Calcutta and investigate a dead body which turned up in a cheap hotel where Merrill’s son’s friend Rajat was staying. Merrill is a colourful and exciting personality and the detection of the murderer is as much about understanding Merrill as it is about solving the crime. Theroux shows his readers the various faces of Merrill, each as fascinating as the next. He tells us about Merrill’s past in bits and pieces that provide various contrasting facets, which add up to create a complex, but still incomplete picture.

Finally, just to make sure his readers don’t assume Jerry Delfont is Theroux himself, Paul Theroux makes a cameo appearance and chats briefly with Delfont!

Who is responsible for the murder? Since Theroux devotes so much time and space on Merrill, one is forced to wonder if Merrill is responsible, though she had called on Theroux to investigate the crime. Or is it Rajat, Merrill’s son’s friend in whose hotel room the body initially turned up? Or is it Merrill’s son Chalmers? Theroux keeps his readers guessing till the end. Do read this wonderful book to find out if you want to know who did it.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Afghanistan: What Next?

The Americans bombed Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in retaliation for having sheltered those responsible for the 9/11 bombing of the World Trade Centre. Since Afghanistan was already in the stone-age, having endured the Soviet occupation and a long stretch of in-fighting among various groups of Mujahideen after the Soviet departure, there wasn’t much to bomb, but that didn’t stop the Americans from dropping ordinance. Having paid the Al Qaeda and their hosts, the Taliban, back with the same coin, the Americans landed their aeroplanes on Afghan soil and set up bases with avowed intention of planting democracy in that part of the world. And that was the beginning of the current set of troubles.

When Obama campaigned for Presidency he sort of implied that Afghanistan was a just fight, though Iraq wasn’t. The upshot of that assertion has been an increase in the number of US boots on the ground in Afghanistan and a concerted effort to extricate from Iraq. Obama has also tried to get US coalition partners to commit more troops, but with the exception of the UK, no other country has been willing to do so.

It was not Obama who sent US troops to Afghanistan. If 9/11 had taken place when Obama was in power, the US reaction would very likely have been different. May be the US would only have bombed Afghanistan and would not have tried to occupy it. George Bush most probably had colonial ambitions and wanted to discharge the ‘white man’s burden’ in Afghanistan. What Obama has inherited is an hornets’ nest and though the US would really like to exit Afghanistan if possible, and as soon as possible, without destabilising the whole region, it is unable to do so. However, if the US were to depart just like that, the Taliban will take over the whole of Afghanistan in no time. The civil war in Pakistan will intensify and Pakistani Taliban will be at a huge advantage. This means the US must stay on until they can leave without destabilising that region. For this reason, Obama talks about democracy taking root in Afghanistan. For the US, a democratic Afghanistan is one where the Taliban don’t have much support, where there is popular demand for an elected government, an Afghanistan which will not destabilise the rest of the region, especially Pakistan, after the US’s departure, an Afghanistan that will be an American ally or at least, not be an Islamic fundamentalist state.

Afghans have shown no great appetite for democracy. In a terrain bereft of democratic shoots or even roots, where most Pashtuns are either sympathetic to the Taliban or are the Taliban, the best foot the Americans have been able to put forward has been in the form of Hamid Karzai, a man who isn’t exactly a paragon of virtue.

As US and other coalition casualties mount in Afghanistan, Obama will be under increasing pressure to pack up and leave. My opinion of Obama has always been that he is a man of principles who also likes to avoid causing offence. A man who likes to please as many people as possible. If things don’t change in Afghanistan (and the Taliban show no indication of wanting to change), Obama might want to consider various options. And what could those options be?

1. It’s well known that Iran supplies funding and technology for Iraqi insurgents, especially Shiite insurgents. What is less well-known is that Iran also supplies weaponry to the Taliban, though they are predominantly Sunni and there is no love lost for Shiite Iran. The US could strike a deal with Iran whereby Iran is allowed to fulfil some of its nuclear dreams (without actually producing or acquiring nuclear weapons) and in return, Iran totally stops the flow of money and technology to Afghanistan. Iran might be allowed to conduct a nuclear test or two and Ahmadinejad will be allowed to strut and strike a pose in front of his people. Such a deal with make Israel very unhappy and there will always be the fear that if Iran is given a nuclear inch, it’ll take a nuclear mile. If this strategy is to work, Israel must not be allowed to attack any of Iran’s nuclear sites. Without Iranian support, the Taliban will suffer to some extent. However, as long as the border with Pakistan is not sealed, and it cannot be sealed, the Taliban will be able to breathe.

2. Supplement US troops with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia which are officially American allies, but are not hated by Afghans. I’m not sure how keen the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be to shed blood in Afghanistan. More importantly, by joining the Americans, they are likely to be tainted in the eyes of the Afghans. Of course, additional manpower will not do any harm to the coalition struggling to hold Afghan territory, but it will be very difficult and even expensive to persuade Indonesians and Bangladeshis to send troops to Afghanistan. If this can be achieved, the US might be able to get the necessary breathing space to carry out necessary reconstruction and build up the Afghan national army.

3. US troops can be replaced with soldiers from Islamic states like Bangladesh and Indonesia. If they replace the Americans rather than supplement them, the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will not look too bad in Afghan eyes. Also, people in Indonesia and Bangladesh might not resist the idea of sending troops to Afghanistan as much as they would if their soldiers are seen to be helping American troops. However, I am not sure how good a job the Indonesians and Bangladeshis will be able to do on their own. Without drones and hi-tech bomber planes answering calls for help within minutes, it’s unlikely that the Taliban can be kept at bay. In fact, if the Americans are replaced by Indonesians and Bangladeshis, there’s a very good change that the Taliban will be in control of Afghanistan very soon after the US departure. Of course, the US could give those weapons to the Indonesians and Bangladeshis and train them to use those weapons, but I doubt if the US would want to do that.

4. Persuade India to send troops to Afghanistan to help American troops. Indian soldiers will be hated as much as the Americans and may suffer as many casualties. In order to persuade India to put its soldiers in harms’ way, the US might ‘persuade’ Pakistan to accept the Line of Control in Kashmir as the international border and give up all claims on Indian administered Kashmir. US drones flying over Af-Pak might direct some of their fire over training camps for Kashmiri militants. Indian politicians might be able to sell such this solution to India’s population. However, this solution would be very unpopular in Pakistan. Any such settlement over Kashmir would be temporary and will last only as long as the Americans stay in the neighbourhood. China will not be happy with this, since a secure northern frontier will tilt the balance of power in favour of India.

However, in my opinion, if implemented, this plan has as much chance of success as supplementing US troops with Indonesians and Bangladeshis. By sheer numbers, Indian troops supported by US technology and troops will be able to keep the Taliban at bay. Let’s assume, this is maintained for a period of five years, until the next Afghan elections, by which time, a reasonably strong Afghan national army can emerge and reconstruction and redevelopment can be carried out. If the Afghans manage to elect a strong government in Kabul that is relatively progressive, stable and strong, Afghanistan might revert to the sort of peace it had when it was ruled by King Zahir Shah from 1933 to 1973. Though this option has a good chance of success, I just don’t see Obama even considering the possibility of seeking Indian troops for Afghanistan and siding with India on Kashmir.

5. The Americans and their allies could just pack up and leave, after declaring that their objective of brining democracy to Afghanistan has been achieved. After the last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan on February 15, 1989, the Soviet protégé Najibullah managed to hold on to power for a surprising four years. The only reason why he was finally finished off was because of the enormous amount of Pakistani support for the Mujahideen. If the Americans were to just leave, just like the Soviets did, it is anybody’s guess as to how long Hamid Karzai will be able to hang on to power. The Taliban are bound to expand the territory they control – but will they be able to obtain sway over the whole of Afghanistan? In my opinion, they will, over a period of time. This process will be quicker if they can convince the Pakistanis to help them. To get Pakistani help, the Taliban must be willing to renounce any plan to capture power in Pakistan.

The ISI is mostly probably cursing itself for having allowed the Taliban to shelter the Al Qaeda. If Mullah Omar hadn’t permitted Bin Laden and his fellow nutcases to use Afghanistan as a base, no one would have given two hoots about Afghanistan. Pakistan would still have its ‘strategic depth’ in the west and Kashmir would be boiling. If the Americans were to pack up and leave, the ISI would want to just turn the clock back. Afghanistan would be run by the fundamentalist Taliban, while Pakistan would be modern and free from fundamentalists. This would be a dream ending for Pakistan, especially the ISI. However, would the Pakistani Taliban who currently control large swathes of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province be willing to give up their plans and either lead a quiet life or migrate to Afghanistan? Having tasted power, I doubt if Pakistani Taliban can ever be persuaded to give up their plans to capture power in Pakistan itself. They might pretend to do so for a temporary period till they capture the whole of Afghanistan, but sooner or later, civil war will return to Pakistan.

China will be very unhappy and uncomfortable if the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan. As long as the ISI had control over the Taliban, very little external support was available to Uighurs in China’s restive xinjiang province even though many Uighurs have fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan. Recently the Al Qaeda openly called for a holy war against China. However the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are two different entities. The Taliban are much more realistic than the Al Qaeda. Will Pakistan be able to convince the Taliban to not support the Uighurs in China after the Americans vacate Afghanistan? They might be able to. It all depends on how quickly memories of the current rift fade and how quickly the clock is put back.

We currently live in a very interesting period in time. Let’s see how events in Afghanistan unfold.


If the Americans leave, can the ISI and the Taliban turn the clock back?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Are Reservations Justified?

Prominent blogger Amit Varma recently published a brief and succinct post on why he thinks reservations based on caste are unfair, According to Varma, reservations perpetuate caste rather than do away with it.

When I was a student, I used to feel exactly the same as Varma does even now. However, after I started working in the late nineties, I began to have second thoughts and asked myself: Why should people who come from very disadvantaged backgrounds be treated on par with those born with a silver spoon? My antagonism towards reservations totally melted away after I came to the UK. Compared to the UK and other European countries, India is a very unfair society with a rich-poor divide that can’t be justified by any stretch of imagination. Middle class Indians seem to able to tolerate a degree of poverty around them that would be unacceptable to most Europeans. Most Indians living below the poverty line come from the lower castes and it cannot be denied that there is an undeniable link between poverty, social backwardness and caste. In other words, caste is the best or the most efficient yardstick for measuring social and economic backwardness. Granted there are Indians from the lower castes who are no longer poor or even socially backward, and there are some backward castes which are no longer backward, but on an all-India level, such people and castes are very few in number.

Social backwardness is something that is very different from financial poverty. To give an example, a businessman who goes bankrupt may be poor. He may have to live on handouts from relatives or send his kids to a government run school. However, he is not socially backward. He will be able to talk to people on equal terms anywhere in India, especially in his home territory. He will know how to work the system and will, with some luck, bounce back in life. His children will have their education paid for by family members. Even if they struggle through college, they will have necessary soft skills to do well later on in life.

Now take the case of a dalit from a village where untouchability is still practised, who manages to go to college on the strength of reservations. Even after he goes to college, he is still a dalit. He stands out from the college crowd on account of his shabby clothes and lack of confidence. After he gets a good job (once again thanks to reservations), he is still a dalit, though he will have started to acquire some social graces by then. However, when sends his kids to the best school in town, they will not be treated as dalits. Let’s assume the kids are smart, but not smart enough to get admission to a good engineering or medical college on merit. However, they are very likely get admission to the college of their choice, since they have reservations. By the time those kids pass out, they have as much social standing as any of their classmates.

Most jobs require soft skills that are not taught in schools or colleges and are available only to those from the upper crust of society. In fact I know of many sensible organisations that keep away from applicants with a sterling academic performance but without any extracurricular ribbons. In other words, a socially backward individual is very unlikely to bag a job that requires soft skills. We all know that such jobs are the highest paying ones in the market.

To be fair, the main reason why so many upper class Indians hate reservations not because they are nasty people, but because of India’s extremely high population. There are too many Indians who want to join the IITs, IIMs or top medical colleges like AIIMS and too few seats available at such institutions. Gaining admission to such an institution virtually guarantees a comfortable living for the rest of one’s life. Mind you, once admission is secured, one does not have to be a rocket scientist to clear the course, though it must be admitted that in general those admitted on merit pass out with better grades when compared to those who got admission through reservations.

There are some like Mr. Narayana Murthy who say that reservations should be based solely on economic criteria. I do not agree with this stand. For one, it ignores social backwardness which is, in my opinion, a bigger handicap than economic weakness. Secondly if reservations are made available to all those below the poverty line, you can be sure that a brisk trade will develop in fake income certificates. In a country where very few of those liable to pay income tax do so, policing a system of reservations based solely on income will just not work. Even if it can be made to work, I feel that reservations ought to target social as much as economic backwardness.

I will not dispute that caste is not a perfect yardstick and the presence of a creamy lawyer prevents reservations from benefiting those who most deserve it the most. A few months ago, I was having a chat with a friend and the discussion moved to reservations and caste. ‘Oh when do you think will we be able to do away with reservations altogether?’ my friend wondered aloud. ‘Just as how they stopped giving free milk in schools here.’ There was a time when British school children were given free milk in schools. Then one day in the 1970s, Margaret Thatcher decided to stop giving it away free to older children and to be honest there were lots of complaints. Milk is available cheaply in the UK, as in the rest of the developed world, and even the poorest of the poor can afford it. Despite all that, many Britons cribbed. One can only imagine the hue and cry that will arise if the Indian government were to announce an end to reservations. More importantly, the government that ends reservations is bound to get trashed in the next general election.

In my opinion, purely caste-based reservations do perpetuate caste divisions in the short term. However, they also uplift untouchable and backward castes, to a large extent, though it is at the expense of the upper castes. If (social and economic) upliftment of the lower castes is the sole objective behind reservations, rather than doing away with caste altogether, then caste based reservations do work. Tamil Nadu is a perfect example of this phenomenon. Since many decades, Tamil Nadu has had up to 69% reservations for admissions to colleges and in state government jobs. There has been a great degree of social and economic mobility as a result of this. Sadly the Tamil Brahmin community has been largely driven away from the state as a result of this reservation policy (coupled with the vehement anti-Brahmin rhetoric of various Dravidian parties).

There are so many questions that need answers. Are reservations a form of compensation to the lower castes for many centuries of discrimination? If yes, is it fair to make the present generation of upper castes pay for what their ancestors did? Should India restrict reservation benefits to two generations so that college admissions and jobs go to the neediest and the most deserving among the lower castes?

Can it be said that if caste based reservations continue for some more time, caste divisions within society will disappear? In my opinion, it will take many, many decades of reservations before the lower castes achieve some degree of prosperity and parity with the upper castes. It is very likely that many upper castes will end up a few notches down on the social and financial ladder as a result. However, caste divisions can disappear only when such social equalisation is matched by a tremendous increase in the overall prosperity within society. Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and Japan managed to create societies with very little class distinctions (as compared to India) only because they achieved a great degree of prosperity. There was so much around for everyone that some of it trickled down to even the poorest individual.

India has got so many more people than all these countries I have just mentioned and so much fewer resources. Also, India has even now, more poverty and social backwardness than any of these countries ever had in the last hundred years. Which takes us back to a very basic question – if reservations are likely to only sharpen caste distinctions in the short run and if they can work in the long run only if there is an overall increase in prosperity, should India persist with reservations? What if India can achieve a critical mass of prosperity (that will make it possible to push every Indian out of poverty) faster than it will through reservations by moving to a purely merit based regime right away?

It is tempting to say (as Amit Varma does) that India should ditch reservations and pursue pure merit at once without waiting for reservations to uplift the downtrodden castes. However, I doubt if our politicians will want to take the risk of trying to persuade India’s long suffering populace of the efficacy of such a measure. I have a feeling that reservations will be a fact of life for Indians for at least a couple of generations to come.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The Booker Prize 2009 Goes to........

The Booker Prize for 2009 has just been announced. Wolf Hall written by Hilary Mantel and published by HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, is the winner. I had reviewed it a few days ago.

Here are links to my reviews of four of the other shortlisted books:
Summertime by J M Coetzee(Random House, Harvill Secker)
The Quickening Maze by (Random House, Jonathan Cape)
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer (Little, Brown)
The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters (Little, Brown, Virago)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Book Review: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel


Henry the VIII’s England was a cruel and nasty place. It was a land where death came very fast, where the summer plague carried off many victims every year, where one could be burned at the stake for one’s belief. Reading the Bible in English (rather than in Latin) was a capital offence. Important men like Sir Thomas More wore hair shirts to punish themselves for their sins and earn merit in the eyes of God. The Tudor era was also a time of social mobility, when a butcher’s son or a blacksmith’s boy could become a cardinal or a lawyer. It was a period when trade with continental Europe flourished and the wind of reform initiated by Martin Luther blew into England.

Thomas must have been the most popular name during the Tudor era. There was a Thomas Wolsey, a Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer and a Thomas Cromwell. Wolf Hall is primarily Thomas Cromwell’s story, though the other three Thomases and the swashbuckling Henry the VIII play vital roles.

Thomas Cromwell is the son of a Putney blacksmith who thinks nothing of hitting his son on the head with a big block of wood (we are not too sure of this since the blow comes from behind) and then repeatedly kicking him, putting the victim, young Thomas, at risk of suffocating on his own vomit. Cromwell moves on, an inch at a time and gets to his sister’s place and sanctuary. Mantel turns the pages very fast and shows us a Cromwell who has become a lawyer and is the chief advisor to Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is rapidly falling out of favour with Henry the VIII since it is unable to get him a papal divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon, who bore him a series of children all of whom, except a sickly girl May, die very young. Henry is besotted with the scheming and wily Anne Boleyn and is also obsessed with the idea of having a male heir. All the people surrounding Henry (with the exception of Thomas More) want him to get what he wants – namely a divorce, their own progress depends on Henry doing well. Henry has convinced himself that he is legally entitled to a divorce. After all, he had married his brother Arthur’s wife and the Bible (Leviticus) does frown on such a practice and a special papal dispensation had been necessary for his first marriage to take place.

Wolsey is unable to deliver the divorce mainly because the Pope is practically a prisoner of other political powers and England’s relationship with such powers is frosty. However, Wolsey is removed from his post and dies on his way to his execution. Cromwell, totally amoral and very liberal, soon becomes Henry’s Chief Minister and chief advisor and plays a key role in breaking up with Rome and setting up the Church of England.

Hilary Mantel tells the story of Thomas Cromwell from 1527 to 1535, stopping much before Cromwell’s or even Anne Boleyn’s execution, using language that sounds so authentic that you are immediately transported to the England of the 1500s. Tudor history is well known and Mantel assumes that you have paid attention to your history lessons while at school and makes no effort to keep the story simple – the cast list alone runs to five pages. Wolf Hall is post-history story telling at its best, though this 650 page tome makes very slow reading, forcing the reader to pause every once in a while to absorb before moving on.

Mantel takes pains to show Cromwell as the exact opposite of Thomas More, who has at times (especially in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons), been depicted as a saint. A very reputed scholar and a man considered very intelligent, More is shown to be straitjacketed, especially in matters of faith, whilst Cromwell is open to persuasion from all sides. Cromwell is all along shown as a man who looks after himself and his family, unlike Thomas More who is shown as being nasty to his own children. Thomas More replaces Cardinal Wolsey as the Lord Chancellor, though his opposition to the split with Rome and Henry VIII’s divorce costs him his head. Cromwell tries to persuade More to change his mind, but ultimately plays a role in the trial that orders his execution.

In Mantel’s hands, Cromwell who has at times been described as cunning and calculating, comes across as a warm and open hearted liberal who unashamedly looks after his own welfare. For example, Mantel describes Thomas Cromwell’s abilities thus:

His legal practice is thriving, and he is able to lend money at interest, and arrange bigger loans, on the international market, taking a broker’s fee. The market is volatile - the news from Italy is never too good two days together – but as some men have an eye for horseflesh or cattle to be fattened, he has an eye for risk. A number of noblemen are indebted to him, not just for arranging loans, but for making their estates pay better. It is not a matter of exactions from tenants, but, in the first place, giving the landowner an accurate survey of land values, crop yield, water supply, built assets, and then assessing the potential of all these, next putting in bright people as estate managers, and with them setting up an accounting system that makes yearly sense and can be audited. Among the city merchants, he is in demand for his advice on trading partners overseas. He has a sideline in arbitration commercial disputes mostly, as his ability to assess the facts of a case and give a swift impartial decision is trusted here, in Calais and in Antwerp. If you and your opponent can at least concur on the need to save costs and delays of a court hearing, then Cromwell is, for a fee, your man; and he has the pleasant privilege, often enough, of sending away both sides happy.”

Cromwell is a man who can hide his anger and get along with people who are nasty to him, such the Dukes of Norfolk or Suffolk, so that he can get what he wants. Thomas More describes Cromwell’s character thus: “lock Cromwell in a deep dungeon in the morning and when you come back that night he’ll be sitting on a plush cushion eating larks’ tongues, and all the gaolers will owe him money.” This description reminded me of Cark Gable/Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind playing cards with his jailers, though I don’t think rough and ready Cromwell was half as good looking as Clark Gable.

Cromwell gets along with Thomas Cranmer, the Boleyns’ family priest who has a few children on the side. No, Cromwell, does not pretend to like Cranmer who later ends up as the Archbishop of Canterbury, he actually likes him, especially the fact that he can’t control his desires despite being a priest.

The book is named after Wolf Hall, residence of Jane Seymour who was Henry’s third wife and succeeded Anne Boleyn. The reader is never taken to Wolf Hall, though it is referred to very often and ultimately, Thomas Cromwell is shown to be headed towards Wolf Hall.

Wolf Hall is one of the six books shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2009 and is the bookies’ favourite to win the Booker.