Saturday, 28 April 2012

Book Review: Slum Child by Bina Shah

Bina Shah is one of Pakistan’s leading writers and though I’ve been planning to read her works for a long, long time, it was only recently that I succeeded. One of Shah’s most recent books, Slum Child, is the story of a young Christian girl, Laila Massih, growing in Karachi’s Issa Colony. Part Khaled Hosseini’s Kite-Runner, part Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing, Slum Child is as much story as setting, as much drama as realism.

Issa Colony or the Colony of Jesus, is one of the numerous slums in Karachi, but Issa Colony is different from other slums in that the majority of its inhabitants are Christians. Residents of Issa Colony have no illusions regarding their status in Pakistan. Laila, the narrator, tells us that ‘The thing we learned best, I suppose, was how to fit in. This was a vital skill for any Christian living in a Muslim area. We had to be nondescript. We could not flaunt our faith outside of the safety of the Colony. Nobody was going to accuse anyone here on burning a Quran or blaspheming against the Prophet-accusations concocted for the purpose of grabbing someone’s property or land rather than defending another’s faith-and nobody here had any property or land worth grabbing. We went to church and told anyone who asked that we were Christian, but avoided wearing crosses and our women took to wearing dupattas on their heads or even burqas when venturing out of the house. Why ask for more trouble than you already had been born to?

Pakistani Christians are no different from others in the subcontinent in their preference for sons. Laila’s mother Zainab has been deserted by her husband because of her inability to have sons. As if Zainab doesn’t have her hands full looking after Laila and her elder sister Jumana, she marries Irfan who doesn’t have a regular job and lives off her earnings as a housemaid. Why does Zainab marry the good-for-nothing Irfan, who brings with him his equally good-for-nothing friend Salim? We never know, but Zainab soon delivers a couple of boys as if to reiterate that it was her ex-husband’s fault that she had had only girls till then. Laila goes to a school where she is taught by the kind Apa who at times turns into a hard-as-nails proponent of Islam. Laila is poor and at times hungry and her neighbourhood is dirty, but she is reasonably happy, till the time her elder sister Jumana contacts tuberculosis and dies. From then on it’s all downhill for Laila and quite Dickensian.

Zainab loses her mind after Jumana’s death. Step-father Irfan’s friend Salim tries to persuade Irfan to ‘sell’ Laila to a Saudi sheikh for fifteen thousand rupees. Salim himself has designs on Laila. A nervous Laila overhears the plot and manages to escape from Issa Colony, with some help from an honest vagrant and former drug user called Haroon the Makrani and a young Pathan boy named Najeeb. Laila runs off to the Ansaris’ mansion where Zainab used to work as a domestic help. The Ansaris are nice and kind and they take Laila in, after she tells them that Zainab is dead, rather than that she has lost her mental balance. Why does Shah make Laila lie, especially after showing us so many examples of Zainab’s and Laila’s honesty? We never get to know. The aristocratic Ansaris, whose roots go back to India, have three kids, Maryam, a girl of roughly Laila’s age, who wears a hijab and is into fundamentalist Islam, Jehan, Maryam’s twin, who seems to like Laila and Sasha, the baby of the family.

Laila gets on with the Ansaris, but soon trouble crops up yet again, when the youngest child Sasha, who Laila was supposed to look after, is bitten by a swarm of bees. Sasha survives, but Laila’s days with the Ansaris are numbered, especially since Laila cannot explain that when Sasha wandered off and ran into the bees, she was having an argument with Maryam regarding Najeeb, the Pathan boy who had by then offered to marry Laila. There are many twists and turns after that, all of which lead Laila back to Issa colony and an inevitable showdown with Salim. Laila comes out of her ordeal successfully, not least because of help from Najeeb and Haroon the Makrani.

Shah writes well in simple prose that is rarely flowery or lyrical. I couldn’t help comparing Slum Child with the story of another slum, Annawadi in India, which has been beautifully portrayed by Katherine Boo in her non-fiction magnum opus, Behind The Beautiful Forevers. Slum Child is quite different from Behind The Beautiful Forevers, and not just because it is fiction. Behind The Beautiful Forevers shows the economics and politics of the Annawadi slum, but Slum Child merely depicts the folks of Issa Colony as a bunch of quarrelsome good for nothings who may be good at heart, but are constantly fighting and drinking. However, Slum Child does give a foreigner to Pakistan (like me) a feel of the lifestyles of different classes of people and the vast and unbridgeable gaps between the haves and the have-nots.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

If didn’t I know in advance that Behind the Beautiful Forevers is a work of non-fiction, written by author Katherine Boo, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist, after spending a considerable amount of time with the people of Annawadi, a Mumbai slum adjoining the international airport at Sahar, I would have chastised Boo for writing a novel which shows India in such a poor light, for making selective use of characters, including police officers and other officials in India’s justice system, who reflect the worst excesses of the system. Unfortunately for India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers isn’t fiction. Written in a style reminiscent of well-known works of non-fiction such as those by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins (Freedom at Midnight, Is Paris Burning, Oh! Jerusalem), Behind the Beautiful Forevers has the feel of a novel since its characters are well sketched, personalities deeply probed, events dramatised and suspense built in. There’s even a prologue which describes Abdul fleeing from the police, after Fatima’s suicide attempt. Boo’s attempt, one she admirably succeeds in, is to show an Indian slum to be an organic thing, populated by ambitious and complex living beings who are no less human than their fellow humans living in plush skyscrapers.

In her Author’s Notes, Boo tells us ‘that the events recounted in the preceding pages are real, as are all the names. From the day in November 2007 that I walked into Annawadi and met Asha and Manju until March 2011, when I completed my reporting, I documented the experiences of residents with written notes, video recordings, audiotapes and photographs. ……….I also used more than three thousand public records, many of them obtained after years of petitioning government agencies under India’s landmark Right to Information Act. ………They validated, in detail, many aspects of the story told in these pages. ………I witnessed many of the events described in this book. I reported other events shortly after they occurred, using interviews and documents. For instance, the account of the hours leading to Fatima Shaikh’s self-immolation, and its immediate aftermath, derives from repeated interviews of 168 people, as well as records from the police department the public hospital, the morgue and the courts.’ I guess non-fiction can’t get more real than this.

At Annawadi, a slum hidden behind a wall that functions as a hoarding for elegant floor tiles, Boo’s characters come in different shades. There’s workaholic Abdul, who is the main breadwinner of the Husain family. Abdul’s mother Zehrunisa, who came across from Pakistan to marry Karam, is a haggler who props up Abdul as he buys garbage from scavangers, sorts and sells it to various businesses. Karam and the rest of the family including the second son Mirchi, take things easy. The Husains’ neighbours include one-legged Fatima, who was born a Hindu, and her cuckold husband Abdul Shaikh. Then there is Asha Waghekar, an upcoming slumlord, a woman who has used her brains, brawn and beauty (none of which is excessive), to win perks and favours from various unscrupulous politicians and policemen and Asha’s young and pretty daughter Manju, who seems to be the archetypal opposite of her mother. And there are many, many more, such as Kalu, a scrap metal thief, Meena a young Tamil girl who is friends with Manju etc. Some boys who grew up in Annwadi get good jobs in nearby star hotels as waiters, while a few are scavengers.

One-legged Fatima’s suicide is the key event around which Behind the Beautiful Forevers has been built. Fatima doused herself with kerosene and set herself on fire, merely to spite her neighbours, the Husains, with whom she had had a big argument over some damage to a common wall as the Husain family tried to upgrade their hutment. After setting herself on fire, Fatima accused the Husains of having tried to kill her, through there were a number of witnesses who swore otherwise. The Indian justice system being so corrupt, there are a number of policemen and others who are very happy to use Fatima’s allegations as an excuse to falsely implicate Karam, Abdul and others in his family in the murder charge, in order to wring some money out of them.

I knew that the Indian justice system is corrupt. I know that there are a number of policemen who would take a bribe to allow a criminal to walk away free. However, I did not really believe or even consider that a number of policemen and other government employees would falsely implicate a few poor slum dwellers in a murder charge in order to extort money from them. In a gut wrenching narrative which ought to serve as a wake-up call for India’s upper and middle-classes who may have a few illusions left about the fairness of India’s law enforcement agencies, Boo describes how Abdul and his father Karam were repeatedly beaten in custody, forced to sign confessions, put in jail and had so many years of their lives ruined by corrupt policemen and individuals like special executive officer Poornima Paikrao. Corruption seeps down to the juvenile justice system as well. A fake certificate showing one to be younger than one really is, can save a youngster like Abdul from the terrifying Arthur Road jail and send him to the detention centre for juveniles at Dongri instead. Even after bail is granted, the Husains spend a fortune on lawyers and in lost income as Abdul is forced to make frequent trips to Dongri to prove that he hasn’t jumped bail.

The entire book isn’t set in Annawadi. No, Asha the slumlord makes a brief trip to Vidarbha to find a groom for Manju. One is left in no doubt that the people in Annawadi are much better off than the impoverished peasants in Vidarbha. Similarly, when Manju’s friend Meena is faced with the prospect of an early arranged marriage to man living in her native Tamil Nadu, she is not happy. We are told that ‘to both Meena and Manju, marrying into a village family was like time-travelling backward.

The most intriguing character in the book is Abdul Shaikh, husband of the late lamented Fatima. Towards the end of the book when young Abdul Husain, his father Karam and sister Kehkashan are on bail, the Shaikhs and Husains celebrate Eid together. The two Abduls slaughter a goat and work shoulder to shoulder stripping the meat. Nevertheless, Boo tells us that Abdul Shaikh wants to see the Husains convicted for the murder of his wife though he knows that Fatima had self-immolated and the Husains did not set her on fire. Why does Shaikh want the Husains to be convicted? He was not on good terms with his wife who was sleeping around. Boo tells us that he didn’t want his daughters ‘to grow up knowing that their mother had burned herself, lied and died.

Boo writes exceedingly well and her matter-of-fact, but beautiful narration, makes an otherwise painful sketch enjoyable reading. There was only one fly in the ointment for me - a scene where Asha is having her fortieth birthday party. Cake slices are being passed around and Manju and her sibling are celebrating. Asha’s phone has been ringing for the last fifteen minutes and finally Asha answers it. ‘It’s that woman Reena, shaka work,’ Asha lied. Then a minute later, she said uncertainly, ‘Maybe I will need to go.’ Manju and Asha’s husband tell her not to go, and Asha almost agrees, but then as she talks on the phone, she says she has to go. As she powders her cheeks with talcum, combs her hair, puts on a necklace and gets ready, one is left in no doubt as to where she is off to. Her husband’s eyes fill with tears. After Asha leaves, Manju’s tears fall on the chocolate cake. ‘For years, Asha had hoped that her daughter wouldn’t guess about the men. Now she wished she had raised Manju to be worldly enough to understand. This wasn’t about lust or being modern…...This was about money and power.’ Now remember, this isn’t fiction. How on earth did Boo manage to glean so much information, unless she was present at Asha’s birthday party? Maybe she was, though Boo doesn’t say so. In her Author’s Notes, Boo tells us that ‘when I describe the thoughts of individuals in the preceding pages, those thoughts have been related to me and my translators, or to others in our presence. When I sought to grasp retrospectively, a person’s thinking at a given moment, or when I had to do repeated interviews in order to understand the complexity of someone’s views – very often the case – I used paraphrase.

Boo ends her book on a big note of optimism. The case against Karam Husain and Kehkashan is dismissed for want of evidence. Just before the dismissal, the special executive officer had made a last ditch effort to extract some more money from the Husains, promising to get Abdul Shaikh to withdraw his case, something he could not have done, since criminal cases are instituted by the state and can only be withdrawn by the public prosecutor. However, Karam Husain, fortified by knowledge that he got from reading Urdu newspapers, defies the special executive officer. The Husains had lost a lot of money as a result of the false case against them, but soon they start saving and growing once more. The case against Abdul pending in the juvenile courts still goes on, but we have every reason to believe that the outcome will be positive in Dongri as well.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Book Review: The Lost Story by Amit Goyal and Sudhanshu Gupta

I never knew that there existed writers who would or could, after writing half a novel, hand over the manuscript to someone else to complete it. I mean, as far as I know, authors are paranoid folks who worry all the time about their manuscripts being stolen. Amit Goyal and Sudhanshu Gupta are therefore very different from your standard novelist. These two gentlemen have each written half of The Lost Story. We never get to know who wrote the first part and who wrote the concluding second half or even when one author hands over to the other – the writing is so seamless.

The Lost Story’s plot borrows a thread from real life. Legendary writer Saleem has been hit by writer’s block and he hasn’t produced a manuscript for 23 years. Saleem is forced to take help from young writer Sandeep to complete his last hurrah. Yes, just as in real life, Saleem writes half the story and Sandeep or Sandy finishes it for him. And so it begins and then one gets to read a number of short stories which are written jointly by Saleem and Sandy. In between , Sandy starts to dig into Saleem’s past. Why is Saleem so reclusive and more importantly, what was it that happened that Saleem can’t finish a book on his own?

At times I found the numerous short stories that intersperse Sandy’s hunt for Saleem’s past, interesting. At times, I found them annoying, wishing Goyal and Gupta would hurry up and get me to the end, which when I got there, was really out of the world. I will say no more, other than that most of the short stories have a ghoulish touch.

Goyal and Gupta’s The Lost Story has been published by Grapevine, a new kid on the publishers block. There are a few typos – ‘cast’ spelt as ‘caste’ and a word missing in a crucial sentence towards the end of the book, which is meant to finally explain the plot. The Lost Story is an outlandish book. If you are prepared to be taken outside the box for a interesting ride, do go along.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

Book Review: The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun by Saeed Akhtar Mirza

Saeed Mirza’s latest offering, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, a work of fiction, I emphasise the word fiction, takes you on a voyage of discovery undertaken by four young undergrads at Berkeley, each of them from four corners of the globe. The voyage is set off, or rather, is provoked, when one of the undergrads, Omar, is upset after watching a US presidential election debate, where John McCain says something very insensitive about Arabs. An angry Omar then digs around and soon afterwards, drops a bombshell in their literature class where Dante’s Inferno (from his work, the Divine Comedy) is being discussed. According to Omar, Dante Alighieri plagiarised his work from the Book of Ascent or Kitab al-Miraj, which talks of Muhammad's ascension into Heaven (known as the Miraj), following his miraculous one-night journey from Mecca to Jerusalem (the Isra). Omar’s professor doesn’t agree, but the four good souls, Omar Jalloun from Morocco, Sandeep Bose from India, Steven Ntini from South Africa and Linda Mahon from Ohio, work together as a group, do a lot more research into translations of Arabic works (on astronomy, medicine, geography, mathematics and the like) into Latin and find out many more instances of plagiarism by western writers and scientists who had access to such translations in the post medieval period and during the renaissance.

We are told that Omar is a descendant of a Jewish scholar named Moses Ben Jalloun who had lived and worked in Toledo in the mid thirteenth century. Toledo in Moorish Spain was a centre for the translation of Arabic texts into Latin. The Jallouns lived in Al Andalus for many generations until the inquisition commenced, when some of the Jallouns fled to Morocco and converted to Islam. Multilingual Moses Ben Jalloun was one of the best translators around at that time and when the story begins, has just received his latest assignment, the translation of four fresh texts. For this assignment, Jalloun has with him a Cistercian monk and a young Moor from a prominent family in Granada. The Christian monk and the Moor don’t get along well at first and there are arguments. The arguments between the two men run parallel to the voyage being undertaken in Berkeley by Omar and his cohorts and in a way, they lead to almost the same conclusion – that many Arab ideas have been borrowed by westerners and passed off as originals. Towards the end, the Monk loses some of his arrogance and contempt for Islam and becomes a better human being. The arguments are recorded in a diary by Moses Ben Jalloun, which has somehow survived and is now with Omar who shares it with his friends.

Even as Omar and his cohorts dig around, and the Monk and the Moor argue, Mirza takes us on yet another parallel voyage, this one with the renowned Persian scholar Abu Rehan al-Biruni who lived from 973 A.D to around 1043 A.D. Known as Alberonius in Latin and Al-Biruni in English, Abu Rehan was an all-rounder who excelled in a number of disciplines including mathematics, science, history and languages. When Mahmud of Ghazni captured the emirate of Bukhara, he took all the scholars in that land to his capital Ghazni. Abu Rehan ended up living in Ghazna and serving Mahmud and later his son Mawdud, during which time he travelled to India and learnt some Sanskrit as well. Abu Rehan is tutor to his friend’s daughter, a sweet and pretty girl named Rehana who has been named after him. We get to see Rehana married off to one of Mahmud’s Pashtun commanders Dilawar Khan and she too ends up in Ghazna.

It is well accepted that the Arabs had reached the high point of civilization in the medieval period when Europe wallowed in darkness. The Arabs had borrowed many of their ideas from India (numbers) and China (papermaking and gunpowder) and even from the Greeks and Romans and built on them, taking them much further. When Europe started to blossom during the renaissance, Europeans too borrowed ideas and inventions from the Arabs and others. Many of the claims of plagiarism made by Mirza seem to be accepted truisms and are not so earth shattering as made out to be by Mirza. For example, the first claim in this book, that Dante Alighieri plagiarised his work from the Book of Ascent or Kitab al-Miraj, has been accepted by many western scholars such as Miguel Asin Palacios.

We are told of Pope Sylvester, born as Gerbert d’Aurillac, who travelled extensively in Moorish Spain before he became renowned as an authority back home in astronomy and mathematics. Constantine of Carthage was yet another Christian scholar who benefited from an education in Sicily, then ruled by Normans, but with a heavy Arab influence. None of this is problematic until Mirza claims that Constantine’s magnum opus, Liber Pantegni or the Book of the Complete Art of Medicine was plagiarised from the ninth century Persian physician Aby Ibn Abbas’s book Kitab al-Maleki.

Mohammad bin Musa al-Khwarizmi who lived from 780 AD till 840 AD ‘looked at the Indian and Sumerian zero and studied it carefully. What did this dot stand for? Could it have a value? And bingo! He figured out how and where to place it and mathematics took a gigantic leap forward.’ Mirza tells us (rightly) that the word algebra is derived from the name of al-Khwarizmi’s book Al-Jabr wa-al Muqabilah. Algorithms are named after al-Khwarizmi, the man himself.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan (721 AD to 815 AD), known by his Latin name Gerber, was a master chemist who conducted many thousands of experiments and wrote around 3000 treatises. He also went on a hunt for a single element that is the basis of all life on this planet. Ibn Hayyan’s treatises were translated into Latin and read by many in Europe.

The movement of the Brethren of Purity was composed of philosophers and scholars and was founded in Syria and sought to cleanse and purify Islam. Mirza suggests that the crusaders encountered the Brethren of Purity and that the Order of the Knights Templar was modelled on the Brethren of Purity.

Medicine man Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, known to the Latin world as Abulcasis, wrote a treatise of 30 volumes, of which 27 volumes enumerated his experiences as a physician. The remaining three were on surgery and the techniques described there astounded European scholars so much that they were copied right up to the seventeenth century. Ibn Sina or Avicenna, called the Grand Master of medicine, lived from 926 to 1037 AD. He wrote a 5 volume treatise, the al-Kanun al-Tibb or the Canon of Medicine, which was a textbook in European medical schools till the seventeenth century.

Mirza quotes an English scholar Charles Burnett who has spent a long time studying the contributions of Islamic civilization to the West. According to Burnett, if one looked at the medical textbooks for the faculty of medicine in the fledging universities in medieval Europe, almost every author was an Arabic author. It was almost the same for the faculties of philosophy, astronomy, geometry and arithmetic.

Ibn al-Haytham who was born in Basra, but served the Caliph in Cairo, formulated a theorem now called Wilson’s Theorem. In the field of mechanics, he developed theories on inertia and momentum. His magnum opus Kitab al-Manesir on optics and the nature of light, refuted the theories of Euclid and Aristotle and was translated into Latin under the title Opticae Thesaurus Alhazeni. Al-Haytham’s works were read by many western scholars such as Roger Bacon, Pecham, Risner etc. ‘Hundreds of years later, Sir Isaac Newton would come up with his theory of optics which would vindicate most of what Ibn al-Haytham had written and so often proved.’

Leonardo Fibonaccci who was born around 1170 AD spent some time with his father at a trading post in North Africa. Impressed by the Arabic system of counting and accounting which was much more simple and effective than the Roman numerals Leonardo was used to, he wrote a book called the Liber Abaci or Book of Calculations, paying unabashed tribute to Indian and Arab mathematicians. He posed a hypothetical problem and solved it with a number sequence, later called the Fibonaccci sequence.

Al-Jazari was a mechanical engineer who lived from 1137 AD to 1206 AD and invented many mechanical devices and contraptions, such as water clocks, gears, pumps, pulleys, locks etc. His treatise, the Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices which apparently has miniature pictures of his devices was translated into Greek and Latin and astonished Europe. Apparently one of those impressed by the book was one Leonardo di Vinci. ‘Now, everyone has heard of da Vinci. How many know of Al-Jazari?’ Mirza asks us.

Nicholas Copernicus’s book On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, published in AD 1543, broke off from Ptolemy’s vision of the known universe and was called the greatest discovery in the history of Western science. In reality, Copernicus’s work was based on two Arab astronomers, one Nasser al-Tusi and one Mu-ayyad al-Din al-Urdi who both lived many centuries earlier. Mirza doesn’t deny Copernicus’s genius for on seeing the correct explanation for planetary motion he accepted it, but suggests that he was most probably a plagiarist.

Arab influence of the West is not restricted to medicine or mathematics. Alphabetical notations of western musical notes have been attributed to an Italian - Guido of Arezzo. According to Mirza, the notations themselves are uncannily similar to the ones used by al-Kindi and al-Farabi around 200 years earlier. Mirza suggests that Pope Sylvester may have come into contact with al-Kindi’s and al-Farabi’s works and might have passed them to Guido. The troubadours of Europe were influenced by Andalusian and Arabic songs – their rhythms are similar and the word troubadour is derived from the Arabic word “tarrab”, which means to sing.

Even when Western experts acknowledged the Arab origin of ideas and inventions, it has been done so in a condescending manner. When Toynbee praised Ibn Khaldun (who wrote a magnum opus al-Muqaddimah, or the Universal History) as having conceived and formulated a philosophy of history which is undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever yet been created by any mind in any time or place, he prefaced his comment with a condecending preamble, in which he likened Ibn Khaldun’s achievement to that of a shining light surrounded by a sea of ignorance and brutality.

The most serious of the claims made by Mirza in The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun pertain to Copernicus, Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Isaac Newton. Claims such as this would have been better served and more credible if they had set out in a work of non-fiction with appropriate citations, authorities and a good bibliography. Also Mirza paints Moorish Spain in such glowing colours that one gets the feeling everything was nice and rosy out there. It was, when compared with medieval Europe, but non-Muslims were always second class citizens and never had the same rights as the Muslims. After 1100 AD, there were a few mini-pogroms against the Jews, such as one in Cordoba in 1011 and in Granada in 1066. The situation was much worse in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Yemen etc. where at times Jews were forced to convert to Islam or face death. In Moorish Spain, after the Almoravids were replaced by the more conservative Almohads, many Jews emigrated to more tolerant Muslim lands to the east while others went northward to settle in the growing Christian kingdoms. For example, the great philosopher and scholar Moses Maimonides who was born in Cordoba fled to Egypt with his family.

Since all four undergrads stay together in an apartment just off the Berkeley campus, it is easy for them to dress in costumes while discussing the multiple plagiarisms perpetrated by Westerners. Omar wears a jalaba(sic), Steve wears African tribal markings, Sandeep draps a bed-sheet around himself, but later switches to a kurta and Linda wears a long dress that reaches her ankles. It is also rather easy for Omar and Linda to have an affair and start sharing a room. Linda comes across as a girl torn by guilt on account of the unacknowledged debt owned by the West to the Arab world. Her affair with Steve almost sounds like a form of atonement.

Ever since Islamic fundamentalism and related terrorism replaced communism as the number one enemy of western free market economy and its affiliated cultural mores and values, many westerners and other non-Muslims started to view all Muslims with scepticism. What little sympathy and empathy had existed in the west for middle-eastern and Islamic customs and traditions evaporated and the average Joe assumed all Arabs to be barbarians from the desert.

The crying need to show Islam in a more positive light has been sought to be addressed by many other writers. A few years ago, I read the first four books of a quintet by the famous secular/left wing writer cum activist Tariq Ali who is based in the UK. All four books are fictionalised history and seek to tell the story of how Islamic Empires rose and fell in a non-Eurocentric manner. The first one, Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree, is set in Granada after the Re-Conquest by Ferdinand and Isabella. The Book of Saladin is about, well, Saladdin, and is narrated by Ibn Yakub, a Jewish scribe retained by Saladin to pen his memoirs. The Stone Woman, the third book in Ali’s Islam Quintet, is set at the turn of the twentieth century as the six hundred year old Ottoman Empire slowly flickers out. Tariq Ali’s fourth novel The Sultan of Palermo revolves around the world renowned cartographer Muhammad al-Idrisi who lived in the twelfth century and served the Norman King of Sicily, Roger II. The fifth book in Tariq Ali’s quintet, “Night of the Golden Butterfly” was released in 2010 and I hope to read and review it one of these days.

In The Book of Saladin, we are introduced to two crusaders, who did exist. Ali tells us that one of them attacked Mecca and desecrated it, surely a very serious charge. At one point, crusaders did harass pilgrims travelling to Mecca, but to say any crusader attacked and desecrated Mecca is absurd. Why did Ali get carried away so much? I don’t know. Maybe he felt that making crusaders look more evil and ruthless than they were would help negate the bias against Muslims in today's West.

It has to be conceded that there is a great deal of merit in the argument many in the West are not aware of the Arab world’s past glory. However, it is not correct to say that the hatred toward Arabs and other Muslims is solely or even mainly on account of that. Many in the West are not aware of Japan’s past glory and yet, there is very little animosity towards Japan. In fact, the Japanese are part of the Western club! Why is this so? Mirza is not unaware of this issue. After one gets through two-thirds of the book, Linda sits up abruptly on the bed in Omar’s room. ‘What happened to Islam since those times? What has it done in the last 300-400 years?’ she asks Omar in the middle of the night. Omar doesn’t have a straight forward answer. He ducks the question a bit by asking ‘what has Christianity done at the same time? What did it do to the natives in the Americas?...... How can I explain Osama bin Laden? How can I explain the fatwa against Salman Rushdie?' Then Omar cuts to the chase. ‘I believe Islam lost the war of ideas….. Once it lost political dominance, it turned within itself, licked its wounds and slowly clammed up.’ I won’t say any more, but will leave it to you to read this book for yourself and understand what Omar is getting at.

On the whole, The Monk, the Moor and Moses Ben Jalloun, is a good read, though I feel that the answers to the crisis facing Islam have to come from within rather than from outside, as Mirza seems to suggest.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Book Review: The Forest of Stories by Ashok K. Banker

Retelling one of the greatest epics of the world is no easy business. For one, most readers would know the story and would want something more, as value for their buck. Secondly, the epic would have been retold by many others, starting with parents and school teachers – the reteller has to compete with all of them. However, there is cause for optimism when the reteller happens to be Ashok K. Banker, one of the best in this business, with a fantastic record of having retold the Ramayana through his Ramayana Series and Sri Krishna’s exploits through his Krishna Coriolis Series.

The Forest of Stories is an introduction to the Mahabharata, the first of many (I read ‘seventeen’ somewhere) books that will form the Mahabharata Series or MBA Series as Banker calls it. The Forest of Stories carries flyers for the next two books - the second book in this series is to be called The Seeds of War and the third one, The Children of Midnight. It is only in the third book, The Children of Midnight, that the Pandavas and Kauravas are born and the stage set for the Great War. I am familiar with the main Mahabharata, but at least half the stories in The Forest of Stories, all from the fringes of the Mahabharata, were new to me.

The Forest of Stories is narrated by one Ugrasrava, son of Lomarasana, known as Sauti, because he is a ‘Suta’, the son of a Kshatriya father and a Brahmin mother. In the beginning of the book, we see a travel weary Sauti make his way to an ashram, deep inside a forest, the Naimisha-van, where Kulapati Shaunaka presides, attended by many acolytes. ‘He had walked unstintingly for days, stopping neither for food or rest. Accustomed though he was to a rigorous pace, a life spent on the open road, the forest unnerved him. There were tales told of Naimisha-van. Rumours of strange inhabitants who resided within its shadowy depths. Not all were human, it was said. Not all were benign. …………….he had always laughed off such tales, not being one to succumb to superstition or fireside entertainments, but it was one thing to laugh at a tale in the gaudy light of noonday, or even by the cackling heat of a fire with twenty companions beside you, and quite another thing to recall them when striding along through the same darkling woods themselves…………He shivered again as another gust of breeze whisked past him. This was not the playful caressing gust which had teased him moments earlier. This was a rough blow that shoved at the small of his back with the force of a man’s hand, forcing him to open his mouth in a moue of surprise at its strength, then shook branches to rain down twigs and leaves, upon his person………………’ With this sort of beginning, Banker gives his readers a taste of the feast he has laid out.

As promised by Banker in his introduction, The Forest of Stories is a faithful retelling of the Mahabharata, but it plays to a score set by Banker with all of his signature flourishes. Sauti is warmly received at the ashram, given food and drink and allowed to rest. Vyasa, the original narrator of the Mahabharata, has passed away, Sauti tells Kulapati Shaunaka and others, but Sauti has had the great fortune of having listened to the great sage recite this own compilation. Sauti is then pressed into narrating the Mahabharata for the ashram’s inmates, a task he joyfully undertakes.

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of stories in the book, none of which involves the main characters of the Mahabharata or the Great War that forms the centerpiece of this great epic. There’s the tale of Parashurama (which I knew), where the evil King Arjuna Kartavirya turns up uninvited at Parashurama’s father Jamadagni’s ashram and takes away Kamadhenu, the wonder calf, Indira’s gift to Jamadagni. Parashurama pursues King Arjuna Kartavirya with his axe and gets back Kamadhenu, but Jamadagni is killed by King Arjuna Kartavirya’s sons. The story ends with Parashurama scouring the world with his axe, killing off all living kshatriyas on earth. The story of the Sarpa Satra yagna (which I didn’t know) has King Janamajaya, son of Parikshat conduct a great yagna so that all snakes in the world, including King Takshaka of the Nagas who killed his father Parikshat, are drawn into the flames of the yagna and killed. The yagna is prophesised to be unsuccessful and so it comes to pass, with a last minute assault by the clever Astika, in brahmin form, saving his father, King Takshaka of the Nagas from the great fires that had consumed so many snakes by then. The story of Sage Bhrigu and his wife Puloma, their descendants Chyavana, Pramati and Ruru (which I didn’t know) also finds a place in The Forest of Stories which comes to a close with the story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta which is well known to practically all Indians.

Banker’s beautiful narration, punctuated with good drama, makes the already action-packed Mahabharata riveting. Of all the stories in The Forest of Stories, I liked the story of Parasurama best. ‘As the band of Haihayas rode down on him, Parashurama raised the hand holding the axe before his face. He did not slow his walk or turn his head. He kept walking towards Mahismati. The blade of the raised axe was as clear and mirrored as still water. Upon the surface of the blade, he could see a clear reflection of the raj marg behind him – and the Haihayas riders bearing down on him with swords drawn and ugly expressions on their bearded faces. He gripped the axe by the leather thong that hung from the base of its handle with his other hand, then as the riders came within striking distance, swung it. What next followed was a blur to the watching brahmacharyas across the road.'

Do please read The Forest of Stories to find out how Parashurama fared as he fought the Haihaya riders.

Mr. Ashok Banker, more power to your pen! I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in the MBA Series.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Book Review: Aung San Suu Kyi – A Biography by Jesper Bengtsson

Every time I read the autobiography or biography of a larger than life political character, individuals like Jinnah or Gandhi or Imran Khan or Sonia Gandhi, I look for clues or explanations as to why they are different from ordinary mortals. What makes these people tick? Why did Gandhi throw away his legal career in pursuit of political rights? Why did a secular Jinnah convert to the role of an Islamic guardian and seek to partition India? Why is Sonia Gandhi willing to stay in politics even after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, though she had been dead set against Rajiv Gandhi entering politics? Why is Imran Khan, the erstwhile playboy, willing to put up with so many brickbats as he somehow manages to stay afloat in the murky waters of Pakistani politics? Is it because these individuals are visionary saints who are so concerned about public welfare that they will make sacrifice after sacrifice to implement their vision for the improvement of society or are they so egoistic that they are willing to put up with any number of brickbats in order to be in the limelight? Or is it a combination of both?

Aung San Suu Kyi is the daughter of legendary Burmese leader Aung San and his wife Khin Kyi. Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi was published very recently, but I assume it was sent to press a few weeks before bye-elections were held on 1 April 2012 when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won 43 out of the 44 seats in the fray. Aung San Suu Kyi is now all set to enter Parliament. When Bengtsson’s book went to press, negotiations were still on between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, with little sign of any easing up in the junta’s rigid stance. Nevertheless, Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi is a good book which goes a long way in helping us understand this great lady.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s father Aung San, the legendary leader of Burma, was killed a few months before Burma gained independence. He was poised to become the ruler of Burma. Bengtsson tells us that as a communist student leader Aung San was a man who wore dirty clothes, did not care about personal hygiene and practiced his speeches in front of the bushes. A man who founded the Communist Party of Burma, only to side with the Japanese, and even later switched sides yet again and fought the Japanese on the side of the British, Aung San comes across as a man who wants the best for Burma, with himself at the helm.

If Aung San hadn’t been assassinated, would Burma have been better off under him? Bengtsson would have us believe so. Bengtsson argues that Aung San was such a pragmatist that he would have acted as an unifying factor in a country with so many ethnic minorities, not unlike India, all of whom were persuaded with promises of autonomy at the time of Burmese independence to be part of the same country, again not unlike India.

Unlike her father, Aung San Suu Kyi does not appear to have a rough side to her at all in Bengtsson’s narrative. She has steel in her, lots of it, but all of that toughness is couched in beauty and gentleness. When interviewed by Bengtsson, she did not appear to be affected by her long imprisonment. Rather, we hear her say Nelson Mandela-esque that ‘the military gave me seven years of rest, so now I am full of energy to continue my work.’ There are incidents which show her to be very good at public relations. When asked during an election campaign why she married a foreigner, she replied that ‘I just happened to live in England when I was at the age when you get married. If I had lived in this village I might have been married to you.’ Could there have been a better reply than that?

We are told that Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother did not attend her wedding to Englishman Michael Aris. Her only surviving brother Aung San Oo was not present either. Apparently marrying a foreigner is frowned upon in Burma, yet Aung San Suu Kyi went ahead and followed her heart, knowing fully well that it would not help her political career. Later in life, when it came to a choice between living with her husband and children in the UK and pursuing a political career in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi chose the latter. Devotees may well argue that Aung San Suu Kyi was not just following a political career, rather she was fighting an authoritarian regime, one she was best placed to fight as the daughter of Aung San. Bengtsson’s biography has so many instances of Aung San Suu Kyi skirmishing with soldiers and holding her ground in the face of mighty odds. There can be no dispute that Aung San Suu Kyi is a good human being who follows her instincts and does what she thinks is right.

Now that Burma has returned to the path of democracy, is it likely to be friendly with India? Just like China, India too did not support the pro-democracy movement as much as it ought to have done. Rather, the emphasis was on doing business in Burma and getting the Burmese military regime to flush out Indian insurgents sheltering in Burma. The Burmese have for historical reasons had a negative opinion of Indians who acted as middlemen for the British in Burma. Bengtsson tells us that at the time of Burmese independence, cosmopolitan Rangoon had more Indians than Burmese. ‘Kala’ is a derogatory term used by the Burmese for Indians and other foreigners. There’s an interesting anecdote narrated by Bengtsson where an army captain who almost killed Aung San Suu Kyi (he was stopped at the last minute by a Major) later sat in the local police station, drunk, swearing to kill ‘the wife of that Indian.’ Bengtsson explains that among racist Bamar, all foreigners are called Indians. However, let’s not forget that Aung San Suu Kyi had a large chunk of her education in India (at the Convent of Jesus and Mary School and later at the Lady Shri Ram college) while her mother was posted in Delhi as the Burmese ambassador to India and Nepal. Bengtsson also tells us that while at Oxford, Aung San Suu Kyi ‘spent a lot of time with Indian students and at the beginning of her term, she fell in love with one of them. But her interest was not reciprocated and their contact never developed into a relationship. ‘One did catch a glimpse of her persistency in that case,’ says Ann Pasternak Slater. ‘It was clear from the start that he wasn’t interested in her in the same way she was in him, but she refused to give up. She held on to it for much longer than anyone else would have done.’ Hopefully Aung San Suu Kyi still harbours friendly feelings for India and Indians.

Bengtsson’s biography of Aung San Suu Kyi not only profiles the subject very well, it is also a good primer on modern Burmese history. I found out a number of things I had no clue about – such as how after the communist takeover of China, a few divisions of Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops sheltered in the inaccessible jungles of the Shan State, received extensive support from the CIA, produced opium, refined it into heroin, all under CIA supervision, made various attempts to attack communist China until in the 1960s, a combined attack by Chinese and Burmese forces drove them into Laos. Even though events in Burma have taken a dramatic turn just after publication of this book, it is a very good read for anyone interested in understanding modern Burma.

Friday, 6 April 2012

Book Review: Bollywood Striptease by Neeta Shah

We’ve all heard stories of how difficult it is for aspiring actors, both men and women, to make it big in the world of movies, be it Hollywood or Bollywood or Tollywood or Kollywood. Now, here’s a tale set in Bollywood, where indecent proposals are apparently the norm, narrated by Neeta Shah, a former chartered accountant who had tried her hand at acting before she wrote this novel. The protagonist in Bollywood Striptease is called Nikki Shah and one gets the feeling that much of Bollywood Striptease is fact rather than fiction. In fact, author Shah admits in the Acknowledgements section that ‘while this novel is driven by my experiences and an in-depth research on the industry, much is owed to inputs shared by friends who have witnessed their share of Bollywood.

Once Protagonist Nikki decides to give her Bollywood dreams a shot, she goes all out to achieve success, despite the fact that her family – father and brother – supports her reluctantly. Nikki’s best friend Shonali and rich boy Karan who is totally besotted with Nikki (though Nikki doesn’t reciprocate), support her wholeheartedly. At first, there is little sign of progress and Nikki tries out almost every route into Bollywood fame that could possibly exist. In addition to uncountable auditions, Nikki tries the ‘model’ route, the ‘reality show’ route, the ‘TV serial’ route, the Tollywood (as in Telugu movies and not Tollygunge) route etc., none of which works out. Nikki goes to an acting school, the best in Mumbai, and learns a lot. She gets her portfolio done. She goes to the gym regularly and becomes a fitness freak, but doesn’t hesitate to smoke Classic Milds when a role she is auditioning for demands it. Best of all, she makes a few good friends, like Amit Khanna (Shah-speak for Puneet Isaar), who we are told, played Duryodhan in the Mahabharat, Akansha, a young girl from Meerut who is also struggling to make it big in Bollywood and …………………..Akshay.

Ambitious Akshay, a chief assistant director, also waiting for a break that will allow him to make a name as a director, soon becomes Nikki’s boyfriend. Akshay seems to be a good guy, kind, considerate and clever, though he does have a temper. I did think that the way Nikki introduced Akshay to the besotted Karan, when she was wearing Akshay’s ring, was a bit nasty, and out of character for Nikki, but it all plays out well in the end, since l’affaire Akshay doesn’t work out exactly as expected.

One of the best things about Bollywood Striptease is Shah’s depiction of Nikki’s relationship with her mother who is divorced from her father and has a son from her second marriage. In this day and age, as divorces get more common, which isn’t such a bad thing as Amit Varma rightly tells us, we see Nikki initially struggle with her mother’s decision to leave her and her elder brother and go away, but later understand and accept her mother’s actions.

Nikki finally gets her break, not as an actress, but when she is made a creative consultant for a chick flick called Size O. From there things only go up. Soon Nikki is asked to write a book based on the movie’s screen play. Even before the book is done, based solely on the test draft, Nikki is given a 3 book deal. Before you can say Bollywood, Nikki is known as a writer and some movie directors respect her all the more for it. Finally towards the end of the book, at the ceremony for the launch of her book, Karan Chopra (a famous director and not the old flame Karan) offers her the leading lady’s role in his next film! Since the announcement is made in public, we can be sure that this isn’t one of those cons where a director makes a promise to a young starlet only to exploit her, with little intention of honouring the promise.

It’s not only Nikki who fulfils her dreams, but Akansha and Akansha’s flatmate Lisa Bharucha do so as well. Unlike Nikki, they achieve success by getting the better of a man who nearly wrecked Lisa’s dreams. No, I won’t tell you more – please read this book to find out how.

Written in simple and straight forward English, Bollywood Striptease is all about dreams and how one can make one’s dreams come true, if one works hard at it, as Nikki does. However, I am not so sure if it is a good idea to tell youngsters that Bollywood is a good place to hunt for stars, especially since the author did try her hand at acting before she switched to writing. Also, I did not really like the way Nikki goes so suddenly from being a creative consultant to getting a 3 book deal and then finally gets a movie offer at her book launch where she sees her book’s cover for the first time! Another negative about the book is that it has too many characters, many of whom do not appear more than in a few pages, whose names are really confusing. There is a Rahul, a Rakesh, a Rajesh, a Rohan, a Rohit, a couple of Karans and it goes on and on. Mind you, these are minor irritants. On the whole, Bollywood Striptease is a good read.