Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Raymond Chandler: The Little Sister

Thought I'd take a break from inscrutable South Asian literature for a while, but this pulp fiction from the '40's in America was even more difficult to comprehend.

I could make no sense of any of the conversations.  I suspected that the hero, Marlowe, was figuring out the case and making wise cracks - but I could never figure out how he knew what he knew and why he was said what he said.

He appears to be a deeply depressed loser with a Quixotic sense of doing good deeds but no capacity to help anyone, including himself.

Everyone in the story is either cynical or criminal -- and the physical world he  describes is dismal.

"The corridor had a smell of old carpet and furniture oil and had the drab anonymity of a thousand shabby lives"

It's not surprising that the author was known to be alcoholic.

His only achievement is staying alive -- which, I suppose, is remarkable considering how often he blunders into dangerous situations.

But the unrelenting doom is occasionally interrupted by charming metaphors:

"She has a low lingering voice with a sort of moist caress in it like a damp bath towel."

And some beat-poetic descriptions:

"I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper, hard-eyed car hops. The gritty counters and the sweaty greasy kitchens that could have poisoned a toad"

And this three-page ode to the sensation of being drugged:

"Then it wasn't Napoleon's tomb any more. It was a raft on a swell. There was a man on it. I'd seen him somewhere. Nice fellow. We'd got on fine. I started towards him and hit a wall with my shoulder. That spun me around. I started clawing for something to hold on to. There was nothing but the carpet. How did I get down there? No use asking. It's a secret. Every time you ask a question they just push the floor in your face. Okay, I started to crawl along the carpet. I was on what formerly had been my hands and knees. No sensation proved it. I crawled towards a dark wooden wall. Or it could have been black marble. Napoleon's tomb again. What did I ever do to Napoleon? What for should he keep shoving his tomb at me"

By the way, Chandler's Marlowe is quite different from the Marlowe enacted by James Garner in the film adaptation.   Garner made him light hearted, happy, and pleased with himself.

The original Marlowe was periodically cautioning himself to "stay human"

Tale of an Anklet

This ancient Tamil epic is just about as weird as the South Asian anklet pictured above. (recently seen at a special exhibit at the Art Institute)

Such anklets served as portable safe deposit boxes -- where a woman could carry her valuable gem stones with her at all times.

In this story, the woman, reunited with her wayward husband, takes the anklet to a jeweler to get the contents appraised so she can raise some cash.  The jeweler turns out to be dishonest - the husband is accused of theft and  executed on the spot by order of the king. Upon the subsequent proof of  his innocence, the king dies of shame and the woman, in her fury, rips off her own breast and throws it in air -- where it explodes into a firestorm that destroys the entire city.

If the  execution of the husband was a great injustice that demanded retribution -- what about the slaughter of an entire city's innocent population? 

Yes -- it's a whacky story -- and it gets even whackier -- and bloodier -- when a neighboring kingdom recognizes the woman as a goddess and wages a protracted military campaign to obtain blocks of stone suitable for statues in her honor.

The final episodes of this epic are tedious accounts of pointless battles.

But the  first episodes are drenched with sub-tropical sensuality, as you get the feeling that all of nature is copulating, or about to.

Here is a passage, selected at random from the opening verses:

The lake of sweet waters seemed a woman,
The swan's elegant gait, her walk,
The redolent water lilies dripping with honey,
Her fragrance. The lotus, her red lips.
The cool, black sand, her thick hair.
To the notiram raga of bees singing
With the voices of poets, the lake opened
Her eyes of radiant blue lotuses

Friday, March 04, 2016

Swami Nikhilananda: Vivekananda: A Biography

To complement my reading of a seclular Bengali intellectual , I've now turned to Chicago's most famous Bengali Swami, Vivekananda, who visited the city in the late19th Century to attend the Parliament of World Religions.  He was recently commemorated by a display of colored lights  on the main staircase at the Art Institute.

That visit - as well as the story of Vivekanada's life - is rather fascinating.

His unique capacity to address a Western audience comes from his initial interest in European culture as cultivated by the educational institutions of  the British Raj.  He liked science - he liked European philosophy and literature.  But then he met a celebrated Hindu mystic,  Ramakrishna, and the two became strongly connected to each other.  The  mystic saw Vivekananda as a re-incarnation of  divinity - while Vivekananda  felt the truth of the mystic's spiritual authority and his ability to "see God".

He arrived in Chicago without credentials - without  any kind of institutional authority - and without much money.  But by shear force of personality, he was invited to address the assembly - and when he did - they came to their feet and applauded.  Subsequently, he attracted a coterie of well-to-do American and English followers who would establish religious organizations that endure to this day.

His primary message was "non dualism" -- the idea that God, or Brahma, is not apart from his creation -- though some enlightened individuals are more aware of it than others.  But  two possibly contradictory intentions seem to have driven him.  On the one hand, he felt called to improve the lot of the great masses of poor Indian people. How can a person pray if he is starving?  On the other hand, nothing can be more important than personal spiritual enlightenment, and he felt that more strongly toward the end of his short life, as he focused his devotions on the great and terrible Mother, Kali.

His approach to scholarship was also conflicted.  On the one hand, he taught his  followers to carefully study sacred Hindu literature.  On the other hand, he acknowledged that many paths lead to God - including the Christian and Islamic.

Unfortunately, the biographer is himself a Swami in the Ramakriskna-Vivekananda tradition - so there's no critical distance between the writer and his subject.  Did Vivekananda ever actually do anything to uplift the masses?  And isn't "masses" a European concept that might not be well applied to Indian society? What is the legacy of his scholarship?  How do monks that followed him compare with monks of other Hindu gurus?  Have his followers had any impact on the development of a  new civil society  before and after Partition? Have they actively helped integrate the lowest castes into the rest of society?  Or - like their master eventually did - have they primary dedicated their lives to personal enlightenment?  Like their master - have they scorned their own flesh and consequently died young ?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Chauduri : Autobiography of an Unknown Indian

One of the most annoying books I've ever read, the author's claim to fame, other than this book, is that he was Winston Churchill's favorite Indian -- i.e. he was something of a turncoat who abandoned his own people,  upper-caste, intellectual Bengalis, and moved to England.

Though not without good reason.  The partition of the British  Raj effectively destroyed the brilliant, creative, forward-thinking, elite community from which he came.  This book is more of a tribute to that world than any kind of personal narrative.

Nikad was high caste - but not  Brahman.  Rather than priests, the men of his family served as bureaucrats for a succession of rulers -- from Mughal to British.  So they were quite scholarly - but not especially pious.  And if Nikad and father were exemplary of caste behavior - they were independent minded.

It seems incredible to me that the wall of the family living room was posted with a picture of a British hero of the Boer war - but obviously their jobs depended on somebody having military power.

He traces the sad decline of communal cooperation as sectarious violence accompanies the march to independence.

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Rohinton Mistry : A Fine Balance

The setting for this weird novel is Hell - i.e. contemporary India as the author comprehends it. (He moved to Canada) .  If they don't become monsters, the minor characters are killed off , while the major characters face mutilation - or, if Parsi, a destiny that must be far more terrible: they  are condemned  to live with their families

 Two Parsis and two Dalits share a tiny Mumbai apartment  in 1975. Many disasters befall them, especially the Dalits, as a result of Indira Gandi's Emergency.  I had not imagined that she could draw such a strong negative reaction, even a decade after her assassination.   Earlier reading had prepared me for the lawless anarchy in certain areas of contemporary India - but not at a personal level. Another book had introduced me to the insular family life of Parsis - but not as melodramatic as this story.  Rohinton's primary female character, a Parsi widow, tries desperately to achieve independence from her brother. She fails. Rohinton's primary male character, a Parsi college student, aims for a career away from the family business.  When he discovers that the world outside his family is even worse than the world within it. he throws himself under a train. Ouch!

I'm not surprised that the population of Parsis has been steadily declining.  Regardless of their economic success, they do not feel like they belong in this world.


Presumably, this story's fraternization between Parsis and  Dalits exemplifies inter-communal open-mindedness, on the part of the author, as well as his characters.  But his depiction of the younger Dalit, Om, does seem to fit a stereotype of despicable otherness. He has lice - he has worms - he has uncontrollable sexual urges - and as with all characters, we are never shown his inner life.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

History of Tipu Sultan by Mohibbul Hasan

Tipu Sultan's claim to fame is his destruction by Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington - making him a notable victim of British imperialism.  He was also defeated by Charles Cornwallis (better known to Americans as the loser at the Battle of Yorktown.). He also deployed a kind of rocket that was adopted by the British and used against Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 - hence the "Rockets red glare" in the American National Anthem.

Or, at least that's how he's  known in Anglo culture - and sadly that also seems to be the focus of this well researched but dim-witted history written by a late 20th C.  professor of Islamic history at the University of Calcutta.  Poor Tipu!  So wise - so kind - so energetic - so competent.  If only he had not been betrayed by the Nizam of Hyderabad as well as Marantha Empire as well as his own officers and agents.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

John Keay : The Honourable Company

Warren Hastings
by Lemuel-Francis Abbott

There's plenty of both forests and trees in this account of 300 years of world history as it involves the world's greatest trading company.  It was too much for John Keay to handle - so much of this book comes off as a jumble of historical incidents, some entertaining, others less so. And for whatever reason, the author ran out steam in the  early decades  of the 19th C. with the establishment the first Governor General (shown above) , so there's no mention of what followed:  the Afghan wars, the Opium Wars,  or even the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857 (that finally finished the Company off)

What I take away is:

*a sense of South East Asian  geography - built around the trading route between Canton and the west coast of India.  The British were desperate to establshing a trading base with the Chinese  - since the Manchu emperors wisely forbid them to settle on the mainland.

*an appreciation for the reckless daring of the British adventurers who went to India. The average life span was three years.  Robert Clive - the juvenile delinquent who became a national hero - was probably typical.  And given the 12-months it took for London to communicate with Calcutta, the home office of the company had very little to say about what its agents were doing - other than to continually accuse them of fraud.

*the bizarre utter collapse of the Moghul empire after the death of Aurunzareb - the warlike orthodox Muslim emperor who took it to its greatest geographic extent. (though even he had trouble with the Afghans).  That empire's disintegration, more than British imperialism, led to the Raj.

*As a contemporary capitalist, like Jack Warner  might say, the first responsibility of a business corporation is to its investors.  Since they were so poorly paid, and their job was so perilous, the agents of the East India Company were mostly interested in building their own  personal wealth through private trading. But whatever their commitment - it certainly was not to the folks who, mostly by default, came under their political authority.

The 10 millions deaths from the 1770 Bengal famine made that quite clear.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Dalrymple : Last Emperor

Calligraphy attributed to Zafur

Dalrymple's account of Badahur Shah II (Zafur), the last Moghul emperor, doesn't really deliver on its promised inclusion of Indian points of view.  Nor does it give any picture of Zafur, beyond that of an old, feeble, helpless victim of circumstance.  This story is all about the  mutiny at Delhi, its ultimate, and apparently inevitable failure, and the British retribution.

Giving us a good opportunity to wave our fingers at the Raj.  First,  cultural insensitivity pushed their native recruits into mutiny.  Then self-righteous racism had them punish everyone but themselves.   It was interesting to note that the mutineers slaughtered everyone who was Christian (sparing British converts to Islam) -- but in retaliation, the British executed and/or plundered those who were dark-skinned (regardless of previous loyalties)