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.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Oxford India Ghalib

Mirza Ghalib (1797 - 1869) was an aristocratic Urdu/Persian poet who lived through the collapse of the Mughal empire and addressed himself to love and other personal concerns.

This compilation of essays sets the historical and literary context.

The history part is especially fascinating because Ghalib lived in Delhi when it was captured by the Sepoy mutiny and then later recaptured by the British.

He was defiantly non-political, and more than willing to solicit the patronage of either a Mughal Emperor or Queen Victoria. (the British queen thanked him politely, but paid him nothing)

Obviously, whatever got him recognized as one of the great poets of world literature, is going to be lost in translation

But here are a few of his couplets that I enjoyed:

 Simplicity so full of wiles! Such unaware awareness! When beauty shows indifference, then comes the testing time.

Now I must mourn the sacking of a city of desires. You broke the mirror that reflected all I looked to find.

The steed of life runs on. None knows where it will stay its course. The reins have fallen from our hands, the stirrups from our feet.

Our creed is "God is one", our cry "abandon rituals!" So that communities dissolve to constitute one faith.

Each of us is a world in which all kinds of fancies throng. I sit in an assembly even though I am alone

Though proud of his Islamic culture, he was defiantly anti clerical -- and only partially observant. (he drank wine, but he avoided pork)

His romantic world is that of a pleasure district very similar to the one in Shanghai described here

Apparently, his heart was broken in his twenties when his young courtesan/lover died - and he never quite got over it. I wouldn't be surprised if his life was something of a model for this novel , which is also set in a declining Delhi and features a dying young courtesan who breaks the heart of her aristocratic lover.

Not to be too judgmental of that lifestyle, but it does seem that his love poetry is hermetically self-centered on his own grief or disappointments, rather than any serious involvement with the life of the beloved.

There's not too many interests that we have in common

But he was mightily attracted to delicious, ripe mangoes - and though we never get such things in Chicago, I do love Trader Joe's mango sorbet.

Anatol Lieven - Pakistan, A Hard Country

Anatol Lieven is a professional journalist turned policy-wonk, and this book is his passionate plea for Americans to get out of the Islamic world or at least leave Pakistan alone.

So it focuses on the Taleban, currently the most successful fundamentalist Sunni militancy in the Islamic world.

As Lieven details it, Pakistan is such an ethnically and religiously fragmented country, the Taleban's only chance of toppling the national government is an American invasion -- and even then, their chance of replacing it with themselves is about zero. So there would just be chaos, similar to the collapse of Yugoslavia.

A summary of his argument can be found here

I never could figure out the landscape of political parties or dynasties that he maps out -- that would require a second reading accompanied by many searches on the internet.

Suffice it to say that the country is a crazy-quilt of local and sectarian interests. Islam offers the most widely shared kind of idealism, but its profoundly anti-democratic nature makes it more compatible with the warlords who first established it 1300 years ago than with the dynamics of a modern economy.

Pakistan seems to exemplify what a country would look like if it were run by competing Mafia dons. It certainly gives me a greater appreciation for the Chinese revolution -- which may have left 30 million dead, but at least left a united, prosperous, relatively peaceful body politic.

It also gave me a better appreciation for the Partition, which also left up to a million casualties, but also left a strong central power in Pakistan, the army, and something like a central government in India. As Lieven suggests, if Muslims had not had the opportunity to create their own neighboring state, India's national government would be much weaker than it is. BTW - most of the local corruption that he describes in Pakistan he attributes to India as well.

Most depressing is his description of the utterly corrupt condition of the Pakistani judiciary. It's so bad that even the unofficial courts of the Taleban are better. Every case is decided by money and political influence. And then there's the professional journalists who proliferate conspiracy theories as enthusiastically as the craziest American nut case.

The central government is also helpless to improve infrastructure -- every project is a scam -- so the electrical grid is a disaster and nothing is being done to fend off the even more serious disasters of drought and flood, the consequences of climate change and deforestation -- all while the population continues to skyrocket.

The best part of this book is its anecdotal detail, accumulated over 20 years of periodic visits.

For example the last ruler of the princely state of Swat is still remembered as doing a much better job of ruling than the Pakistani bureaucrats who replaced him. He was definited not the febrile, womanizing idiot described in this novel