Sunday, 31 March 2013

Book Review: Indira Gandhi The Final Chapter

Book: Indira Gandhi: The Final Chapter

Author: Suraj "Eskay" Sriram

Publisher: Niyogi Books

ISBN: 9788189738891 

Pages: 175

Indira Gandhi is one of the most colourful political leaders of the country and one of the few whose recognition factor has not declined with time. Therefore, even a news bit or a book about her or even remotely connected to her is bound to generate interest. This is exactly what "Indira Gandhi: The Final Chapter" by cartoonist Suraj "Eskay" Sriram aims to achieve. In the book, the author attempts to present a snapshot of the Indian political and social scene of the 1970s and 1980s through a series of well planned witty cartoons and illustrations.

The role of cartoonists cannot be undermined in a democracy which is why the foreword by Pritish Nandy states that cartoonists also work like historians through cartoons that reflect the changing times. Therefore, in Eskay's book, the cartoons and succinct text capture the paradox that Indira was and remains to this day. It captures contradictions and conflicts within the person who was a symbol of national unity and for others, an institution destroyer. Through such parameters, the book provides a modern-day insight into why Indira Gandhi behaved the way she did. 

Suraj "Eskay" Sriram's cartoons are sensitive, laced with a sardonic sense of dry humour. It graphically presents the tale of people who were affected by her directly or indirectly. The cartoons are right on the intended places and the illustrations remind us about some dark facts which we thought we had left behind with old newspapers and make us question whether if we have matured at all. Therefore, the books says that Indira Gandhi cannot be forgotten. This is a must-read: not just for the history lover, political science student or a person with an interest in Post-Independent India, but equally for every Indian who wishes to know why we have reached the stage we have and why so many things that Indira began have only hurt the idea of India we know of today. 

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Book Review: Things Fall Apart

In 1957, Ghana became the first African country to gain independence, thus the beginning of the end of the imperialist project. As African nations found their independence through the 1960s and 1970s, it has been a disturbing time and Africa still struggles to come to terms with the scars left behind by colonial rule. Hence, in its stark simplicity and grand complexity, African writer Chinua Achebe presents his masterpiece "Things Fall Apart" that centres around the events surrounding the most disastrous chapter in African history. 

The book follows the story of Okonkwo, a village leader who becomes one of the most powerful men in Umuofia, his ancestral village. As Okonkwo attempts to rise from anonymity to recognition, he carries along with him the traditions that the village expects of him. Even though he faces hardship throughout the novel, Chinua Achebe demonstrates the cultural expectations and beliefs of this region that are complex and difficult to comprehend, but certainly more powerful than the Western world portrays it.

Okonkwo's rise to a powerful position in Umuofia also reveals the struggles of a man torn apart by a bundle of emotions and he faces these problems throughout the novel. At one point, Okonkwo breaks the customs of Umuofia, he and his family are exiled from the village for seven years. He is forced to start from scratch and he does so trying to rebuild his power and manhood back. Here, Achebe's novel takes an interesting turn as Okonkwo returns to Umuofia and he finds a village altered by outside forces. British missionaries have set up a church in the village and are trying to convert the villagers to Christianity. While many of the villagers convert to the new religion, colonial forces take over the political and cultural beliefs and customs of the region, and Okonkwo, a man rooted in the traditions of the past, feels lost. 

Instead of portraying the British empire as the enemy and the villagers as the heroes, writer Chinua Achebe puts these political changes within their historical context; it becomes clear that the events take place at the height of Victorian Britain, and the fervor surrounding the Colonial government becomes a fact that Okonkwo must face. By showing the nuances and multiple customs and traditions that he knew as a young man, the writer shows how difficult it is for Okonkwo to face these outside forces.

In the end, Okonkwo won't face them with honor. Achebe then shows how complicated Colonial Africa has become, that it is a region full of turmoil that will last for years to come. In 1958, a time of change for post-colonial Africa, Things Fall Apart became a way for Africans to respond to their colonists, and in the decades after its publication, the novel would represent why change in the region was so necessary.

Things Fall Apart is still an important novel because of its complex portrayal of colonialism. Although the novel seems simple at face value, it shows how difficult it is to overcome centuries of colonial rule that uprooted so many people and customs, and left them at the mercy of corporate and political greed. Achebe doesn't paint a black and white world when he describes Okonkwo's struggles; instead, he shows that things are difficult to fix once they have been broken.
Africa may one day become the prosperous world power that seemed possible fifty years ago, as nation after nation found their independence from colonial rule. Achebe's novel shows that it's too difficult to view Africa from one perspective, and the story will remain a powerful force in African literature. 

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Book Review: Lord of The Flies

Book: Lord of The Flies

Author: William Golding

Pages: 225

Publisher: Faber and Faber

ISBN: 9780571245895 

The children's novel "Lord of The Flies" by the Nobel laureate William Golding, was first published in 1954. However, "Lord of The Flies" is not an average read. To begin with, it has a plane crash thus leaving a bunch of school boys stranded on an deserted island. The entire book is set temporally during an unspecified nuclear war period. 

The book then introduces us to the unlikely protagonists Ralph and his sidekick Piggy, Simon and a bunch of other school boys. Ralph is elected as the leader of the pack due to his leadership qualities and popularity with the rest of the boys. He then befriends a choir boy Jack, who is the antagonist of the story. As the story progresses further, both come to eventually detest each other's presence as days pass and Jack becomes hungry for power. At first, they revel in the freedom but soon, the boys' fragile sense of order begins to collapse. They are suddenly faced with a more pressing reality--survival--and the appearance of a terrifying beast.

In their quest for survival, the book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves in a deserted island which is far from modern civilization and the well-educated children regress into a primitive level. At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses towards civilization--living by the rules, peacefully and in harmony--and towards the will to power. Simultaneously, the book addresses themes such as the conflict between group thinking and individuality, civilization and savagery, rational and emotional reactions and between morality and immorality. How these themes influence different people forms a major subtext of the book.

At this juncture, it becomes important to state that Lord of The Flies is not a regular book that chronicles becoming independent. On the contrary, it holds a deeper meaning and has a more subtler meaning attached with it. The book is replete with symbolism and keeping symbols aside, the boys represent the darker shades of humanity as a whole. The provocative storyline forces readers to question what it really means to be immoral and depicts the true meaning of evil. 

The writer William Golding succeeds in shattering our beliefs about innocence and childhood. The island becomes a startling example of a place where innocence is lost and readers simply cannot take it further. In other words, the book reports and examines the worst, darkest side of human nature in a pessimistic tone. On the face of it, the book might not come across as a dark novel. There is surely more to it than what meets the eye. As the story progresses further, it is revealed the actions of the boys become worse. In an unflinching manner, the book takes us on a journey to question and make us wonder about the permeable boundaries and where the lines between good and bad cease to exist.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue

There is certainly a distinct charm about Mumbai and the amazing surprises it throws up at regular intervals: The Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue is one such monument. Despite being around since 1884, it is one of the unknown heritage buildings in South Mumbai. Situated behind Khyber restaurant at Kala Ghoda, the synagogue is one of the most beautiful structures around the street. The synagogue was designed by Bombay architects Gostling and Morris and were paid for by the Sassoon Family and constructed by Jacob Elias Sassoon and his brothers in memory of David Sassoon, their father. The synagogue is about fifty feet long and about forty feet in height. Today, it is maintained by the Jacob Sassoon Trust. 

The synagogue was built in the Classic Revival style and originally had Minton tile floors imported from Stoke-on-Trent in England. The decorative interiors featured Victorian stained glass windows and rich Burma teak wood furnishings and an imperials staircase. The lower part of the building is of Cooria stone and the rest of it is brick. 

Painted in a light aquamarine blue colour, the place of religious worship comprises of two floors. The first consists of a spacious hall, for the men with a unique "Hekal" to house Sefer Torahs. It has carved wooden doors which reflect the craftmanship prevailing in the days of the Raj. The stained glass windows lend aesthetic class to the overall richness and grandeur of the interiors. There is also the customary "Tebah" (pulpit) at the centre of the hall for prayers and reading of the Torah by the Hazzan (cantor). The second floor of the synagogue is occupied by the ladies gallery. There is also the "Mikwah"( a well where Jewish women have their sacred bath). 

The synagogue also has provisions for a community centre and a school in the Habonim work room adjoining the synagogue. The land on which the building stands and also the surrounding area was purchased by Jacob Sassoon from the Land Mortgage Bank of India. The cost of the deal including the synagogue was around Rs. 150000. 

It is taken care by the Jewish community, whose population in the country has been steadily declining, thus leaving the synagogue without sufficient funds for conservation. However, it continues to be used as a synagogue is at the centre of Jewish cultural and religious life in Mumbai. 

The centenary celebrations of the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue were held on February 6, 1985. The occasion was graced by the then President Giani Zail Singh who inaugurated the celebrations. The historic occasion was inscribed by a special commemorative stamp that was issued to mark the occassion by the Post and Telegraphs Departments.

Water infiltration has damaged the roof, ceiling and wall surfaces and the stained glass panels have to be cleaned and restored at regular intervals. The windows, timber balconies and staircases yell for careful restoration. Therefore, in this regard, the World Monuments Fund recently awarded funding to the synagogue through their Jewish Heritage Programme. Their support would enable the creation of a comprehensive conservation plan for the synagogue, addressing structural and architectural integrity as well as the restoration of historic finishes and stained glass.

The Roman architect Vitruvius once said that architects must combine usefulness, strength and beauty in their work. At the time of writing this, the synagogue is undergoing restoration. However, as one looks upon the 129 year old synagogue, one realizes that the aims of architecture that Vitruvius described stand fulfilled elegantly combining the three. 

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Book Review: Heart of Darkness

Book: Heart of Darkness

Author: Joseph Conrad

Publisher: Blackwood Magazine

ISBN: 9780786158676

Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" is a fascinating text that lends itself fruitfully to continued analysis over the past hundred yes. The novella was first written in 1898 and first published serially in Blackwood magazine from February to April 1899. If it is true that works of literary merit can be and should be open to endless debate and interpretation, then Heart of Darkness is certain exemplary. Little wonder then, it is considered as his most enigmatic stories.

King Leopold-II of Belgium, had set his sights on the Congo river basin in Africa and had called a conference in Brussels in 1876 to examine the African situation and to pierce the darkness surrounding the continent. Eight years later, the details of the genocidal regime became public and Conrad's experiences there inspired him to write Heart of Darkness, as one of the most powerful condemnations of imperialism and still a deeply unsettling read.

At the most basic level, the tale is a literary exploration of the phenomenon of colonialism--that reveals the difference between the ideology and the subsequent practice. Structurally, the text is a classic example of a frame narrative. Set in a yawl docked at the Thames estuary, we meet two narrators. An unnamed narrator and Marlow, the primary narrator in the novel who provides the inner frame for the story of Kurtz. The deeply layered framing device, travelling inwards to find the "truth" at the centre is one of the most obvious structural metaphors for the physical and psychological journey that Marlow undertakes to "find" Kurtz. Yet, as Marlow gets closer to Kurtz, there is a growing suggestion that he has in some way become corrupt and descended into savagery. 

Heart of Darkness is a masterfully constructed parable on human nature. It comes across as a dark allegory that describes the writer's journey in the Congo River Basin and his meeting with, and fascination with Mr. Kurtz. The story in itself is laced with richness, tussled with ideas and meanings, portrays wide gaps and impenetrable silences and has depths and texture. Since it is a layered novella, it is difficult to keep grip on the book as it works on multiple levels and invites deconstruction at every sentence. 

At the crux of it, Heart of Darkness is a tale of complex psychology and symbolism  woven around the project of imperialism in the nineteenth century. This book is strongly recommended for its artful blend of adventure, character development and psychological penetration.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Heart of Darkness as the 67th top novel of the 100 best novels in English of the twentieth century. Albert Guerard, one of the best known early critics, explored Heart of Darkness in "Conrad the Novelist" (1958) as one of the great dark meditations in literature. 

"Hunters for gold or pursuers of fame, they all had gone out on that stream,
bearing the sword, and often the torch, 
messengers of the might within the land, bearers of a spark from the sacred fire. 
What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth! ... 
The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires!"

Friday, 22 March 2013

Book Review: Rudaali

Book: Rudaali

Author: Mahaswetha Devi

Pages: 118

ISBN: 978170461388

Publisher: Seagull Books

The novella "Rudaali" is a heart-wrenching tale written by the Bengali author and Magsaysay Award recipient Mahaswetha Devi. The title of the book refers to a class of women called "Rudaalis" (professional mourners) who are called to cry at funerals of upper caste men. The practice is most common in the state of Rajasthan. The story tracks the life of Sanichari, who is named so because she was born on Sanichar (Saturday). 

Soon after her birth, her father passed away and her mother also ran away leaving Sanichari with her in-laws. Sanichari is married off to Ganju who lives with his ailing mother. Ganju dies at a village fair thus making her a widow. She now lives for the sake of her son Budhua, who worked in the nautanki and got married to a street prostitute Mungri. In the entire course of Sanichari's life so far, she has never cried or rather, did not have the time to cry. She meets her childhood playmate Bhikni, who has recently come over to Rajasthan from Bhagalpur considering the failing health of Thakur Ramavatar Singh. 

In the narrative style, Rudaali comes across as an example of "anti-fiction" because it does not adhere to many of the norms demanded for fiction writing. Most of the novella is written like a piece of journalism in an absolutely desentimentalized manner. The tale shatters the myth of an Indian village as an unchanging, romantic, eternal lifestyle by exposing the cruel power structure and corrupt ways of socially and economically dominant classes. The novella offers a powerful critique of an exploitative and repressive society as well as giving us a glimpse of deeply flawed socio-economic and religious systems. 

It is an acidly ironic tale of exploitation and struggle, and above all, of survival. In totality, Rudaali is a powerful indictment of the socio-economic system in India. It also launches a scathing attack on the vestiges of feudalism in rural India. It is deeply ironical that in India, women are regarded as a manifestation of Goddesses and yet she is exploited and marginalized by the upper classes. Rudaali records the transformation of Sanichari from a mere widow to a woman who is better equipped to adapt and manipulate the system. The story has been adapted into a play and a movie using the same name. In each version, Rudaali can be read and analyzed from the feminist angle or from the Marxist principles.  

"Her wail screeched through the dead bare deserts
Breaking the silence of decades. She cried,
Finally, she let out the wail long hidden."

Monday, 18 March 2013

Book Review: Meanwhile, Upriver

Book: Meanwhile, Upriver
Image Courtesy: Penguin Books

Author: Chatura Rao

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 206

ISBN: 9780143101543

At the heart of it, "Meanwhile, Upriver" by Chatura Rao is a simple book. It is a simple tale of two outsiders who swim against the current of the Ganga. The author Chatura Rao is a familiar name among children's fiction, so this is her first attempt at writing for adults. Temporally, the book is set in the bylanes and ghats of Varanasi. 

The story unfolds through Yamini Trivedi, a Maths teacher who is 38 and single who finds love when she meets Duncan Thewlis, a part-time dance instructor and a foreigner. Duncan is also a part-time writer who is in the city to write a book about the Ganges and the city itself. Running parallel to her story is that of 11 year old Shiva, who is believed to have been washed up against his foster father, Sadhu Bhyomkesh, an ambitious and charismatic sadhu. He lives in an ashram in Dashwaswamedh Ghat and passes his day in the hope that he can find his mother some day.

On the face of it, the book has a very simplistic feel with a child-like appeal to it. The stories of Yamini and Shiva are dealt in alternating chapters which eventually crisscross when their lives meet and merge into one story. The synopsis of the book says it is due to two outsiders who are outcasts and struggle to find answers and the courage to swim upriver against the stream. 

The book has its moments as it describes the rival religious factions, bigotry and power mongering among the sadhus. There are vivid descriptions of the narrow lanes in Varanasi, the ashrams, the sanyasis, ghats and exuberant preparations for the annual Ramlila. In entirety, it is a poignant tale of love and politics as Ms. Rao's voice sounds very fresh.  

Friday, 15 March 2013

Book Review: The Scam

Title: The Scam

Publisher: Kensource Information Services

Authors: Debashis Basu and Sucheta Dalal

ISBN: 8188154091 

India has become synonymous with scams. The past few years have consistently confirmed our belief that probity has deserted us. At a time when Cobrapost comes out with a stunning expose on how private banks deal with some of the worst kept secrets of our society, of converting black money into white and as dealings are forced out of the shadows, as the faults of banks are revealed and virtues reduced, comes a time simply called "The Scam".

"The Scam" has been written by my former editors Mr. Debashis Basu and Ms. Sucheta Dalal, both eminent financial journalists. It maps the extraordinary story of two scams that rocked India separated by a nine year gap. The first scam took place in 1992 commonly known as the "Securities Scam" with the key player being stockbroker Harshad Mehta. The scam shook the nation's conscience as it was the biggest Indian stock market scams then as Indian banks, businessmen, brokers, foreign banks, mutual funds and politicians worked in coalition to create a false bull market that ended in a remarkable meltdown. 

The second scam that the book explores is the scam of 2001 that was caused by the technology bubble across the world and simultaneously led to the stock market booming in India.  The key player of the 2001 scam was former stockbroker Ketan Parekh. This scam was an important one as promoters of listed companies, overseas corporate bodies, cooperative banks etc. willingly handed over money to Ketan Parekh. The scam caused the Parliament to set up a Joint Parliamentary Committee and held nearly 105 sittings. 

The book is an inside account of greed, corruption and follies, while independent market regulators did not react to the scam. The book weaves through a gripping narrative style minus the financial jargon. The book succeeds in giving us a true picture of India's biggest stock market scams and also illustrates what went wrong in the scams. The authors skillfully explain and demystify the makings of the scams and illustrate how things worked near the Bombay Stock Exchange while creating a compelling narrative and introducing us to Harshad Mehta and Ketan Parekh.