Author Archives: bhupinder

About bhupinder

reader, mainly and an occasional blogger

The Book of Lamentations by Rosario Castellanos

The Book of Lamentations51ZXl5Fj7ML._SL500_AA300_[1]

Translated by Esther Allen, Marsilio Publishing 1996 pages 400

Exactly twenty years ago, the world became aware of the Zapatista rebellion in the Chiapas region of Mexico. Though the immediate reason for the revolt was the NAFTA treaty that opened the floodgates for US-manufactured goods into Mexico, it was one among a series of previous revolts in the area since the 18th century. Rosario Castellano’s farewell novel before her death at the age of 49 in 1974 is based on these revolts and located in the early 20th century. The title of the novel recalls the Jewish text also called The Book of Lamentations,a collection of poetic laments about the destruction of Jerusalem.

The proclamation of land reforms by the PRI party in early 20th century forms the background to the events depicted in the novel. Spurred on by an honest and gritty land inspector, Fernando Ulloa and the millenarian prophecies of an Indian woman, Catalina Diaz Puilja, the indigenous Tzotzil-speaking Mayan people of the region rise up against the Ladinos, the landowners of Spanish descent. The end is a bloody defeat of the rebels and Fernando’s calamitous death at the hands of the Ladinos- led by Leonardo Cifuentes, the devious representative of the land-rich ranchers. These three characters form the fulcrum of the story, though there are at least a dozen important characters in the novel.

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The Year Gone By- 2013

2013 is the year when I discovered Mo Yan- who won the 2012 Nobel prize for literature. (Shifu , You’ll do anything for a laughLife and Death are Wearing me out, and Red Sorghum). Red Sorghum, the Nobel winner’s first novel is somewhat a let down compared to the other two later books that were reviewed earlier this year on this blog.

Everything Flows by Vasili Grossman, one of my favourite 20th century authors did not disappoint. It is at least as brilliant, if not more than his longer and more well known Life and Fate, considered to be the War and Peace of the 20th century.

Khrushchev on Khrushchev, a chance discovery at a down town used books sale, was a wonderful find. The first part that dealt with the days of Nikita Khrushchev are well described by his son, Sergei, giving a human touch to a very significant part of the Soviet and world history. The events leading to the secret speech against Stalin and the subsequent overthrow of Nikita Khrushchev by the neo- Stalinist brigade are described from a keen memory that remembered small and significant details all through the intervening decades. The book was published in 1990, towards the end of the Soviet rule.

The mediocrity the of the Stalinist gang that overthrew was well represented by the sullen face of Brezhnev. But, as Nikita Khrushchev on the eve of the coup observed- there had been a fundamental shift in Soviet society by the time he was forced out of office.

I have done the main thing. Relations among us, the style of leadership, has changed drastically. Could anyone have dreamed of telling Stalin that he didn’t suit us anymore, and suggesting that he retire? Not even a wet spot would have remained where we had been standing. Now everything is different. The fear’s gone and we can talk as equals. That’s my contribution. I won’t put up a fight.

The levels to which the administration went to bug the Khrushchevs’ house and movements look both ludicrous and naive-  particularly as the Snowden revelations about the NSA’s snooping were coming out at the time I was reading this book. The Soviets did the same thing – just more clumsily with a primitive technology.

Down and Out in London and Paris by George Orwell was a failed attempt at re- reading a book that I had enjoyed a lot the first time but did not find it to be the same on a second reading.

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, an accidental and interesting find, did not hold much interest after a few pages. I would have liked to read it when I was a teenager, and perhaps in Urdu rather in English in which the language is far too ornate. The long and bulky work is considered to be the Indian equivalent of the Thousand Nights.

I read a lot more online this year but reading on a screen is not the easiest mode for the long form- there is too much of a temptation to read shorter articles.

Unfortunately, these don’t make for an annual review of reading, they are easier on the twitter river on the side bar or the face “book”. Yet, I would like to single out these two review essays (both on contemporary Chinese literature) to end this post:

Prison Notebooks and Chinese Whispers- Contemporary Chinese literature through an Indian lens.

[Read posts from past years in this series]

An Epic Tale of Comic Realism: Life and Death are wearing me out by Mo Yan

Long novels tend to wear out the reader, and this one was no exception. Yet I ended up reading Mo Yan’s Life and Death are Wearing Me Out. In the process, I came to not only respect Mo Yan’s talented writing, but also gained a view of China through the second half of the long 20th century. On a side note, it is quite ironical that what is a very long read, took Mo Yan just 42 days to write, that too by hand since he doesn’t use a computer.

Mo Yan’s writing is humorous as he recounts the ups and down of Chinese history–starting with the Revolution on 1st January 1950 and ending the novel on 1st January 2000. It is not only the turn of the millennium but also a time when China firmly and decisively, veered towards a capitalist future.

Mo Yan’s writing is a page turner, as he gallops through a very grim part of China’s recent history. The writing is marked by a humorous, even comical touch. The style is reminiscent of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Especially in the long middle, the narrative is quirky, marked by tangential diversions and exaggeration. While Garcia Marquez’s style came to be known as magical realism, I would term Mo Yan’s as “comic realism” (I couldn’t find the term on Google, so I may claim some originality for coining it!), given the humour with which the novel bustles. Continue reading

Reading Vasili Grossman in the time of Mo Yan

I have just begun reading Part III of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are wearing me out”  (a little over one third of the book) and have mixed feelings about it. What works for me is the narrative of post- revolutionary China, particularly about the Cultural Revolution. What also works are the different points of view, a robust sense of humour amidst a tumultus period of China’s post- Revolution history and a literary flourish that make the book a page turner.

What doesn’t seem to be working is the quirkiness of the narrative, tangential diversions and exaggeration- much in the style of Garcia Marquez in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” which I liked the first time I read “One Hundred…” but found it irritating while reading the second time.

Mo Yan’s style also contrasts with another book that I happened to be reading alongside- “Everything Flows” by Vasili Grossman.

The collectivization of the peasantry, among other changes in the post Revolutionary Soviet Union up to Stalin’s death are very similar to those in China in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, the contrast between the two writers could not be more striking- Mo Yan is verbose and humourous while Grossman has used tight prose and is uniformly serious, digressing into long soliloquies on Lenin, Stalin and a grand sweep on Russia’s thousand years of history. It was refreshing to read a simply written, straightforward novella that is no less – if not more, engaging than “Life and Death…”. I finished the 200 page “Everything Flows” in a couple of weeks, much moved by its sparse but surgically precise prose.

I continue to plough through “Life and Death are wearing me out”, and if I am not worn out by the time it is finished, will post a longer review.

Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh by Mo Yan

Mo Yan, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for Literature, is the nome de plume of Guan Moye- the name “Mo Yan” literally means “Don’t Speak.” Apparently, Guan  Moye was so talkative as a child that his mother repeatedly commanded, “Don’t Speak.” So, when Guan Moye decided to become a writer, he adopted Mo Yan as his nome de plume.

It says much about today’s China when Mo Yan explains why he decided to become a writer. He was once told by a student sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution that writers make a lot of money, so he decided to put his gift of the gab to a profitable use. That is how Mo Yan became one of China’s most loved living writer.

The collection of stories in the book under review, Shifu, You’ll Do Anything For a Laugh, contains 7 of the writer’s stories written over several decades.

The title story is about Ding Shikou, a worker who has been fired from his job just a week before his retirement. In the new capitalist China where making money by hook or crook is as acceptable as for a worker to be laid off close to retirement, Ding Shikou finds opportunites to make money in an abandoned bus  hidden among the vegetation near a beach resort. Observing that young couples often do not have enough privacy at the beach, he starts to rent out the bus after furnishing it with a bed and providing cold drinks to couples- young and not so young. Soon, he has a roaring business. Towards the end of the story, his conscience comes back to gnaw at him. This is by far the best story in the collection, marked by touches of magical realism.

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The Year Gone By- 2012

This post should really have been titled The Seven Year Glitch, for the continuous lack of anything worthwhile that this blog had to share for this reading year. But if it isn’t titled that way, it is because just as I was contemplating this year’s “Gone By” post, snowflakes were falling outside my window, and there was a book that was warming me up. Hope was springing.

But first, here is the small list of the books I read, or attempted to read this year:

The Walk by Robert Walser: Though barely 90 short pages long in a pocket sized edition  I haven’t reached the halfway mark yet. The style is familiar, and though it isn’t as tepid as The Robber that I read last year, it is yet to give the same feel The Assistant with its exquisite prose.

The Dream of the Celt by Llosa, Mario Vargas. This book makes it to the maiden review at this blog  in 2012 though I must add that it is because of the blogger’s devotion to Mario Vargas Llosa rather than the quality of the book. Continue reading

The Dream of the Celt

The Dream of the Celt, Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa’s latest novel published in Spanish in 2010, and whose English translation appeared earlier this year, recounts the life of Sir Roger Casement in the earlier part of the 20th century. Born of a Catholic mother and a Protestant father, Casement served the British Empire well enough to be honoured with the title of ‘Sir’. His life, however, ended tragically when he was executed by the same British state in 1916 for his role in the Easter Uprising in Ireland.

As a 20-year-old, Roger Casement joined the International Congo Society’s (AIC) operations in the Congo in Africa. A fervent believer in the idea that the West was spreading civilization across the world, his ideas underwent a transformation when he was exposed to the brutalities the AIC–owned by the Belgian King Leopold II–was committing to further his interests in the extraction of rubber in that part of the world.

Roger Casement prepared a report strongly indicting the rubber company and hence the Belgian monarch. This report led to Roger Casement’s recognition as a great liberator of the Congolese people. He was subsequently sent to South America to investigate the treatment of natives. His report had a devastating impact, and the Peruvian Amazon Company that was responsible for the atrocities was forced to close down.

His fame had, by then, spread to all echelons of British society, and Sir Roger Casement was offered a diplomatic post as the British ambassador to Brazil. It was then that he made a surprising decision. He turned down the offer and instead decided to return to Ireland and dedicate his life to the freedom from the very colonial power that he had served until recently. Continue reading

Eric Hobsbawm: An Uncommon Life

Eric Hobswam (1917- 01 October 2012) is no more.

I first read Hobsbawm’s three volume work on the 19th century in the early nineties, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Those were the years of intellectual disarray- and the first piecing realization was that my history of humankind started from Marx, I knew little of even extant socialist traditions, not to mention the Enlightenment and Renaissance. Hobsbawm’s writings, particularly his 3 volume trilogy  formed the anchor around which I got introduced to 19th century history and also the history of socialism.

It was the late Mohit Sen who introduced me to Hobsbawm’s works. He had been a student of Eric Hobsbawm in the 1940s Cambridge and he recounted a number of anecdotes about him that made me feel closer to Hobsbawm- his ability to rattle off statistics even when he was just about 30, his lectures that were attended by students from all over the university and his letters to Mohit Sen over the decades.

Both went on to recount those years in their respective biographies, though Mohit must have felt very crestfallen on discovering that Hobsbawm had not even mentioned his name on his otherwise long recollection with Indian students, while Mohit  spent considerable ink on his former teacher.

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Gurvinder Singh’s great gift to Punjabi Cinema Part II

(The second and last part of Punjabi writer Waryam Singh Sandhu’s review of Anhey Ghorey da Daan. Link to Part I)

The film narrates a story of one day. In reality as well as symbolically. Much of the story lies in understanding the meaning of the symbols. The film starts early in the morning and ends at midnight. But the dawn is not of “Remembering the Lord’s Name and High Thoughts’, but covered in soot. It is bitter and poisonous. Instead of peace, there is sorrow. There is tumult. The villagers are gathering. There is a powerful party that has purchased land for setting up a factory, they have razed to ground the worker Dharma’s house that was built there. Dharma’s family and his neighbours find this unjust. Brute force.

In Punjab and all over the country, this kind of brutality happens daily. Governments elected by the people themselves are party to this. Various industrial organizations and corporates are being given land. Villages upon villages are being uprooted. This is no longer the story of one village, but that of the entire country, where any protests against such brutality are answered with bullets and police batons. Poor Dharma is an easy prey. Behind the perpetrators stands the might of the state. Police jeeps, and uniformed men holding guns stand in the background. The new owner curses Dharma and, grinding his teeth, asks him to clear off ‘like a gentleman’.

The people of Dharma’s community come together and go to the village sarpanch (village head). They had to go. The lowermost representative of an elected government is the sarpanch. A member of the panchayat from their own community also accompanies them. Despite being aware of everything about the case, the sarpanch feigns ignorance. Instead, his men gather around him and curse Dharma’s men. They insult them. One of them holds a rifle in his hands.- a symbol of the power of those of wield it. Their moustaches are twisted up, bolstered up by their conceit. This is the outer face of the hidden political games that he has played.

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Gurvinder Singh’s great gift to Punjabi Cinema Part I

Waryam Singh Sandhu is a foremost Punjabi short story writer. These are his views on the film ‘Anhey Ghorey da Daan’. The author’s picture is by Gurvinder Singh.

by Waryam Singh Sandhu

A film based on Gurdial Singh’s novel ‘Alms for the Blind Horse’ (‘Anhey Ghorey da daan)’ is in the news. It has won a number of national and international awards. For the first time, Punjabi cinema has earned such honours. It has also won the national award for direction and cinematography. The film has come first among all languages in the national awards, and at the Abu Dhabi national awards, it has bagged the $50,000 award for direction and cinematography.

Recently, the film was shown at on the last day of the PIFF film festival at Rose Theatre in Brampton, near Toronto, Canada.

There is a big crowd at the theatre. I am told that the crowds were not so big for any of the previously shown films at the festival. When I enter the hall, the film has just started. The film is moving very slowly.There are no fast-changing scenes that rush through the film. The story is about the dalit community. In their everyday lives, there is nothing that is very dramatic that happens. So how could it happen in the story? Like the stagnant and stopped lives of those people, the story in the film too seems to move hesitantly.

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Anhey Ghorey Da Daan- A Review

It takes some time for the film to sink in, but when it does, Anhey Ghorey Da Daan (Alms for a Blind Horse) has mastery written all over it.

That Anhey Ghorey belongs to niche contemporary cinema is not insignificant, even more striking is that the film is in Punjabi. This is a dissonance- the film in every way is far removed from what one expects from a Punjabi movie, or even the Hindi movies that Punjabis make.

Isn’t any movie in Punjabi about a Jatt on a revenge spree? Isn’t every Hindi movie with Punjab in the background about lush green fields swaying with bright mustard crops? If not about the big fat Punjabi weddings, isn’t it supposed to be about the valour of militant patriots like Bhagat Singh?

Based on a novel of the same name by Gurdial Singh, Anhey Ghorey presents a contrarian perspective- something that isn’t found in the Bollywoodized versions of Punjab. The story is not about the revenge of the Jatts, it is not about a militant valour either. It is a life that at best is stoic, and at its worst is impassive in the face of hardships. It shows one day in the life of a Mazhabi Sikh family that lives on the fringes. The characters don’t jump into a frenzy of song and dance every few minutes- instead they eek out a  precarious existence against a a volley of brutal attacks on their daily existence.

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The Year Gone By- 2011

There is a sense of deja vu as I write this 7th annual year- end digest. Nearly a quarter of a century ago, I decided to put my then primary interest in astronomy and astrophysics on the backburner. A short stay at the Department of Physics at Punjab University combined with a pragmatic look at the job market soon weaned me towards engineering. In those impressionable years, sensitivities towards the life around me turned me to Marxism and literature- as it did for a number of generations of sensitive young men and women in India and other countries. I continued, mysteriously, to pass my engineering exams too, finishing with a degree in 1991.

Since then I have traversed history, sociology, philosophy, aesthetics and literature- anything except astronomy. I cannot but take a long view look at the past 25 years or so spent pursuing fields with with I had no professional relation, as I took up The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene last week. I was invigorated and rejuvenated as my otherwise waning interest in reading seems to have returned. Besides the fact that the book is very well written, explaining recent developments in particle physics and cosmology easily for a layman, I find it interesting the author’s journey proceeded directly opposite to mine. In his teenage years, he read Albert Camus The Myth of Sisyphus, and rejected Camus answer to what he considers to be the most fundamental question- whether to commit suicide or not. Though I read Camus much later, the answer to similar questions in my mind led me away from astronomy. Greene opted for the opposite direction and sought a career in astrophysics.

I am convinced, though, if he had also been subjected to the manner in which I was taught at the department of Physics at the Punjab University, he too would have changed his course of study.

On a different note, my experiment with an e- reader earlier in the year, was short lived, though I will have to return to it at some point or another.

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Knowing the Turf

During the last twenty years, there has been a parallel discourse on the economic and social developments in India. On one hand, the votaries of economic ‘reform’ do not tire of singing paeans to what they perceive to be an economic miracle that has transformed India into an economic power. This hunky dory narrative has been consistently challenged by numerous counter narratives, in the shape of numerous studies and in a more accessible manner, by journalists, activists and writers who have reported heart wrenching stories from the ground- P. Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought (1996), Siddhartha Dube’s Words without Freedom (1998), my friend Rahul Banerjee’s ‘A Romantic among the Bhils‘ (2009) readily come to mind.  To this literature Annie Zaidi’s Known Turfis a welcome addition.The book has seven sections, dealing with bandits in Chambal, chai, poverty in Madhya Pradesh and UP, contemporary Punjab, Sufism, the writer’s ruminations on what it means to be a Muslim in contemporary India and ending with the writer’s activism with an urban feminist group and an understanding of what feminism means for her. It is interesting that the the book should begin with fiction- the story of the Chambal dacoits, take the readers from fiction to fact as it were and end with the author’s discovery of her what she calls her turf.
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Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone- a review

Jangalnama- Travels in a Maoist Guerrilla Zone by Satnam, translated by Vishav Bharti- a review.

‘In the light of a candle, drinking maté (a local drink) and eating a piece of bread and cheese, the man’s shrunken features stuck a mysterious, tragic note. In simple but expressive language, he told us about his three months in prison, his starving wife, and his children left in the care of a kindly neighbor, his fruitless pilgrimage in search of work and his comrades, who had mysteriously disappeared and were said to somewhere at the bottom of the sea’. These copper mines – ‘ spiced with the lives of poor unsung heroes of this battle, who die miserable deaths, when all they want is to earn is their daily bread’

- Che Guevara, describing the life of a working class couple in the copper mines of Chuquicamata. (The Motorcycle Diaries)

At the age of 23, Che undertook a journey on a motorcycle across South America and wrote a journal based on it. The journal was published in a book form titled The Motorcycle Diaries a decade or so back. Satnam’s Jangalnama could well be a sequel to that book, written in the context of the Red India, as the Maoist controlled belt has come to be known.

There are differences, of course. Che was young, fresh out of medical college. He rode a motorcycle and was essentially on an adventure tour during the course of which he got to see the underbelly of South America and about which he wrote so eloquently. This journey was part of his education in becoming a revolutionary soon after.
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Why Capitalism has, and survives crisis

Benjamin Kunkle has a fine review of David Harvey‘s recent book the Enigma of Capital, in which he also broadly reviews related literature by classical Marxist authors, including John Bellamy Foster’s Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth.

LRB · Benjamin Kunkel · How Much Is Too Much?

The trouble is already there to see. Imagine an economy consisting of a single firm which has bought means of production and labour power for a total of $100, in order to produce a mass of commodities it intends to sell for $110, i.e. at a profit of 10 per cent. The problem is that the firm’s suppliers of constant and variable capital are also its only potential customers. Even if the would-be buyers pool their funds, they have only their $100 to spend, and no more. Production of the total supply of commodities exceeds the monetarily effective demand in the system. As Harvey explains in The Limits to Capital, effective demand ‘is at any one point equal to C+V, whereas the value of the total output is C+V+S. Under conditions of equilibrium, this still leaves us with the problem of where the demand for S, the surplus value produced but not yet realised through exchange, comes from.’ An extra $10 in value must be found somewhere, to be exchanged with the firm if it is to realise its desired profit.

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Reading Ambedkar: Buddhism as Optimism

Buddhism has been accused of being pessimistic in its approach towards life because of its recognition of suffering being part of human existence. This, of course, is not true- one just has to look at the great developments in art and culture during Buddhist times and at the countries that practice Buddhism (South East Asia, China) to see that people that are influenced by Buddhism is anything but that, as Jawaharlal Nehru points out in his The Discovery of India.

Dr Ambedkar in The Buddha and his Dhamma, underlines how, contrary to being pessimistic, Buddhism is a religion of a dynamic middle path. He asks in the Introduction (page 19):

If life is sorrow, death is sorrow and rebirth is sorrow, then there is an end of everything. Neither religion nor philosophy can help a man to achieve happiness in the world. If there is no escape from sorrow, then what can religion do, what can Buddha do to relieve man from such sorrow which is ever there in birth itself? The four Aryan Truths are a great stumbling block in the way of non-Buddhists accepting the gospel of Buddhism. For the four Aryan Truths deny hope to man. The four Aryan Truths make the gospel of the Buddha a gospel of pessimism. Do they form part of the original gospel or are they a later accretion by the monks ?

He addresses this question in the later part of the book (page 428):
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When Faiz and Mahfouz walked together

Three months ago, I had a strange dream.

I am in Cairo, walking with an Egyptian man (his face wasn’t revealed to me). We are walking along a bridge that connects two buildings. The two of us discuss Faiz, and suddenly, we see a misty figure in a gray suit. I point out to my friend, ‘See, there goes Faiz”. Both of us look at him, wonder-struck. We keep walking.

I mention to my friend that Naguib Mahfouz also wrote poetry. My friend looks up at dark clouds in the sky and recites a couple of lines, implying that these are by Mahfouz:

The skies wear

A widow’s shroud

The dream returned to my memory today as I watched the surcharged demonstrations on the streets of Cairo. Not even in my dreams, though, could I have imagined the Egyptian people would be out on the streets, trying to rip apart the dark shrouds from the country’s skies. It seems Faiz and Mahfouz are really together on the streets today.

Switching to an ereader

Having prevaricated about using an e- book reader, I switched over to one recently, albeit with an initial skepticism which was soon belied. The Barnes and Noble’s Nook turned out to be quite a charmer.

For one, the Nook enables one to read the numerous books available as pdf files, particularly the ones that are out of print or those for which copyrights have expired. Even the ebooks that are available for purchase are cheaper than the printed ones- a random check at Amazon and BN.com shows that the average price tends to be around $10. Using the calibre e-book management software, converting different formats to the ePub standard is a breeze. Given that a number of newspapers are also available for download, one can read the news without the distracting advertisements.
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