Sunday, January 31, 2010


... which is a book by a youngish man who took approx one year to read all the way through the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It's called The Know-It-All: One Man's HUMBLE QUEST to become the SMARTEST PERSON in the World by A.J. Jacob. 33,000 pages, 65,000 articles, 9,500 contributors, 24,000 images, a total of some 44 million words.

I hadn't heard about it before seeing it on the "Humour" (haha -- of course I actually mean HUMOR, right? coz I was in the US. But I am not yet ready to give up my birth-orthography) shelf in a Barnes & Noble near my sister's home in Pennsylvania. Maybe in Vestal, NY -- I forget. I was trying NOT to buy anything because books are the heaviest item in my luggage and I am determined to morph into a light-luggage traveller in my twilight years (I believe in announcing the twilight as early as possible so that I've got used to the idea well before I really need to). So one of my methods of NOT buying a book, is to find at least one small something to buy -- which may turn out to be a book -- so that I don't leave the store empty-handed and ALSO so that I don't fall for some gigantic Leviathan of a coffee-table tome just because the Book-Buying-Slot in my psyche has been left empty. If you know what I mean? I fill the pre-existing empty book-buying-space in my head quickly and with a small, light book, in order to lower the chances of finding something much heavier and more expensive to squeeze in there.

Okay. So having seen it, I also saw a CD-ROM offering to improve my memory. Hmmm! TOUGH CHOICE!! So I went with the memory CD (more of this later). But all the way home from B&N and for the rest of the week, I kept feeling I NEEDED to read that Know-It-All book. You see, like many millions of other bipedal mammals around the world, I too have hungered after that very quest, to read all the way through the Enc.Brit. My sisters and I, three of us, each have our personal set of the books. I got mine in the late '90s because a very dear friend had left me Rs 25,000 as a bequest when she died of cancer -- it was a completely unexpected windfall and rather than use it up on groceries and rent I wanted to staple the money down in some way that I would always cherish. I knew that she would have wholly approved because she had one of the brightest, liveliest minds amongst the friends I've had over the years, and believed passionately in the notion of knowledge as an end in itself.

On my way back through New York, I had a few hours to spare before meeting up with my friend Kristen at her apartment in Manhattan. I knew exactly where I would find a B&N. So I took in a movie, visited another store at which I bought gifts for my niece and her new husband, then went into the B&N on 18th St and 5th (World's Largest Book Store -- and apparently the original B&N), sailed up to the information counter and explained that I wanted a book whose name and author I didn't know (I hadn't begun my Memory Expansion course yet!) -- but I DID know what it was about. To his credit, he didn't blink or even look mildly surprised, but listened courteously as I said "... by someone who read all the way through the Britannica ..." and bing! -- "Yes," he said, "I know that book -- upstairs, in the Humour section -- " Then he looked it up on his computer and I had the name and title.

The front cover sports a recommendation from Jon Stewart: "... is a hilarious book and quite an impressive achievement. I've always said, why doesn't someone put out a less complete version of the encylopedia? Well done, A.J." And you know what? For once I can say I agree with that recommendation. It's a pleasant, friendly and cruising-speed sort of read and at the end of it, you know a thing or two that you maybe didn't at the beginning. Naturally, it helps that I love having my own edition of the Enc.Brit., that I enjoy using it and that I have believed for a long time that it is a brilliant way keep knowledge captive in the house in a form that will continue to work even when the power fails and the internet is down and the laptop's batteries are dead. But the EB eulogy-dimension aside, it's also just a warm and human story.

Alongside the gentle reeling out of facts, the author throws out a couple of hooks to keep us reading. One is his and his wife's quest to conceive a child and the other is his desire to show that there are SOME practical applications to being an EB reader: i.e., appearing on game shows. Well, not just any game show but Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? And also Jeopardy -- but he disqualifies himself from Jep because he had interviewed the show's host prior to applying to appear on the show, not realizing that would be enough to invalidate his eligibility.

As it happens, I'm a WWTBAM fan. I've never watched it on TV, but it's one of the things I do on long-haul flights -- I play obsessively on the in-flight entertainment system. So far, after eight or nine such flights I have only ONCE made it to the top prize (it's the British edition of the quiz so many of the questions are UK based). I never know any of the wretched sports and local trivia questions and anyway, who am I kidding? My general knowledge is so abysmal that the other day, I sent a package to a friend in Coimbatore, and was shocked that it took 10 days to reach him. The reason? I believed C'tore was in KERALA, not TAMIL NADU!!! Aaaargh. So ... yes, it took its time getting there. And yes, I have a great deal of Swiss Cheese in my mental larder.

But I like to play nevertheless. So for me, this book had that bated-breath quality that I know so well from my in-flight activities -- and no, of COURSE I'm not going to tell you what happens! They do succeed in having a child, BTW. That's on the back cover so I'm not giving away any suspense here and besides, in my world, well ... reproduction is just not a red-button issue, right?

Along the way the author enrolls with MENSA and tells us that he gets in because of his SAT scores, but when he sits for the regular test anyway, he flunks (doesn't lose his membership however). This too resonates with me: in the very distant past -- like when I was twelve -- my school discovered that I had a high IQ and made a minor fuss over me (it was forbidden to reveal scores in those days so I have no idea). But that was 44 years ago and now my IQ is below tree-shrew-level. So I could enjoy this about the book too: recognizing in someone else that weirdly embarrassing desire for validation. The endearing thing about this account is that it could so easily have been radioactive with ego but instead is only mildly self-congratulatory. I don't know whether he was trying especially hard or not, but I found his account modest in a believable, non-phony way.

I enjoyed the tid-bits of data he shared -- Neat's Foot Oil is made from the hooves of cattle; Descartes had an obsession with cross-eyed women, and yes, the Fibonacci series continues to be a very cool thing to think about. I also noted tiny anomalies -- the god Kama is an "angel"?? No way. I should look it up in my edition of the EB to see whether it's in the book or in Jacob's interpretation of what the book says. Most of all, I enjoyed the slow coasting through that sea of information, felt glad to known now that it was worth doing and also relieved to feel no special urge to do it, now that I had sampled its pleasures through this book.

And now to turn to the Memory Expansion CD ... you know what? It was (a) a gyp because it's much too breezy and truncated to be of any real worth and (b) I've taken way too long over this book-report and (c) I'm still working my way through the exercises. I'll get back with a complete report once I can tell you whether or not I can remember my telephone number and the locations of Indian cities.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Paul Theroux's A DEAD HAND

An aside: I am back in Delhirium. Arrived Sunday night, after a pleasant 10-day trip. Jet Airways gets a major thumbs up from me -- the service is friendly, courteous and efficient. I must confess -- and it pains me much to say this -- slender, young and attractive cabin crew really do appear to make a difference to the overall ease-of-experience. It pains me coz I would like to think that a person's appearance makes no difference to how they perform; but based on several years' worth of flying experience, it is hard not to conclude that men and women who look neat, tight and fresh-minted actually work more efficiently. I don't know which comes first -- the efficiency or the appearance? -- but the combination really does seem to make a difference to the quality of a passenger's experience. Maybe this is just years of advertising finally taking its toll on my objectivity? But since many airlines have consigned the pencil-thin virginal seductress standard to the dustbin of history, it is now a rare pleasure to look up and think "How ... sweet!"

OKAY. And so to A DEAD HAND. I am at a slight disadvantage because I no longer have my copy with me. So if I make mistakes, sorry. (WARNING: I'm not especially trying to make this spoiler-free, so if you haven't read the book, you may want to do that first. Or not. I don't mind having the suspense removed from a book before I read it -- sort of like handling a venomous snake without its fangs makes it possible to enjoy the snake)(but then again, some would say, why bother?)(you'll have to decide for yourself what you'd prefer)

My basic take on the book is that it's clever, highly manipulative and cynical AND ALSO disarmingly humble and reflective -- I sense for the first time (with Theroux), the author telling us, "Look, I'm aging, I'm starting to see the end of my road, I've seen practically every place in the world that's worth seeing, I've done my time in many variations on the Third, the Fifth, the Tenth World and now I'm tired of playing games with truth: I returned to India recently and this is what I saw, this is what I felt, this is what I think and if you don't like me for it, if you believe I'm a shallow, scheming white supremacist in Friendly Tourist clothing -- well, I don't give a f**k."

The story kept my interest even though I found the female lead, the American woman called Merrill Unger, unconvincing from page one. But this is one of the astonishing features of Theroux's fiction -- he can use utterly plastic, make-believe elements alongside observations that are so tight-focused, so precisely, even cruelly, observed, that it doesn't matter in the end. Or -- well: that's what I felt having read only two pieces of fiction, ELEPHANTA SUITE and now this novel. Both books have been set in India, so perhaps in both cases it is easier for me to separate the plastic from the pukka. I didn't care that the woman was such a throwback to a Rider Haggard Femme Fatale or that the protagonist was such an extreme sap. It didn't bother me that the two secondary characters, Parvati and Raj (? one of those generic Indian male names starting with "R") are such cardboard cut-outs. I can't even explain why none of this matters -- I know it should -- but maybe it's because I see his story-telling as only a clothes-horse he uses as a support for the observations he has collected along the way.

So none of the plot elements really matter: the cheesy American woman with her magic hands and her blood-stained sari-hem, the unconvincing son, the post-colonial Doctor at the Police Station and the murder itself, the pathetic little victim and the limp-wristed ploy used to bring the author into the picture. Really, looked at from the distance of two weeks, the story is pure hokum. Indian Jones' Temple of Doom was more credible.

But we all know that there really ARE manual labourers all over the country, seething, sweating vast hordes of them, whose lives are considered to be of very little vlaue. There really are animal sacrifices at Kali temples. There really are hundreds of child prostitutes, child labourers, child destitutes. If I've never heard before that extreme manual labour can result in the fingerprints being worn away, or that the sacrifices are quite as nauseatingly bloody as in this book or that little girls are sold in an open field lit only by the light from smoking braziers well, that's just my ignorance. My unawareness of something doesn't mean that it can't be true.

I could go on like this, but actually I'm less interested in revealing the plot or evaluating the book -- as far as I'm concerned, it was a rewarding read and I would recommend it strongly -- than in something that gnawed at me all the way through, something that had nothing to do with Theroux or the book. It is this: why is it so unlikely that an Indian author would write such a book?

This isn't meant to be a real question because I don't think anyone is detached enough to answer it honestly; it's something to chew over and to find several half-answers to. For instance, it's very likely that an Indian author inclined in this direction would simply not find a publisher. After all, the story is mundane and many of its characters are tissue-thin. Theroux gets away with it because he has the luxury of being a highly successful author whose publishers will indulge him and whose readers will buy his books even if they don't think they're going to like each particular one. He has proven many times over that his ability to observe people and cultures is ironic and eccentric but also bitterly true. Some part of his attraction is that he bites, he stings, he cuts to the bone. But he seems to be equally unsparing with himself.

Then again, I have to ask myself whether my lurking and hard-to-suppress fellow-citizen-bias would make it hard -- impossible? -- for me to accept some of the weaker bits of this novel if they appeared in a book by an Indian? There's an echo here of a complaint voiced in the context of the Jaipur lit-fest, of the term "bhasha language poetry"; is this truly something to feel irritated by or is it just a label that we wouldn't even notice the inappropriateness of, if it took place in the context of someone else's culture? I can't decide.

Which leads me to wonder out loud whether we (i.e. Indians) EVER really allow one another to make scathing observations about the Motherland/our families/our religions without either (a) balancing the criticism with such a thick coating of sugar that the critique becomes irrelevant or (b) ostracizing/belittling/ignoring the offending writer until he/she is forced to give up writing altogether?

These are all questions that I don't have answers for, but I thought were worth raising.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Resolutions UPDATE; Travel; AVATAR (the movie)


Well, here we are sailing past the first fortnight of the year and it seemed a good time to review how my resolutions are doing: not bad, but not great. The main thing is that I HAVE stopped playing Mahjongg Solitaire*. I am almost up-to-date with my diary and I've certainly been plugging away at my book projects. But I'm still traveling in short gasps, and several of them and I've been avoiding the careful-bill-stashing altogether. (*About the Solitaire, I must admit it wasn't a smooth transition: I spent the whole of the year's first week playing games at the LUMOSITY site instead! My justification was, of course, that my brain's power was being significantly boosted, as evidenced by the sharp angle at which all the scores were rising. But at the end of the week my free membership came to an end. I had to choose whether or not to crawl my way out of the swamp of moronism all the way up to Einsteinhood for the mere pittance of $5 a month. And I decided to take my chances with moronism. Since then, NO GAMES)

Thursday night, I pulled up stakes and flew to NYC on Jet Airways. It was a close call, getting to the airport on time because the Season Finale of Boston Legal was being aired and I was determined not to miss it. So instead of leaving the house at ll.30, we left at 12.00, which was the time I should have already been at the airport, checking in. I kept calling the Jet Airways Fog Delay number, hoping against hope that the flight WOULD be delayed -- in which case I could watch the season finale in peace -- but oh no, of course THAT never happens, right? Just like the watched pot that never boils, a flight is never delayed if you WANT it to be delayed. Anyway, I watched finale and arrived half an hour late at the airport and it didn't matter much at all. We boarded at the correct time only to wait an hour on the runway. Still, we DID take off (rather than be delayed for nine hours which is what routinely happens during Fog Season) and that was a relief. I had a great seat -- an aisle seat in the front of my section, excellent leg room. I give Jet Airways service high marks -- next only to Virgin Atlantic, in my experience. On Continental the hostesses behave like wardens in an asylum for retarded war criminals ("... please remain seated until we allow you to move around and oh by the way there will only be two meals served on board for the full duration of your 16-hour nonstop to Newark and if you can't shut up and watch your movies quietly, we'll sedate you and flush you down the toilet.")and on Air India, the flight crew all behave like contented tabby-cats, waddling about in their saris and dispensing greasy meals with a homespun cheeriness inappropriate to hurtling through the upper atmosphere at 500 KPH.

However in Brussels, where there was a halt and change of aircraft, our flight arrived one hour late and that, combined with the one and a half hour hold up on account of enhanced security for all flights to the US meant that I caught my onward flight with seconds to spare. AAAAARGH. I absolutely detest having to run for anything, but the prospect of missing the flight (to be stuck in Europe without a Schengen visa would certainly have qualified as junior membership in Hell) had me sprinting the last five hundred yards. It didn't help that the man behind me in the queue insisted on repeating over and over, in Hindi, "These people are all COWARDS -- cowards, cowards, cowards --" ("yeh sab darpoke hain, darpoke, darpoke") meaning, Americans in particular and all westerners in general, were foolish to be afraid of a few innocent travelers arriving from the Third World. I can't be sure that I was the last passenger to board my flight, but it seemed to me they sealed the hatch minutes after I got to my seat. PHEW. Major panic stations there.

Other than that, it's been a great trip so far. Was collected at JFK by friends, had a very pleasant evening with them and the next morning was really grateful that they dropped me all the way to the Port Authority Bus Station from Long Island -- it's a 20 minute journey by car, but about an hour and a half by commuter train and subway. Caught the 10 a.m. bus to Binghamton and my sister collected me from there, at one o'clock. And then we sailed off to see AVATAR in glowing 3D ... but before I move on to my next topic, i.e., the movie, I must mention the outstanding dinner we had at home, Sunday night : lobster-stuffed steaks with baked potato. Unbelievably tender and delicious meat, outstanding dressing on the potatoes, everything cooked to perfection. My sister is a genius cook aside from all her other accomplishments, and that's final.

What can I say? I enjoyed the movie, in spite of myself. I was convinced I would find it unbearably soft-centred and sentimental -- and even though I wouldn't howl to the moon about it or anything, I have to admit it had moments of stunning beauty; and the mushy bits were not so deadly saccharine as to drown out the good bits (I didn't like the TITANIC, for instance, because of the utterly improbable-for-that-era romance). I knew I would not be especially wowed by the scenic sights coz I've already been wowed by MYST and I was certain this would be a MYST-like environment. And it was -- but the N'avi were beautifully realized, perhaps the smoothest transition from live-action to CGI that the world has seen so far (well, in mass-distribution media, anyway). So that was fun to watch. The romance was irritating, of course, but inevitable and thank goodness, not over-emphasized. And there was always Sigourney Weaver to link back to, every time we returned to the human dimension. The story was never going to be of much consequence, so heavily larded with guilt as it was bound to be, but within its constraints (i.e., the constraints of History and Reality) it did manage a generous portion of dignity.

However, there's another piece of fiction that has been tweaking my brain -- more engaging by far than AVATAR -- and that is Paul Theroux's A DEAD HAND. It was what I read on the flight out of Delhi, with the result that my arrival in NYC was distinctly Theroux-flavoured. I really enjoyed it and plan to devote my next bulletin here to it -- aside from being too sleepy to continue this blog-item right now, I want to dedicate a whole post to the book, rather than a mere section.

Monday, January 11, 2010


It was kind of fun responding to MAIL TODAY's "WHAT BOOK" question: Which five books have most influenced me? I was given 50 words of explanation per book. My response is HERE. Of course, five is just an arbitrary number! I would have preferred something like ten. Like I said, though, it was fun: this is not the same question as "Favourite Book" -- it's about which one's left a long footprint. I was surprised to remember Have Spacesuit Will Travel ...

IN CASE the whole article doesn't load at the site, here's the full text of what I sent them:

Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carroll
Have Spacesuit Will Travel – Robert A. Heinlein
The Gormenghast Trilogy – Mervyn Peake
Gödel, Escher, Bach – Douglas R. Hofstadter
MYST – Robyn & Rand Miller

Each book marked a turning point in my understanding of reality; each one showed me different rules for managing the most weightless and outlandish of situations.

In Alice, which I read when I was six, the flowers talk and a caterpillar smokes a hookah. But Alice remains both rational and scrupulously polite. In Spacesuit, the ordinary becomes surreal: liquid spilled in zero-gravity turns into floating globules and the simple act of drinking coffee from a cup becomes an unlikely miracle. I read it when I was 12 and it undoubtedly shaped my life-long fascination with science as well as science-fiction.

I read Gormenghast in my early twenties. Physical reality in the book is conventional but the social dimension is utterly warped: we enter a castle as it celebrates the birth of its 700th Earl. The author was a brilliant illustrator, playwright and poet with an impish sense of humour. His trilogy is a wonderful reflection of all his talents.

In GEB, Hofstadter paints a picture of human intelligence using music, mathematics and art. His book is highly sophisticated, while never losing sight of his essential thesis: that at the heart of intelligence is a rogue thread of paradox and wit. As for MYST: yes, it's "just a game". But it became a type of electronic hallucination that I entered in late 1996 and never quite exited. I am forever clicking on white rabbits, looking through glass and finding cookies labelled "Eat Me": forever hopeful, curious and ready for a snack.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

Ms Malcontent Sez ... 2010








[I got tired of waiting to upload the panels one day at a time! Here it is, whole and in the correct sequence]

AND ALSO: Here's a review of DELHI NOIR in The Hindu Literary Review, Sunday 3rd Jan, 2010.