Friday, January 28, 2011

Literary ark

We’re gonna need a bigger boat.” William Dalrymple might well have quoted this famous dialogue from Jaws to his able team of organisers at the end of Jaipur Literature Festival 2011. Diggi Palace, the venue, was clearly bursting at the seams. At several sessions the allotted space could not accommodate the scores of people lining up to attend.

That was no surprise. JLF does get the world’s most famous writers. This year the list got longer: Orhan Pamuk, J M Coetzee, Kiran Desai, Richard Ford, Martin Amis, Junot Diaz, Vikram Seth…

Those who attend get everything (and the kitchen sink) thrown at them. Amazingly, everything sticks. Junot Diaz’s self-deprecating humour quickly earned him new lifelong fans — even those who hadn’t seen a page of his Pulitzer-winning The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Martin Amis was his usual self — complete with etymological quibbles and that famous Mick Jagger lip. He treated us to a six-minute monologue on how to write about sex and went on to frown at John Updike (“He sends a little Japanese camera crew into the bedroom”) and scoffed at writing autobiographical sex as “absolutely disgusting”. He dismissed magic realism as “levitating purple donkeys” and also recited half-a-dozen sonnets.

J M Coetzee, on the other hand, was separated from the hubbub around him. But when he had to speak he held the audience in a trance for a 45-minute reading from his books. In a session titled “Imperial English” he made a prediction about how linguistics will pan out in the future. “Any language that you are fluent in is your mother tongue,” he said, “and the future will be of the Big Language. Foreign languages can be translated into English and be read.”

Orhan Pamuk was irascible, especially when he hadn’t finished making his point and the interlocutor would interrupt to go on a tangent. “Let me complete first,” was how Rana Dasgupta was dressed down when the latter was trying to barge in at the session “Out of West”.

There were intimate sessions too. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke about her award-winning novels and how she mined her family’s past to marry it with her country’s politics during the 1960s. Rachel Polonsky recalled how a chance encounter with the abandoned library of a former Russian foreign minister spurred her to reconstruct Russia in the time of Stalin.

That said, there were a few no-brainer sessions. It was a toxic combination of irony and paradox that “Why Books Matter” was discussed at an event where the audience should be presumed to worship books. Another topic, “The Crisis of American Fiction” was summarily dismissed by writer Richard Ford, who said “the crisis exists only on page”.

Off stage, there was a lot going on. Journalist Hartosh Singh Bal and JLF co-organiser William Dalrymple were seen on civil terms, quite surprising considering the rancour that had built up owing to the former’s spirited criticism of the festival in Open magazine earlier this month. Although JLF can claim to be a “free” event for ordinary attendees, questions were raised about some corporate sponsors and whether JLF’s allying itself with money machines, some of which have doubtful human rights records, would dim the brilliance of the event.

Meanwhile, a Hindi daily splashed a story on its front page titled “Saahitya Ka Balatkaar”. There were three photographs from JLF alongside, showing different writers holding a drink, holding a cigarette and giving someone a peck on the cheek. This was preceded by protests against Dalrymple in Bihar because he told the Wall Street Journal that “few would’ve turned up had the festival taken place in Patna”. More than anything else, it is this sort of parochial pettiness that may prove to be this excellent event’s worst enemy.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Internet: a brainmelter?

It’s a familiar pattern: A provocative piece with fragile logic and thin evidence but crisp writing and pungent examples goes viral followed by a storm of discussion. After all, it’s an assault on sacred cows. What follows is on expected lines: A lucrative deal for a book length extension of the essay. Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains” reinforces this syndrome. The book is an improvement on Carr’s bridge burning essay called “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”, which appeared in Atlantic magazine a couple of years ago.

Backed by evidence in neuroscience by pioneers like Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel, Carr crystallises the most important debates of our time: while enjoying the Internet’s bounties, we are sacrificing our ability to read and think deeply. Carr posits that the nature of the beast called Internet is that it is supposed to distract humans through its “ecosystem of interruption technologies”: a few chunks of text, video or audio stream, a set of navigational tools, various advertisements and widgets. He says that the 21st century man will be busy flitting among bits of online information while losing “capacity to concentrate on a complex task from beginning to end”. So piercing are his observations that I almost felt guilty for checking my Twitter timeline while reading the book and started wondering if the Net was indeed a digital Chernobyl: the air is fine, the water is fine but it is just not worth inhabiting.

While denouncing the mind-numbing nature of Net, Carr also doesn’t discount its multiple and attractive benefits: interactivity, hyperlinking, searchability, multimedia. The best part about the World Wide Web is that information is now literally available on fingertips. This blessing is inherently a curse in disguise too, according to Carr. “Whenever we, as readers, come upon a link, we have to pause, for at least a split second, to allow our prefrontal cortex to evaluate whether or not we should click on it. The redirection of our mental resources, from reading words to making judgments, may be imperceptible to us— our brains are quick— but it’s been shown to impede comprehension and retention, particularly when it’s repeated frequently.”

But the case that Carr makes for books tends to be simplistic. “By allowing us to filter out distractions, to quiet the problem-solving functions of the frontal lobes, deep reading becomes a form of deep thinking.” Carr fails to notice that a book too is a form of technology and not some organic object that was plucked from a tree. Let’s face it, a book also can no longer provide what our relentlessly connected age has made difficult, if not impossible: splendid isolation. But Carr tends to get mystical when the talk veers towards the brick and mortar: “There was something calming in the reticence of all those books (in the library of his alma mater Dartmouth College), their willingness to wait years, decades even, for the right reader to come along and pull them from the appointed slots.” Sadly, ‘The Shallows’ is beset by similar bouts of mawkishness that Carr never manages to shrug off.

While the book’s subtitle purports to talk about the impact of Net on human brains, Carr barely touches on the subject the half-way mark. In the first six chapters, I got the feeling that Carr was on literary auto-pilot with meandering accounts of Friedrich Nietzsche wrestling with a typewriter and Sigmund Freud dissecting the brains of sea creatures.

The Shallows breathes hard in the initial parts when Carr dons a historian’s hat and takes the reader on a guided tour on the genesis of paper to Google’s ascendance to Internet superpowerdom. A more careful editor could have curbed his indulgence. It’s not until the seventh chapter (The Juggler’s Brain), which is the book’s linchpin, that Carr gets down to business. Carr introduces us to John Sweller, an Australian educational psychologist, who explains that human brains incorporate two kinds of memory: short-term and long-term. While the former holds immediate impressions and thoughts, the latter stores all our conscious and sub-conscious impressions of the world.

Carr says that the depth of our intelligence hinges on our ability to transfer information from the former to the latter. “When we read a book…. Through our single-minded concentration on the text, we can transfer all or most of the information, thimbleful by thimbleful, into long-term memory. With the Net, we face many information faucets (remember “ecosystem of interruption technologies”?) all going full blast…. And what we do transfer is a jumble of drops from different faucets, not a continuous, coherent stream from one source.”

To say something so substantial about a technology that’s only two decades old, this thimble, faucet metaphor seems a bit farfetched. That said, there is much to admire in ‘The Shallows’, primarily for the brisk, vividly written chapters that flow with the swiftness of a river. If only Carr could match his magpie’s eye for detail with an insight that’s truly unique. ‘The Shallows’ is so packed with thrills that the reader doesn’t have a moment to breathe— or to enjoy the deep reading that he so strongly recommends.

The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
W W Norton & Company
276 pages
Rs 1,277

Yes, we can't

Sartre said that hell is other people. Since the last 65 years, hell for North Koreans was only two people: Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il. At least this is what one would glean after reading Barbara Demick’s superb piece of reportage Nothing To Envy: Real Lives in North Korea. Aided by the tales of six refugees, Demick paints a never-before-seen picture of probably the most secretive nation in the world. Never mind the country’s totalitarian vibes, the largest per capita military, iron-fisted leaders, they’re old hat.

Demick, former Seoul bureau chief of Los Angeles Times, goes much beyond the obvious that North Korea is the darnedest casualty of World War II, which fell in the lap of the Soviets as part of American appeasement. Brace yourself for a peek into lives that are quite Dickensian in the colour and scale and improbability of its unfairness and squalor. While people are starving, they are made to sing paeans to the Dear Leader (as Kim Il-Sung is referred to ). This hubris only went from strength-to-strength: be it the numerous statues of Il-Sung across the country or banning of the Bible or meting out the harshest punishment for a remote jibe at the Dear Leader. This takes the cake: It was mandatory for every household to have glass-framed portraits of Kim Il-Sung and his son Kim Jong-il. People were provided with a white cloth and they are supposed to clean the portraits every day, which would be checked on a monthly basis.

While its neighbours South Korea, Japan and China have been scaling new peaks, North Korea never shrugged off its communist leanings or maybe the leaders never wanted to. Lies were peddled as gospel truth, thanks to state-controlled media. While denouncing the neighbouring countries as anti-communists and lackeys of America, propaganda was being fed left, right and centre. It’s almost like a real-life king-size enactment of the 2003 film Good Bye Lenin!.

The six lives that Demick chose to document put the very “harrow” in “harrowing”. A kindergarten teacher recollects that the hardest part of her job was watching her pupils die of starvation. A paediatrician says something similar about her patients. Eating the pickings from human vomit isn’t exactly outlandish here. When the paediatrician fled to China, she saw a dog being fed white rice and healthy slices of meat, and couldn’t deny what was staring her plainly in the face: “Dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.”

Barring the lowbrow title, Demick’s prose provides a marvellous insight into a nation that is obsessed with isolating and oppressing its citizens. The euphoria that gripped the nation in July 1994 when Kim Il-Sung died is brilliantly described. It’s as if people lost the reason to live. “Whether it was due to shock or suffering, many older North Koreans suffered heart attacks and strokes during this period of mourning — so much so that there was a marked increase in the death rate in the immediate aftermath. Many others showed their distress by killing themselves. They jumped from the tops of buildings, a favourite method of suicide in North Korea since nobody had sleeping pills and only soldiers had guns with bullets. Others just starved themselves.”

This is the closest anyone can come to understanding the psyche of North Korea. Here’s a nation where people are starving and are earning one dollar a month but its leaders are busy rubbing their “enemies” the wrong way. The presumed North Korean attack in March on the Cheonan, a South Korean warship — and the firing of artillery at a South Korean island in November — is one of the heaviest attacks on its neighbour since the Korean War ended in 1953. Both have been widely condemned. Kim Jong-il is unfazed, though, and recently anointed his son Kim Jong-Un as the new leader.

Barring China, North Korea is not left with any trading partners and is turning into a veritable Zimbabwe or maybe even worse. To think of it, till the late 60s, North Korea was way more prosperous than its southern counterpart. But while South Korea started currying favours from western nations, Kim Il-Sung ensured North Korea remained a relic of the communist past. But the relentless brainwashing continued.

Government newspapers described miracles that were conjured out of thin air. A turbulent sea instantly became calm when sailors sang hymns to Kim Il-Sung. When in the demilitarised zone, a mysterious fog descended that saved him from potential assassination by South Korean snipers. At the birth of Kim Jong-il, a bright star was to be seen in the sky (North Korea is probably the only country on Twitter that spouts propaganda the way lava oozes out of an active volcano).

And the unwitting people never questioned these lies on steroids. To think of it, questioning is ruled out judging by the fact that everyone is a potential traitor and everyone is a potential informer. The lives that Demick chose to narrate are equally heartbreaking but there is an undercurrent of melancholic optimism throughout the book that really makes Demick’s writing sing.

At times the ends appeared too well-tied what with ex-lovers meeting once again and very few teething problems in getting assimilated into South Korea. But that is to quibble. Nothing to Envy is an intelligent Wikileaks: less of a cable and more of a gate.

Barbara Demick
316 pages; Rs 399

Sonic intervention

The annual Jaipur Literature Festival is rewarding on different levels right from talks on various forms of literature to poetry to… music. William Dalrymple and his team understand that nothing’s better than music to help one unwind after attending multiple sessions throughout the day. Right from Salman Ahmad’s beautiful, reckless music to Suheir Hammad’s soul edifying poetry, the Festival will take a lovely “James Joyce meets Monsoon Wedding” detour every evening of January 21-25.

Susheela Raman’s authentically soulful timber aided by Aref Durvesh, Nathoo Solanki, Kutle Khan, Chugee Khan and Sam Mills should be a barbecue jam of sorts. If her recent performance at NH7 Weekender in Pune is any indication then Susheela is testing new waters and how. She seems confident that the raw emotions in her Tamil music would definitely soar stratospherically. She didn’t bother to sing her most popular song ‘yeh mera deewanapan hai’ (from the movie Namesake) and even dismissed requests by saying that “it’s old”. However, fans of her day job seem content to lay hands on any pie of her séance with the Supreme Being. Maybe this is how music can be an utterly transforming experience.

Unlike last year, this time there are quite a few international acts lined up. One being an Algerian DJ called Cheb I Sabbah whose clever mixes of earthy Indian music interspersed with schizoid religious chants will be a huge draw.

London-based band Transglobal Underground’s mish-mash of western, oriental and African music styles is so addictive that it might even blow your argyle socks off. We wouldn’t know their playlist but if they choose to play ‘Temple Head’, ‘Tal Zamaan’ and ‘Delta Disco’, your trip to Jaipur would be worth for the music alone. Belgian singer Natacha Atlas’ (a former Transglobal Underground member) fusion of Arabic and Western hip-hop is certain to drive the crowd utterly mental. With a little bit of chemical assistance, some of her songs like ‘Leysh nat’arak’, ‘Yalla Chant’ and ‘Le Printemps’ are guaranteed mindmelters.

Another artist worth watching is Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, whose fluid voice can be described as the Arabian reincarnate of Billie Holiday. Sample a song called ‘Rome & Juliet’ where the juxtaposition of pain and sensuality is pure Billie Holiday. We expect the meeting of poets Jeet Thayil, Omar Musa and Suheir Hammad to be a standout performance. Thayil, popular for being one half of the music duo Sridhar/Thayil, has four collections of poetry to his name; Suheir Hammad a Palestinian-American poet writes poems stabbing at the post-modern society’s propensity for sexism; And Omar Musa is an Australian poet and rapper, who won the Australian Poetry Slam in 2008.

What more, there are some brilliant Indian acts performing too like Shyopat Julia, Rajasthani musicians, Gafaruddin Mewati, Jaipur Kawa Brass Band. We can already see the Diggi Palace (the Festival venue) exploding the way Mt Eyjaffjallajokull did last year: difference would be that in Jaipur people will fly.

Under-the-radar writers at Jaipur Lit Fest

Visual writer
Atiq Rahimi fled Afghanistan for France in 1984, where he has become a filmmaker and novelist. Judging by the themes of his three books so far, his heart has remained in Afghanistan. The first two, Earth and Ashes and A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear, were set in the late 1970s while the Soviet cloud was hovering over Kabul. Think of Rahimi as Khaled Hosseini minus the contrived plots. Rahimi’s books never cross the 160-page size mark and his prose is as spare as a bone. He embodies that famous Leonard Cohen line: “shy one at an orgy”. He will be joined by Ahmed Rashid, Jayanta Prasad, Jon Lee Anderson and Rory Stewart to discuss Af-Pak on January 23.

The professional

To think of it, history may well remember Washington Post reporter David Finkel as the Julian Assange the world never had. The Collateral Murder video that transported WikiLeaks to the centre of the universe was in Finkel’s possession, too, but he choose not to disclose it, in order to protect his source. This journalistic integrity has held him in good stead, earning him a Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting in 2006 for a series of stories about the US’s democracy promotion efforts in Yemen. His book The Good Soldiers is a harrowing fly-on-the-wall account of the time he spent as a reporter “embedded” with the Second Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment of the US Army in Iraq. So you see, for every Michael Hastings there is a David Finkel. With Jon Lee Anderson and Rory Stewart, Finkel will discuss “Reporting the Occupation” on January 22.

The unsettler
Here are a few unofficial boxes that writers and poets need to tick to ensure themselves a hassle-free life in China: no lengthy descriptions of sex, no explicit writings on homosexuality, not even a slight disregard for history and absolutely nothing about what transpired in June 1989, the month of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. The fact that Hong Ying doesn’t keep to any of these rules makes her a Chinese literary rarity. Her prose sparkles. Her most popular novel, K, could be described as China’s answer to D H Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Catch her in conversation with Isabel Hilton, a Scottish journalist and TV personality, and Stephen McCarty, a literary editor, in “China Dialogues” on January 25.

Sudan’s soul
Sudan is now on the brink of its own partition. Leila Aboulela’s books are an excellent way to begin to understand her country’s war-ravaged past. Their unsettling themes call to mind Virginia Woolf’s dictum: if they can live it, you can write it. Lyrics Alley is about a family during Sudan’s struggle for independence in the 1950s. Minaret is about one woman’s culture shock when she flees to the UK after the 1985 coup. In The Translator, the central character is torn between love and her identity. In Colored Lights, short stories, Aboulela deals with the emotional intricacies of young women wedged between competing worlds. It is as if the author is saying: “If I can write it, you can read it”. Listen to her on “Mapping the Novel in the Arab World” on January 23.