Sunday, December 15, 2013

Reflections: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

This is Mohsin Hamid's most recent book. Similar to his debut novel, this story is a sarcastic and honest commentary on what it takes to survive and make a good living in rapidly growing Asia, particularly Pakistan.

The novel has a different narrative style. The book begins like a manual, a witty and sarcastic one at that, with the author relating a hypothetical, prototypical story of a man that rises from rags to riches. He makes you, the reader, wear the shoes of the hypothetical young man born to a poor family, and he makes you walk every mile of the journey taken by the brave yet naive man in his desperate quest to make a decent living for himself in a corrupt society.

Perhaps because I'd read The White Tiger a few weeks before this book, I was reminded of the book while reading this; the themes are similar and the writing styles of both authors are quite similar too (according to me, at least). However, the protagonist and the characters are different. The protagonist (the "hypothetical" one) is far more naive and sympathetic than Balram Halwai. And his story is not nearly as shocking or brutal as The White Tiger's. In that sense, this story is far less harsh and a lot more realistic of how the average man survives and adapts when he finds himself in the unavoidable tangles of corruption in a rapidly developing society. He is forced to make choices that are devastatingly dangerous and unethical, but in the dog-eat-dog world of survival, he better go with the tide or be swallowed by it. There is nothing extraordinary in the protagonist's story and that's what makes this story all the more realistic and understandable.

The writing is good in this book as well. Mohsin Hamid can write engaging stories that combine social commentary with poignant emotions. There is actually a sentimental thread of old-fashioned romance that runs through the narrative. It balances the sourness of the themes and adds an additional dimension of how a woman, a poor one at that, survives in the same society. The man's journey and the woman's divergent journey provide an unsaid commentary on gender inequalities in a developing country. The contrast was subtly woven into the context of the story. I was impressed that the characters were so well developed despite the unique narration. 

Towards the end of the book, Hamid focuses on human relationships rather than the social themes that dominate the first half of the book. While I really liked his treatment of the topic and the nuances that dominate human relationships, it doesn't fit in with the title or theme of the book. In that regard, the story does drift into a whole new genre after a certain point, which some readers may not like. 

I really liked the book. I am always amazed at authors who write a short and crisp book that effortlessly pack a gamut of themes. This is a well-written book that is worth reading. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Reflections: Moth Smoke

Mohsin Hamid is the author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a book that I really liked. So I checked out his other two books to read. This is his debut book.

Darashikoh Shezad is a disillusioned, frustrated banker living a dissatisfied middle-class life in Lahore, Pakistan. Family and social circumstances have restricted his opportunities in life and this embitters him, turning him into a sour, jaded young man. Frustration slowly mounts and one day he vents out on a sleazy client and ends up losing his job. Due to rampant nepotism and other corrupt practices, he struggles to find another job to support himself. At this time, he reconnects with his best friend from school - a man half as smart and capable as him and with less-than-stellar character - who now has a western education, and a luxurious life complete with a beautiful, intelligent wife, and an adorable son. The two friends have such divergent paths, thanks to one major difference in their lives - a wealthy father. His friend was privileged enough to have one, and he did not. When Darashikoh sees the contrast between their two lives, the unfairness of the situation hits him hard and he begins to have conflicting emotions of jealousy and guilt towards his friend’s life. With bills piling, he tries to escape reality by living a heedless life of drugs and adultery. He starts making questionable choices, and slowly, one thing leads to another, and his poor choices quickly escalate to small crimes. Mired in complications, he gradually loses control of his life and gets trampled by the brutal social system in which the upper class always has sway over the lives of those beneath them. This story is about the stifling social & political structures of a corrupt city that lead to the gradual spiraling descent of Darashikoh into hopeless, helpless, self-destruction.

As with his other book, I really liked the writing. Most of the characters, except for the only woman in the story were convincing and well developed. The woman read like a man… the way she thought and acted was unconvincing to me. As for the story, it really captures Darashikoh’s intense resentment towards the way his life has meandered. There were so many things he could have done with his life, but he gives up pursuing anything because of his intense repulsion and dissatisfaction with the corrupt ways of his society. Darashikoh’s resignation over life and his total loss of motivation to redeem his life was frustrating. I could sympathize with him for sure, but only to a certain extent. I didn’t agree or sympathize with him completely shrugging off responsibility for his life and making incrementally poor choices. He could have turned around his life if he was willing to take responsibility and work for it, but his inner spirit had wilted. However, I understand that his story is one of the many ways in which a young man’s life can veer off course due to the untamed consequences of social and economic disparity in a developing country. Obviously, Pakistan and India share almost the same socio-economic issues. One can easily substitute Lahore with any Indian city or town, and the story and characters would still fit in perfectly. In this regard, the book hits a familiar note.

Despite my few frustrations with the protagonist’s choices, I found the book engaging and well-written for an absorbing read. 

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Reflections: The White Tiger

This popular novel has garnered strong opinions from readers on either sides of the love/hate fence. As always, I had no inclination to read this book when it was at its peak. Now that everyone has read, raved, ranted, and forgotten, I picked it up.

I listened to the audio-book, so here’s my brief comment on the audio version narrated by John Lee. It was really good. I was skeptical of how a story rooted in Indian society with Indian names and unique social references would sound through a non-Indian narrator, but on the whole, barring a few (and slight) understandable mispronunciations, the book is narrated really well. Since it’s a short book, the narration was tight paced and absorbing.

Balram Halwai hails from a small village that is tightly controlled by a family of wealthy and ruthless overlords. Survival and bread-winning being a dire necessity, he forgoes education and works as a chauffeur for one of the sons of the overlords in the city of New Delhi. As a chauffeur, or a driver, his place in the social ladder is even below that of the family dog. The pangs of survival and competition constantly gnaw at him as he is forced to accept sub-par treatment every day. Then one day, a tragic incident alters everything for him. Something in him snaps, and his rebellious, survival spirit rears itself menacingly. He commits a murder and escapes to Bangalore to reinvent himself as a successful entrepreneur.

The themes covering the book - caste and social inequality, poverty, corruption, oppression, displaced wealth and the effects of globalization in a developing country - are, for the most part, not eye-opening in anyway for an Indian like me. I know, I’ve seen, I am frustrated. To me, what stands out about this book is the characterization and writing. Despite this being a short book, the story is compelling, and no words are wasted in shaping the characters and setting the scene. The breadth of social themes mentioned are quite complicated to address through a short story, but Adiga’s strength lies in the simplicity and clarity through which he describes and states things as is - he doesn’t flinch, look around for metaphors, or build a sentimental wrap to cover the harsh glare of the themes. As difficult it is (especially for Indians) to face the bitter facts of our society, I have to agree that this story does capture the essence and extent of corruption as seen through the prism of caste and economic inequalities plaguing the nation.

Most Indian readers fret that this book shines the spotlight on unappealing aspects of India and worry that readers from the West would rashly add another stereotype to the several other stereotypes that Indians already face. I understand the concern, but I think in this age of information, if someone chooses to jump to conclusions and stereotypes a country based on a novel, you cannot help them in any which way. It’s not the books fault. The book tells an honest story, albeit a single story.  Do I think some parts/incidents are exaggerated? Not really. I have seen drivers and maids and guards and other sundry men and women being treated with disdain and total disregard. Not all the time, and not by everyone, of course, and this should be kept in mind before rashly generalizing. I have also seen and know of touching relationships between drivers and employers, maids and women of the household etc. And Adiga does bring this out (albeit subtly) through his characters. Ashok (the “master”) and his wife begrudge the unfair treatment and begin to form a good relationship with Balram. However, they do little when circumstances change and they slowly settle into the ways of things by choosing to ignore and not dwell on certain aspects. Eventually, no matter where you are on the social ladder, one’s instinct to survive always overrules every other moral or ethical belief. That is the crux of this book. Those privileged to be at the higher rungs of the socioeconomic ladder wouldn’t mind trampling on the those on the lower rungs to save themselves - this is universally true regardless of a developing or developed society, especially in corporate and political environments. That an underdog managed to survive and climb the social ladder by overthrowing some on the top is a rare occurrence, as rare as spotting a white tiger.

The only thing that didn’t line up against the bristling honesty and reality of the book is the premise for the narration. Balram writes about his life-story and India’s socio-economic state to the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. Why would he want to confess his deeds to anybody, let alone the Chinese Premier? When he’s fought so hard to get to where he is, why would he want to sabotage that through a written admission of his crimes? Does he think he has reached such a powerful state that he believes he can blatantly confess with impunity? Perhaps, but I didn’t find it convincing.

This is an interesting read, especially from the standpoint of the characters and writing. This is a short, but crisp and powerful read. 

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Reflections: Bossypants

American Television's widely adored funny woman, Tina Fey, writes about her professional ascent in a male-dominated world while maintaining a fulfilling and meaningful personal life.

I began reading this book on a whim. After my steep descent into depression upon reading this book, I needed something light and witty to lift my spirits. This book caught my eye in the library and I picked it up.
Many people call this book hilarious and ROTFL-funny. It was not. But it was witty, sarcastic, and yes, funny. You will chuckle now and then, too.

What I liked about this collection of essays is Tina Fey's prudence to not share everything, especially details of her personal life. Whatever she does share, she is honest and open. I really liked this approach to writing a memoir. When authors share a lot of intimate details about their private life, I think it mainly serves as fodder for the readers' general (and sometimes perverse) curiosity and nothing else. I commend them for their open-mindedness to share, but I am not sure what I, the reader, a stranger, gets out of reading all that. In that sense, Tina Fey's memoir has my respect and appreciation. She shares what needs to be, in the right doses, so that women (in specific) can get something out of it.

The book mostly encourages women (of all professions) to doggedly pursue and shape their career, no matter how impossible the prospects seem. Fey pushes women to not give up, and she does so by giving instances of her own escapades - ups and downs. She is self-effacing and self-deprecating in her stories, and through this approach, she conveys the message that she is not a super-woman and anyone can break through in a male dominated world if they worked hard, grabbed every opportunity, and made the best of everything that came their way.

While her self-deprecating humor is witty and even endearing, it becomes too much after a while. For if Tina Fey repeatedly alludes to herself as a wide-hipped, ugly troll with "shark" eyes and bad skin, I run out of adjectives for myself... not a "feel good" path you want to go down. She tries hard to set a realistic balance between the media's portrayal and expectation of beauty and real beauty, and I appreciate it, but when she tries hard to not be vain, she begins sounding all the more vain and insecure. Yet, women can relate to this contradiction and insecurity.

Along those lines, she also shares her vulnerabilities as a woman, her anxiety regarding her biological clock, her fumbles and challenges with motherhood, and the ultimate challenge of juggling her professional and personal life without letting either of them suffer. Most women can relate to her, empathize with her, and find comfort in the knowledge that they are not alone.. they also learn interesting strategies to manage family and work. Tina Fey's stress levels seem really really high, though. So, one can also find comfort in the knowledge that one rarely gets to do the things she has to do, and that our lives are in many ways manageable.
This is a feminist's perspective of having it all, and Tina Fey delivers with wit and intelligence. This is a light and easy read for some quick inspiration.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Reflections: The Book Thief

The Book Thief is a poignant story of a German girl coping with the loss of her family as she gradually grows to love her foster family during the bitter and terrible times of World War II. Even before she blossoms into a woman, Liesel witnesses far too much brutality and pain. One of her first coping instincts is to pick up a book, a memorabilia of sorts, to remind her of her family. Never mind that she doesn’t know how to read, she still carries the book with her like a treasured and comforting teddy bear. Her kind foster father realizes this and he teaches her to read. Reading is her blessing, her ultimate coping mechanism to make sense of the world around her and to lose herself in other beautiful worlds. The power of words is her savior - to express, to understand, to create, and to hold onto thoughts far away from her crushing reality. And so, she begins collecting, and then “stealing” books, as meticulously and cautiously as a bird gathers twigs to build its nest. As Liesel wades through the muddled waters of her adolescence, she builds relationships with her foster family and neighbors, particularly a young boy her age, and most notably, a battered Jew hiding in her foster family’s basement. Books and a handful of people are all she has left, but the war threatens to take it all from yet another innocent soul.

One of the most memorable aspects of this book is the narrator. The narrator is Death himself. But this version of Death has a soul, a penchant for colors, wit, humor, and even compassion. An irony. Death’s perspectives on war, and his “duty” and attachment towards mortals feel good to read, but he’s personified like a “guardian angel” without wings; he seems like an angel in disguise recruited for the wrong job. Despite the fairy tale nature of how Death is portrayed, the irony is not lost and he is a great narrator. After the initial few chapters you forget who the narrator is because the ominousness that initially gripped you fades away.

The writing is the best part of this story. It is beautiful, poetic and touching. The characters begin to have a life of their own and their pain and anguish become palpable. Every character is memorable and distinct. This is also the first book I have read that recounts the sufferings undergone by non-Jewish Germans. I thought the author was sensitive and insightful about the ways in which war spreads its tentacles (sorry for the horrible metaphor).

This is a book that is well worth reading for the beautiful writing and interesting characters.