Another passage to India

April 26, 2015
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Beggars on the Street

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry was written in 1995, about twenty years after the period it describes, The Indira Gandhi era of The Emergency of 1975,  but perhaps not much had changed when he wrote, and even now that may be true.  I spent four or five months in India in 1979-1980, travelling very cheaply, surrounded by the types of people he describes.  That is, I was not cocooned in an air conditioned tour bus, and I ate where street workers and small businessmen ate, and sometimes they would talk with me.  Sometimes a lot…  This book brought back thoughts of that trip in vivid ways, and gave meaning to images that are still with me, and from which I have never been able to make much sense.  More on that later, perhaps.

The novel has an epigraph that is a quotation from Balzac:

Rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction.  All is true.

Many of the negative commentators on this book at Amazon (I always find the thumbs-down views of more interest than the raves) seem to want a fiction, or to want a book that is more according to their taste.  The story is almost unremittingly depressing, and I shared the feelings of many readers who commented that they found it difficult to return to it after putting it down, yet they did, as did I, because Mistry is a fine writer who draws you in with his first page.  (How DOES he do that? What is there in his craft that casts this spell; I mean, what exactly is it in his words, at the level of the sentence, as some critics say? When a book fails at this, it is easy to point out specific weaknesses, but when it succeeds, for me at least, it is like magic.) Some commentators were angry and disappointed that Mistry offers not a shred of a happy ending to redeem the horrors his characters endure.  “A fine balance” refers to the necessary attitude humans must take between hope and despair, but Mistry is definitely light on the hope side of the scales.  The only positive things about the happenings in this book are that many characters show great warmth towards one another, and some show the ability to change from indifference to love.  It is a measure of the horror of the situations he presents that even this, turning towards love, seems like a small, weak thing:  all the people who show decency are destroyed by physical mutilation, social smothering, or their own unbearable powerlessness.

To say that the plot of this book is contrived is to miss the point of it:  it is, in some sense, an extended fable.  Like Dickens, to whom Mistry is compared by some reviewers, the book is filled with coincidences that seem, on reflection, to be improbable. By the time the reader is at the end of the tale, it should be obvious that this is not through carelessness, but is deliberate.  Just as calculated is the rain of misfortune that befalls the two tailors who make their escape from rural caste violence to the city where they seek their fortune.  Could everything happen to two people that happens to them?  They seem to always be at the wrong place, at just the worst moment:  rounded up for forced work gangs by Indira Gandhi’s City Beautification project; hauled in by thugs at a forced sterilization clinic;  caught in a brutal slum clearance episode, to name a few dark spots in their story.  To readers who feel that (I am paraphrasing some comments)… Mistry just piles on misery after misery, and should have held out some positive ray of hope…nobody would keep getting dumped on that way…  I wold reply, tell that to the five-year old child born to beggars in the street who has nothing in his future but just that.  To ask for something else from the novel is to deny the reality of these people, which is exactly what Mistry wants to force us to see.  To have all these things happen to oneself, or just one that is enough to destroy you, it hardly matters which is the case.

The epigraph of the book is from Balzac; reviewers mention Dickens; and I was reminded of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.  It’s been so many years since I read it, perhaps I am off-base, but the relentless grinding down of the characters by uncaring social circumstances is common to both books.  And of course, there are the children of Jude’s who hang themselves “…because we are too menny,” that appear in the form of three young sisters who hang themselves with their saris.  The story of these sisters is related through an old newspaper story read by one of the characters in the epilogue to the book:  that character, one for whom we feel there is something of a chance of a decent life because of his education and his loving family, echoes the tragedy of Ana Karenina.  Whatever the literary influences acting upon Mistry, he is telling a story about India, not Europe.

When I traveled in India, I saw lots of beggars, horribly deformed.  I stepped over lots of families sleeping in the streets.  I saw a man walking along the street in a small town react with horror and fright when a field worker accidentally brushed his clothing in the street:  he immediately began to furiously brush at the fabric, peering intently at it to see if there was some stain.  He was not just worried about a laundry bill – he feared pollution.   I waited in line outside a barber’s shack to get a shave in a rural village, and watched the man’s eyes dilate with terror when a local Brahman pushed himself to the front of the line. The man was faced with a horrible dilemma; insult a white European, or the Brahman.  I just smiled and waved to set him at ease, and was eyed with contempt by the priest.  Just the teeny-tip-of-the-iceberg of the caste system in rural India.

The novel is filled with characters consumed with anxiety and feelings of disgust:  anxiety for their safety or their precarious livelihoods, and disgust for those limitless numbers of people who are worse off than they.  Usually, these characters are those with a little bit of authority or education:  business people, local functionaries, policemen, petty politicians.  Those with power use it brutally to enrich and protect themselves; their contempt acts as a spur to their actions and a justification for it, an old story.  Because the people of this strata of India often know some English, I tended to meet a lot of them.  I also met a lot who were not  brutal or totally self-serving, but who seemed consumed with anger and frustration at their situation, their powerlessness, the unfairness of it all.  To them, I was from a blessed world where people could actually do as they pleased.  And of course, compared to them, even traveling on $1.00 a day, I was vastly rich.  Often, they would beg me to help them.  It is this desperation that Mistry illuminated for me with his novel.

I have never returned to India:  I have no desire to travel there again as a tourist, but this book brought me back.

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Bleak House

May 21, 2014

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What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and God.”

So, true, except for the God part, of course.  I have begun to read Bleak House, a long-term project, and already I find it enthralling.  The story is wrapped around a lawsuit that has gone on for so long that nobody even seems to know what it is about anymore.  The lawyers don’t care of course:  they are busy making money off the legal costs to both sides.  Dickens was drawing upon his first-hand knowledge of the Chancery Court to attack, ridicule, and satirize the institution, which was, in fact, being reformed at about the time his book was written.

The beginning of the book has a dismal, eerie atmosphere that can’t help but make me think of Kafka’s The Trial (both are comic in a dark way) and Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy.  I read the latter over thirty years ago, but what stays with me, and what brings it to mind, is the setting in a bizarre self-contained world populated by all sorts of strange creatures who thrive on the strange and stifling current order of things.

Dickens lays into quite a few things in this book, including do-gooders that cannot seem to do good for themselves or their own families.  The Jellybys and the Pardiggles, the women, that is, are philanthropists who most certainly do not think that charity begins at home.  Mrs. Jellyby is called the “telescopic philanthropist,” because her eyes are always on the plight of the distant Africans, while her children grow hungry, dirty, and wild.  The offspring of these women made me think of An American Tragedy, with its protagonist who endured street-corner missionary life as a tot, and Katy Perry, who was raised by evangelicals who would not allow her to listen to or watch…just about anything other kids were watching and listening to. (She’s certainly done all right.)

Here’s a snip about one tortured tot who is referred to as the Bond of Joy on account of some group he’s been impressed into.  Clearly, spiritual discipline is having unintended side-effects:

And the Bond of Joy, who on account of always having the whole of his little income anticipated stood in fact pledged to abstain from cakes as well as tobacco, so swelled with grief and rage when we passed a pastry-cook’s shop that he terrified me by becoming purple. I never underwent so much, both in body and mind, in the course of a walk with young people as from these unnaturally constrained children when they paid me the compliment of being natural.

This passage in which Esther is dragged with Mrs. Pardiggle on an uninvited and unwanted visit to a family in distress is choice:

Mrs. Pardiggle, leading the way with a great show of moral determination and talking with much volubility about the untidy habits of the people (though I doubted if the best of us could have been tidy in such a place), conducted us into a cottage at the farthest corner, the ground-floor room of which we nearly filled. Besides ourselves, there were in this damp, offensive room a woman with a black eye, nursing a poor little gasping baby by the fire; a man, all stained with clay and mud and looking very dissipated, lying at full length on the ground, smoking a pipe; a powerful young man fastening a collar on a dog; and a bold girl doing some kind of washing in very dirty water. They all looked up at us as we came in, and the woman seemed to turn her face towards the fire as if to hide her bruised eye; nobody gave us any welcome.

“Well, my friends,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, but her voice had not a friendly sound, I thought; it was much too business-like and systematic. “How do you do, all of you? I am here again. I told you, you couldn’t tire me, you know. I am fond of hard work, and am true to my word.”

“There an’t,” growled the man on the floor, whose head rested on his hand as he stared at us, “any more on you to come in, is there?”

“No, my friend,” said Mrs. Pardiggle, seating herself on one stool and knocking down another. “We are all here.”

“Because I thought there warn’t enough of you, perhaps?” said the man, with his pipe between his lips as he looked round upon us.

The young man and the girl both laughed. Two friends of the young man, whom we had attracted to the doorway and who stood there with their hands in their pockets, echoed the laugh noisily.

“You can’t tire me, good people,” said Mrs. Pardiggle to these latter. “I enjoy hard work, and the harder you make mine, the better I like it.”

“Then make it easy for her!” growled the man upon the floor. “I wants it done, and over. I wants a end of these liberties took with my place. I wants an end of being drawed like a badger. Now you’re a-going to poll-pry and question according to custom—I know what you’re a-going to be up to. Well! You haven’t got no occasion to be up to it. I’ll save you the trouble. Is my daughter a-washin? Yes, she IS a-washin. Look at the water. Smell it! That’s wot we drinks. How do you like it, and what do you think of gin instead! An’t my place dirty? Yes, it is dirty—it’s nat’rally dirty, and it’s nat’rally onwholesome; and we’ve had five dirty and onwholesome children, as is all dead infants, and so much the better for them, and for us besides. Have I read the little book wot you left? No, I an’t read the little book wot you left. There an’t nobody here as knows how to read it; and if there wos, it wouldn’t be suitable to me. It’s a book fit for a babby, and I’m not a babby. If you was to leave me a doll, I shouldn’t nuss it. How have I been conducting of myself? Why, I’ve been drunk for three days; and I’da been drunk four if I’da had the money. Don’t I never mean for to go to church? No, I don’t never mean for to go to church. I shouldn’t be expected there, if I did; the beadle’s too gen-teel for me. And how did my wife get that black eye? Why, I give it her; and if she says I didn’t, she’s a lie!”

The poor are right in front of Mrs. P’s face, but she cannot know them, and doesn’t want to, really.

At the conclusion of this scene, Esther sees that the sick baby being held by an exhausted women in the room has died, and she is distraught.  The mother collapses in exhaustion while her worn out friend guards the door so she can sleep, as she has not had the chance for several days.


Sugar tapping into the bit-stream

November 16, 2009

We are all connected!Sometimes in my job, I feel like I’m in a bad science fiction movie.  The one in which a technocrat is speaking to a well-heeled audience about some new computer gismo that is going to change all of our lives – for the better – while disaster looms outside…

I attended a conference today, in the grand interior rotunda of a university library, about the use of  “geospatial” technology – that’s my field, maps, GIS, location data,  etc. – and disaster preparedness planning.  One fellow, a doctor and a tireless worker in various international NGO’s, talked about all the great, whiz-bang Web locational stuff that is helping him and his peers “save some lives.”  I’ve no complaint with that!

He talked about a sugar tapper in the rainforest of Indonesia, a bona fide member of a head-hunting tribe, who has the right to tap twelve trees in this jungle, and how he was able to double his income once he received some global positioning (GPS) tools.  Since the same person spoke about how local people serve as guides to internationals because only they can find their way around the forest they have lived in all their lives, I wondered why GPS made a difference to this guy.  Born and raised to the area, wouldn’t he have all sorts of low-tech, traditional ways of keeping track of where his trees are and when it was time to visit them to collect sugar?  Isn’t that the sort of indigenous knowledge we techno-nerds of the West are always rhapsodizing about when we get bored with our toys?  I asked exactly that question, and the answer was simple.

The tapper had no problem finding his trees and organizing his work, but by selling his sugar as Certified Organic, he was able to abandon smuggling as a livelihood and enter the global market for “green” agriculture.  In order to gain access to this market, he had to produce lots of paperwork and keep detailed records, and for this, GPS, digital maps, spreadsheets, and various plug-ins and plug-outs are invaluable.

I am happy this man is able to support himself in this sustainable way, and glad that the local university is involved in helping his community overcome the technical hurdles to entering this market – it seems like a good local development effort on their part.  It is important to keep in mind, however, exactly what problem was being solved.  The farmer had no technical problem running his sugar operation.  The problem was in being accepted into the global network of selling.  How you feel about his success here depends on what you think about globalization, capitalism, organic agriculture, and a lot of other things.  I do get the feeling, though, that in these breathless presentations on the value of hi-tech spatial technology that we are often looking for ways to solve problems that the same technologies have created.

Another speaker, a professor who also runs this outfit, talked about how four or five infrastructure providers are collecting data each day on phone callers:  from where and when they place a call.  These corporations are looking for ways to use this data, “creative business opportunities, or societal-beneficial stuff ” he said.  Presented with this mass of data – the problem – they search for meaning, and create solutions to extract it.   At one point he said that using this data, we can tell who and what we are by virtue of our co-locating.  That is, you know something about people by knowing where they meet and with whom.  Except that this data just tells you where and when pretty much…

One such exercise involved graphing the volume of commuters to the financial district of San Francisco against the Dow Jones.  We see that people tend to go in to the office early when the market isn’t doing too well.  They come in later when the market seems to be trending upwards steadily.  Surprised?  Imagine, you could develop “smart advertising” targeting those people by changing digital ads in real-time on  trains, buses, and billboards! – my idea, BTW, but only in the particulars.  Unusually heavy early traffic going into the city?  Cue the bromo-seltzer and beer ads – it’s going to be a bruiser of a day on the trading floor!

I know that technology has wonderful and humane applications, but stuff like this is enough to make you a Luddite.  Part of the idolatry of the computer, and the relentless drive to draw us all into the web of the International Work (and buy) Machine.

Now, this leaves open only one question:  How do I get the four or five hundred people who visit this blog each day to pay me some money!!  How much would you pay for the privilege?