Sunday, November 28, 2010

Lost And Found by CP Surendran: A Review

By John Cheeran
CP Surendran’s Lost And Found can be read as a Bollywood script with gravitas. For someone as accomplished with words as CP, I should say at the outright, that the novel disappoints, again. May be, expectations were too many to begin with.
CP is many things -- poet, journalist, columnist and that may have complicated the role of being a novelist for him. His first novel, Iron Harvest, rooted in Kerala tackled the dreams of the rebellious youth during Emergency, but was lost in a running stream of imagery.
As a journalist you are condemned to a life of cursing and questioning and every story that lands on editing table can be material for a novel. In fact, newspaper stories often defy imagination.
CP’s situation deserves readers’ sympathy. Being a journalist and novelist it would have been hard to stave off the temptation of making use of events during 26/11 for a work of fiction. That CP dared to look back on 26/11 and Bombay, not much in anger but in compassion, understanding and reconciliation both at personal and political levels, is a praiseworthy act.
The dread with which one approached Lost And Found disappeared as taut sentences spread their ink. When CP writes “The future seems extravagant, unnecessary” you may agree with him.
But to make use of the trite Bollywood theme of twin brothers separated at birth coming together as the pivot of Lost And Found must have taken a leap of faith for the novelist. A terrorist from Pakistan wielding an AK-47 bumps into his twin brother, biological mother and alleged father in a Bandra apartment moments before he prepares to put his foot on the doors of heaven. Jihad meets its comeuppance in the outcome of a one-night stand of a Malayali couple.
Even dark humour needs to have its boundaries and I wonder whether CP wanted Lost And Found to be read as a spoof for our troubled times.
Yes, there are redeeming features, too. In Lost And Found, Bombay conveniently becomes the canvas for CP’s take on journalism, religion, fundamentalism, Islam, and broken relationships. They would have made excellent reading as newspaper columns – in fact Placid Hari Oadnnur’s profile of freelance photographer Udit Rai, The Dog of Small Things, is outrageously brilliant-- but not as a gripping narrative.
A farrago of characters and a bhang-inspired plot make for Lost And Found. Lakshmi Menon the porn writer, who was raped in a Mumbai local train many years ago, kidnaps her alleged rapist from a party and brings him home the night before terrorists from Karachi land on Mumbai shore to script 26x11. It was a beginning but the carefully wrought sarcasm and cynicism get washed away in the desperate effort of the author to justify his cast of characters. Yes, in India and Pakistan a lot of things do happen. Even on Bollywood screens. What Lost And Found wants its readers to believe is much more than that, a task in which CP has failed them again.

Monday, November 22, 2010

The China Syndrome By Harsh V Pant: A Review

By John Cheeran
The problem with India’s diplomatic class is that it does not believe in the argument of power but in the power of argument. The power of argument does not take you far and the rise and rise of China is an example for that.
The Chinese Communist party knows what it wants and goes about achieving it without any moral rhetoric. Not for nothing then Deng Xiaoping said: “It does not matter whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches the mice.” China deals with anyone and everyone if it serves its agenda. It has no qualms about striking strategic partnerships with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe or dictatorships in Africa or Asia, including the Burmese junta in India’s backyard. It doles out aid to authoritarian regimes in Asia, Africa and Latin America with no strings attached so that it can get what it seeks, be it energy or geopolitical advantage. It has powered Pakistan’s nuclear ambitions, is in many energy deals with Iran and buys arms and ammunition from Israel. It, apparently, knows how to project power.
On the other hand, India’s diffidence in power projections is creating a perception in South East Asia that there is nothing to fear from New Delhi.
Harsh V Pant, who teaches at King’s College in London, in the Department of Defence Studies, flays the Indian establishment in his new book The China Syndrome, for not having a consistent, reasoned policy to deal with the dragon.
Pant is quite blunt in his assessment of India, especially in the backdrop of the recent chatter of India taking its rightful place in the comity of nations, along with the US and China and says India should stop talking about becoming a global leader. He adds that no one takes such claims seriously when India has been unable to get a grip on its own neighbourhood.
Pant excoriates the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) for not conceptualizing a long term strategy, especially when negotiating with China. So one day China is India’s enemy No.1, then becomes a good neighbour and later wooed as India’s greatest neighbour.
Pant chides prime minister Manmohan Singh for buying into the liberal fallacy that assumes only if nations trade with each other more, the world would become more prosperous and peaceful. Sino-Indian relations rely too much on this premise, forgetting geopolitical narrative. So even though China is India’s largest trading partner, India’s relationship with the middle kingdom remains uneasy.
India’s inability or rather unwillingness to see the world as it is rather than as it should be has become the bane of its foreign policy, argues Pant.
He writes that China is not a malevolent, sinister international entity out there to demolish India. It is a state which is simply pursuing its own strategic interests in a hard-headed fashion on its way to achieving the status of a super power.
Tibet lies at the heart of the deep distrust between India and China. Pant correctly observes that the world is not willing to confront on China on any issue. That makes Sino-India relationship all the more challenging.
2010 marks 60 years of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. The Chinese conquest of Tibet in 1951 should have led to a fundamental reassessment regarding China’s motives with respect to India. And, India lost the 1962 war with China.
Yet, even in 2010, China’s gradual encroachment of Indian territory continues to surprise the Indian leadership, writes Pant.
India needs to urgently review its defence prepardness vis-à-vis China. The real challenge for India, however, lies in China’s rise as a military power. In the post-26/11 scenario, it has been pointed out that India seems to have lost even its conventional superiority over Pakistan.
The very fact that the United States is willing to back India in its quest for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council stems from the Obama administration’s strategy to contain an ever rising China, militarily as well as commercially, making use of India as its bulwark in the East. It is now for the Indian establishment to play the game.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Harbhajan and the art of scoring runs

By John Cheeran
Harbhajan Singh has hit another Test century.
The century (111) in Hyderabad is his second consecutive knock against New Zealand in the ongoing series.
Last week in the first Test at Ahmedabad Harbhajan had scored 115 in the second innings and 69 in the first innings. These three consistent scores against a decent international bowling attack cannot be viewed as an aberration.
No wonder then that former Indian skipper Rahul Dravid argued on Sunday that the off-spinner from Chandigarh could be evolving into an Indian Gary Sobers. May be, may be not.
Well, Dravid can be, at times, quite magnanimous to his teammates. There is, absolutely, no shades of the West Indian all-rounder in Harbhajan Singh. But Harbhajan has improved a lot as a batsman. He has succeeded when top order batsmen failed to come to the rescue of India as in the second innings of the first Test in Ahmedabad.
What explains Harbhajan’s sudden success as a batsman?
Before getting into that debate let me state that Harbhajan has failed in his primary responsibility as the seniormost spinner in bowling out New Zealanders. Harbhajan took four wickets in the New Zealand first innings in Hyderabad but could take only one in Ahmedabad.
There is little doubt that Harbhajan belongs to the Virender Sehwag School of Batting. The Sehwag School of Batting believes in belting the ball, without getting bogged down by the consequences and the context of the match. It does not observe the niceties of wearing out the bowling attack. When Sehwag succeeds, he invariably hammers a big score or else he falls too early to leave the Indian innings wobbling.
In Hyderabad, Harbhajan, a No.8 batsman, has top scored for India with 111 off 116 balls. His strike rate of 95.68 in this innings is much better than that of Sehwag (80). And to consider that Harbhajan top scored for an India with a batting line-up that boasts of Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Dravid and VVS Laxman!
Batting is a much refined task compared to bowling. But a fearless approach wins you more than half the battle. You cannot blame Harbhajan if he had thought of emulating the raw, robust approach of Sehwag in plundering runs. If Harbhajan the batsman attempts a wild shot and gets out in the process he has still opportunity to redeem himself as a bowler. His existence as a cricketer and a member of the Indian squad does not hinge on the number of runs he scores. Such knowledge can be extremely useful for a cricketer who has wielded the long handle in the past and has a devil-may-care attitude to life in general.
Whereas specialist batsmen are hampered at the crease by the responsibility to score runs, the lack of any such burden sets free the likes of Harbhajan at the batting crease. But, then, why other bowlers in the side are not able to reproduce the success of Harbhajan?
May be, they are not willing to walk that extra mile. It is important to recall at this juncture that former Indian captain and leg spinner Anil Kumble said in an interview that since they (Srinath, Kumble and Venkatesh Prasad) are bowlers they do not want to stay at the batting crease and risk injuries and thereby jeopardize their career. The approach that it is the job of batsmen to bring home the runs is fine up to a point. But, there is no doubt that Harbhajan has no such reservations when it comes to cocking a snook at the opposition.
Yes, some skills to improvise while going for strokes do count. Hand-eye co-ordination, too, is important. But a big heart for fight counts much more than that.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Desiree by Annemarie Selinko: A review

By John Cheeran
23 years later, I re-read Desiree, the historical novel by Annemarie Selinko. Desiree – Citizeness Bernadine Eugenie Desiree Clary-, daughter of a Marseille silk merchant, was the first love of emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
Regarded as the most fascinating historical novel since Gone With the Wind, Desiree is an engaging and powerful read but, I guess, largely remains faithful to historical facts.
Emperor Napoleon and his rival marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte played huge roles in the making of European history in the 18th and 19th century. But this spunky and loyal girl played an equally important role in the lives of these two men and, eventually, became the queen of Sweden.
Everyone who knows about Napoleon also knows about queen Josephine. But not many know about Desiree, who as a 14-year-old, emptied her piggybank and gave a bankrupt, 24-year-old general Napoleon 98 francs to make his journey to Paris to plead his cause with army top brass. Before the world bet on Napoleon, Desiree had the first pick.
Successful men are opportunists and Napoleon did not shy when opportunities beckoned him in Paris. He married Josephine to make his forays in the Parisian labyrinth and further his grand strategy.
Annemarie Selinko writes the novel as a diary kept by Desiree. Its tone is intimate and direct. The simple, unaffected and short sentences convey the romance and breathlessness of, first the French revolution and then that of vaulting ambition of generals. In Desiree, Selinko gets quite closer to a woman’s heart, if such a thing is ever possible.
The events that Desiree is privileged to witness are highly political but this is not a political novel. It’s a novel about trust, love and honour and how we react when confronted by events bigger than ourselves. It’s a must-read for you.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson: A Review

By John Cheeran
The Finkler Question raises many questions on morality, identity and friendship. Howard Jacobson’s Man Booker Prize winning novel is witty and engaging but not an easy read.
Anyone who can write this line, “Death was his only serious rival,” must be good.
And, honestly, I don’t find that funny.
Jacobson, while portraying a gentile and former BBC worker Julian Treslove’s search for his imagined Jewish self in the company of his Jewish friends, gives an unconventional novel, a novel of political and moral relevance when pitted with today’s realities.
It’s about Jewishness but then it is much more than that.
In Jacobson’s own words: “This (The Finkler Question) is a novel about love, loyalty, memory and loss. Mainly it is about the way these things impinge on person to person love, but it is also about the way they impinge upon ideas, and Israel is an important contemporary idea.”
They say The Finkler Question is a comic novel but I find it deeply unsettling, and engaging in that sense. The fact that Jacobson is a Jew does not stop him mocking at the chosen people. But through Sam Finkler, the ashamed Jewish philosopher, Jacobson exposes the hypocrisy of those who hate Jewish people simply for being Jews and captures the fear of another wave of anti-Jewishness flowing from anti-Zionism.
The changing equations among the three friends – two Jews --Libor, Finkler -- and Gentile Treslove –,indeed, hold answers to our own dilemmas in this shifty world.
John Cheeran at Blogged