Monday, September 28, 2009

Machinery from odd places.

I picked up A short history of Tractors in the Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka , with a lot of hope, as the book was Orange prize shortlisted, and was well received by the critics. The story is about a dysfunctional family of immigrants in the U.K., who are coming to terms with the loss of the wife, and mother to two sisters. The elder is divorced with an attitude, while the younger one displays symptoms of child abuse, being bullied about by her sister. The father is the eccentric one, and much to the daughter’s dismay, fell for the oldest trick in the world, ending up married to a treasure hunter from their country of origin, Ukraine. The rest of the story is about how they managed to extricate themselves from this situation.The book would have been funny, pathetic or symbolic, if the author had the skills to make it so.

The chapters roll by, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction at the end of each. The pains and travails of immigrants could have been addressed, the relationship between the sisters could have been explored, the philosophical musing of the father could have taken more meaning or the whole thing could have been a laugh a minute book ; all these potential and admirable goals were initiated, but left unfinished. In the end the book wanted to say something, but could not ; the story line promised much, but delivered very little. The book left many regrets for the characters and the reader.

Mobius Dick

Written by Andrew Crumey, a theoretical physicist, this book is a roller coaster. It is about a physicist ( who else !), John Ringer, who manages to get himself in a tough situation. Some wall street type of guys with criminal mindsets (and don’t we know those) decide to finance a new generation of cell phone technology based on quantum mechanics, and our hero warns them of dire consequences. He is promptly mugged and put into a mental institution, where he is declared mad. So begins his hunt for sanity and keeping him company are some of physics best known stalwarts- Schrodinger and Boltzmann. The story flips between two different time periods, and one has to struggle to maintain a sense of time and place. The constant change in reference can challenge one’s internal gyro, but it is worth the effort. The asylum makes a beautifully sinister backdrop, which sets the scene for some the best chapters.

After a tepid start, which can tempt one to put down the book irretrievably, the story picks up pace in the middle and, in fact, is riveting as the inconsistencies of quantum mechanics start ( not) falling in place. The drama of a mystery novel using quantum mechanics most famous story ( Schrodinger’s cat) is well worth the read . However, the story then tapers off lamely, and one can almost anticipate the finale. The intrigue of the middle chapters just cannot hold up the story line as it collapses to a tame end. Nevertheless, the book does make an interesting read, and will hold the attention of readers of fiction with a scientific bend.

Odds and Ends

After reading the artcile Captal Gains, a not very informed article on Delhi, in Granta, I was prompted to respond. My take is reproduced below.

As a lifelong resident of Delhi, I could immediately identify the “nouveau rich” Dasgupta talks about in this article. It is made out to be a new phenomenon, but we have seen this time and again over the last four decades. Delhi attracts entrepreneurs, and when they succeed, some crass behaviour follows, and is talked about. Delhi-wallahs have learnt to ignore this. Fortunately Delhi still has a substantial majority of people one will love to meet.
Sadly, Dasgupta does not talk about some simple pleasures of Delhi. A visit to the walled city, a stroll through some quaint streets with mouth watering delicacies, charming bookshops and, for a discerning visitor, a sense of history to be read in the old buildings and monuments. Khan Market has some compelling restaurants and the Habitat Centre is ideal for a cultural evening.
The reason some people made lots of money to flash around is because the educated middle class Indians had money to spend. When recession squeezed their spending power, the businesses suffered. The proposed gigantic “Mall of India” in Gurgaon, has not taken off, because of a lack of buyers. So, to conclude that the rich have made money at the expense of the downtrodden is misleading. Everybody gained from the economic boom, some more that others.
The article belabours the infamous BMW case, as an example of judicial inequity. It is undeniable that such inequities- social, political and economic do exist in India. This is no different than any other country at India’s developmental stage. The point is that the schisms are recognised by the society and the government takes steps, albeit sluggishly, to address this.
Notably disappointing was the utter lack of cultural aspects of Delhi. The article dismissed a few Delhi-wallahs interviewed as dinosaurs, ill equipped to handle the feral ferociousness of Delhi’s moneyed. Fortunately this is far from the truth. Delhi hosts a vibrant cultural scene- try the theatre district in central Delhi, the endless painting exhibitions, the exuberant music festivals, and the historic Red Fort/Qutub festivals. I could go on at the risk of making this a tourist advert. Thankfully none of these are the favourite haunts of the upstarts and the vulgar.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Hello , this is Sam.

Despite the sudden inclement weather, the 16th annual Luvraj Kumar memorial lecture was held on schedule on the 13th of August, at Trimurti Bhavan, although with a much truncated audience. A number of people I spoke to later, gave up on the event, despite starting on time, but getting stuck in the traffic. This year’s speaker was Sam Pitroda, talking on Access and Aspirations. Sam spoke lucidly and compellingly on how aspirations increase with access to technology. He related his own life story as an example of how his journey to US changed his outlook of the world. His contribution to the Indian telecom revolution is much underplayed. He did say that when the idea of privatisation of telecommunications was floated, there was less resistance to it, as CDOT had already demonstrated the advantages of a cheaper and effective way of doing things. CDOT was a unique concept as it operated within the “system” a.k.a Government of India, but was effectively outside it. If I remember correctly, Sam Pitroda’s role was much criticized by the bureaucrats and the politicians of the time. Looks like all that was totally irrelevant, as much of politicians views are in any case. It was unfortunate that as CDOT wound down, Sam had to return to USA to earn some money to get his children through college. He is now back to head the PM’s technology commission, and looks like he still provides his services gratis. (Unless the system learns to pay well, it will be hard pressed to find people like Sam).

His idea of providing a UID to every citizen of India has led to Nandan Nilekani start on this venture. Only with today’s technology of online finger printing, photographs and communicating with a central data base is this possible. Here is wishing Sam Pitroda all the best of this and other ventures.

Jai Bharat Mata

After much trepidation, I did manage to bolster enough courage to go to the talk on Undressing Political Icons, at The Attic. After all, with an incendiary sounding topic as this, the chances of some loony right wingers turning up with bottles and stones are not too remote. Fortunately they did not get a sniff of this talk, and we managed to gather convivially in CP. The Attic is a small, but a very warm place, which, the photocopied programme for the month told us, holds many such social soirees. For a weekday, we had an almost full house. Arundhati, and her husband Jean, did put together a neat and well synchronised talk on the subject. Relating Maqbool Fida Hussain’s controversial painting , the evolution of the imagery of Bharat Mata, and the European concept of nationhood as a female symbolised in Liberty, Europa, and Marianne was done with ├ęclat. The constant swapping of the two speakers to illustrate the Indian and the Europeon aspects was done surprisingly adroitly. It was quite educating to follow the changes in Bharat Mata across the ages; starting in a painting by Aurobindo Ghosh, through to 2006 Hussain’s work. While Europe’s concept of the female symbol embraces nudity ( but not sexually provocative) as an integral part of the image, India’s attempt at this attracted much censure. This is a bit sad, as Hussain’s painting, once placed in front of the European images, is very tame. There was a smattering of questions from the well informed audience, which were addressed expertly and succinctly. On the whole, a very satisfying evening.