Thursday, February 11, 2016

Slogans

The novel, Black Hole, continues.

For those who came in late, the story so far:  Kailash Public School in Delhi is donated to Devlok Ashram by Sitaram Rana.  The Ashram was founded by Kailash Baba. Aaron Matthews from London was the most beloved disciple. Amarjeet and Mahendra contributed to the material welfare of the ashram.  Jane Abercrombie, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, is disillusioned with Amarjeet who taught her the Non-Being of Kamasutra and gave her a son, Nitin, in the process. Mahendra discovers that he has a son back there in Kurukshetra and gets a new purpose for his existence. Rachel, Aaron's wife visits him in Delhi having obtained a free journey in the company of the Mountbattens who came to give Independence to India.  Rachel returns to England realising that she has lost Aaron to Indian spirituality.  Mohandas Gandhi's assassination eclipses the murder of Aaron by Amarjeet and Mahendra who have their own ambitions to which Aaron was a perceived hindrance.

Ishan Salman Panicker is an English teacher at Kailash Public School.  When Sitaram Rana, Mahendra's son, hands over the school to the newly founded Kailash Educational and Environmental Trust, Ishan's spirituality is stirred.  He begins to write a gospel.  Ishan's gospel has its roots in Shillong where he was born of hybrid parentage: a Keralite Hindu father and a Khasi Catholic mother, the latter of whom had a Bangladeshi Muslim father.  Shankara Panicker, Ishan's father, was one of the victims of Indira Gandhi's Emergency.  So Father Joseph Kunnel became the boy's guardian. The priest and the boy had little in common.  Eventually Ishan left Shillong along with his wife, Jenny, and got a job at Kailash whose Vice Principal questions how Ishan would make the school a choice of millions. 

Read on:

4.2

Choice of millions,” Uttam Kumar Sharma repeated it with a subdued chuckle.

“Does it amuse you?”  Ishan asked gingerly.

“It’s Mr Tandon’s favourite slogan.”

“So he has other slogans too?”

Uttam looked at Ishan.  Into his eyes.  You are not a fool – that was the meaning of the look.  Ishan thought so, at least.  They were sitting in the House Master’s office on opposite sides of the office table.

“He is a man of slogans,” Uttam said.  “You will learn about his slogans soon.”

“Do words mean more than deeds here?”  As soon as he asked that, Ishan thought he should not have.

The subdued chuckle again.

“Well, Mr Panicker, why did you leave a college lecturer’s job?”

How did this man know that I was a college lecturer? 

“Well,” Ishan cleared his throat.  “Health problems, first of all.”

“Shillong is a hill station, ideal for health.  Your Wordsworth would have loved to live in Shillong.”

Ishan felt alerted.  Kailash is a dangerous place, he thought.   How did this man know so much about him, even about his fondness for the Romantics?  It was then Ishan noticed the book that Mr Sharma had apparently been reading and was placed on the table with the bookmark showing.   Ian McEwan’s Atonement.

“The mountain, and the deep and gloomy wood, their colours and their forms were an appetite to Wordsworth, isn’t it?”  Uttam went on.

Ishan thought of Briony Tallis, the protagonist of Atonement.  “A person is, among all else, a material thing, easily torn and not easily mended.”  He found himself quoting from Atonement.  “However colourful the mountains may be and however gloomy the woods,” he added.

“So, you are going to help us make Kailash the choice of millions?”

Ishan could easily sense the tone of naughtiness in the question.  “Do we have the place to accommodate even a thousand, let alone millions?”

Mr Sharma laughed.  A very controlled laugh. 

“You must have already learnt that we have only five hostels each with a capacity of hundred beds.”

“I found their names interesting,” said Ishan.  “Agasthya, Bhardwaja, Gautama, Janaka and Vasishta.”

“The great sages of a bygone era.  Our founder is a very religious person.  Mr Sitaram Rana.  He chose the names of the hostels himself.”

“You seem to be interested in English literature.  Sanskrit teachers ...”

“... usually regard English as their enemy, right?  I have a Masters in English too.”

“Wow!  But Sanskrit is your first love?”

“Not entirely.  I’m not comfortable with English literature.  Not with teaching it, at least.”

“Why does the Vice Principal want to make Kailash the choice of millions?”  Ishan found himself hopping from one topic to another.  The Vice Principal was a calculated choice, however.  It was important to understand the person who looked rather ominous.

“Oh, don’t take that very seriously.  I told you already he’s in love with slogans.  Once, a few years back, he took us staff members for an outing.  A movie and dinner.  The dinner was at Haldiram’s.  He saw their signboard: HALDIRAM’S SWEETS & NAMKEEN: Choice of Millions.”

“Are his other slogans borrowed from some sweets and namkeen dealers too?”

Mr Sharma chuckled.  “No.  He borrows from Arthashastra too.  It depends on the need and the occasion.  He’s a great man who has worked abroad too as a teacher.”

“I felt a little uneasy with him.  I thought he viewed me with some suspicion or even dislike.”

“There’s nothing to be alarmed.  He was not in the interview board that selected you and that’s the only reason.  He does not trust other people’s capacity to judge the candidates.”

“Does it mean he does not trust the Principal too?”

Mr Sharma stared momentarily at Ishan and then returned to his normal, cool self.  “Welcome to the choice of millions, Mr Panicker.”

He got up.  The bell had sounded for dinner.
 
“Aren’t you joining us for dinner?”  It was none other than, Mr Abhimanyu Chaturvedi, the Principal, who asked that.  Ishan was going towards the staff quarters where Jenny was waiting for him. 

“My wife is alone at home.”

“Why don’t you bring her along too?  Today’s your first day at Kailash, so give us the pleasure of offering dinner to your family.”

Ishan tried his best to decline the invitation.

“No, no, don’t invent excuses,” said Mr Chaturvedi very amiably.  “Take your time but bring her along.  I’ll wait for you.  Remember the dining hall will close after half an hour.”

Jenny had no choice but change her dress quickly and accompany her husband to the enormous dining hall of his new workplace whose sylvan environs had already sponged up some of her fears and apprehensions. 
  
While Jenny was changing her dress, Ishan looked at the TV which was reporting about the communal riots in Gujarat.  “The situation seems to be totally out of control,” the reporter was saying.  “Houses belonging to a particular community are being set on fire and the fire is spreading rapidly...”

Somewhere in the city of Vadodara, a young woman named Zaheera Sheikh stood on the balcony of her friend’s house and watched in helpless stupefaction all the members of her family along with a couple of their staff being engulfed by fires of hatred.  Best Bakery which also served as their residence was in flames.  It was locked from outside by some people whose slogans would remain beyond Zaheera Sheikh’s  comprehension for years.  The religious fervour of those slogans would go on scorching her in a different way even years after all her beloved people were interred. 



 PREVIOUS PARTS

Chapter 1: The Original Sin


Chapter 2: A Gospel

2.2 Dkhar
     2.4 Cry from Calvary
     2.5 The Lost Sheep
     2.8 The Y Chromosome
     
     Chapter 3: Heart of Darkness
     3.1 Heart of Darkness
     3.4 Longings

Chapter 4: Choice of Millions

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Choice of Millions

The novel, Black Hole, continues.

For those who came in late, the story so far:  Kailash Public School in Delhi is donated to Devlok Ashram by Sitaram Rana.  The Ashram was founded by Kailash Baba. Aaron Matthews from London was the most beloved disciple. Amarjeet and Mahendra contributed to the material welfare of the ashram.  Jane Abercrombie, a Jewish refugee from Hitler's Germany, is disillusioned with Amarjeet who taught her the Non-Being of Kamasutra and gave her a son, Nitin, in the process. Mahendra discovers that he has a son back there in Kurukshetra and gets a new purpose for his existence. Rachel, Aaron's wife visits him in Delhi having obtained a free journey in the company of the Mountbattens who came to give Independence to India.  Rachel returns to England realising that she has lost Aaron to Indian spirituality.  Mohandas Gandhi's assassination eclipses the murder of Aaron by Amarjeet and Mahendra who have their own ambitions to which Aaron was a perceived hindrance.

Ishan Salman Panicker is an English teacher at Kailash Public School.  When Sitaram Rana, Mahendra's son, hands over the school to the newly founded Kailash Educational and Environmental Trust, Ishan's spirituality is stirred.  He begins to write a gospel.  Ishan's gospel has its roots in Shillong where he was born of hybrid parentage: a Keralite Hindu father and a Khasi Catholic mother, the latter of whom had a Bangladeshi Muslim father.  Shankara Panicker, Ishan's father, was one of the victims of Indira Gandhi's Emergency.  So Father Joseph Kunnel became the boy's guardian. The priest and the boy had little in common.  Eventually Ishan left Shillong along with his wife, Jenny, and got a job at Kailash.

Read on:

4.1

How will you make Kailash the choice of millions?”

The question stunned Ishan.  It was his first day as PGT in English at Kailash Public School.  The day had passed pretty well except for the normal problems of both the teacher and the students getting used to each other.  He was summoned by the Vice Principal in the evening while he was in a study room of Vasishta Hostel supervising what was known as ‘prep’ during which the students revised the day’s lessons and completed the pending assignments.

Pradeep Kumar Tandon.  Ishan had read the name of the Vice Principal on the door of his office as he entered.
 
“This school has had a great reputation,” Mr Tandon explained himself with a veiled expression which Ishan perceived as scorn.  “There was a time when parents used to stand in a long queue to seek admissions for their wards here.  The situation has changed rather drastically in the last few years.  What do you suggest for bringing back the lost glory?”

Ishan was confused in spite of the explanation.  Whether it was the question or the scorn which marked it that confused him, he was not sure.  He was used to scorn, thanks to Father Joseph Kunnel.  The priest had used that as a deadly weapon with the noble intention of salvaging the aberrant soul of the lost sheep.  No, the priest himself did not display scorn overtly.  He got all the people under his influence in the little town of Shillong to shower scorn on Ishan.  People were more than happy to oblige the priest.   “Every village loves its own idiot or its own lunatic,” Ishan told Jenny once.  “The idiot carries all the idiocy of the people and the lunatic carries all their insanity.  Scapegoat.”  Jenny did not understand what he meant.  She wondered whether he was really going insane.
 
“No one is after you.  It’s all in your imagination,” she told him with some consternation.
 
“The priest is not what he seems,” Ishan tried to explain.  “He uses other people to denigrate me.  They will come, sit near me and discuss things which the priest wants me to hear.  Today they were comparing Hamlet and Othello.”

“What’s Hamlet and Othello got to do with you?”  Jenny was also an English teacher and didn’t need introduction to Shakespearean tragedies.

“The philosopher vacillates while the warrior performs, they said.  Hamlet can go on endlessly asking which is better: to be or not to be.  Othello has to act.”

Jenny looked at him as if to make sure whether he was indeed insane.
 
“I’m faced with Hamlet’s question again and again,” Ishan said pouring another drink of a cheap whisky into his glass.  “When you’re faced with a situation that screws you thoroughly, what do you do?  Fight or flight?”  He became Hamlet.  “Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam – and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel?”  Ishan-Hamlet raised his glass of whisky as if it was a chalice and said, “This is my blood.  Let the priest come and drink it.”  He gulped it down at one go.  And became Hamlet once again.  “Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away. To be, or not to be?  That is the question – whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles.”  He poured another drink and continued, “Can Hamlet take up arms against a sea of troubles?”  He asked Jenny.
 
“Shall I go?”  Jenny asked. 

“Where?”  “To recite the rosary.  It’s time for the evening prayer.”
 
“To recite mantras?  Are you a pagan, Jenny?  How many Hail Marys recited like pagan chants will take you to heaven?  None.  Heaven belongs to little children.  Don’t you know that?  If you want to enter the kingdom of heaven, be like the little children.  Do you know who said that?”  He paused for the answer.  But Jenny remained silent.  He ignored her.  “ Fight or flight?  No, Hamlet cannot take up arms.”  Ishan continued dramatically.  “If he does, he will become Othello.  And put out the light, and then put out the light.”

“As a teacher, what can you do?”  Mr Tandon repeated the question.

“Sir...” said Ishan hesitantly.  He cleared his throat and vacillated like Hamlet.  “I’ve just joined the school,” finally he said.  “Please give me some time to get used to the system...”

“The system, yes!”  Mr Tandon exclaimed as if Ishan had said something revolutionary.  “The system.  We have to strengthen the system.  How can you do that as a teacher?”

Ishan said with some affected fervour that he would carry out his duties with total commitment.

“That’s a very generic statement.  Be precise, Mr Panicker.  For example, the spoken English of our students is very poor.  How will you improve that?”

“Make them speak only English, sir,” said Ishan.  “There’s no other way.”

“How will you make them speak English?”

“The system, sir.”  Ishan said spontaneously.  He thought that the system was the panacea for all the evils in Kailash.

Mr Tandon’s scorn mutated into a scowl instantly though the scowl was also rather veiled.

Is this another version of the priest?  Ishan felt like retching.  He swallowed the retch and said with the histrionics that usually accompanied his ego whenever it perceived some threat, “Have you heard of Noam Chomsky, sir?”  Namedropping was part of the histrionics.  “He is an eminent linguist.  He says that language is inborn in all of us.  That inborn ability, which he calls Language Acquisition Device or LAD, is what distinguishes a human baby from a donkey baby.  Expose the child to a language for a few weeks and it will absorb it naturally while the colt won’t even if you immerse it in the language for a century...”

“That’s interesting, Mr Panicker,” intercepted Mr Tandon.  “We’ll discuss this later.”  He went on to give some exhortations about the sacred responsibilities of a teacher in a residential school.
 
“Had an interesting interaction?”  Mr Uttam Kumar Sharma, Sanskrit teacher and the House Master of Vasishta Hostel, asked Ishan when he returned to his duty in the hostel.
 
“Yeah,” said Ishan, “he was teaching me the choice of millions.”

*


PREVIOUS PARTS

Chapter 1: The Original Sin


Chapter 2: A Gospel

2.2 Dkhar
     2.4 Cry from Calvary
     2.5 The Lost Sheep
     2.8 The Y Chromosome
     
     Chapter 3: Heart of Darkness
     3.1 Heart of Darkness
     3.4 Longings

Monday, February 8, 2016

Numero Zero


Book Review

“... corruption rife, mafiosi officially in parliament, tax dodgers in government, and the only ones to end up in prison are Albanian chicken thieves.  Decent people will carry on voting for the hoodlums because they won’t believe the BBC, or they don’t watch such programmes because they’re glued to something more trashy...”

The bizarre has become the normal.  That’s what Umberto Eco’s latest novel, Numero Zero, from which the above quote is taken, seems to imply.  It is a slim novel (190 pages) with a scanty plot.  Commendatore Vimercate is an entrepreneur who “controls a dozen or so hotels on the Adriatic coast, owns a large number of homes for pensioners and the infirm, has various shady dealings around which there’s much speculation, and controls a number of local TV channels that start at eleven at night and broadcast nothing but auctions, telesales and a few risqué shows...”  He now wants to start a newspaper, or pretend to do so, because he wants to enter “the inner sanctum of finance and politics.” 

A small group of specially selected journalists who have not proved their mettle anywhere yet forms the editorial staff.  Braggadocio is one of them.  He works on a kind of scoop which has the potential to become a great controversy.  Mussolini was not killed as is believed.  After all, history is a series of lies.  The real Mussolini was saved by certain vested interests among the Fascists and also the Vatican.  Braggadocio’s work does not carry any credibility.  Until his dead body appears in an alleyway.  Who killed him?  Well, that’s what the novel is about.

The novel is about conspiracies that have played big roles throughout history though it mentions only one fictitious conspiracy.  How much of human history is truth?  The novel invites the reader to ponder.

The novel is also a fantastic satire on journalism.  What comes in newspapers and TV channels may largely be lies motivated by various factors.  One example from the novel: There’s a shady financial deal between Marchesse Alessandro Gerini and the Salesian Congregation (a religious order of Catholic priests).  When one of the journalists offers to investigate the matter, he is told clearly to avoid creating any bad feeling with the Salesians and the Vatican.  He can use a headline like “Salesians Victims of Fraud?”  Maximum respect for the Salesians, the journalist is told curtly.  Respect the powerful and the influential people; otherwise it’s death even for a newspaper.

The novel mentions many such strategies employed by newspapers with various motives.  How to report the killing of someone by the mafia, for example, without offending the mafia?  Work on people’s sentiments – that’s the secret.  Ask the mother of the victim how she feels about her son’s death.  “People shed a few tears and everyone is happy.  Like that lovely German word Schadenfreude, pleasure at other people’s misfortune, a sentiment that a newspaper has to respect and nurture.”

Beyond the themes of history’s mendacity and the venality that underlies apparent greatness and the satire on journalism, the novel doesn’t really offer much as one would have expected from a work of Eco.  Nevertheless, the novel is good.  It has the power to fuel thoughts, to question the authenticity of various authorities.  To question ourselves: why are we, the ordinary mortals, often bullied into having to sell ourselves for “filthy lucre”?







Sunday, February 7, 2016

Winners and Losers

"Losers ... always know much more than winners."

Winners focus on one thing.  Focus.  Specialise.  And win.  That's the secret.  Don't waste time on other things.

Blessed are the losers because "the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers."

The quotes are from Umberto Eco's latest novel, Numero Zero.

"The more a person a knows, the more things have gone wrong," asserts the irrepressible Eco ( his narrator, rather).

One of the pleasures of reading writers like Eco is that they tickle you into thinking.  Think about life.
And be a loser?

I've accepted my loser's streak with both humility and grace, rather recent entries into my genes.  So I sat down to ponder.

If you choose to go on learning endlessly until the Doomsday (of your life, of course), can you be a winner?  No, you can't.  Learners are never winners.  Learners are discontented.  Nothing satisfies them.  Bad luck.

Learners dream impossible dreams.  Learners nurture unrealistic hopes.

"And anyone who nurtures impossible hopes is already a loser."  Eco again.

The real stab came a page later.  Eco's narrator dreams "what all losers dream, about one day writing a book that would bring me fame and fortune."

I felt my heart just to make sure it was not bleeding.  I'm writing a book, you see.

So I stopped thinking and took a walk.  A kilometre from home whose quietness is the hotbed of contemplation, there was a Fest going on.  Pineapple Fest.  In the Pineapple City of Vazhakulam, Kerala.  And I killed my contemplation and joined the winners.  Some pics from the comic relief.

Pineapple is a Winner

From the Flower Show

On Duty

Comic relief is temporary for the losers.  And so I'm back with Eco.  Still reading it.  Funny man, he is.  He can ask you things like: "Why did Christopher Columbus sail west?"  And give you answers like: "Because if he'd sailed east, he would have discovered Naples."  Or, "Why was whisky invented in Scotland?  Because if it had been invented in Japan, it would be sake, and you couldn't drink it with soda."  He can make suggestions like: "instead of saying 'fuck' each time, to express surprise or consternation," why not say something like: "Oh, coitus, I've had my purse stolen!"

Eco is not a cheap comedian trying to tickle the reader's base instincts.  He is a philosopher of meanings.  He can interpret a matrimonial ad, for example, like this:

The Ad: "Hi, I'm Samantha, twenty-nine years old, professionally qualified, housewife, separated, no children, seeking a man, attractive, bright and sociable."

Subtext: "I'm now thirty.  After my husband left, I had no luck finding a job with the bookkeeping diploma I worked hard to get.  I am stuck at home all day twiddling my thumbs.  (I don't even have brats to look after.)  I'm looking for a man, he doesn't have to be handsome, provided he doesn't knock me around like that bastard I married."

Meanings.  Subtexts.  The losers go on looking for them.  That's their problem.