Archive for May, 2007

An Uninspired Book Review

May 29, 2007

Magic seeds A Novel by VS Naipaul. Published by Picador :  An analysis

Trying to read this book of Naipaul becomes trying experience for one, even before one is half way through it; particularly when one is also reading ‘A house for Mr. Biswas’ for the third time; and had recently, temporarily, abandoned ‘Guerrillas’ – finding it a bit convoluted and unintelligible.

Of all ‘A house for Mr. Biswas’ appears most convincing even in the third reading, with Mr. Biswas amusing one by his limited vision of his world that he is intellectually unable to grasp and is reminded of his pettiness by the diverse world he sees around. But he has the delusions of grandeur as well, that got reflected in the language he uses to write his headlines in, for the articles he publishes in the newspaper he is working for. But he has the security of his bullying but also forgiving in-laws, who always give him the shelter and food, when he returns to their crowded abode defeated by the world, along with his wife and four children. But he is not grateful for their kindness and is resentful of it; and hides in the cocoon of his defensive thoughts and emotions in secrecy, apparently mocking everything and everyone around. The house that finally Mr. Biswas buys; that looks fine but has deep flaws; after taking loans on top of all the saving of his life; he considers it as a fort in defense against his in laws and the rest of the world; for which his children would pay back when they start earning. Sadly, burnt out by a life of poverty and malice, Mr. Biswas does not live long to enjoy the freedom and independence his house provided him, and died when his grown up son and daughter are away, who might have helped him most at that stage.

‘Magic seeds’ brings into light this inchoate vision of grandeur of Mr. Biswas, as the chief protagonist of it, Wllie, goes to Africa and then India, to look for the circumstances that will make a real man out of him. As is prompted by his sister Sarojini, who, while living an uncertain life herself in Berlin with her German partner, acts like the intellectual guide of Willie, to send him to find his war in the purported Indian Leftist revolution, after his visa could not be extended anymore in Germany. She helps Willie see how a Tamil man selling flowers in Berlin is doing so to help a war in his homeland (Sri Lanka?). Willie, only half convinced, comes to India to join a revolution that he soon finds out to be a wrong one. And he remains only half convinced of everything, till he surrenders after doing his bit for seven years, in the wrong revolution. In jail too he is not able to stand the political debates of the prisoners like him and requests to be shifted to live with petty criminals there. 

And the revolution is described as a mimicry that could not have a future, because it is being fought in the wrong society and by the wrong people: who mostly were earlier comfortably placed, educated, urbane middle class people, instead of the destitute peasants. The revolutionaries who have joined the revolution either frustrated of an adulterous wife or due to the lack of a sex-life due to ones inability to do the courtship with a town girl, troubled by the inferiority one feels due to ones small physical size and rustic, peasant manners. These people unsuccessfully try to prompt the killing of village moneylenders by their impoverished peasant tenants. Willie considers this as a wrong revolution and is not sure, like others, if there is a more genuine revolution, taking place elsewhere; that would make him what he is not: a complete man, who needs to be thrown into a revolution by his nagging sister. The children of a high caste man and a lower caste woman remain the victims of caste politics, though they leave India and travel across the world. But Willie fights for seven long years nonetheless, before he surrendered with a few of him comrades, to be sentenced for a decade.

But then it became known, to the Indian authorities that he is a writer. His work is considered ‘… a pioneer of modern Indian writing’. Or so one of his friend, Roger; who informed him about the publishing of his short stories’ collection in London thirty years ago, by a left wing publishing house, in the first place; makes the people to believe, to arrange his amnesty from the prison term In India. It happens after Sarojini, the fixer with a political instinct, wrote him about Willie and the wrong revolution. Rogers comes to receive Willie at London to take him to his home. But Willie soon seduces Roger’s promiscuous wife Perdita, something that he could not do twenty eight years ago for the lack of courage, enjoying fully the hospitality of his friend.

And Willie closely observes the decorations of the room his friend has given him to live, while making love to his friend’s older-looking wife, in a position in which he considers himself younger than her, and tells her so uncontested; as he has to bend and stretch in that position; though both apparently are of the same age; discovering the areas of smoothness in her skin. In one instance he makes love to her over phone, and afterwards empathises with her for her husband lost the job and they might have to sell that house. Perdita, however complying and timid, refuses to accept his sympathies, Willie notes. But it was after he thought about learning some skills to start working to make a living, as the people in India also might do then, forgoing the call of revolution, as Willie argues. He meets the characters in London who all have a secret sex life, cheating their spouses: avenging for their adultery. And there enters a character in the book, who is a black and a diplomat, surviving many revolutions at home to retain his ambassador’s job; who is fond of inter racial sex and aspires to have a white grandchild to take him for a walk in his retired life. And it looks as if it will be even laborious to read this book of Naipual, beyond this point, however unreal, slow and pretentious it has hitherto been. If not the in-laws, one can always fall back upon ones story telling skills, if one has reached a dead end in life, led by others, as it may appear to one, comparing Willie with Mr. Biswas.

The armchair vision of revolution of Naipaul is as unconvincing, as is the centrality of his protagonist in the novel among everything that happens around him, that more so in spite of his being so withdrawn. Naipaul seems oblivious of the fear and uncertainty people feel in an area undergoing revolution of the type he talks about. He also has a limited vision of human possibilities in most of his work, in which he mocks and ridicules his characters and the people he reports about, some of them he dose not understand enough. He possibly is troubled too much by the world around him where he does not belong, which he pretends to know, however. But he also pacifies often, by the end of his books, to his readers, whom he has agitated enough earlier. And ‘Magic seeds’ is no exception, which concludes while Willie, a child of an inter caste marriage, thinks: ‘It is wrong to have an ideal view of the world. That’s where the mischief starts. That’s where everything starts unravelling. But I can’t write to Sarojini about that.’

‘Magic seeds’ might easily have qualified as one of the worst book ever written by Naipaul. But then you have the salutary comments by various reputed literary critics on the back cover of the book to baffle you. But then you know how the publishing industry of present day works. However, V S Naipual has not been fooled by his own book, as after writing it he declared that the novel is dead, and announced his retirement from his writing career; before he went on attacking Thomas Hardy and Dickens. It seems difficult to  resume reading “Guerrillas” after reading ‘Magic seeds’, for one.

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Tell me no lies: Investigavitive Journalism and its trumphs: An analysis

May 6, 2007

Tell me no lies: Investigative journalism and its triumphs. Edited by John Pilger; Published by Vintage 2005. This book is an excellent collection of articles by some of the well-acclaimed journalists. ‘Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue’ Pilger quotes Oscar Wilde, in the beginning of introduction of his book. Disobedience, in this case, to not accept the official explanation of the matters that may have involved hundreds of thousands of human casualties in a far away country in one case; or the loss of US Presidency for a candidate by a few thousand votes in another case, particularly when tens of thousands of voters have been recently taken off the list for being accused in felony, from a constituency that was the stronghold of the party of the loosing candidate.

And, also, apart from the disobedience, a determination to go alone, risking ones life, finding the genesis of the events and the true magnitude of their consequences, far away from where the officials expect one to be and deep enough into the matters to bring out the hitherto-unspeculated perspectives about a matter, with enough evidences, to make the people think if all is not well with the matters of the state.

The ruling politicians of a powerful nation might have their own compulsions that, retrospectively, appear a callous disregard of the worth of human lives, to act in a way that resulted in a war or a serious conflict thousands of miles away, creating the consequences they might not have foreseen. When details to that effect are exposed by the intrepid journalists, the human tragedies caused by the wrong judgements of a few powerful people may look like a vindication of everything that the human society is not meant to be. Hopefully, the exposure of such nature will help the people see that many of the tragedies around us are man-made and could be avoided if the things are considered in more thorough and empathetic way.

The matters may appear serious when it becomes apparent, through the work of the investigative journalism, that the machinery of the government was also involved in covering up some of the facts about an incident that resulted in thousands of human casualties: lest the true magnitude of the ignorance of the politicians ruling the nation with unprecedented power and influence gets exposed.

Then you have another breed of journalists, who score a victory in times of peace by uncovering the accounts of corruption among the governments’ businesses and that of the people who benefit from it. A situation that often builds up to the extent that only a war could cover it any longer- that finally takes place. These journalists help others see that a given war was not resulted due to the Geo-strategic considerations alone, but was to hid the excesses of a corrupt state as well.

In the situations in which the investigations, as reported in this book, are done, the lives of the journalists are often on line, whether they discover the true consequences or the real genesis of a war; or an another scandal that uprooted a political group from power to establish another through apparently fair but deeply flawed methods.

For instance the second article of this remarkable book portrays a situation in which an Australian journalist named Wilfred Burchett goes to Hiroshima to cover the damage caused by the A-bomb, while other correspondents were going to Missouri for covering the surrender ceremony of Japan in World war II, as the officials expected and led them to. The bombs were dropped, Burchett writes, to cause the surrender of Japan just in time to avoid Russia attacking Japan by the deadline given by it on Aug 8, 1945, though the war had been practically won. But also Burchett highlights that a war winning attack was needed too, to also preempt the possibility of Japan fighting forever from its bases in occupied China. Though there were reports in Russia that Japan was ready to surrender. So the questions remains if the only ever use of A bomb was avoidable in WWII.

Some of the Japanese people accepted the enemy war correspondents, Burchett, armed with a small gun, with some hostility, while others, like the policeman near Hiroshima, who helped him to send his dispatch in which Burchett famously wrote the headline:

‘I write this as a warning to the world’

on 6 Sept 1945, in Daily Express. The officials of allied forces, who tried to play down the after-effects of the A-bomb even after Burchett reported them, could not contemplate that someone will go to Hiroshima within a month to report the same truthfully and first hand. So Burchett’s dispatch didn’t make him popular with the authorities. George Walker, an another correspondent of Chicago Daily News did the same on Nagasaki, but his reports were never published as he sent them through the Allied Occupying Machinary, as they censored it, while Burchett’s report made him a celebrity.

In the introduction of the book, John Pilger also goes on to illuminate how the governments of the USA or Britain do not provide information on their policies on a (possible) war. Then he goes on to collect the marvelous pieces of investigative Journalism by twenty-nine Journalists on the issues ranging from the aftermath of the allied victory in Germany and Japan, to the Middle East conflict and the war in Chechnya.

John Pilger’s own reporting, in one later article of this book, from post Khamer Rouge Combodia, in “Year Zero”, offers chilling details of the destruction and death perpetrated by Pol Pot. He also brings to light the complicity of the USA, Britain, China and the United Nations, in turning a blind eye to the massacre perpetrated by Khamer Rouge that eliminated one fourth population of Combodia. Pilger reports the British SAS troops training the Khamer militia along the Thailand border and Pol Pot living a cozy life in Pattaya. And the British PM making a statement ‘…there are reasonable Khamer.’ The people of Combodia have still not forgotten and forgiven Khamer Rouge, he reports.

Marhta Gellhorn reports in the first article of the book ‘Dachau’, the details of Nazi doctors sterilizing or doing medica1 experiments on Jewish prisoners. There are also the gory details of the concentration camps and the gas chambers. Dachau is a place where German army surrendered unconditionally in WW II.

‘The menace of MecCarthyism’ is from a broadcast by Edward Murrow, who emphasizes how the vital information are censored by the government during a war or an anticipated war like situation. Such lack of information limits the civil liberties and a lack of informed debate does not help in dispelling the hostilities among the people divided ideologically, as during the cold-war years. This article is important in the present context, when the world is fighting a global war on terrorism and civil liberties have been unprecedentedly curtailed in many nations across the globe.

In the “American way of death” Jessica Mitford exposes how the funeral business exploits the emotional distress of the people who have lost someone of their family. Making a funeral lavish may compensate a little for some of the mistreatment the departed soul had received from someone mourning for him or her, is what the funeral industry promotes, Mitford reports. “Through the looking glasses” by James Camroh is an account of the Vietnam war. It is amazing how the people hid during the day and worked at night in Northern Vietnam, to avoid Aerial raids.

Pliger, in the introduction of the book, also explains how a few rich Moguls are eating the smaller players in media and silencing the differing voice of the debates. The typical case, he says, is that of Australia, which has ‘….the distinction of the most concentrated press ownership in the western world.’ He appreciates the independence of a government owned media like BBC, which has given a voice to the sentiments of millions, on issues differing with the different countries. He also discusses how the Moguls like Rupert Murdoch are trying to silence a voice like BBC, by trying to influence the politicians in power.

‘The Vietnam war was a vulgar demonstration of the strong against the weak!’ Was the judgement of Seymour Hersh, who in the article “The Massacre at My Lai” gives the account of how 500 civilians, mostly elderly, women and children were killed by US troops in one incident. This piece displays the horrific scenes when a war goes dirty and wrong.

In the ‘Lowest of the low’ German journalist Guntur Wallraff, disguised as a migrant Turkish laborer, describes the subhuman condition in which the migrant laborer illegally work in German industries and the abuses they are subjected to. The publication of this work led to 13000 criminal investigations in Germany in late 1980s.

“The Timor papers’ by Brian Toohey and Marian Wilkinson, reveals how Indonesian occupation of Portugese East Timor in 1975 was allowed to succeed by the USA and Australian government, which caused 2,00,000 deaths of the E Timorese people.

“Exposing Aparthied’s Death squads” by Max Du Preez and Jacques Pauw gives the details how they ran, ignoring daily death threats and once bombing of its office, an African language newspaper for four years in Apartheid Africa. A newspaper that exposed the assassinations and destruction caused by the Death squad of the regime, the existence of which was routinely denied by the Authorities. The newspaper was bankrupt due to legal battles into which it was trapped by the regime and closed down when Nelson Mandela came to power after Apartheid was done away with. Some of the leaders of those death squads were later tried in the court and others were given amnesty by Truth and Reconciliation Commission, headed by Desmond Tutu.

Paul Foot, a British Journalist, who in an instance through his investigation ensured the innocence of four accused, who had already confessed the crime under torture, of the murder of a newspaper boy in London; in “ The Great Lockerbie Whitewash” argues that the prime earlier suspects of the sabotage of Panam flight 103, Iran and Syria, were let off hook, and Lybia was made a ‘Pariah’ to punish it in various ways, by the USA and British governments, purely for geopolitical reasons; in the context of an impending war with Iraq. Paul maintains that the lone Lybian accused was falsely punished on flimsy grounds.

‘Terrorist’ article taken from the book of Robert Fisk named ‘Pity the Nation’ exposes how hundreds of elderly civilians, women and children were massacred in one attack in an area from where the PLO militia had already fled, by Christian Phalangist, an ally of Israel, after they were taken prisoner, after Lebnon was attacked by Israel. Pilger argues that this book of Fisk “..ended the moral immunity that Israel had exploited in Europe, if not in the United States.”

“The secret war against miners” by Seumas Milane exposes how a British newspaper like Daily Mirror falsely instigated a defamation campaign against a trade Union leader of mineworkers named Arthur Scargill, while the ruling Thatcher government “… was planning to run down and sell off the British Coal industry.” The use of state machinery to forge documents and discredit an honest union leader to preempt the likely protests against a government policy is revealed in this article; that also exposes ‘…The incestuous relationship between the intelligence services and section of the media…’ in Britain.

“The Thalidomide Scandal: Where we went wrong?” by Phillip Knightley is an account of the failure of Journalism in investigating the matters that involve powerful transnational pharmaceutical companies. “The Upside-down world” by Uruguay born Eduardo Galeno is an eloquent criticism of the existing world order and the US’s domination in it. But this article falls short of giving an alternative of the same.

This book is a collection of many more such articles that helped to demystify the officially held explanations about various vital matters of historical importance. It is a blessing that such reports, as collected in this book, are allowed to publish in one part of the world, because in many other parts the critical or deferring voices against what is mainstream are silenced using various means. Freedom of speech could not be achieved overnight, it is a perpetual persistence to find the truth, preempting the designs of those that want to hijack it, by using different pretexts. In this cause this book of Pilger helps a great deal.

April 30, 2007.