Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Book Review: Red Sorghum, by Mo Yan

Ever since Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2012, I’ve been planning to read Red Sorghum, one of his most famous works set in the time of the Japanese occupation and the Second World War. Since I knew that Mo Yan is a member of the Cultural Affairs Department of the People’s Liberation Army, I expected another Mikhail Sholokhov. I turned out to be totally wrong. Those who have read Sholokhov would know that Sholokhov paints good and bad (read that the good communists and the bad Czarists and petty bourgeois) in black and white. Mo Yan, on the other hand, at least in Red Sorghum, is a uniquely talented story teller who delights in portraying life in vivid contrasts, terrific joie de vivre suddenly being replaced by excruciating pain, delightful surprises being taken over by extreme sorrow. The setting for his novel, the Northeast Gaomi Township, is a place of extreme beauty, the land of sorghum, which the locals use to make wine. Sorghum is a life giver and entertainer – everyone in the Northeast Gaomi Township drinks sorghum wine. The narrator’s grandfather, Yu Zhan’ao, is a bandit who managed to marry Dai Fenglin, a pretty woman after killing her rich husband and father-in-law, all with her silent acquiescence. You see, Dai Fenglin’s husband had leprosy and her father had married her off to the leper just to get a black mule for himself. Yu Zhan’ao’s execution of the murders and his subsequent marriage to Dai Fenglin would not be out of place in a Bollywood blockbuster.

There are so many characters who are so exciting, so out of the ordinary that one feels a novel could have been written around each of them. There’s Arhat Liu, a man who loved his mules so much that he broke their legs, after they had been confiscated by the Japanese, and was skinned alive for his pains. There’s Nine Dreams Cao, an honest and upright magistrate who does not hesitate to use beatings to extract confessions and still does not always get it right. There’s Spotted Neck, a bandit whom Yu Zhan’ao admires and later kills. There’s Black Eye who heads the Iron Society, which believes in the power of black magic and whose soldiers charge at armed enemy soldiers chanting “Amalai” and achieve a certain degree of success, only to be mowed down later.

It’s not just the people who are so unique and interesting. The funerals one attends when reading the Red Sorghum are out of the world. In the midst of so much fighting and poverty, so much money and symbolism is invested in funerals. Dogs. I still can’t decide if Mo Yan likes or hates dogs. The narrator’s family keeps dogs, more as guard dogs than anything else. After a Japanese massacre when dead bodies are piled up on the outskirts of the Northeast Gaomi Township, dogs feast on the corpses. The narrator’s family go out of the way to chase the dogs away, using up most of their precious ammunition. The dogs on their part go back to their primitive traits and form gangs to eat the corpses and attack those trying to chase them away. The fighting is fierce and deadly and some humans die. The narrator’s father, Douguan, loses one of his balls. Toward the end when the Jiao Gao are desperately looking for a way to fight off hunger, cold and the Japanese, Pocky Chen suggests a way out, one which harnesses the dogs in the vicinity.

I always thought that a ride in a sedan chair carried by four bearers would be as comfortable as a ride can get. Oh no! For Mo Yan, the inside of the sedan, which carries Dai Fenglin to her husband’s home is like a coffin. The walls oozed grease and there were flies inside. The sedan bearers, when they want to have fun, tease the bride sitting inside and rock the sedan so violently that the bride throws up!

I’ve heard of feet binding practised in the China of yore, but I never really thought anyone would find a small foot (the result of many years of painful binding which cracks the bones and causes the toes to turn under) attractive. Mo Yan tells that the five feet four inch Dai Fenglin had toes which were three inch golden lotuses. When she walked, swinging her arms freely, her body swayed like a willow in the wind. When she was being carried in a sedan to her husband’s home, one of her tiny feet poked out of the sedan and the sight of that incomparably delicate, lovely thing nearly drove the soul out of the bearers’ bodies.

As I read Red Sorghum, I waited in vain for that rare reference to the Chinese Communist Party, which would show the Party as the defender of the common man and a force for good. I waited in vain. In the few confrontations between local Red guards and the poor farmers, the Reds don’t come out looking so good. There is a stray mention of the back-yard furnace campaign during the Great Leap Forward in 1958 which apparently resulted in the family’s wok being confiscated. Toward the end, the narrator visits Northeast Gaomi Township and finds that the place has been planted with hybrid Sorghum which he loathes. ‘Hybrid sorghum never seems to ripen, Its grey-green eyes seem never to be fully opened. I stand in front of Second Grandma’s grave and look out at those ugly bastards that occupy the domain of the red sorghum. They assume the name of sorghum, but are bereft of tall, straight stalks; they assume the name of sorghum, but are devoid of the dazzling sorghum colour. Lacking the soul and bearing of sorghum, they pollute the pure air of Northeast Gaomi Township with their dark, gloomy, ambiguous faces.’

Is hybrid sorghum used as a metaphor for change, I wondered? Is Mo Yan trying to suggest that the Communist Party has not made things better? After a great of thought, I have come to the conclusion that Mo Yan is not trying to say anything of that sort. Red sorghum has been replaced with hybrid sorghum. The narrator liked red sorghum. He does not like hybrid sorghum. Period.

Here’s an interesting article which suggests that writers like Mo Yan carefully criticise lower ranking Party officials once in a while, but never question those at the top, who are apparently unaware of the bad things that happen at the village level. Maybe that’s a fair comment, but Mo Yan is one helluva writer who, going by Red Sorghum, deserved the Nobel.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Learning Hindi With Chetan Bhagat

I’ve been trying to learn Hindi ever since my late teens. I learnt some Hindi at school, but a small dusty town down South is not the best place to learn the most widely spoken Indian language. As far as I can remember, I had a Learn Hindi In 30 Days with me for the entire five years I spent at law school in Bangalore. I made some progress, I could easily count up to hundred, but I could never bring myself to speak Hindi fluently.

After I moved to Mumbai, my comprehension skills improved tremendously, I could understand everything I heard, but I still couldn’t speak Hindi with any degree of fluency. My interest in learning Hindi waxed and waned, but the real reason I never learnt Hindi properly is that I couldn’t bring myself to watch either Bollywood movies or Hindi soaps. For someone who is otherwise surrounded by a non-Hindi speaking crowd, that’s fatal.

After 4 years in Mumbai, I went to the UK and didn't return for 8 years. I forgot almost everything when I came back.

Recently I re-kindled my interest in learning Hindi. I actually hired a teacher to take me through the basics once more, until I could read Hindi text with some speed. The problem was that my Hindi vocabulary is so very poor, I need to refer to a dictionary every two minutes to understand what I read.

In order to improve my vocabulary I tried a number of tricks. I would buy Hindi newspapers and read them. I tried reading schoolbooks, but Indian school books are essentially meant for children whose mother tongue is Hindi. Unlike English textbooks which seek to teach English as a foreign language, Hindi textbooks seem to assume that the learner can speak Hindi well.

I tried reading novels, but most Hindi novels have a lot of Sanskrit or Urdu words which aren’t in day-to-day usage. I wanted a novel written in the simple Hindustani spoken by the common man. It was then that I remembered Chetan Bhagat, the man who writes for the Common Man, in the Common Man’s English.

I have read all of Chetan Bhagat’s novels and have even reviewed some of his most recent works, such as Revolution 20/20, What Young India Wants and Half Girlfriend.

And so I bought Five Point Someone, which I had read many, many years ago at the time of its release and its Hindi translation. Bingo! The translation was practically sentence-for-sentence! I got started. I would read a couple of lines of the Hindi version, then read the English version and then go back to Hindi version again. My progress has been slow, but there has been progress. Right now I have covered around 80 pages and have another 140 pages to go.

On the whole, the (unknown) translator seems to have done a good job with the translation. Is it my imagination (for I am in no position to form a judgment) or is the prose a lot smoother than the English version?

However, there are a few bloopers. For example, “for the record” is translated as “records ke liye” In another place, where Hari, after taking his balcony seat inside Priya Cinema with his girlfriend Neha, cribs that paying Rs. 35 per ticket to watch Total Recall is a total rip-off, the Hindi translation says that the seats are ripped up! Rs. 35/ticket, total rip-off" is translated as 35 rs. prati ticket, poori phati huyi seat.

Wherever, Hari, Ryan and Alok say “Screw You”, the Hindi translation uses the same phrase, which I guess makes some sense since Hindi doesn’t have an equivalent which would convey the same meaning in a given context. However, every time our heroes say “Fuck You”, it’s been translated as “Bakvaas”! Why this discrimination I wonder? "Bakvaas" simply doesn’t convey the same meaning as “Fuck You”.

Let me stop nitpicking here - the Rs.125 I paid for my copy has been worth every paise. My only serious grievance about Five Point Someone’s Hindi translation (published by Prakash Prakashan) is that the translator is not named or given any credit.

Another 140 pages to go. Please wish me luck!

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Pay Them More Not Less

Everything I hear someone crib about the salaries paid to our M.Ps or M.L.As or the perks given to them, such as subsidized canteen food, I feel like shouting that we should pay our politicians more and not less.

The logic is this. Unless an M.P or an M.L.A is paid a living wage, the possibility of such M.P or M.L.A stooping to corruption is much higher. Also, by offering our M.Ps and M.L.As a salary which is comparable to what one would receive in the coporate world, one would attract talent which would otherwise not enter politics.

Currently Indian M.P.s receive a salary of Rs. 50,000 per month. In addition, they receive a number of perks, such as free train travel etc. A Parliamentary panel has proposed that MPs salaries be revised and I’m totally in favour.

MLA salaries vary according from state to state. In Delhi, an MLA gets a basic salary of Rs. 12,000 a month, but various allowances add up to another Rs. 45,000 or so. In Maharashtra, legislators receive a salary of Rs. 74,000 per month.

It can be argued that these salaries are sufficient for a simple lifestyle, that one should not enter politics if one is not willing to lead a Spartan life in the service of the people. The counter-argument would be that politics requires not only honest people, but also competent ones. In fact, we need people like Raghuram Rajan more than ones like Anna Hazare. Can you imagine someone like Rajan working for peanuts?

In western democracies, elected representatives are paid well, way better than Indian politicians, taking into account the differences in exchange rates and purchasing power. In the UK, M.Ps receive an annual salary of GBP 74,000 per annum. To give you an idea how much this amounts to, a G.P working for the National Health Service would earn between £55,412 p.a. and £83,617 p.a. Over and above their salary, MPs are reimbursed for the cost of running an office, employing staff, having a second home in London and travelling between Parliament and their constituency.

However, better pay does not automatically exclude corruption. For example, Italian politicians are the best paid in Europe and also among the most corrupt. However, paying our politicians a decent salary will make it morally easier to clamp down on corruption.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

A Very Short Story: Betrayal

‘Purohit, cheer up. Your job’s done and we’re celebrating.’ A brief hesitation and then Purohit smiled. It was a genuine smile which lit up his gaunt face, despite the large black bags under his eyes and then it was gone, just as abruptly. Another pat on the back from someone from behind, but Purohit didn’t look up. They were crammed into the meeting room, half of them didn’t have a chair to sit and everyone was sweating. For fuck’s sake, someone turn up the a/c, Purohit wanted to shout. A plate full of pedas appeared in front on him and he helped himself to a couple that were stuck together, using a leaden thumb and a forefinger which seemed to have forgotten how to bend.

‘The Director will be here any moment,’ someone standing behind him promised a weary colleague.

‘I still can’t believe we pulled it off.’ Purohit did not have to turn around to see who the speaker was. Among the dozen odd members of the back-up team, Ashok must have contributed the least to the entire operation and yet he was speaking! The person standing directly behind him exuded the heavy smell of sweat and at times the odour overpowered the fragrance of the air freshener.

‘I can’t believe you didn’t want to be around when the bastards were arrested.’

If you can’t believe it, then don’t, you fucking bastard. As Purohit remained silent, his admirer continued, ‘you had seen so much of them, you must have seen them at their worst. Didn’t you?’

‘Well yes,’ Purohit was forced to concede. Once again, an arm was thrown around his shoulder. He realised that a number of people were staring at him and he was forced to smile and make some conversation.

‘We were lucky,’ he said lamely.

Three newspapers were spread out on the table, plates of sweets circulating among them. ‘ROBBERY GANG BUSTED. TEN GANG MEMBERS ARRESTED.’

‘You stuck with it,’ his boss spoke again, his voice full of pride. ‘Fourteen months embedded inside such a ruthless gang and you held your nerve. If they had found you out, you’d have been dead meat.’

Next time, you do it yourself, Purohit silently told his boss. Silence was golden. People wouldn’t get offended with silence. At least not as much as they would if he were to express his thoughts.

The door opened once again and everyone held their breaths. No, it was not the Director. However, the bearer was welcome as he carried a tray with paper cups with coffee and tea. People parted way so that they could be served.

Most of the men were in their mid-thirties, just like Purohit. There were a few in their late twenties and a handful who were in their forties. ‘What sort of bastards were they? Really, really nasty and vicious or just hoodlums?’ a man in his late twenties asked him across the table. When Purohit remained silent, he repeated his question.

‘They were vicious,’ Purohit responded gruffly. But each of them had another side to them, he was about to add. No, it wouldn’t do. He would never be able to explain that to anyone else.

‘I saw the video of their last plan. Where they planned to break into that Noida farmhouse, not knowing that they were about to be nabbed.’ Sharmila giggled into his ears. Earlier he would have been delighted to receive such attention from Sharmila, but now, he couldn’t think of an appropriate reaction. Also, Sharmila seemed to have aged, her jowls disgustingly fleshy.

The door opened again and this time it was the Director, his tie slightly askew as usual. Those who were sitting, including Purohit, stood up. He was popular, the Director was, and he did not waste much time. Occupying the chair kept aside for him at the head of the conference table, he said, ‘I wish we could do more to honour our heroes, but we can’t. We knew that when we signed up and we might as well accept it. A man who spends over one year undercover deserves something more than a pat on the back and a medal.’ He then turned to Purohit and said, ‘we’ll need you to give evidence at the trial. Can you do that? It'll be in-camera and quick,’ the Director added.

‘Yes sir.’ Purohit had to clear his throat before he could speak.

‘Make sure he gets some R&R,’ the Director told Purohit’s boss. ‘Anyway, you’d be relieved to know that only nine of your former friends will be on trial.’

Bile rose up from inside Purohit’s stomach ‘Which one is not’

‘Pratap. What was his nick-name? Chappan? He was the least co-operative of the lot and our boys got carried away. He committed suicide using his bedsheet.’

Everyone laughed. ‘It’s amazing, the quality of bedsheets in our jails and police-stations.’

‘Was Chappan the most vicious of the lot?’

‘I don’t know. He had a terrific sense of humor. I always laughed at his jokes.’ Purohit looked very earnest and the Director suddenly looked puzzled.

‘Anyway, you’ve earned this medal.’ He got up and started to walk towards Purohit, but Purohit was halfway out of the room by then.