Now being published as a novel. Click the picture to find out more:

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Top Ten Fictional Characters: Part One

I developed this list and realized that my top ten fictional characters are all extremes; in innocence or madness, in their ambitions or the lack thereof, in their augustness or insignificance. These characters occupy my mind-space in whatever I do or wherever I go. I meet people and I end up branding a gesture here and an attribute there as Yossarian-esque or Voldemort-ish. So, here you go:

10. Vernon God Little: Vernon is the hero of the book by the same title. Often described as the modern day Holden Caulfield, in my opinion, he is much more than that. He is a brilliant creation combining tragedy and cynicism. But he really pips Caulfield because of his existential, almost dumb, manner in which he takes to the events (and bodies) unfolding. You often feel guilty of stealing a laughter at his state of affairs which has an enormity of its own and you cant but admire the way he wiggles himself out of it in a dazzling finale.

9. Prince Myshkin and Rogozhin: These are actually two different characters from "The Idiot" by Dostoevsky but really they are the two sides of the same coin. Prince is the epitome of innocence, idiocy and genrosity while Rogozhin is a dark, murderous and passionate character. The story starts with both of them on a train to St. Petersburg with almost similar circumstances. Both get an inheritence and fall in love with Nastasya Filippovna. They swear brotherhood to each other and then the same night Rogozhin tries to kill Prince. They meet again where Prince forgives him and even lets him have Nastasya only to be offered Nastasya back again later in the story with an unstated show of murderous intent. Ironically, Nastasya elopes with Rogozhin this time around. The end of this saga sees both of them locked in embrace in a room with Nastasya's murdered beauty, one gone insane and one gone idiot. Us, common people, are just different shades of Prince and Rogozhin, some lighter and some darker. And therein lies the appeal of these characters.

8. Randle Patrick Mcmurphy: A happy-go-lucky hero of "One flew over the cuckoo's nest", he walks into the asylum as a potentially easy way to serve out his sentence. There is nothing small about Mcmurphy. He is grand in the way he walks, talks and carries himself around. In the asylum, he comes to see himself as a beacon of hope for the lifeless souls, finds capacity for self-sacrifice and fights the 'Combine' in a hopeless cause which eventually leaves him as a vegetable. An infinitely moving character full of life who meets a superbly ironic end and is rescued only when his fellow mate, 'Chief' decides to snuff him with a pillow and thus allowing him the dignity to go out on his own terms.

7. Meursault: "My mother died yesterday or the day before. I dont really know." That is how the story opens with the hero and the narrator's thoughts. Meursault is the quintessential existential masterpiece. Nothing in this world could ever matter to him except for sensory experiences. He simply exists. He remorselessly smokes in front of his mother's dead body and later in the story, murders an Arab because he was "tired of the argument and the heat of the sun". Although, the Arab is dead, he shoots him four more times for good measure and objectively explains his motive to the judge that the Arab was dead and four more shots did not make him any more dead. He is convicted and sent to the guillotine largely because he is incapable of remorse. In prison, he refuses the opportunity to turn to God and looks at the universe as a "brother" because of its indifference to humankind, an emotion shared by himself. He feels that he was happy again. His last wish was "that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate".

6. Yossarian: He is the anti-hero of the satirical comedy Catch-22. Faced by the dilemma of self-preservation and fighting in the WW-II, he firmly chooses the former. He is described as a comical and anti-hero version of Achilles and you can also see simile with Scott Adams's Wally. Consequently, the parallels in corporate life are boundless. He claims that the world was out there to get him either by bombing his plane or by forcing him to fly missions. A famous quote - "He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive." He employs ingenious ways to avoid having to fly including inventing fake diseases and getting admitted in hospital, poisoning the squadron, ordering harsh evasion when faced with flak etc. In the end, when he deserts, he mentions, "I am not running away from my responsibilities. I am running to them. There's nothing negative about running away to save your life." If there was ever a survivor, he was one. Yossarian lives on.

To be continued...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Book Review: A fortune Teller Once Told Me.

This is Tiziano Terzani's first book that I have read and I am thankful to a friend for lending me a copy, for I would have never picked it up by myself. The reading of this book has been a long drawn affair and like all other similar long drawn affairs, I am proud that I came through it. Although, my friend had warned me that it will take some work to get past the first forty pages and that it becomes better after that, I gave up on it much before that and moved my attention to the rest of my life, only to come back to it intermittently. For a long time, this book lied next to my commode and I would glance through it during occassional bouts of constipation. Eventually, after a year and a few months, I did finish it.

I will start by what I liked about this book. This book is a travel book, although judging by the way Terzani has written it, I am sure he would be turning in his grave at my choice of words. More on that later. Back to the travel bit, Terzani has captured the essence of Asia very well. Although, the book and his own feet take him to Mongolia, Russia and Europe as well but having never been there, I wouldnt know. I will have to concede that his descriptions make me want to go there. Coming to the South Asian part of the travel to which I could relate to fairly well, this is the first travel book I have come across that has described these countries, their societies and their way of life so well that by the end of it, you feel like you know them just like you know your own country. I could especially relate to the description of Malaysia, Singapore, and Cambodia fairly well. In all these countries, Terzani's itinerary touches the same destinations that I have been to, more or less. It feels surreal that someone felt exactly the same way about these places in the nineties that I did a decade later.

Second thing that I liked about the book was how it is punctuated with philosophical and spiritual monologues. The way Terzani has inked them on paper is just short of beautiful. The language is so good so as to be almost poetry. Add to that the profoundness of the utterings and you find yourself reading the same paragraphs again and again. However, at times, it feels like you are reading two separate books which have somehow gotten mixed owing to an irresponsible editor. Terzani could have done better to keep it a free flow of thoughts as opposed to a forced theory here and a labored analogy there.

Unfortunately, the above sums up what I liked about this book. There are couple of things that I didnt like about it. For starters, Terzani's constant whining about modernization as a curse and a step back is surely to get on your nerve. This comes from a man who grew up to poor working class parents and unshackled himself via the same opportunities afforded by modernization. In fact, he proudly compares himself favorably to his relatives and peers back in Italy. This is utter hypocrisy and as much as I tried, I couldnt escape the stereotyping mentality to brand him as another white skinned romanticist who wants the third world to stagnate so that he could visit them as a temporary respite and to add to his dinner time conversation or in this case, to write a bestseller. Every chapter of the book contains at least a para or two on the perils of modernization and I found it to be extremely one-sided view of things and in this particular case, almost to the point of unashamed blasphemy. Consider this:

"What an ugly invention is tourism! One of the most baleful of all industries! It has reduced the world to a vast playground, a Disneyland without borders. Soon thousands of these new invaders, soldiers of the empire of consumerism, will land, and with their insatiable cameras and camcorders they will scrape away the last of that natural magic which is still everywhere in this country."

This is coming from a person who confesses that he likes to travel and whose book is likely to be bought by travellers. But no, Terzani would have much preferred the old world where conquerers, instead of travellers, would invade these lands and instead of simply snapping their pictures, cover them with blood. There are numerous similar theological inconsistencies in the book. Once, he laments that modernization has caused Singaporeans to dress well but stay mum and then the very next page, he complains how garrulous his taxi driver was and how he longed for peace.

The list is endless and I wouldnt bore you with it any more except for one last racial derogation that absolutely killed me. He toys with the role of chinese emigrants in South-east Asia, how they have shaped the societies and economies. This is a very interesting and big enough topic to warrant a book of its own. But Terzani hovers at the surface and never really takes as much as just a dip and brands them as "Like all emigrants, these chinese had only one dream - money." He blames that these emigrants left behind their gods and their spiritualism for the unworthy cause of earning money and to have a better life. And who is Terzani, if not an emigrant? The book is filled with similar prejudiced comments about Mongolians, Russians and English (He has been universally prejudiced - you have to grant him that). If one day, I travel to these places, I would know if he was right.

If it were a work of fiction, I could have made exceptions but it is not and I feel compelled to be judgemental.

Second thing that I didnt like about the book is actually quite contextual and it may not apply to everyone. Terzani, in this book, has acted on a fortune teller's advice and has decided not to travel by air for an year. His reasoning is more to experience a different life. However, at times, he seems to glamorize his travel as if he is unique in doing this. Whether it is travelling by an overnight train or sailing in a cargo ship, he almost claims that he is a higher being and others do not know what they are missing. Such condescending attitude! An average Indonesian or a Vietnamese or a Cambodian probably would be far from impressed by his self-imposed 'discomfort'. About five years ago, even I was used to taking fifty five hours in train and on road to get home, without ever crossing borders. As such, this book limits its admirers to elite and 'successful' class of people (likely westerners) looking for adventure on print that they themselves would be too comfortable (on their sofas in front of TV) to ever undertake.

All-in-all, if you are planning to travel to South-east Asia, I would still recommend you to carry this as a bed-side reading. However, without the context, you would spoil a bad read.

Utopia - Is This it?

'If you want to know what Utopia is like, just look around - this is it,' said Professor Steve Jones, of University College London, who is to present his argument at a Royal Society Edinburgh debate, 'Is Evolution Over?', next week. 'Things have simply stopped getting better, or worse, for our species.'

For the full article, click HERE

Firstly apologies because in this post, I won't be adding anything unique to the debate. I dont think I can make it any better by adding/subtracting to it and so I have refrained from doing it. However, I thought that it was quite an eye opener for me and so on it comes on my blog.

In a gist, Prof. Steve Jones has based his argument on the principle of natural selection. He argues that the principle tool of natural selection is 'Death' and human beings have almost taken this tool out of the hands of nature. A piece of statistics: The chance of a child in the west reaching the age of 25 has become 98%. The life spans have increased. And so virtually every tom, dick and harry can pass on his genes whether or not he is the best specimen out there. As a result, the process of natural selection is hindered. And hence stagnation.

Controversial? Of course yes. With the olympics just gone by where so many new levels of human accomplishments were recorded, when we believe that our intelligence level is higher than ever before, it comes off as a bit of a shock. But consider this: Both our brain size and the physique have reduced over the past ten thousand years. Counterintutive?

There are a few arguments against the above doomsday scenario:
i) Constant mixing of human races vis inter-racial marriages. Although, the article states that this will further thwart the evolution in the long run. But, in the mid-term, it will lead to uniformly brown race which should classify as evolving.
ii) Biologist Christopher Wills argues that there is a premium on sharpness of mind and ability to earn money and thus this becomes the modern evolutionary path.
iii) Peter Ward states that there is a way out if we can influence our own evolution by Gene therapy and cloning.
iv) The Evolution goes on unchecked in the developing world. For example, after some time, Africa might only be populated by people who carry HIV but are unaffected by it.

What do you think?