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The Man who smiled on 9/11: Mohsin Hamid, the Overeager Fundamentalist

March 14, 2017

India may have won two out of the last three Bookers, but recently its arch-rival Pakistan has produced better literary works. Writers like Mohammed Hanif and Mohsin Hamid show a literary culture which seems to be missing in India.

After the harrowing experience of reading Adiga’s The White Tiger, I had lost faith in modern fiction, but thanks to Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, my interest has been rekindled.

hamidThe Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of a Pakistani expatriate working in the U.S. The protagonist, Changez, is a Harvard educated young man, who gets a job in a prestigious organization. He is the mouthpiece of the author. He has feelings for a classmate of his, Erica. Then 9/11 happens and things change. Changez, who was having some identity problems prior to the event, now starts feeling uneasy. The identity crisis, which follows, results in his rejection of the Western society and Erica too. He eventually returns to Pakistan and becomes a bearded fundamentalist who leads agitations against America.

Mohsin Hamid is a gifted novelist and The Reluctant Fundamentalist is a work of literary merit. The style is crisp. It has the ‘tautness of a thriller’. The narrative does not break, even for once in two hundred and eight pages. The language is simple and it flows smoothly. It shows a polish one gets in an American University. There are frequent references to literary works and Hollywood flicks, which makes the narrative light and approachable for a large audience. Though it is written in the modern style, we are spared any ‘stream of consciousness’ narrative. Thoughts and actions do blend in, but events take place in the real world, and the reader does not feel like he has drifted into hallucinations.

Hamid scores with flying colors when we talk of literary merit, but it becomes a different story when it comes to content. There are many problems with it: internal inconsistencies, logical fallacies and muddling of facts.

One of the central themes of the novel is the identity crisis, faced by the protagonist, Changez. But Hamid is not clear what identity he is talking about.

There are, at once, three identities, which have been discussed in the novel. The most important is the Muslim identity, the religious bond of brotherhood, which the protagonist feels with his fellow believers, all over the world. The second is the Asian or the third world identity, which is occasionally hinted at in the novel and used very cleverly. The third is the Pakistani nationalist identity.

These three identities are mutually inconsistent. A person cannot take all three of them at the same time. If one is a devout Muslim, then it is impossible for him to be a nationalist. Islam does not recognize any cultural and economical boundaries. There is no such thing as a Pakistani, or an Iranian for a true believer. Brigadier S K Malik of Pakistan wrote a book, “The Quranic Concept of War”, a war manual written to guide Muslims to wage Holy War against India. In it defines the Muslim identity:

“Islam views the world as though it were bipolarized in two opposite camps: Dar-ul-Islam facing Dar-ul-Harb. The first one is submissive to Allah’s purpose… but the second one is engaged in perpetuating defiance of Allah… The idea of Islam is incapable of being realized within the framework of territorial states… Islam supplies the spiritual principle which is supranational, supra-racial, supra-linguistic and supra-territorial… in Islam, of course, no nation is sovereign since Allah alone is the only sovereign in whom all authority vests.”[1]

Similarly the Third World identity also becomes irrelevant in the Islamic context. Third World is a geographical and economical entity, not a religious one like the Islamic World. A person cannot take all of the three identities at the same time.

The problem is that Hamid talks about all three identities at once. He uses the identities according to his own convenience. When 9/11 takes place, Changez is in Philippines. Hamid invokes the Third World identity here. While driving in Manila, Changez gets into traffic and encounters the gaze of a Filipino:

“There was an undisguised hostility in his expression; I had no idea why…. Afterwards, I tried to understand why he acted as he did….. perhaps he simply does not like Americans…. that he and I shared a sort of Third World sensibility.”[2]

Afterwards, Changez feels nearer to the Filipino than to his colleagues in his own company. He does not use this identity anywhere else in the novel. Not only is Hamid being inconsistent in invoking the Third World identity, he is also being dishonest. India is also in the ‘Third Word’. Hamid should feel the ‘Third World sensitivity’ with Indians too. With Indians, as we shall see, Hamid shares an acute sense of hostility. What Hamid actually feels here is Americaphobia, which he cleverly hides under the façade of the ‘Third World sensitivity’.

Another identity, which he invokes, is the identity of a Pakistani. The novel aside, ‘Pakistani identity’ has problems of its own. Pakistan came into existence as the arch-enemy of a ‘Hindu majority’ secular India. Since its very inception, its raison d’ etre has been to terrorize and destabilize Hindu India. It is an Islamic nation and an Islamic nation is a tool for waging Islamic Jihad. The purpose of Pakistan’s existence is well expressed by Brigadier S K Malik:

“The Holy Quran gives us a philosophy of war. The divine philosophy is an integral part of the Quranic ideology… The central theme behind the causes of war as spelt out by the Holy Quran, was the causes of Allah (Koran 2:190,244; 4:84) it was essentially a war fought by Faithful Muslims against unbeliever Kafirs (Koran 4.76)”.

“Instructions pertaining to the divine theory of military strategy are found in the Quranic revelations (Koran 3:124-26; 8:9-10,11,59-60). All these revelations urge the Faithful Muslim to prepare for war to the utmost in order to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies…[3] Terror struck into the hearts of the enemies is not only a means it is the end in itself … it is the point where the means and the end meet and merge. Terror is not a means of imposing decision upon the enemy. It is the decision we wish to impose upon him…”[4]

“Terror… can be instilled only if the opponent’s Faith (read religion) is destroyed. Psychological dislocation is temporary; spiritual dislocation is permanent. Psychological dislocation can be produced by a physical act but this does not hold good of the spiritual dislocation. To instil terror into the hearts of the enemy, it is essential, in the ultimate analysis, to dislocate his Faith…”[5]

Pakistan is not a nation. It is an anti-nation. It’s the negative image of everything Indian, everything Hindu. It exists because India exists. And that’s why it has a distorted image of history.

“History, in the Pakistan school books I looked at, begins with Arabia and Islam. In the simpler texts, surveys of the Prophet and the first four caliphs and perhaps the Prophet’s daughter are followed, with hardly a break, by lives of the poet Iqbal, Mr Jinnah, the political founder of Pakistan, and two or three ‘martyr’s, soldiers or airmen who died in the holy wars against India in 1965 and 1971.

“History as selective as this leads quickly to unreality. Before Mohammed there is blackness: slavery, exploitation.”[6]

Not only the pre-Islamic past is neglected; it is purposefully forgotten. For remembering it, means a confrontation with the truth; a truth which tells them, that they were once really those whom they now consider as their enemies. A Muslim identity is constructed by the destruction of the individual, social and cultural identity. This Muslim identity nourishes itself on the division of the mankind between ‘us’ and ‘them’.

That is why every Muslim has a distorted sense of history. For Muslims, ‘History has to serve theology’.[7] A Pakistani identity, in essence, is the localized Muslim identity; a tactical front used to oppose a particular enemy of Islam in its grand strategy of world conquest. Hamid betrays this Muslim identity many times over in the novel. Most notably, when Changez feels himself, the soldier of Islam:

“Lahore was the last major city in a contiguous swath of Muslims lands stretching west as far as Morocco and had therefore that quality of understated bravado characteristic of frontier towns.”[8]

The only identity which Hamid feels is that of a Muslim; a Muslim who is on a frontier of Islam, eternally trying to push forth its borders. Thus, we see that while talking about multiple identities, Hamid is internally inconsistent.

One important point of the novel is its ‘India phobia’. While trying to invoke the ‘Asian identity’ elsewhere, Hamid betrays his true feelings in his Indiaphobic paragraphs, throughout the novel.

The pretension of the Asian identity breaks down completely when Hamid talks about India and its relations with Pakistan. In the rush to prove his point, he even commits factual mistakes:

“…there was unanimity in the belief that India would do all it could to harm us, and that despite the assistance we had given America in Afghanistan, America would not fight at our side. Already, the Indian army was mobilizing, and Pakistan had begun to respond.”[9]

Hamid gives the impression that India is a rogue nation, and it invades random countries on petty issues. The fact that Pakistan supports terrorism in Kashmir and India has been suffering from it does not need any corroboration. The last three Indo-Pak wars were waged by Pakistan. That is why it is quite surprising that a Pakistani of all people, blames India of being belligerent.

A quick recap of the events will show us the truth. J & K Assembly gets attacked by Islamic terrorists of Jaish-e-Muhammad outfit on 21 October, 2001.[10] One month later, there is another terrorist attack; now on the nerve centre of India democracy, the Parliament.[11] But it is Pakistan which threatens India.[12] The identities of the three terrorists prove later that they belong to the Pakistan based terrorist organizations of Jaish-e-Muhammad and Lashkar-e-Taiba.[13] New Delhi urges Islamabad to take concrete action against the terrorists operating from Pakistani soil and handover the culprits to India.[14] Pakistan denies taking any action against the terrorists point-blank[15] and responds by mobilizing its troops along the international border[16];[17] and its army ambushes and kills Indian soldiers across the border.[18] And in all this, India was belligerent?

“It seemed the weather was the only factor delaying the official commencement of hostilities: first because the heat was too great for an Indian offensive in the desert, then because the monsoon’s rains made driving treacherous for Indian tanks in the Punjab.”[19]

It is implied that India and Pakistan did not go to war, just because weather and terrain would not let India to. Stated as factual points, they demonize India in a subtle way. The reasons given are absurd. Indians have never been deterred from fighting by heat. They are trained to do so. Monsoons do pose a problem, but not insurmountable and it would be a problem for Pakistan too.

The theme of The Reluctant Fundamentalist springs from Hamid’s Americaphobia. The reader shudders with fear when Changez expresses his happiness at the destruction of the twin towers:

“The following evening was supposed to be out last in Manila. I was in my room, packing my things. I turned on the television and saw what at first I took to be a film. But as I continued to watch, I realized that it was not fiction but news. I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled. Yes, despicable as it may sound, my initial reaction was to be remarkably pleased.[20]

Unable to contain himself, Hamid explicitly states his pleasure of watching thousands of Americans massacred by Islamic terrorists, and the satisfaction of watching America humbled. The ordinary patriotic response of Americans to 9/11 is considered by Hamid as an affront to the identities of all non-Americans. In a bizarre imagery, New York is said to have been ‘invaded’ by American flags. Perhaps what Hamid likes to say is that he likes American money, but dislikes American military might. He then repeats the usual rhetoric of Islamic terrorists, citing the ‘atrocities’ of America.

Hamid feels deeply for the fellow Muslims of Afghanistan. The façade of the Pakistani identity breaks down here:

“The bombing of Afghanistan had already been under way for a fortnight, and I had been avoiding the evening news, preferring not to watch the partisan and sports-event-like coverage given to the mismatch between the American bombers with their twenty-first-century weaponry and the ill-equipped and ill-fed Afghan tribesmen below…. Afghanistan was Pakistan’s neighbor, our friend, and a fellow Muslim nation besides, and the sight of what I took to be the beginning of its invasion by your countrymen caused me to tremble with fury.”[21]

What Hamid forgets is that it was these ‘ill-equipped’ Afghan tribesmen who had brought about such a feat as 9/11. It was these Afghan tribesmen, who had toppled the government in Kabul and had taken over the civil administration. The Americans with all their twenty-first century weaponry were brutally massacred by these ‘ill-equipped’ and ‘ill-fed’ Afghan tribesmen.

“America… was increasingly giving itself over to a dangerous nostalgia at that time. There was something undeniably retro about the flags and uniforms, about generals addressing cameras in war rooms and newspaper headlines featuring such words as duty and honor. I had always thought of America as a nation that looked forward: for the first time I was struck by its determination to look back.”[22]

Remembering 9/11 in 2001 was looking back? Attacking Afghanistan to stop Laden and the Taliban, the culprits of 9/11, was looking back? Perhaps in Hamid’s worldview, only a nation which is prepared to accept an Islamic future for itself is good enough to be called as looking ahead.

“I wondered how it was that America was able to wreak such havoc in the world – orchestrating an entire war in Afghanistan, say, and legitimizing through its actions the invasion of weaker states by more powerful ones, which India was now proposing to do to Pakistan – with so few apparent consequences at home.”[23]

Here he sounds just like the Islamic conspiracy theorist, who thinks that every evil in the world is a doing of America. He blames America for not attacking India, and calls India as the more belligerent neighbor. The three Indo-Pak wars show who was more belligerent. The grievance is: why doesn’t America invade India, just for the sake of paranoid whims of Hamid and other Pakistanis? Cruel on America’s part, indeed!

“I reflected that I had always resented the manner in which America conducted itself in the world; your country’s constant interference in the affairs of others was insufferable. Vietnam, Korea, the straits of Taiwan, the Middle East, and now Afghanistan: in each of the major conflicts of Asia, America played a central role. Moreover I knew from my experience as a Pakistani – of alternating periods of American aid and sanctions – that finance was a primary means by which the American empire exercised its power. It was right for me to refuse to participate any longer in facilitating this project of domination; the only surprise was that I had required so much time to arrive at my decision.”[24]

Let us consider some of these charges. The Vietnam War was initiated by the Communist states, China[25] and Soviet Union[26]. America had to jump in, in order to save another state from going Communist. And yet, according to Hamid, it was not China or Soviet Union, but America, which was meddling. Korea is another such story.[27] The Taiwan Strait crisis is another such case. In all three crises of 1954, 1958 and 1995, Communist China launched heavy attacks on Taiwanese islands in the strait of Taiwan.[28];[29] America was just trying to prevent a Communist takeover of a free, democratic country. In the Middle East, America is blamed for saving Kuwait and Saudi Arabia from an Iraqi invasion, and in Afghanistan it is blamed for defending itself. Hamid is a typical case of a devout Muslim, who simply hates America for whatever it does. Even more intriguing than that, America is blamed for giving aids to Pakistan! A Muslim mind has strange logic.

The protagonist, Changez calls himself as an indentured servant. A quick look at the meaning of indentured in any dictionary will prove the statement false. A subtler deception however is in the phrase, ‘a suspect race’. Hamid uses the race-card here, trying to prove Muslims as the victims of racial discrimination. But Islam is not a race and the identity of Muslims is not an ethnic one. In fact, Hamid belongs to the same race as Indians, whom he hates; and many Muslims like Bosnians and Albanians belong to the same race, as the majority of Americans. He has deliberately confused race with religion here. What is suspect here is not race, but religion.

A brief look at the current global political conflicts will tell us who is terrorizing the world. America is engaged in some conflicts like, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan & Palestine.

On the other hand Islam is involved with: the U.S., the U.K., France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Serbia, Georgia, Armenia, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania, India, China, Egypt, Myanmar, Thailand, Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Bali, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay etc!

And it’s America which is terrorizing the world? In the famous words of Samuel Huntington, ‘Islam has bloody borders’[30], and the reason is the ideology of Islam itself.

Why does Islam come to conflict with every of its neighbor? The reason which Muslims give is that everyone persecutes them. According to a typical Muslim world view, Islam and Muslims are being constantly persecuted by non-Muslims, and currently their greatest persecutor is America. Every sorrow and every problem of Islam is caused by America. Hamid has no different views. From the very third page, his Americaphobia becomes evident, in which Changez is cross about selection procedures being tough on foreigners like him than Americans, in the Princeton University. Curiously enough, Changez is cross that his American companions pay for him, and he calls it behaving like ruling class.

But statistics tells us that if Islam is having problem with each and every of its neighbor, then it is more likely that the problem is with Islam and not with the others. Demonizing America is just a propaganda tool, a Goebbelsian tactics in the ongoing war of Islam with the rest. Playing the game of victims is the favorite game of Muslims.

“Muslims like to play victims. Naturally the best way to justify hate is to pretend to be a victim. You cannot hate someone unless you feel that he or she is oppressing and victimizing you. If you want to rally the proletariat around you, you must instill in them the hatred of the bourgeoisie. If you want to make a nation hate other nations you got to make them believe that they are being victimized and their rights are being violated. Feeling victimized is essential for hating, without it hatred will not bloom. Hitler could not have come to power if it weren’t for the defeat of the Germany in the First World War that bruised the ego of the Germans and made them feel victimized.”[31]

Islam’s strategy of world conquest has two tactical fronts. One is terrorism – the direct way – by which they terrorize the world into submission. The other front is that of the moderates – liberal journalists, leftist academicians and socialist politicians. These apologists of Islam put up a victim face of Islam. Gathering sympathy of the masses and taking benefit of the democratic system, they influence the political decisions. The Islamic apologists employ many non-Muslims too in their army. They utilize the energies of useful idiots like Edward Said, William Dalrymple and Amartya Sen. They help to create pro-Islamic and anti-American atmosphere.

The U.S. has done nothing in particular to offend Islam or Muslims. It simply happens to be the sole current superpower and any non-Muslim superpower is a nuisance and an obstruction in the path of Islam’s world conquest.[32]

America is the enemy of Islam, not because of what it does, but because of what it is. No matter what America does to appease Islam, it will remain Islam’s enemy. The Muslim grievance is America’s non-Muslim character. America is blamed for all the ills of Islam. But even a cursory glance at history tells us that Islam had problems with others, long before America had even come into existence.

The establishment of Israel is also cited as a reason for Palestinian terrorism and the rise of radical Islam in the Arab world. The rampant anti-Semitism in the Islamic world is excused as a reaction to the creation of Israel. A scholar of Islam, Andrew Bostom proves otherwise, giving more than sufficient proofs that anti-Semitism existed long before Israel ever came into existence.[33]

Indeed, the first ethnic cleansing of Jews in the Islamic world was done in the very lifetime of its founder. The legacy of anti-Semitism was set in motion by Prophet Muhammad himself when he ordered the massacre of the entire tribe of Banu Quraiza.[34]

The ‘atrocities’ of America and Israel are just excuses for spreading Islamic terrorism. Their power and the imagined atrocities they would wreak on the Muslim world are cited as the justification of real terrorist acts such as 9/11. America happens to be their prime enemy just because it is the economic and military superpower. Israel happens to be their primary enemy, because it’s the only non-Muslim country in the Middle East which can retaliate against Islamic terrorism.

If we, just for a moment imagine that no Israel had been set up in 1948. What would have happened then? Would there be no Islamic terrorism? No Radical Islam? No anti-Americanism?

If Israel had not been created in 1948 and American had not supported it, there would have been another Israel with perhaps a different religion and ethnicity. The victims of Islam are just too many. Armenia is one such nation. They are an ancient Christian sect. Since the advent of Islam, they have been almost constantly on the run – and not just their people; but the entire country; the entire geographical entity. The Armenian massacre of 1915-16 by Turkish Muslims is one of the greatest genocides of the twentieth century.[35]

The re-establishment of the ancient Armenia would have sparked a controversy like Israel. A Maronite Lebanon could also have another such alternative case. A liberated Constantinople could have been another Jerusalem.

And if America hadn’t intervened when Saddam attacked Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and had let him run wild with his adventures, what then? Another dictator in another part of the Islamic world would have done something equally stupid and equally brutal, disrupting the world economy. Dictators are not wanting in Islamdom. In fact only Communism can equal Islam in producing dictators and despots. And yet again, America would have to intervene in the capacity of being the only surviving superpower, the only one having the means to stop such transgressions. And the world would have come to the same conclusion.

And if not America, then it would have been any other superpower. The problem is not with America. The problem is not with Israel. The problem is with Islam. It has an imperial ambition of conquering the world. Any power standing in the path will become its primary enemy. This is the reason of Hamid’s anti-Americanism.

The most serious charge made by Hamid in his book is about janissaries. He calls himself as a janissary of the West and America. Janissaries were the private soldier and bodyguards of the Ottoman sultans, established in the fourteenth century by Sultan Murad I.[36] The word means, the one who has dedicated his life to Islam. The practice was much crueler than the theoretical idea would convey. Janissaries were the captured Christian infants and teenagers from the European countries of Greece, Bulgaria, Rumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary etc. Islamic Ottoman armies raided and captured Christian teenagers from these countries, forcibly converted them to Islam and then made to fight their own kinsmen, their own country, when they were old enough.

So in other words, a janissary is a non-Muslim man, captured by Islamic armies, forcibly converted to Islam and brainwashed to fight his own religion.

Hamid calls himself a janissary of America! He was not captured, nor was he young when he chose to go to America to study in their university on their grants! And there was no fight involved.

He indeed is a janissary, but not of America. He is a janissary of Islam. His ancestors were Hindus. They were captured by the invading Muslim armies and forcibly made to convert to Islam. When they had forgotten who they really were, they were made to fight and destroy their own civilization.

Every Pakistani is a janissary, a janissary of Islam; out to destroy and conquer India and Hindus, forgetting that they were once Hindus themselves. Same is the case with every other believing Muslim of the world. Calling himself a janissary of America and not of Islam, Hamid commits logical fallacy.

This is one of those books which have misleading titles. The title suggests the gradual transformation of a secular man into an Islamic fundamentalist. But there is no transformation, no evolution. Instead, the fundamentalist is right there, from the beginning. Reluctance is curiously missing from The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Instead, we find an over-eager fundamentalist, lurking from the very third page, ready to excuse his fundamentalism by some real or imaginary crimes of the ‘enemy’.

After a whirlwind tour of the mind of an Islamic Fundamentalist, the reader is left shuddering with fear at the words of Hamid:

I stared as one – and then the other – of the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center collapsed. And then I smiled.

 

Notes and References

[1] Malik, Brigadier S K. The Quranic Concept of War, Preface

[2] Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London. Penguin Books. 2008. p. 76-77

[3] Malik, Brigadier S K. The Quranic Concept of War, p.58

[4] Malik, Brigadier S K. The Quranic Concept of War, p.60

[5] Ibid.

[6] Naipaul, V S. Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey. London. Picador. 2001. p. 134-135

[7] Ibid. p. 134

[8] Hamid, Mohsin. The Reluctant Fundamentalist. London. Penguin Books. 2008. p. 145

[9] Ibid. p. 144

[10] http://www.indianembassy.org/press_release/2001/oct/oct_01_3.htm

[11] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1707865.stm

[12] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/14parl15.htm

[13] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/14parl12.htm

[14] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/15parl7.htm

[15] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/15parl9.htm

[16] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/17parl9.htm

[17] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/19parl4.htm

[18] http://www.rediff.com/news/2001/dec/23parl5.htm

[19] Ibid. p. 201-202

[20] Ibid. p. 83-84

[21] Ibid. p.113-114

[22] Ibid. p. 130-131

[23] Ibid. p. 149

[24] Ibid. p. 177

[25] Ang, Cheng Guan, The Vietnam War from the Other Side, p. 14. Routledge (2002)

[26] James Olson and Randy Roberts, Where the Domino Fell: America and Vietnam, 1945-1990, p. 67 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991)

[27] Devine, Robert A.; Breen, T. H.; Frederickson, George M.; Williams, R. Hal; Gross, Adriela J.; Brands, H.W (2007). America Past and Present 8th Ed. Volume II: Since 1865. Peason Longman. pp. 819-821.

[28] http://www.coldwar.org/articles/50s/taiwan_straits.asp

[29] Nathan, Andrew & Ross, Robert. The Great Wall and the Empty Fortress, pg. 221, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

[30] http://history.club.fatih.edu.tr/103%20Huntington%20Clash%20of%20Civilizations%20full%20text.htm

[31] Ali Sina on Sep 24, 2002 – 12:00 AM <http://www.faithfreedom.org/&gt;

[32] Lewis, Bernard. From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East. New York. OUP. 2004. p. 344-345

[33] Bostom, Andrew. The Legacy of Anti-Semitism. New York. Prometheus Books. 2008.

[34] Muir, William. The Life of Mahomet. New Delhi. Voice of India Publications. 1992. P. 318-323

[35] http://www.armenian-genocide.org/genocide.html

[36] Kinross, Patrick (1977). The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire London: Perennial. P 48-52

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Origins of the Theatre of the Absurd

February 3, 2012

After Beckett, it was Ionesco who had the greatest impact on the Theatre of the Absurd. But Ionesco is different from Beckett. Unlike Beckett, who tutored himself into the phenomenon of the absurd under Joyce’s influence, Ionesco was jolted into it by a sudden mystical experience.

One day as he was taking a stroll, he claimed that he had an experience in which his notions of time and space broke down. This experience taught him the inherent absurdity of the world, time and space. After it, his art also grew on these lines. He developed drama in which time, space, logic and language had no meaning. He taught it by mutually contradictory statements, self-contradictory statements and absurd and fantastic situations.

In Rhinoceros, there is logician whose logic is absurd.

Old Gentleman: So then, logically speaking, my dog must be a cat?

Logician: Logically speaking, yes,but the contrary is also true.

Berenger: Solitude seems to oppress me, and so does company of other people.

Daisy: You were both wrong.

Old Gentleman: Even so, you were right.

The absurdity of life is expressed in these lines.

Life is an absurd business. P 19

In the continuation of Brecht’s effort to break the fourth wall, Ionesco uses self-reference in Rhinoceros. P.23

He breaks the conception of normal and abnormal in Rhinoceros.

“Dudard: You seem very sure of yourself. Who can say where the normal stops and the abnormal begins? Can you personally define these conceptions of normality and abnormality? Nobody has solved this problem yet, either medically or philosophically. You ought to know that.”

The beastly instincts of humanity are taking over and everyone is turning into a rhinoceros, a wild creature who has no semblance with the cultured individual which we are fond to think of. The Absurdists employed their techniques not only on the subject matter and content, but to their craft too. Not only dialogues between the characters are ambiguous and absurd, but even the stage instructions are contradictory.

A similar small play is Future Is In the Eggs. A trap-door may or may not open; or perhaps the stage may or may not slowly collapse, and the characters – all unwittingly – gently sink and disappear without interrupting their actions – or jut quite simply carry on, according to the technical facilities available. P. 141.

Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution – A Fine Collection of Art by the Old Bolsheviks

February 2, 2012

Like other Annals of Communism books, Piggy Foxy and the Sword of Revolution is for the serious students of the history of Russian communism. It shows us the lighter side of the ‘comrades’; the kind of jests they used to play on each other, particularly in making caricatures. This book is a collection of these caricatures and portraits. It mostly describes the period before the Great Terror, before the iron regime of Stalin stifled all intellectual imagination. Most prominently it features the wit and art of Bukharin, the man who, according to Solzhenitsyn, was capable of stemming the bloody run of the Communists in Russia.

As a student of Stalinist history, it came to me as a surprise that humor was still possible under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This book shows that even under extreme duress, human creativity breaks out in the most unexpected of places. While describing the underlying brutality of the Communist regime, these caricatures prove the basic premise of Communism wrong: it shows that social engineering is impossible; man can never be bound into ideologies.

The introduction by Simon Sebag Montefiore is very interesting and necessary for going through the portraits and caricatures.

This is not a book to be read in both literal and symbolic sense. The portraits cannot be leafed through at one go. One has to absorb the history underlying these portraits over a period of time, while studying other historical works and contemplating over the life of Communist Russia. Not a volume to be studied in isolation but very useful for those who are deep in the history of Russian communism.

White Collar – An Intellectual Series… finally!

February 1, 2012

Am finally watching a TV Series again… White Collar. Its of an entirely different genre. It is called a dramady – a mixture of comedy and drama. The Western tradition divides drama in comedy and tragedy and to me the division has always seemed wrong and insufficient. Comedy is light, vulgar and non-serious, while tragedy is… well… tragic.  I have always felt that there should be another category; that life can not fit in just these two categories. They had the category of tragi-comedy but it was disappointingly nostalgic of the two categories.

Good thing, in television and cinema they don’t bother about these distinctions anymore. White Collar is a comedy, a drama and a thriller. While the focus is on white collar art crime, the way the characters carry themselves is comic. Anyone who has watched Prison Break is more likely to be disappointed in other crime dramas. White Collar is not on the line of Prison Break, but it does involve con men and break outs. Every episode takes on a different story, just like The X-Files. Neal Caffrey, played by Matt Bomer, is a felon, who is working for the FBI, thanks to his excellent brains and his insider knowledge of the criminal world. Agent Burke is the one who is running Caffrey.

The main characters of Neal Caffrey and Burke are excellent. The chemistry between characters is good enough. Side-characters are also very interesting. Mozzie looks genuinely like a computer geek, who loves his  geeky freedom of a room filled with silicon chips. Burke’s wife looks sexy and smart in the right proportions. The most important thing is the smart and witty dialogue with a smacking of literature. They actually quote from Kafka! Imagine that!

There are side stories going on… Burke is supposed to be a born and bred FBI agent, who is not in his mettle when it comes to romance, but he actually looks more lost while playing an FBI agent. Caffrey has a runaway girlfriend whom he is trying to track and who has left him clues. The clues dawn on Caffrey one at a time, at the end of every episode.

White Collar is a soft crime drama, one in which the audience is fully confident that nothing really bad will happen. It is watched more for its designer wear, beautiful interiors and stunning sceneries. Lighting and colors are exquisite and every frame is carefully thought out, calculated for an optimum visual effect on the audience. White Collar is thought out as a series of mesmerizing photo-shoots with a lot of effort put into making it look visually captivating. 

And it is not dirty. In this age of television series where even male frontal nudity is not a taboo, it is nice to see a series which can be watched by even kids. There is no nudity at all and even the kisses are hard to come by. And of course, no rough language, no four letter word. White Collar is truly a series for the intellect and for the sophisticated elite minds. Hope it continues!

The Sound of the Mountain – Most un-Japanese of Kawabatas

January 31, 2012

The Sound of the Mountain is the most western of all the works of Kawabata. It lacks the haiku-like feeling which Snow Country and Thousand Cranes give. It is the story of a post-war Japanese family undergoing modernization. The story is told from the point of view of a sixty-year old writer who is the head of the family. He has a daughter, Fusako, who has a disastrous marriage and has come back to live with him and a son who has a beautiful wife, for whom Shingo has feelings himself. His son Shuichi is also having an extra-marital affair.

The novel centers on the internal struggle of Shingo regarding his feelings for his daughter-in-law. The sound of the mountain is heard only twice during the novel. It is considered as an evil omen in Japan. Shingo takes it as an omen for the breakup of his overtly calm family, which has otherwise tumultuous inner life. He is struggling against his feelings for his daughter-in-law, while his son is having an affair despite having a beautiful wife at home. His daughter-in-law aborts her baby as a vengeance against her husband. Shingo’s daughter is also a mess and a nuisance for the family.

The Sound of the Mountain is a story of the gradual breaking-up of traditional social order in Japan. In the background there is dismay and the dejection of the defeat in the Second World War. It is a story about a society which is Japanese in externals but is slowly modernizing and westernizing, and with it comes the mental tumult.

It is also a story about the internal struggles of an aged writer who has no spiritual background and who has half spurned the traditional Japan.

As is usual with Kawabata, the novel is sprinkled with talk about art, western and Japanese. It is not like Snow Country or Thousand Cranes but like any Kawabata reader I loved it. Who cares if it is not truly Japanese? Whatever Japan is left in it is good for a fan. And I obviously am a fan of Kawabata.

The Master of Go – A Very non-traditional Novel

January 31, 2012

The Master of Go is not a novel in the traditional western sense. It is a piece of reporting of the game of Go, a game like chess, but infinitely more complex.

The game is between an aged master and a newbie. The whole novel traces the developments of the game which goes on for days and at last the newbie defeats the master quite unexpectedly.

Behind the lines depicting the real game of Go, it is the story of the decay of traditional Japan and its defeat at the hands of the modern western thought systems. The master represents the traditional Japan, and his defeat symbolizes the end of that Japan.

“The Master seemed like a relic left behind by Meiji.”

The disciple who is more rational in his thoughts represents the modern West and its excessive stress on rational and logical faculties of man.

“Otake’s manner, as he repeatedly threatened to forfeit the match, carried suggestions of an inability to understand the courtesies due to an elder, a want of sympathy for a sickman, and a rationalism that somehow missed the point.” P. 55

For Japan, the game of Go is not just a game, but an exercise of their whole civilization, a miniature dynamic model of Japan, but for the disciple and the West, Go is just a game.

“The Oriental game has gone beyond game and test of strength and become a way of art. It has about it a certain Oriental mystery and nobility.” P. 117.

Though the master is defeated, but the disciple is not give credit for his game which is not quite Japanese in flavor.

“One could see in the divergence a spiritual incompatibility, and perhaps something physiological as well. The Master too was known as a careful, deliberate player.” P. 156.

The Master of Go is too technical for most of the reader who are not familiar with the game of Go, but the background undertones makes it worth reading for anyone.

Thousand Cranes – My favorite Kawabata

January 31, 2012

Thousand Cranes is perhaps the best work of Kawabata; as good as Snow Country. It is written in prose but has the touch of poetry. The haiku like quality of Kawabata’s prose is made even more beautiful by the tea ceremony descriptions. Deeply Japanese in form, it makes a very strange read for the non-Japanese reader. But Kawabata renders the strangeness beautiful somehow and the post-war turmoil of the modern Japan gives it a common ground with the modern West. The elaborateness of the tea ritual can astonish a western reader in which the cups in which the tea is taken are very important. There are sister-brother, man-wife cups and so on…

The photographic images given by Kawabata are etched into memory. They are unforgettable.

The story is of the son of a wealthy merchant. The novel begins with the tea ceremony in which Kikuji is invited by a mistress of his dead father. There he is involved into an affair with a rival of Chikako, Mrs. Ota. He meets a beautiful girl with a kimono of cranes. The image is deeply etched in Kikuji’s and readers memory. The novel is a series of tea ceremonies and Kikuji’s relations with and feelings for three women.

Japanese art, modern and traditional resurface all over the novel, at meaningful places. For a reader unfamiliar to the Japanese history, it’s hard to make connections, but otherwise these connections are important.

Japan was untouched by post-modernism before the war, but post-war writers like Kawabata were influenced by it and in Thousand Cranes we see some ugly images described in detail, which would be very unorthodox for a traditional Japanese writer.

Thousand Cranes is one of the representative works of Kawabata and the post-war Japanese writing, with post-modernism, Japan balanced in proper manner.