Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Mahabharata is an odd book. It is revered as sacred scripture by the vast majority of its readers who nevertheless are fearful of keeping a copy in their homes on account of its reputation for sowing discord. It is also a book that has a cult following amongst non-believers and the not-terribly-religious, who are interested in what it has to say about the human condition, about ethics and about how it is often hard to determine the right course of action. Is war justified to set right injustice? Is it reasonable to behave badly if you’ve been discriminated against all your life? Is it better to do the right thing even if it achieves the wrong outcome (or vice versa)? Is “they started it” a good enough reason to do wrong? And it is perhaps the only religious text anywhere that dares raise the question – is it okay for God to violate moral laws?

The Mahabharata asks so many hard questions because it is obsessed with Dharma, the cosmic moral law, which it explores from every possible viewpoint. Dharma is the reason the epic thinks it can get away with inflicting 100,000 verses on 5000 years of mankind. But for a book that is so obsessed with right and wrong, the MB does not see the world in black and white.

This after all, is the book in which the arch villain Duryodhana is shown as a man possessing many virtues and on his deathbed gets to mock God himself.  “I have studied, made presents……… governed the wide Earth with her seas, and stood over the heads of my foes! Who is there so fortunate as myself!………… With all my well-wishers, and my younger brothers, I am going to heaven. As regards yourselves, with your purposes unachieved and torn by grief, live ye in this unhappy world!” The Gods themselves applaud his last speech and put him on the fast track to heaven.

This is also the book in which the supremely virtuous Yudhishthira (Yudi to friends) acts no better than a common gambler and loses his entire fortune, his brothers and his wife in one big gambling frenzy. And when this paragon of truthfulness finally decides to lie he turns out to be worse than most habitual liars, betraying the trust of his own teacher and causing his death. The Gods make their displeasure known by bringing his chariot, which had always been suspended above the ground, down to the earth with a thud. Every so often, the Mahabharata likes to exalt its villains and cut its heroes down to size.

But the Mahabharata does not confuse the ability to see all shades of grey with not taking a stand. It is never in any doubt that Duryodhana’s envy and greed was entirely responsible for the war and that Yudi is undoubtedly in the right in the dispute between the cousins.

It shows the Anti-Hero Karna as a great philanthrophist and giver-to-charity even at the cost of his own interest. It understands his pain at being very talented, yet constantly discriminated against. And when he spurns the offer from his own mother to switch sides with the promise of ruling a kingdom and the even greater temptation of acquiring a highborn family, the epic applauds Karna as a man who cannot be bought.

And yet, it unequivocally castigates Karna for shaming Draupadi in the Kaurava assembly and for constantly feeding Duryodhana’s enmity with his cousins. For Karna was a key piece of the Kaurava strategy and one of the main reasons Duryodhana dared to go so far.

The Mahabharata offers its readers no comfort of a happily-ever-after. At the end of the great war, just when the reader is basking in a warm fuzzy feeling that the bad guys have lost and the good guys finally get to rule the kingdom, the epic chooses to spoil the party by pointing out that they reign over a ghost kingdom and the widows and survivors are paying the price for the good guys’ victory. Still, it does not waver from its stand, acknowledging the consequences of war, but also implying that the war was the right thing to do after all other options were exhausted. And no, letting the bad guys win was not an option.

The Mahabharata’s worldview is so bleak that one wishes that it would occasionally borrow a pair of rose tinted glasses from Kalidasa. “I do not behold the creature in this world that supports life without doing any act of injury to others. Animals live upon animals, the stronger upon the weaker. The mongoose devours mice; the cat devours the mongoose; the dog devours the cat; the dog again is devoured by the spotted leopard.”, says Arjuna to his brother Yudhisthira. So if the world is such a dog-eat-dog place, why should anyone even care about Dharma? “Those who expect fruits out of their acts of virtue are like traders asking for returns of profit” says Yudi to Draupadi when she asks what exactly they are getting out of being so darn virtuous. Dharma, then, is its own reward and an end in itself.

The moral questions that the epic raises can be extremely discomfiting to those that like their ethics packaged neatly as a set of directives, preferably originating from a higher power. The Mahabharata, on the other hand subjects even higher powers to uncomfortable moral scrutiny, as Krishna would attest. But it never lets the many shades of grey stand in the way of taking a stand. Yes, says the Mahabharata, the world is a harsh place and humans are deeply flawed, but really, try not to be a jerk.


Read Full Post »

David Suchet as Poirot: This is what Poirot would look like if he existed

There is a set formula to an Agatha Christie book. It opens slowly, building tension and gradually exposing the undercurrents amongst the characters culminating in the first murder. Then come several rounds of interrogations of the suspects. And conversations, lots of them. Just when the reader’s interest starts flagging at all the talk and the interrogations, which touch upon the same events from different points of view, comes the second murder. And then possibly the third. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, even the fourth.   At the end is the grand denouement, when the detective collects everyone in a room and proceeds to build a case against several suspects, putting them (and the reader) on tenterhooks. Finally, he unveils the real murderer, who predictably turns out to be the most unlikely person.  The pace is slow, the conversations too many, the detective is a buffoon and the atmosphere rather contrived. For all that these are murder mysteries, there is very little gore. And even lesser sex.

And yet Christie’s books are phenomenally popular and have sold more than 2 billion copies. Her play, “The Mousetrap, is the longest running in history. The Bible has managed to be more popular and has sold more copies, but then it has been around a few thousand years and has the advantage of religious injunction. So what explains Agatha Christie’s popularity?

I have been a fan of Christie’s since the age of 13, when I was lent “Evil Under the Sun” by a classmate. Being a Christie novice, I was stunned when the murderer was unveiled. Not only were the culprits the most unlikely persons, but also, nothing was as it seemed. The beautiful man-eating ex-actress was really a silly woman who paid for her stupidity with her life, but the mousy schoolteacher turned out to be a ruthless killer. It was marvelous, though I later realized that this was hardly one of her best. Not even close.

This was also my first encounter with the celebrated detective Hercule Poirot, he of the luxuriant mustaches and enormous ego. Poirot disdained to go looking for clues like a bloodhound (a dig at Sherlock Holmes), but instead sat on his comfortable chair and used his little grey cells to track down killers. I grew to love Poirot’s idiosyncrasies, such as his obsession with order and method and his annoyance when someone was not sufficiently impressed by him.

‘What Mrs. McGillicudy Saw” was my introduction to Christie’s other great detective, Jane Marple, the fluffy old lady who identified murderers by drawing parallels with her village neighbors. Miss Marple’s appeal lies in her surface unworldliness which contrasted with her immense shrewdness and willingness to always believe the worst of people.

Over the years, I worked my way through a large number of Christie’s books, including some of her best, such as “Murder on the Orient Express”, “And then there were None”, and understood something of why she was so popular. Christie appeals to that part of our brain that loves puzzles and the piecing together of jigsaws. She also taps into the human fondness for surprises and twists. But there is something more, something that makes all the difference between what could have simply been a good read but instead has made Christie one of the most read authors on the planet. Christie has a genius for giving us all the facts and the clues, all the while making us look at the story from the entirely wrong angle. That is why the denouements stun the readers and go far beyond the satisfied surprise that merely identifying the ‘most unlikely’ person might provide.

“I hesitated with my hand on the door handle, looking back and wondering if there was anything I had left undone”, says the narrator in ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’.  The reader takes it to mean one thing, but it refers to something else entirely, a fact that you realize at the end of the book. This ability to deceive while providing all the clues but making the reader look at the puzzle in the wrong way is also the cornerstone of other stories, such as “Murder in the Mews” and “The ABC Murders”.  As one might expect statistically, there are a few cases where the plots are flawed and do not add up – “Mrs McGinty’s Dead” is an example.  But this is an exception.

Not a little of Agatha Christie’s appeal comes from guessing which of the very respectable cast of characters could have done it. Christie’s world is narrow and mostly confined to upper class British gentry. These folk are eminently respectable, but behind their gentility lurks greed, jealousy and twistedness, leading to murder. The murderer could be the trusted family doctor, that likeable young man, the elderly lady in a nursing home or even the devoted mother next door. The women are just as likely to be killers as the men. Unlike several more modern thrillers in which women are often victims of violent crime, the old fashioned Christie has created female characters that are strong willed, resourceful, and above all, have agency.

Not everyone is as admiring of Christie as I or a couple of billion of her other readers. Her critics have accused her of being ‘unliterary’, creating cardboard characters and altogether dumbing down the genre of detective fiction.                                                                                                                                     

It is true that Christie’ s books are not exactly realistic. For one thing, her detectives seem to have very uncomplicated relationships with the police, who graciously involve them in murder investigations and often let the amateurs take over the investigations completely. Turf wars are never a factor, we’re asked to believe.

Her characters also do not have much of an inner life. Even though Poirot has appeared in more than 35 books, we don’t know much about him except his genius for solving murders and his obsession with mufflers to protect himself against cold weather. To Christie’s critics this is indicative of a literary flaw. To her fans, this is as it should be. We are not interested in the complexities of Poirot’s character or his inner life. PD James, a more literary writer of detective fiction has characters full of complexity and ambiguity, and we are privy to almost every passing thought of the detective’s. This is too much and unnecessary information.

If one can make assumptions about a writer’s world view from the backdrop pf her books, Agatha Christie comes across as rather conservative, someone who sees the old world order changing  and is none too happy about it. The Empire is on the decline and the old certainties are being demolished. The books of the 1930s such as “Death on the Nile”, “Appointment with Death” and “Murder in Mesopotamia” have affluent British expats strutting about the colonies while committing their murders. But post WWII, the atmosphere is one of war shortages and a world gone topsy turvy. As the decades creep into the sixties and seventies, Christie is distinctly uncomfortable with the new generation who – gasp! – wear jeans and hold views bordering on anarchy.

But Christie, being Christie, does not merely lament the passing of the old order. She uses her regret as yet another ploy to deceive her readers.  In “One Two Buckle My Shoe”, there is an undercurrent of prejudice against the new generation and a yearning for old fashioned conservative values – right until the very end when the tables are turned.

There is something that Agatha Christie is far more suspicious of than the brave new world and its subversive young, and it is the notion of humans playing God. As Poirot says, “a man imbued with the idea that he knows who ought to be allowed to live and who ought not” is “halfway to becoming the most dangerous killer there is—the arrogant criminal who kills not for profit—but for an idea. This is the idea, no matter how well intentioned, in which the end justifies everything, including murder. He has usurped the functions of le bon Dieu.”

Christie is also intensely suspicious of idealists and dreamers who let themselves be manipulated by those with totalitarian intentions. “Freedom and brotherhood……and work for the good of humanity. That’s exactly the moment when someone who’s more or less the dregs of humanity sees his chance and takes it!”, says Mr. Jessop in “Destination Unknown”, which is less of a whodunit and more of a thriller, a genre that Christie really doesn’t do very well. The plots tend to be a little childish and simplistic. Nevertheless Christie is effective in conveying her intense suspicion of totalitarianism, regardless of ideology. In “Passenger to Frankfurt”, there is the danger of a fascist resurgence, and in “Destination Unknown”, it seems like there might be a communist regime that is luring away the world’s best scientists.  Her worldview touches on themes that are universal, which  explains why her books travel very well despite being rooted in a parochial upper class British milieu that no longer exists.

All this overanalysis aside, I have a continuous relationship with Agatha Christie bordering on the schizophrenic. I convince myself to forget the plots and murderers of her books so that I can read them again and again. My idea of a perfect day is to be indoors on a rainy day, curled up with a mug of coffee and “Death on the Nile”. From time to time, I look up and think about the clues and who they might point to. Then I go back to the book and keep reading. I do not yet know who the murderer is, but I do know this. I will be stunned.

Read Full Post »

“We want Trade, not Aid” declared Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in an article in the Wall Street Journal in 2003, pointing out that rich economies such as the United States and the European Union implement agricultural subsidies that hurt farm-based economies such as those in Africa, which have a comparative advantage in agriculture. On the other hand, they are generous with aid, which “is a recipe for permanent poverty”.

This thinking is echoed in two thought-provoking books, Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo [Kindle Link ] and The White Man’s Burden by William Easterly .

Ms Moyo is a Zambia-born economist who has worked for the World Bank and Goldman Sachs. Her premise is that aid is not only ineffective, but also responsible for a negative downward spiral in economies that have a large aid component. The inflow of huge amounts of aid is similar to the natural resource curse that plagues much of Africa, in that it supports rent seeking and allows governments to get their hands on ‘free’ money not derived from productive activities. The middle classes have no influence over their governments for there is no dependence on taxes. Thus aid ends up supporting corrupt governments, whose misgovernance makes investment unattractive, resulting in the need for more aid.

Moreover, because of the continuous inflow of aid, countries face economic pitfalls such as inflation and reduced export competitiveness. They are not compelled to do any long term economic planning and much of the aid money goes into consumption and not investment. Another charge laid at aid’s door is that it stifles entrepreneurship. A striking example is that of the mosquito net entrepreneur who goes out of business because aid agencies distribute malaria nets for free. Ms Moyo also finds it particularly galling that rock stars and celebrities such as Bono end up influencing policy for entire nations while the voices of sensible African policymakers are ignored. Poor Bono does get a lot of flak for his pains.

Read further on Pragati:

Rethinking Foreign Aid

Read Full Post »