Review: Bad News: Last Journalists In A Dictator by Anjan Sundaram


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At the end of Anjan Sundaram’s book “Bad News: Last Journalists In a Dictatorship”, there is a list of 60 journalists “who faced difficulties” (or, in simple words, were punished) for criticizing the government in Rwanda. One was left in a coma after a knife attack. Another disappeared. And another was shot dead on the street. In recent years, Rwanda has mostly been lauded for an economic miracle after a brutal genocide. For example, the country recorded an economic growth rate of 35.2% in 1995, the year following the genocide’s end. For most of this century, it has had average growth rates of 8%, an impressive figure when you consider recessions and stagnations that have wracked the world economy. But that miracle has come at a cost to press freedom in this tiny landlocked African nation.

In its rankings this year, Reporter Sans Frontieres listed the country 159th (out of a total of 180) in press freedom. Although Rwanda’s constitution guarantees freedom of information and expression, several statutes within the document place restrictions. For example, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, recently cited the defamation statute, which can lead to five years of imprisonment or a hefty fine. The “Divisionism” statute has a similar punishment for oral or written pieces that could cause conflict with similar provisions and an even bigger fine. Sundaram’s is the first book to shine a light on this topic. He had earlier written about his stint in Rwanda’s strife-torn neighbor, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that book had received widespread praise from critics.

Bad News is about Sundaram’s tenure as a teacher at a journalism initiative in Rwanda. The initiative was funded by the European Union and United Kingdom. His job there was to teach students to think critically about news and pronouncements by government agencies.

That news mostly consists of reports about impressive growth rates and development goals. But the country’s economic development and peace are facades for a sinister dictatorship that constantly monitors and controls citizens, writes Sundaram. According to him, Paul Kagame, the general who came to power following the 1994 genocide, is an authoritarian ruler who suppresses dissent at every turn and encourages Pensee Unique – a singular manner of speech and thought – in citizens.

Sundaram illustrates his thesis of a suppressed citizenry through personal experience. His students are murdered, imprisoned, and forced to flee the country after they publish stories that questioned the government. Others, who curried government favor and flattered officials, receive privileged access to officials and become rich. Sundaram also has a personal experience of sorts when he is betrayed by an informant, who turns out to be agent of the state.

His reporting trips also reveal versions of stories that are different from the government-approved ones. For example, news of a bomb explosion sends him hurrying towards the site. However, upon arrival, he is greeted by a clean and quiet street. But he can still make out the remains of blood and human flesh on a street cleaner’s mop. He is also stopped by a security officer, when he attempts to photograph the scene. At an event to remember the genocide, a senior police official in uniform asks him not to “look and write” on his pad.

According to Sundaram, the Rwandan government has planted a “Secret Service” among its citizens. Its members pose as ordinary citizens to discern thoughts on a variety of matters, including freedom of expression, from individuals suspected of harboring dissent against the government. Sundaram himself falls into this trap, when Roger, who claims to run a blog critical of the government, befriends him. Roger turns out to be a specialist in infiltrating enemy camps and is employed by the government’s counterintelligence unit. “It is the most demanding section – he has been trained to kill his own people, even his friends, to prove his loyalty to the enemy,” Moses, a journalist in Sundaram’s program, informs him.    

A Vivid Portrait That Needs Some Work

“A vivid portrait of a country at an extraordinary and dangerous place in history, Bad News is a brilliant, urgent parable on freedom of expression and what happens when that power is taken away,” claims the book’s jacket. That claim is partly true.

Sundaram, who graduated in Mathematics from Yale University but took up journalism instead, writes with a convert’s zeal for his profession. There is an evident honesty in his story. As I mentioned earlier, Sundaram has inserted himself into the story as a character. The book, thus, reads as a mystery of sorts. He is not afraid to share his emotional state, after encountering setbacks. His observations and vivid details add color to the story. More importantly, his recorded conversations and encounters with locals and embassy officials are interesting and reveal a true journalist’s inquiring mind.

But additional detail would have made the book better.

Absolute truth is the goal of journalism. But the process to arrive at that truth, as any reporter will tell you, is messy. History is involved; as is bargaining with the subjects of a story. Much of that is missing in Sundaram’s account of Rwanda. Sundaram hears about government misdeeds from students and friends. But he does not verify the hearsay. Some context about Rwanda’s history and reinvention would have helped readers who are unfamiliar with the country understand the importance of such news. It would have, also, helped them see why Kagame’s regime is bad for press freedom.

But, too often, he does not seem to verify or validate these stories. For example, he writes about “secret contraceptions” being conducted by the government. This could have provided an interesting opportunity to validate his thesis. We already know that the average Rwandan woman’s fertility rate has dropped from 6.2 children per woman in 1992 to 2 children in 2014. What is the role of secret contraception practices in achieving this goal? Similarly, he writes about Roger informing him about a surge in enrollment for the government army. Again, Rwanda is an actor in a war in the Democratic Republic of Congo and has escalated its presence there.What relation does this development have in the increase in enrollment numbers?

Then there are the loose strands. Too often, the narrative follows multiple threads but fails to connect them together. For example, things become worse for Gibson,  a journalist who is Sundaram’s student, quite suddenly. One moment, he has secured government approvals and a couple of advertisements for his new magazine. In the next page, however, he is on the run to Uganda. The story, while linear, does not provide important background about why Gibson was being chased by the government. Gibson keeps reappearing throughout the book. But we don’t know what happens to him by the end of the book. There are other characters in the book, whose stories fail to reach a conclusion. 

That said, the book does a good job of poking a hole into the positive spin of news stories coming out of Rwanda. For that achievement itself, Sundaram’s book is worth reading.

Libra: Don DeLillo


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Libra is a fictional reconstruction of events leading up to and after the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Lee Harvey Oswald, the man alleged to have assassinated him. Both deaths were equal parts mysterious and sordid.

In twenty seconds that stunned the country, Kennedy, a leader who captivated America during a tumultuous time in her history, was seen on television waving to the crowds in Dealey Plaza one moment and collapsing into his wife’s lap, brains blown out, the next. Lee Harvey Oswald, the alleged assassin who shot the President from the Texas School Book Depository building, fled on foot after the act. He killed a police officer with a .38 gun before rushing into a cinema hall, where he was arrested after a brief scuffle. Two days later, Oswald himself was killed by Jack Ruby, a Dallas nightclub owner, to avenge Kennedy’s death. After he was imprisoned, Ruby tried to kill himself twice and died of cancer while waiting for a retrial.

A series of deaths followed, as people, among them former FBI agents and mafia overlords, named in Chief Justice Earl Warren’s investigation report died of “mysterious” natural causes or were murdered within less than five years after the incident.

More than 50 years later, the official account of Kennedy’s assassination remains controversial. In a BBC documentary to accompany this book, Delillo said that JFK’s death produced a rumble that has gathered motion over the years, “There is a sense of danger, something unraveling,” he says. “We (Americans) lost a narrative thread. The assassination…made everything plausible, left us susceptible to the most incredible ideas and fantasies.”

Lee Oswald claimed that he was a “patsy” (or set up for the crime) for a larger syndicate. In the media, there are conflicting accounts of his personality and marksmanship. He is an ace shooter and lone ranger with sympathies for Cuba’s emerging communist state in one. In another, he is a cog in the wheel of a giant machine set to up to accomplish the assassination. Then, there are charges that official reports were manipulated, that doctors who performed an autopsy on John F. Kennedy’s dead body released false reports. The trajectory of Oswald’s bullets, which passed through JFK’s neck and into then Texas Governor Connally’s thigh, add to the entire situation’s murkiness.

An Emotionally Unstable Patsy

DeLillo’s book uses fragments of multiple narratives from Nicholas Branch, a retired FBI official who is writing a definitive account of the assassination, to individual life stories of characters associated with the narrative to weave a tale.

The main thesis of Libra is that Oswald was indeed a “patsy”. Former and current officials from government agencies in the United States trailed him after he defected to the Soviet Union. They were rabidly anti-Castro and wanted revenge for the Bay of Pigs massacre. They set up events, circumstances, and people to instigate him towards an assassination.

In the book, Oswald is aware of this, his destiny. As the 24-year-old faces television cameras the day he was killed, there was “something in the look, some sly intelligence, exceedingly brief but far-reaching, a connection all but bleached away by glare tells us that he is outside the moment, watching the rest of us.” It is the same with Ruby. He tells Chief Justice Warren at the hearings that “he has been used for a purpose, that he wants to tell the truth, and leave the world.”

There are similarities in Oswald’s and Ruby’s life stories. Both come from broken homes and impoverished backgrounds. Oswald’s childhood and adolescence, in particular, is marked by a dissociation from markers of stability and identity. His father, an insurance salesman, dies early and his itinerant childhood is spent between cities and schools.

In New York City, he skips school and rides the subway from end-to-end. He is not dull; he’d begun reading about Marxism in New Orleans before the age of fifteen. “I could lift my head from a book and see the impoverishment of the masses right there in front of me, including my own mother in her struggle to raise three children against the odds.” He is emotionally unstable and prone to violent outbursts.

At the age of 17, Oswald joins the Marines and is posted to Japan, a country recovering from the ravages of the Second World War. The Asian country is where the events of Oswald’s life’s denouement begin. In between his duties as a Marine and visits to prostitutes, he establishes contact with a Russian language teacher and passes on military secrets to her in exchange for assistance in defecting to the Soviet Union. His desperation to leave the United States is illustrated by a suicide attempt in Moscow after his citizenship application is rejected.

Eventually, after a KGB interrogation, he is sent to Minsk, where he meets Marina, an orphan drawn to strangers and “people who are different”. After a whirlwind romance and courtship lasting all of six weeks, they are married. He is twenty and she nineteen. Fatherhood brings “luck” and a sort of permanence to his life.

But the situation is temporary and disillusionment soon sets in. The constant surveillance and regimentation of Soviet life grates on Oswald. An encounter with Cubans in Minsk and their idealistic aspirations for a socialist society further fans his frustrations. In the end, Lee Harvey Oswald, who gave up his country and family for Marxist ideals, makes his way back to America two years after renouncing it.

A return to America sets Oswald adrift again. Without a job and much social life (he does not get along with Russian expatriates critical of their home country), he is on the move again. In the meanwhile, federal agencies have tacked onto him and begun tracking his movements post-defection. Agent Donald Freitag from the FBI turns up one day and asks him questions about life in the Soviet Union.

Oswald’s life acquires a trajectory after he encounters a cast of characters, including an ex-FBI agent and a former pilot, who prod him towards a finale. “Simple things building up,” writes DeLillo about Oswald getting caught in a vortex of circumstances and manipulation. He orders guns using an alias and attempts to kill a right-wing ideologue. He joins Fair Play Cuba to spy for the CIA, but his political sympathies still lie with Marxist ideology. He travels to Mexico under an assumed name to apply for a visa to Cuba. It is only after he pulls the trigger (in DeLillo’s account, Oswald misses Kennedy and shoots then Texas Governor Connally instead) that Oswald realizes the consequences of his deed. “They superimposed his head on someone else’s body. Forged his name on documents. Made him a dupe of history. He would name every name, if he had to.”

A Slippery Reality

It is conceit that makes us believe that we are masters of our own destiny and narratives. Our identity in the world is shaped by stories others tell about us and the tales we tell about ourselves to them.

After reading the book, I watched a clip of Lee Harvey Oswald being presented before television cameras: slight, disheveled, and almost comical with his beaky nose and wide eyes. He seemed well-mannered and polite. Perhaps, he was, like most 24-year-old men, still figuring out his place in life? Perhaps, he took that photograph of himself with a gun in jest?. Perhaps, he was a societal outcast, who’d been brainwashed into the evils of capitalism?

There is already a wealth of material regarding conspiracy theories about JFK’s assassination. While the accounts outline the broad details, they do not provide much information about Oswald’s motivations or personality. After all, regardless of the sequence of events or the logistical improbability of a bullet penetrating both Kennedy and Connally, the connective thread in this narrative is Lee Oswald himself.

Oswald does not seem to have belonged to family or friends. In DeLillo’s book, he attempts to tell his story by maintaining a “Historic Diary”, a book that provides sketches into his life in the Soviet Union but abandons the effort after contact with federal agents. You could say that the absence of a personal narrative makes Oswald was an excellent candidate to commit a crime.

DeLillo’s achievement in Libra lies in establishing a coherence to events and Oswald’s persona. DeLillo combines multiple narratives about the man and weaves his life with that of a cast of characters drawn from the Warren commission files. Among them: Guy Banister, a former FBI agent, on a mission to spread the rise of communism throughout the world. David Ferrie, a former pilot instructor out to stop the spread of Comrade Cancer. (Interestingly, Ferrie is depicted as a homosexual, a group of people banned in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in the novel). Win Everett, a former CIA operative and mastermind of the operation. In an interview with the New York Times, DeLillo said that the novel works within history and, also, outside it, “correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms.”

The book’s title is a reference to the Sun Sign, a balancing of scales, an attempt to control events and reach equanimity. But that control is never reached. Individual characters break into pieces inwardly even as they remain calm and in control on the surface. The assassination itself was originally planned as a missed attempt on the President’s life in Miami. But, plans and locations change. In DeLillo’s words: Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move towards death.

Eventually Libra is about a slippery reality that is not always as it seems.

Oswald, of course, is the most prominent case. He is a complex character. He loves his wife but also beats her. He is disillusioned with Communism but still willing to sacrifice his life for Marxist Cuba. Similarly, Everett is ruthless but dotes on his daughter. Ferrie, the pilot instructor, forces himself onto Oswald during the night that they spend together.

In the book, the Libran scale tips towards destruction and confusion, one that ends up with the death of a U.S. President.

Shoe Dog Review: Phil Knight’s Journey


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(click title to buy the book)

Shoe Dog, Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s memoir about the company’s evolution into a sports powerhouse, is an excellent read. At a time when fly-by-night entrepreneurs dispense textbook wisdom about their experiences in distilled tweets and Facebook posts, the memoir is refreshing because it packs in a wide scope.

Knight is an old-school entrepreneur, who worked hard to create a market for running shoes in the United States. Nike is his life’s work.

As such, the book is as much about the messy process that is entrepreneurship (or, indeed, life) as it is about Knight’s flawed personality (minus Instagram filters and cheery Facebook updates). In the latter point especially, the book is a revelation because Knight mostly flew under the radar until the company seriously began challenging leader Adidas during the later 1970s.

Nike started life in 1962 as Blue Ribbon sports company. Knight started the company based on a paper that he presented during his final year at Stanford’s business school. He refers to it as his Crazy Idea.

The basic thrust of his presentation was to import running shoes from Japan, which had plenty of cheap labor and was rebuilding its society after the destruction of World War II. “Being a business buff, I knew that Japanese cameras had made deep cuts into the camera market, which had been dominated by Germans. Thus, I argued in my paper that Japanese running shoes might do the same thing,” Knight writes. (Adidas, a German company, was the leader in sports shoes at that time).
On a round-the-world trip after graduation, Knight contacted Onitsuka, makers of Tiger shoes in Japan, and placed an order for their Limber Up brand (the others, as Knight dryly notes, were called Sprint Up and Throw Up) for fifty dollars. Those twelve pairs of shoes took almost a year to make their way to his home in in Portland, Oregon. By then, he had taken up a job working as an accountant at Price Waterhouse Cooper and was seriously considering “blowing his brains out.”

After the shoes arrived, however, Knight stocked them in the boot of his car and sold them to school track clubs on weekends. He plowed his salary into the new business while staying in the servant quarters of his parents home. Later, he changed jobs to work as an associate faculty at Portland State University so that he could devote more time to Blue Ribbon.

The story of Nike’s growth is not only about Knight’s hard work. It is about a good mix of luck and a great team.

Early on, Knight found a business partner in Bob Bowerman, a legendary running coach from the University of Oregon. Bowerman’s contacts and expertise in designing shoes (according to Knight, Bowerman came up with the idea of a waffle iron sole) helped Nike gain credibility in the market.

He also collected a colorful cast of characters around him as his team. There was his first employee. Jeff Johnson graduated from Stanford with a degree in anthropology and was employed as a social worker and selling shoes for Adidas, when he met Knight. Johnson, who was passionate about running, switched to selling Blue Ribbon’s Tiger Shoes after meeting Knight. He frequently wrote long and detailed letters to Nike about pretty much everything, from sales conditions to requests for raises. Knight never responded to them (including the one asking for a raise). But Johnson became an invaluable member of the Nike team. Even as Knight focused on Oregon, he established a business for Tiger shoes outside its home state.

Bob Woodell, Nike’s first Chief Operations Officer, was another unique character. He was a long jump champion who sold Nike shoes from a wheelchair after an accident. In Knight’s telling, the motley group of people had a uniting passion for sports and running, in particular.

There are a couple of reasons I liked the book.

First, it is an interesting look at the dynamics of entrepreneurship minus the sophisticated ecosystem in place today. Nike started life in 1962, when the infrastructure available to most entrepreneurs today, from venture capital to research firms and institutional financing, was absent. It was a different era in more ways than one. The information explosion that is the Internet had not yet occurred: Knight went around with a book on Japanese etiquette and culture to learn more about the people he was dealing with. It was also a period during which stable employment was prized over radical ideas (especially in Oregon). Knight’s father, who bankrolled his son for the first few months, reflected this ethos with his obsession for respectability. He withdrew funding for Blue Ribbon after a couple of months.

Knight switched to a line of credit from a local bank to keep his cash flow going. Even rising sales, however, failed to assuage his bankers who yanked funding from Blue Ribbon in 1972. That, and Onitsuka’s attempt to break free from Blue Ribbon’s distributorship, led to Knight striking out on his own with a new company called Nike. This time around, Knight obtained financing from a Japanese trading company. He had already laid the groundwork for this company behind Onitsuka’s back and tested a couple of shoes in the market. But he started Nike with a different set of suppliers.

For entrepreneurs, aspiring or otherwise, this is a fascinating look at a bootstrapped business from another age.

The second reason I liked the book was Knight’s honesty about his journey. This book is unlike other entrepreneurship stories that I have read (or covered as a journalist). Written in a simple and readable language, it eschews the dry, knowing tone of an entrepreneur’s voice and cultivates a raconteur’s voice. Knight’s sense of humor further lifts the narrative.

For example, the account of his first meeting at Onitsuka Ltd., makers of Tiger shoes, is hilarious. He was 24-years-old then. The interesting thing about this meeting is that it took place at a time when running was not part of the national consciousness in the United States. It was referred to as “jogging” and shoes made for the activity were rudimentary. There was little thought given to foot dynamics and individual running styles. Still Knight blurted out that the market for running shoes was worth $1 billion. (Today’s entrepreneurs have an armada of facts and anecdotes to convince you about the viability and market of their product.)

In his book, Knight claims to be a shy man who can focus on only one thing at a time. Yet he was not afraid to battle it out in business. He makes frequent references to and quotes successful Generals in his book. (His favorite quote is General MacArthur’s quote about breaking rules). He employed a similar strategy in his business, when he stole a folder containing a list of alternative distributors for Onitsuka’s shoes. He also employed a spy at Onitsuka to report back to him. Knight narrates these incidents in a matter-of-fact way. His attempts at justifying his behavior are half-hearted. For example, he claims that it is common in Japanese companies to spy on each other.

Nike was a medium-sized company then. As the company’s business and factories grew, Knight got a bitter taste of his own medicine when the media accused him of colluding with a dictator to employ people in sweatshop factories. Knight devotes just a page to the controversy accusing the media of cherry-picking instances to make a generic case. (But the media is still on his case!).

Knight’s description of his family life are also marked by honesty. He admits to imitating his father’s uncommunicative stance while parenting his two sons. One of them, Matthew Knight, died of a heart attack while scuba diving in 2005. Knight describes him as a difficult child, a rebel. The reader gets a sense that Knight feels responsible for his rebelliousness.

The book also has a couple of flaws.

Knight does not really devote much time or words to the shoe business. It would have been interesting to know a bit more about the dynamics of the business and how Nike’s arrival made a difference. There was a time when Adidas was the dominant player in the business. What did Nike do (or didn’t do) that helped it overtake Adidas? Similarly, how did Reebok manage to overtake Nike during the 1980s?

Based on his comments about advertising in the book, Knight seems to be skeptical about the power of advertising to sway consumer choices. And yet, Nike’s branding is a critical part of its success. From the swoosh logo to the company’s choice of representatives from Michael Jordan to 1970s runner Steve Prefontaine (who died in 1975 at the age of 24) to the tagline of “Just Do It” have all helped its shoes connect with customers and drive sales. In later interviews, Knight spoke at length about the Nike brand. But he refuses to credit Nike’s success to its brand.

That said, the book is an excellent and, even, exhilarating read. It is the story of an entrepreneur looking back at his life. In an age, when there is a profusion of bite-sized wisdom about life and “disruption” from 20-somethings barely out of college, the book is a good reminder that life (and entrepreneurship) is a complicated journey and that the disruptor is also disrupted in the process of disruption.

Family Matters Review


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(Click title to buy book)

I borrowed Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters from the public library because I wanted to indulge in nostalgia and emotion. There is a certain claustrophobic beauty to Mistry’s works. His novels have a large canvas and are typically set against turbulent times of political upheaval India’s recent history. But their narration is tightly focused on a group of close-knit people, whether it is family or friends or just a random set of people thrown together by circumstance.

Family Matters is even more dense than Mistry’s previous work. This is partly because of the backdrop in this novel. Mistry has set the arc of his main characters against the rise of Shiv Sena, a Hindu fundamentalist group that came into prominence during the early 1990s. But the party’s goons are bit characters; they move in the shadows. The novelist’s unwavering attention is on the lives and problems of three generations of a Parsi family and their complicated relationship with each other.

Seventy-nine-year-old Nariman Vakeel is a retired professor of English literature, who lives in a big house with his middle-aged stepson and stepdaughter, Jal and Coomy. Vakeel is afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. On a walk one day, he breaks his leg. The doctor advises complete bedrest for a month and prohibits any form of walking, including visits to the bathroom. Stuck to his bed and incapacitated completely, Nariman lapses into depression. Jal and Coomy, who do not have much experience in caregiving, hatch a plan to offload Vakeel onto Roxana, their younger stepsister.
Roxana Chenoy lives in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband and two sons. This change of residence and its effect on Roxana’s family as well as her relationship with her brother and sister forms the crux of Mistry’s story. As the novel progresses and the disease takes control of Nariman’s body, we learn more about his past. Memories of a love affair resurface as he begins talking and crying in his sleep.
The situation is made worse by Jal and Coomy, who invent excuses (even going to the extent of breaking the plaster on their ceiling) to prolong his stay. In the meanwhile, Roxana’s husband, Yezad, loses his job. A death in the family brings about a change of residences.

Just when you think that the events and incidents in A Family Matter are careening towards a conclusion, Mistry inserts an epilogue which details events five years later. There is a conclusion; but it not a happy state of affairs. It is, as one would say of most things that happen in a family, not an unhappy one either.

Mistry’s work is a labor of love to the Parsi community. They are the sole focus of this novel. Through his characters, Mistry criticizes and praises their eccentricities. And there are many of those for they are the most British of all Indian races. In fact, there is no historical record of their life before the British. As a result, their customs and rituals are an odd mix of Hindu rituals and Western culture. Even as they apply the sacrificial red dot with rice (a Hindu custom) on birthdays and eat spicy food that would bring tears to most Indians eyes (this one included) their tastes in music and language are almost totally Western. Their language is an odd mix of Gujarati and English. Western classical music (as opposed to Bollywood) is an essential part of their growing up years. As a Parsi himself, Mistry shines a brilliant light on this world.
Mistry originally wanted to invert Tolstoy’s quote about happy families being alike (at the beginning of Anna Karenina) at the beginning of his work. In essence, he wanted to show that all unhappy families are alike as well.

In its structure and scope, Family Matters resembles nineteenth century family sagas, except that its setting is modern Bombay. Family Matters is about unhappiness. Each character in the book is a bundle of sadness, weighed down by past and present circumstances. For example, Coomy harbors memories from years ago and, in unguarded outbursts, blames her father for their mother’s death. Roxana’s husband Yezad resents his father-in-law’s intrusion into their home and the added expenses. Roxana, who is the most generous and understanding of all characters in the novel, also has misgivings about the arrangement.

But the novel is also about happiness and love. There are moments of quiet understanding and love. Yezad takes to cleaning after his father-in-law later. Jal gives extra cash to Roxana’s family after Yezad loses his job. Roxana’s younger son Jehangir, a sensitive child, performs several acts of kindness later in the novel.
That said, it does not have the fluid narrative of Mistry’s earlier novel – A Fine Balance. Frequently, Mistry digresses into long speeches and inside jokes about Parsi culture. He also uses language and references that may be unfamiliar to some readers.

(I am especially curious about how John Updike’s understood the numerous Gujarati words that pepper Mistry’s narrative. Though I suppose the problem is not new; several novels about Jewish identity have Yiddish words that may be unfamiliar to non-American readers.)
But, all said and done, Family Matters is still a wonderful novel. It is a valuable snapshot of Parsi life and  a novel about the complexity of love in large families.

A Review Of The Bush Presidency


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On 9/11, President George W. Bush Jr. spent eight hours up in the air after the attacks. He was stopped from returning to Washington D.C. by his Chief of Staff and the Secret Service. He was isolated from his administration due to a breakdown in communications. But he didn’t need legal briefs or consultations. “I knew we were at war,” he said in an interview recently.

Eventually, Bush landed in Louisiana at the headquarters of the Eighth Air Force.

It was here that he received briefings from top brass in his administration.

That evening, he addressed the nation. In his account of the presidency years, Bush writes that his first instinct that day was to tell the American people that “we were at war.” But he decided to wait for one day before making that announcement. That evening he gave a different speech in which he declared that “we will make no distinctions between the terrorist who committed these acts and those who harbor them.” That sentence came to be known as the Bush doctrine in later years.

After his return to D.C. that night, Bush was asked to sleep in the White House bunker by the Secret Service. He overruled that request. In the middle of the night, he was woken up by Secret Service agents, who said an unidentified plane had been spotted flying towards the White House. The president and his wife ran down to the bunker, he in his running shorts and she in her night gown. Later an enlisted agent walked in and told them that the plane had been identified as “one of ours.”

Before going off to bed that night, Bush dictated this sentence into the White House daily log: “The Pearl Harbor of the 21st century took place today.” That sentence, along with the Bush doctrine, set the tone for the next eight years of his presidency and hurled the United States into its deadliest war since the Vietnam misadventure in the 1960s. Although he presided over some of America’s most prosperous years, Bush is (in)famous in the United States (and throughout the world) for the Iraq war.

To be sure, it is foolish to blame Bush for all America’s problems during those years. Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster that he couldn’t have avoided. It would have been difficult for any president to avoid the financial crisis. Then there is the fact that a president’s decisions depend on inputs from the collective of decision makers around him. Their daily briefings edits color a president’s perspective of the state of affairs around him.

In any case, most presidents have a mixed record on policy decisions. Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) into law. In hindsight, that action seems like a terrible mistake and sets him on the wrong side of history. Yet, he was also responsible for some of the most economically prosperous years in America’s history.

Similarly, President Obama navigated America out of a perilous recession. At the same time, his record is tarnished by charges of race-baiting and a less-than-stellar record on ending human rights abuses.

It is hard to find a redemptive account of the Bush presidency, though.

He took over from Clinton at a time when America was peaceful and prosperous. By the end of his tenure, the nation’s record read like a roll-call of natural and manmade disasters. In 2009, America was involved in two wars of its own making abroad. It had suffered an enormous natural disaster at home and was wracked by a financial crisis, the likes of which it had not witnessed since the Great Depression.

Bush’s tenure also set the tone for much of the political discourse and debate occurring across the world today. His binary worldview of “us versus them” and “good versus evil” birthed and fanned the flames of Islamophobia. Bush’s “personal diplomacy” won him friends like Tony Blair (who has been excoriated similarly by the British media). It also ended up alienating the country. America’s moral standing took a precipitous hit abroad, in no small part due to Bush’s “Texas swagger” on the world stage.

That swagger itself has become the butt of jokes. A cursory search for Bush Jr. on Youtube yields a slew of videos which catalog his gaffes and are littered with derisive comments about his intellectual capabilities. For a long time, George Bush’s website was the top result in response to a Google search for “a miserable failure.” If one were to judge Bush purely on the basis of public comments, the overwhelming portrait is that of a man who was unfit for Presidency.

And, yet, it did not seem that way in 2000, when Bush became president for the first time.

Bush may have lacked the professorial gravitas of Obama or Clinton’s charm but he was a man who “got things done.” (These were words that Bush used to describe himself).

He came to the President’s office as a “compassionate conservative.” He was (and continues to be) empathetic to the plight of immigrants and (continues to) advocated for immigration reform. While campaigning at the stump, he said “we don’t believe in discrimination against anybody.” Hard to believe now but this image of compassionate conservatism won him 90% of the Muslim vote during the 2000 election.

So what happened during his years in presidency to change his stance?

I read two books – Jean Edward Smith’s Bush and Bush’s own description of his years in office – Decision Points – to find out the answer.

Smith, who had earlier written a critically acclaimed biography of Dwight Eisenhower, does not pull any punches in “Bush.” “Rarely in the history of the United States has the nation been so ill-served as during the presidency of George W. Bush,” he writes in the book’s first sentence. There is a theory that Bush was influenced by the war hawks surrounding him. Notably, this list included vice president Dick Cheney, who had earlier served under Bush Sr. and advocated for an invasion of Iraq back then, and Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s Defense Secretary.

But Smith makes short work of this theory in the preface. He writes that Bush was the “decider.” (Again, to use a word that Bush used to describe himself).

Smith’s main charge against Bush is that he “personalized” the presidency by surrounding himself with acolytes. Unlike past presidents, he showed an unwillingness to confer and counsel with people who were opposed to his worldview. Condoleezza Rice, who served as Secretary of State under him, was referred to as an “accelerator” because she reinforced his impulses by simplifying complexity to make it digestible to Bush. This practice led to his being trapped in a bubble of his own making and ended up with disastrous consequences for the country and the world at large.

George W. Bush does himself no favors in his presidency memoir “Decision Points.” It is an exercise in blame-shifting, a book of short sentences and equally short explanations. While it does not provide a comprehensive explanation of Bush’s motives, the book’s main utility lies in providing us with a glimpse (and, by that, I mean just a glimpse since Bush is famous for his aversion to “absurd psychobabble”) into the man’s thinking.


George Walker Bush was born on 6 July, 1946 in New Haven, Connecticut to George Prescott Bush and Barbara Bush. Bush Sr. had just returned from World War II duty and was enrolled at Yale University. Although he was born in Connecticut, Bush Jr. was very much a Texas kid. He grew up in Midland, Texas in an “imposing custom-built three thousand square foot home with the first residential swimming pool in the city.” After completing the initial part of his schooling in Texas, Bush Jr. followed family tradition and completed his schooling at the prestigious Andover Academy in Massachusetts and college at Yale. He also completed an MBA at Harvard Business School. At all three places, Bush was an unexceptional student academically and was popular with fellow students.

According to Smith, Bush’s experience at Yale led him to disdain “intellectual snobbery,” a trait that he carried over to the White House. At B-school, his classmates considered him a clown because he was “exceptionally opinionated” and “dynamically ignorant.” Bush left Harvard with 53 job interviews but was rejected in every single one of them.
He moved back to Midland and started an oil prospecting firm, which was acquired by another company and went public in the early 1980s. Eventually, it was absorbed into Harken Oil & Gas Exploration.

Smith says that Bush was a child of privilege and that he benefited from this position in society at each turn. For example, he got into the National Guard even though it had a waiting list of over 100,000 men. According to a later testimony by Thomas Bishop, who was overall Commander of the National Guard at that time, a place was found for Bush in spite of there being “no vacancies in the Texas Guard.”

Smith also writes that the list of investors for Bush’s first company – Arbusto – “reads like the roster of George H.W. Bush’s A team of campaign contributors,” Harken Oil & Gas exploration, the company which eventually absorbed Arbusto, liked to attach itself to “stars.” With a father who was Vice President at that time, Bush Jr. was more than a star.

Marriage and fatherhood helped Bush become sober. During this period, Bush met and married Laura Bush, a fellow Texan and a calming presence in his life, and fathered twin daughters. He had been a hard partier earlier, with a tendency to overconsume alcohol. But he quit alcohol after a 40th birthday party celebration during which he and his friends took over an entire restaurant.

In 1993, Bush defeated incumbent Ann Richards to become the governor of Texas. His record as governor was impressive and included securing bipartisan support for a complete overhaul of the Texas educational system (the first such overhaul in 50 years), and welfare and tort reform. That the demands of his job were not excessive helped matters.

“The governorship is all hat and no cattle, as a Texan would say. George W. Bush thrived in that setting,” writes Smith. He even details Bush’s schedule: arrive at the office at 8 am, go for a three to five mile run at 11:40 am, return after lunch at 1:30 pm, play computer solitaire or video golf till 3 pm, when the workday ended.


The events of election night in 2000 are already well-known to document here. Smith spends a chapter outlining details, including the back-and-forth between the Bush and Gore camps regarding conceding the Presidency. Despite the drama surrounding his election, Bush came to the presidency with vigor and spent the first couple of months in office pushing the No Child Left Behind act, his attempt at education reform.

And then 9/11 happened.

On that day, as has been recounted several times, Bush was in Florida at a school reading. The sequence of events that occurred after the reading can be said to have shaped Bush’s thinking and strategy regarding the war on terror. In “Decision Points,” Bush refers to these events as “the fog of war.” (Remember, he did not know at that point of time, whether this was, indeed, war).

Bush returned to Washington that evening and addressed the nation in a “dreadful” and “stilted” delivery, writes Smith. He also criticizes Bush’s comparison of 9/11 events to Pearl Harbor. 9/11 was different from World War II, Smith writes, when armed forces of multiple nations were on march to grab territory. That said, it cannot be denied that 9/11 represented the single largest loss of human lives on American lives since World War II.

Bush, however, believed in this description and commenced a regime of daily intelligence briefings from multiple security agencies. He also met 9/11 survivors and relatives of those who had been killed. The combination of an information overload from security agencies and meetings with survivors overwhelmed him and showed in his actions.

In the following months, Bush designated Iran, North Korea, and Iraq as an “axis of evil.” He commenced a war against Iraq and Afghanistan. In the run up to the war, Bush adopted an aggressive and often bellicose tone against the international comity. He complemented that aggressive posture outside with a similar one at home and put in place measures and laws that have hard a far-reaching effect on privacy and security. For example, the NSA’s overreach is a legacy of Bush’s directives to the agency.
These directives were achieved by personalizing power into the President’s office. In his book, Smith illustrates examples of situations where Bush overrode the authority of command and subverted the Constitution and international agreements to achieve his goal. All of this posturing came to a head with the invasion of Iraq in 2004. In hindsight, the speech with a “Mission Accomplished” backdrop seems laughable now. But Bush was convinced that he was on the right path and followed up the invasion with the appointment of leaders who showed little understanding of the local situation. These leaders were chosen on the basis of recommendations from colleagues or from a roster of personal and school contacts.

For example, General Tommy Franks, who planned and executed the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq was also from Midland Texas. Paul Bremer, who was the presidential envoy to Baghdad, came recommended from Donald Rumsfeld. Bremer de-Baathified Iraq. Smith argues that Saddam Hussein’s party was the secular force binding the country’s hostile sects together. Breaking it up unleashed a civil war between Sunnis and Shias and, consequently, led to the rise of ISIS.

As I mentioned earlier, Bush’s version of events does him no favors. In fact, if one reads between the lines, Bush’s naivete in handling the situation is an indictment of his administration.

For example, Bush writes that he selected Bob Gates as his defense adviser during the Iraq war after a high school and college friend “whom I had appointed to the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board” suggested his name.

“Why hadn’t I thought of Bob?” Bush muses in the book.

The reader ponders the same question along with Bush. The 43rd President chose his National Security Adviser (and Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice after being introduced to her at his family retreat. He finalized on Dick Cheney as vice president based on a recommendation from his father. And the list goes on.

In addition to a dismembered Iraq, Bush’s most lasting and controversial legacy is the establishment of a torture and surveillance apparatus. Images of soldiers being tortured at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay sparked the rise of extreme factions within Islam and marked the United States as an enemy to the religion.

In establishing torture tribunals, Bush was assisted by the Office of Legal Counsel, an agency responsible for advising the President on Constitutional matters. John Yoo, a constitutional scholar with the OLC, provided the White House with a 35-page opinion that the President had “inherent authority” as Commander-in-Chief to establish military commissions. In doing so, he overrode objections from the United States military (which argued correctly that it might be harmful to the U.S. military’s image abroad), the State Department, and the National Security Council. For his part, Bush categorized Al Qaeda as “unlawful combatants who do not have rights under Geneva Conventions.”

Bush seems unrepentant about his decision. He writes that the establishment of a surveillance agency was “necessary.” Time and again, he asserts that the country warded off several threats in his book thanks to the apparatus he put in place. But he provides little evidence or explanation to support his assertions. His disingenuous and simplistic reasoning does not help matters.

For example, he explains away Al Qaeda’s operational chief Abu Zubaydah’s waterboarding by claiming that it was necessary to reach the limits of his belief. “His understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation only up to a certain point. Waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold,” writes Bush. But we are left clueless about the quality and extent of intelligence provided by Zubaydah’s revelations after waterboarding ended.

We only have Bush’s word. (And that is not saying much since U.S. intelligence was wrong about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction.)

Bush was also assured that any inadvertent interception of domestic communications as part of the Terrorist Surveillance Program would be reported to the Justice Department. That, as we know now, never happened. Instead surveillance has become a part of the fabric of American society.

Bush also seems oblivious to the connection between cause and effect in memoirs. He admits to being concerned about the backlash against Muslims and Arab-Americans. (Key members of the Bin Laden family were secretly airlifted out of the country after 9/11). Yet he did little to assuage these concerns in his public pronouncements. Smith writes that, after 9/11, Bush met with senior Congressional leaders and told them that “they (the attack’s perpetrators) hate Christianity. They hate Judaism. They hate everything that is not them. Other nations will have to choose.”

Smith also makes note of Bush’s extensive use of signing statements to nullify Congress’s legislation that allowed torture to continue at Abu Ghraib, paved the way for wiretaps of the American public, and disabled whistle-blower protection for federal employees. “Not only was he intruding on the power of Congress to legislate, he was usurping the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret the constitution,” writes Smith.


With chapter titles such as “Don’t Mess Around With Texas,” Smith’s book often feels like a hatchet job on Bush. That seems a bit unfair when you consider that the stage for his Presidency was set by the previous administration. For example, the Iraq Liberation Act was passed under Clinton’s watch. Similarly, his predecessor’s administration was responsible for repealing the Glass Steagall Act that set aside the distinction between the commercial and investment arms of a bank. Including context about developments during the Clinton regime would have provided more detail and context for Bush’s decisions.

While he does an excellent job assembling quotes and research to make his case, Smith’s book feels incomplete because it does not explain the rationale behind Bush’s decision-making process. He has acidic prose, such as this: “Bush’s response to the financial crisis was similar to his response to Hurricane Katrina. He watched it happen.” This makes for entertaining reading but does not tell us much about the why and how the transformation from a “compassionate conservative” to a war-mongering and unreasonable president took place. (Bush also vetoed gay marriage and was criticized for his handling of Hurricane Katrina).

Bush’s memoirs of his years as president are equally opaque about how he arrived at decisions. Too frequently, Bush writes that he felt “sickened” or “shocked” by press revelations about matters that his administration should have been aware of, such as torture trails or the financial crisis. It is impossible for the reader to gauge whether Bush was really ignorant or quietly complicit in the mess.

And Smith also does not touch upon the all-important question of the motives for going to war. The reasoning (or, at least, the one provided to the general public) may have been geopolitical but its benefits were economic. As of 2013, Iraq had already cost $800 billion in reconstruction. Much of that money was wasted in corruption. Vice president Cheney’s former employer Halliburton Company has been a major beneficiary of reconstruction efforts.

Several cronies of the Bush administration also made off with riches. As an example, consider the case of International Oil Trading Co., a Florida-based Pentagon contractor. The firm was started by Marty Martin, who advised Bush on terrorism for two years after 9/11. It won contracts worth $2.1 billion from the Bush administration to supply fuel from Jordan to Iraqi forces. Later, it was embroiled in a corruption and bribery lawsuit filed by the younger brother of Jordan’s King Abdullah. In effect, the military industrial complex swooped in to destroy and reconstruct a country under the pretext of bringing democracy to that part of the world. (That its neighbor Saudi Arabia, a close U.S. ally, is a monarchy did not seem to bother the U.S. administration).

To be sure, Bush’s tenure, or at least the initial part, was a continuation of the Clinton era of economic prosperity. And when the country was on the edge of a financial crisis, Bush’s decision to bail out important institutions was critical in limiting the impact of the financial crisis. He also started the fight against AIDS in Africa and continues to regularly visit the continent to expand on his work. While its results have been mixed, the No Child Left Behind Act was a genuine attempt at reforming education funding and standards.

President Obama, who rode on a swell of anti-Bush sentiment to office in 2008, promised an end to divisive politics and Guantanamo Bay. But his tenure has seen differences sharpen and Guantanamo Bay continues to remain open for business. If anything, Obama has had his own intelligence failure moment, when he underestimated the ISIS threat back in 2014 and referred to them as supporting cast in the Iraqi war for independence. He is also referred to as the drone president because his tenure has seen an increase in killings due to the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Being the president of the most powerful nation on earth is not an easy job. In interviews, Bush has often said that history is better judge of actions rather than the present. In Decision Points, he points to Truman, who left presidency with the lowest ever ratings but is now considered one of the best presidents in history, as an example.

But history is also often written by victors. In the immediate short term, Bush seems to have lost the Iraq war. As a result, the history of his presidency is being written by journalists and activists critical of his policies.

Perhaps, Bush was influenced by his coterie of advisors. Perhaps, he was a stubborn and self-willed man who manipulated events and people to get his own way. Given conflicting accounts and the breakdown of intelligence, we shall never know.

Bush’s only chance of redemption seems to be a victory in the Iraq war or some semblance of stability in the country. And that does not seem to be happening anytime soon.

Review: J D Salinger: Nine Stories


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“A Catcher in the Rye” was my first (and, for a long time, only) Salinger book. I read it during my undergraduate years in Mumbai. I was living alone, drinking large amounts of alcohol and, like most adolescents, unhappy with life and the world. It was a confusing time: of discovery, new experiences and old frustrations.

The book had a profound effect on our group of friends. After a drink (or several) we competed with each other to list reasons wfor our similarities with Holden Caulfield (and why we were exceptions to a supposedly materialistic world). The next day, after the hangover wore off, we’d fight with each other about the same materialistic things we pretended to disdain after a couple of pegs. In that sense, I suppose we were like Caulfield: a mix of contradictions and confusions. I borrowed “Nine Stories” from a friend, who recommended it to me on the roof of a bar near our room. Between drawn-out cigarette puffs and gulps of cheap whisky, he declared that it was better than “A Catcher In The Rye.”

But I abandoned the book after reading exactly one story.

I didn’t even understand that story.

For a self-involved college kid with manufactured angst (a feeling that “A Catcher In The Rye” acknowledged and stoked), the horrors of war and marital discord were alien themes.
On a visit to the Brooklyn Public Library recently, I picked it up again. They say age brings wisdom and empathy. This time, I read through all the stories in less than three days. There were hardly any drinks to accompany the reading. And, I identified less with the characters and more with the story.

Taken together, “Nine Stories” encompasses a number of human experiences: a suicide, first love, marital discord, the horrors of war, and, even, an artiste’s first job. A former WWII soldier kills himself after a pleasant conversation with a ten-year-old kid at a beach in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.” The logical inconsistency of a crush is depicted in “Just Before The War With Eskimos.” Then, there is the humorous turn in “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period,” where a starving artist works his first job in a Montreal art school.

Salinger’s canvas may be vast but his approach remains the same. He works as a painter, depicting characters in these stories as figures in a painting. Salinger’s pen outlines a mise en scene, usually involving an interaction between opposites, The dialogue and settings work towards a conclusion that is quiet and heartbreakingly intense.

Consider the scene in a coffee shop in “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.” The main action in this story takes place inside a coffee shop. But, that scene embodies several situations: a comedy of manners between an English girl and an American soldier, an introduction, and the innocence and curiosity of children.

Again, Salinger’s milieu – the Second World War and East Coast conventions – is one that I do not have much experience of. But Salinger’s deft strokes of conversation and movement create a luminous universe that resonates with anyone who has felt bewildered at the workings of the world.

They are also unpretentious. As Carlos Acosta, a Cuban dancer, explained to BBC’s World Book Club: “I was very happy to know that first I could understand it. That my English was good enough to understand it.” “The voice lacked literary pretension…and once it grabs you, it doesn’t let go.” That is certainly true of a majority of the voices in “Nine Stories.” They grab you through the simple tricks of conversation and movements into a familiar world.

Of course, this world tends so much towards perfection that it can seem unreal. Children are angelic, adolescents are innocent, and adults are caught in situations that are not of their own making.

I suppose Salinger’s stories reflect his own world view. He was overly concerned with purity of body and soul. This concern finds reflections in Teddy, a story in which he attempts to fuse Eastern mysticism with a Western worldview through a discussion between a gifted child and a skeptical young man. Teddy is a genius child who is being studied by scientists and philosophers.

While the adults around him are busy making small talk, swimming, and enjoying a cruise adventure, Teddy muses on the limitations of our senses and thinking. “I never saw such a bunch of apple-eaters,” he tells Nicholson, the young man, in a reference to the biblical apple eaten by Adam. According to Teddy, that apple contained logic and “intellectual stuff.” “You asked me how I get out of finite dimensions when I feel like it. I certainly don’t use logic when I do it. Logic’s the first thing that you get rid of,” explains Teddy.

In “Nine Stories,” Salinger has fashioned the apple and we are the apple-eaters.

Review: A Bend In The River By V.S Naipaul


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No other writer I know captures the essence of a society in transition as accurately as Naipaul. He writes eloquently and simply about people and cultures disconnected from their origins in his fiction and non-fiction.

It is a milieu that Naipaul knows well.

At the age of seventeen, Naipaul made his way from Trinidad, a semi-developed island in the West Indies, to elite Oxford University on a scholarship. After graduation, he worked for BBC. But that employment was a brief interlude in what was to become a storied writing career. He wrote several books, comic and tragic, about his native land in Britain. After exhausting material from Trinidad, Naipaul went in search of stories to similar societies and cultures. Those travels gave rise to several books, some fiction but mostly non-fiction.

A Bend In The River is the product of a visit to Zaire in the late 1970s,  He had earlier documented this period in “A Congo Diary.”

The novel is a fictional story about an unnamed town located at the bend of a river in the heart of Africa. Commerce is beginning to change the town. Education has introduced new thought and the bush way of life is giving way to modernity.

An uneasy truce exists between the past and the present at the time that Salim, Naipaul’s narrator, arrives there. Salim is an African-Indian businessman, who has escaped, rather run away, from problems in another unnamed town on the east coast of Africa. As the novel progresses, Salim builds a business and a home in the town at the bend of a river.

Change almost seems possible in the town until it collapses under the weight of its history. A rebel force lays siege to the town, destroying markers of its civilization. Police outposts and schools are destroyed. Businesses are nationalized as incompetent locals take over foreigner-owned businesses (such as Salim’s grocery business). Finally, the President calls in the army and there are executions.

As the novel ends, Salim is on the move again, this time to London.

The characters and settings in A Bend In The River echo Naipaul’s tour de force A House For Mr. Biswas. Salim is not unlike Mohun Biswas in being disconnected from his immediate surroundings. Like Biswas, he is doubly removed from his immediate surroundings: he is a coastal transplant in an unnamed town and is an Indian amongst Africans.

His is the most acute type of loneliness. It is best reflected in Naipaul’s description of his apartment, where he lives with “the idea that, at a moment’s notice, I had to consider it all as cost.” His furniture is “always there, never really mine, reminding me now only of the passing of time.”

Even when there is a siege in the town, Salim witnesses it from the outside. He sees change but remains immobile. Only after he spends time in jail and sees Africans “indifferent to notice, indifferent to compassion, contempt, faces, not yet vacant or passive or resigned” does he become aware of the conflict’s toll on his immediate surroundings.

Other characters are similarly without groundings.

Metty, Salim’s servant, follows him from the coast and fathers a child in the town. By the end of the novel, he is pleading with Salim to take him away from there. Raymond and Yvette, a Belgian couple who live in the Domain and are involved in documenting the town’s history, owe their jobs to the country’s President and disappear from there by the end. Indar, Salim’s childhood friend from the East Coast, escapes to London for education and comes back to teach at the town briefly. Outwardly, he seems to be at ease with his career and life. But, a long monologue during a walk by the town river reveals the volatility simmering beneath his persona. Even Ferdinand, the only fleshed out African in the novel, is isolated from his origins in the bush.

The novel provides pointers to the structure of Naipaul’s future work. Although Salim is the central character and we hear much of the story through him, other voices are also present. They speak in long monologues describing their frustrations and hopes. As is typical in much of Naipaul’s non-fiction work, tension is built up through a series of incidents and occurrences. In turn, these incidents provide insight into the character.

Along with Guerillas, this book opened up Naipaul to charges of racism. It is not difficult to guess why. In a novel about Africa, there are hardly any Africans.

As I mentioned earlier, Ferdinand is the only sharply-etched character. The other Africans are bit characters or parodies. They are illiterate and unaware of their history or society. They know only that they belong to the bush and that they are the original inhabitants of this place. That certainty leads them to reclaim the town and attempt to drive out foreigners. It also leads to chaos, imprisonment, and dictatorship. In contrast, the town’s foreigners are cultured, educated and compassionate. But, they live in a self-constructed bubble that bursts when the natives assert themselves. The novel itself is written from the inside of a expatriate bubble that Naipaul must have probably experienced while teaching in Uganda during the 1960s.

Eventually, though, the novel is about change and its discontents. Much of our reading of globalization (and upheaval in societies) is about success, about individuals who created a better life for themselves elsewhere. A Bend In The River shines a light on what happens when an external change is not accompanied by an internal one.

Review: Fresh Air Fiend By Paul Theroux


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In the Internet age, travel writing is a vanishing art.

Comments and ratings on reviews websites have transformed the travel experience from an adventure to a morass of condensed opinions and ratings.

Thankfully we still have Paul Theroux.

Having lived across three continents and visited numerous places over the years, Theroux’s world is broad and deep in its scope. He has mined this world over the years to establish a prolific writing career. According to a fan site, he has written 53 works of fiction and non-fiction. This, of course, does not include the numerous magazine articles, short stories, and features that Theroux has written for publications such as Vogue and GQ.

Fresh Air Fiend is a collection of Theroux’s writing on a broad variety of subjects, from the Chinese economic miracle to sailing on Cape Cod to portraitures of travelers and explorers. For readers, this means a collection of writings about disparate subjects.

What makes the book even more enjoyable is Theroux himself. Here he is trying to sail the Cape Cod. Here he is attempting to get a traditional cure for his foot ailment in Hong Kong. Or, here he is at a fancy Royal Geographical Society dinner with Bruce Chatwin.

Unlike other travel writers who obfuscate their presence while presenting their travel adventures, Theroux cheerily inserts himself and his moods into the adventure. This is a gift to readers because he is perceptive and self-absorbed at the same time. His glances at people and places are fleeting, honest, and, sometimes, profound.

There are eight parts to the book. Overarching these parts are three broad themes” travel adventures to remote places, a portraiture of places and people, and personal essays.

The three China essays (excerpted from his books about the country) are travel adventures and commentaries on a country that was changing rapidly. Given China’s current economic and political importance, the essays might seem dated. But they are invaluable accounts about the evolution of a rapidly-modernizing country overrun by tourists and manufacturers eager to establish operations there. During his travels, Theroux met an assortment of characters from important politicians (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) to small-time industrialists from Europe.

Using a mix of history and his own reportage, Theroux charts China’s past and future. In one essay, he profiles his journey down the Yangtze (according to him, the future of humanity can be seen in the destitute barrenness surrounding the river). In the other two essays, he documents the Chinese economic miracle of the 1980s and the Hong Kong handover. He reflects on the Chinese national character (a mix of materialism and love of order that back to years of Party discipline) and goes to the Chinese Export Commodities Fair, the main focus of Chinese commerce back then, held in a large cavernous hall. There, Theroux takes a “disgusting pleasure at the profusion of stuff and makes a solemn view never again to buy a basket or a candle or anything else at a gift shop in the United States.” He covers the Hong Kong handover not by analyzing its economic implications but by juxtaposing an interview with Chris Patten with that of the average man on the street.

Like most writers, Theroux spends a large amount of time indoors in “inspissated darkness”. To cope with the long hours of solitude, he has taken up an assortment of outdoor physical activities from kayaking to paddle boarding to biking. The book’s essays also catalogue these set of adventures. The writing in these essays is quick, incisive, and leavened with humor.

For example, one of his essays is a Robinson Crusoe-like riff on being connected in Palau, a remote island off the coast of Caroline Islands in the Western Pacific. Theroux went there with an excess baggage of communications equipment. Even as he stood “stark naked and marveled at his luck in finding himself in such an unconnected place,” Theroux attempted to connect with friends and family.

“The idea was that I would set up camp on this desert island and, in spite of my remoteness, be in touch and well connected. “Hold on, Mrs. Crusoe, your son Robinson is on the line…,” as he writes. In the end, he ends up disconnected as the batteries for his equipment run out. “Indeed, my little lamp with its stump of candle, my jackknife, and my kayak paddle were of more use to me than the phone, the camcorder, the radio, the Newton, all dead weight.”

His portraiture of individuals and fellow writers is less humorous. This is particularly evident in a remembrance essay about travel writer Bruce Chatwin, where Theroux deflates popular myths about Chatwin’s so-called adventurous life. “I don’t believe in coming clean,” Chatwin had told Theroux. Theroux does believe in coming clean, however, and relates anecdotes and incidents about Chatwin that show the latter’s fabulist nature. But he is more generous with travelers and explorers. In these writings, he has profiled a number of them: Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Scott, Gerard D’Aboville. Their faults, which range from being bipolar to overly dramatic, are glossed over and redeemed by their love of travel and new experiences.

Theroux also explains his approach to travel writing and states that he prefers the “humbler route” of talking to the common man during his travels. But this collection of essays does not have a lot of common man speak. In most instances, Theroux speaks to important people (Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong) or people who matter.

Then there is also the matter of turning the writerly lens on Theroux himself.

Theroux accuses Chatwin of compartmentalizing his life and the people in it. But that is a habit for most adults that I know. In Chatwin’s case, he had greater incentive to do this because he was born in an era, when homosexuality was criminalized in Britain. A word or two about this fact that might have provided context for Chatwin’s hesitation in proclaiming his sexuality.

Then there are also times when Theroux comes across as a righteously self-absorbed millennial and delivers sanctimonious comments on race politics from the vantage point of a traveler. That someone from America, where race is the primary form of identification, should pontificate on the subject is laughable.

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise enjoyable book. Fresh Air Fiend is a wonderful collection of essays that highlight the main themes of a wonderful writer’s explorations over the years.

Review Of Schulz And Peanuts: A Biography


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In an interview with television anchor Al Roker towards the end of his life, Charles Schulz, creator of the phenomenally popular Peanuts comic strip, broke down into tears. “You know, that poor kid (Charlie Brown), he never got to kick the football. What a dirty trick to play, he never got to kick the football,” he said through sobs.

The display of emotion was uncharacteristic for Schulz. Especially, since, unlike Charlie Brown, Schulz kicked the ball out of the park several times with his comic strip’s success. Despite being the consummate loser and underachiever in a nation that values success above everything else, Charlie Brown (and a quirky cast of characters) dominated America’s cultural landscape for more than four decades.

In popular imagination and public appearances, Schulz resembled Charlie Brown. He was an underachiever, who had, by dint of his hard work and imagination, achieved success. By old age, he had even become a beloved avuncular figure of wisdom.

But, there were many sides to Schulz’s personality.

He was intensely competitive. He was disdainful of colleagues without talent and sparing with words of encouragement as a mentor to upcoming cartoonists. He was also needy for affection. During a 1987 interview with Good Morning America, he quipped that he was an “authority on unrequited love.” This, after marrying twice, having an affair with a girl roughly half his age during his first marriage, and fathering five kids.

David Michaelis’ biography tackles the disconnect between the private and public personas of Charles Schulz. It mines his personal life to find out how they inspired his cartoon strips. Michaelis , quite literally, illustrates his theories about Schulz’s motivations by placing relevant cartoon strips immediately below descriptions of significant events in his life.

Good Grief, Charles Schulz

Charles Schulz was born in 1922 to a mother of Norwegian stock and a first-generation German immigrant in St. Paul, Minnesota. His father was a barber and his mother a housewife. Schulz was deeply attached to his mother and always craved her approval, according to Michaelis. “His mother occupied the central place in his heart,” he writes. “The intensity of that bond would remain alive to the day he died; she was a presence in everything he did; her looks and most distinctive qualities reappeared in the women in his life and his art.”

His childhood was split between city life and visits to cousins from his mother’s side in rural Minnesota. The latter were a cause of great discomfort to him because the sensitive Schulz had little in common with his country cousins. The bullying he suffered there were illustrated in his cartoon strips.

Schulz was a mediocre student but had talent for penmanship. Unfortunately, none of his teachers encouraged this talent.

Cartooning was just about coming of age as a form of popular entertainment, when Schulz graduated from high school. (But, it would be some time before cartoonists became superstars). Given his performance at school, Schulz’s parents did not expect much from him and, after drifting about for a bit, Schulz enrolled in a correspondence course for Art Instruction.

Subsequently, he joined the army.

Up until then, Schulz had been an unassuming young man, a kind of wallflower. The army stint instilled confidence in him. After coming back from the army he found employment as an instructor for a correspondence course in Art. A string of romances (one of which almost culminated in an engagement) followed and, finally, Schulz married Joyce Halverson, sister of a work colleague.

Theirs was a marriage of contrasts.

Joyce had married and divorced at the age of 19. She also had a daughter from her first marriage. Despite the setbacks, Joyce was a fighter and had a sunny disposition. She loved the outdoors and adventure. There was no time for the past in Joyce’s life and she hurtled towards the future.

Even as Charles Schulz became rich and famous, Joyce took care of the kids and home. She was behind the family’s shifts to Colorado and California and established a ranch in their home at Coffee Lane in Sebastopol. Later, she was also responsible for the Redwood Ice Arena.

Schulz was the opposite in temperament. He feared travel and had an artiste’s neuroses about dislocating himself from familiar surroundings. The past was always a constant presence with him.

Towards the end of his marriage with Joyce, Schulz had an affair with Tracey Claudius, a 25-year-old. It could be said that the affair sealed the deal on their already tumultuous marriage. After his divorce, Schulz married Jeanne Forsyth, a 33-year-old woman he met when she brought her daughter to the ice arena for skating lessons. They cuddled each night until the day he died.

An Unassuming Success

Peanuts started life as Li’l Folks in 1947, when Sparky (as Schulz was known for much of his life) drew a “hypertrophied head, shortened the arms and immediately knew that he was on the right track.” It was published in the Saturday Evening Post the following week and became a regular fixture in local press subsequently. A lawsuit in 1950 forced the strip’s syndication agency to change its name to Peanuts. Schulz hated the name and considered it to mean “little things of insignificant value.”


He borrowed Charlie Brown’s name from a colleague, who was also a bon vivant. But, the character and his quirks were reflections of Schulz’s personality and cogitations. (Later, the same colleague, who was a closeted homosexual, died of cancer after battling an off-and-on addiction to alcohol).

In a sense, the Peanuts characters went against existing tropes in cartooning at that point of time. In an era of action comic figures such as Dick Tracy and Johnny Hazard, their quiet humor and almost plebian concerns stood apart. From the very first, Schulz created strips filled with white space, instead of “busy” cartoons with action in the background as well as foreground. They also did not depend on physical comedy or gags for laughs. Instead, they pondered deep existential questions and society through the prism of everyday life. The denouement in each strip was also unsatisfactory because Charlie Brown always lost.

Although he started drawing the cartoon strip a couple of years prior to the 1950s, Schulz’s characters gathered steam during this decade. Subsequently, they became cultural touchstones, articulating the anxiety and concerns of mainstream society. They set happiness apart from material prosperity. At the same time, they also reflected the nation’s mood and moral stand on important matters, such as Vietnam. The Peanuts strip also grew into an astounding business empire that evolved from a simple three panel cartoon strip to encompass musicals, television shows, merchandising, and syndication deals across countries.

But, for Charles Schulz, the routine always remained the same. Through the shifts in location, the construction of an ice arena, five kids (including an unwed daughter who became pregnant at eighteen), he drew the strip almost on a daily basis. He mined the drama in his personal life to illustrate the strip.

For example, parts of Joyce’s personality found echoes in Lucy Van Pelt, who is more intelligent than the men around her. According to Michaelis, this was a role reversal of sorts, especially during the 1950s when men were the traditional heads of their homes. But, Van Pelt is also aggressive. She shouts, needles, and goads the men around her. The disagreements between Schulz and his wife’s temperament were illustrated in the comic strips.

Similarly, during his affair with Tracey Claudius, the strip took a turn for the romantic. In one of the strips, Charlie Brown asks if it is possible to be with two people at the same time. Snoopy, ever the dreamy dog, replies with the memory of a time, when he loved a peanut butter cookie and chocolate chip cookie at the same time.

Much like most artistes (and, indeed, human beings), Schulz embodied contrasts. He longed for the security of home but shirked from the attendant responsibility. He said he wanted to “go back to the years with my mother and father – the times when I could have them bear out my worries.” At the same time, he was intensely competitive and wanted to win at all costs. He blamed his teachers in Minnesota all his life for not identifying his special talent at cartooning. During the beginning of his business career in cartooning, he agreed to almost all the terms. Later, he negotiated for a fat share of the profits and “became greedy just like a kid becomes greedy.”

The book is also a study in the crafting of a celebrity. Schulz came of age when the modern media apparatus for celebrity culture was still imperfect. By the time Peanuts took off, celebrity culture was already on its way to becoming an integral part of American existence.

In that respect, the book’s omissions are as important as its inclusions. None of these omissions is more important than that of Schulz’s voice. He did not keep a diary; nor did he leave behind a written record of any kind. Which is a pity, really, because we know that he had a rich and complicated interior life from his cartoons. They are an indication of his thought processes at that time, yes. But, minus context, we can only speculate on his thinking.

For example, Schulz apparently “maimed” one of his sons during an ice hockey game after his divorce with Joyce. His motives for doing so are not discussed. Instead, all we get is the son’s quote. Similarly, Joyce’s motivations for staying on with Schulz after discovering of his affair with Tracey and her own marriage to a building contractor later are not discussed. But, then such is the nature of celebrity culture, which hews complicated individuals into familiar stereotypes for public consumption.

The book also does not discuss the influence of 1950s on the development of Peanuts. The country was emerging from the chaos and penury of the Second World War and the Great Depression. The Vietnam war was a distant speck. The economy and the stock market were booming. Modern management theory transformed the workplace and the government encouraged its citizens to buy and acquire material prosperity. The American Dream, a term first coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, acquired physical contours in the form of a suburban home with a yard, a car, and significant leisure time.

How did the existential angst of Peanuts become a success during this time of apparent prosperity?

That said, the biography is a tribute to the complicated simplicity of Peanuts. Schulz’s cartoons brought joy and a sense of wonder to numerous readers; this biography goes a long way in decoding the fraught source of that joy.