Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Okay, da!

Three questions.

1. Is it somehow cooler to write “da” instead of “the” and “nd” instead of “and”?
2. If not, how difficult can it be to key in an extra letter?
3. What kind of twisted mind abbreviates words like "the" but spells out "illuminate" and "prosperous" in full?

From an SMS received today:
Here’s wishing u nd ur loved ones a prosperous Diwali. May da lamps of joy illuminate your world with da sparkles of peace, warmth nd success.
(Earlier post on festive SMSes - and how to reply to them - here.)

No woman's land: Manjula Padmanabhan's Escape

“What I like about science fiction,” wrote Manjula Padmanabhan in the Introduction to her short-story collection Kleptomania, “is that it offers a writer the opportunity to go directly to the heart of an ironical or thought-provoking situation by setting up a theoretical world. It’s a bit like writing a problem in mathematics, reducing reality to a tangle or pipes and cisterns or a group of three people traveling at varying speeds up a mountain, in order to reveal the relationships between matter, time and space.”

The situation in Padmanabhan’s excellent new novel Escape is that the story is set in a land almost entirely bereft of women. We make gradual discoveries about this setting as the plot progresses; the use of words like paratha and veena suggests that this could be an alternate/future version of India, but at any rate it’s a country that underwent a great Change a couple of decades earlier. Now it exists in a bubble, cut off from (and ostracized by) the rest of the planet, and run as an autonomous, smooth-functioning dictatorship by generals who are clone-brothers to each other. They view themselves as sculptors who have re-shaped reality and their attitude towards the now-extinct women, referred to as the Vermin Tribe, is symptomatic of the death of individuality in this land. “Females are driven by biological imperatives that lead them to compete for breeding rights,” explains a General in an interview with an appalled reporter from the outside world, “In order to control breeding technology and to establish the collective ethic we had to eliminate them.”

The one survivor – or the one survivor we know of – is a young girl named Meiji, who has been raised on an Estate managed by her three uncles, called Eldest, Middle and Youngest. They have so far succeeded in keeping her existence a secret from the local General and his servants, but eventual disclosure is certain and the brothers realise that Meiji’s minuscule chance of long-term survival rests with her being transported into the world beyond. This entails first making a long journey across a wasteland to a distant city, and Youngest has the difficult task of escorting her on this trip. Along the way, he must maintain her disguise as a boy, shield her from curious eyes and, perhaps hardest of all, help her understand her own uniqueness and deal with concepts and ideas that she was never brought up to imagine. Throughout, he must also hold himself in check, for he knows - and fears - that his baser instincts are capable of overriding his avuncular affection for Meiji.

Escape works on many levels: as a solid adventure yarn, a well-realised work of speculative fiction, and a sensitive character study. Padmanabhan nicely balances Meiji and Youngest’s internal conflicts with the external details of the places that they travel through and the people or creatures they meet – from the sadistic but dimwitted groups of Mad Max-like riders called the Boyz (who blow each other up at the slightest provocation) to the mechanical slaves known as drones. (“Drones are what the Vermin Tribe should have been: servile, dumb and deaf”, reads one of the many quotes taken from fictitious manuals – presumably written as guidebooks by the regime – that are provided at the head of each chapter.) But the book is driven by conversation and character development. Especially notable is the sensitivity with which it depicts the confusion in Meiji’s mind: her exchanges with imaginary friends, her predicament as the innocent abroad, so accustomed to living in confined quarters and familiar settings that she is afflicted by agoraphobia when faced with the “crushing limitlessness” of the outside world:
It was not possible, she realised, to own this kind of formless space, with no walls or ceiling to define it. It could never be befriended or tamed. In every direction, the alien endlessness engulfed and annihilated her. She could not so much as control how far her own steps would take her, or the sound of her voice upon the air. Even her shadow, that kindly, friendly companion that had danced with her upon the walls of her room, allowing her to fashion it into antlered deer and knob-nosed swans, had here become a stranger, a monstrous giant.
One of the things I most admire about Padmanabhan as a writer is her unselfconscious ability to create disturbing, morally complex, even cringe-inducing scenes; there’s an honesty and transparency to the most shocking passages in her work and you never get the impression that she’s making a deliberate effort to shock. (For a sense of what I mean, see the unflinching description of an exploitative sexual encounter between an older man and a “smooth-skinned and beautiful” 14-year-old boy in the title story in Kleptomania. Or another story in that collection, “Betrayal”, where a character reflects that a woman’s body can betray her during a rape. Or just read Harvest, her dystopian play about organ-selling in an alternate India, which should really be more widely available than it is.)

Escape is for the most part a gently flowing narrative, with graceful, reflective passages such as the one where a group of men sit about recounting their dreams and wondering what they mean, or a lengthy account of a juggler plying his trade. So the edgier passages, when they do appear, are all the more effective. There’s the description of a prosthetic penis that Meiji must wear to pass off as a little boy, and of her first period. A sudden, entirely unexpected burst of violence directed at a helpless creature. A passage where a character recounts a distant memory of a woman’s vagina in threatening terms, as “a great scarlet gorge, ringed with writhing black serpents”.

Meiji and Youngest – equally compelling and sympathetic characters with their own internal dilemmas – inevitably become distanced from each other as their journey nears its end (at one point Meiji’s draws a parallel between the Generals’ callous reshaping of reality with her uncles’ sculpting of her own life), and this adds to the complexity of the tale. But an earlier passage that acutely captures the book's moral ambiguity is the one where the two of them are bathing together and though Youngest’s feelings are not explicitly spelled out for the reader, a throwaway sentence indicates that he has become aroused by the naked girl; that in spite of his conscious ideas about right and wrong, his body is instinctively responding to hers. These sexual stirrings are a source of discomfort for both him and the reader (it’s inappropriate – by our conventional notions of propriety – because of his status as her blood relative and guardian), but the ambivalence of this passage comes from our knowledge that he is capable of these stirrings because he can see her as a human being, an equal, rather than as an object of loathing; for others like the General, she is nothing more than a vermin. Here and in other such passages, we see that it isn’t easy to separate our finer human qualities from what mortifies us about ourselves.

All of this adds up to make Escape difficult to classify. As an adventure and a work of imagination, it has more than enough that will appeal to younger readers, but it is an intrinsically adult book, and very much a novel of ideas. In India, science fiction and fantasy are still often thought of as genres for children, though this is slowly changing: Padmanabhan is one of a number of Indian writers – Samit Basu, Vandana Singh and Priya Sarakkai Chabria are among the others – who are shifting boundaries that were once firmly marked, and expanding the possibilities of what can be achieved in the genre.

Escape ends on a note that makes it obvious that a sequel is on the way. I was slightly disappointed because it amounted to being cut off from Meiji and her story midway, and I was unprepared for this. I can only hope Padmanabhan finishes the story: during an email exchange a few days ago, she told me that she would write the sequel “only if this book does well, whatever that means. I can't bear the thought of writing a book for which there's no market”. These temperamental writer-types...

[Manjula's blog is here. Also, can't resist re-linking to my graphic encounter with Suki a few years ago]

Monday, October 27, 2008

1,000; and notes on a few books

My Dashboard tells me that this is the 1000th post on this blog. Positively criminal. Someone should set limits for these things. Anyway, since there isn't much time for non-work-related blogging these days, I thought I'd make a few quick notes on some of the books I've read and enjoyed in the past few days. Longer posts on a couple of these may follow later.

- Roberto Bolaño's Last Evenings on Earth, a very involving collection of short stories by the Chilean author whose work has enjoyed quite a resurgence in recent months. A recurring theme in these stories is exile – the characters are constantly on the move or unsure of their bearings – but this is handled much more abstractly than in the straightforward “diaspora fiction” narratives we are accustomed to. (These days, the very word "exile" on a book jacket can set off alarm bells for a jaded reviewer.) Bolaño's work seems set to approach magic realism at times, but it's much more subtle: best of all is the masterful title story about a father and son who go on a very strange, meandering “vacation” together. Some of the pieces also have to do with writers and the writing process, notably "A Literary Adventure", where a low-profile writer named B becomes obsessive about the work of another, much more famous author (A). The style here is very spare and poetic.

- Long overdue: Isaac Asimov’s classic “science-fiction mysteries” The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun, featuring the Earthman Elijah Baley and his robot-partner R Daneel Olivaw investigating murders together. Part of my ongoing project to devour as much sci-fi writing from the 1940s and 1950s as possible. Unfashionable as he may be these days, I love Asimov's clarity of thought and the way he combines simple prose with far-reaching ideas. His autobiography I. Asimov, written as a series of random essays on various topics, is one of the great “open and start reading from anywhere” books.

- Rahila Gupta’s Enslaved, a powerful examination of modern-day slavery, told in the form of first-person accounts by five people who were trafficked or smuggled into the UK: they include a pregnant child from Sierra Leone, a young Punjabi lady forced into marriage and a Chinese man living in fear of the criminal corporations known as triads. Gupta tells their stories very lucidly and intersperses the narratives with italicized passages that explain background, provide context and examine legal complexities in the immigration process (many of which worsen the predicament of the victimised "slaves"). A real eye-opener to the subtle forms that human exploitation can take in a highly developed country. I wasn't a fan (to say the least) of the Aishwarya Rai-starrer Provoked, which was co-written by Gupta, but this book is excellent.

- John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos: Wyndham’s sci-fi novels (which he himself preferred to call “logical fantasy”) have recently been reissued by Penguin with attractive new covers. The Midwich Cuckoos, about a group of sinister, frighteningly precocious children slowly assuming control over a quiet English village, was the inspiration for the 1960 film Village of the Damned. A little verbose at times but overall this is very good paranoia fiction, the full implications of which only gradually sneak up on the viewer. I hope to move on to Wyndham's other work soon, especially The Day of the Triffids (also filmed in the 1960s) and The Kraken Wakes. (More on the reissued novels here.)

- The Brian Aldiss-edited anthology A Science Fiction Omnibus, a collection of outstanding short stories by such authors as Clifford Simak, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Tiptree Jr, J G Ballard and many others. I want to write about this book at greater length sometime, so I’ll keep it quick for now: my favourite stories here include Walter M Miller’s “I Made You” (a frightening modern take on the Frankenstein story), Aldiss’ own “Poor Little Warrior!”, Bertram Chandler’s “The Cage” (with a closing line that gives us a succinct, cynical definition of what a "rational being" is) and especially Ted Chiang’s very beautiful “Story of Your Life”, in which a woman’s attempts to understand the language used by visiting aliens leads to her perceiving all the events of her life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms.

The anthology also includes John Steinbeck’s wicked “The Short-Short Story of Mankind”, a condensed history of our species. I'll close this post with these memorable lines that end the story:
Right from the cave times we’ve had to choose and so far we’ve never chosen extinction. It’d be kind of silly if we killed ourselves off after all this time. If we do, we’re stupider than the cave people and I don’t think we are. I think we’re just exactly as stupid and that’s pretty bright in the long run.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ranjit Lal on birds, beasts and Delhi

Coincidentally, just the day after I linked to this Vandana Singh post about human self-absorption and how we blind ourselves to the fascinating micro-worlds of other species, I came across Ranjit Lal’s immensely charming new book Wild City, a collection of short pieces about the incredible diversity of natural life that we can see all around us – even in a crowded, smoke-ridden urban mess like Delhi – if only we make the effort to look. Lal, a keen amateur naturalist for most of his 50-odd years, writes with such fondness and attention to detail about the various birds, animals and insects he encounters that at times one wonders if he lives in an alternate Delhi most of us know little about: a city where it’s possible to attune one’s ears to hear the cry of a lone shikra above the sound of even rush-hour traffic; to be constantly aware of multiple eco-systems, even in the middle of a busy daily routine.

The defining quality of Wild City is the sense of wonder that runs through every page. Though Lal is particularly interested in bird species, his affection extends to all sorts of life forms, from squirrels (whom he calls “treetop scolders”) to crocodiles and even such creatures as the predatory spider wasp (which you can apparently find in the recesses of an old music system that hasn’t been dusted in weeks; must check sometime). His writing style is friendly and conversational – even in the essays where he isn’t doing much more than describing the nesting habits or evolutionary history of a particular species, he sprinkles his prose with colourful analogies, so that the story becomes much more immediate than a zoology lesson. The squabbling of a gang of jungle babblers is likened to “an edition of The Big Fight gone out of control”; a praying mantis chomps on a honey bee “as if it were a bhutta” and cleans every barb on its own forearms as if it were “licking off curry trickles”.

And here’s his description of the peril faced by the male spider when he approaches the female for mating:
Many spider-women may be one hundred times larger than their men, sometimes even more, and they are always bingeing, especially on husbands. When a male spider comes courting, he has to make sure he is the date and not the dinner, or at least ensure that he has a date before becoming the dinner. Some bring their dates gifts – a freshly caught fly or cockroach, perhaps, nicely gift-wrapped. While she is busy unwrapping or consuming her “box of chocolates”, he sneaks up to her, does what he has to, and beats it. Others twang dreamy musical notes on the edge of the web as though it were a harp, this lulls the girls into believing that he is but a cute cretin serenading them and not to be eaten, at least until he’s had his fun.
Though most of the pieces here deal with a particular species of animal, bird or insect, there are also standalone chapters on, for instance, Delhi’s beautiful Ridge forest and the Budha Jayanti Park alongside it, or the historic Nicholson cemetery which used to sustain over 50 species of birds (“a cemetery, if left to itself, is a place where the dead look after the living”). Also, an essay – a rare one that moves outside the National Capital Region – where he discusses the artifice on display in the Jurong Bird Park and Night Safari in Singapore:
At 12 pm every day, a tropical thunderstorm is simulated in this aviary – as most things in Singapore are – but fear not, the walkway running around the aviary does not get showered, only the central “rainforest” part of it does, so you remain dry and bored... The fact that macaws can be taught to race each other on cycles is not what we should be teaching our children about these beautiful birds; these are rare and endangered birds that have their own comic dignity and grace and are not meant to be kept as pets and taught silly tricks.
Though Lal has had books published by heavyweights like Penguin India and Puffin, he is very much the retiring writer, someone who’d much rather spend his time on nature walks (or wait for hours for a rare bird to appear within binocular range) than at book events. I met him at his Civil Lines home a few months ago – it was a short, to-the-point visit (I needed his inputs for a story I was doing for City Limits magazine, about literature involving Delhi) and there wasn’t much scope for an indepth conversation. He’s a small man, a little hesitant in his speech at first, but as we got talking he opened up. Soon he was sifting through the many books in his room, pulling out a tattered copy of one of his favourites, Usha Ganguli’s A Guide to the Birds of the Delhi Region, a comprehensive nature study that is sadly out of print today.

“Among the world’s major metropolitan centres, Delhi’s bird-life is second only to Nairobi’s,” he told me. “Unfortunately, as a people, we are not that interested in nature – we have no idea how rich we are and how poor we are going to become. Even when you see people feeding birds or monkeys, it’s very often done for selfish reasons – as a religious offering, for personal success, done on specific days of the week.”

He also named Delhi books in other categories (history, architecture) that he admired, and remarked that he was a bit surprised by the paucity of fiction set in Delhi. “If you were reading some of the literature set in a city like London, you’d need an A-to-Z guide simply to figure out the street names,” he said. “One problem with Delhi might be that there isn’t an identifiable ethos – different pockets of the
city have completely different cultures. No matter where you are, it’s possible to feel alienated. It’s a pity, because there are so many interesting things to write about.”

Almost shyly, he mentioned that he had himself written a fiction called The Life and Times of Altu Faltu a few years ago, a take-off on Delhi society – political skullduggery and convenient social alliances – where the characters were all (literally) monkeys. The book seems to have vanished from sight though. “Even I have a hard time getting my hands on it today,” he said. He also recently wrote a novella for older children titled The Battle for No. 19, about a group of children trapped in a house during the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. I read it some time ago – it’s a book that pulls no punches, describing, for example, the brutal murder of an affable taxi-driver while his young passengers listen to his screams in horror. “I don’t see why a book on the riot theme can’t be written for young readers,” Lal said, as he handed me an extra copy that he had lying around. “Why soft-pedal these issues?”

As I was leaving, I mentioned that I had long thought about joining a bird-watchers’ club myself (for initial information about the best spots in and around Delhi) or making enquires about nature walks but had never got around to it. He gave me the number of someone he knows who organises these things; needless to say, I haven’t called the number yet.

[Information on Wild City and other titles by Lal here]

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Last thoughts on The White Tiger, and an old Q&A

With Aravind Adiga just having won the Booker, I thought I’d pull out a short email interview I did with him around the time his book launched. Scroll down to read it.

As I indicated in this post, I enjoyed the book. Won’t get into the debate about whether or not it deserved one of the biggest literary prizes in the world, partly because such debates inevitably lead to some very tunnel-visioned and elitist definitions of Good Literature/High Literature, and that sort of thing bores me. Also, I can’t bring myself to take competitive prizes seriously as arbiters of anything. Given that the judging procedures are necessarily based on a combination of many whimsical factors (including, of course, politics, perceived topicality and the vastly differing tastes and perspectives of different jury members), you really can’t analyse them beyond a point.

Looking at The White Tiger on its own terms, independently of the Booker baggage, the novel’s achievement in my view was that it used accessible, fast-paced fiction to reflect on the many Indias and the many types of aspirations and frustrations they represent. I also thought it was more ironical and self-aware than it’s been given credit for. Anyway, here’s the Q&A with Adiga:

Did you consciously set out to write about an aspect of India that has been glossed over in the press (with the India Rising narratives, etc)? How did you fix on a character like Balram as your narrator?

Lots of people ask me this, and some assume this is so obvious they don't even ask me, but the answer is no. There was no conscious attempt to write a counter-narrative to India Shining. I can't imagine any good novel would come of such a polemical enterprise.

I returned to India in 2003 after many years abroad, and rediscovered India – or rather discovered India, since I had grown up in the south, in a prosperous part of a prosperous state (the coastal belt of Karnataka), and was now seeing Delhi and the Gangetic north for the first time. The fact about India that struck me most forcefully was this – that despite there being such an appalling (and growing) gulf between the rich and the poor, and the fact that the poor came into regular, close, and sometimes intimate contact with the rich, there was so little crime in India. Think of South Africa, or south America, or even the poorer parts of an American city – there is such a link between economic deprivation and social unrest. But why not in India?

Middle-class Indians think there is a lot of crime, but I would argue that this is not really true. If a housemaid steals a thousand rupees, it makes the papers. Visitors from South Africa are always amazed by the low levels of crime here. What keeps millions of poor Indians working in servile positions, and routinely exposed to temptation, so honest? How stable is such a system? Are there signs that it is creaking? And what would be the nature of a man, a servant, who would defy the system? These are the questions with which The White Tiger began and which are, I feel, at its heart. The exploration of these issues leads into the question of where the servants in Delhi come from – from the villages, from Bihar and UP – and how they live, how they are raised, and how they think.

Why the unusual framework of having Balram address letters to the Chinese Premier?

First, there is a real, historical hook to the narrative structure. Wen Jiabao did visit India in 2005 and I was listening to radio late at night when the news came on that he was going to visit Bangalore. It was said that he wanted to see and understand Bangalore's entrepreneurs.

Secondly, Indians, more than other people I know, understand themselves in comparison to other nations. The "other" used to be the west until recently. Now it is China, which is depicted as a kind of more efficient, evil, and successful version of India. It’s natural that Balram, who is very influenced by things around him – he calls himself a "sponge" – would have come to form certain ideas about China as well. He has a somewhat exaggerated conception of his importance – he loves listening to the radio talk about Castro or the American president – and it flatters his sense of importance to talk to the big man of China.

I should point out that these are not letters that he is writing – he is talking out aloud, as he lies down in his room and stares at the chandelier. He is just talking aloud.

There's a perception that narratives about the "other India" aren't fashionable these days. Do you think that perception is inaccurate?

I can't really comment on this – I live in a corner of Mumbai, and have no sense of the publishing world in general.

It’s a dark book, especially in the compromises Balram has to make in order to cross over to the "privileged" side. Is this a commentary on the direction in which the country is moving?

Actually, some reviewers feel that Balram's drive and energy suggest great things for India's future. New York magazine said something like, if Balram is India's future, then India is going to kick America's ass.

Look it's like this: in England, The White Tiger is seen by many as a pessimistic book on India's future, and in the United States it's seen as a very optimistic book on India's future. It depends on whether you believe that individuals succeed because of the existing political structures of the country or in spite of them – and the American view is probably the latter. I'm asking merely that people here be open to the idea that many abroad see this book as a hugely optimistic book on the future of the country.

P.S. NDTV asked me for quotes about the Booker win yesterday – specifically about the significance of a first-time writer’s novel “beating” the veteran Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies. Here’s my rambling, circular email response:
Personally I don't take competitive prizes like the Booker seriously – analysing their decisions is basically a fun exercise, nothing more. About the two books: I enjoyed them both a lot, on different levels, but I would find it hard to compare or “rank” them. The Ghosh is very much the work of an experienced, scholarly writer who combines fiction with indepth historical research, whereas the Adiga is a much lighter, faster-paced read with some of the inevitable awkwardness you’d expect from a first-time writer but also with insights into the class divide in modern India.

Topicality/fashionability probably has something to do with the Booker committee’s decision: India is very much in the news these days for all sorts of reasons, and The White Tiger provides a worm's-eye perspective of Indian society that runs counter to the "India Shining" narrative. A modern-India novel of this sort would probably be seen as more “relevant” than a historical (Sea of Poppies) set in the 19th century.

The other thing is that The White Tiger (which has a driver murdering his rich employer) acquired a higher profile when, shortly after its publication, the real-life Arushi Talwar murder case became a major talking point around the country. A couple of foreign publications did feature stories about discontentment among the Indian lower-class and mentioned The White Tiger in this context. That would certainly have aided the topicality perception and made the book seem prescient in some way.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Vandana Singh on spec-fic and other things

Blogging time is very limited these days and it's easier to link to stuff I’ve been reading. Author Vandana Singh guest-blogged on Jeff Vandermeer's site for a few days recently and wrote a series of fine posts covering such topics as science fiction and the end of the world, women writing in India (a conversation with Urvashi Butalia and Anita Roy), and books that change the way we look at the world. A piece I thought especially moving and eloquent was The Creatures we don't See: Thoughts on the Animal Other, about the self-absorption of our species and the banishing of other life-forms from our consciousness.

" seemed as though humans were so intensely obsessed with their own concerns that they didn’t “see” other life-forms, let alone recognize their significance. I have come across this oddly blinkered view in other circumstances. For instance in almost every TV science fiction show I’ve seen, the ship that travels across space is a sterile, hospital-like environment where you rarely see a plant or animal. Yet we know that each living organism is an ecosystem — as attested by anyone who’s suffered a disturbance in the balance of their intestinal flora due to sickness or antibiotics. (Part of it is that we have this modern icky attitude toward germs, as though all germs are “the enemy” and health is a state of being germ-free — tell that to the mitochondrion).

...just as being blind to the oppression of women creates conditions where this oppression continues unchecked, being unable to “see” other creatures allows us to go about blindly and stupidly destroying the ecosystems on which we depend...To not recognise the connection between us and other species, to see nothing outside of the box in which we’ve placed ourselves, is to suffer from a sort of mass autism."

Also read the thoughtful discussion about Indian and Western sci-fi on this post (and its comments), a conversation with Anil Menon. I loved Singh’s two Younguncle books for children, but I haven't read much of her work in speculative fiction/science-fiction; am looking forward to The Woman Who Thought She was a Planet, which is being published later this month.

And on a related note, I’ll soon be posting about an excellent new novel from the genre, Manjula Padmanabhan’s Escape, which I’ve just finished.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Pup in repose, with red bindi

Before you ask, no, we aren't the sort of people who decorate/place various objects atop their pets for personal amusement. But the bindi was clearly an aesthetic necessity. Besides, it's the festive season.

Also from the series: Pup with rubber frog, awaiting manicure.

And pup posing as Goddess Kali, with vanquished pink Ganesha at side.

Click pics to enlarge. More on Flopsy here.)

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Of Creationism, quotation marks and moose stew

A link to something I enjoyed reading: Roger Ebert’s blog post “This is the dawning of The Age of Credulity”, along with the hundreds of comments that have accumulated on it. Taken together, the piece and the comments cover such topics as Creationism-vs-Evolution, Jonathan Swift’s famous satirical essay “A Modest Proposal”, Poe’s Law, and how the Internet (and the mad pace of modern life in general) has reduced our capacity to process understated humour. Lots of food for thought there.

Anyway, here’s the background: a few weeks ago Ebert wrote a deadpan piece titled “Creationism: Your Questions Answered”, in which he purported to explain the beliefs of Young-Earth Creationists. (It’s valid to ask what this piece was doing on his film-review site rather than on his more general-interest blog, but I’ll tread past that question.) Now, anyone who has followed Ebert’s writings over the years will know that he is emphatically not a Creationist himself (though I don’t think he describes himself as an atheist either). The piece was intended as a gentle parody: though its tone was poker-faced, there was enough in it (in my view, at least) to make his intentions obvious. ("Q. Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose? Ans. In charity, we must observe that the moose probably does not seem absurd to itself.")

So Ebert probably didn’t expect that people would interpret this to mean that he subscribes to such ideas as the Earth being created in finished form on the night of October 23, 4004 B.C., or the remains of the Ark being visible on Mount Ararat. But this is exactly what happened, with the piece sparking thousands of comments from indignant rationalists on blogs across the WWW. The “Age of Credulity” piece is his response to the uproar, and it makes a very valid point about the
decay of our instinct for satire and irony and the growing tendency to take everything we read or hear at face value.
To sense irony, you have to sense the invisible quotation marks. I suspect quotation marks may be growing imperceptible to us. We may be leaving an age of irony and entering an age of credulity. In a time of shortened attention spans and instant gratification, trained by web surfing and movies with an average shot length of seconds, we absorb rather than contemplate. We want to gobble all the food on the plate, instead of considering each bite. We accept rather than select.
I’ve written earlier about my dislike of smileys, which too often serve as convenient “laugh here!” signposts, and about the common inability to appreciate delicate, understated humour (which we may as well acronym DUH), but even given my frustrations about these things I have to admit that Creationism is a special case – one where parody can be self-defeating. As Poe’s Law states:
Without a winking smiley or some other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won't mistake for the real thing. In other words, no matter how bizarre, outrageous, or just plain idiotic a parody of a Fundamentalist may seem, there will always be someone who cannot tell that it is a parody, having seen similar REAL ideas from real religious/political Fundamentalists.
Anyway, if you have the time and inclination, go through the comments on the Ebert piece as well – many of them are very entertaining and/or illuminating.

P.S. Coincidentally, the moose is the favourite animal of a famous Creationist whose every campaign speech and interview is being closely followed around the world these days. On the comments section of one of the blogs I read, there was a persuasive reply to Ebert’s moose question:

Q. Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose?
Ans. So I can kill it and make stew. The Lord be praised – Sarah Palin

Friday, October 03, 2008

Who will bell the Sheikh?

[From my Metro Now column]

Watching the cartoon show Tom & Jerry as a child, I was firmly in the cat’s corner. Though supposedly the villain of the piece – because he was always trying to make an afternoon snack out of cute little Jerry Mouse – Tom had to suffer one indignity after another. Over the course of several episodes, he was (among many other things)
pounded to pulp by a mallet, drilled full of holes, sliced into fine pieces by something resembling a salami shredder, and brutally electrocuted until his brain exploded inside his skull. Of course, he reconstituted himself within a few seconds each time – cartoon cats will do that – but this was still violence of a raw, primal nature, and it was difficult not to feel sympathy for its victim. “That vile rodent needs to be put away for good,” I would mutter to myself, shaking my fist angrily at the TV screen.

I was six years old at the time, but it seems the Muslim cleric Sheikh Muhammad Munajid – who is an adult – feels exactly the same way about Mickey Mouse. Here is a man so cheesed off with cartoon mice that he has launched a fatwa against Walt Disney’s iconic creation, insisting that “Mickey must die”. His case is that rodents are generally disgusting little creatures, “steered by Satan”, and that depicting them in cartoon form has the effect of making them seem cute and lovable. Watching Mickey Mouse has a corrupting influence on little children, who will soon turn to devil worship, and then God is screwed. Or something.

On this evidence, I feel sure the good cleric would not have approved of Jerry either. Also, given his squeamishness about rats contaminating people’s food, I don’t see him encouraging the continuing existence of Remy, the rodent protagonist of the animated film Ratatouille, who serves as chef in a restaurant kitchen. Or Anatole, the mouse from Eve Titus’s children’s books, who works in a cheese factory. Nor would he think highly of Stuart Little
, who is adopted by a human family and eats at the dining table with them.

But I wonder how the Sheikh would feel about another comic-strip character, namely Rat in Stephan Pastis’s excellent Pearls Before Swine. Rat is the opposite of everything that Mickey Mouse stands for. Whereas Mickey – despite a short fuse – is basically good-hearted, a gallant boyfriend to Minnie and a fond master to Pluto, Rat is misanthropic and frequently cruel in thought, speech and deed. He mocks his friends. There’s nothing cute and sweet about him. Any little child reading Pearls Before Swine would immediately conclude that rodents are not nice people. This manner of negative rat-representation in popular fiction should go down well with our Sheikh.

The point is that instead of playing Pied Piper to all fictional mice indiscriminately, the cleric should examine each scuttling pest on its own merits; he might then find a few that would endorse his own views. I propose that copies of every comic strip, story and cartoon show that has ever featured a mouse be sent to him as soon as possible. Going through them should keep him occupied for a few years, which will be a good thing for all concerned parties – mice and men.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Justice campaign

Shamya has a post here about Soumya Viswanathan, the Headlines Today journalist who was murdered early on Tuesday. There’s a “Justice for Soumya” campaign being launched and a meet at the Press Club in Delhi on October 5 – please do spread the word to anyone who might be interested.

Update: also see these two Facebook groups: Rest in Peace Soumya and Justice for Soumya.