Month: December 2014

The darkest of dark humour

American Psycho- Bret Easton Ellis

First off, I’m not a squeamish person. Watching House M.D. and Hannibal has given me a stomach of steel. But my stomach of steel couldn’t stand up to this killer of a novel.

Book starts with a day in the life of Patrick Bateman. He and his group of Wall Street friends are vain, self obsessed, racist, sexist, name dropping yuppies. They squabble over reservations at the newest restaurants in New York, and discuss fashion while checking out women. Bateman seems relatively charming, except for his unpleasant habit of mauling/ murdering homeless people and prostitutes.

Being the nitwit that I am, I was immediately put off by the graphic violence. Almost banished the book to the murky depths of my Recycle Bin when he painfully dissects a dog (Cold bloodedly murdering a puppy makes you a psycho in my books! Unless it was a Pom, of course). After a while, though, I got the hang of the satire. Bret Easton Ellis captures the perception of the yuppie lifestyle of the 1980s, when Wall Street started booming, and twists it into a dark comedy. Patrick Bateman is a metrosexual man, long before it became mainstream. He keeps himself abreast of the latest fashion trends and designers, and spends hours on manicures and facials. His lavish lifestyle is starkly contrasted with the beggars he attacks. This particular aspect of the book (plus the psychological twists that are thrown into the plot in the second half) reminded me a lot of Fight Club, a book I particularly like.

Unfortunately, as I began to appreciate the humour, the story got more and more violent. I had to skip many of the sex-and-violence scenes that were described in particularly gory detail, but I didn’t have any trouble following the plot later. There are a couple of interesting revelations towards the end of the book that give the plot more depth, but these are not dwelled upon, as Bateman spirals rapidly into complete madness. The ending is abrupt and keeps you guessing.

This book is an entertainer that will keep you up at night. The satire leaves one with something to think about, too. I definitely felt uncomfortable the other day when I met up with a bunch of friends who were discussing the fancy restaurants they’d visited- it seemed worryingly similar to the shallow conversations of Bateman and his colleagues. Have we become stereotypical yuppies?!

I’d have given it a 4, but it kind of took away my innocence (what was left of it). 3.5/5.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes…

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A good story.

On Beauty – Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith’s first novel, White Teeth, got a lot of attention from literary critics. Initially, I put it down to the author herself- black, British, young, female- enough said. But the book itself was pretty good, if only for the cultural melting pot that it depicts. Having heard native Bangaloreans complain about immigrants from neighbouring states, it’s interesting to see how her British characters handle the dilution (or enrichment?) of their culture with outside influences. Apart from that, it was kind of long and uneventful  and got a 3/5 from me on Goodreads.

On Beauty, though, is a big improvement. It’s set in a small American town near Boston, Wellington, home to a vaguely Ivy League liberal arts university. Howard Belsey is a professor at the college, and is shocked when his academic nemesis, Monty Kipps, joins the faculty. Howard’s openly liberal and atheistic views are challenged by the conservative, Christian Kipps. The book pokes fun at the academic tendency to overanalyze things, be it poetry or art (“You can’t just say you like the tomato!”). It strikes a good balance: it’s occasionally deep and thought provoking, but not at the expense of the storytelling. Like in her previous novel, multi culturalism is a way of life. Howard is British, his wife is African American, and his kids occasionally rebel against their stuffy privileged upbringing. In particular, the youngest son tries to get more in touch with his black roots by befriending Haitian protesters and selling pirated CDs on the street.The Kipps family is Caribbean British, but is far from perfect, as is revealed later.

The fact that there are several parallel stories in the book made it seem like a family sitcom; each person has their own personal drama. Howard has a career crisis and an affair. Kiki, his wife, deals with his betrayal and betrays him in return by forming an arbitrary friendship with Monty Kipps’ wife. Son Jerome is a born again Christian in a family of atheists, and has a lou failure right at the start. Daughter Zora is a slightly annoying (I hate 10 pointers!), overenthusiastic student at Wellington. Add in some drunkenness, a priceless painting, a death, and a sex addict, and you get a fast paced novel that still somehow has time for nostalgic, meaningful moments.

This book apparently makes references to the British classic, Howards End, but I haven’t read it and didn’t feel like I was missing anything. This gets a 4/5, and I will probably try reading other work by Zadie Smith soon.

India’s Uber misery

December 7th: An Uber car driver rapes a young woman of 26 in Delhi.

The alleged rapist who confessed had a criminal past, of attempted molestation, for carrying illegal weapons. In 2011 and 2013 he was involved in cases of rape and robbery. He still managed to get a clean chit from the Delhi police department when he approached his employer, despite having not one, but four blemishes on his name! The authenticity of the character certificate that he produced is being looked into. Nevertheless, this throws a grim light on what the Indian law and order system lacks: order. The system of obtaining a background check is a mess and is one of the primary reasons behind the rape of the young lady.

India’s background checking system is hinged on the police honoring such requests. The police, however, have the right to not entertain any such requests. Some states and police commissioners have a mechanism in place which addresses requests to check the background of a would-be employee. Some, and it can be argued (not substantiated) that too many, police officers would issue a certificate of character, without authorization, for a price.

This system of background checking is undoubtedly faulty, so much so that numerous employers and clients of those employers have suffered losses monetarily and now, of life. Now, there are intermediaries who are willing to do the background checks for an individual (to be submitted to the employer) or for an employer (background check of the employee). They take a fee for their services, which is to get the check done by the police department of the state. Since, as mentioned earlier, the system is sloppy, the intermediary’s certificates are also half-done, albeit done quickly. The quickness of a background check would leave an equal amount of gaps in the check itself.

A flawed background check system is an article written in The Hindu by R. K. Raghavan, fromer director of CBI and D. Sivanandan, former DGP of Maharashtra. In this piece they have categorically stated that the lack of a national criminal records system has led to the unfortunate incident in Delhi. If there were a system in place to verify the character or history of a person, which is efficient and accessible, why would anyone be handed false certificates of character? What we need is a comprehensive Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems. The current system which has not covered many states has to be expanded, and done so quickly. More than an administrative, this seems to be a technical failing. Why has one of the world’s most important exporter of software engineers failed to put in place a system that acts like the most basic ERP for law and order?

Uber did its job. It followed the rules of obtaining a character certificate of the employee. But it did not account for the fact that the Indian background checking system itself is flawed.

1757 to 1947, abridged

From Plassey to Partition – Sekhar Bandyopadhyay

From Plassey to Partition is a book on Indian history. Some history books can be read before going to bed, some have to be read at ungodly hours of the morning to remember every line of it; to a casual reader, this book is an engaging read that takes him through two hundred years, at lightning speed; to a student, this book is invaluable, and it tires him with its depth and vastness. The book starts at the battle of Plassey and concludes with the partition of India at independence.

Written with authority, it is crisp in its content. It captures many facets of the colonialisation of India, and gives vibrant perspective to revolts, movements, government action and important events.

The negative, in my opinion (as a student), is that it is (albeit a little humorous) a serious book that does not let you relax and weighs you down. Blink, and you’ve missed a couple of years.

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The huge positive is that, if read casually, it is a page turner. For example, the otherwise boring initial years of the English East India Company’s occupation of India, and the unfolding of events during it, is written with a generous amount of drama (much to my amusement and relief at having found a book on those decades that doesn’t induce sleep).

I highly recommend the book for students of history. This is a fun textbook, trust me. For casual readers, this will be the shortest version of the Indian story of Independence that spans two centuries. In any case, it is the most interesting and credible book of its kind, in my opinion.

3/5