Month: June 2016

Infinite injustice

This is my review of The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy.

In her fight for rights, Arundhati Roy is compelling. Her book of essays (8 of them) makes her sadness, pleas, anger, and righteousness crush you a little with each paragraph that lays bare the injustices perpetuated by protectors and guarantors of freedoms and livelihoods.

In the essay, The Greater Common Good, which she wrote during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she blasts the lid off the scam and scandal behind the worst planned damned dam in the world. She exposes the scam through numbers that tellingly don’t add up. On recognition of the shoddy engineering and planning, the World Bank (the happiest lenders in town, when they have lending targets to meet, that is) was shamed into withdrawing funding. Nothing can be “for the greater good” if it displaces and destroys millions of tribals. And especially nothing good will come of Big Dams, a concept that’s been abandoned for scientific and economic reasons, but still pushed for in third world countries like India (because it’s a great way to grease the wheels…).

In her essay Power Politics, she says that capitalism works because there are greedy givers and moneyed takers. And lost in these vicious transactions are the have-nots, in line to be swallowed into the belly of the monster. Her sarcasm, dry and twisted (twisted is the world, she’d tell you), is a little difficult to digest. She is extraordinarily bold in her accusations, but some of her broad accusations are flawed. Markets are decried so much that I was beginning to think her suspicion for market economies was ideological. The State’s promotion of privatisation is not always bad, Roy. It’s just bad if it’s business-friendliness, not liberal and (then) privatised. It’s the difference between the State supporting an Ambani and allowing a Silicon Valley to grow. One of them reeks of corruption. But the other is transparent, accountable to consumers, and responsible to its stakeholders (who are in the thousands, and hence also provides for shared welfare). It is no good throwing missiles (she hates those from the bottom of her big heart) at them. Take the case of social capitalists, for instance. I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not really one, as proven by social capitalists themselves. Schools (that are run at a no-loss, no-profit basis) are an example. Nevertheless, Roy is right in this essay. She describes a disgusting nexus between bureaucracy and greedy capitalists – in building a dam that helps no-one, but manages to destroy millions of people’s houses and large forests. A dam that is likely to be built by a textile trader and a garbage incinerator (go figure!).

Another essay that I found poignant was The End of Imagination. Nuclear weapons’ Disarmament has become a joke, and nuclear weaponisation has become a dance that the powerful perform; around the pyre that they will create, of people and countries that they will inevitably destroy. “No, nuclear missiles are created to prevent such destruction”, they’ll tell you. Arundhati Roy allows you to laugh at them. Sadly.

The essays are powerful, exposing the great lies told to us today, that we are confused by. How can a dam be good for us if it displaces a million people? It is for the Greater Good. Of course. Of course. Naturally…

Roy hits you hard across the face and tells you not to believe them. That, I think, is what makes her a powerful writer. Waking up your readers from a slumber (intoxicated and hallucinating) is no joke. With the tools of grassroots work, and relentless pursuit of truth, she helps us with a point of view wholly different from what we’ve been fed by the drunken mainstream media. She’s good. But she also leaves you unsettled. She tells us to fight for specific causes in specific ways (like joining the NBA). But is that feasible for lay people like me? Moreover, will that not result in insufficient change? Should we not work upstream? How can we institutionalize participatory democracy? These are some unanswered questions. Perhaps one will be angry enough to figure them out oneself.

3/5

To work upstream is to abandon the shelter of grassroots, and to foray into the unknown elite groups, of bureaucracy and politics. It is arduous. Also, horrible as it is, the truth is that well meaning men and women who enter politics and the bureaucracy are converted into leeches and leprechauns, blood sucking and bribe seeking. Perhaps Roy has seen too many of that ilk. Hence the disillusionment. Hence the well placed anger.

Quick epilogue to the essays:

  • Since the NBA’s struggle, the World Bank withdrew from the project. Despite that, the project went ahead. The Supreme Court, however, ordered that the implementation of the dam project, especially the resettlement and rehabilitation of people, should be done in a participative and democratic manner. This end of the struggle has been held as a way forward for many more specific struggles to be waged in specific ways.
  • Nuclear disarmament is still a dream, and dream it will remain for generations to come. However, there have been significant agreements signed between the more powerful nuclear armed countries (US, Russia) to not expand the nuclear arsenal but only to modernize it (make it more potent, powerful). This is a joke, to be honest. They already have enough missiles to obliterate the earth and the moon. Now the buzzwords are non-proliferation of nuclear technology.
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No Stone-Throwing Here

This is my review of The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

This is a memoir, and I hate ‘reviewing’ memoirs- who am I to rate a person’s life on a scale of 1-5? But I CAN recommend you read/skip a book, and that’s what I’ll do.

Jeannette Walls is a well-known journalist. Well, I hadn’t heard of her, but that just means that she isn’t internationally famous. This is a memoir of her very colourful childhood, which was spent in many towns and living conditions.

Walls’ parents were hippie-esque in their approach to child rearing. They believed that children learn through experience, and this resulted in serious physical injury in at least one instance. In addition, her father could not hold down a job and the family often faced poverty to the point of starvation. Oh, and both Jeannette and her brother are sexually abused… by members of their own family.

She experienced experienced enough neglect, poverty and abuse for half a dozen lifetimes of therapy. But despite (or maybe because of?) it all, she emerged a successful and content person. In particular, I appreciated the fact that she describes her parents in such a positive light despite their obvious flaws and questionable parenting technique. Some narratives reminded me of the hero worship that very young children have for their fathers. It’s touching to read about it through the eyes of a child, rather than those of a jaded, bitter adult.

But this isn’t a rags-to-riches pseudo inspiring story (those never inspire me, perhaps because I didn’t start from rags, but good quality hand-me-downs?). Walls is modest and open about her achievements, and describe her and her siblings’ adult lives as normal, successful but not exceptionally so, a few failed relationships and unfulfilling jobs leading to stable families and careers.

Okay, so clearly I was impressed by the perspective. Apart from that, there’s not much to draw you into the book. It’s not embellished or dramatized and the author has an annoying way of running her words together with no regard to hyphenation.

4/5

 

 

 

Justice: What’s the right thing to do?

Michael Sandel, in his Harvard lecture series on Justice, and in the book that goes by the same name, discusses what the right thing to do is, with the help of Rawls, Kant, Aristotle, John Stuart Mill, and others. He does it with the responsibility of a lecturer who understands that his readers/students are not philosophy majors, sociologists or readers of Prince, or On Liberty. There is no name dropping that you wouldn’t follow, if you’ve read the book in sequence. And there’s a seamless flow to the lectures.

Be it questions on abortion, surrogacy, euthanasia, tax, civil rights, human rights, Michael Sandel has you peeling these questions to get to their core, and then he makes you fold them back, so that you can analyse it with new perspectives. A common theme running through the lectures is the juxtaposition of pressing issues, compelling reasoning, and critical thinking. It enriches the once humdrum issues, or the once evocative issues; they become more nuanced.

Does something have to be fair to be right? Sandel gives you scenarios, and also gives you values by which to analyse them. Take, for instance, the question of refinancing banks for bad loans. Is it right to use tax payers’ money to undo the (apparent) wrongs of bankers who didn’t do their job (apparently)? There’s no single answer to this question, as there are multiple and complex factors associated with it. The concept of black and white greys.

By the end of the book (or the lectures, if you choose to watch instead of read), you will be overwhelmed by his concluding remarks (and also slightly worried that it’s getting over, after having unloaded heavy moral and ethical questions on your shoulders). It’s not a book that you can read just once, and it’s not a light read even though it might seem that way (it’s written in a simple and appealing style). You can finish it at one go, but that would be such a loss.

I thrive on books that alter my world view. They tend to subtly change yours truly, for the better, I hope. Word of caution: It’s the kind of change that alienates you, too.

Throughout the book, I realised, he had not said a word about what the right thing to do is. But, like me, even you’d know. What’s right to me, though, may not be right to you. That’s the beauty of the book, it’s open to interpretation. And it opens up your mind, to ideas that you may not have considered before. This, I admit, has left me feeling alienated from the usual discourses that are characterised by people being outraged, offended, vengeful and what not. Principles, morals, values, are words that are usually thrown lightly (or/and noisily), without due regard. Not any more, not after you read this book.

5/5

Crime Club

This is my review of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

Yes, the same Gillian Flynn who wrote Gone Girl, that masterpiece of mindfuckery. And this novel is much of the same.

Libby Day is a bitter woman with a terrible past that has left her scarred, both mentally and physically. As a child, her brother Ben murdered the rest of their family, and was subsequently thrown into prison for life. She has lived most of her life as a hermit, getting by on donations from well wishers. But now she’s short on funds, and willing to do anything to make a living (except, God forbid, get a job). She becomes involved with a group of oddballs who get their kicks from solving crimes that have received a lot of media attention- and they’re convinced that Ben Day is innocent.

They pay Libby to help them with their investigation, and she is forced to revisit repressed memories and approach estranged relatives. Eventually, all is revealed and the magic *DNA evidence* saves the day (pun intended).

Gillian Flynn’s writing style really stands out in this book- the gritty, dreary atmosphere is palpable. She strings the reader along with vague, improbable clues, revealed just when it seems that Libby and co. have reached a dead end.

Overall, this one isn’t as good as Gone Girl, but it makes for a good weekend read. Recommended if you are a fan of gloom, doom and crime thrillers. 3.5/5