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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Rushdie - I'm not a fan, but

Yesterday I was at the Emory University for a speech (interview style) with Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Deepa Mehta. As I entered the campus my days as a student at ASU flashed back. There's an indescribable energy in the air that I was able to reconnect. Students were walking fast, talking on their cell, browsing.. even the one's sitting idle somehow gave the impression that they're enjoyably wasting their time. Interestingly I was never part of that energy when I was a student - my days were quite uneventful. Of course, like everyone I scrambled before the deadlines and stayed late before the finals, but the zest that's usually associated with an American student (or an Indian student in America) was colossally missing. Well, I developed a healthy taste for movies, but that's that[1]. To be back in such an environment tingled a bit of nostalgia.

In the last few years I've been able to strip myself of being a fan[2]. I used to be a 'fan' of Rushdie, Tendulkar, Spielberg... I still admire their works but not with a filter where I'd defend them even if they delivered a shoddy product. A few years back I would have been greatly excited to be seeing and hearing Rushdie, but not yesterday. He's a literary genius, but that compliment should come from someone who's far better in dissecting his literature. My appreciation skills are rudimentary. But so far Rushdie is one the best fiction writers I've read and I didn't want to miss an opportunity to see him in spite of the speech scheduled in a work day.

Rushdie didn't deliver a great speech (or great answers to the questions) but he made the session absolutely interesting by plugging in wonderful anecdotes. Sample these (a) Muslims in East London were offended by his 'Satanic Verses' and took to the streets in an organized march. A policeman notices a book shop on the protest march's path that displayed the book prominently and he gives a friendly warning to the shop owner to take the book down and save his glass windows. A journalist browsing books inside the shop hears this. This journalist comes back later in the day to the shop and finds that the book is not back on display and annoyed he asks the owner about it. The shop owner responds that all the copies of the 'Satanic Verses' are sold. (b) When his 'Shame' was published Pakistan banned it for obvious reasons. But all the foreign embassies thought it was required reading on Pakistani political climate and sent copies to their diplomats stationed in Islamabad. Once they read it they passed it on to embassy staff who later pushed it into the general public and thus almost all who ever in Pakistan wanted to read 'Shame' was ultimately able to read it.

These two anecdotes came up when he was talking about the effects of banning a book. Whenever there's attempted censorship, it certainly piques the interest of the public making it hard to actually ban the work. Nothing insightful, but the way Rushdie narrated these events (also explaining how those who protest/attack actually haven't read the work) was engaging and funny. At the end of the session he recited at a good speed a charmingly silly poem that ran for a full 5 minutes. Somewhere in the middle he forgot a couple of lines and without hesitation he simply explained what actually happens during those missing lines and continues from where he can remember. This is also the kind of quirkiness I enjoy in his writings.

[1] My movie discerning skills started when I first came to the US. That's a natural progression of the way things work - the more exposure, the less conditioning. As I saw more foreign movies my impressions of Indian stalwarts started breaking down. But it has taken a while for me - I gave a positive review to 'Sivaji' excusing myself as a true fan of Rajini. When I'm in front of a mirror a strange sense of shame engulfs me for not growing up even so late.

[2] Although I don't call myself a 'fan' of anyone, Charlie Kauffman is dangerously close to pulling me into his fan base.

Update: This is the 2nd half of the symposium, Rushdie is the primary speaker.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reading? Yes. Book? No.

I'm spending as much time as possible on educating and informing myself. Through blogs, columns, articles, podcasts and documentaries. But the sort of satisfaction derived from turning the last page of a book is missing. Books, supposedly, provide depth & breadth on a subject. The author's years of experience and expertise on the subject is juiced, bottled and ready for the reader to be consumed. That satisfaction is usually not derived from any number of 500-word pieces featured in Time.

When it comes to making a choice, I've been choosing articles and podcasts over a book because at the end of the said time, I'd know quite a bit about a lot more topics than a lot more about just one topic. And the advantage with these new media outlets is that most of the time they're dealing with trendy topics - be it the Toyota recall or Tiger Woods or the dysfunctional nature of U.S political culture - in addition to being in the know, they also contribute for a good lunch time chatter.

This instant gratification has come at a cost. Reading books was one of the main instigators of my thirst for knowledge. That cannot be comprehensively quenched by what is comparably a twitter feed to a New Yorker article. A great book does great service to the mind. I have a huge list of books in my wish list and I just realized the pointlessness of it. To think that that would always be my wish list instead of serving in my knowledge arsenal is so depressing.

So today I'm making a public promise of sorts to read at least a book a month, and provide a decent... I don't want to call it a review... but what I take home from the book. As with movies, I will not sit through something if I think it will not be worth my time. To begin with I'll try Fooled By Randomness by Taleb. I've tried his much acclaimed Black Swan and I found his tone a bit domineering and preachy. Irritated, I closed the book. Since then I've heard the title referenced at many places by people I respect. As I decided to reopen, I was told to reach for his first book and the Swan would just start flowing easily from FBR.

Part of making this book-reading an announcement is to apply that extra pressure on myself so that I cut down on some of my useless browsing. Any of my three loyal readers can feel free to ask for updates after a month. So, here's to re-establishing my dying habit.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Making It A Habit

There are a few things that I do on a regular basis. Blogging is obviously not one of them. But I've promised myself many times to do at least a post per week. There were times when I wouldn't have anything to say and it's better I didn't update with a empty post that reads like a Facebook comment. And there were times when I was tightly occupied that I just wanted to close my eyes when I had a free minute. And I don't want too many quote-posts punctuating my page making my blog a link festival. (I thought I'll move them to Twitter but I haven't been active there. I tried podcasting and after an edition the stars aren't aligned to favor the next one).

The fact is that after a few busy weeks, where I didn't have an opportunity to post, when my calendar eventually started giving me blank stares I had eased myself very well into a non-blogging state that I was okay with sitcoms, documentaries and reading. I don't treat writing lightly. In fact it's one of my means of thinking. Even if I'm reading Wired, to be not able to express my ideas and reactions to the article is to wallow in lethargy - because when I sit down to write my ability to critique is put on spotlight; whereas if I don't write (or get into a discussion) I'm just a passive consumer of news & opinions. Here, allow me to smash my slump.

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China is the new bully in the block. We have G7, the UN Security Council, BRIC, etc. But the two countries that mean a lot - both economically and militarily are the U.S and China. And China's behavior these days, either in Copenhagen on climate talks or arms sales to Taiwan or Obama meeting the Dalai Lama or refusing to revalue their currency to cushion trade imbalances or addressing human rights in their own back yard - is to give a symbolic middle finger to the U.S.

China's huge surpluses are contributed by the manufacturing sector, not the knowledge processing industry. There are many well thought out arguments on the web about how curtailing the power of web to their citizens could be disastrous for China's ambitions to become an economic giant. Well, this can be treated as a domestic affair. But its business deals with countries that aren't stable or repressive or politically against the U.S or all of these is worrisome: China's arms deal with Sri Lanka in their recent war on LTTE (should I say Tamils?), oil deal with Venezuela thereby propping the ridiculous Hugo Chavez, oil deal in Sudan filling Khartoum's coffers to kill more Darfuri women, not imposing sanctions on Iran as a member of UN council fearing a spike in oil prices.. going back to their reactionary help to Pakistan with nuclear technology in order to maintain their geopolitical supremacy.

For all its high-rises and solar-powered technologies and bullet trains and great malls there's not much to life if there isn't freedom. In spite of all its shortcomings India has a sense of humor, the press is free, they talk about politicians and the politicians talk back (sometimes with a stick), there are riots against the government, guys watch porn in the comfort of their room and some couples have 4 kids. When it comes to freedom the U.S is even better - I'll just say that late night comedians poke at presidents all the time and one fine day they step into the comedian's studio as a guest for a chat and a jab. Can you imagine the Chinese Premier sitting down for a cup of tea with a Chinese Leno?