Friday, November 22, 2002

booker choice all at sea

Life of Pi, By Yann Martel.

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared the Far Eastern Economic Review in November 2002).

LIFE OF PI, the winner of the 2002 Man Booker Prize, is a delightful little book--and I mean that in the worst possible way. Author Yann Martel and the British-based committee that chose the winning book made much of the novel's supposed religious overtones. But Martel's claim that this is a book that will make you believe in God, or at least question why you don't, is a gross exaggeration.

Life of Pi is no Moby Dick. By choosing to award the Commonwealth and Ireland's highest literary prize to Life of Pi, the Man Booker committee has rewarded the most irritating characteristic of contemporary literary writing: whimsy.

The plot summary is itself discouraging. A young Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel--named after a Parisian swimming pool--cutely adopts Hinduism, Christianity and Islam. A shipwreck strands him on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a 205-kilogram Bengal tiger. Relying on nothing but his wits and an amusingly frank survival guidebook, "Pi" must find a way to collect water and catch fish. Pi must also tame the tiger, which has its own name to inspire a collective groan, Richard Parker (which was also the name of a victim in a notorious case of cannibalism at sea in the 1870s).

Reviewers and publicists have described this story as a boys' adventure for grown-ups and as a fable of magical realism. But it lacks the seriousness to rank among either. Because the tale is told tongue in cheek--precluding readers' suspension of disbelief--it fails as a boys' adventure story. Nor does the novel have the historical sweep and philosophical depth on which magical realism depends. Life of Pi gives you the feeling the author is just fooling around. Moreover, and this is its worst failing, Pi's sojourn in the lifeboat--with no speaking companions--feels about 50 days too long.

Nevertheless, the Booker judges' choice of a light novel was not altogether surprising. Before meeting to choose a winner from among the short-listed novels, one of the judges, comedian David Baddiel, touched off a row in literary London by bemoaning the preponderance of "pompous, portentous and pretentious fiction." Although fellow judge and critic Erica Wagner immediately came out in support of the "longer, denser read," rightly saying that "after all, it is a prize for literature," Baddiel was obviously not alone on the panel. In choosing Life of Pi, the committee awarded the Booker to perhaps the most frivolous novel ever to receive the coveted prize, which comes with a cash award of £50,000 ($79,000).

Still more disconcerting is the apparent moral blindness of the judges. In its determination to look on the bright side, Life of Pi presents us--with a wink and a nudge--the fantasy of an Indian boy who believes simultaneously in God, Allah and Vishnu. There is value in acknowledging the possibility of goodness, but a novel that turns three of India's religions into an amusing foible--not for black comedy, but for vaudeville--obscures rather than enlightens.

No murderous riots here; the reactions to Pi's trinity of religions are trivial, summed up by his brother's teasing: "So, Swami Jesus, will you go on the haj this year?" When the narrator takes on religious absolutists, he descends into platitudes. "These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart." This banality amounts to a refusal to look for the truth--surely the greatest failure for any writer. These are the homilies of Forrest Gump, not the wisdom of Ishmael.

Tuesday, October 22, 2002

art and desire in urban india

Real Time: Stories and a Reminiscence, by Amit Chaudhuri. Farrar Straus & Giroux. $21

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2002).

THE SPARE, elusive tales that make up Indian author Amit Chaudhuri's first collection of short stories, Real Time, manage to capture both the sudden beauty and the crushing stuffiness of domestic life. As in his four well-regarded novels, A Strange and Sublime Address, Afternoon Raag, Freedom Song and A New World, Chaudhuri's primary interest in this collection is not in the twists and turns of plot, but in evoking the emotion and atmosphere of upper middle-class India.

Chaudhuri writes literature, in both the most complimentary and the pejorative sense of the word. The 15 tales that comprise Real Time take on serious subjects, identity, love, loss. But these stories are not titillating, though they are resonant with meaning. This is art, not entertainment; moving, but also depressing. Most of the stories of Real Time seem to end prematurely, unfinished, while an infinity of possibilities still remains for his reader and protagonist. But something in these quiet, circumscribed tales communicates an air of inevitability, too, an atmosphere of possibilities squashed by circumstance.

In "White Lies," for example, a middle-aged housewife and dilettante fantasizes that she can become a singer, eventually performing at one of the corporate parties held by her executive husband. The noose that is ordinariness is always around her neck, however, and unerring sentences like this one draw it ever tighter: "She wasn't really missed; one was missed at other people's parties, but not at one's own; one was not so much the centre of attention at one's own as a behind-the-scenes worker." A grim prelude to one's first musical performance. After the party, Mrs. Chatterjee comes to a frightening realization about her husband, who has a charming love for her inexpert singing. She observes: "To her surprise, he began to hum a tune himself, not very melodiously . . . He seemed unaware that anyone else was listening. Seeing him happy in this way--it couldn't be anything else--she felt sorry for him, and smiled inwardly, because no one, as he was so successful, ever felt sorry for him, or thought of his happiness." Mrs. Chatterjee's second epiphany, which comes only after some sharp words from her guru, is even more disheartening: "For the following two days, Mrs. Chatterjee, going around in her chauffeur-driven car from the club to the shops in the mornings, couldn't bring herself to hum or sing even once; the driver noted her silence. She'd suddenly realized that her need to sing had been a minor delusion, that she and her husband and the world could get by without it."

The preoccupation with love and art and their power--or incapacity--to break through the constrictive dullness of domestic life runs through most of the stories of Real Time. "A Portrait of an Artist" describes a Calcutta tutor who is desperately clinging to poetry and the city's tiny literary world in an effort to give his life meaning. "Prelude to an Autobiography: A Fragment" evokes through imitation a housewife's overpowering desire to write. None of these reflections on the allure of art ends happily. The everyday always descends to snuff out inspiration. But with the spirit of Calcutta--a city that is home to a million amateur poets and a healthy proportion of the world's tiniest literary magazines--Chaudhuri suggests there is nobility in the effort.

If it is not uplifting, Real Time is an invigorating contrast to the volumes of Indian literature produced in English with a Western publisher in mind--too often with a Salman Rushdie or a Gabriel Garcia-Marquez weighing on the author.

One of the characters poses a question, "Whom does one write for?" Real Time suggests a number of answers. Chaudhuri steers clear of the Raj and eschews exotic India, writing instead of the executives of his country's larger companies and their wives, children and servants. Is he writing, then, for Indians? From his oblique references to obscure regions and personalities--clearly meant to resonate with significance--one might assume so. But there is also evidence Chaudhuri wants the West to read about an India where high-school bands also covered Deep Purple in the 1970s, and where kids exhorted mothers and tailors to create thigh-hugging hippie jeans.

One of his characters opines, "Although so many people write these days . . . you feel the world you know, the India you know, is still to be written about."

closet drama

Caught between harsh laws and cultural conservativeness, Indias gay men often lead lives of frightened secrecy. But now hopes are high they may be on the brink of a legal breakthrough.

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in October 2002).

"HOW DO I LOOK?" asks Prafulla, a 24-year-old Bengali man. He is wearing a red skirt garlanded with purple nasturtiums and a gold silk shirt, beneath which a black bra is clearly visible. He has wrapped a black headscarf around his head in a turban unlike any Sikh's, and around that he has tied a fluorescent print headband. Doubt furrows his brow. "Are you sure you are comfortable with this?" he asks me.

Tonight's underground party on the outskirts of New Delhi is one of the rare places where it is safe for Prafulla (who asked not to be identified by his real name) and his three friends to dress in drag. Spraying himself liberally with perfume in a beauty parlour in one of city's poorer districts, he explains that the four homosexual men always wear dresses when they go to Delhi's gay parties. "It is our only opportunity," he shrugs.

Homosexuals are still liable to prosecution under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits "unnatural offences" or "carnal intercourse against the order of nature." The penalty for the offence is a prison term of between 10 years and life. Consenting adults are almost never taken to court; there have been fewer than half a dozen cases, and most of those were before India won independence. But the threat of prosecution and exposure makes for rampant police abuse, say activists. That not only causes India's estimated 50 million gay men to live in fear, it also hampers the fight against Aids. Nearly 4 million Indians were HIV-positive as of 2001, and Aids still claims more than 100,000 new victims a year, according to India's National Aids Control Organization.

"We noticed . . . that there was a lot of harassment . . . by goondas--that's professional hoodlums--as well as by the police," says Shaleen Rakesh of the Naz Foundation, a group that has been working with gay men to prevent the spread of HIV/Aids since 1994. "That was a problem for us, because when we're talking of HIV/Aids work, then we need spaces where we can talk about these issues without fear, spaces where the community does not feel vulnerable." Documented cases of harassment include not only extortion but also illegal detentions and physical and verbal abuse by police. Naz, which means "pride" in Hindi, also found that police and hoodlums were harassing their own outreach workers: In one case police even jailed workers from another organization for promoting so-called unnatural sex.

"The law is the law," says Dr. Kiran Bedi, joint commissioner of training for the Delhi police. "The police do not have discretion." On the other hand, she adds, "The police have no business asking for money."

But culpable or not, officers have little reason to fear disciplinary action as long as the men they target remain afraid to lodge complaints. Which is why Naz last year petitioned the government to amend Section 377 to legalize consensual homosexual sex between adults, arguing that the law violates articles of the Indian constitution that guarantee the right to life, privacy and free speech. The government has been stonewalling, but the court has proven to be encouragingly sensitive on the matter, says Rakesh, coordinator of the division of Naz that brought the petition. On August 26, India's High Court refused to accept the state's argument that changing the law is inappropriate because homosexuality goes against "the morality in society as a whole." Saying that the issue "could not just be brushed aside," the bench instructed the government to file its response to the petition by November 27, the third and last such deadline.

Those comments from the judiciary had "an enormous impact on morale" in the gay community, says Rakesh, and made Naz hopeful that it could get a final ruling by as early as next year. That would be lightning speed for India's slow-moving courts. Legal experts warn, though, that the court is unlikely to rule on the petition before it receives a response from the state, even if that means extending its supposedly final deadline. Still, all acknowledge the importance of this incremental step, which demonstrates the court's commitment to a resolution and which gay activists see as a hint of sympathy with their cause.

India owes its anti-sodomy law to the British. Indeed, many other former British colonies in the region--Singapore, Malaysia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka--still have pre-independence anti-sodomy laws in place. In India, though, Hinduism's treatment of sexuality was traditionally more nuanced. The friezes on some of the country's important old monuments are homoerotic, and though there are proscriptions against homosexuality in the Hindu texts, "they are much milder than those against inter-caste marriage," says Saleem Kidwai, who co-edited Same Sex Love in India, an anthology of homosexual writing.

But modern Hindu fundamentalists and Indian society at large vehemently oppose homosexuality. Until that changes, gay men and women who are persecuted will have little recourse to redress. The Naz Foundation has already lodged a formal complaint on behalf of one member of the community with the National Human Rights Commission, only to be told it is impossible for one body of the government to guarantee rights to individuals whom another body considers criminals.

The effects of the repressive atmosphere are evident at the party that Prafulla and his friends are attending on New Delhi's outskirts. The group of 20 or so organizers are used to dealing with the authorities, but tonight they are especially worried. To hold a party for as many as 200 guests takes a serious investment, in this case an outlay of 60,000 rupees ($1,250) to hire a venue and buy food and drink. Normally the police are satisfied with a nominal bribe, sometimes as little as a bottle or two of booze. But tonight someone has spread the word via anonymous text-messages that there is to be a raid by the media and police. Local journalists have already arrived unexpectedly, carrying press-release-style invitations that were mysteriously faxed to them.

Inside the iron gates, drag queens greet each other with enthusiastic air-kisses and younger men at relative ease with their sexual nature chat casually around the swimming pool and dance floor. But 40-year-old men with the moustaches, paunches and polo shirts that distinguish India's conservative middle class stand awkwardly on the party's fringes. It is a future that few of the younger set wish to contemplate. The older men represent the reality of life for the vast majority of Indian homosexuals: Only a tiny minority of Indian gays express their sexual nature openly, say activists, and most are compelled by their families to marry and raise children.

For gays living in the countryside or in impoverished communities, life is still harder. There is little access to information about homosexuality and few opportunities to establish even a furtive gay lifestyle. Many turn to prostitution or join forces with bands of eunuchs. Some even submit to castration. Lesbians face as great or greater obstacles.

Prafulla's experience indicates the impact that access to information can have. "Until I joined Naz, I thought I might have some disease. I didn't know what I was. Now [the meaning of] gay is very clear to me," he says.

"But still my family doesn't know. The day my parents decided I had to get married, I sat up all night worrying, thinking I should run away." Naturally, he had serious reservations, but in his case marriage turned out to be less difficult to manage than he'd feared. "I had the misconception that I wouldn't be able to keep my wife happy, both physically and mentally. But I am finding it quite easy. My wife doesn't know about me, either. I want to tell her. She's my life partner."

By 2 a.m., the party is jumping and the police have arrived. This time, perhaps because of the unknown saboteur's faxed publicity campaign, it is impossible to put them off. Someone overhears a policeman discussing a false report of shots fired. One of the organizers gives the order to cut the generator, so that the revellers can slip away in the dark. Some of the men who have stripped down to their underwear and jumped in the swimming pool now scramble over the walls half-naked, running and hiding like the criminals that they are under India's law.

sirrh! master! sahib! boy!

From zero to hero in the eyes of India's masses

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Asian Wall Street Journal in October 2002).

Ali, my guide, and I lolled in a camel cart somewhere in the Thar desert in Rajasthan, India. I had given up on camel riding after having my own hump tenderized by the wooden saddle for several hours. Our two camel drivers played cards next to us, letting the camel plod along as it wanted.

"Do you think youll ever see the sea?" I asked Ali.

"No," said 19-year-old Ali, a clever and outspoken Muslim boy. "It's too far. It would take me three days traveling, so I would have to stay fifteen days."

Bikaner, Alis smallish hometown, lies smack in the middle of the Thar, perhaps 150 kilometers from the border with Pakistan and 800 kilometers from the Arabian Sea. On this unforgiving plain of baked sand virtually nothing grows except giant milkweed and the khejri tree, a dark hardwood that manages to survive by dint of exceptionally deep roots. In the summer, temperatures routinely top 50 degrees Celsiushot enough to burst your can of shaving foam. It is a desolate place, but also a beautiful one.

Here I hoped finally to shed my sahib skin. When I moved to India with my girlfriend four months ago, I was prepared to plunge into the street life, munch samosas with the sadhus and blab with the babus. But somewhere over the Pacific, I became a sahib--a sir. The transformation was no fault of my own. I am happy to scramble into third-class compartments, eat street food fried in suspect oil, and haggle over a dimes worth of Rupees. Its the Indians who made me into a big shot.

Being royalty isn't so bad. The trouble is that I have no control over when Im a sahib and when Im a sap. The Indians define me as it suits them. When they want money from me, I'm a sahib. In exchange for groveling sycophancy I am expected--required--to pay ten times market value for goods and services. The patter of a dubious guide near my girlfriends hometown of Madras drove the point home. "Sirrh, you take one guide, sirrh? You no take guide you no look see anyting." When I ignored him, he called out to me with increasing deference, until, giving up in disgust, he called me by my right name. "Sirrh! Masterrh! Sahib! Boy!"

I've attracted a string of pavement artisans to our posh South Delhi neighborhood. Hearing of the sahib's arrival through the network of housemaids, chowkidars and press wallahs, the trinket sellers have trooped up to our rooftop apartment, cap in hand, to see if the sahib was at home. You're not to buy anything, was my standing order from my foreign-returned Indian girlfriend. Arms akimbo, she barred the door to the woodcarving wallah whod buttonholed me in the street. He produced a pencil holder and tried to show it to me by thrusting it underneath my girlfriend's arm. But sahib told me he wouldn't be busy at six oclock, he insisted. After that, even my partner got into the act. Sahib is not at home, she now tells visitors when it suits her purposes--that is, when they call her Madam.

The desert would be different, I thought. There was nothing to buy, not even a packet of paan masala. Ali's aspirations, if not his experiences, were probably closer to mine than to those of our tribal camel drivers. With only the occasional goatherd as witness, we could define our own roles.

When the sun had reached its meridian, we veered off the camel track to stop under a khejri tree. The boys prepared a potato and chickpea masala for lunch, and after we had eaten, Ali declared that we would wait out the heat of the afternoon there.

"What other places in India have you visited?" I asked Ali.

"Jaipur, Jodphur, Udaipur, Ajmer," he said, rattling off a list of cities in Rajasthan. Hed never been far from the searing plains of North India. "And Delhi. I've been to Delhi several times."

"Don't you want to go to the Himalayas one day?" I asked. "Himachal Pradesh isn't too far away."

"Do you want to eat beef?" Ali asked before we sacked out.

I cast a sidelong glance at our Bishnoi camel drivers, a teenager and a boy not much older. Beef has the illicit romance of contraband everywhere in India, but the Bishnoi are more strict vegetarians, even, than the Hindu Brahmins.

"Not here," said Ali. " These are Bishnoi people. You can eat beef at my home, with my family." Was this Ali the procurer, or was this an opportunity to return as a genuine guest, our seller-buyer relationship concluded?

"Maybe," I said. "I might be leaving. It depends on whether I can get a train tomorrow or not."

That night the four of us slept on a sand dune under the stars. The camel drivers chattered in Rajasthani, laughing loudly every so often. Ali and I watched for streaking planets. He invited me to his brothers wedding in another month, he told me about his girlfriend and about his plans for the camel safari business he would open for himself one day.

"Someday you should visit the sea," I said. I suppose I was proselytizing.

That was the closest the two of us came to an understanding. I never made it to Ali's house to eat beef. In Bikaner the next afternoon, he warned me: "Don't tell anyone in the hotel that I told you where to get cheaper beer. And don't say see you later or make any plans in front of them. If they know I am taking you for eating in other places and telling you those things the owner may be angry."

By the time we reached reception, I'd become a sahib again. Ali stood outside my room deferentially while we tried to plan a time to meet for those cheap beers he'd told me about. But we both knew he was just waiting for his tip. I gave him one hundred Rupees, slipped into my old skin, and said goodbye.

Sunday, September 22, 2002

waiting for no one

Nepal once welcomed a steady stream of visitors, but the long-running Maoist uprising and a series of other events have brought the tourism trade to its knees

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in September 2002)

THIS IS A TOWN that tourism built. Along Kathmandu's streets and alleyways, rows of travel agencies, postcard kiosks, souvenir stands and budget hotels stand patiently waiting for customers. Alongside, hawkers sit with piles of curved kukri knives and Buddhist tanka paintings. But instead of wearing the sunny grins that once endeared Nepalese to travellers, the hawkers' faces look glum and tired. Business is bad.

Six years of a simmering Maoist uprising have taken their toll, as has a government state of emergency, not to mention continuing travel warnings from the governments in Washington and London and the global downturn in travel following the September 11 attacks. Against such a background, many travellers have decided this isn't the year to make the pilgrimage to the Mount Everest base camp or take in the famed Annapurna mountain range. Up to the end of July, tourist arrivals were down 37% on the same period in 2001, already a bad year, when arrivals dropped 17% over the full year. For a country in which tourism was expected to contribute three percentage points of GDP this year and where the travel industry accounts for nearly one in 15 jobs, this is close to a disaster.

Hoteliers will admit that more than half their rooms are sitting empty. But if the deserted streets of Thamel -- Kathmandu's tourist ghetto -- are a fair indicator, the city has more guesthouses than it has guests. At night, Kathmandu takes on the eerie aspect of a ghost town. Soldiers man checkpoints set up to discourage saboteurs. A curfew ensures bars are closed by 11 p.m.

The industry is feeling the pain from top to bottom. One of Kathmandu's countless walk-in travel-services companies, World Touch Tour & Travels, has had nary a customer in six months. "We are all worried we'll have to close down," says one staffer. "All day I have to wait for the guests, but nobody comes. Sometimes 10 days go by without seeing anybody." A nine-year-old girl selling embroidered handbags had adjusted her usual patter: "Please sir, 100 rupees [$1.30] for two, 100 rupees for two. Please sir, I have no business. Please sir, 100 rupees for five."

The trekking industry has perhaps been the hardest hit. Malla Treks, a respected high-end outfitter that sells most of its trips abroad, has already received cancellations for 50%-60% of the trips scheduled for the October-November trekking season, says General Manager Rajendra Shrestha. Likewise, at the other end of the spectrum, a guide-turned-tout for Himalayan Glacier Trekking, seeming desperate for someone to talk to in Thamel, confesses he hasn't landed a client in three months.

The crisis is the result of a chain of events over the past few years, according to Pradeep Raj Pandey, chief executive of the Nepal Tourism Board. First, a Kashmiri militant group hijacked an Indian Airlines flight at Kathmandu airport in December 1999. Then, in a bizarre incident at the royal palace in June 2001, King Birendra and eight other members of the royal family were gunned down, apparently by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then shot and fatally wounded himself. In the wake of the killings, the Maoists stepped up their activities. Not long afterward came the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington -- events that devastated the tourism business worldwide. Finally, last November, after a series of deadly attacks, Nepal's government declared a state of emergency, which for the first time allowed the mobilization of the army against the rebels. (The state of emergency, which also limits free speech, was revoked in late August, primarily so candidates can campaign without restrictions ahead of November's scheduled elections.) "So the whole world has been focused on violence, emergency and insurgency, an impression that couldn't be further from the truth," Pandey says.
"The board's challenge today," he adds, "is to take the help of or convince the media to help us clear the air: to say, 'Yes, as news media you must present the facts,' but to seek a way to put the facts in perspective, to say, 'Yes, there has been trouble in certain areas, but, yes, there is no risk to the tourist'."

It's not an enviable task. Although the tourism board has launched an ambitious public-relations drive, dubbed Destination Nepal Campaign 2002/2003, to reposition the country "as a reliable, safe and attractive destination," it has a budget of only 20 million Nepalese rupees. That won't do much to counter the impression of the country created by the media over the past six years: The Maoist uprising has led to a steady stream of press reports on the daily death toll (fuelled by the security forces' take-no-prisoners approach) that has probably made the fight seem larger and bloodier than it actually is.

At the same time, it's not clear just how safe tourists are in Nepal. The tourism board and Pandey maintain that the Maoists have not targeted foreign travellers or tourist-related sites. But the accidental explosion of a bomb at a hotel that was being used as a base by Maoist saboteurs and an attack on Lukla airport, which is used by tourists travelling to Mount Everest, are ominous reminders that it's always possible to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nor can there be any guarantees that the Maoists will not adopt more radical tactics in response to the government's relentless efforts to stamp them out. Already, walkers making the journey through the Maoist-controlled western areas from Simikot to the Tibetan border have reported being asked to make "donations" to the revolutionary cause. Once, a box of cigarettes was enough; now it's about $100 per person.

Perhaps ironically, Pandey points to the insurgents' own words in his efforts to reassure visitors. "Not only has no one been injured or threatened or physically harmed," he says, "the insurgents themselves have issued their own statements saying that they recognize the importance of tourism to Nepal and have said they won't harm visitors."

Those statements, though, have proved to be a mixed blessing for the government. In a letter faxed to the media early this year, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai -- deputy to Pushpa Kamal Dahal, the Maoist leader commonly known as Prachanda or "the Fierce" -- wrote that foreign tourists are "most welcome into the revolutionary base areas." But the letter also warned travellers against patronizing the "anti-people and anti-national monopolistic structure" that comprises "all the five-star hotels and travel businesses" in Nepal. Bhattarai also "kindly advised" travellers not to venture into areas where fighting is active because of the risk of being caught in the crossfire.

Not the most reassuring invitation, and it hasn't resulted in a huge surge in tourists. But the tactfully worded message has spawned a boutique trekking industry of a new kind. A stream of intrepid journalists are walking into the hills to meet the revolutionaries and generate dispatches that, to at least one local newspaper editor, read like a new kind of travelogue: "My trip to meet the Maoists." And from the tourism board's perspective, more accounts of reporters' derring-do can only mean one thing: more frightened tourists.

Thursday, August 22, 2002

white man's burden

The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, By David Gilmour. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in August 2002).

LIKE MANY one-time giants of Western literature, Rudyard Kipling has suffered a sharp fall in his reputation in recent decades. He's been reviled as a racist, exposed as a closet homosexual, and dismissed as a man of little talent; a propagandist for the elite. It wasn't always so: In 1907, Kipling was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature at the age of just 41.

Kipling was born of English parents in Bombay in 1865, at the height of the Raj. Throughout his career he recorded his wonder at the empire Britain built. In his work, he contributed more phrases to the English language than anyone since Shakespeare and described an India that, for many, is more real than any contemporary depiction.
A half-dozen of Kipling's books -- Plain Tales From the Hills, Kim, The Jungle Book, Just So Stories, Captains Courageous and Gunga Din -- are still regarded as classics, and for all the attacks on his reputation his defenders remain staunch: Many start off apologizing for his politics, as if excusing the behaviour of an outspoken, ill-mannered
but much-loved uncle. Others go further, suggesting that the great writer was neither a Tory nor an imperialist.

But to sustain such arguments, sympathetic biographers have tended to ignore at least half of Kipling's literary output -- poems like The White Man's Burden -- and have focused instead on his prose: Kim and The Jungle Book, for instance. Ironically, according to the laureate's latest biographer, David Gilmour, they have ended up doing as much damage to our understanding of Kipling's work as his detractors.

In The Long Recessional: The Imperial Life of Rudyard Kipling, Gilmour sets out to re-establish the author as the unofficial bard of the British Empire. He does not seek to pass judgment, but the portrait that emerges is not flattering. Kipling was not as skilled a political thinker as he was a dramatist. Moreover, though one finds occasional
brilliance in his prolific poetry, in cataloguing his political writing Gilmour draws attention to Kipling's immense output of doggerel. The best of Kipling's poetry and prose champions the achievements of Britain with light nostalgia; the worst with outsize sentimentality.

But, Gilmour says, Kipling "was not a reverential songsmith of national valour . . . [His] panoramic view of the Empire was closely followed by a realization of the perils that threatened it, so that in the mid-1890s Kipling added the role of national prophet to that of imperial laureate." In Gilmour's view, Kipling foresaw Britain's decline and sought to raise the alarm. His poem Recessional, for instance, warns the British against complacency:

If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,
Such boastings as the Gentiles use,
Or lesser breeds without the Law --
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget -- lest we forget!

The phrase "lesser breeds without the Law" has been viewed by many as incontrovertible evidence of Kipling's racism. It is difficult to defend the author from accusations of bigotry, but Gilmour argues that it is a misreading to assume that "lesser breeds" refers to non-white, colonized peoples. The Gentiles of the poem represent the Germans, Americans and Boers, whom Kipling "considered guilty of boastful lawlessness."

Gilmour's defence of Recessional is not entirely unconvincing, but his other efforts to excuse Kipling from charges of jingoism sometimes make the biographer sound absurd. In his eyes the "white" in The White Man's Burden, for instance, "plainly refers to civilizations and character more than to the colour of men's skins." Plainly? This is the poem that refers to America's new Filipino subjects as "Your new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half-devil and half-child" and warns against their "Sloth and heathen Folly." Gilmour's argument that Kipling meant America to pick up the civilized man's burden is laughable when set alongside the text of the poem. Gilmour himself seems to recognize he has gone too far with this reading as he eventually acknowledges that The White Man's Burden is "profoundly racist in sentiment."

This turn-around illustrates the trouble with this biography. Gilmour does not explain Kipling's contradictions -- here identifying with Britain's colonial subjects, there with their rulers. Gilmour struggles with the puzzle, introducing and examining the pieces, but fails to fit them together. The book's weakness is not its defence of Kipling, but
rather that, in seeking to catalogue Kipling's political writing, Gilmour has generated a survey that although comprehensive is rarely illuminating.

Monday, July 22, 2002

coming to a terrible end

The Road to Maridur, By Christopher New. Asia 2000, Hong Kong, HK$195 ($25)

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2002).

CHRISTOPHER NEW'S fifth novel, The Road to Maridur, tells the story of a young Englishman who travels to India in the late 1970s to recapture the memories of his grandmother, who was the governess for a princely Indian family in the last days of the British Raj.

Staying in the fading ancestral palace of the former raja, Jonathan Kelley discovers that the family, caught between the pressures of modernization and the legacy of ritual and caste, faces financial ruin. Because the raja's eldest daughter married a man from a lower caste, the labourers have refused to work the family lands, their only source of income. To appease them, the raja's family has disowned the daughter who married outside the clan and intends to ensure second daughter, Sakuntala, marries within the caste -- to the feeble-minded son of backward fundamentalists. Though Kelley believes he loves Sakuntala, he cannot prevent her from sacrificing herself. Unwilling to marry the man chosen for her, Sakuntala commits sati, burning herself alive.

It is difficult to imagine why New -- whose China Coast trilogy is justly regarded to be among the best post-colonial novels written about Asia -- has devoted his considerable talents to this melodrama. The fat, juicy book has some of the pleasures of the first book of the trilogy, Shanghai, which remained on The New York Times' best-seller list for eight weeks. But in his latest novel the understated beauty of the writing and the evocative portrait of India only camouflages the overblown romance. While Shanghai also trafficked on the stereotypes of the exotic Orient, its setting was far enough removed in time that its focus on devious opium dealers and sing-song girls did not seem like the selective obsessions of the West. The Road to Maridur's catalogue of inscrutable sadhus, deposed princes and distressed damsels is more problematic, given the contemporary setting and Western writers' reputation for noticing the snake charmer pulling tourists instead of the automobile factory behind him.

Those concerns aside, and doubtless some will dismiss them as the tyranny of the politically correct, it cannot be denied that The Road to Maridur is a fun summer read. New also deserves credit for an evocative portrait of India. But fans of his more literary work will wonder why he chose this melodrama, when with the book's final ritual suicide a week of guilty pleasure ends with a cringe.

Monday, April 22, 2002

method in madness

Red Poppies, By Alai (translated by Howard Goldblatt and Sylvia Li-Chun Lin). Houghton Mifflin, $25

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in April 2002).

PUBLISHED THIS YEAR for the first time in English, Alai's Red Poppies -- winner in 2000 of China's highest literary accolade, the Mao Dun Prize -- is the story of the rise to power of the "idiot" son of a Tibetan warlord.

Narrated by its idiot-hero, the novel's portrait of a warlike, feudal society ravaged by internal strife and Machiavellian intrigue explodes the myth of a mystical, pacifist Tibet. Still, it is the Chinese who supply the warlords' weapons and direct their battles, always with an eye to the outcome. And while this is not a novel of destroyed temples and rebellious monks, few if any Tibetans welcome the arrival of their Communist "liberators" at its close.

It is a tale told by an idiot, but what does it signify?

Alai, an ethnic Tibetan living in what is now Sichuan province, has said that the model for his idiot-hero and narrator is a legendary wise man who "represents the Tibetans' aspirations and oral traditions." Not interested in accolades, the sage "preferred the wisdom masked by stupidity."

Not surprisingly, therefore, there is an unmistakable method to the madness of Alai's narrator, the second son of the chieftain of the powerful Maiqi clan.

Only the idiot-sage understands his time, foreseeing the end of the reign of the Tibetan warlords as the Han begin to exert more and more of a destabilizing influence in the region. And though he does not dispute his own stupidity, he knows full well that his mental defect is all that protects him from death at the hand of his older half-brother -- who would otherwise consider him a threat to his birthright.

By choosing as his narrator an idiot whose stupidity keeps him alive, Alai invites readers to see the author, too, as one who knows more than he can safely reveal. The world of this novel, after all, is one in which a monk's tongue must be cut out before he can become an historian, in which "you must hurry if you have something you feel you must say about the present, or about the future, because you won't be able to say it after you lose your tongue."

The translation is another fine effort by veteran translator Howard Goldblatt and his wife Sylvia Li-Chun Lin, whose collaborative rendering of Tien-wen's Notes of a Desolate Man was named Translation of the Year (1999) by the American Literary Translators Association. In Red Poppies, the unmannered prose is deceptively simple. Reminiscent of the language of parable, it captures the enigmatic wisdom of the idiot-narrator perfectly.

Friday, March 22, 2002

revenge against america

The Dragonhead, by John Sack. Crown Publishers, $25.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2002).

IN THE 1980s, a Hong Kong furrier named Johnny Kon became the supreme leader of the Big Circle Gang, a violent clique of former Cultural Revolution Red Guards seeking to take over the Asian drug trade. According to journalist John Sack's latest book, Kon's first act as "dragonhead" was to declare war on America.

His gang used unconventional weapons: chintzy flower vases, ice buckets and picture frames filled with heroin. Nobody knows how many people died. But before Kon surrendered, pleading guilty to save his wife the indignity of sharing a jail cell with his mistress, prosecutors estimated his gang had smuggled a billion dollars worth of heroin into the United States, while the Drug Enforcement Agency had named him public enemy No. 1.

Rising from poverty and persecution in China, Kon earned millions in the fur trade in Hong Kong, only to lose it all in a property-market crash. His associates, soldiers of the Big Circle Gang, were former Maoist fanatics. But Kon did not wage his war for money or revolutionary ideals, according to Sack's The Dragonhead. The crime boss declared war on America because he blamed the U.S. for the death of two of his children. His war was one of revenge.

Sack is perhaps best known for his book on the U.S Army's Lt. William Calley, the central figure in the massacre of civilians in My Lai village during the Vietnam War. In The Dragonhead, he tells the story of Kon's rise and fall with the empathy and elan for which he is famous. Readers will recognize his style as what was once called New Journalism, but Sack is no gonzo. He spent 12 years hanging out with mobsters around the world and chatting with Johnny Kon in prison, but he makes neither his own derring-do nor stylistic high jinks the subject of his story. He succeeds brilliantly in evoking the Chinese underworld and draws his characters with the skill of a practised novelist.

After escaping from mainland China and settling in Hong Kong, Kon used his grandfather's formula for dyeing fur pelts, as well as survival skills honed in a mainland labour camp, to build up his business. But it was through his criminal connections that he became rich. A friend in a triad gang steered U.S. soldiers on leave from the war in South Vietnam to Johnny's store. Kon soon moved his business into Vietnam itself, gaining a concession in American bases there.

Kon was introduced to the heroin trade in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City), where he counted America's generals among his customers and friends. He didn't arrange those early drug deals for money, but to help scared U.S. soldiers take the edge off their fear. "I do you favour, lieutenan'. I no make money from this," says Johnny. Sack believes him.

When Saigon was about to fall to North Vietnamese forces, Kon left two of his children in Cambodia, where he thought they would be safe. That was days before the Khmer Rouge rebels took Phnom Penh. Both Kon's children died in the jungle. Faced with his wife's reproaches and his own guilt, Kon found his own scapegoat: America.

"The people who killed them that day, were they me?" asks Kon. "No, the people who pushed this war from the China Sea to the Gulf of Siam . . . (were) the war criminals like Colonel I-Have-This-Movie, like General Thrash, General Cushman and General I-Am-the-Greatest, and like Mr. Hey-Hey-LBJ."

Passages like these make the dragonhead a remarkably winning figure. There is an inexorable logic to his gradual descent into shadier and shadier enterprises. And even his worst crimes -- drug-running and ordering murders -- are not beyond what he knew the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency did in Vietnam.

The portrait that emerges is not that of a ruthless mobster but of a reluctant one, whose murders are committed sadly, when self-preservation leaves him no other choice -- and even then only against others who live by the gangster's code.

Sack is more concerned with literary truth than with the moral, legal or -- it must be said -- journalistic kind. He includes few dates and eschews the Chinese names of his rogues' gallery for their more evocative nicknames (Fat Ass, Ghost, Michael Jackson, Movie Star and the like). And he rarely attributes his information to specific sources.

That is not to say that The Dragonhead is marred by a single falsehood. On most points, Johnny's story is consistent with his prosecutors' version. But without the usual clues to weigh the statements of the writer's various informants, the reader must take Sack's word on the book's central questions: Did Johnny Kon really set out to destroy America because its foreign policy killed his kids? Or is that the story of a clever man already 10 years into a 28-year sentence?

like being there

<>Something Like a House, By Sid Smith. Picador, 6.99 ($10)

By Jason Overdorf
<>(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in March 2002).

Sid Smith's Something Like a House, the winner of the 2001 Whitbread First Novel Award, is the story of a British deserter from the Korean War who is granted political asylum in China, only to become a slave to Miao-minority peasants.

The deserter, Jim Fraser, carves a life for himself in a village during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. He becomes the "only round-eye in the Red Guards," and when the Miao resort to ritualistic cannibalism, he shares the organs of an executed man "because it was a kind of belonging."

But Something Like a House is not the whinging catalogue of backbreaking labour that is the standard Cultural Revolution tale. In his happiness over his smallest achievements -- for instance, finding part of an old washtub in which to boil his meagre allotment of rice -- Fraser is more like a triumphant Crusoe.

The Whitbread award committee, as well as many reviewers, lauded the authority of Smith's portrayal of a simple man's terrible misfortunes -- making much of the fact that Smith has never travelled to China.
To Smith's credit, the novel doesn't read like the product of hours spent in a library. "The most important preparation for the book was my seven years as a labourer," said Smith, who worked as a journalist for 17 years and lives in England. "I couldn't have written about life as a Chinese peasant without the years in unskilled jobs, including gardener, gravedigger, dustman, docker, council workman, builder's labourer and railway labourer, and a year alone as a woodsman on a cliff-top overlooking the Bristol Channel."

Less successful is the plot development. This takes a serious work of literature perilously close to the cliches of genre fiction. Some marketing genius behind the book's production considers this weakness to be one of its selling points. The excited prose on the dust jacket reads: ". . . he must confront the horrifying secret behind his years in China -- that all along he has been the target of a fearsome conspiracy. And now it threatens us all . . ." The plot is nowhere near as bad as that.

Other aspects of the novel set the bar so high that one wishes Smith had realized his story of life among the Miao was already arresting enough.

Friday, February 22, 2002

travels without a deadline

The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong, By Edward A. Gargan. Knopf, $26.95

By Jason Overdorf
(This book review appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in February 2002).

EDWARD GARGAN set out to journey the length of the Mekong River to "hear the tales of survivors, the tales of suffering and endurance" of the people who live along its course in China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. For 15 years a correspondent for The New York Times, he wanted to escape the burden of deadlines, of being "driven by the subject of each story." He wanted the freedom to linger, to wander, to listen and reflect.

The River's Tale: A Year on the Mekong bears the signs of that peripatetic agenda, for good and ill. At moments, Gargan succeeds in communicating the sense of luxury that comes with having only the roughest of plans and answering to no one -- for instance, when he enjoys a meal of chicken and rice cooked by a boatman on a kerosene stove. But too often, Gargan's apparently conscious decisions to eschew the discipline of story-creation cause the book to meander.

He mentions his discovery of illegal casino gambling in Jinhong, China, but does not pursue the story because, he professes, he is not a gambler. In the backwater of Vinh Long, Vietnam, he dismisses with a single parenthetical phrase a lesbian marriage that occurred the previous year, choosing instead to write about young people enamoured of America. He runs into opium traffickers in China, Burma and Laos, but finds them of passing interest only. After all, he has to get down the river.

While one might think that the journey would necessarily land Gargan in remote, untravelled towns, he also spends a surprising amount of time on well-worn tourist paths. He does not always travel on the river -- some portions of it are not navigable -- or even along it. For instance, two chapters in his book focus on the towns of Dali and Lijiang in China, both 60 kilometres from the Mekong, and both way stations for backpackers in southwest China.

The book makes up for the absence of journalistic focus and adventurous derring-do in part through some fine historical writing. Gargan's knowledge of the path he travels and his chronicles of past events are unquestionable, but the book's didactic rewards are undermined by its essential aimlessness.

It lacks the political thrust of the travel writing of Robert Kaplan (Balkan Ghosts) or V.S. Naipaul (India: A Million Mutinies Now), so that the sum of Gargan's observations is no greater than the parts. At times, his pronouncements are rather obvious. The book's introduction tells us he wants to gauge the American legacy in the region, still deep and wide a quarter century after the Vietnam War, but the conclusion he draws is striking in its banality. While he remembers the Vietnam of Nick Ut's photograph of the naked girl running down Highway I after a napalm attack on her village, "all of that seemed so distant, so much part of another time, another place. The Vietnam through which I floated was now looking elsewhere."

In fairness, Gargan relies on his informants' stories, reported in their own words, to capture the concerns of the people along the river. A newspaper reporter must ask leading questions and omit the answers that do not suit his story, but Gargan allows the people he meets to talk about the things that interest them, often with considerable success. He skilfully unveils the complexity of emotion behind the pride one Vietnamese bui doi -- "dust of life," the name given to the offspring of American soldiers -- takes in his father: "He pushed his chest out under his black T-shirt. 'My father was an army colonel,' he said. 'He was high rank'."

Perhaps it is not surprising that the book is strongest in moments that require careful objectivity, the weighing of historical accounts and the reporting of people's stories in their own words. Those are skills well honed in a 15-year career as a reporter. But that dispassionate eye makes for a poor yarn. Gargan is not much of a raconteur -- his anecdotes come few and far between -- and he does not emerge as a personality. He is neither a likeable curmudgeon like Paul Theroux nor a mad adventurer like Bruce Chatwin.

The River's Tale offers a good survey of Asian politics and peoples along the region's most romantic river, but readers of this magazine will be frustrated, in turns, when it points out the obvious and when it fails to pursue the intriguing mysteries it uncovers.