April 14, 2012

Naiyar Masud: The Storyteller of Lucknow

Filed under: Books,Culture,Writing — anilm @ 10:00 pm

Naiyar Masud Sometimes the best way to find something is to look for something else. This happened to me recently. I stumbled upon the stories of Naiyer Masud while searching online for one of Ismat Chugtai’s stories. I came across the Annual of Urdu Studies, a wonderful journal which often publishes translations of short and novella-sized Urdu fiction. It was as if I’d wandered into a wondrous bazaar in a strange town, except that the excitement had to be tempered by the realization I had a train to catch. The journal was filled with possibilities. What to read? What to download? So I only read the first paras of stories, skimming biographies, critiques, but the sampling only made the decision harder.

Here, I must interrupt myself and tell you about the Angel in the Bookcase. Since the universe is twisted like a pretzel and there is no God, it so happens there are men who’re more fortunate with the ladies than other men. So too is the case with some readers and good books. I’ve been unusually lucky with books. This realization struck me early. In my sated moments as a teenager, I’d often contemplate my unexpected success in finding this or that book, and I slowly convinced myself that there was someone– the Angel in the Bookcase– watching out for me. This fanciful theory was reinforced by a rather peculiar incident which I feel compelled to also share.

I was with a friend, a fellow named Ashwin Desai who was majoring in Chemical Engg, and we were in the stacks of the college library because he wanted to locate a book on transport phenomena. The book was as likely to be in the non-existent gardening section as it was to be in the chemistry stacks. I began to hold forth on my privileged connection with the Angel in the Bookcase. He was listening somewhat humbly, and it incited me to prophetic rashness. ‘For example,’ I declared, ‘the Angel tells me your book is– here.’ I turned around and grabbed a book from the stack at random.

Bhenchod!’ said Ashwin, breaking the hushed silence.

It was, of course, the book he’d wanted.

So here I was in a digital library, not very different from my college stacks, faced with too many choices and too little time. I happened to remember this old story and without thinking grabbed the first pdf file I saw in the fiction section. I didn’t even bother to inspect the file.

Later, I discovered I’d downloaded Naiyar Masud’s novella Itr-e-Kafur (The Essence of Camphor).

I used to have difficulty pointing to speculative fiction that couldn’t be seen as magic realist or SF or fantasy. Now I can point to stories like Sheesha Ghat or Mar Gir (Snake Catcher).

Of course, such classifications are always arbitrary. As Sikandar Ahmad has pointed out, Masud does his best to describe his work in terms of what he does not do. For example, in an interview with Asif Farrukhi, Masud denied he works in the fantastic:

As for fantasy, I try very hard to steer clear of it. My stories are not fantasies, at least not in the sense of the fantastic. You cannot say their events don’t occur in real life.

Urdu fiction has always had a fantastic and florid turn and Masud is partly distancing his work from that tradition. One way to do so is to give up on Urdu’s fondness for ruin. Masud also resists writing story-like stories. Like many modern writers, he breaks most of the traditional rules of short fiction– for example, the rule of economy that insists every character must have a role in the story or Poe’s rule of ‘unity of mood’ or Chekhov’s rule about not mentioning things if they aren’t used and so on. But these violations, unlike those of the modernists, are not really experiments in making things anew. Novelty is the unhappy spouse of Time. The literature of unhappy spouses is usually about escape or recrimination. Masud is interested in neither.

Things happen in his stories, and what happens is always clear as well as interesting, but as in life, it’s not necessary that the events arrange into larger meaningful patterns. The events have no deeper rationale. To invoke A. K. Ramanujan invoking Davidson:

‘Actions have actors, actions express actors. Actions have reasons, actors are responsible for what they do, and character is destiny. But events happen to people. Events have no reasons, only causes. Narratives motived by karma convert all events into actions; in which everything has a reason.’ [Telling Tales, Daedalus 118(4), '89]

A.K. Ramanujan was discussing Indian folktales, but it seems to me this insight can greatly help in understanding how Masud’s fiction does what it does. Masud eschews karmic fiction; his events have causes but not reasons, his characters are not entailed by the plot and his realism is of the Kafkaesque variety but without its oppressiveness or obsession. The result is a story as infused with the possibility of possibility as camphor is with its fragrance. In most fiction, possibility gets hard-wired. The possibility of things being possible is one of the hardest, if not the hardest, effects to achieve.

Consequently, one must give up the sense of an ending. His endings often aren’t. Masud’s invented, I think, a kind of short story in which we stop reading not because we’ve reached closure but because we’ve left the chai-ki-laari, we’ve caught the bus, we’ve parted from our story-telling friend. Stories fade in Masud’s world, they don’t end.

Naiyar Masud is still around. It seems he rarely leaves Lucknow, which makes sense since the city has long celebrated the good life; Umar Memon has helpfully provided a brief biographical sketch. He writes about one short-story a year. Much of the time, he says, is spent removing what he’s written. Among other things, he’s translated Kafka’s works into Urdu, so naturally he has to be punished with the label ‘Urdu’s Kafka’. There are some similarities between the two writers, yes. Kafka also wrote stories where causality, not reason, is the governing principle. Gunther Anders remarked that Kafka’s characters are ‘people attached to a job.’ So too Masud’s characters, who are busy making perfumes, building bird cages, steering boats, fashioning glass, catching snakes. Both authors use unadorned styles, but while Kafka uses sleights of grammar to make the unreal real, Masud uses sleights of memory to make the real unreal. However, all these similarities and differences pale in face of the fundamental division between the two men: Masud’s fiction affirms possibility, while Kafka’s denies it. Perhaps this is why Kafka’s fiction leaves one in despair, while Masud’s stories, even the tragic ones, leaves one feeling exhilarated.

M. Umar MemonMuhammed Umar Memon, professor emeritus at Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison and editor of AUS, has been indefatigable in making Masud’s work available to the English speaking world. Thanks to his efforts, we have two story collections The Essence of Camphor and The Snake Catcher containing some of Masud’s best stories. The Annual had a special issue in honor of Masud, and many other stories can appeared over the years. My favorites– what day is it? Saturday? Well then, my favorites are Sheesha Ghat and Ojhal (literally, the word means ‘Invisible’ but Javaid Qazi & Memon’s translation captures the title’s spirit with ‘Obscure Domains of Fear and Desire’.

News is news only to those who haven’t heard the news. I was walking with my friend Geeta Patel who’d done herthesis work on the Urdu poet Miraji (Sanaullah Dar). I mentioned that I’d just come across this writer, Masud.

‘Oh yes, Naiyar,’ said Geeta. ‘You’ll really like his stories.’

My first feeling was outrage. Damn it woman, if you knew that, why didn’t you mention it earlier! How was it possible that it’d had taken me so long to make Masud’s acquaintance? I, who had an efficient and conscientious personal Angel! Urdu is hardly an obscure Indian dialect. How could it be that I’d read my way around this remarkable writer all these years? Who else was I missing?

Such questions are tied to the politics and economics of the subcontinent. Contemplating them leads to a certain exhaustion.

No matter. Stories find their readers. Friends, this may hardly be news to some of you, but do check out the strange and wonderful stories of Naiyer Masud.

July 26, 2011

What’s on your mind, Anders Behring Breivik?

Filed under: Crazy Ideas,Current Affairs — anilm @ 3:07 pm

February 6, 2011

The Octoclause of Doom

Filed under: Books,Current Affairs — anilm @ 10:00 am

20,000 LeaguesUPDATE (Feb 07, 2011): Thomas Abraham (TA) corrected a number of significant bloopers in my original post and clarified some points. I’ve included his comments below.

India’s Ministry of Human Resources Development (HRD), or Hurdle, as its fondly known, is up to its usual mischief, namely: progress. This time, progress comes in the form of an amendment to Clause (2m) of the Indian Copyright Act.

TA: No, the copyright Act 1957 is being amended, and proviso 2m of the proposed amendment is what’s hitting us.

This clause clarifies the notion of an “infringing copy.” Hurdle decided that it would best serve the interests of desi publishers, authors and reader if the clause were amended to say:

“…a copy of a work published in any country outside India with the permission of the author of the work and imported from that country shall not be deemed to be an infringing copy.”

Right. Riveting stuff. What’s for dinner?

The Indian publishing industry, that’s what. At least, that’s what Thomas Abraham, industry veteran and Managing Director of Hachette, India suggested in his recent article in the Hindustan Times. The article is a must-read. So is the rebuttal by Pranesh Prakash, and the detailed re-rebuttal by Thomas. They are thoughtful and persuasive pieces that force one to take the issue seriously.

I’m wondering if the Ministry of HRD’s sudden enthusiasm for work is due to Obama’s recent trip to India. Terry McGraw of McGraw-Hill was one of the approx 200 CEO delegates to accompany Obama. When President Bush visited India, ostensibly to sign the US-India nuclear treaty, his delegation had included representatives from Monsanto, Dow, Bayer, and Dupont. India signed off on a lot more than just a nuclear treaty (update: TA: McGraw-Hill is also opposing the amendment. Damn it. Nothing like ugly fact to ruin a beautiful conspiracy).

Thomas’ arguments convinced me he was right, and so to be fair, I’ll only present his side of things.

The crux of the matter is captured, I think, in this scenario:

“Consider this scenario: a book by author x is successful in India, but fails in the US. By the fourth month with no legal territorial protection it is dumped into India at lower prices through a distributor. This is a completely ‘legal’ purchase transaction by both seller and buyer, but is against the author’s consent and in violation of a contract that exists between author and Indian publisher. Now add remainders to the mix and multiply this exponentially with the number of new titles every year and try and imagine what the market is going to turn into.”

Thomas discusses many subtleties, and if I’ve understood his arguments correctly, he sees four major consequences:

  1. Lower prices for the reader on globally distributed books.
    TA: No just the opposite actually. There will be short term spoiler pricing as undercutting happens but over the medium and long terms prices will stabilize back to present norms—it’s not really possible to function profitably on lower pricing levels. An imported thriller like Grisham or Archer sell at Rs 195-Rs 250. Remainders can’t bring these levels down any further in the long run. In the short term yes, spoiler distributors will bring in books to get those editions in.
  2. A small bump in royalty income for the author but only if opportunity costs are discounted (the author could have earned greater royalties on domestic sales).
    TA: Quite a big dent actually. Because not only do you get lowered royalty on export edition, you lose your due local royalty.
  3. Desi publishers will increasingly focus on India-specific books (since this reduces parallel trade).
    TA: Yes and No, because even this is not risk free. With squeezed and reduced margins desi publishers—here I include all those functioning in India not just companies of Indian ownership—will have less capital to invest in local authors the way they do now. So publishing programmes will shrink, and the ones you have you will have less money to market/promote. Local Indian authors—who also hope that they will be sold abroad—will have that diminished too, as local publishers won’t want to sell books that will come back to bite them.
  4. Desi publishers compensate for the increased uncertainty by controlling risk, for e.g. by focusing on relatively sure-bets.
    TA: But there will virtually be no sure bet.

There are some similarities between Thomas’ arguments that parallel imports will stifle creativity and the arguments made by US pharmaceuticals that allowing cheap drugs to flood the market will stifle R&D. In both cases, there’s a free rider advantage for the importer. The Indian publisher (US pharma) does all the hard work of developing a native talent (a new drug), and then along comes Mexico or China or India flooding the home market with a cheap substitute. There are a few economists– notably, Horst Raff and Nicholas Schmitt– who think parallel imports could actually raise producer profits for certain industries.

That’s the question. Is the book business like any other? Pranesh doesn’t seem to think the books are any different (or at least, very different) from other consumer goods, whereas Thomas seems convinced– as anyone who’s tried to make a living selling books probably would be– that it’s a total unicorn.

I think there’s some merit to Thomas’ claim of exceptionalism for the industry. The economics of the so-called “creative industries” is strikingly different. As far as I can tell, the book business is a business in the same sense a horse is a car. It’s a business that operates in the “suicide quadrant”, namely, markets governed by high-uncertainty and low-control. Albert Greco, Clara Rodriguez and Bob Wharton remark in their recent opus that:

“Our research indicates that seven out of every ten frontlist hardbound books fail financially (that is, they do not earn enough to cover the author’s advance, and other editorial, marketing and administrative costs), 2 books break even, and 1 is a hit. Coincidentally, this is the same ratio found in the motion picture industry.”

This is true of Indian publishing too (Thomas pegs it at 80/20 rather than 90/10), so Indian publishers also survive on the basis of a few profit-makers. Typically, the foreign rights to these money makers are sold to companies in the US, UK and other English-language markets. Now, if those books find their way back to India, then the publisher’s few profit makers are suddenly not so profitable.

That said, I suspect Indian publishers won’t be quite so affected from the amendment as they think. Publishing is an odd industry partly because readers are such odd consumers. They hoard, they are impulsive, they have nutty interests, they are informed, they are passionate and they are intractable. Western publishers have a hard enough time appeasing their own odd bods.

Perhaps the debate obscures a deeper issue. Thomas mentions that there are some 17,000 registered publishers and also that there are just 450 trade bookshops.

TA: is correct but to clarify: These are 450 ‘trade bookshops’—the kind that keep English language general and consumer books—fiction/non fiction. From the chains to the small indies. The 17,000 publishers are all inclusive figure (language, trade, educational) but the 450 excludes all the educational and ‘janta’ bookshops that sell cribs and railway timetables as also the language bookshops.

That’s a great many fingers around a very small pizza! Good lord, where do we cram all our books? Our distribution bottlenecks already ensure that most readers will mostly see only bestsellers. And when everyone is making a living from a few dozen titles (if at that), then we’re much more vulnerable to small price differentials in those titles.

So the real challenge is not how to make a larger pie– which we must of course– but on how to make making a larger pie easier. Life in the suicide quadrant needs entrepreneurs, not businessmen. And entrepreneurs need more mechanisms for growth, not more ill-considered policies. Perhaps leapfrog tech like POD publishing and digital paper could be helpful here. So too, I suspect, fewer visits by American presidents. But most definitely, it’d be helpful if Hurdle would focus its energies on being a little less helpful.

August 15, 2010

Riddle of the Seventh Stone

Filed under: Books,Current Affairs — anilm @ 10:00 pm

My friend Monideepa Sahu’s debut children’s novel: The Riddle of the Seventh Stone has just been released (Zubaan Books, India). Read it. Buy it. Gift it. Facebook it. Steal it (well, maybe not the last).

Cover image

May 12, 2010

Rendezvous with Rama

Filed under: Books,Culture,Philosophy,Writing — anilm @ 10:45 pm

ACK Ramayana CoverI first encountered the Ramayana, perhaps as most Indian kids do these days, in the pages of an Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) “comic” book. The drawings were figurative. Lord Rama was a handsome blue-skinned man, Sita was a fair and beautiful woman, Ravana had a mustache, and so on. I liked the drawings, but I remember not being impressed by the tale. It was weepy. Mushy. The skies seemed perpetually overcast with duty, betrayal, duty, loneliness, duty and bereavement. I didn’t like monkeys and there were far too many of them in the story. I didn’t consider the bow and arrow—Lord Rama’s weapon of choice– to be a hero’s weapon. Maces, swords, Ninja claws, axes and teeth—now, those were weapons. What was heroic about shooting at people from a distance? And where were ACK’s curvy sari-clad women, the one consolation of my otherwise celibate childhood? When I finished the story, I concluded that the Ramayana was one of those tales written solely to punish kids for having time and bloom on their side.

But it’s no one’s fault. The Ramayana is simply not a story suitable for kids. It’s also not a story suitable for most adults either. Else why would south-Asians make and re-make this tale over the long centuries? Discontent is one of the great gifts of this magnificent epic. To read this tale is to be seized with the urge to re-make it. Perhaps it’s because of its deterministic hero, Lord Rama. Deterministic characters, like existential ones, offer no definite purchase, and so we find ourselves, like Sisyphus, shoulder to stone, feet on earth, pushing once more for a resolution we can never attain.

Since the Ramayana is rich in relationships, there are many ways to study Lord Rama from a psychological point of view. One of the best is R. P. Goldman’s analysisR. P. Goldman. “Ramah Sahalaksmanah: Psychological and Literary Aspects of the Composite Hero of Valmiki’s Ramayana.” Indian J. of Philosophy, Vol. 8, 1980, pp. 149-189. of the relationship between Lord Rama and his brother Lakshmana. I’m going to take a different track. I’m going to look at the god-king’s relationship with dharma.

April 23, 2010

The Griffith Ramayana

Filed under: Books,Culture,History,Religion,Writing — anilm @ 10:30 pm

Ralph Thomas Hotchkin Griffith was born on May 25, 1826, in Corsley, Wiltshire, to Reverend Robert C. Griffith and Mary E. Adderley. It was a remarkable age. Only three days earlier, the HMS Beagle had set sail from Plymouth on its first voyage. Waterloo was already a decade old memory. Queen Victoria was 7 years old. Charles Dickens was 14. Lord Byron was dead, Charles Babbage was designing the Difference Engine, and speculative fiction had drawn its first gasping breath in the Gothic womb of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In distant India, a word that still denoted an area and not a place, one principality after another was falling to British might and British genius. It was the best of times to be an Englishman. As John Aylmer, Bishop of London, had presciently anticipated in An Harborowe, a year after the English navy crushed the Spanish Armada in 1588: “God is English.”

But conquest had brought with it the conqueror’s burden: administration. No empire has ever had enough qualified citizens to run two countries at the same time. Sooner or later, an empire has to start finding, training and hiring natives. Lord Macaulay’s Minute of 1834 spelled out what the goal should be:

“…a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.”

Or less politely, wogs. Coconuts. Salman Rushdie, in his The Moor’s Last Sigh, acknowledges this bitter fruit:

“Bleddy Macaulay’s minutemen!… English-medium misfits… square-peg freaks.”

Macaulay is reviled these days for his racism, but as I see it, he was only being consistent. Hadn’t the Roman empire been a good thing for Britain? Wasn’t Macaulay its living proof? Didn’t he belong to the class of persons, English in blood and color, but Roman in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect? Besides, Macaulay and his carminative Minute were less influential than people suppose. What really got British education started in India was Sir Charles Wood’s Education Dispatch of 1854. It was well reasoned, pragmatic, free of hand-wringing, and based on an idea that would probably still work in places like Afghanistan. The idea was to leave Indian education mostly to the Indians, provide partial government funding, and set up some model educational institutions. In short: self-reliance, support and standards.

However, there was a severe shortage of British instructors. So that might explain why when Ralph T. H. Griffith joined the Indian Education Service in 1853, the twenty-seven year old Sanskrit scholar was almost immediately sentenced to be Professor of English Literature at the venerable Government Sanskrit College in Benares, India. Indeed, six months into the job, they made him headmaster of the associated school, and in 1861, the principal of the college itself. It was a position he was to hold for the next twenty-three years.

It was during this tenure that Griffith finished translating the first six books of Valmiki’s Ramayana from Sanskrit into English. The seventh and final book is a later addition to the canon (so is the first) and this he only abridged. The complete work appeared in 1870, published by E. J. Lazarus & Co. in Benares, and Trubner & Co in London. There had been an earlier effort in 1806 by the missionaries William Carey and Joshua Marshman, but they had only managed to translate the first two volumes. Thus, Griffith had produced the first complete English translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana. Translations are acts of courage. As Victor Hugo noted:

“When you offer a translation to a nation, that nation will almost always look on the translation as an act of violence against itself.”

Hugo was talking about native receptions to translated foreign works, but it applies equally well to native receptions to foreigners translating native works. In the literary magazines of the period, the Griffith Ramayana is often referred to as “a spirited translation,” a compliment to be sure, but for a horse, not a translation. It’s not insignificant that Voltaire mocked “spirited translators”:

“…[their] spirit and ability consist in substituting a modern variety or peculiarity for an ancient one, to the utter confusion of all unity of time, place, and character; leaving the mind of the reader bewildered as in a masquerade, crowded and confused with ancient and modern costumes.”

But Griffith’s achievement should not be underestimated. He’d had to translate some 24,000 slokas. A sloka is a Sanskrit verse and consists of thirty-two syllables, arranged either as a sixteen-syllable couplet or four eight-syllable hemistiches. The Iliad and Odyssey combined have some 27,000 lines, thus making the Ramayana roughly twice as long. Furthermore, a Sanskrit verse can be as gnarly as a one-liner Perl hack. It’s a language that takes a coder’s pride in Oulipo-type exercises. Gorresio‘s Italian translation (1850) and August von Schlegel‘s German translation (1829) could and did act as guides, but when it came to translating the slokas to English, Griffith was on his own.

So how does his work fare? if we think of it as Griffith’s Ramayana, then the work is not much of a success. It is merely an adequate translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana and a fine example of that curious Victorian animal: the past’s head joined to future’s butt. This is the animal that Voltaire mocked. But if we think of the text as the Griffith Ramayana, a member of the class of inspired Ramayanas, then it’s a marvelous thing indeed. Technically, the two texts are one and the same, but the difference in perceptions does makes a difference in our appreciation.

The Griffith Ramayana is a literary work, not a scholarly one. The wonderful Princeton translation (by Robert Goldman, Sally Sutherland Goldman, Sheldon Pollack and Barend van Nooten) is what a scholarly translation looks like. Scholarly works can get dated, literary works only go out of style. Scholars translate so as to ease their epistemological discomfort. Griffith translated so as to ease his aesthetic discomfort. Occasionally, Valmiki’s verses shows a bit too much leg for Griffith, and the translated verses therefore show too little. He also gets some things seriously wrong. For example, he has a section entitled “The Rape of Sita” when it should be “The Abduction of Sita.” What does Griffith say in anticipation of such bloopers? In the preface, he wrote:

“My first object has been to reproduce the original poem as faithfully as circumstances permit me to do. For this purpose I have preferred verse to prose. The translations of the Iliad by Chapman and Worsley– nay, even by translators of far inferior poetical powers– are, I think, much more Homeric than any literal prose rendering can possibly be. In the latter we may find the ‘disjecti membra poetae,’ but all the form and the life are gone, for ‘the interpenetration of matter and manner constitute the very soul of poetry.’ I have but seldom allowed myself to amplify or to condense, or omit apparently needless repetitions, but have attempted rather to give the poet as he is than to represent him as European taste might prefer him to be. Comparisons, therefore, which to English readers will appear vulgar or rediculous [sic] have been left unaltered, and long passages of unutterable tediousness re-appear in my version with, probably, their tediousness enhanced.”

Ignoring Griffith’s low opinion of his own work (not to mention the misreading of its essential nature), I completely agree with his decision to stick with verse. The few prose translations I’ve read lack the emotional savors of the original text. Unfortunately, Griffith decided to use iambic tetrameter, a distressing decision for those scarred by the memory of Gladys Hotchkiss belting out “Hernando’s Hideway.” I kept hearing an “Ole!” after every four lines. The manic insistence on rhyming also leads Griffith to make bad choices. For example:

On the bare earth the lady sank,
And trembling from their presence shrank
Like a strayed fawn, when night is dark,
And hungry wolves around her bark.

Barking wolves? Surely, it should be “howl”? But no, if rhyme needs wolves to bark, so they shall. Incidentally, in the original verse (at least in the Baroda Critical Edition of Valmiki’s Ramayana), a trembling Sita shrinks into herself (5.25.5: “sītā viśantīvā ṅgamā tmanaḥ”), and not onto the bare earth. This would seem to be an error, but Sita is born of the Earth, so Griffith’s translation is correct with respect to myth and metaphor. A poet’s choice, of course, not a scholar’s.

Another problem with iambic tetrameter is pacing. Everything has to fit within the “da DUM da DUM da DUM da DUM” scheme, and there’s often a sense that a line could use an extra “da DUM.” Griffith remarks how he has no intention of chopping off a finger to improve the hand, but I wish he’d added a finger every so often. He also reveals a near-compulsive fondness for inversions and possessive nouns (“virtue’s brow,” “kingdom’s bound,” “ascetic’s weed’). After a while it can get on one’s nerves.

But there’s magnificence too. Consider this stanza which describes the death of Ravana at the hands of Lord Rama:

“Upon his string the hero laid
An arrow, like a snake that hissed.

‘Twas feathered with the rushing wind;
The glowing sun and fire combined
To the keen point their splendour lent;
The shaft, ethereal element,
By Meru’s hill and Mandar, pride
of mountains, had its weight supplied.
He laid it on the twisted cord,
He turned the point at Lanka’s lord,
And swift the limb-dividing dart
Pierced the huge chest and cleft the heart,
And dead he fell upon the plain
Like Vritra by the Thunderer slain.”

Compare the above with the following one, a description by Tennyson, also a rector’s son, of Mordred’s death at the hand of King Arthur:

…then Modred smote his liege
Hard on that helm which many a heathen sword
Had beaten thin; while Arthur at one blow
Striking the last stroke with Excalibur
Slew him, and all but slain himself, he fell.”

I believe the comparison tilts in Griffith’s favor. Nor is this passage a unique instance. Read with an appreciative frame of mind, the work confirms what Anne Dacier (1647-1720) claimed in her preface to the Illiad: “a translation that tries above all to save the spirit, does not fail to keep the letter, even where it takes the greatest liberties.” Literary critics should take the Griffith Ramayana more seriously.

An Englishman went up a subcontinent and came down an Indian. Ralph Griffith, a lifelong bachelor, a rector’s son from Wiltshire, a harmless aglet on colonialism’s boot, managed to take an ancient Sanskrit love poem and make it his own. Unlike von Schlegel, he was able to avoid the contempt for the Other that so often accompanies familiarity. This is all the more remarkable considering that the Sepoy “Mutiny” of 1857 had drawn a permanent, and perhaps inevitable, line between conqueror and conquered. By the time Griffith was appointed director of public instruction of the North-west provinces in 1878, Charles Wood’s educational guidelines had become policy. But though policy was strong, the flesh was weak. Weather, loneliness, alcoholism, isolation, homesickness, low salaries, language problems, tropical diseases and, if I’ve judged the expressions of just-landed tourists correctly, sheer terror, all wrecked havoc on the men and women who were to implement the policy. However, Griffith seems to have thrived.

Upon retirement in 1885, Griffith moved in with his brother Frank’s family, and spent the next twenty-one years in the cool hills of Niligiri, translating the Vedas. Personally, I consider it a pity he didn’t spend the time on more literary texts. There were a great many other Sanskrit works left to translate– some three thousand years worth– but then again, there comes a time when every pen must be set down. At the age of eighty, some fifty years after he’d first arrived in India, never to return to England, Ralph T. H. Griffith died on November 7, 1906. Only a few weeks earlier, Mahatma Gandhi– then just Mohandas– had launched a non-violence movement in South Africa. In June, the Lusitania had set sail on its maiden voyage. Albert Einstein had published the theory of special relativity, solved the mystery of the photoelectric effect, provided a theoretical explanation for Brownian motion and demonstrated the equivalence of matter and energy. Hitler was 17 years old. In seven years time, Rabindranath Tagore would become the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature. There were movies, heavier-than-air flight, phonographs and submarines. It would be a remarkable century. And Ralph T. H. Griffith, one of those suspended human bridges between Us and Them, between Now and Then, between Give and Take, had helped make it happen.

April 14, 2010

A Skeptic In The Temple Of Books

Filed under: Books,Business — anilm @ 7:00 pm

I believe in Books. Books is a God with a growing number of temples, aka bookstores, all over the world. In the US alone, according the 2002 census count, there are some 19,725 bookstores. Of course, compared with the roughly 300,000 outlets devoted to Yahweh, Books is strictly a minor deity. Still, minor or not, what’s important for believers is that there be a temple within reach. There are about a dozen where I live, so come Saturday, I shower, crack a coconut, and step out for some face time. It’s a ritual carried over from childhood. My late father was a Books devotee, and just as we inherit our Gods, we inherit the rituals too. My father and I used to browse on Sundays rather than Saturdays, and consumed idlis-and-madras-coffee rather than the bagels-and-coffee I now have, and we used to walk to the bookshops rather than drive, but these are minor differences. When I remember the spring in his step, the reckless disregard for what he could afford, and his delight in the rare find (“Solutions to the 1948 Cochin Board Chemistry Exams!”), I see the origins of my faith.

Lately though, I’ve begun to notice that faith is not enough. I still visit the temples, still stroll the aisles, still probe and prod various books, and still settle in the smelly sofas to sample my stash of possibles. But actually buy a book? God, no! In my last visit to the local B&N, I sampled Nussbaum’s From Disgust to Humanity and was seized with the urge to buy it. Did I? No. Jeff Vandermeer’s gorgeous Steampunk anthology? No. Heileman and Halperin’s Game Change? No. Michael Pollan’s Food Rules? No. Johnson and Kwak’s 13 Bankers? Thirteen times, no. Good books, even great books: still no.

The reason, obviously, is that it no longer makes economic sense to buy books in bookstores. Why the hell would I pay $19.25 for Goldratt’s The Choice when I can get a nice used copy for $7, including S&H, from Bookfinder? So what if it’s used? All books eventually become mulch anyway; used copies merely get there mulch faster. And when Kindle/Apple finally unclasp their DRM legs and allow readers to have their way with content, physical bookstores will make even less economic sense. In a world where you can get a book the minute it’s released (and when quantum clouds become a reality, perhaps even before it is written), Books is everywhere.

Compare this with the traditional model. A book is released. Hooray. A week or so later, it’s sent to distributors. The crates are unloaded, stacked, stashed and carved into smaller cartons to be trucked, along with similar items, to wholesalers/smaller-distributors (~1-2 months). This process repeats until a few copies finally end up in bookstores (~1-5 months). Two weeks to three months later, if the book doesn’t do well, it’ll be sent back, modesty compromised, back to the publisher. Who then pulps it. Camera pullback. The next crateload of books is seen leaving the publisher’s warehouse. Cycle of life, African drums. Brilliant.

It’s a suicidal business model. Johannes Gutenberg died broke, and publishers haven’t had much luck since. So why do they persist in the worship of such a ball-buster God? Eugene Schwartz, in a great numbers-rich article on book distribution, offers one answer:

One might ask what motivates people to keep this complex system going. After all, although a lot of cash may flow through, it usually takes its time and leaves behind relatively modest portions, if any. As to why we’re in this business and why we persist, Miller [one of the experts] explains, ‘To have a bookstore is part of the American Dream. It is a form of self-expression.’

Right. Like makeup, body piercings, and tattoos.

Truth is, physical bookstores have basically become brick & mortar display screens. They have exceptional resolution, cool 3-D features, terrific affordance, and are totally immersive. What you see is what you can get. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. What you get is what you see. Want that 1948 Chemistry solutions to the Cochin Board Exams? Asimov’s annotated guide to Don Juan? Well, if wishes were horses, then why aren’t you riding the net, Quixote? Bookstores may be one of those in-between inventions. Like Egyptian multiplication. We’re not giving up on multiplication any time soon, but there are better ways now.

If bookstores are to survive, they may need to charge for the service they are really selling: the atmosphere. Bookstores may need to become Lookstores. Talk to any Books worshiper, and you’ll hear the same shiny-eyed theme: “I love browsing in bookstores.” Exactly. Browsing. As in, grazing but not paying for the grass. Because grass is now everywhere, we cows will no longer buy grass from a grass-store. Bookstores might as well get used to it.

Keith Swenson thinks that in the future bookstores might become mini-printing presses; that would handle the problem of what-you-get-is-what-you-see. Maybe. I suppose you could buy books at a Lookstore, but it’ll be expensive, as all unit jobs must be. I see them more as lifestyle places. We’ll hang around lookstores for the same reason people hang around churches and art galleries. It’s an alternative to cock fighting. It’s classy. It’s superior. It’s fun. It’s a great place to take your kid, show them the ropes, stuff them with bagels and madras coffee, and acquaint them with all the troublemakers in history. Most were never able to move more than a few volumes, but that sufficed to move the world. Those who believe in Books take that on faith. And as faiths go, perhaps it’s not an ignoble one.

April 13, 2010

The Speculative Ramayana Anthology

Filed under: Books,Culture,History,Writing,Writing/Science Fiction — anilm @ 5:08 pm
Speculative Ramayana Anthology -- Call for Submissions

March 31, 2010

Troubled Times At Ridgemont High

Filed under: Culture,Current Affairs — anilm @ 2:32 am

In places where there are few schools– like Afghanistan or the Congo– schools represent progress, hope, and modernity. In places where there are lots of schools– like India– schools have come to represent congress, anxiety and irrelevance. Thus, the Indian school system is in trouble. The Australian school system is in trouble. The British school system is in trouble. The Japanese school system is in trouble. The German school system is in trouble. Even the Canadians— God’s Why-Can’t-You-Be-More-Like-Them kids— are worried about their school system. If the Canadians can’t get it right, there’s little hope for the rest of us.

Needless to say, the American school system is also a mess. I can write “needless to say” now, but I remember a time when this would’ve been news to me. Until I arrived in the States, I’d been under the impression that John Dewey had designed the American school to be along the lines of a Jihadist’s promised heaven. Though I’m more clued in, it was still astonishing to listen to Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of Education, outline in a C-SPAN interview the sheer intractability of the problem.

Dr. Ravitch had the resigned calmness of a Xerxes who’s just turned his back on a pile of burning boats. Which is understandable, since she has done just that. Her radical turnaround from being a staunch proponent of No Child Left Behind to being a staunch opponent has attracted a great deal of controversy. After decades of a thumbs up position on making teachers legally accountable for student performance, standardized performance measures, introducing market-choice in school systems, and emphasis on science and mathematics, she’s flipped her thumb in the other direction.

And for a very good reason. She believes none of these solutions really solve the basic problem of modern education, namely: how and what to teach millions of students– differing widely in abilities, backgrounds and interests– what they need to know as adults? In fact she believes the proposed solutions, ranging from the Mastery Learning movement through CRL, OODM, COMP, PSI, STPSTR, ACiE, RSST, STM to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), have only made the problem that much more intractable. She doesn’t see any quick fixes either. As she wrote in a recent LA Times article:

“There have been two features that regularly mark the history of U.S. public schools. Over the last century, our education system has been regularly captivated by a Big Idea — a savant or an organization that promised a simple solution to the problems of our schools. The second is that there are no simple solutions, no miracle cures to those problems.”

She may be right. But even if there is no magic solution, perhaps there is a magic question. It’s familiar to computer scientists because it’s the heart and soul of the analysis of algorithms. The magic question is this: compared to what?

So TV is too violent. Compared to what? Der Struwwelpeter? So the world is getting worse. Compared to what? Venus? So the American school system is in terrible shape. Compared to what? The Congolese system? The French? The Indian? The Japanese? The Australian? The Canadian?

The answer, most likely, is that the American system is getting worse in comparison to some idealized notion of itself. Thus in 2008, 35% of the nation’s schools were labeled ‘failing schools’, where failure was judged according the NCLB criterion of showing steady increase in the percentage of students meeting competency standards in grades 3 through 8. NCLB has set a target of 100% by the year 2014; that is, by the year 2014, 100% of the students at a school, in grades 3 through 8, are expected to obtain 200 points or more in the NJ-ASK tests. As Dr. Ravitch remarks dryly in a WSJ article,

“This was not my vision of good education.”

To my mind, the difficulties with school education have always had a model– a ghastly but elegant reflection– in grammar instruction. The teaching of grammar has always been a source of grief, for educators as well for students. Kids enter school knowing how to talk, and they leave with the same general expertise, but in between they’re bludgeoned, coaxed, coerced, cajoled, and bombarded with attempts to teach them grammar. These attempts generally do no harm, and they generally do no good. The famous (notorious) conclusion of Braddock, Lloyd-Jones and Schoer in 1963 on grammar instruction, the result of a commissioned study by the National Council of Teachers of English, is brutally honest:

“In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in composition, even a harmful effect on improvement in writing.”

Hence experts are coming around to the idea that as far as improving writing instruction is concerned, stuffing kids with more grammar is not the solution. As Rei Noguchi has so carefully discussed, a better strategy might be to teach them a minimal grammar specifically designed to aid in writing.

Ditto perhaps, for schools and education. As far as educating kids is concerned, perhaps less schooling, not more, might be the answer. Do we really need to treat kids like disposable flash drives? Do we really need to fill their heads with random crap like the periodic table, Snell’s law and twelve times seven? Do they really need to know what’s the latent point of ice? Does it really matter if they believe “deciduous” is what’s left behind after you’ve made a decision? Do we really need to burn some six hours per day per student for a period of some twelve years– 30,000 hours per life– to teach stuff they’ll need rarely, apply incompetently, and forget rapidly?

If we want students to be curious, independent, rational and decent human beings, then a good first step might be to find and encourage teachers who are those very things. And a good second step would be not to take the first one too seriously. There’s that scene in Fast Times At Ridgemont High where Jeff Spicoli, the stoned surfer kid, has pizza delivered in Mr. Hand’s class:

Mr. Hand: Am I hallucinating here? Just what in the hell do you think you’re doing?
Jeff Spicoli: Learning about Cuba, and having some food.

Spicoli may be an academic failure, the kind of kid NCLB is determined, blast them, not to leave behind. But for me, trapped as I was in a Dante-inspired hell-hole of an Indian school, Spicoli’s chutzpah, fearless attitude toward authority, self-sufficiency and awareness of the things that made him happy, represented the quintessence of what an American education was all about.

March 27, 2010

Out, damn Sprout

Filed under: Business,Technology,Web/Tech — anilm @ 6:09 am

Sprout Inc has a cloud-based tool that can be used to build flash-based “rich internet applications.” A tie-up with Gigya allows these thingamajigs to be shared and tracked over the web. It’s a neat tool and a neat idea. People looking for lost pets, entrepreneurs selling T-shirts, artists promoting their work, social orgs trying to raise funds, and anyone and everyone with a message and a menu quickly began sprouting all over the place. Best of all, it was free. Later on it became less free. In fact, Sprout Inc began to charge the early adopters about nineteen free dollars per month. I had been one of the early adopters. I didn’t mind the monthly bleeding because the tool delivered value. I built a sprout to promote the IIT-K workshop in 2009. Then I built one to promote my novel The Beast With Nine Billion Feet. It can still be seen on my home page. But not for long.

A few weeks back, Sprout Inc sent me a Dear John letter:

“One of the toughest decisions that a start-up faces is where to focus its efforts and resources. Sprout Builder was our first product and has always been near and dear to our hearts. More importantly, we value the customers who have gotten us to where we are today. However…”

However, kiss our ass. Or words to that effect. Sprout Inc. has decided, it seems, to “focus on our enterprise product lines.” Individual accounts would now cost $3,000 per year. Opt out and everybody who’d helped spread your sprout would see an empty space on their pages. Sprout Inc called this “sunsetting the SproutBuilder.” Early adopters, poor artists, orphaned children, lost pets etc. were all to be turned out into the dying light. Night had fallen, the orcs were on their way, and so sad, so sad. It was all very sad, terribly sad, and no one was sadder than Sprout Inc. I’ve never seen Gmail cry, and believe me, it’s an unnerving sight.

Sprout Inc.’s decision shows every sign of a Mr. Gekko behind the scenes. There is a Mr. Gekko behind the scenes of course. Several of them, no doubt. By now, the original founder is probably nothing more than a living writing desk for the firm’s venture capitalists. VCs, unlike business people, are pragmatists. VCs typically don’t like tools; they like products. VCs typically don’t understand people, social media, long tails, the power of free and all that crap; they understand enterprises. And they definitely don’t care how a story began; they only care how it ends. Here they see it ending in an IPO and an interview with Maria Bartiromo of CNBC, or La Belle Pout Sans Mercy, as she’s known on Wall Street.

Sprout Inc could have done the classy thing and kept the old accounts alive. It doesn’t cost much to store a few flash files per user. What it would gained in good will would have more than offset the few gigabytes of storage. I imagine people would have been happy as long as they didn’t lose the work they had already created. Well, fcuk you too, Sprout.

At first I worried. I was raised by UNIX. Our tribe prefers not to pay for software. There was no way I could square Mr. Gekko’ new prices with my conscience. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. RIA tools, like SproutBuilder, are fast becoming a commodity. And with the release of Adobe’s AIR platform last year, Sprout Inc can soon expect to have nothing more than first-mover’s advantage. Already, there are plenty of alternatives. There’s SlideRocket. The company seems to think it’s in the slide-making business and it too is cloud-based, but there’s a standalone version and the you don’t have to make slides. Sliderocket also allows you to export your work, something Sprout Inc deliberately decided not to let their clients do. There’s Adobe’s Flash Catalyst. It is expensive (~$700), but then again, it’s not $3,000/year. Nor is it cloud-based. There’s Wix, designed, as far as I can tell, for and by clowns. But such a company will never go IPO, so users are probably be safe for another year before the org runs through its venture capital. And finally, there’s SwishMax, a sort of poorer cousin to Adobe. It’s a standalone tool, the learning curve is not too steep (~1 week, a few eeks), and it’s a lot more powerful than SproutBuilder. It took me about a week to replicate my widget in SwishMax, and the results are, well, here:

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