Saturday, April 24, 2010

Keep your lid on

Let’s say it all together now: Eyjafjallajökull! Oh, do you not know how?

The volcano under the eponymous Icelandic glacier began to erupt at about the same time as the whole Shashi Tharoon-Lalit Modi-IPL thing, though with less intensity. From India, the 15,000ft-33,000ft ash plume was almost totally eclipsed by our own cash plume. But those of us who view the IPL as any other crooked business venture, and Shashi Tharoor as any other slippery politician, have been much more interested in the volcano.

And for us, the big question of the last many days has been: How do you even say that word? Eyjafjallajökull, which in the local language means “A hundred thousand cancelled flights later you still won’t be able to pronounce this”, is wreaking havoc with the aviation industry, and with newscasters around the world whose tongues now loll, limp and useless, from the effort of trying to say it several times a day. This greatly amuses Icelanders, who themselves breezily ignore half the letters, stick in some unscheduled ‘t’s, and then pronounce them ‘d’. You can listen to them say it right here; as far as I can make out, it’s Ay-a-fadla-yo-kudl. The rest of the clip is devoted to making fun of how everyone else says it.

I can’t begrudge them a few giggles, though. They haven’t had the best couple of years, what with everyone looking crossly at them because of how much they owe the world, and now for busting up travel plans and bankrupting airlines, as if they’re responsible for the behaviour of their volcanoes. (It doesn’t, however, look good that Reykjavik has sunny skies and that all flights between Iceland and the non-European world are right on schedule.)

Things could get worse: scientists say that not only could this volcano keep burping fire for weeks or months, but apparently Eyjafjallajökull’s explosions tend to trigger the neighbouring, much fiercer Katla volcano. Connected to the same magma chain is Laki—and the last eruption of that one, in 1783, has been blamed for effects as far-reaching as the French Revolution (volcanic gases change patterns, crop production falls in Europe, peasants run amok). Global warming is likely to increase both volcanic eruptions and their intensity. But figuring all this out is not going to be easy; GNS Science, a New Zealand research organisation, wanted to send a scientist to study Eyjafjallajökull, but he couldn’t get a flight to Europe.

But really, everyone should just suck it up. I don’t care if I never go to Europe again, as long as they wait for it to be safe to fly. All the people yelling about the lack of crisis coordination and demanding their high-tech, high-speed lives back should take a quick refresher on the ‘Jakarta incident’ of 1982, when a British Airways Boeing flew into the ash plume of Mt Galunggung near the Indonesian capital and lost all four of its engines. The crew took the plane into a nosedive to prevent oxygen-starvation, and upon exiting the ash cloud were able to restart their engines, but had to land without their instruments and more or less blind. The whole thing was, as the captain memorably described it, “a bit like negotiating one’s way up a badger’s arse.”

If that sounds like fun, go ahead and blow your top agitating for flights to resume asap. But it might be much more fun to sit around on a boat, or in a train or car, and use the time to look at photographs or film clips of volcanic eruptions, because they’re truly spectacular events.

And maybe practice how to say Eyjafjallajökull.

And the winner is...

There I was, a complete wreck, heart sprinting, palms slightly clammy, stomach somersaulting, trying not to let it show as the moderator invited the guest of honour up to the podium to announce the winner. Television cameras panned the hall, and everyone was dressed to the nines. I can’t remember the last time I was that nervous. Who would it be?

I think my stomach actually climbed out of my mouth and tried to make its way down my chin when the minister opened the envelope. And when he leaned into the mike, and declared the name of the winner, my heart jolted painfully—in empathy for the winner and for all the candidates who didn’t make it.

If, like me, you had attended a fair number of the panel discussions and book readings that preceded the announcement of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in Delhi on April 12, you may well have been in the same state of nerves as I was. If there’s anyone more opinionated than a writer, it is a reader, each of us constituting little juries of one, handing down kangaroo court-style verdicts. But attending these sessions, talking to the authors and getting a sense of their books served only to interest me in all of them, and thoroughly confuse me.

I knew Rana Dasgupta’s Solo (eventual winner of the Best Book award), to be fully deserving of a prize because I’d read it; but then I began to think that so, for instance, might Michael Crummey’s Galore, which draws on the rich folklore of his native Newfoundland—a place that was largely illiterate until a generation ago, when the island joined Canada. Newfoundlanders still speak the medieval settlers’ English that has long died out in Europe.

I was equally drawn to The Adventures of Vela by the Samoan writer Albert Wendt, who also uses the ancient mythology of his country. His 280-page book, about a long-lived character who tells his story to a younger Samoan, is written entirely in verse. “I started this book in the 1970s,” Wendt said, “I’ve spent most of my life writing it.” Then there’s The Double Crown, by the South African writer Marie Heese, about the extraordinary Hatshepsut of ancient Egypt, who proclaimed herself Pharaoh and ruled for twenty years, fending off all contenders to the throne. What’s not to love about that?

I knew Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders to be prize-worthy because I’ve read it, but it’s quite possible that I would have awarded it to Siddon Rock by Australian Glenda Guest, which eventually won the Best First Book award, or to the Under This Unbroken Sky by Canadian writer and filmmaker Shandi Mitchell, who is the first person in her blue-collar family to have gone to college. I know I’m dying to read I Do Not Come to You By Chance by the young Nigerian writer Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, about the well-established tradition of 419 email scams originating from that country.

The judges, at one of the panel discussions, had talked passionately about how hard it is to award consensus-based prizes from a cache of excellent books. I don’t envy them their job; and some of their faces, after the award ceremony, reflected an agonised sympathy for the authors who did not walk away with the big cheque.

The debate over whether the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize is an antiquated concept with insidious political undertones leaves me about as cold as the idea of having tea with the Queen, which is what the winner traditionally does. We’re all aware that the sun set on a certain nameless Empire some time ago, so I’m over the politics of it. As long as we keep being introduced to the writers of good books, I’m all for some of them also getting large cheques.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Red, red whine

When the revolution comes, you’ll be first against the wall. Yes, you. You with this newspaper in your grubby capitalist hands, or this article scrolling down a screen made entirely from the underpaid sweat of the masses, I’m talking to you. You’ll be standing against the wall with an array of very unfriendly bits of technology aimed at your exploitative head. And I’m afraid that all I have to say to you is: See you there! I’ll be the one standing right next to you, wishing that I’d spent my tragically curtailed life eating more Nutella, and not even bothered with this running regimen because I swear the shin splints are killing me.

I’m not saying this just because certain people who would kill me at the next family tea party if I named them, spent their twenties clutching Mao’s little red book and attending Marxist-Leninist study circles. I’m saying it because these same people ran into the phone booth of their thirties and came out miraculously transformed into the pillars of bourgeois society they had until recently so deeply reviled, so I think they deserve to be reminded that they’ll be first against the wall too. Maybe they could ask to have a last brief study circle before the shots ring out.

The other day, as I lolled about disgustingly in my greed-soaked private property, a news channel that you could barely see for all the grossly consumerist advertisements broadcast a graphic of Maoist-controlled India. This so-called ‘Red Corridor’ is currently the epicentre of a deadly conflict between Arundhati ‘Silver Doll’ Roy and people who don’t like her writing, and apparently also the site of some kind of to-do between the Maoists and the Indian security forces.

See, this is exactly the kind of crass elitist flippancy that will get me shot first. But perhaps they’ll aim to miss if I point out that I don’t actually own the title deed to this intolerable slap in the face of the proletariat of a house. Not that I would ever reveal to them who does own it, since even in the face of a hideous death I am nothing if not principled—but it doesn’t look good for her that she’s currently on a cruise vacation.

Anyway, I peered at this graphic as the news anchor spoke about the anti-Maoist Operation Green Hunt with an animation that suggests he knows he’ll be up there with you and me against the wall when the revolution comes. I peered at the graphic, and looked hard for the bits of India that aren’t Maoist-controlled. India, in this graphic, looks like a fat lady with a red sari sweeping up her body, leaving her head and shoulders, and the tips of her toes, showing. Well, that’s not good, I thought, having only recently emerged from the phone booth myself. If half the country is in armed revolt, we must be doing something wrong.

It must be admitted that the only real mystery left in India is, why hasn’t the revolution come yet? Well, here it is, maybe. I don’t envy those poor security personnel whom our oppressive state structures have sent into the forest without much training, to fight the righteous. And I can hardly breathe for all the rarified capital-intensive feudal air up here, but I imagine that life isn’t all rosy for the unwashed masses. and the chasms must be galling. I’m not at all certain that I approve of Maoist-Naxal violence, but it’s almost certain that the likes of us, in similar discomfort, would organise some pretty militant Facebook groups.

Chances are that the state will prevail. But I’m off to eat a slice of bread with Nutella, just in case.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Left brain-right brain

The other night I had a tiny little insight into how difficult the Middle East peace process must be when I had the following exchange with a friend in the car on the way to dinner. I’m paraphrasing, which should not in any way obscure the fact that I’m right and he’s wrong.

Me: I went to listen to [Egyptian writers] Ahdaf Soueif and Radwa Ashour speak about their books at the Habitat Centre the other day. Have you read Soueif’s Mezzaterra? It’s a collection of her journalism, which is largely focussed on Palestine and the Arab world. It’s not particularly non-partisan, but it’s got some interesting reporting.

Him: I have no wish to read another whining account of the poor Palestinians’ plight.

Me: Did you say whining?

Him: Israel has every right to defend themselves against those Hamas lunatics and their rockets. I’d like to see a little more media space given to their version of events.

Me: More media space to the oppressed, muzzled Jewish state? You must be joking. Besides, nobody is claiming that this book will change your mind, just that it’s interesting reading. And, by the way, the Palestinians are oppressed.

Him: The world is always willing to say that, but very few people will look at the other side of things. Israel can be a little rough, but there aren’t that many fatalities.

Me: That’s right. They considerately keep the Palestinians alive in a state of humiliation, intimidation, and dispossession.

Him: The Palestinians had a perfectly legitimate cause but they lost my respect when they elected Hamas, which won’t even recognise Israel’s right to exist.

Me: They’re willing to talk, plus, how about Palestine’s right to exist? Is it remotely possible, do you think, that Palestinians felt that Hamas was the only option left to them?

Him: You aren’t even open to the possibility that Israel may have a point. All you leftist liberal morons just grow up with one unchallenged point of view. You probably had the same view twenty years ago.

Me: Is it possible, you imbecile, that large parts of the world might sympathise with the Palestinians because they have considered the situation and reached that conclusion, rather than because they were force-fed that view along with their mother’s milk?

Him: You’re bone-headedly bringing up this book as if it’s going to change my mind. At the end of the day, it’s a belief gap.

Me: I have no interest in influencing your bird brain in any way. It just happens to be a good book. If you don’t want to read it, don’t. No skin off my nose.

Him: Oh the poor oppressed Palestinians! They have eighteen checkpoints!

Me: Oh the poor insecure Israelis! They’re armed to the teeth with the world’s superpower at their back!

Him: Whiner.

Me: Fascist.

Him: Okay, we can’t talk about this.

Me: No, because you’re not willing to listen.

Him: You’re the one who won’t listen because you’re too busy parroting the leftist view.

Me: All right, let’s not talk about this. I can’t bear it.

Him: Fine.

Me: Fine.

[Long pause.]

Him: Ninny.

Me: Nitwit.

And we actually like to talk to each other.