Friday, February 12, 2016

The Tribes on My Frontier by E. H. Aitken


I have found non-fiction much lighter to read in the past few months than fiction, the best of which is too absorbing, dense and intricate. I was delighted to find this gem in the library, a book called Zoo in the Garden which comprised two of the most popular books by E.H. Aitken. EHA was born in Bombay and was one of the founding members of the Bombay Natural History Society or BNHS, a giant name on the biodiversity research and conservation front in India.

The Tribes on My Frontier is set in what is named Dustypore, which could just about any place in India. Every chapter of the book is dedicated to the little and big creatures which inhabit EHA's home and surroundings, be it rats, frogs, birds, even pet fowl, butterflies, mosquitoes (the pride of India!) or some larger mammals. He offers humorous character sketches of the animals, along with factual details wherever required. The book is written in the most disciplined manner. EHA strikes out many common myths people have about animals and pests. For instance, the stinky Asian house shrew is a harmless shelter-seeker is often mistaken for the rat which causes all the trouble in houses. (I had no idea!) EHA has the eye of a naturalist and the words of a poet. And the combination gives you a book of science like few others, one that appeals to both the mind and the heart.

I have never understood how particular books could be more suited for certain places. With The Tribes on My Frontier, the idea makes sense. This is an excellent book to read outdoors. I read it in an afternoon on a bench outside the library. As I sat there, I was alarmed by the sudden and conspicuous appearance of all these tiny tribes engaged in their daily business about me. Crows cawing their lungs out, an occasional bulbul, little black ants scurrying across the ground, tiny beetles, the twitter of many other birds, some I recognized. It was just fabulous. Now, I am fairly naturally-inclined, so I generally notice the odd squirrel on the tree and the tiny butterflies and bugs people miss. But even I was not prepared for this rush of activity. Of course, the book only foregrounded what was hidden in plain sight. Post reading The Tribes on My Frontier, I have noticed so much more life around me, it's wonderful.

EHA speaks about animals with the very tenderness that I found lacking in my recent read of The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali. It may be a simple reflection of a "gentleman's upbringing" as opposed to Ali's slightly more unscrupulous childhood. But it is still curious how two people brought up in the same city, who ended up in the exact same field, the same Bombay Natural History Society, though years apart, viewed their work in such contrasting ways. EHA here makes the same distinction that Ali makes between killing specimens and hunting for sport - only he does it better. He condemns taking life for no purpose and claims that his curiosity is not only to study fellow creatures but to form an acquaintance with them. My personal bias finds EHA's warmth more readily likeable than Ali's defence for hunting and the strictly scientific interest.

At times EHA sounds far too imperial and I can't help my immediate throwing-up-of-defenses in such cases. There are other moments too where I do not quite see eye to eye with him. There is a whole chapter on how insufferable he finds frogs. I would be reluctant to, say, kiss a frog, but I do find them kind of cute. That said, EHA's distaste stems from an incident which he does mention. The tone of the book borders on pompous but I, for one, am fond of that funny stiff-upper-lip P.G. Wodehouse-y writing style. A favourite passage coolly describes the various ways in which spiders murder their victims, but I'd rather not throw that at you out of context. Here is a taste of something different, not my favourite, but more brooding -

Bats have one lovely virtue, and that is family affection. I shall never forget a captive family of demon bats I once saw, the grim papa, the mother perhaps a trifle more hideous, and the half-grown youngster, not quite able yet to provide for himself. There was something very touching in the tender attachment to one another of three such ill-omened objects. Fruit-bats, too, when they go foraging, never leave the baby at home. 

A friend of mine has communicated to me, for insertion here, a very affecting story of a bat which he found, prostrate and bleeding, with a mob of dastardly crows seeking its life. Running to the rescue, he lifted it up, and discovered, under its wings, a helpless little infant, which it was vainly trying to save from its ruthless prosecutors. The pathos of the story comes to a head at the point where my humane friend, putting his hand into his trousers pocket, draws out two annas and gives them to a native lad, charging him to protect the poor creature and take it to a place of safety. No one who has any respect for his own feelings will press the matter further, and inquire what the native did when he had received the two annas and my humane friend was gone.

As I fluttered through the pages looking for this, I kept finding more and more quotable quotes and now I want to read it all over again. That should tell you something. Here is another bit and then I'm done -

I have seen a posse of ladies almost disappear into raptures over a 'quite too awfully delicious' specimen of a Christmas card, and I was constrained to add some corroborative ejaculations with a tepid effort at enthusiasm; but who would put the prettiest conception in which art ever dressed a Christmas greeting beside that exquisite little butterfly which at this season flits over the barren plains of the Deccan, whose wings of velvet black and intense blue are bordered with peacock eyes of the richest red? And every day thousands of them are born and perish; for, like the bouquet on your table, these little decorations are being constantly renewed, so that they may ever be fresh and bright, and the old ones, before they have time to fade, are case away. Few of them live much over a week.

He then goes on to say how butterflies are more than just art, their peculiar characteristics and how they have adapted to survive their tiny lives. And now, as promised, I'm done!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

For the love of writing

I miss my book club. A lot of people I know like to write and love to read. But there is something special about those who make time for it on the one free day of the week. My home town was a fairly culturally-active place. I have been missing that sense of intellectual stimulation in this new city, not because of a lack of it, but because I have hardly ventured out of the daily humdrum of the university. This past week was rather stressful for a number of reasons and I really needed that strangers-geeking-out-over-books feeling again. So I tracked down the next best thing, a writing club that was worth it.

As part of today's activities, I wrote and read out two things that, if not anything else, at least helped get my entirely dried up creativity flowing again. For one, I enjoyed writing in an actual notebook as opposed to the laptop, I think the pen and paper awakened a new side of me. (The picture is sad, my scrawl does the Moleskine no justice.) I wanted to post edited versions of both stories and make it a regular thing, if, that is, I attend more of the meetups. I will explain the prompts at the end of each story. Ideally, it should stand alone. 

1. Untitled

It was a quiet morning. Mary took her usual route to school, but not without an uncanny worry. She felt as if her shadow had been cut away. At school, the children prodded her, "What is wrong, Mary?" The teachers wondered, "Why do you look so forlorn, Mary?" But their probing went unanswered.

Mary walked back home alone, her heart heavy, her mind in a dark place. "But why!" she asked herself, "but where!" At dinner too, Mary was awfully quiet, gulping down her food, stray tears in her eyes, until Mother asked, a mask of concern, "What is wrong, dear Mary, whatever is wrong now?" It is nothing, she replied in quiet voice. "I thought you would be happy today," said Mother, "considering how Father took care of that wretched lamb." 

"What do you mean?" Mary looked up. "The silly thing that has been following you around everywhere, what a nuisance. Your teachers gave us a call, you know." "What did Father do?" Mary's voice quivered. "Why, we just had it for dinner last night."

Prompt: Pick a nursery rhyme and kill the main character. People wrote some really good things! Mine turned out weird, and you sort of see it coming. But it was the best I could do in ten minutes. Plots are not my turf. It was a cool warm-up though, for what was to follow.

2. Blinded

The flesh burned slowly and the night air grew thick with the stench. "Only one more left." The man whispered to himself, "God forgive me, dear Lord, please forgive me." He dragged the final corpse to the fire, a single high flame. He cut out the heart and threw it in. It sizzled and crackled. The man shut his eyes and crept away from the fire. He began to chant. Something in the forest came alive at his words, the wind rustled and the trees shivered. The man held out his hands beckoning the nether spirits to this world. Goosebumps flowered on every inch of his body, but he stood still. 

For a moment nothing happened. Then the air changed as something stirred to life. Had the man opened his eyes, he would have seen the fire turn crimson and then black. He did not, but he did feel a presence. The wind curled around his fingers and squeezed. A lump built in his throat. The man dared not open his eyes. Sight, the scriptures say, is the pathway to the soul. One look and a nether creature could eat you alive, but there was no other way. He needed them.

"You are here," he finally whispered, and the wind howled back a yes. "I need help," said the man, "I need you so much." A throaty chill reverberated through the forest air, and in his mind, the man heard an echo. "We can help you, Julian Wyllen. We are here to help. You have served us and we are here to help." "Oh, thank the Lord, thank you, God." Julian whispered, and the chill replied, "Not the Lord." The forest laughed, as the man fumbled with the cross on his neck. His heart thudded in quiet desperation.

"Do you have her," he finally said, "I want her back. I need her back." The air around his fingers was fluid now, almost liquid, hard and smooth. It curled around his hand and squeezed again, a tiny icy grip. The breath left his body. "Is she here?" Julian asked the forest. "Yes, father. I'm right here," came a quiet voice from outside his head. A real voice. "Anne?" the man whispered and clutched at the liquid air around his fingers. It hardened and softened and moulded in his hand. Skin to skin. "Oh my Annie," the man turned to her, then stiffened. The little hand had dissolved into air. The wind thundered with laughter.

The cold voice echoed in his thoughts, "Not so soon, Julian Wyllen. We offer no gifts. What have you for us?" Anything you want, the man said to himself, I shall give you anything you want. "A life in exchange for another," replied the forest that was his mind. "Open your eyes. Look at us. Look at what you worship. And look at what we have brought you. Once done, she cannot be undone. What have you to lose." "Nothing," said the man. He had worked towards this moment, waited for his girl, for ten years. He had sacrificed everything. Now he would give up the only thing he had left. "Forgive me, Lord," he whispered and opened his eyes.

The first thing Julian saw was the black fire. For a moment he was enraptured, then his focus shifted and he shouted, "Anne, Annie, my darling." Julian spun around, bending down to hug her, when his mind caught up with his senses. It was dark, but even in the dull gloom he could see the cracks in her eyes. He cringed. She was a pale thing, the face as beautiful as he remembered, but it held no depth. "Oh Lord," he gasped and gulped, and she opened her mouth. A rasping voice emerged from the pretty lips, "Thank you. You, Julian Wyllen, have served us and given us life. We shall remain grateful." The wind howled through the forest. Then the voice changed. "Goodbye," Anne cooed, as her face twisted into a smile. It was the last thing Julian Wyllen ever saw.

Prompt: This again requires a lot of reworking. I have edited it considerably since I returned home, but I stuck to the first idea I had. Forty minutes are too little to pen a story for me. The activity, however, was still interesting. We picked four books each for the character name, setting, mood and plot. My selections were Julian from Famous Five, a forest from the first page of Eragon, the emotion was distaste, though I forget the book, and the action was a passive waiting. 

Our titles came from a list of cocktails, randomly assigned. My pick was Blind Abbot. I did not directly use it as the title of the story, but I did heavily incorporate it into the theme. Google brings up a nice description for the drink, of coffee liqueur, cinnamon syrup, Irish whiskey, froth and cream, which if I did drink, I might even have liked. Then again, the cocktail has no relevance here, I decided to use the more ecclesiastic meaning of abbot. 

For a first attempt, the whole exercise went quite well. Even if I do a little of this every week, I think I will stay happily in touch with writing. Meanwhile, I would love to know what you think. Are you part of any book or writing clubs, virtual or otherwise? Do you find it helpful?

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali

The other day I read that they named a Himalayan thrush after Dr. Salim Ali, the 'Bird Man of India.' The better part of my childhood was spent cultivating a happy interest in birding. The interest still lingers, but it has been long since it has greeted the break of dawn and the flutter of the early risers. I remember one of the nature camps I attended when I was about eight. One of the introductory activities was talking about a topic you were assigned. My piece of paper had said, 'Salim Ali,' and I had been all ready - speaking not only about his contribution to birding, but cool stray facts, like his love for motorcycles. 

Salim Ali is a name that even the most amateur Indian bird-watchers have heard of. It is the name on the book most of us lug around on our weekend expeditions, tucked away between a bottle of water and a pair of binoculars. And with the name goes a skeleton of a creation-story - of a little boy who shot a sparrow, only to discover on closer inspection that it was not the usual sparrow at all. It had a yellow throat. The first spark of curiosity stoked a fire of passion within that boy who would grow up to be India's greatest ornithologist. This book is about that first sparrow and the ordinary boy from Bombay who carved himself an extraordinary life. The Fall of a Sparrow is Dr. Ali's autobiography.

There is much to be said about Ali's rigorous effort, his attention to detail, his broad goals and the impeccable vision that made him bring leaping reform to the way birds were studied in India. The perfect demonstration of his skill and dedication comes through in how he organized and carried out the Hyderabad State Ornithological Survey. It is impossible to mention all his work in one review, but suffice to say, it leaves you  awed and inspired. 

An India Today review calls it "a story of the evolution of a bird hunter into a bird watcher." That implies some sort of redemption which is far from the truth. One of the crucial aspects of this book is his unique perspective on conservation. Ali condemned the encouraging 'ahinsa' approach to wildlife conservation, which he considered akin to protesting the slaughter of the holy cow. Appealing to the religious sentiment in the effort to conservation was to him misguided and futile. He was not religious or spiritual. His love for animals was not of a sentimental variety, rather scientific and aesthetic. 

Towards the end of the book is an interesting chapter titled Scientific Ornithology and Shikar. Ali's life work involved him killing and stuffing hundreds and thousands of bird "specimens" with innovative entrapments that he describes in the book. His methods of bird-study may seem cruel to a modern reader but they paved the way for decades of ground-breaking research in ornithology. Had it not been for his methodical study, we would not have had the knowledge we use for conservation today.

But more than that, ever since he was a child, Salim Ali loved hunting as a sport. The yellow-throated sparrow he shot was one among many of his sport killings. He was a frequent big game hunter and a sworn meat-eater. In the epilogue, Ali lists the differences between a sport hunter and a poacher. The etiquette of a sportsman, he says, prescribes:
1. no shooting in the breeding season
2. sparing the young and females
3. keeping within the bag limits
4. no shooting at night with blinding lights
5. no shooting at waterholes 
These methods are employed by poachers for illegal activities. Ali goes even so far as to state that the presence of a legitimate professional shooter is the most effective deterrent to the poacher, and criticizes the statutory ban on all hunting. An excellent perspective, but I doubt it is always as simple to draw a line between the two. Now, all this says nothing about his merit as a scientist, but the fact that he would enjoy killing helpless creatures while ignoring what he admits was the prick of conscience, is somewhat unsettling.

One surprising thing I learnt from the book is that Salim Ali was not a kind man, not in the conventional sense. The age old saying goes, you can judge a man by how he treats animals or servants. Salim Ali performs poorly on both counts. Example 1: He once got a servant harshly beaten for alerting him not to take pictures of a religious establishment. Example 2: On a trek in the Himalayas, Ali came across a lost pilgrim family. When they asked Ali for help, he refused, with what was some truly derisive humour, because they should have known better what they were getting into. Example 3: Ali mentions a stray dog who would sneak into his house and mess up his field notes, till Ali shot him dead, "with no regret whatsoever."

Mean old man, that would be my verdict, if I didn't know who I was talking about. But you or me judging him for things like these, in the wide picture, does not amount to much. If not a nice one, he did seem to have a big personality. Most of this book is interactions with people he made acquaintance with over the years. And what a large social circle he had, in spite of that mean streak. (I am not flinging accusations. An article by his grandson calls him ill-tempered. And one by a younger colleague narrates that even in company if he got bored of a topic, he would simply take out his hearing aid.)

He did not let politics affect his relations with either his Indian friends or the English. British India from his perspective is fascinating. He talks about Sarojini Naidu's sense of humour and how she would refer to Gandhiji as Mickey Mouse, which he accepted as a compliment "with lighthearted toothless gaiety." A whole chapter is dedicated to his favourite brother who was a District Magistrate. And another to Loke Wan Tho, a Singaporean businessman-turned-ornithologist who might well be the most interesting person in the book. Ali proudly mentions how Nehru gifted his book to Indira Gandhi, who recommended it to a US Senator, who then nominated Ali for an award that is like the Nobel prize for ornithologists. Needless to say, he won it. He talks about his achievements with an almost surprised pride, which makes him sound astonishingly humble.

Even as I write this review, I am reminded of a quote I keep quoting from The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, about how writers can be wholly different from their books. This is not exactly the same, but even so, it is a case of discovering what your childhood hero was really like, stacking achievements alongside failings, and loving him for all of them. A crazy, beautiful read - is how I would sum it up. The Fall of a Sparrow has been on my wishlist for a long while and it was entirely worth my time. 

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich

My spoken Hindi is shaky at best. But I can read Hindi fairly fluently, one reason being that it shares its script, called Devanagari, with my mother tongue. A little detail I love about the cover of Dreaming in Hindi is how the title of the book is fashioned to look like Devanagari, squiggly letters with a line running across the top.

One of the harder aspects of learning Hindi for an English-native must be this script, which unlike English, is perfectly phonetic and has no letters for vowels. We add additional markers on each consonant letter for any following vowel sounds and consonant clusters. So the name Priya consists only of two letters (प्रि and या) in Hindi - a fact that must take a while to wrap your head around. We in turn find it difficult to make sense of all the vocalic variations in English and spend long hours scratching our heads over why the word lose sounds no different from loose... I digress.

Dreaming in Hindi: Coming Awake in Another Language by Katherine Russell Rich is a book for language lovers by a language learner. Which makes it basically, very subjectively, the best kind of book. Having recovered from a long cancer treatment, American journalist Kathy Rich finds herself wanting to escape. And in what I have been told is a rather Eat, Pray, Love-esque way, sets out to remote India on a freelance writing assignment. A Hindi learning course takes her to Udaipur, a small city in the desert of Rajasthan. Kathy describes it as exactly the sort of exotic mess that the word India would bring to mind - dust and scorching heat, women in billowing sarees, lavish palaces, narrow streets, and minds steeped in old tradition.

Dreaming in Hindi follows Kathy's experience of learning by-immersion a strange foreign tongue, the struggle to make meaning when thrust into a new reality, the myriad misunderstandings it leads to, the peculiarities of the Hindi classroom, the cultural demands from a white woman in semi-rural India. Kathy's accounts also describe the political situation in the country, beginning with the aftermath of the 9/11 attack, which happens shortly after her arrival in India. Nearly a year later, even as she exchanges emails with her American friends about the tragedy, the India around her is cocooned in its own suffering, with many instances of communal violence leading up to the 2002 riots in Gujarat... it is a book that teaches vital lessons in empathy. 

But this is not a travelogue, Kathy never quite embraces the new. She frequently turns into a carping critic of everything Indian; not once acknowledging it as a natural result of culture shock. Many, many characters populate Kathy's accounts, much like they do the country. Kathy resorts to calling people by descriptors - the Whisperer, Dad 1, Dad 2. She mostly keeps to herself, and despite having lived in a home-stay for fairly long, leaves with hardly any insight into the middle-class Indian mind. Towards the end of the book, even as she waxes eloquent about how she misses Hindi back home, it is difficult to understand what, if anything, she actually liked about it. She is funny, I'll give her that. But her constant acerbic remarks about her peers are petty and take a while to get used to. 

The best moments are when Kathy becomes obsessed with the Bollywood movie Lekin, the time she spends volunteering at a school for the deaf and hearing impaired, learning sign languages, her doctor's visits, and her interactions with the Hindi poet Nand Chaturvedi. Such times, when she castes aside her reckless judgement or learns better, are worth it. 

Miracles are limited by place. "If you smile, you heal faster," Dr Aggarwal told the uterine cancer patient, but away from her room, in the dim scruffy hall, he said simply, "If you get cancer here, you die." And her? Too advanced, he said matter-of-factly. He brightened. "To you make a patient smile, you make them healthy," he chimed. So cruel, I thought, breathless with anger, then I saw. That's all he had. All he had were words. 

She intersperses her anecdotes with conversations and consultations she later had with various linguists, academics, pedagogues about language acquisition. It is cool how many sociolinguists cite this book as a good perspective on language learning (most recently I saw it in a book by applied-linguist Vivian Cook.) Kathy also details the most basic theories of language science and its history, throws us interesting tidbits she learns along the way - like how sign languages have dialects, or how you can be dyslexic in one language and not another, and so on... things which, as a Linguistics student, I know and have studied, but are pretty cool either way. 

And these little dollops of information are what makes Dreaming in Hindi by Katherine Russell Rich just the nicest read for anyone interested not only in contemporary India, but its language and most of all, anyone curious to know what linguistics is all about. (More specifically recommended for people who already know a bit about Indian languages.)

Foreign language studies are a rigged operation, I learned. An estimated 95 percent of students "fossilize," the linguistic term for hardening at a certain level. Ninety-five! So accent's a given, perfection's impossible, and odds are you're on your way to becoming a linguistic fossil: good work. At some point, then, the question has to become, Why would you even try?

In Hindi, you drink a cigarette, night spreads, you eat a beating. You eat the sun. "Dhoop khana?" I asked Gabriella Ilieva, a moonlighting New York University Hindi professor, first time we hit the phrase. "Sunbathe," she said smiling. "To bask in the sun." My mind, alert for ricocheting syntax, was momentarily diverted by the poetry of idiom, the found lyricism that's the short-form answer to the question of why you'd try. 

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

I wonder if, had I known my blog would actually find readers, I would have been more stringent about what I posted. My social media presence, blog aside, does not create even a tiny ripple in the vastness of online reality, and while I often find myself idly scrolling through Facebook and Goodreads, I am happy to keep it that way. 

Recently, Amazon renewed its book review policy to apparently include weird new requirements like, you cannot be following the author you review, because fans write biased reviews. Author bullying does happen. From snarky reviews offering no constructive criticism to reviewers pursuing a vendetta. Remember Lynn Shepherd who wrote a spectacularly malicious post on how J K Rowling should stop writing? She invited equal spite on herself with it and her books were methodically bad-rated on Amazon. Perhaps the policy change is drastic, but I appreciate the effort, to stop author bullying and reviewer shaming in one go.

These were the sort of things that floated up to the surface of my mind when I started So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson. I had some knowledge of online public shaming, I felt. Who hasn't been subject to internet trolling? (Surely I must have done some myself.) Still, when I first read Denise's post about the book, I had no clue how gory the picture would get. The book is framed around a series of interviews of victims of public shaming, not to mention, both the intentional and thoughtless perpetrators of such trauma. The virtual world coolly upholds citizen justice, and Ronson, in his half-amused half-stunned tone, looks at the consequences.

Ronson starts with an anecdote about finding a Twitter profile tweeting mundane oddities in his name, actually a spambot set up by some academics who, despite his requests, refused to take it down. A humiliated Ronson orchestrated a vengeance by recording an interview with the academics, which he posted online and, as they were swallowed up in a storm of online criticism, he brought them to smacking justice. It is this first-hand experience that makes Ronson's writing powerful; he knows what he is talking about. It is a horrible read, but we must experience its horror nonetheless. The book is an intervention of sorts.

Early on, starting with the shaming of Abigail Gilpin in 1942, Ronson gives a history of public punishment in America. Of how it was practised, enjoyed, chronicled by the media; and eventually put an end to, not because it was ineffective, but because it was too brutal. He talks about LeBon's theory of group madness, notes curious stories like that of Judge Ted Poe, who was known to dole out publicly humiliating punishments to criminals instead of fines or jail time. Alongside the interesting are disturbing incidents like that of Justine Sacco's ill-advised humour and the vitriol fired at her. Read this NY Times adaptation from the book, titled "How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco's Life."

The book has quite a lot of quotes and very few paraphrases. It helps that Ronson never sounds preachy or self-important, and manages somehow to tone down the twisted with a farcical effect, without taking away from the gravity of the content. More than anything, he does a thorough job of examining the subject. I don't want to mention more examples than I already have; for more I recommend reading the book. It is accessible, thought-provoking and highly relevant.

I left the Massachusetts Historical Society, took out my phone, and asked Twitter, ‘Has Twitter become a kangaroo court?’

‘Not a kangaroo court,‘ someone replied quite tersely. ‘Twitter still can’t impose real sentences. Just commentary. Only unlike you, Jon, we aren’t paid for it.’

Was he right? It felt like a question that really needed to be answered because it didn’t seem to be crossing any of our minds to wonder whether whichever person we had just shamed was OK or in ruins. I suppose that when shamings are delivered like remotely administered drone strikes nobody needs to think about how ferocious our collective power might be. The snowflake never needs to feel responsible for the avalanche.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What Chinese Want by Tom Doctoroff

"To some, advertising executives exist at the fringes of legitimacy. We are neither hard-core business people nor scholars. We do not control the levers of capitalism nor offer academic insight. In fact, a few believe our profession is inherently corrupt, profiting from base human desires by transforming them into products pumped out of factories like processed cheese.

On self-deprecating days, however, I remind myself that advertising people exist at the intersection of commerce and culture. Our ultimate goals have always been, first, to identify fundamental motivations for behavior and preference, and second, to translate these insights into revenue-generating consumer propositions. No matter what the product category or target demographic, insight and profit margin are inextricably linked. In order to transform a mouse into Mickey Mouse, we must be both amateur cultural anthropologists and unaccredited psychologists."

I really like this book. It popped out to me in the Economics section at the university library, and in spite of its being so different from my usual reads (or possibly because) I picked it up at once. The introduction by Martin Sorrell and Doctoroff's utterly unassuming conversational tone of writing meant it immediately appealed to me.

Tom Doctoroff is the CEO of J. Walter Thompson Asia Pacific. Based for more than a decade in China, he is considered a leading expert in Chinese consumer psychology. What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism, and China's Modern Consumer by Tom Doctoroff, reads the cover, with a blurb from Fortune that calls it "an invaluable primer on the culture and buying patterns of the Chinese." It is a major plus that Doctoroff does not require the reader to be informed about China. To the curious, the book will provide dollops of facts and insight.

The book strives to be all encompassing and falls prey to some sweeping generalizations about the Chinese masses. But if taken with a pinch of salt, it sheds light on every tiny aspect of the Chinese psyche. What makes Chinese people tick?, Doctoroff wonders aloud. Their aspirations and expectations from life in contrast to the West, their history and how it has shaped them - the cultural insecurity, the obsession with brands, the stern hierarchy and lack of political flexibility, the anti-individualism - Doctoroff examines the effect each of these has on innovation in the Chinese context. He accompanies his observations and advice with stories of Western corporations that succeeded and failed in attuning to the Chinese interest and of local successes. 

Some interesting chapters, ones that I have already revisited more than a couple of times, are The Chinese Boardroom: Face and Fear, Illegal DVDs: Why Piracy Is Here To Stay, Barbie, Starbucks and Cofco: An Introduction to Chinese Consumerism and Car-Crazy China: Where Ego and Anxiety Collide. My favourite chapters belong to Part 4: Chinese Society. Here Doctoroff becomes more candid, describing some of his colleagues, his visit to the Shanghai Zoo, the Chinese Christmas. China is one, perhaps the only, culture which has remained unapologetically itself over the years, through globalization and advancement. He attempts to explain why. Here, it is strikingly evident that though often critical of its worldview, pointedly frank about its failings, Doctoroff is fond of China. He shows no scruples about being the master manipulator his industry requires him to be, but even so, he respects the Chinese, with all their stubborn foreignness. 

Joy in the corners: Happiness persists. The Chinese, despite limited means and honed self-protective instincts, are happy. The flip side of an insecurity-based worldview is an appreciation of minutiae. The con brio vigor of chess wars, muted by the buzz of gossip, is a delight. New York fireworks elicit howls of laughter. The morning bun hawker derives satisfaction from each sale. Old men take pride in their pet turtles. Every door is surrounded by plants, a sign of emotional investment in one's abode. Weddings are a joyful community affair. Neighbors unfold lawn chairs to relax, often in pajamas, and watch the world go by. 

In an epilogue, Doctoroff quotes himself from another book,

"The Chinese are, simply put, the most striving, ambitious yet clear-eyed people on the planet and that counts for a lot. They are pragmatic, yet human, wary yet hopeful, patient yet quick to respond. They are the hope of their future. I'm betting on them." 

Doctoroff has an odd writing style, an uncertain mix of corporate bullet points and bold titles and faux-academic droning on. Some sections looked more like powerpoint presentations than I like my books. A few more anecdotes would have done the book some good; it is obvious that Doctoroff has many unique little experiences in China, it is unclear why he has used his first-hand examples so sparingly. Instead, he gives the same lesson over and over with slight modifications, like a well-meaning school teacher trying to ram it into our heads. "And what was it I said before, class?" "The Chinese are obsessed with brands and status!" "Why yes, now let's repeat that, on the count of three..." The book could have been cut down to half its size. That is the one complaint I have.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig


The picture does not do these books justice, the light is wonky. They are much prettier. I got a great deal from a book sale on campus (for those to whom its relevant, hosted by Best Book Centre, Hyderabad - 'a unique shop for old and out of print books.')

I have been reading the first of the two collections by Stefan Zweig, Kaleidoscope One, for the past couple of days. It has some excellent stories. My favourite so far has been The Burning Secret. On the face of it, the plot is rather straightforward: it is a coming-of-age story of a young boy grappling with the drama of his mother's love affair.

Baron Otto von Sternfeldt, Zweig describes, is popular and sociable; in the absence of company, he is lifeless, like a match unlighted in a box. The impression he gives is that of a narcissistic young ladies' man. On his vacation in a hotel in the middle of nowhere, the Baron comes upon a Jewish woman. She is on holiday with her son, Edgar, who has been ill and needs the time away to recover. The Baron is immediately struck by her beauty and ready for the hunt. Upon observing the woman fawn over her awkward little boy, the Baron devises a plan to befriend young Edgar and use him to woo his mother.

Over the coming days, the flustered boy gets caught up in the game spun by the adults who seem wholly oblivious to his plight. As the Baron's attention shifts from the boy to his real target, the mother, Edgar begins to wonder what he did to deserve being cast aside by his new friend. He wonders what secret the Baron and his mother are concocting and resolves to get to the bottom of it.

Zweig takes a simple story and spins so much intrigue into it. He exposes the innermost secrets of the mind, fleshes his characters in such a manner that each is a complex interweaving of different shades. And he wisely refuses to pick sides, such that you feel empathy for everyone involved, even the cunning fox of a Baron. Frau Blumenthal, for instance, is first a strong mother, then a lady basking in the rare attention of a gentleman; for a flickering second she enjoys her newfound seductive charm and at the next moment, resumes the role of an old woman caught in an unhappy marriage. But it is the apt portrayal of the perspective of the puzzled twelve year old that takes the win in this lurid psychological mystery.

He, too, had his secret. His secret was hate, a great hate for the two of them. 

The tumult of Edgar’s conflicting emotions subsided into one smooth, clear feeling of hate and open hostility, concentrated and unadulterated. Now that he was certain of being in their way, the imposition of his presence upon them gave him a voluptuous satisfaction. Always accompanying them with the compressed strength of his enmity, he would goad them into madness. He gloated over the thought.

Apparently there is a film adaptation of this story. I cannot imagine what a screenplay would do to Zweig's commanding voice and turns of phrase but I doubt the story will stay as powerful on screen. Zweig has masterfully controlled the play of emotions in a drastic tale that with any other writer could turn mawkish. This may not be Zweig's most famous or best work, but the collection is worth your time.

Read The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig online here.

P.S. Notice the new url of the blog, I have finally changed the extremely complex Gilderoy Lockhart spell to a simple www.tabularasabookblog.com. I still haven't quite figured out how to get the site to work without the 'www', so any help will be greatly appreciated.