Saturday, January 20, 2018

Two books

The cover glows in the dark
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

A twenty-four year old in San Fran, detritus of the great layoff of 2008, finds a job as a night clerk at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, and in its eponymous novel, thence the adventures begin. If you have read the blurb or other reviews, you probably know that the bookstore is really a front for a cultish society devoted to deciphering a centuries-old code that is supposed to hold the key to life, the universe and everything. Books are by the way – it is book making and decoding that take centre-stage; this is a story for the millennial age, where Google and Young Adult Fantasy fiction jostle for page-space with a brilliant exposition on how the brand new world works. It is the story of a world where networking and crowd sourcing intersects with individual brilliance, where unbounded ambition and confidence mixes with sweet humility (oh please produce a Hadoop will you!), where nothing is done because one ought to, but where all (after a fashion) is achieved because one wants it. ‘It’ is whatever takes one’s fancy – delving into typeface, locating a corporate building from a logo, building mini cities in living rooms, or climbing walls in bookstores. It is in a way, a show of youth when everything is within grasp, (and nothing is at stake?), when the best of us is (was) on display.

Someone said that most books fall within two categories – the siege book or the quest book. This book is undoubtedly about a quest, and there is a magical and celebratory quality to it, which is refreshing in our gloomy world of hard and gritty writing. People are in general nice and delineated by flaws in perspective rather than character. The protagonist is one of the most lovely, sorted individuals I have met on a printed page, who ever got to tell a novel. Oldies are benign and women have none of the angst and general PTSD that I have been reading of lately- in fact young women are represented as almost otherworldly, be it Ashley the android or super-powerful Kate Potente. Very interesting and new age. (There is a boys and their toys aspect to the novel, but I will gloss over it).

You have guessed it – I am a woman skidding to her fifties, who gets off on Dostoevsky and Austen. Give me the siege novels that I can brood on forever, the human condition in full detailed horror interests me and if I do not get that in books, I trawl confessional posts on Facebook groups for Moms and “Human interest” stories on Wapo. I loved Douglas Adams for his humour and imagination but I associate his books with a different time, and how they helped me connect with guys, really. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore takes me back to that time in my life but half immerses me there – there is the millennial age realistic piece, like I said, which only sort of grabs me.


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[This piece was typed on MS Word using the Cambria (Body) Font. It was then transferred to my blog dashboard in Trebuchet in order to obtain the Garamond typeface on the Blog for when I (and you) access it. Do not ask me why I have to type in Trebuchet to achieve Garamond; I love Garamond and I got a kick when I googled Gerritzoon, the hero typeface in the book, and my Wikipedia quest thereon (Internet has made questing easy for sure), led me to know that Type designs based on work designed by Francesco Griffo and commissioned by Aldus Manutius include Bembo, Poliphilus, and Garamond! Hurrah - that last was typed in Tamil MN – we all are millenials inside, are we not?]

[Edit - It is not Garamond that I get anymore but Cambria! (new version during my three year hiatus from blogging). So ignore the gibberish I have written in the previous para and I will not be grasshoppery any more and try to unravel the typeface pathways on blogger but go harass my son over Chemistry - oh why won't my children learn from me?]  



Lucky Jim – Kingsley Amis

I found Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore too bright eyed, so I reached out for an oldie. Lucky Jim, which I now realize won the Booker in 1951. I first read it in 1993, when I was the same age as the leads in Penumbra and Jim. It was a lonely existence. I was by the standards of the time well off, and more importantly set up at the start of a lucrative career in investment banking. Yet, I had no idea how to spend my earnings – a Tambrahm middle class upbringing had taught me to not only fear but also sneer at consumption– I was irretrievably dowdy and dorky. Since popularity and awkwardness are inversely related, I was single and unattached, and like I said, lonely. I shared PG (paying guest) digs in South Bombay (not SoBo then) with someone who whizzed off on trips to Goa and Bangkok every weekend or so it seemed. I on the other hand went to the local phone booth and made calls to people from my little black book to see if someone was ok to meet up, and if they did I made trips on local trains to meet them in Malad and Santacruz and sometimes we planned trips to Gorai. Now without the neurotic wiles of a Margaret or the exceptional attractiveness of Christine (female characters in Lucky Jim), calling up people every weekend to pass your time does not always work. For one, young men tend to look askance at twenty four year olds who want to be one of the guys; and then making a community of footloose and fancy free women in a new city takes time. Six months is a long time when you are only twenty four and in that lonely period, I became a member of the British Council and checked out execrable books that I perused diligently. I was more than quarter of the way through Lucky Jim, when I realized I was laughing out loudly instead of battling boredom. The book unfolded on me in just the perfect way– I love it when that happens. Good antidote for missing a thread of sexual tension under my nose – like Robin Sloan’s most endearing protagonist Clay Jannon.

Twenty years later, I found myself laughing sooner into the book – I was ready to be entertained unlike the first time round when I obviously read in that dazed way of my son. God knows if I would read it if I were my son, more the pity, but I laughed aloud through, startling my pedicurist. But all the world loves a laugher and she was very indulgent towards me.

Jim is a desperate young man in the world of academia, hampered by distaste for humbug, and a nose for mediocrity, not least his own. To make matters worse hormones and a kindly disposition threaten to entangle him in an unsuitable match. Jim seems depressingly done for. Batting for him however is a mad and wicked sense of humour and that is enough to keep us in splits. Yes you will find Waugh and Wodehouse and even Tom Sharpe here. The best of the British. You can go for it, and if the women are typecast as either good eggs or hysterics, well do try and remember that it is the year 1951, men had just died like fleas in the war, and were probably suffering from severe PTSD and envious misogyny. Do what women have done from times immemorial – ignore the dissonance and have fun! There is even a Gussie Fink Nottle speech.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Aurangzeb and his contribution to India

He was a handsome man!
There has been a lot of talk over a plan to change the name of Aurangzeb road to Abdul Kalam Road. To many this is another example of Indian history being rewritten by rightists.

Sometimes history needs to be rewritten. We need the honesty and the courage to look back in time through our current lenses and decide if the nation needs to honor someone anymore. And what do we see when we look back?

Aurangzeb was the sixth Mogul emperor in Hindustan, the land beyond the Indus as we have been characterized through history. He was the third son of Emperor Shah Jahan and Begum Mumtaz Mahal (of Taj Mahal fame). He was personable and brave. The education of a Mughal prince of the first blood could not have been complete without a good understanding of the rules of poetry, of music, of art and calligraphy.  Aurangzeb moreover was a seasoned general, a good leader of his men and a moral man.

He was brave (facing a must elephant as a teenager).
And so were they all. That was part of the Mughal allure. This dynasty produced six men who were not just competent rulers managing to keep a diverse country together – that is what a dynasty does – it consistently produced men who were personally talented, brave, intelligent and refined.

And so Aurangzeb was not alone in having “princely” traits. He had tough competition from his three full-brothers – Dara Shukoh and Shah Shuja who were older than him, and Murad Bakhsh who was the baby of the family. They were all courageous, intelligent, talented and good-looking, extremely well educated and bred to be Kings. Shuja and Murad were reputed to be cleverer generals, while the crown prince Dara was the liberal intellectual. Aurangzeb for his part brought in a certain resoluteness. And they all jostled for power.

By anointing his oldest son Dara the heir apparent, Shah Jahan perhaps provided a focal point for the ambitions of his three other sons, who revolted. When the dust settled, Shah Jahan and Murad were in prison, Shuja had been driven into exile and Dara had been captured. The man who had declared all along that kingship was not his aim, Aurangzeb or “hazrat ji” as he was called by his brothers-in-arms, had triumphed.

But so what if Aurangzeb had been treacherous — overthrowing his father and betraying at least one brother? Regular history stuff, we could say. ‘Price of power’, ‘win some, lose some,’ ‘live by the sword’ and all that. But I am not dealing in aphorisms here, I am not here to say, ‘Look at this man, he killed his brother!’ Indeed worse things have gone on in this world. Instead let me point to how Aurangzeb rationalized his actions. You see Aurangzeb was a moral man — deposing his father and eliminating his brothers required carefully thought out explanations.

He had not coveted power, he claimed. Whatever he did he had done for the righteous cause. Let us hear in his words, what that cause was:

(Extract from Aurangzeb’s Letter 1 to Shah Jahan from Adab e Alamgiri)

As, during the extreme illness of your majesty, the reins of power had dropped from your hands, and the eldest prince, who had not even the resemblance of a mussulmaun, having obtained arbitrary rule and authority, exercised unlimited controul, and revived the customs of infidelity and atheism throughout the empire; thinking it lawful, politic, and just to overthrow his designs, I advanced to these parts. My first battle was with wicked infidels, who had destroyed mosques, and erected on their sites temples to their idols. The second engage­ment was against the evil-acting atheists; and, as my intention was virtuous, in each, with an inferior force, I became successful, and preserved without a wound.”

And so a charge of apostasy was brought against Dara and he was executed.

Prince Dara was inclined towards Sufism and his religious propensities and obvious intellectualism might have alienated him in court but he had been as generous and liberal a prince as could be wished for, and greatly loved by the people. They rioted when they saw him in chains and they surely realised when events panned out as they did, that they had probably written his death warrant by showing their support for him.

In a land where Akbar had stated that ‘no man should be interfered with on account of his religion’, the first prince of the land, an intellectual and an aesthete, a man popular by all accounts was put to death for heresy. Imagine what this could do to the psyche of a nation. When events play out on the public stage, who wins and who loses becomes important. Aurangzeb came to power in outrageous fashion like King Richard III of England. Unlike Richard III he got away with it, but I cannot believe he did not damage India when he did.


Aurangzeb ordered Dara’s headless body to be paraded through the bazaars. I suppose people used apathy to cope with the depression that undoubtedly loomed over them. These are the kind of things that can bring a country down, sway it from the free and joyous path of curious inquiry and set it on a self serving, disengaged course. You distance yourself from the power centre because you do not believe you can influence it, and you understand that it does not care for you.


As Abraham Eraly, the noted historian says, “Dara’s promise was of a humane progressive future. When he was executed what was involved was not just the death of a prince but the death of a future.”

Having become King, Aurangzeb used the state machinery to decimate his opponents. A charge of murder was made against Prince Murad and the Kazi was instructed that the  Shariah law of blood for blood should be enforced. Murad refused to plead his cause— it was lost already — and he was executed.

And it did not stop there. Aurangzeb had come to power on a religious agenda, and he strove to prove all his life that he was the upholder of the faith. He gradually adopted an ascetic lifestyle, shunned ostentation, and moved away from proscribed matters. He disdained Paan chewing, disapproved of drinking and advised women not to wear tight trousers like men. Which was a departure from the tone set by his liberal ancestors, but he also differed from his forbears in the matter of managing his Hindu subjects. He reimposed Jizya, the tax on non Muslims in the face of almost universal opposition from his people and against the specific advice of his ministers. This was not realpolitick or statecraft but the result of  Aurangzeb’s single minded attachment to his agenda. Of course he destroyed temples too. Only unlike his predecessors he did this in a systematic manner, as an instrument of state policy. Thousands of frankly incendiary remarks and actions are directly attributed to him and the reason I will not sit and quote from his letters or give instances of his actions is because I do not want to set up a Hindu vs. Moslem dialogue. There are enough sites which do so but if you are a student of history look no further than persian.packhum.org. Check out Akham I Alamgiri and the Adab E Alamgiri.

Aurangzeb was a bigot, who applied his bigotry as state policy. He was also soft spoken and gentle, thoughtful in many ways and humble but that is not the point. Aurangzeb felt no kinship with the majority of his people and he tried his hardest to radicalise his country. Enough said. Regarding some of the other points made by his apologists:


  • That the Marathas plundered Bengal in 1740 – Agreed. Does that make Aurangzeb a great King?


  • That Aurangzeb destroyed less temples than other Mughal rulers. I could not find any credible references for this assertion and the even more outre one that he had actually built temples in Bengal. Aurangzeb followed a rigorous policy of allowing old structures to stand but not allow any new temples to come up. Aurangzeb’s letters suggest a sort of temple thirst that I have not seen in Akbar or Jahangir but who knows.


  • That music flourished in his time. Yes music flourished but that was despite, not because of Aurangzeb. Patronage for the arts gradually shifted to the provinces – to Oudh Kangra Mysore and Hyderabad, away from the Mughal capital and this shift in focus created additional faultlines along which the empire imploded.


  • That Aurangzeb employed more Hindus than other Mughal Kings. Well he should have, as the empire was more entrenched in India by his time. Besides, sources of Uzbeg and Iranian talent had dried up because of Shah Jahan’s ill advised war in the Balkh. Aurangzeb was unable to regain Kandahar and feared an Iranian invasion. His land hunger turned inwards  and he expanded his empire within the subcontinent – of course he employed more Hindus – he could follow no other course. But even in this matter it is his attitude which is important. He chafed in the circumstances and managed to offend most Hindu groups, in particular the Rajputs like in the case of the famous Ajit Singh-Durgadas incident. As the Rathods and the Sisodias became disaffected, his reliance on the Marathas increased which came with its own set of problems. The following should give you an insight into his mind,

“To employ a Hindu when you can a Musalman is a sin.” (Aurangzeb in a letter to his son)

“Do not allow the despicable infidels to repair their old temples”

Daily News of 11/1/1705 “The Emperor…ordered…to demolish the temple of Pandharpur, and to take the butchers of the camp there and slaughter cows in the temple…It was done.”

In 1671 Aurangzeb ordered that revenue officers of crown lands could only be Muslims. Because he was unable to fill the positions, he modified the rules to allow half of them to be Hindu.

I cite these instances not to demonise Aurangzeb as partisan - he was a product of his beliefs and of a time where his beliefs had legitimacy. I am trying to counter a rather silly point made by his apologists - that he employed more Hindus than his predecessors. I am merely pointing out that Aurangzeb was not very proud of having a record number of Hindus in his employment. But let us get back to the other arguments on his behalf:


  • That Aurangzeb was Hindi. Whatever. When he came to power, his family had been in India for more than hundred years, and he had a rightful claim to Hindidom. But he did not stake that right. To be Hindi was to think of all Hindustan as one’s own – regardless of sect. It was not the Indian nation Aurangzeb thought of – like Akbar did when he revoked Jizya, Jahangir does when he writes with such interest and curiosity of Hindu customs. Aurangzeb focused on a narrow Islamic-centric definition of what a Sultan should be, which left him little scope to be “Hindi”.


  • That the jizya was not discriminatory for its time. Nonsense. It was reinstated one hundred years after it had been abolished by Akbar. The highest of Mughal amirs opposed Aurangzeb on this matter. Soon after the decree there was an earthquake and the amirs who felt it was an omen, again entreated with Aurangzeb. So did Jahanara, his own sister. From time to time there were requests from his officers for exemptions, requests that were routinely rejected by the emperor himself.


  • That Brahmins were exempt from jizya. No they were not, the other Hindu castes volunteered to pay jizya for them when Aurangzeb refused to accede to their demand for exemption!


  • That the zakat tax on Moslems makes jizya alright. I find the whole argument infuriating. It is like making non Jains go veggie during Paryushan.


  • That he was alright for his time. For that time? What are we talking about here? This was fifty years before the Industrial revolution started in earnest and a good four hundred years after the European Renaissance, before the emergence of Nation states in Europe. Aurangzeb was situated at an admirable time where he could have led India forward. Instead of a unifying figure, he turned out to be one of the most divisive sovereigns to have sat on the throne at Delhi.


  • That caste Hindus committed atrocities too. Agreed. Is that the only defence for Aurangzeb - that the Hindus deserved it?

Many of my friends do not think about Aurangzeb at all but about the principle of it… They say, enough already, let us move on. Why change Poona to Pune and Madras to Chennai, why say Mumbai when Bombay falls easier from my lips, they ask. It is sometimes wiser to let sleeping dogs lie. I should not bring up Khilji’s conquest of Gujarat, or the execution of the Mughal princes at the Khooni Darwarza. Then again, if something long buried has been raked up, it is probably time for an inquest, to set matters right as we see it, here, now.

Some References

The Great Mughals by Abraham Eraly
Alberuni’s India
Akbar Namah – Abul Fazal
Muntaḫab al-tavārīḫ by Badayuni
The Last Mughal by William Dalrymple

Websites that I use

Wikipedia, www.persian.packhum.org

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Persian Fire by Tom Holland

I picked the book because I am interested in Persian history and wanted to educate myself. I should have gone by the lead instead of the name. Subtitled The First World Empire and the Battle for the West, it is a back handed paean to Greek ideals and achievements, in particular their stand against a Persian advance in unabashedly jingoistic terms. It is obviously well researched and I came off with a clearer understanding of Mediterranean geopolitics in fifth century BC but the devil is in the perspective. 

What troubles me is that when Mr. Holland characterises the Trojan War as the first battle between Europe and Asia or represents ancient Greco-Persian battles as a stand off between all that the Western world purports to stand for today and a despotic and powerful empire of the East- not to or from the East,  mind you - he does not simply delve into harmless tribalism to win a readership. He is race-mongering. Sure, the medieval Islamic world, which comprised of large chunks of the erstwhile Achaemenid empire, adopted a Persianate culture and in that place and time Europe's  renaissance theme of claiming kinship with ancient Greece made sense. But the reality is that Ancient Greece was culturally and geographically closer to Ancient Persia than to Northern and Western Europe, the bastions of Western civilisation today. What connects Greece to England is not culture or habits but race. By appropriating a freedom loving Athenian democratic model as a western ideal  - never mind the monarchies that dotted Greece, the slavery, the socialised subjugation of women - Mr. Holland is in fact indulging in white chest beating. Not cool.

I thought. 


The eastern border of the Achemenids 
But the author does pull you along in the sweep of his narrative. There may be inaccuracies in his presentation —India is scooped into the Persian fold on the basis of lost border territory thousands of miles away from Pataliputra, the capital — but the distortion (besides having a breezy aspect to it, a line quickly snuck in here, a passing mention there, all adding to the effect,
Persian empire - parts of Greece and nothng beyond the Indus
some may say,) is done through implication or exaggeration and not through a brazen manipulation of facts. So Athenian idealism and Spartan obduracy are depicted as the face of Greek resistance in Persian Fire but the book also informs us that the Greek King of Macedonia and the Greek Queen of Artemisia sailed for the Great King Xerxes, that the Thebans of Greece fought alongside Xerxes, that Argos,  the land of Agamemnon - the Greek general in the mythical Trojan war - thwarted the Spartans all the time, and last but not the least, that the Athenians had nominally submitted to Darius I at one point. 





Xerxes
The book has the heft of truth. The slant is affectionately amused and European in its pro Greek-resistance tilt. The understatement is all British.  If I were white I think I would have loved the book. But from such books spring execrable movies like 300 where Xerxes of Persia is portrayed as seven feet tall with a nose ring! Do you think Xerxes above could be shown as the one below?


Xerxes in 300 (he is the one on the right!)
I think the Greco-Persian conflict was not an ultimately admirable revolt against a remote master by cute crazies from a far flung outpost.  The Greek civilisation was as advanced  as the Persians; their conflict would have been a natural power struggle. They were organised differently which gave them specific advantages and vulnerabilities.

And the book got me thinking  

Unification seems to have been a starting point for empire building. However what I found admirable in the Greeks was strangely their ability to collaborate and cooperate. It is amazing that the Spartan King Leonidas made his stand against Xerxes in Thermopylae, miles away from his native lands, while the Athenians led a combined Greek Navy off Artemisia and then Salamis. The Greeks for all their squabbles united  in order to preserve their way of life and their sense of being a distinct people. A sense of self was crucial to their ability to withstand predators. 

At a practical level, this self identification seems to have bypassed Indians - not once, in the face of wave after wave of marauders from the North West was it thought important to secure the passes that led through the Hindukush into India. Like Hotel California, India has invited the world to check in (and perversely not allowed them to leave). And the few instances of collaborative stands - the Rajput confederacy against Babur led by Sanga, the 1857 first war of independence against the British East India Company - have ended in spectacular failure.  Are we too divided to appreciate who is a foreigner and who is not? More troubling still, is this self identification, code for racist ideology? Ancient Indian texts refer to preservation of Dharma ("the" way of life), purity of race (the horror of miscegenation),  the idea of the mlechha (barbarian).  But as India became a potpourri of nations and races, this sense of self as separate and worth preserving warped into a casteist divisively supremacist and irrelevant ideology that could not recruit the energies of her people into a single unified force.

All food for thought. Glad I read the book even if I did not enjoy reading it. Go for it if you want a handle on Greek history with some accurate information about Ancient Persia. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Colonel by Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

 This is a gritty novel about a bewildered colonel in a rainy Iran, mourning the demise of his family. A howl of bitterness and agony if you will, for what has happened to Iran.

The colonel is a man cashiered from the army presumably because he murdered his philandering wife (high time we corrected that etymological mistake); moreover he had refused to go to the front to fight a war (at the behest of the British, the afterword tells us). The colonel has his flaws and he has his principles. He also has five children with diverse political identities; he is not a man who subscribed to oriental notions of letting children be extensions of the family and community but allowed them to find their own way. Clearly the children were invested with a common bank of passion and principles however, and this legacy has made them dangerous to themselves. They have become the victims of successive oppressive regimes.


One son, a revolutionary with strong leftist leanings has given his life to the revolution but is ultimately reviled because he does not represent the theocracy in power. Another son a pious Muslim and a willing subject of the theocracy, dies at the Iraqi front. A daughter has made a pact to survive by marrying a slimy opportunist but she is not happy either, frightened of the evil spawned by expediency. The oldest son Amir, the eternal fence sitter and intellectual has not been spared either, for all his inaction. He is arbitrarily incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, then extolled for the sufferings visited on him by a despotic regime and invited to join the revolution, but later spat out by the new regime when he becomes expendable. Directionless and unsure, yet unable to reconcile to a neutered existence, he is sinking into a catatonic existence in his father’s basement. Meanwhile the youngest daughter Parvaneh has already reared her revolutionary head, distributing papers and probably rallying opinion against the Iraq war (I rely on the notes and the afterword for this). And for these crimes, she has been hanged at the age of fourteen.


The novel begins with the colonel being summoned in the dead of night to a decrepit office building to collect his Parvaneh’s broken body. The colonel is battling to keep a hold on himself as he is a soldier and appearances are important to him. At first he struggles hard to control the wild grief bursting through him (“…shroud, pick, shovel, don’t forget to lock the gate…” he tells himself, and then whimpers “Shroud, shroud, shroud…”), but as the night proceeds he loses his grip entirely until at the very end he stands naked and shivering not knowing what to do, a man ranting and raving about modern Iran and her bitter history of executing the very men who loved her, debating whether to free his dead daughter’s canary to certain death at the hands of the sleek black cat waiting by the pond or leave it in the cage to starve, to realize that it has already, confoundedly, been swallowed.


 The plot unfolds through interior monologue ­— wild ravings, stark and nightmarish impressions, flashbacks and bitter soul-searching, even an examination of modern Iranian history — presented in a stream of consciousness style. Dialogue interlinks passages of interior monologue and serves to bring us back into the action and take the story forward, though reader beware, the action may well be fantasy conjured by oppressed minds at the end of their tether. It is likely the reader misses or dismisses important information. There is stuff that is repeated and there are deaths announced in passing. (After spending many pages burying Parvaneh, the colonel mentions in one sentence that he has to change for Kuchik’s funeral, as Haddad has told him he died!) The colonel is the protagonist but a sufficient portion of the book is told from Amir’s perspective. The dual POV emphasizes the trans-generational nature of the Iranian tragedy. The setting is a rainy town (the coastal regions I am told by the afterword) – as cold, dank, grimy and awful as the story is. It was very hard reading until enough of the Iranian situation clarified itself for me to start reading it as an allegory. I can imagine this being easy for someone who understands the history of modern Iran. Aparna felt it would’ve been better to read the afterword before and everyone agreed. I was too busy appropriating Verena’s crackers and cheese to object (sorry Verena, I put it in the fridge to keep it fresh; I wanted to send it back with you, but by the time I remembered you had left. Convenient huh? Sorry, but also thank you – we had it on Saturday and it was delicious!).

 I feel our eyes would’ve glazed over and rolled back into our heads if we had tried to get the context first. Reading the book, however frustrating it was, made us ready to understand modern Persian history and in that sense Dowlatabadi’s book is very important. Further, given that we had only three weeks to finish the book and despite everyone claiming it was hard reading, all of us finished it and could make the allegorical connections. Mamta was struck by the fact that the name of Amir’s missing wife is purity, a quality that has gone missing for Amir. Everyone got the character of Khezr Javed, the ubiquitous instrument of state oppression who changes garb but remains the same, he whose actions are inexplicable and terrible. I liked the characterization of the colonel’s wife as licentious and amoral, possibly describing modern Iran as the child of incompatible hedonism and righteousness. The colonel’s killing of his wife has been interpreted by many as representing the burden of tribal pressures on Iran despite all the modern thought – our group disagreed with this view. It appears to us that in Iran, the desire to do the right thing has led to men of principle killing the sensual and the human in them, leaving behind their passionate but half formed children, - “fledglings who cannot fly - and a gale blowing.”

 Aparna wondered why Qorbani Hajjaj got so much bad press, he was clearly unsavoury but he was certainly not villain of the piece, the tragedy of Iran could not be attributed to him, yet he received maximum contempt from the writer.  Clearly idealism is extolled over expediency, but is the examination of the ideals not as important as the reviling of hypocrisy if one has to guard against extremism?

Mahmoud Dowlatabadi

 It is important and interesting to note that a book like this, although still lying with the censors, has not been banned in Iran, that the author is not being persecuted, at least for now. The story of the author Mahmoud Dowlatabadi is incredibly interesting too, but you can Wikipedia all that. I am very glad I read this book. But I will never look askance again at a non-Indians who do not get Rushdie. Context is all ladies. And for people who would like some context before they embark on the book, please see below and do not sue me, my history of Iran is as follows, (attributions in brackets) 
Cruel Sumerians (Atwood formed that opinion for me)à Persians, Cyrus the great, the Achaemenid empire, the Sassanids (Zarathushtra, Alexander, Indo European language studies, Wikipedia)àArab invaders and the flight of Parsis to India (growing up in India)àadvent of the Turkic tribes (Wikipedia) àMongol invaders (Wikipedia)à advent of more Turkic people (Wikipedia)àSafavid Dynasty (Mughal chronicles, Wikipedia)àNadir Shah (rape of Delhi and the deathblow to Indian sovereignty in the face of Western imperialismàAmir Kabir Father of modern Iran, a progressive Prime Minister who could’ve taken Iran places but was killed (the book)à a period of political uncertainty as imperialistic forces, Britain and Russia in particular, jockeyed  for power in the Iranian landscape. There were patriots, men of fierce principles and integrity like Kolonel Mohammad Taqi Khan, etc. who tried to take the country forward for but who were ultimately taken down, often by whipping up sentiment against them (the book)à a coup by Reza Khan who founded the last dynasty to rule Iran and who might have been Iran’s Ataturk if Iran had been stronger and did not have oil; as it happened British Petroleum controlled everything leading to popular disgust (the book, Wikipedia) à and the overthrow of the Shah followed by the election of the uncompromising Mossadeq who nationalized the oil industry resulting in a paranoid CIA (media, Argo) à engineering a coup reinstating the Shah who was bolstered by the western powers and a secret service outfit, the hated SAVAKS (the book, media, Persepolis)àleading to simmering discontent leading to the àIslamic revolution and the advent of the Ayatollah; helped in no small way by the leftist resistance  (book, media, Rushdie)àtragedy of the Iraq war (Persepolis)àAhmadinejad (media)àMore Benign Now (media).
 

Mamta wished she could read it in Farsi and that led to an interesting discussion on the use of Anglo Saxon instead of Latin words to denote the fact that the writer has eschewed Arab imports in favour of original Persian words in his writing. But you see Farsi and Latin are closer cousins if you check out the Indo European Family tree, than Farsi and Anglo Saxon are. So to denote purity by using words that have less real resemblance to Farsi may or may not have been a great tactic, but since I do not know the language I will hold my peace. I think I will reread Persepolis now. It is in the graphic novel format with dollops of humour and a woman’s point of view. Makes for a change without changing the subject.