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Spoiler Alert: Nothing monumental, but please stay away if you are the kind that reads the preface AFTER the book!

For the 70s and 80s children, Suicide bombing, cyanide capsule, Vanni, Kilinochchi, IPKF, Elephant Pass are all familiar jargon. We read with great interest the beginnings of the fight for Tamil ‘Eelam’ in Srilanka: how Velupillai Prabhakaran led the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) as the dominant organisation waging armed battle with the Sri Lankan government/army after eliminating other ‘freedom’ movements. Much later we read about the fall of this outfit and the ignominious end that befell its Supremo. Even as two prime ministers of the subcontinent were assassinated and our own Indian troops were on the Lankan soil, we had ambivalent feelings towards the Eelam movement. Most of us had Tamilian friends sympathetic towards it, and who would recount some daring acts of the LTTE cadre.

But what we did not hear then, were the human stories. Once the crackdown of LTTE by the government forces turned into a veritable genocide following the defeat of a purpose, there were displacement & military excesses, betrayal by the cause, loss of property, lives and dignity that the Sri Lankan Tamil PEOPLE endured during the years after the strife. Rohini Mohan brings these out in her brilliant debut book, ‘The Seasons of Trouble’.

Journalistic tenacity & empathetic engagement with real people appear to be trick ingredients of the author. Her choice of the point in the timeline of the conflict where the book begins is brilliant: the armed struggle against the Sinhalese establishment is past its zenith; the government has intensified its offensive against militancy & is striking at the core of Tamil identity & separatism; the LTTE leadership is crumbling; in its desperation to hold on to the Tamil dominated ‘Vanni’ (homeland), the Tigers are conscripting unwilling kids into battle, hiding behind civilian hostages hoping to avoid being fired at & are eliminating deserters; the Lankan army is teethed with cluster bombs & precision targeting and using them even against hospitals; women and children are being raped; war crimes are unchecked and the Tamil spirit is despondent. From this vantage Rohini Mohan traces the hopelessness of the three possible fates the Tamil militants, their supporters and uninvolved Tamilians faced in these times through intertwined storylines. 

The book has three protagonists: Mugil, a voluntary LTTE inductee as a little girl, a fierce combatant who is brought back into the battlefield after an injury-related stint in support services; Sarva, who ‘disappears’ in the opening pages due to his suspected ties with the ‘Tigers’; and Indra, Sarva’s mother whose remarkable courage and undying efforts are in full display as she attempts to track Sarva and get him out of illegal detention. As Mugil’s character is introduced, we see her disillusioned resolve to desert LTTE and to rejoin her family. Between these three beautifully etched characters, Rohini Mohan explores the psyche and the severe hardships that volunteer cadres, individuals who got sucked into the conflict arena inadvertently and their hapless families went through in the period of rise & fall and eventually the decimation of LTTE. As we follow the three protagonists, Mohan peppers the book with incidents and observations about numerous other Sri Lankan tamils and their families giving us a 360-degree view of the Tamil life during the Eelam struggle and the genocide. She exposes us to the wretched lives the tamils lived, with loss of possessions & dignity, death, illness and injury, desolation and utter hopelessness during the offensive by the Sri Lankan forces as well as by the eventual ‘betrayal’ by the LTTE.

The book records some history to afford perspective to those totally ignorant of the Tamil movement: the independence of Ceylon, dominance of English educated tamils, Sinhalese disenchantment, birth of variuos organisations, Rajapaksa’s Sinhala nationalism and subsequent turn of Srilankan geopolitical events. But the purpose of this book is not to document the conflict itself, but to show how conflict devastates the ordinary life and – as the author says, ‘the wreckage of civil war and the mundane omnipresence of conflict.’ There are clever insights into life during the strife expanded from observations on daily struggles: Sample this from a commentary on the value of assets in a war-torn region:
‘Mother pawned her gold bracelet, two rings and her thick silver anklets. This sustained them for another two months…How easily trinkets, coins and chains could be bundled into a handkerchief and tucked into sari petticoats or underclothes. One by one, they would be pawned or sold—for utensils, an operation, some poultry or goats.’ 

Two things about the writing technique: First is the question whether the book is fiction or non-fiction. Clearly, the characters in the book are real except that there is no <name-changed> alert, giving almost a fiction-like feel for the book. In the preface, Rohini Mohan describes her prolonged journalistic engagement with people after who the protagonists were modelled after, clarifying that it’s indeed non-fiction. What really happens to a kottiya (terrorist) in the field, in desertion, during illegal detention and flight are said in non-dramatic and realistic tone that these must have been real incidents. Yet, the style of writing is more novelistic than reportage. This gives the writer a license to approach the rigidity of facts with the freedom of fiction, something that purists would frown upon but makes reading enjoyable.

Two, the author has handled the issue of the omniscient narrator with aplomb. With this technique the reader is everywhere, witnessing everything first hand and the author, unseen, unfolds everything so well without the burden of placing a POV at one angle or another. Despite that, the usual problem of inadequate reader connect with the characters in the omniscient third party narrative style has been well conquered.

Two other aspects of writing impress. First, there is no over-dramatisation. In fact, if anything, Rohini Mohan has tried to be as placid as possible, in spite of the tragedy and desolation that is all around. This is no tear-jerker, except that the enormity of the happenings do tug at one’s sensibilities. Second, there isn’t much political analysis or finger-pointing. Some timelines are mentioned in between and you can figure out what went wrong for yourself.

‘The Seasons of Trouble’ is a superb book, a fantastic debut, and at display are the author’s journalistic capabilities as well as a great maturity as a writer.


As far as the Sri Lankan Tamil struggle is concerned it has been pushed beyond oblivion. The lessons from this crushed movement are summarised in the preface by the author: “As the world grapples with new democracies and old hate, these three lives are a grim caution. Mugil says her experience is a warning for the next marginalised group that refuses to assimilate. Sarva sees the war as a permanent obstacle to love and happiness. Indra, his mother, calls it destiny.”Rating: 4.5/5
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The premise of the novel is re-telling of the epic Ramayana sans the supernatural. In that sense, and since most of us know the story of Rama, there are few spoilers here. The book is in Kannada so non-kannadigas can read on with impunity!

While Valmiki’s Ramayana is the tale of Rama, Lord Vishnu’s avatar, Uttarakanda is un-deification of the Prince as seen through the prism of his wife Sita’s misery. True, Dasharatha’s foolish love for his third wife, Kaikeyi’s greed, Rama’s valour, Bharatha’s helplessness, Laxmana’s fraternal devotion are all there. But seen from the perspective of a helpless woman wronged twice (exile first and later abandonment), all of Rama’s glorious virtues seem banal and pointless. The righteousness and idealism of the upholder of Dharma, do not seem to be justifiable when you look at his wife’s tragic and largely meaningless life, which we have all come to accept as sacrifice and ‘pativrata dharma’.

The novel is written brilliantly. It is entirely told from Sita’s POV, as she goes through the travails of being ditched by her husband for no fault of hers. Her attempts to come to terms with loneliness despite her twins have been depicted poignantly. Parallel to this forward looking story is her reminiscences and hearsay about Rama’s antecedents, birth and the subsequent story till his ascension to the throne after the slaying of Ravana.

The book is researched extremely well for historical and geographical plausibility. I was surprised to learn that it took 10 years for Rama and his consort to travel from Kosala to Dandakaranya, the forest of exile; and that the events from Sita’s abduction to the return to Ayodhya happened only in the last four years of exile. The controlled writing by author shows his ingenuity in explaining how every anecdote of Ramayana is a human event and not miraculous. There’s is no divine magic here, no sorcery by the Rakshasas. Sita is abducted on a boat and no holy monkey leaps across the sea. There’s dirt and grime and sweat and blood in this entirely human epic saga.

This humanisation of Valmiki’s story will come as disappointment for the orthodox. The story now becomes a mundane account of a wronged woman. There’s no awe, super-human achievements and unquestionable virtue. The author makes an extraordinary job to trace the origin of the epic into the least common denominator of a human, nay, a feminine tragedy.

The writing is fabulous. Throughout the book there is subtle hopelessness and enchanting waves of melancholia! The language is classical Kannada, generously peppered with Sanskrit and I thoroughly enjoyed the extraordinary vocabulary and presentation. People with bare working knowledge of day to day Kannada may find this scholarly writing a bit daunting. An English translation, when available, I guess, will be an easier read.

My rating: 4 on 5

Medicine, specifically cardiovascular medicine, saw a great number of pathbreaking innovations in the last century. Open heart surgery, invention of cardiac Pacemakers, Coronary artery bypass surgery, treatment of heart attacks in the ICU, use of aspirin or emergency angioplasty for saving lives during acute heart attack are some seminal contributions of medical men to human health.

Sensational journalism – and with shoulder to its shoulder, medical publications of repute – periodically announce new and breathtaking discoveries in cardiovascular medicine. Glucose-insulin-potassium infusions, glycoprotein inhibitors, absorbable stents and lately mechanical support with devices such as Impella come readily to mind (these are impressive medical terminology for minor medical inventions). However, most of these haven’t contributed significantly to furtherance of human health or actually may have been found to be unsafe. As a wise teacher of mine once paraphrased, each of these discoveries has been a Cinderella of its time and many of them have vanished when the clock struck twelve. So we are talking of just a handful of breakthroughs in cardiac medicine: at least, the last three decades practice of cardiology has shown no fundamental change in approach or outcome.

Why this inertia?

Other fields of science seem to have changed dramatically over time. Mobile telephony evolves by the hour, physics has built skyscrapers on itself and there’s so much dynamic growth in agriculture and manufacturing and electronics that in decades – if not years – techniques become obsolete. Medicine, on the other hand, has used the same old techniques in treatment and research over half a century.

Scientists have a tendency to implicate the complexity of the human body and its unpredictable response to disease and drugs as a reason for the slow pace of change. I don’t buy this argument.

Let me elaborate.

The biggest shortcoming of modern medicine is the way it has ignored the importance of data. Diseases such as hypertension, heart disease and diabetes together affect nearly 40% of humanity. Yet, we hardly know anything about their causation, impact or ideal remedies. In contrast, look at how cellular telephony grew: newer hardware and user algorithms were built not based on feedback from few users or brilliance of few innovators. The machines logged the behaviours and preferences of millions of users and threw up revolutionary, often counterintuitive improvements and thus user experience changed exponentially with time.

Millions of patients have been monitored by the second in thousands of ICUs across the globe during the last few decades. Medicine never deemed it necessary to collaborate among hospitals and collate this humongous data. Similarly in chronic diseases such as kidney disease or heart failure, hospitals and clinicians have recorded trillions of bits of data over the decades. Analysis of such large amount of data would have led to better definition of natural history of diseases and a better judgement on what treatment works and what doesn’t.

Instead, we are stuck with archaical research techniques, flawed statistical methods and obsession about hegemony in publication that have thwarted improvements in healthcare, especially in cardiovascular care. We hang on to fudged data on some glorified springs and clips to delude ourselves that our field is progressing. Thankfully, tender love and fresh air still save lives preventing cardiac doctors from becoming fully disillusioned.

Where should we go?

Data should be collated effectively. In the ICU the behaviour of parameters minutes and hours before a disaster or death may be better analysed by Machine Learning than by a human burdened with preconceived ‘logic’, leading to development of better predictive analytics. Thousands of variations in individual patient characteristics maybe better analysed by computers than researchers who try to balance handful of confounders in each clinical study.

The possibilities for machine learning and thereby eventually, Artificial Intelligence, are enormous. Slowly, despite unknowing inertia from clinicians – and inexorably – we are hurtling toward automation. The recent Fitbit heart rate data announcement (I’m sure they have much more commercially relevant data that has not been announced to the world) or the arrogant Apple Watch claim that it will save lives are clear indicators that there are people willing to look at data in ways other than how doctors have. Right now, software computing in medicine may largely be low level coding pertaining to EMRs or workflow. But then, it’s the worker bees that produce ALL of the honey. (And pollinate enough so we all survive!). With the power of AI, there is a good chance that our understanding of disease and cure may change in fundamental ways.

Personally, I still believe most doctors are wedded to ethics and patient care. This is perhaps the biggest reason why great clinicians should abandon their contempt for technology and leave the Sanctum Santorum of contemporary medical research and contribute to data collation and machine analysis.

Else, the rudder of commerce in medicine will be held by the Bankers!

A collection of one fine and a few average stories about Men truly without Women. Few like ‘Drive My Car’, ‘Scheherazade’ or ‘Yesterday’ carry the trademark Murakami open endings. A couple, like ‘The Independent Organ’ or ‘Kino’ almost have resolved endings though there is always some room for interpreting the climaxes in more than one way in a Murakami story.

The Men in these stories come across as pallid and depressed because they are deprived of a deep involvement with their women. Only in ‘Samsa in Love’ where – when outside, his home in Prague was being marauded by Germans – inside, the protagonist (who just metamorphosed into Gregor Samsa) finds hope in the hunchbacked woman with a sharp tongue; in all other stories, the men suffer in a soulless desolation with the loss or lack of women. How incomplete man is in this state and in what different senses he depends on them for meaningful existence is splendidly displayed in each story.

For the Murakami fans the usual treats are there all along: Jazz, whiskey, expensive wines, running, cats, hat tips to Beatles, Kafka to name a few. Magical realism is represented but the stories are more hinged than Murakami’s typical writing. As we go along the book the stories transform from superficially mundane to deeply Existential ones, the last one ‘Men without Women’ being practically abstract.

For the Murakami sceptic, this collection will come across as one trashed out of his best seller factory. His lines and silences often sound enigmatic but can also appear merely as clever construction of words that carry deep profundity that’s really non-existent. It is this trademark writing that gets him undying worshippers and in an equal measure, disparaging critics. Personally I still give Murakami a benefit of doubt that his Japanese writing is somewhat lost in its American translation and also that his writing is more like a mirror to the readers’ minds: rendering unique interpretations to each.

The best part of the book, other than the characteristic way in which he unravels the minds of his men and women, is the writing. The pacing of the stories here, is so splendidly measured one doesn’t have to pause to think, but can ruminate as one goes along. Of course, there are mystical gems which one would read and retread (“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” – Samsa in Love).

Easily the best story of the lot is Kino. Carrying almost all of Murakami cliches and imagery, this story deals with denial and closure in awe-inducing metaphors. If you want to read one work of Murakami quickly and decide whether you love him or hate him, this one certainly qualifies. Here’s the link to the story as it appeared in the New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/kino

A reservation I have about Murakami’s writing is the reams of third party narration. Entire characters and stories are presented in staid tones. In some instances this renders some stories least evocative. The most striking example for me was ‘The Independent Organ’. For some it may look like a drab narrative about the life of a boring man: such is the monotony of narration. Whereas layered under this simple narration is an enquiry of existence, meaning of life and the philosophical question of suicide, their import would have certainly been amplified had there been more drama. But then, to allow you to take as much as you can from each story is perhaps the quintessential Murakami!

Happy reading!!

WARNING: HUGE SPOILERS!!

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy”.

– Albert Camus: The Myth of Sisyphus

Haruki Murakami’s short story ‘The Independent Organ’, is slightly unusual in that unlike most of his other work it isn’t an open ended tale. Through the life & death of the main character Dr Tokai, Murakami explores the theme of existential crisis and of suicide.

Dr Tokai is a successful Japanese plastic surgeon without a wife or another live-in companion. Like his surgery and the rest of his life, Tokai has a neatly evolved system of handling his mistresses. He enjoys the acquaintance of intelligent women, loves to spend quality time with them, dining out and discussing intellectual matters. To avoid encumbrances and commitment he prefers women who are married or otherwise in relationships already. He enjoys sex with the women, though that doesn’t seem to be the most important aspect of these ‘relationships’. Needless to say he prefers and conducts these transactions in secrecy.

The point of this story evolves and culminates when Tokai falls in love with one such women, something which he has carefully avoided so far. He unsuccessfully attempts to avoid falling deeper for her for a while and when the affair ends (as is the usual pact with Tokai and his women) the ground beneath him gives way.

Through this story Murakami touches upon the themes of Morality, Meaning of Life, Existential Crisis & Suicide as Resolution. Reading this story brought me memories of two others. One, Milan Kundera’s ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ and Yeshawant Chittala’s ‘Shikari’, for different reasons. I’m sure this is an unfair comparison given that the other two are full-length novels.

First, the Kundera. And the minor theme of morality.

There are superficial resemblances between Murakami’s Tokai and Kundera’s main character Tomas from The Unbearable Lightness. Both are successful doctors, surgeons at that and introverts. Both womanise. Both of them are in love with one woman but sleep with many others. But that’s where the similarities end. For Tomas, sex with a woman is ‘es muss sein (it must be)’. He sleeps with women just to experience that part of the woman that’s embodied in sex and nothing else. He’s helpless in his infidelity. Tokai is a more restrained character. He’s in relationships not just for sex. He wants from his women a comfort, an intellectual stimulation, an easy evening and perhaps some sex. While both men appear opportunistic, Tokai comes out no greater than a bored man inspecting a brothel’s inmates to while his time. Though Tomas is married when he’s womanising unlike the single Tokai, the latter’s morality doesn’t trump Tomas’s because both view their women as temporary preoccupations.

Now for Chittala and the major themes of ‘The Independent Organ’. Both Shikari and Murakami’s story deal with Existential Crisis. When a life event occurs in the protagonist’s story – Naganath’s job loss in the former and Tokai’s falling in unrequited love in the latter – a question about meaning of life arises. Both authors are eager to let us know that their protagonists are actually going through this angst. Chittala quotes Franz Kafka and Erich Fromm to ensure that readers understand that his hero’s crisis is as philosophical as it is social. Murakami is more direct: his protagonist asks Tanimura, the narrator-writer in the story, “what is the meaning of life?”. From here how Naganath and Tokai find resolution for their Existential angst throw up contrasting but equally important philosophical ideas expounded by Sartre and Camus in their life’s works.

But the comparison of Murakami’s story with those of Kundera and Chittala must end here. The greatest drawback of The Independent Organ is the construction of the story: it does not unfold; it is presented – like a geometrical design: beautiful but unemotional.

Let me elaborate.

The entire story of Tokai is a narrative. From the point where Tokai becomes inaccessible to the narrator and until his death, this mode of recounting is perfectly understandable because he, the protagonist, is in absentia.

It’s the run up to that point that’s the problem. Murakami tells us about Dr Tokai the plastic surgeon, his gym habits, his preoccupation with women sans attachments, how he manages their evenings, the gifts, the absence of their husbands, the process of disentanglement with the same excitement as that in describing his clinic appointment book. If he intended to show that Tokai’s life was monotonous despite the various escapades, Murakami has been too successful – the description of Tokai’s love life borders on boredom in the absence of anecdotes, descriptions and adventures: Virginia Woolf’s lament that Narrative is Boring couldn’t have been more apt than here!

Contrast this with Shikari. Chittala’s protoganist is an embodiment of anxiety and paranoia. When life’s unfair treatment give rise to fundamental questions, Naganath experiences a restlessness (Sartre’s ‘nausea’) that infects the reader. Being mostly a dialogue between Tanimura and Tokai, and being practically devoid of events and incidents Murakami’s story affords no such experience.

There comes a point in the story when Tokai’s all-consuming love and perhaps his being denied of it brings him to the question of meaning of life. Or, the question arises because at that precise time he’s reading an account of a successful Jewish doctor who ends up in a concentration camp in Auschwitz. He asks the narrator, “If for some reason—I don’t know why—I was suddenly dragged away from my present life, deprived of all my rights, and reduced to living as a number, what in the world would I become?” Perhaps there was disappointment leading to intense depression. Perhaps the love, which had become the raison d’être of his life – now denied – unfolded the question of existence. One really doesn’t know. Because the narration is too flat to document the fervour, the anxiety and the heartache of obsessive love (as you saw, for instance, in Philip from W. Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’).

It is not as if a dull narrative style or paucity of anecdotes in a short story that lead to lack of affect. For instance, Kafka’s ‘The Hunger Artist’ poignantly brings out the Existential angst of a dying performer without the drama of events. Mere description of the state of living brings out despair so effectively. I do not know how Murakami wrote it, but perhaps it’s the translation from Japanese into a bridled English that takes away the rawness resulting in a sterile narration.

Then there’s this matter if Tokai’s suicide: Philosophers have argued that Living entails performing acts of habit necessary for existence and dying voluntarily is an acknowledgement of the meaninglessness of such habit. Murakami establishes the mundaneness of Tokai’s life, introduces the event that pulls the rug from under him and allows a free fall in the absence of a profound reason for continued living. Much as he has succeeded in portraying Tokai’s death as a logical, nihilistic choice when faced with an Existential crisis, the description of his equanimity at the face of his death is hardly evocative, especially when – according to Tokai’s assistant and his narrator friend – the choice he made was a result of his passion.

I felt the significance of this story is lowered by some frivolous lines. The allusion to the Independent Organ is definitely a low point of this ambitious story. “Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie.” When all his life Tokai has had affairs of convenience and moved on at will, to be judgmental about an entire sex when the favour was returned seems ironic. To pass that off as the protagonist’s or narrator’s opinion also doesn’t wash. In fact, Murakami shoots from other’s shoulders elsewhere too. “affable people like this are most often shallow, mediocre, and boring”, “It’s a little hard to believe at first, but he even kept track of his girlfriends’ menstrual schedules”, Tokai’s handsome secretary “(who was, of course, gay)” – all these kind of undermine the basic premise of the story.

In the final analysis, ‘The Independent Organ’ raises some important philosophical questions, addresses the issue of suicide with reference to meaning of life but falls short of moving the reader. I would hate to learn that the poignancy of the original was lost in translation.

 

 

Rating: 3.5 of 5

Jeet Thayil’s second novel was an impulsive airport pick up, purely because of its stunning cover. In an interview before the book release, the author had lamented about the lack of recognition to the brilliant English language poets of Mumbai represented, among others by Dom Moraes, Arun Kolatkar & Nissim Ezekiel. The novel, he had said, was a part-tribute to the ‘Bombay Poets’ of the 70s and 80s. In equal measure, the novel also purports to document the headlong rush to obscurity of a genius/psychotic Goan-American fictional poet-painter Newton Francis Xavier. The reckless high-lows of Xavier’s life is narrated in two voices. One, as a series of interviews with his ‘loony’ mom, neighbors, teachers, ex-wives and a host of other characters by Dismas Bambai, a ragtag journalist who is recording an oral history of Xavier. Two, as a chronicle of Xavier’s journey from New York to Mumbai and finally to Delhi where he is travelling for one last hurrah, an exhibition before being consigned to oblivion.

Let’s first go over the good parts:

1. The writing: Thayil is a brilliant writer. His flow, the language, his ability to summon up a vision or emotion at will, his masterful use of a misplaced word that shakes you up, his exceptional knowledge of poets/poetry/painters/art and superb research – I haven’t seen a parallel in Indian writing. The use of poetry in the novel is again, brilliant. The first 250 pages are a pleasure to read.

2. Lovely use of different people’s interviews to introduce the early life & the bohemian & reclusive character of Xavier. Dismas Bambai goes back and forth from people and at different times to slowly unveil the events involving Xavier and his nature. The entire Hung Realist poetry movement (akin to Souza’s Progressive Artists Group? and the comic absurdities around various poets, their debaucheries and the politics of Indian poetry scene are rendered very well through these recordings.

3. Newton Francis Xavier is caricatured very well. A cursory google search on India’s well known painter Francis Newton Souza and the well-known poet Dom Moraes will bring up the unmistakable similarities in the life stories of the three. Xavier is portrayed as an awarded genius, once-successful, irreverent & depraved non-soul, obsessing after booze and younger women who he uses and discards without being ‘distracted by..love’, going down the abyss of personal and professional self-destruction. There seems to be a lot of Thayil in Dismas Bambai and Newton Xavier: that these characters running after heroin/booze/casual sex and that they are journos/poets give that away. In that sense, the book seems to be very personal to Thayil.

4. The disappointment of 20th century mumbaikar returning to the city in the 21st and the contempt of the Bombayite for everything north and especially Delhi brought out unhurriedly and well.

That’s about all the good I can think of from this behemoth of 500 pages: From book 4 (page 257 on my print version), Thayil meanders. The increasingly unhinged thinking & erratic behavior of Xavier, depicted in the book, maybe a plot device showing progressive disintegration of the character. If so, it is masterfully done. But unfortunately, from half-way point of the book, this comes across more as the author losing grip of his writing.

The intent to redeem the forgotten poets of the 70s and 80s is appealing. Thayil’s anguish is that Indian poets writing in English are an ignored lot (‘why no one has written about them?’). The ‘casteism’ of vernacular poets, the ‘brahminism’ of upper-caste poets & the ‘racist’ adulation of foreign poets by Indians is appropriately ranted against. Sadly however, Thayil himself makes no contribution in the book to endear them to us, other than listing over a hundred names of these forgotten poets. In fact, by depicting them as sociopathic, drunk, fornicating, misogynists (very few women poets!) irreverent of the society that they criticize, if the author wanted to create a halo of bohemian sainthood around them, the ploy doesn’t work unless one is a deep follower of these poetry cult-wizards. I wish he had put in some body and form into these poets describing their struggles or exemplifying their work, rather than holding up their in-fights or showing their addictions and homo/hetero encounters. Two exceptions to this are the depiction of Nissim Ezekiel’s bleak last days and an impassioned listing of dead poets many of whom killed themselves.

There are digressions in the form of opinions from every possible character & events at every available chance that seem unconnected to the dual themes of the book. While uniformly good in language, the writing tends to be verbose and the rant themes irrelevant. Even as the author’s comic takes on the diaspora, the 21st century America (Amurkha!), the Indian bureaucrats or the ‘tharki’ Delhi men most of these side-themes are neither funny nor visionary in their observations. Then there are real & surreal scenes. For example, there is a description of a movie scene where a man “performed cunnilingus on a woman whose cries of pleasure turned into screams when he began to eat her… through her panicked attempts to get away until she died on the sheets that had turned black with her blood”. The scene shook you up but leaves you wondering as to why it was there in the first place! Another example is the whole ringside to the 9/11 attack. Following this, a Sikh character takes off from New York to Arizona to express solidarity with a Sikh family whose member has been mistakenly shot following the 9/11 backlash. The whole of this is highly engaging but is completely irrelevant to the book! In other words the book should have been 150 pages shorter 🙂

On page 439, the author says through one of the characters, “The scene went on and on pitilessly, until it seemed the director must take some special pleasure in the depiction, that it was her own excitement she was pursuing”. Though the first half was written brilliantly, this sentence sums up the rest of the book, that appears intensely personal to the author! Strongly recommend the first half!


It takes an odd gumption and a total mastery over the medium to make a film like ‘Dunkirk’. You can’t think of anyone better than Christopher Nolan to do this.

Provided with the barest minimum of background, the viewer is hurled into the terse action of a World War II incident. It’s all around you, all the time. The scenes over the skies, in the sea and the beach are breathtaking. Background score is brilliant, drums pounding out the inevitable doom unless when they accelerate tempo to signify visceral action. The staccato of the machine guns, the pounding of the cannons and the empty sound of the sea engulf your heart not the ear.

The way Nolan converges three parallel plot timelines with different tempos (a few days of a soldier, a few hours of a civilian rescuer and an hour or so of a fighter pilot) inexorably into the very climax is superb and must be a cinematic highpoint. What a master storyteller!

There’s hardly a skeleton of a story. No strategy rooms, no lonely soldier pining for his beloved from the trenches, no martyrs wrapped in flags to gun salutes. There is no invincible hero fighting behind enemy lines or evil enemy commanders. Indeed there is no filmy heroism or villainy.

But there’s emotion, raw and nearly all of it understated: fear, despair, desperation and glimpses of grit. There is very little drama not when men do good under duress, but when they crack. There’s no celebration at crisis resolution: only acceptance, tired faces, hung heads and relief.

And above all there’s character: in the father, who lost his first son three weeks into the war, who sails into ground zero in his private boat to rescue stranded soldiers with his second teenage son; in the British admiral who stays back to evacuate every man in his watch and then waits to help the French soldiers; in the RAF fighter pilot who saves the day going after a Luftwaffe bomber though he has run out of fuel and in the boy who forgives a war-stricken soldier who accidentally killed the boy’s mate.

This is pure war. And pure cinema. Whoever thought that you could say so less yet tell so much!
Just don’t miss this beauty!

IMG_2088Paul Beatty’s 2016 Man Booker winning book, ‘The Sellout’ is actually an outrageous rant on ‘post-racial’ America. By structure it is barely passable as a novel. Here, in a tone that’s somewhere between hilarious and satirical, Beatty points to all things that are racial in the United States at the precise time when – ironically – the first black president of the US was in office. Lightning pen in hand, Beatty demolishes the myth of Integration like Darth Vader severing Skywalker’s arm (the nod to Star Wars is there!)

The book has a meagre and absurd storyline. As I said, for a large part the novel is actually a series of savage, bizzare and humorous outages on Unmitigated Blackness, as he calls it. But the lack of a coherent plot doesn’t bother you because of the vividness of the verbal broadsides and a myriad incisive allusions Beatty makes in half-jest simply blow your imagination.

‘Bonbon’ Me is a “farm nigger” (In his own words – oh, Beatty overwhelms you with the N-word, more often than plaits on an African woman’s hairdo, don’t you worry about me!), born to a half-mad professor of behavioral psychology and grows up home-schooled, doubling as a guinea pig to his dad’s many social experiments on Racism. That he survives this psychological trauma and ends up as a Camus-quoting, fruit growing, clear-headed maverick can be attributed to his high quality home grown weed varieties which he calls with whacky & imaginative names (code red, Ataxia, Anglophobia!) and on which he’s perennially high.

So, after his dad is shot by LAPD, the hero comes up with a bizarre plan to bring back his blackest black ghetto town (Murder capital of the world) named Dickens (oh, irony! Take that Jim!) which has disappeared under the conspiratorial mushrooming of white suburbs around. He decides to revive it by ‘reverse-segregation’ and ends up being tried in the Supreme Court. I won’t give away more spoilers than these.

The caricatures he creates – Hominy Jenkins, the last surviving actor from The Little Rascals, a racist children’s TV show of the yore, Marpessa, a could-have-been-brain-surgeon, Kafka-reading bus driver girlfriend of the hero who’s married to a rapper & Foy Cheshire, a manipulative black pseudo-intellectual – are comical, outrageous and lively all at once.

The high-point of Beatty’s novel, apart from the Oreo-black angst, is the language. The silly ease with which he brings out irony, sarcasm, weirdness, rhetoric and comedy, flipping from mood to mood (never sadness though), often in the same sentence is a delight to read. Sample this ‘The incessant magic tricks that produced dollar pieces out of thin air and the open-house mind games that made you think that the view from the second-floor Tudor style miracle in the hills would soon be yours are designed to fool us into believing that without daddies and the fatherly guidance they provide, the rest of our lives will be futile Mickey Mouseless I-told-ya-so existences’. This is no trick-writing, this is head/heart to pen magic. There’s so much literary energy in the book that the plot becomes irrelevent and seemingly whimsical at most times.

My main gripe about the book is this: Of the humongous number of references to cinema, books, rap, skirmishes and LA urban folklore that Beatty uses to effortlessly adorn the book, I couldn’t recognise more than a tenth. Reading the book with Wikipedia open would have probably allowed me to enjoy the book even more.

Fabulous read! Go for it!

A dear friend and colleague, Dr Vivek Baliga has written this very informative article about heart attack on his blog.

Here’s the link:

http://heartsense.in/chest-pain-and-heart-attacks-what-to-do/

Coronary Stents
Coronary stents have been around for a few decades. They are used to treat narrowed arteries of the heart to alleviate cardiac chest pain, termed angina, and during a heart attack while performing life saving coronary angioplasties. Nearly all of the coronary stents are made of metal and crudely resemble a spring inside your ballpoint pen. The best long-term results are seen with drug eluting stents (DES) that are essentially the metallic stents coated with special medicines to improve performance.
Downside of metallic stents
Metallic stents including DES, have a few perceived drawbacks. The main ones are:
1. A metal is left behind after an angioplasty. Some patients are conscious that they are carrying a foreign object. This is perhaps the least of the concerns.
2. Very late stent failure (>1 year after implantation) and Very very late stent failure (>5 years after implantation) are known to occur. These are related to presence of the metal or the adhesive that binds the metal to the drug.
3. Coronary arteries have dynamic physical properties. For example, expansion of calibre when more flow of blood is needed termed vasodilation. They also possess biochemical properties such as secretion of local hormones that are beneficial. The metal from the DES cages the artery from inside this preventing it from demonstrating these properties.
4. If long segments of coronary arteries are treated with metallic DES, in the event of a subsequent Bypass surgery, the cardiac surgeon has difficulty finding a place to stick the grafts.
Case for Stents that dissolve after their job is over!
 A stent that would stay for 3-6 months after implantation and disappear after that would be an ideal foil to address these problems. This was the premise with which scientists invented Absorbable Stents. The basic material used to build absorbable stents could be either metal (magnesium, zinc) or polymer (Poly-L-lactic acid, PLLA) that has appropriate degradation characteristics.
Absorb™ BVS
The absorbable stent that has shown the best performance is the Abbott’s Bioresorbable Vascular Scaffold (BVS), Absorb™. Absorb is the only fully dissolvable stent system approved for clinical use (also received FDA approval in July 2016). The clinical evidence for its efficiency and safety comes from a series of clinical research trials called as the ABSORB trials.
In ABSORB trial 29 of the 30 patients who underwent implantation of the BVS, first reported in 2011), continued to​ do well at 5 years. The comparative study of the BVS with Abbott’s own best performing metallic DES, Xience™ called ABSORB II showed that as late as 2 years on, the two stents were more or less similar in efficacy and safety. The patients with the BVS had similar relief from symptoms and somewhat similar, low failure rates. But it was really the results of the ABSORB III a large enough study for doctors to generalise conclusions from that really proved that the BVS performed as well as the DES. The abrupt and gradual failures​ of the BVS were seen in a few patients more than with the DES but the statistical analysis suggested that it was due to chance rather than a true difference between the stents. With these results, and the USFDA approval, the BVS was ready to go places. In India and some European countries the Absorb BVS was already popular even before the USFDA approval.
Is there an issue now?
While superficially the promise seems to hold, of late some mixed signals are emerging with the use of Absorb BVS. The 3-year results from ABSORB II trial showed a higher rate of heart attack and stent failure with the BVS compared to the metallic DES. The difference was so striking that the trial’s lead investigator, Dr Patrick Serruys termed these results as unexpected and disappointing. The setback seemed more alarming because it happened in patients who were not expected to have these complications. In fact, these were the patients who were being regularly followed up and had shown no warning signs of problems!
Are there signals from ABSORB lll?
The ongoing trial ABSORB III has also shown some issues when the BVS is implanted in coronary arteries of smaller calibre. The lead investigator of that trial, Dr Stephen Ellis has cautioned against the use of BVS in smaller vessels. The manufacturer Abbott Vascular seems to endorse this view, at least partially.
What happens now?
Experts acknowledge that there are some niggling issues with the current iteration of the absorbable stent. Clearly, they cannot be used in all types of arteries from all types of patients. So over enthusiastic implantation regardless of patient type just because of patient’s request or affordability is a definite no!
Secondly, Absorbable Stent technology is a definite breakthrough. Further research from scientists will certainly iron out the issues faced by the first generation of dissolvable stent systems. Until then, bioabsorbable stents are meant for very select individuals in carefully monitored environments such as research trials and registries.
Cardiac doctors have been very perceptive and careful in examining and reporting even minor failures. It is this culture of scientific temperament that has lead to tremendous advances in cardiology. We look forward to great times ahead.