Monday, December 22, 2008

Interview with Jeremy Boraine, publisher of Zuma biography

Jeremy Boraine, publishing director of Jonathan Ball is interviewed about Jeremy Gordin's new biography of Jacob Zuma. He talks generally about the publishing landscape in South Africa as well as another title, The Arms Deal in Your Pocket by Paul Holden. He is speaking to David Ansara at Exclusive Books, Hyde Park before the official address by Blade Nzimande. (Wednesday, 10th December, 2008).

: We’re here with Jeremy Boraine, who is the publishing director of Jonathan Ball, which is publishing Zuma: A Biography by Jeremy Gordin. Tell us Mr. Boraine, how was the book conceived, what was the genesis of it?

JB: It was actually an idea that I had. I felt that Zuma was a very interesting character, he was in the spotlight as it were. And it appeared likely that he would rise to the top, there was a good chance of that. And so I cast around for an author. Jeremy Gordin was recommended to me by one of my other authors and I approached him and we discussed it. Jeremy seemed like the right person because he was active in writing political journalism and in particular he had followed some of the trials and tribulations of Jacob Zuma. So I guess that’s the genesis of the book.

DA: Well it seems long overdue, a biography on Jacob Zuma. Are there any revelations in the book, anything we don’t know about Mr. Zuma outside of the cut-and-thrust of the daily news articles?

JB: Well I think he has been well-covered in the newspapers so I don’t think… this isn’t a book that seeks to expose new secrets. I mean Zuma’s, you know, been well covered in that regard. I think what Jeremy has tried to do - Jeremy Gordin - has tried to do, […] and I think as the publisher we sort of had the same intention, is that here’s this important political figure whether you like it or not so here is his story for better or for worse.

It’s certainly not the final word on Jacob Zuma, and of course it has Jeremy Gordin’s opinions in it as well, but it is an attempt to reflect on the full life of Jacob Zuma from his birth until the current day. Much is known about the last six or eight years - the trials, the tribulations, whatever - but not that much is known about his years in Robben Island, or where he grew up, or his early political days. So it’s an attempt to explore that fully, but as I said it’s certainly not the final word but we think, we hope, that it is required reading because he’s destined - very likely - to be our next president.

DA: Well it almost seems like it should have in brackets “part one” and part two to follow later on, post-presidency.

JB: Yes, well that’s it, if he does make it as president and serves five years or ten years, whatever, I mean he said that he will only serve one term then perhaps a new edition or volume two will be forthcoming.

DA: Well, politicians say all sorts of things, as we know.

JB: Yes.

DA: What do you think about the publishing landscape at the moment just in terms of how we write about our leadership? Do you think biography is the most adequate medium that we have? I know that Jonathan Ball’s had other titles...

JB: Yes, it’s a very good medium because it’s one that the public understands and likes to buy. So in other words one can be fairly confident if one publishes a biography that – as opposed to a collection of essays or some other form that it will be purchased by quite a few people. So in other words you can reach an audience through biography. Whether it’s the perfect means, you know every book has its own lenses. You know, it depends who writes it, authorized or unauthorized.

But going beyond biography, […] what makes the South African publishing landscaped different from say the UK or Australia is that political books sell very well. I think that certainly points to a country obsessed with politics with, you know, a lot of political change, a lot of political tension. And that is why we choose to publish in that genre because it is an exciting genre and people want to read about it and we like to keep our finger on the pulse.

DA: Sorry to throw you a bit of a curve ball but I read yesterday in the newspaper that Jonathan Ball has had a bit of trouble between two of its titles, The Arms Deal in Your Pocket and the Zuma biography issues with [being], you know, a bit too lenient with the referencing style. Do you care to comment on that?

JB: Yes, I can’t really say anything more now, other than they are both our authors and that makes that quite a sensitive matter. We are speaking to both authors about it and we are moving towards a settlement between the two authors and once we reach that settlement we will issue a statement. I’m afraid I can’t say more than that right now*.

DA: Tell us a little bit about Arms Deal in Your Pocket, what’s that all about?

JB: Well, it’s quite simply as it sounds, I hoped the title would be self-explanatory. Paul Holden is a young author with I think a great future. He approached us and the first time he approached us I turned him down because we were about to publish Andrew Feinstein’s book which also covered aspects of the Arms Deal, although of course it wasn’t only about that.

But then, upon reflection, after the success of Andrew’s book we then went back to Paul and sort of said we would love to do your book now and he finished it off and did a terrific job, it is really the Arms Deal in your pocket. If you want to know the A-Z of the Arms Deal, well then read that book. It’s short, it’s compelling, he’s done remarkable research.

DA: That type of material can often have quite a few legal implications. So, is that difficult for you to deal with some of the forensic detail and you know the external forces that might threaten [the publication].

JB: Paul’s a very good researcher and he was very very keen not to go beyond the available material so he was very careful in his research and certainly we had a lawyer read it and we have lawyers read many of our books because they are potentially libelous or cross a legal boundary. So we’ve had no comeback from it which is probably a compliment to Paul in terms of his research.

DA: Well, thank you Mr. Boraine, I think we need to go but it’s been a pleasure speaking to you.

JB: Thank you very much.


Photos by Mark Oppenheimer.

*Note: the controversy over the insufficient acknowledgment of Holden's words in the Gordin text was subsequently resolved between the two authors. See this post on BookSA: 'Happy ending for Holden, Gordin, Ball'

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Interview with Jeremy Gordin, biographer of Jacob Zuma

Author, journalist and poet Jeremy Gordin speaks to QPQ about his unauthorised biography of ANC President Jacob Zuma. Gordin discusses the man behind the political persona and the challenges of writing a biography on such a contentious figure. He is speaking to David Ansara at the official Jonathan Ball launch at Exclusives Books, Hyde Park. (Wednesday, 10th December 2008).

DA: We’re here with Jeremy Gordin, who is the author of Zuma: A Biography. Jeremy, speak us through the writing of this book. How did it all start?

JG: I actually went to the Hefer Commission where Zuma wasn’t but he ought to have been, which is why the chapter in the book is called ‘Hamlet without the prince’ and that’s when I started getting interested in him.

And then at the end of November, or even 2005 I started covering him after the Hefer Commission of 2002 – 2003. And in 2005, of course, he was fired by President Thabo Mbeki so I was covering him closely. And then there was the famous incident of November 12th when there was a rumour that a young woman – or a relatively young woman anyway, younger than he – had laid charges of rape against him. And we got a leak that she definitely had and I was put in touch with her through some people in the Zuma camp and she absolutely denied it.

So I wrote a story in the Sunday Independent for which I worked and I said that she denied it and named her. And Sunday Times came out with a story saying unequivocally that she had laid charges of being raped, and of course she had. And I was really annoyed – and embarrassed – because obviously I had been used by the Zuma camp. And that’s what got me really hooked and that’s what got me into the story.

DA: Just on that, I think something I find quite disingenuous is that the Zuma camp – especially in the build-up to Polokwane – always used to say that they have been vilified by the media that they are the scapegoats of the nation. But actually they used the media very judiciously and very shrewdly to push their own agenda as well.

JG: Sure, they absolutely did; both sides used the media to push their agenda and certainly the Zuma side did too.

DA: With those calculated leaks…

JG: There were calculated leaks like that. So anyway, I was hooked and then I really wanted to get into the story. […] And I made an effort to get to know these people and to meet Zuma. And I got to know Zuma, and you ask how has my perception of the story changed. It’s quite interesting because it went through kind of, you know, highs and lows because I liked him very much initially but as I got to know more about him I found my own kind of mood fluctuating, and I had to work very hard to make this really not about me and not about my perceptions but to try and tell the story in a narrative.

DA: What were some of those more gloomy moments?

JG: Well, more gloomy moments was when it finally sunk in – I’m a bit slow I’m afraid – when it finally sunk in that I had been used for example in that particular story. It actually came out at the rape trial that… I don’t know if you remember the rape trial that the woman who brought the charges, Kwezi said: “My police minders told me to talk to this guy Jeremy Gordin.” And I realized Zuma – not Zuma himself, I must stress – ‘cos I found out later who it was, somebody actually had a connection in the police force. That opened up the story. South Africa’s actually an amazing place. You have all kinds of people who are purportedly villains for example and yet have got friends from the struggle in high places.

DA: Yes, we were talking a bit about the rape trial. And how do you think Mr. Zuma conducted himself during that and especially his supporters [sic]? Do you think that he did enough to reign in his supporters when they were making very violent statements?

JG: I think that he reigned in his support…well I mean the question was he claimed he wasn’t controlling his supporters but I mean after his supporters behaved incredibly badly it was interesting that suddenly they were reigned in. So, there was someone controlling those supporters but they were reigned in after about two days; they behaved very badly.

DA: Mr. Zuma has a defamation suit that he has been in a protracted battle with; especially with cartoonists. Do you think that that is a wise step to take for a leader?

JG: I think that he has dropped it actually. My understanding is that those suits have all been dropped.

DA: Let’s talk a little bit about…

JG: My minder is calling me.. [interruption]

DA: Just one last point about Mr. Zuma the man. His personality, is it as strong and as effusive as people suggest?

JG: Well, strong and effusive are different as you know, but certainly strong but with a jovial overlay. And not very effusive although when he knows people well, he can be sort of effusive.

DA: Thank you Mr. Gordin, I look forward to reading the book.

JG: Thank you.


Photos by Mark Oppenheimer.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Interview with Blade Nzimande

Blade Nzimande, the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party, speaks about ANC President Jacob Zuma at the launch of the Jeremy Gordin biography, Zuma at Exclusive Books, Hyde Park (Wednesday, 10th December 2008).

BN: Well, I think that the book is an important contribution in terms of trying to understand, or lay a foundation to understand, Jacob Zuma much more holistically. Because our problem is that Jacob Zuma has always been approached from the standpoint of the things that have been happening in the past six/seven years and even with that in a very perverted and biased way. And the book is a contribution towards understanding the enormous contribution that he has made to the liberation of this country and the reconstruction.

DA: So you suggested in your speech that there are a lot of problems with the way that Mr. Zuma has been represented in the media. Could you elaborate on some of those?

BN: Yes, we think that most journalists, especially [the] overwhelming majority of editors, have really been so negative and biased you know against Zuma - some of it bordering on personal hatred actually – in a manner that I think has closed them off from trying to understand the individual and the context within which he is operating.

DA: I’ve heard you say that before, that they are driven by hatred. What do you think… where does that come from? What cultivates that hatred?

BN: I think it’s a fear of Mr. Zuma. You know, for many of the middle classes, sections of the middle classes. He is a humble man, born in rural areas, never had formal education, taught himself and taught by the struggle, very much respected by millions of workers and the poor of this country, I think that it makes some people uncomfortable unfortunately. Which shouldn’t be the case and as I was trying to say, Jacob Zuma as a person is a very nice man and as a person politically who is very open-minded to engaging and even listening to views that are contrary to his own without taking, you know, umbrage at that.

DA: Everybody knows that Mr. Zuma is a very nice man, he’s very personable, quick to laugh, but, I mean, are those the qualities we look for in leadership or do we [look for something more]?

BN: No, he’s more than that, he’s more than that. For me, as I said, he is an organic intellectual - an intellectual born out of the struggle - and he’s a leader, he’s a unifier. And I think that’s what South Africa needs now more than anything else, you know. We need someone who will bring hope to millions of our poor people, someone also who is a unifier, someone who listens. We think that the period we’re in in South Africa now requires a Jacob Zuma.

DA: When did you personally first meet with Mr. Zuma?

BN: In 1990, in Kwa-Zulu Natal.

DA: And what was the context of that meeting?

BN: The context was that I was serving in the regional executive committee of what was then the Natal Midlands. And Comrade Zuma was a national leader, of course already of the ANC and we had to meet in Kwa-Zulu Natal particularly around the issue of how to deal with the violence of that time. It was in that context that I met him.

DA: So in those eighteen or so years how has your relationship with him evolved?

BN: Well, it’s been a principled relationship, that’s how I would describe it, you know. We’ve had our differences, as I’ve said.

DA: Such as?

BN: Like around how to deal with the violence. Some of us in the early nineties felt that maybe he was emphasizing too much the question of talks with the IFP at the expense of arming our people to defend themselves, you know. But [we] later on realized that Comrade Zuma did not choose the one over the other but it was about the issue of what was the appropriate balance. Yes we had to defend our communities under enormous violence, but also it was important to try and engage and talk.

DA: You’re the General Secretary of the South African Communist Party…

BN: That’s the last one; ja.

DA: I would like to just talk about the state of communism in South Africa, the communist movement specifically…

BN: The South African Communist Party is very popular. Because we have been very principled and consistent in that we cannot be able to deepen our democracy unless we address the interests of the workers and the poor in this country. And we have waged many campaigns that are taking up issues that are affecting ordinary people: access to land; the question of being blacklisted by the credit bureaus; access to finance; the right to everyone to have a bank account; the right to health, the right to education; all those issues as the South African Communist Party we have taken up together with the people. And of course in the process educating our people that capitalism is no solution to the problems facing humanity. The crisis that we are facing now for us is not just a once-off thing, it is a deeper reflection of how capitalism is unable to deal with the problems facing our people.

DA: More communists in the cabinet, in Mr. Zuma’s cabinet?

BN: No, we don’t know, that’s up to Mr. Zuma when he appoints his own cabinet.

DA: Okay, thank you Mr. Nzimande bye-bye.


Photos by Mark Oppenheimer

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Interview with Mo Shaik

Part 1

DA: We’re here with Mo Shaik at Exclusive Books in Hyde Park at the launch of the Jeremy Gordin biography of Zuma, entitled "Zuma". So tell us Mr. Shaik, what are your initial thoughts of the book so far?

MS: Well, I’ve read that chapter that deals with the Hefer Commission for two reasons. One is to see whether he’s said any bad things and to see whether he’s got it quite right. And he didn’t say any bad things about me which I’m very happy [sic]. And secondly I like his writing style. It seems like it is an easily readable book and I hope it’s going to be informative.

DA: But also an important book because much has been said about Mr. Zuma for the last seven or eight years, he’s occupied a significant portion of our public space and our public attention. So how do you think Mr. Zuma has been represented and how do you think that deviates from your actual interactions with him and your actual experience of this man?

MS: I think to date Zuma’s representation has been influenced mainly by Zapiro’s description or Zapiro’s depiction of him as a bumbling fool, a guy who believes that AIDS can be solved by a shower. And that’s unfortunate for those who really know Zuma who find that he’s a much more amenable person, he’s a deep intellectual who thinks very hard about matters and is a leader who can bring together consensus like no other leader can.

DA: Okay, so I mean are you suggesting that his image has been distorted or…?

MS: Absolutely.

DA: Okay, but surely he is making these public statements himself? Recently he made some quite controversial statements about young pregnant girls and forcing people to attend school.

MS: Let me just say in the environment that we live in now, pre-election, COPE dominated, an anti, hostile media, I think anything that Zuma says will be turned and used against him. I’ve always said the only thing you’ve not blamed him for is climate change or global warming. That’s the only thing we’ve not blamed him for yet; but everything else we have. And I think comments that he has made in respect of pregnant children – pregnant girl children – about street children, etc are comments that we need to look at. We need to engage with this phenomenon.

What he’s trying to do by it - and some may think that he is out to shock - but the phenomenon of young girls getting pregnant is something that we as a society need to deal with. The street children issue is something we as a society need to deal with. We can’t keep ignoring the kids that we see at the robots who begging for money and then say well we live in a democracy but we don’t care shit about the children. Now, I think he is alerting us to these kind of issues. Of course, taken out of context, it can mean a whole lot of other things for the people who just simply are anti-Zuma.

DA: I find it interesting because in many ways Zuma often defers questions about his personality or his own role as an individual for the struggle for the end of apartheid and for democracy and his role within the ANC. So I think that a lot of ANC leaders are quite averse to that kind of scrutiny. Do you think that this biography will show us more of the man behind the public persona?

MS: I think it’s the beginning of starting to see the man in a different light and I think it is the beginning of getting to know Zuma in a very different way. I think, and you’re right in the sense that he is shy to speak of himself which is understandable given the kind of period we have been through now.

DA: But is that good for a democracy?

MS: Yes [… ] we must avoid the trap that other countries have gone into where you want to see in your leaders everything about their private lives. I think we need to separate constantly the public from the private and I think that’s good for a democracy.

DA: Surely that’s the sacrifice of leadership, that…?

MS: No, not necessarily… We are standing in a public place but I don’t want to know the colour of your underwear, do you?

DA: I’d rather not reveal that!

MS: Exactly.

DA: I think people often overlook the fact that Mr. Zuma played a very dominant role in the Mbeki administration. He was deputy president for several years.

MS: No, he’s not played a dominant role. If you look at the way the Mandela administration was structured and then the way the Mbeki administration was structured we will see that under Mandela the deputy presidency had an enormous role to play but under Mbeki the deputy presidency was watered down. And I think that is what happened and the presidency, as in the president’s office assumed a greater role. I think under the Mbeki administration the deputy presidency was a watered-down role.

Part 2

DA: What do you think are the challenges posed by the break-away movement, the Congress of the People?

MS: Well, I think essentially what they are going to do is racialise politics in this country. For example, they will as COPE become, in my view the next official opposition. But, in the process of doing that, they are going to make the DA a more white party, they will make the Independent Democrats an all-coloured party and they will make the UDM an all-Xhosa party.

DA: What is there to suggest that that will actually happen?

MS: Well, it’s simple if you read the political history. Why would anyone want to vote DA if you have a so-called credible black party? Most of the whites will vote for COPE, who believe that COPE has the chance to form an effective opposition. Only those who have historically been with the DA will vote for DA and that will be whites. The same will happen with the coloured community in Cape Town. They will now see COPE as a credible opposition, they will vote for COPE and only those who are really either kith or kin will go for Patricia de Lille in the ID. So you will see that racialisation happening.

DA: So, has the formation of COPE given the ANC pause to consider what have we done to alienate a significant portion of our following?

MS: Let’s be clear on why COPE has been formed. COPE has been formed because there were undemocratic people who could not accept the outcome of the Polokwane conference and everything else has been for that. So it’s people who have been used to power. And please don’t forget that they are the ones who have been ministers and premiers of Gauteng, etc for the past fifteen years. And they are the ones who [have] now formed the new party. Now any party that is formed on an anti-basis does not survive. I’ve made this point before: that you do not demonstrate your democratic characteristics or tendencies by engaging in an undemocratic way.

DA: One of the unfortunate side-effects of the run-up to Polokwane was the politicization and the factionalism experienced within the state institutions. I know you have a background in intelligence and the Hefer Commission dealt a lot with the role of the intelligence agency, the NIA. What are the challenges that the NIA is facing and how can we re-structure our intelligence services to be less political?

MS: Well, I think the challenge – and that’s a very good question – the challenge that the country will be facing is how do we ensure that we have a non-political partisan civil service and how do we ensure that there is a professionalization of the civil service? And how do we ensure that the civil service becomes efficient and effective in their delivery. Those are the challenges that the government – any government will have to deal with. If you recall, the Nicholson judgement went to the heart of the abuse of state power by President Mbeki and his cabinet. And I think that we will still be grappling with that issue for a while but I think now that we have the Nicholson judgement there is a challenge to the new government to ensure that we now begin the process of the professionalization of the civil service.

DA: Lastly, the elephant in the room, with this book specifically, is going to be the Arms Deal. Do you think that President Motlanthe and his decision to reject the call by Desmond Tutu and de Klerk and others for a judicial inquiry – an independent inquiry – into the Arms Deal? Do you think that that’s justified? What are your thoughts on that?

MS: Well, my view is that the Arms Deal is the most prostituted whore in this country. Everyone who’s had anything to say about it has had something to say about it. But the truth of the matter is it’s been in international investigations and constantly the question was put the proof before the courts, before the police, and no-one’s been able to come up with anything other than speculation, other than gossip, other than what has been regurgitated all this while. Now whether a commission will put that to bed I don’t know.

Because at the heart of it lies politics, lies international politics, lies national politics. And, for example, if you look at the two people who have been prosecuted for corruption in the Arms Deal, the one being Tony Yengeni, the other being Schabir Shaik, none of it was about substantial payment of money from the arms dealers to these people. With Schabir Shaik it was his own money. In the case of Yengeni it was a discount on a car. And I think if we do want to have a commission it would be good if Tutu and de Klerk made that call while Mbeki was the President of the country. Then it would have been courageous of them.

Secondly, I think if we want to have a commission of enquiry into the Arms Deal, it must be a commission of enquiry of all the facets, including, including prosecuting those who have illegally used information of the state to discredit other people. And on that example, Andrew Feinstein should be prosecuted.

DA: Alright, contentious remarks from Mo Shaik, as always.

MS: Not at all, not at all, it’s democracy!

DA: Thank you very much for speaking to Quid Pro Quo.


Photos by Mark Oppenheimer

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interview with Pippa Green

DA: We’re here with Pippa Green, who’s the author of Choice, Not Fate, the biography of Trevor Manuel. Pippa, take us through the process of writing biography, especially somebody, a subject such as Mr. Manuel, somebody who has been in the headline recently. I mean, what is it like to embark on a project of this scale?

PG: Well, it’s quite a responsibility I suppose, because you have to make sure that everything’s right. There’s a lot of checking to do, a lot of research to do. But it’s also a real priviledge because it gives you an insight into the lives of people – not only him but a lot of others – who made our history what it is. And I think that’s quite an extraordinary thing. In South Africa we haven’t told our own stories enough but we’re beginning to do that now.

DA: What was the genesis of the book?

PG: I had always thought, I had long thought that he had an interesting story to tell and I asked him if I could write his biography about five or six years ago. And I started working on it three years ago.

DA: It was alluded to in the presentations that a lot of the book is more about the times of Trevor Manuel rather than the man himself. Do you think that the historical elements are more interesting than the subject? He does have quite a personality and a public profile.

PG: Yes, I’ve tried to marry them, I’ve tried to interweave. What is important is his place in history and the role that he’s played. So I’ve tried to marry the two. And sometimes you have to take a step back from the narrative and say this is what is actually what was happening around at the time. I hope that it’s interesting, but I don’t believe you can understand people without the historical context.

DA: There’s been a real plethora of biographies. There’s another biography on Jacob Zuma, the excellent example is Mark Gevisser’s biography on Thabo Mbeki. Do you think that South Africa is suffering from a bit of a saturation of biographies? Do you think maybe a different medium would be more appropriate in the future?

PG: I don’t think so, I don’t think we have enough, and I don’t think we tell our own stories properly. After the American Revolution people began to tell the story of the founding fathers, the signers of the constitution. I think that it’s only recently that we have begun to tell our own history because some people have only begun to get the confidence to do it recently. And I hope there are many, many more; there are incredible people to tell stories about in the country.

DA: And in the whole course of writing the book, which section or chapter stands out for you? Which was the most challenging and which was the most compelling for you personally?

PG: Well, I think it was most fun writing the section on the Emergency years and his time in jail. I think what was most difficult was the economic policy, the making of economic policy. I had to really work hard to make sure that I understood things correctly.

DA: And did you have any personal interactions with Mr. Manuel and his family?

PG: We did quite a lot of interviews. I interviewed his family, I interviewed him probably about twenty or so times over a period of three years.

DA: How accessible was he?

PG: Look you can’t just make an appointment for the next day, but we used to schedule them about once a month. He agreed to my doing it, it wasn’t authorized, it was my work, but he did make the time for me to do it in the beginning. Afterwards when we got later on it got more difficult, simply because of time constraints but we still managed to squeeze the last three in.

DA: Trevor Manuel is often vilified as one of the key protagonists of the “1996 Class Project”, the so-called neo-liberal revolution in South Africa. Do you think he has been unfairly treated by those on the left or other members of the Tripartite Alliance?

PG: I don’t think it’s right. If you read the book you will see that he wasn’t that vilified. I mean, I have both Vavi and Cronin saying complimentary things about him. There also was the issue that we were really poised on the brink of a debt crisis – I mean a very serious debt crisis. And there were certain decisions that needed to be made. He was the guy who was in the seat who had to make them. But I think the book looks at some of the issues around and the debates around the macroeconomic policy and what drove it. Because in a biography what you have to do is to understand what drives people and certain points of history.

DA: Alright Pippa Green, thanks very much for speaking to Quid Pro Quo, it’s been an absolute pleasure.

PG: Thanks very much indeed for having me, thank you.

Monday, December 8, 2008

City of Ghosts

View of Delhi from a Minaret of the Jamma Masjid.

City of Djinns
William Dalrymple

A young historian and his wife leave their Scottish home to live in Delhi for a year in the 1980s. The book is part travel-log, part historical narrative of a city with multiple, fractured pasts and a peculiar populous.

Dalrymple takes us deep into the courts of the Moghul emperors; particularly the succession struggle between Aurangzeb and his brothers - brought on by the faltering health of their father, Shah Jahan (of Taj Mahal fame). It is this conflict, of familial betrayal and fratricide, that set off the slow decline into tyranny that eventually felled the once mighty Muslim empire.

Other accounts are of eunuchs, Anglo-Indians, the heat (all-encompassing) and forays into archaeology. The most lasting image is of a pre-British Old Delhi, bedecked in jewels and flowing with water features; a city so cultured, it was said that even the prostitutes could sing in Urdu verse.

The book is hampered by its inability to pass judgement - merely conveying the quirks of characters and dynasties rather than elaborating on some brutal historical episodes. As a result, the effects of Islamic dominance on India's national self-understanding are left underexplored.

However, in its totality, City of Djinns is a fascinating book and any visitor to India should have it on their reading list.


Photograph by David Ansara

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Cracks in the Glass


Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger


The acclaimed author of Catcher in the Rye, Jerome David Salinger, has produced a handful of works, one of which is Franny and Zooey, a novella in two parts. Catcher is one of my favourite pieces of fiction because it so deftly captures the atomised nature of post-War America and the sense of disaffection that many young men feel in the face of stifling societal norms. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I approached this work.

However, given Salinger’s reputation, I found Franny and Zooey for the most part a disappointment. It is a tale of an eccentric New York family, the Glass’s, who fancy themselves as the aristocrats of the north eastern intelligentsia. The precocious children (of whom the titular Franny and Zooey are two) all appeared on a radio show as kids - a trivia programme for prodigies called “Wise Child”. They have since emerged into young adulthood, the old certainties are lost, and each is trying to find his or her way in a confusing malaise.

Following a luncheon with her egotistical boyfriend, Franny suffers a mental breakdown and returns home. She is desperate to escape the demands of the public and to retreat into the life of spiritual recluse, but Zooey will have none of it. The latter part of the book sees her brother's efforts to halt her downward descent with discussions on the meaning of art and religion – with much repartee in between.

Franny and Zooey is written with the effortless style that is Salinger’s signature, with colloquial speech (like the ubiquitous "goddam") mixing with reflections on human nature and Eastern mysticism (which must have been bloody esoteric in the late 1950s!). The text also explores the duty of artists to create, and their struggle to find emotional peace amongst the churning waves of that creativity.

Salinger sketches characters with remarkable dexterity, and you are immediately drawn into their world. However, what he depicts is merely an episode in that world rather than a fully developed narrative. Considering that my edition was just over 200 pages, too much time was spent describing unnecessary details - like the bric-a-brac in the living room - and not enough on unwrapping the relationship dynamics and inner tensions of these compelling people.

I love short fiction, but this book’s brevity was a hindrance rather than a help. The usual rule-of-thumb with shorter pieces is that every sentence should count and I think JD wastes a lot of time with descriptive prose. Either the book should have been longer, or more focused, but as it stands it feels incomplete.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Messiah of the Proleteriat



By Peter Singer

Part of the ‘Past Masters’ series, this short account of Karl Marx’s life and thinking is a useful introduction to the philosopher, but with enough expository points to interest readers more familiar with his work.

Singer, who has also written about the ethical treatment of animals and is known as a liberal utilitarian, prefers to focus on the normative and conceptual strands in Marx’s writing rather than the technical details or practical politics of Marxist governance.

An introductory biographical chapter is followed by a discussion of Marx’s intellectual evolution as a Hegelian and his building on the theory of dialectical materialism. The principal ideas of Marx’s historical determinism - of economics as the chief form of alienation, and the working class as the liberating force of humanity - are discussed with clarity and critical insight.

This is paralleled with vivid descriptions of the life and impact of one of the most influential people ever, and how Nineteenth Century industrial Europe shaped his theoretical output and radical political struggles. Singer notes (at the time of writing) that four out of every ten citizens on earth were living under governments that claimed to be run along Marxist principles. But his impact was far greater than this, as the author duly observes:

“Can anyone now think about society without reference to Marx's insights into the links between economic and intellectual life? Marx’s ideas brought about modern sociology, transformed the study of history, and profoundly affected philosophy, literature and the arts. In this sense of the term – admittedly a very loose sense – we are all Marxists now.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mumbai burns

.The Taj Mahal Palace hotel

It was with great concern that I witnessed last week's events in Mumbai, where gunmen killed over a hundred and fifty people and injured hundreds more. The city holds a particular relevance for me as I had the pleasure of visiting there in January 2007.

It is a place where colonial architecture sits alongside modern sky-scrapers with pavement slums squeezed in between; where the warm fuzz of the sea air radiates through you lending the surroundings an electric quality. It is the only truly cosmopolitan city in India, it's people are intelligent and dynamic, and it is possibly the one place in the country where I would consider living. However, beneath the idyllic exterior lurks a tumult of violence and intolerance which every now and then boils to the surface as it did last Wednesday.

Even more disturbing for me is the fact that I visited two of the four sites of the terrorist attacks, the Taj Mahal Palace as well as Leopold Cafe (made famous by the novel Shantaram). As a stand-alone image, the blood on the restaurant floor is upsetting enough; the fact that I felt that floor beneath my feet, remember the texture of the tables where I ate and drank and the people who served me, is especially chilliing.

Inside Leopold's

Amidst all of the chaos of last week it is pertinent to ask what motivates terrorists to do what they do. I feel passionately about my ideas sometimes and can get pretty irritable when others refuse to reconsider their opinions in the face of my arguments. But the anger that everyone feels at ignorance or misunderstanding is but a fraction compared to the rage that drove those dozen or so men to kill on such a grand scale.

Gateway of India, in the Mumbai harbour.
When I visited this was the venue of a jazz and classical Indian
fusion music show. It is also where the terrorists landed their boats
before storming the Taj hotel across the road (from
where I took this picture)

A large part of it has to do with religion, not only fanaticism, but religion in general. Religious feeling, particularly monotheism, instills the notion that only you have access to the Truth and that others' humanity is demeaned and deprecated by their varying interpretations of the world - be it the physical or the metaphysical.

Maybe those individuals would have found other reasons to pick up their weapons. Although the terrorists were Pakistani, many Muslims, particularly in Maharashtra, have lived a life of exclusion and deprivation, inhabiting the outer margins of the India Shining construction. There are some serious questions that need answering about the way in which the hundred million-strong minority of the adherents of Islam are treated in India and the extent to which an inclusive nationalism is promoted in that country.

Statue of Gandhi in a park
in downtown Mumbai.

But there is no excuse for what these men have done. They have taken away so many lives and ruined so many more and they have probably hardened the resolve of the Hindu hard-line. Under these circumstances, the words of Mahatma Gandhi are a fitting rebuke to terror:

"There are many causes that I am prepared to die for, but no causes that I am prepared to kill for."

If only this message had been heeded. How easy it is to destroy what others have taken so long to build.


Photos by David Ansara, Jan 2007