Category Archives: Fiction

What a Quaint Idea

S. prepared to leave his hermetically sealed house for work. Outside, the great city of Delhi, also known as the Big Kof, stirred to life. Giant purifiers rumbled in the outskirts, trying, and failing, to maintain the mandated PM 2.5 AQI of 1200. In the hinterland, the shattered remnants of a centuries-old agricultural society struggled to save the harvest season.

No birds sang.

Miniaturisation and Some Problems in Respiratory Mechanisms for Avians. In one of his explorations of the city’s archives, in the academic section, S. had found this old paper from one of the bigger scientific journals. The biggest journals, of course, were about respiratory mechanisms, miniaturisation and portability. This paper was a several thousand-word white flag, admitting that birds and breathing masks didn’t go together. And hermetically sealed birdcages were not a sound investment in a world falling apart. So there were no birds left to sing.

S. waited at his doorstep for his vehicle, listening to the hiss as his door sealed shut. Goggles protected his eyes from the early morning smog. Today it was a Level IV, which meant he ran an immediate risk of temporary blindness if he were to remove them, which he wasn’t going to.

There wasn’t much to see. The road disappeared a dozen feet away, and his neighbouring houses were dim visions. An Air Police car went past, the masked policeman giving S. a quick glance. Not that they would suspect him of anything. This neighbourhood had administrative officers and researchers, hardly the place to find a malcontent. The Air Police prowled the city, looking for Violaters: anybody out jogging, or exercising, or, Vayu forbid, sneaking around on a contraband bicycle. The Governing Council authorised strict and immediate action against anybody trying to breathe more than permitted, and strenuous exercise was a Red Violation. Immediate banishment, and complete denial of respiratory aid. It was rarely revoked. A few weeks, and it became a capital punishment.

The government vehicle arrived, and S. was sealed in for the rest of the journey. He was senior archivist at the Documents section, which oversaw the storage of every single piece of administrative and academic printed material. And any historical documents which had been saved.

It was the Red Season of the year 178 ATS, that is, After The Smog. There were three seasons of the year, with Red coinciding with a slight dip in the temperature. In his researches, S. had discovered that the pre-Smog people used to call it ‘winter’ from a very ancient word, ‘wintruz’, which meant ‘the wet period’. But the Red Season was neither cold nor wet. It was Red because the air quality was in the Red Zone, the worst of the year.

The best time of the year, people said, was the Blue Season, because tiny parts of the sky could be seen if one stared upwards for a few minutes, on a good day. S. did not bother either way. The differences in periods of the year were just academic.

Of the events immediately preceding the Smog, very little could be reliably established. What was known was the basis for industrial society had been saved, although there had been losses. Populations had been decimated. Small towns and small cities were in ruins. The Big Kof had endured because of what historians S. knew called ‘urban inertia’, that is, a city could actually be large enough, and chaotic enough, to survive an event like that, and the deaths of a few million. So Delhi had grown and enveloped its outlying urban centres, and a megapolis had emerged. The agricultural areas around it, dependant on city dwellers for their markets, had also survived precariously.

The rest of what had once been a country was largely shattered, except a few cities as big as Delhi.

But much of what had caused that cataclysm was still unknown. Some documents survived; most had not been permitted to by the Governing Council. Too complicated for a society whose members already had to deal with the physical complexities of daily existence. The dominant and official theory was farmers of the hinterland had risen in revolt over some obscure grouse and burnt their crops, causing the thickest smog in the history of mankind to envelop the city permanently. But there were heretical positions on this, uttered in whispers.

S. went to his office from the underground parking area. There was a lot of work, and some pending requests for locating material in archives. His colleague, T., had already arrived. T. drove himself, and was a member of the ruling party. There was really just the one party, but appearances had to be maintained, or the other cities would laugh at them.

The ruling party blamed the farmers for the cataclysm two centuries earlier. Committed party members firmly believed that the air quality was better than in the past, and they also advocated the continued and indiscriminate use of SUVs. Therefore the ruling political formation was known as the Suvver Party. It frowned on the idea of public transport. Anyway, almost everyone who used public transport in the pre-Smog years had died after the cataclysm because they could not afford the expensive respiratory devices or the sealed houses, as S. had discovered in the archives.

T. was a Suvver, and therefore powerful, although he was not a bad worker. S. nodded at him and got to work.

The rules were very strict about speech. Even inside sealed government buildings, air flow was regulated, and workers were warned about not using more than their allotted share. So long speeches, or conversations longer than the very brief, were discouraged. Raised voices were a serious offence. Phones came with auto-cutoffs to prevent long conversations. Any action that could cause overuse of the air supply was punishable. Even names were reduced to a few syllables. S. remembered a famous case where a low-ranking official had been found with an antique walking machine in his house. The records said the machine used to be called a ‘treadmill’ by the ancients. The official had been banished from the city immediately.

S. got back to his work. There were reports of more Breather activity in the suburbs.

***

“So, you saw the reports,” said V., at his house, after S. arrived in the evening. This was their weekly informal gathering, with a few other friends. At least none of them were Suvvers, so S. could relax with them.

V. was a noted expert on miniaturisation, and a talented engineer, and thus favoured by the Council. This was one of the few residences in the city where the oxygen usage was not permanently monitored.

There were half-a-dozen of the friends already present, a collection of senior doctors, a chemist, a webcaster and other specialists.

“So, you saw the reports,” said V. again.

“About the Breathers? Yes,” said S.

“Is it true that more graffiti has turned up in the suburbs?” asked J., the webcaster.

“Yes, and at several places,” said S.

“Fundamentalists,” said P., the chemist, a moderate.

The Breathers had suddenly emerged a few years ago. From some stray reports, their activities had become a regular occurrence, and the Air Police had been deployed to track them down. Mainly, what the Breathers seemed to want was purer air. What exactly that implied, nobody knew. Their graffiti asked for the right to breathe without masks, for instance. They asked for lower restrictions on air usage, and uniform distribution to the less privileged. They called for use of public transport, and smaller, fuel-efficient vehicles.

“Radicals. Utopians. Some of the graffiti, I am told, even says there was a time when people breathed without masks, and went for runs in the open,” added P.

“Theoretically, that may not have been impossible, you know,” said V.

“Yes, in the pre-industrial world. Theoretically, the great god Vayu, in which our beloved Suvvers believe so much, also exists,” retorted P.

“Anyway, S., someone gave me this, so I wanted you to take a look and tell me what you think of it,” said V.

It was a fragment of what appeared to be an official report from a monitoring agency. It was not too different from what the Governing Council issued. But it indicated that the AQI of PM 2.5 was 80. S. looked up, incredulous.

“When was it dated?”

“We do not know. It is only a fragment. It is said to be from the early 2000s, by pre-Smog reckoning,” said V.

Nearly two decades before the cataclysm.

“So, what do you think?”

“Clearly a forgery.”

“That’s what I told them,” said P., triumphantly. “It has been proven that AQI of PM 2.5 has historically never been lower than 800. It’s just Breather propaganda, but they don’t know where to stop. 600, or even 500, and we could just dismiss it as a fairy tale. But 80? That’s just a poor forgery.”

“But that does not mean they are wrong to demand better air quality,” said Q., a respiratory diseases specialist.

“What, you are a Breather now?” asked P.

“No, but are you a Suvver?” said Q.

The chemist and the doctor had these friendly arguments all the time.

“You know if you start discussing what the Breathers want, there will be no end to it. You don’t want to engage with radicals, or you will go down a series of rabbit holes,” said P.

“A rabbit,” explained J., the webcaster, “Was a small burrowing mammal of the family Leporidae, now extinct, of course. The metaphor refers to a theoretically unending or complicated topic.”

S. thought about the fragments which V. had got from his sources in the past. Some claimed to be from the years just before the Smog. Some talked about policies by the long-dead administrators of the city.

“You remember that paper which talked about something called the Odd-Even system? Something about rationing car usage?” asked S.

“Of course. A card-carrying Suvver would have a cardiac arrest if he were to read it,” said V.

“And the one about an order from some ‘Supreme Court’ about banning fireworks on Diwali?” said S.

“That one would have got us all exiled,” said P.

Diwali was a sacred day for Suvvers. The bursting of firecrackers, and lighting of giant oil lamps which gave out greasy smoke, and the burning of large effigies labeled ‘farmer rebels’ was an important part of government-mandated celebrations. Not bursting fireworks on Diwali was another punishable offence.

“So what are you driving at, S.?”

“So what I find interesting is this pattern. There seems to have been an attempt at curtailing emission of what used to be called ‘pollutants’ by citizens. Daily pollutants, that is, or seasonal mass pollutants. It is interesting how the dating indicates these were from the period just after this fragment.”

“You mean there is a possibility that the administrators back then were thinking of measures to check increase in PM 2.5?” asked Q., the doctor.

“That and other particulate matter. Their sub-categories appear to be somewhat primitive, though. Not as many as our reports have. What I am saying is, is it possible that there is an element of truth in this?” asked S.

There was a brief silence. Even in unregulated conditions, the group was not used to long, free-flowing conversations.

“You mean it is possible that these factors actually led to a rise in particulate matter?” asked V.

“That is your field. I just see too many coincidences,” said S.

“Still, no mention of farmers or stubble burning, is there?” asked P.

“We haven’t found it so far. Also, I have often wondered. The countryside was farmed for centuries, and stubble was, presumably, burnt as a seasonal activity. So could a giant peasants’ uprising alone have caused the cataclysm?” said V.

“You know, just saying that would get us all exiled,” laughed P. It was an abrupt sound to hear, because under section 7, sub-section 13 (c) of the Manual of Prohibited Activities, laughter, which required considerable use of the lungs, was quite clearly outlawed.

The group drifted off into other topics and finished their dinner. As they were leaving, P. asked S., “Still thinking about the fragments?”

“Perhaps, yes.”

“Don’t worry. Just Breather propaganda. A fairy tale.”

S. called for his car and left for home. Two SUVs passed him on the way, one apparently carrying a senior Suvver. There wasn’t much to see outside, so S. adjusted his face mask, which he wore in the car, in compliance with regulations, and again thought about the fragments V. had shown him in the past few months.

PM 2.5 at 80? What a quaint idea.

Hard boiled: The awesomeness of the Continental Op

Detectives in hard-boiled crime fiction are as tough as they come. The genre is thematically quite distinct from noir, not just in the respective decades of their greatest prominence. Noir crime tales are to do with perpetually grey individuals, about personality types and interactions which blend the bleak with the cheerfully cynical, with very few illusions about human nature. The genre’s greatest period, the late 1940s and ‘50s, mirrored existential questions in American society, with the beginning of the Cold War and the McCarthy era’s general paranoia.

Hard-boiled fiction’s three greatest writers, by general consensus, are Dashiell Hammett, James M Cain and Raymond Chandler, of which the first two are qualitatively far superior to the third. The genre has survived and even prospered in the decades since — favourite hard-boiled characters from later years include Donald Westlake’s Parker, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, Robert B Parker’s Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall and the wonderful Raylan Givens by Elmore Leonard.

But the greatest hard-boiled characters are from the Depression Era. Unlike noir, hard-boiled crime stories are about a certain type of person taking on a thoroughly corrupt establishment, including civic bodies, the police, federal agencies, big business and journalists. The stories reflect society’s cynicism about structural solutions to their problems. So the solution had to Red Harvestcome from the proverbial outsider, a one-man response to corruption and failing institutions. And the protagonist had to be tough, perhaps even supernaturally so.

Of the early hard-boiled characters, the greatest, and the archetype, is the Continental Op, created by Dashiell Hammett. He works for the Continental Detective Agency, and we never get to know his real name. He is the actual ‘Man with No Name’ long before Eastwood (indeed, the latter’s character in A Fistful of Dollars, and the plot, are derived from the Op’s adventures). So he uses aliases everywhere. With this comes a chameleon-like ability to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Op listens to his boss, ‘The Old Man’, and uses his wits to solve problems as they come up, but at his core his experiences with humans and with compromised institutions have left him completely cynical and detached from the follies and foibles of mankind. He has no expectations of nobility from humans, and is sometimes surprised to find there are actually good people around. He also has a sense of irony, frequently manipulating the bad guys into neutralising one another to arrive at his own idea of justice.

On the move after his quarry, the Op is pretty much unstoppable, a force of nature, and always gets the job done, and then some more. Solving cases becomes secondary to fixing the system as he sees it, even if sometimes the Old Man disapproves.

The Op’s greatest story is Red Harvest, where he turns up in the town of Personville, called ‘Poisonville’ by many, perhaps as a mispronunciation. But the moniker is apt, because Poisonville has nothing good to recommend either to visitors or residents: a town whose institutions, and leading citizens, are thoroughly compromised. So when ‘the last honest man’ in town is murdered, and the Op finds himself in the thick of things, he decides to take on the whole town and fix things his way. As with the Op, so with the story: Red Harvest is the archetypical hard-boiled tale, and among the greatest crime novels ever written.

Hammett is unarguably the greatest noir and hard-boiled writer of them all, and many of his characters and plots became templates for later writers. Sam Spade and the highly-recommended private eye couple Nick and Nora Charles (The Thin Man) are prototypes for both genres, mainly tending towards noir. But the Op is a masterwork in character creation, and reinforces Hammett’s literary significance.

The Op has been hugely influential across literature and cinema in the years afterwards. There is an opinion that Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is a more than subtle nod to Red Harvest, although Kurosawa himself credited Hammett’s The Glass Key. But in terms of character, Sanjuro in Yojimbo is closer to the Op than to Ned Beaumont in The Glass Key. Besides, regardless of Eastwood’s ‘Man with No Name’, Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro is the closest any cinematic character has come to capturing the nuances of the Op’s character.

Hard-boiled plots frequently verge on the noir, and the greatest noir detectives are often close to the hard-boiled archetype. But never mind the Philip Marlowes and the Sam Spades. The Continental Op is the greatest of them all. And if you don’t agree, the Op will just shrug it off and walk away to have a drink. Pissing contests are not his line. Solving problems, and tearing down structures and demolishing people he doesn’t like, is. And he is the best at it.

Klatchian coffee is highly recommended

Among the many delights of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is Klatch, the Disc’s cognate of our world’s Arabia. And one of Klatch’s best-known exports is their coffee.

Klatchian coffee is usually recommended to sober up the extremely drunk, and even then it is to be had in small doses. If imbibed by the sober, its effects can be catastrophic. Because the coffee is so strong that it sobers you up in an existential sense.

In the ordinary run of things, even a person who stays away from alcohol or narcotics nurtures some, shall we say, ‘existential stimulants’. Your spouse loves you just as much today as the first day you met. Your parents still find joy in your presence just as they did when they held your newborn form in their hands. Your children consider you with awe and affection. Your job matters. You make a difference to people’s lives.

Or stimulants bigger in magnitude. Cosmic stimulants. There is a point to looking forward to tomorrow, because you can hope for something better. Your life has meaning beyond the mundane concerns of animal survival. There is an invisible fellow with a personal interest in your existence. Or there is an invisible fellow (perhaps the same fellow?) with a stake in theCoffee continuation of the universe, for good or bad.

Or the ideological stimulants. All people are, or should be, equal (with you perhaps getting slightly more preferential treatment). What goes around comes around. The everyday absurdities are part of a larger pattern that will someday make sense to you, failing which some fellow wiser than you may parse it for you.

Klatchian coffee, if imbibed when sober, wipes out the effects of these existential stimulants, and shows the true bleakness of this world. And unlike the implied humour in finally understanding the nature of an absurd world, a human with even a small amount of this coffee sees the starkness that lies beyond the absurd.

This condition, Pratchett tells us, is being knurd, the point where you finally face the world without your preferred stimulants. It is said to be a very painful experience, and for the unprepared creates an immediate urge to be drunk, or stoned, as quickly as possible. In Men At Arms, Sam Vimes, a policeman who is already dour and cynical to begin with, is given a small sip of Klatchian coffee, and becomes instantly knurd, causing him to howl in despair. What he sees is not described, and is left to the imagination. Knurd, as you will observe, is ‘drunk’ spelt backward.

On the Disc, several noted philosophers are recorded to have belted out works of excruciating unbearability after substantial doses of Klatchian coffee.

On our more mundane Roundworld, to arrive at an equivalent state of knurdness, one will have to take the longer route, beginning with stripping oneself of the comforts of organized religion, and then the next convenient philosophy that claims to explain your situation, and the next (because they come in waves).

What one does after discovering one is finally knurd is, of course, a matter of individual choice.

The importance of the orphan

It is remarkable how many memorable fictional characters are orphans, and how integral the idea of orphanhood, or absence of parents from the stage, is to fiction.

We need not even consider the Dickens universe, populated as it is almost wholly with orphans. Here the idea of orphanhood is a plot device, as in the case of Oliver Twist and Pip. Great Expectations, let us not forget, is about not just one or two, but three alternatives to traditional parental figures, if I may put it that way: Joe Gargery, the parent one wishes for; Magwitch, the benefactor as parent, and Miss Havisham, the parent as imagined, or alternately, the parent as instigator of worldly ambition.

The whole of 19th century British literature, from Jane Eyre to Jude to Eppie, is a long line of Hewey Dewey Louieorphans. And there is Ishmael across the Atlantic, who caps the bleakness of Moby-Dick’s denouement with this: ‘On the second day, a sail drew near, nearer, and picked me up at last. It was the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan.’

One may say the idea of absence of parental figures extends to an absence of the establishment too, particularly in espionage fiction. James Bond, as establishment a character as the Cold War produced, is an orphan, his parents’ deaths specifically mentioned. This may be held as a parallel to his former career in the Navy, another notable establishment for Fleming’s generation. George Smiley’s antecedents are wholly vague, and his family ties deliberately nebulous. But le Carre’s early characters as a whole are orphans too, orphans of empire. As Bill Haydon in Tinker Tailor says, (and I paraphrase): ‘Brought up to inherit empire, only to have it taken away.’

The entire Disney universe is populated with orphans, making it necessary for Huey, Dewey and Louie to go live with Uncle Donald, and eventually with granduncle Scrooge. Walt Disney took for his last film the ultimate orphan, Mowgli himself, not to mention Cinderella, and Snow White and all the entries in the Aarne-Thompson list. And Bambi. Only 101 Dalmatians does not feature orphans in the lead, but it comes close, with the plot based on a search to complete a family. But one also finds the incorrigible Beagle Boys, and guess what they have, in addition to a bunch of nefarious plans? A mother.

A paragraph for superheroes, too, because almost all of them are orphans, with the act of orphanhood being sometimes a founding principle, such as for Batman, or twice-orphaned (as in some canonical works) Clark Kent.

Meanwhile, in science fiction, you have the orphan as standard trope (Ender in Ender’s Game comes immediately to mind), while Theodore Sturgeon’s characters, male and female, are deliberately positioned outside social structures, most with no explained antecedents, nor do Moby-Dickhis plots require the necessity of such structures. These are orphans by idea, dexterously positioned to, as Sturgeon says ‘ask the next question’. Because antecedents are about asking the previous question, not the next.

And this might explain part of the enduring appeal of orphanhood in fiction. It leaves the character free to carry the plot forward either of her own volition, or by the author’s design, without the necessity of negotiating an additional set of restrictions. To put it in a different way, we wouldn’t have a Jungle Book if Mowgli was living in a village. He would have to go toil in a field the whole day.

It is not about deriving sympathy from the reader as an additional hook. Only a poor writer would angle for sympathy alone to make her character worthy of engaging with. It is about creating a certain structural vacuum around the character, thus creating several scenarios to further the plot. The orphan might need a family in the denouement, for one. Or the plot may have nothing to do with the necessity of a family, making orphanhood incidental to the plot. At the end of Moby-Dick, do we wish to see Ishmael safely at home on land, perhaps married with a child or two, in a regurgitation of the ‘new family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope? Hardly. We were there for the whale. And what about Moby-Dick himself? What do we know about his parents?

Incidentally, the ‘family as compensation for orphanhood’ trope can be elegantly (if I may use the word) turned out in a different kind of plot, such as in White Fang, another favourite. You want Fang to come home, and in just the way he finally does. That is good writing.

So, not to belabour the point, but why orphans? Perhaps because they are, in every sense of the word, free. Outside of fiction, imagine the character standing not at the end of a tree which may, or may not, be densely foliated. Instead, imagine the character standing at the beginning of a new story arc, left to her own devices, neither steered by the author (because this is the real world) nor by the birth-based compulsions of other humans. So this is the orphan as negotiator of her own future. This is her, contemplating eternity.

For the final word, I defer to Ishmael once again: ‘Our souls are like those orphans whose unwedded mothers die in bearing them: the secret of our paternity lies in their grave, and we must there to learn it.’

The many wonders in Ivan Bilibin

 

Most of my childhood was illustrated by two persons. One was Arthur Rackham. The other was Ivan Bilibin.

Red Rider

The Red Rider

If Baba Yaga (and her chicken-legged hut) as you imagine her looks just that way, and no other, it is because of Bilibin. If Ilya of Murom in your head will always have a red shield and scabbard, it is because of Bilibin. The magical wolf that helps Prince Ivan in The Firebird, the firebird itself, Vasilisa the Fair, a long line of princes and princesses, the Three Riders, not to mention Koschei the Deathless. Every single memorable character in Slavic folktales becomes engraved in the reader’s eye because of Bilibin.

Ilya of Murom is among my favourite folktale characters, and many years after I first read of him, I was overjoyed to discover he could have been based on a real person. In Ilya’s first adventure, when he comes across Solovei the Whistler-Robber (such names they had!), the fearsome bandit asks: ‘Are you a boyar?’ and Ilya says: ‘Not a boyar. I am a bogatyr.’

Long before I understood the contextual difference between a boyar (nobleman) and a bogatyr (a knight-errant, but the term can’t be accurately translated, I am told) and long before I read anything about class struggle, Ilya became a man after my own heart. Not a boyar. A bogatyr. And Bilibin’s illustration of that fateful encounter was equally responsible for this.

His art is distinctive in its line-work, and the use of primary colours, attention to detail in architecture and clothing, even weapons. You only need to see the Red Rider bursting out of the trees: the vividness of his armour, the glow of his horse, contrasting with the leaves on the trees. Here is an artist telling a story of the human form, of an animal in motion, and of a landscape simultaneously. And scenes set indoors capture furniture, and fabric, and items of everyday use. Nobody quite drew thrones like Bilibin did, for instance. One of the reasons I like him is also why I like Herge: the distinctness of the shapes, the loyalty to form and structure, even though Bilibin’s is not ligne claire.

Maria morevna

The Wedding of Maria Morevna

A lot of his illustrations have a unique touch — borders with geometrical patterns and recurring shapes, or landscapes and architectural forms. Bilibin travelled extensively in the region west of the Urals, and studied traditional Slavic peasant architecture, particularly in the deep north, forms which even in his time were dying. These styles and forms would become a part of the signature Bilibin style. A lot of Alexander Afanasyev’s excellent folktale collection, for instance, is accompanied by Bilibin’s art. Homage to him usually involves art with these borders, such as in Bill Willingham’s Return to the Homelands story arc in Fables, where the part of the adventure in the fable version of Rus takes place entirely in panels drawn after Bilibin.

After 1917, Bilibin was not quite happy with the direction revolutionary Russia had taken, so he went into exile, returning in the mid-1930s. He died at 66 during the Siege of Leningrad, in 1942.

Illustrating folktales is not just a matter of creating memorable physical representations of characters which have survived for long in the popular imagination. It is also about understanding the nature of the people who created these stories. As Jack Haney writes in his excellent The Russian Folk Tale: ‘I am convinced that he (the Russian peasant) found deep moral significance in them, something that goes deeper than the mere surface meaning attributed to him by scholars who have never experienced the totality of peasant life’.

Bilibin gets it. His ethnographic, architecture and folklore studies were part of trying to devise a visual language to explain this ‘totality’, and it comes out in each of his works, even drawings of those nameless extras that populate folktales — the maids in waiting or men-at-arms who appear and vanish in the whirl of heroic events. Consider The Wedding of Maria Morevna, and examine the spearmen and ladies in attendance. In many ways, Bilibin’s art is truer to Russian tradition than, say, his contemporaries like Viktor Vasnetsov. They both drew Ilya of Murom, for instance. Vasnetsov drew the three great bogatyrs of Slavic folklore together in fact, and what a heroic image it is: Ilya of Murom, Dobrynya Nikitich and Alyosha Popovich, surveying the landscape, possibly looking out for the next great quest.

But Bilibin’s Ilya is just more… Russian.

‘Shwaya, shwaya’: Gabriel Allon, Toynbee and Islam

As I have mentioned earlier, there have been very few espionage novels after the Cold War that can match the narrative scale or philosophical depth of what came before them. A promising exception could be Daniel Silva, who has been writing for a while. His creation, the art restorer and Mossad assassin Gabriel Allon, debuted in 2000 with ‘The Kill Artist’. A product of Israel’s 1970s Munich reprisals, Allon and the world he inhabits has evolved perceptibly in scale. In the past few years, the series has directly referred to events in the Middle-East and Europe.

In ‘The Black Widow’ (2016), a terror attack in Paris causes Allon, reluctantly in line to head the Mossad, to launch an operation. He recruits Natalie Mizrahi, a doctor born to French Jewish emigres, to masquerade as a French Muslim, Leila Hadawi, and get recruited by the Islamic State. Silva does what we have fruitlessly expected authors to do for a while, and takes the story to Raqqa, Syria, with a notable stopover at Molenbeek in Belgium, familiar to us after the attacks of 2015.

Silva falters occasionally, such as with the nom de guerre of the terror mastermind, a certain ‘Saladin’. I suppose I could write a separate post on the Silva the black widowfamiliarity of the 12th century Ayyubid general to the European consciousness. Saladin recurs as a name for Middle-Eastern characters in thrillers, notably in Stephen Hunter’s ‘The Second Saladin’ (1982). In ‘The Black Widow’, however, it strikes a false note. It is unlikely that a senior Islamic State functionary, trusted by ‘the Leader’ to boot, would go to war with the West under the name of a medieval Kurd.

Much before the scene shifts to Syria, however, while talking about the need for Israeli intervention in that country, Allon asks Natalie if she is familiar with Arnold Toynbee’s theory about history’s two pivot points — the Central Asian Oxus-Jaxartes basin, and the Syria-Palestine axis. Silva’s unsaid inference, to which I agree, is the IS, and now the post-IS Middle-East require intervention by world powers and neighbours. The degree of intervention needs, of course, to be individually determined. For Allon it is a single directed anti-terror op.

Apart from the welcome attempt at a theoretical underpinning to contemporary espionage, Silva’s choice of Toynbee, and quoted by a Mossad man, is interesting. In his multi-volume ‘A Study of History’, Toynbee examines 19 ‘major’ civilisations (incidentally, dividing Indian civilisations into ‘Indic’ and ‘Hindu’), four ‘abortive’ and an equal number of ‘arrested’ civilisations. But he also refers to ‘fossil’ societies, born of religious discrimination, classifying Judaic culture as one of them, a part of the abortive Syriac civilization. Considering the re-appraisal of Syriac culture in the intervening decades, there might be some substance to this, but in the 1950s Toynbee was suspected of anti-semitism over this classification, and it remains problematic.

But Toynbee also examined the nature of Islamic society’s reaction to the West in his time, from the late 19th century to the 1930s. In his essay, ‘Islam, the West and the Future’, published in ‘Civilisation on Trial’ (1948), he writes:

“Whenever one civilized society finds itself in this dangerous situation vis-a-vis another, there are two alternative ways open to it of responding to the challenge; and we can see obvious examples of both these types of response in the reaction of Islam to Western pressure today.”

Drawing a parallel between Jewish reaction to Roman imperialism and Islamic response to the West, Toynbee continues: “The ‘Zealot’ is the man who takes refuge from the unknown in the familiar; and when he joins battle with a stranger who practises superior tactics and employs formidable newfangled weapons, and finds himself getting the worst of the encounter, he responds by practising his own traditional art of war with abnormally scrupulous exactitude.”

The Jewish (not to mention Samaritan) response to Rome has been extensively documented, and its connection to the rise of Islam is being researched as we speak. A large part of the Western understanding of Islamic fundamentalism also revolves around the reaction theory. This, in my view, is a trifle simplistic, because it does not take into account the nature of a culture which reacts in just such a manner to the Other, and not in a different way. That is, why are some cultures more, shall we say, designed to take the zealotry option? How did Japanese society, to cite an example, accommodate its still-thriving xenophobia and ultra-nationalism with capitalism and Western dominance? These questions apart, Toynbee’s theories, a lot of which have still not been completely discarded, are a useful entrepot to understanding Islamic societies’ response to the West.

That an espionage fiction writer has made the effort to include this politico-historiographical tidbit is commendable. I expect Silva to theorise further on contemporary politics in forthcoming Allon books, of which the sequel to ‘The Black Widow’, titled ‘House of Spies’ was released this year.

On why I like the Repairman

Eons ago, I was standing one morning in front of the smallest lending library I have ever seen — a covered cart with second-books both known and highly obscure. I found a fat little battered book with a cover that had once been black. That book was ‘Nightworld’, by F Paul Wilson.

I borrowed and read it, liked it a lot, and returned it. The occasional well-written post-apocalyptic novel apart, it is interesting how few good fiction works exist on apocalypses themselves. Possibly because it is difficult to get right: the magnitude of social collapse; the individual stories; the reasons for the end of the world. Much easier to pick up the pieces and tell a story of the aftermath.

‘Nightworld’ is about the apocalypse, spread over a week or so. It begins with the sun rising late and setting early, progressively, till there is no dawn. Meanwhile giant sinkholes open up across the planet and monstrosities come out from another dimension. The fellow to blame, it turns out, is this millennia-old villain allied with the other dimension, part of an ancient feud between two cosmic entities. Opposing the bad guy is a small bunch of people with little in common and they are among the many delights of this book. One of them is a fellow called Jack.

A few years later, just before leaving the place, I found the book again and bought it. ‘Nightworld’ is the culmination of the six-volume ‘Adversary Cycle’, with characters’ backstories tying in, all of which I had to read. That began nine years of me looking in at bookstores across the country for the other five books. Turns out nobody had read Wilson, and noThe Tombbody stocked the books. Ever. This was much before e-tail, and I was stuck.

When I met Jack in ‘Nightworld’, I immediately thought what a wonderful series there could be about him. Jack is what his creator describes as an urban mercenary. He takes up jobs for people who do not or cannot take the help of the police. He calls them ‘fix-its’. But more than the actual jobs, its Jack’s life that makes him such a fascinating creation.

Turns out I was right. In the early days of the internet, a small fan site came up for Wilson readers (obviously the Adversary Cycle was a huge hit in the west) and they could not have enough of Jack. Wilson over the years would write 16 Jack novels, a trilogy about his early years, and a YA trilogy on Jack as a teen. Chronologically, ‘Nightworld’ is the last Jack story. We still haven’t had enough of him, but Wilson says that’s it, and we should stop bothering him.

In the ninth year of my search I found ‘The Haunted Air’, and with the coming of e-tail, at last, ‘The Tomb’, the first Jack novel. It remains my favourite horror story, but it is much more than that. Wilson, a doctor whose knowledge of classic horror novels and movies, crime fiction, popular culture and mythology is phenomenal, is also a fine writer and a delight when it comes to discovering New York. In his hands the city is a colourful character with a bottomless bag of tales.

And there is Jack. The Repairman, as his best friend calls him, is a complex piece of work. We are never told his true last name, and he lives outside the margins so adroitly that it is a delight to see him maneouvre around systems and laws. He has no social security number or official existence, deals mainly with cash, buys pop culture junk which he calls ‘cool things’, matches Wilson’s knowledge of classic movies and is physically capable (which of course is needed in his line of work).

I first met him when I was gradually easing myself out of systems, and could appreciate where he was coming from. His fans may not have dropped off the map as completely as he has, but one understands his views. To call him a libertarian would be simplistic. He just doesn’t want the government to butt in where it is not wanted. For instance, he believes it is a citizen’s right to do whatever she likes to her own body. If one does not want to poison oneself, one will not do drugs (he doesn’t, incidentally). The choice is one’s own.

The books’ highpoints are where Jack, the ultimate invisible man, comes up against forces working against humans. The two cosmic entities mentioned above are another of Wilson’s wonderful creations. Unlike established theologies, however, one of the entities is pure evil and wants to remove sentient life from earth. The other is not necessarily our friend, but merely values humans because sentient life makes this planet a prize in their Great Game. Jack, while dealing with more mundane cases, has his runs-in with the Big Bad Guys once in a while.

All the Repairman Jack books are worth a read, but ‘The Tomb’ is really something.

The problem with post-Cold War espionage thrillers

It has been a long-standing grouse with me that, in the past 16 years since 2001, I haven’t come across a really superlative work in espionage fiction. Every once in a while I am driven to return and delight in the wonders of Cold War fiction: of ‘Tinker, Tailor…’ or ‘The Spy Who Came In From the Cold’ (which transcends the genre, between us), or the underrated transitionals which mark the shift in world affairs from Second World War dynamics to the Cold War, like ‘A Small Town in Germany’.

I return to ‘The Looking Glass War’, or the prophetic ‘Smiley’s People’, the bleak nostalgia of ‘The Secret Pilgrim’. Le Carre apart, I find renewed joy in Deighton’s ‘The Ipcress File’ or the Hook, Line, Sinker series, the far-fetched guilty pleasure of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Even a Helen McInnes, or a Frederick Forsyth phoning it in with ‘The Fourth Protocol’ does not disappoint.

There is such variety in these works, from the pure literature of le Carre, or McEwan’s mighty effort with ‘The Innocent’, to the hammer-smashing thriller rides of Deighton and Condon. Something about the Cold War brings out the best in what would have been, under different circumstances, not very engaging authors. In which other period could we find, I ask, a work like ‘Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal’?

The transitionals and early Cold War works then take me to WWII, and Greene, and by meandering paths, through Buchan (always, always Buchan) to Childers and the prophecy of the end time. Sometimes, even, Conrad. And there I rest and marvel at this vast and complex body of work. There is no other period which can compare with such subtle explorations of the human condition, with such adventures, with such characters and systems, as Cold War thrillers.

And then we cross 2001 into a barrenness so profound that I wonder how so many authors, some at the peak of their craft, could get it so wrong. The 1990s finds some of them still clinging to the Soviet era with fondness, as to a friend who has to depart, mourned by all.

Some made a mighty effort to move with the times, confident that human nature would not disappoint, and a new conflict would replace the old, and soon. Forsyth makes his Sam McCready a wry witness to a civilian who confidently remarks, with the fall of the Wall, that everything would be all right in the world. Less than nine months later, in August 1990, as Forsyth tells us, Saddam Hussein took Kuwait.

The inference was the Cold War would be replaced by simmering conflicts around the world, including the Middle-East. Forsyth himself took this on with ‘The Fist of God’, about a half-British SAS officer undercover as an Iraqi during Desert Shield and Storm. Entertaining, but something was missing.

Gerald Seymour, whose best work as far as I am concerned is ‘The Glory Boys’, in which he shows a remarkable understanding of the Arab mind, went off on a different tangent, albeit a welcome one. In 2010, he revisited the Bosnian War in ‘The Dealer and the Dead’, about a Croatian village which takes out a contract against a British arms dealer who betrayed them in that terrible conflict. The Bosnian War, too, did not get the attention it deserved from other, better authors. Le Carre, meanwhile, was in the Caucasus, but not, as the epigraph in ‘Our Game’ says, “writing fairy tales” as Chekhov once wished. Instead, our Cornwell wrote about a British spy and a former Treasury bureaucrat involved with the Ossetians. There is much talk of righting historical wrongs, and of how small nations get pulverised by the mighty. Already we see ominous signs of what is to come, a sort of piecemeal effort at examining a broken world.

Since 2001, there has not been a single work which can match the scale or depth of the greatest of Cold War fiction. The divide can be gauged from the fact that my favourite Tintin, ‘The Calculus Affair’, too acquires literary greatness because it is essentially a Cold War thriller. Le Carre has since churned out passable works, and some very average efforts, with only ‘The Constant Gardener’ approaching anywhere near the greatness of his Cold War masterpieces. The others, and even counting those who were just stepping up their game when the Wall fell, have not produced anything worthy of going toe-to-toe with the books mentioned above.

Where does the problem lie? There are several explanations. First, the Cold War, though a long-running ideological conflict, was essentially between versions of the West. There were systems battling systems, men in suits battling other men, weapons and armies facing each other, ideas grappling each other, but all within a context that each side could, when it came to basics, understand. Therefore we could have situations where a George Smiley could sit and talk to Karla (in a Delhi prison, by the way) about how they were not much different from each other. And indeed they weren’t, these men of the shadows. The Soviets were purportedly defending an ideology which owed itself to a German who lived in London. The Russian Revolution owed its genesis to ideas from long-dead Frenchmen and Englishmen and Germans. Their worldviews, their histories, even the nature of their doubts or self-doubt were practically identical. For authors of the West, therefore, the Cold War was an immense pool of ideas, familiar if frightening, in which they could immerse at leisure confident in its essential elements.

The War on Terror, or whatever you may choose to call it, affords no such familiarity. Occasional efforts are made by writers, or screenwriters, to deal with the epistemology of it. The wonderful Judi Dench, whose ‘M’ in the second-best Daniel Craig Bond movie ‘Casino Royale’ says “Christ, I miss the Cold War” then says in the best Craig Bond movie, ‘Skyfall’, this: “I am frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They’re not nations, they are individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag?”

It is a measure of how barren literature has been since 2001 that the most incisive commentary on the situation comes from a movie, not a book. This unfamiliarity with the nature of the post-Cold War world, therefore, is not just the shortcoming of world leaders and their advisors. It exists, and has been compounded, in the realm of ideas as well.

I say compounded, because the only decent efforts have been in non-fiction (which was inevitable), or in a handful of literary works, such as those dealing with the immigrant experience in the West. But there is more to the world of today than merely exploring the process by which descendants of immigrants in the West radicalize.

To write a thriller, or espionage thriller, for our times, needs an understanding of Islam, a reading of it and more, a critical reading of scripture, of history, of doctrines and traditions. Of the interplay of ethnicities, such as in South Asia (if one set a thriller here). One can, of course, cheat and base it on the Palestinian movement, but that was long ago subsumed by events in the neighbourhood. How does one create suspense, or characters, based on or around societies and beliefs without exploring them first? And this needs a lot of reading and a lot of contemplation.

More (for these two activities are easy), it needs the willingness to step into fundamentally different shoes, to internalise attitudes to life (and death) which are fundamentally alien. Consider the Saarbrucken scholars, those quiet gentlemen and women who for decades have been studying across languages and histories to explain the genesis of Islam. Consider the effort it needs to see the world simultaneously from so many different points of view. And then imagine the possibilities of a thriller which truly explores the Islamic world. Which takes an honest look at what it means to be a Muslim, either in a Muslim society, or in the West. And which takes a look at the complexities of Islamic society.

Instead, what we have had are le Carre rehashing Cold War anarchism (literally, through his characters) in ‘Absolute Friends’, Forsyth doing a Sandy Arbuthnot with his SAS man from ‘Fist of God’ in ‘The Afghan’, for which I shall never forgive him, because Arbuthnot is among the greatest espionage fiction characters ever created.

At the shallow end of the talent pool, as I discovered while wildly casting about for any spark of inspiration among these authors, I found ‘The Infidel’ by Bob Shepherd, a former SAS man himself, by the way. In a sign of the times, while then bureaucrat Childers foretold World War I, and SOE men like Ian Fleming created assassins and former SIS men like le Carre created George Smiley, today we have retired special forces veterans trying to create fiction engaging with Muslim societies.

The Infidel at least has the grace to be set in Afghanistan, about two soldiers reaching a remote region of poppy growers and there acquiring immense power. An interesting premise, and one begins to appreciate an author who steps out of European comfort zones, till one remembers a story titled ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ by one Kipling, Rudyard. At least somebody has been reading the classics.

Therefore here I am, still awaiting somebody who writes a story worth lining up with the greats. Meanwhile, I read non-fiction, and the Saarbrucken researchers, and even Tom Holland’s ‘in the Shadow of the Sword’, a valiant attempt at early Islamic history by somebody whose better works are about ancient history (with ‘Rubicon’ being highly recommended).

There is somebody, however, of who I have nursed hopes for about a decade, and he has come close, really close.

Inspector Ghote Awaits His Movie Moment

Here’s my article which appeared in IBNLive a while ago. Inspector Ghote is such a wonderful creation. No reason we can’t have a movie or series on him here in India:

Byomkesh Bakshi, the well-known Satyanweshi, will shortly be seen on the big screen in two new movies. It was about time Bakshi, who featured in the popular TV series of the 90s, was made into movies, and we hope a series is in the offing. Meanwhile, another iconic detective is yet to get the limelight he deserves: Inspector Ghote, whose stories are just as remarkable as their author.

H R F Keating, the British author who created Inspector Ganesh Ghote of Bombay Police in the 1960s, had never visited India till then. From The Perfect Murder (1964) to Bats Fly Up for Inspector Ghote (1974), Keating wrote nine novels featuring his detective before the author visited India for the first time. Keating was to write 16 more novels, including a short story collection, till 2009.

But Keating’s stories do not lack much just because he hadn’t seen India at first hand. Ganesh Ghote is a mild-mannered detective, but very dogged while on a case. Even more than the corrupt ministers, businessmen, local gangsters and other bad guys that populate Ghote’s world, he has to deal with the biggest villain of them all, India’s bureaucracy. Ghote is frequently saddled with cases, matters and paperwork that sidetrack him from his main job. On other occasions he has to spend more time massaging official egos and ruffled feathers than chasing bad guys.

Through him, his wife Protima and son Ved, the reader sees slices of Indian life captured as few other novelists, Indian or not, have ever managed. The complexities of urban life in Bombay and Calcutta are presented in all their colour and peril.

Keating also has an inimitable eye for two essential – but rare – elements in Indian English fiction. The first is his ear for diction, for accents and constructions, for the peculiar nuances of Indian spoken English. Here’s a seth, confident in his wealth and contempt for his underlings, expansive in his words, flowing in his sentences. There’s a lower-ranked police constable, patient and tolerant but neither naïve nor completely cynical in the crowded Mumbai streets.

Here’s an upper class Indian woman of the 60s and 70s, trying to straddle the gulf between westernised urban life and what passes for Indian values in a rich man’s home. There’s a poor lower caste woman with barely any possessions, lost in every sense of the word. Keating’s prose makes them as audible as a playwright would have.

Keating’s second stroke of genius is his apparently broad knowledge of popular entertainment tropes in India, both in Indian movies and traditional theatre forms. Spoiler alert: Ghote meets an old lower caste woman on a train while going to a village to investigate a local political boss in a murder case. It is only towards the end that the old woman pops back into the story and declares the upper caste politician is not actually upper caste, but (cue music), her missing son from decades earlier. Keating’s characters are so solidly crafted that they seem to be created less for a western audience and more for us, because only someone very familiar with India would identify with these men and women.

Inspector Ghote has acquired a legion of diehard fans over time. Prominent among them is Alexander McCall Smith, creator of such noted series as The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (set in Botswana and simply delightful); 44 Scotland Street and The Sunday Philosophy Club. Smith is such a Ghoteist that he’s written the introduction to a recent reprint of the entire adventures of the good inspector.

In his Feluda mystery, Kailashey Kelenkari (1974) set in Maharashtra, Satyajit Ray brings in a Sub-Inspector Ghote to the plot. Ray being well acquainted with popular literature of the period, it is likely that this was a homage to the original Ghote, who had been around for a decade by then.

While Ganesh Ghote is one of those characters built to be immortal, his world reflects changes in Indian society. Early stories from the 60s and 70s show corrupt seths, class rivalries, old-time gangsters and so on. As the years pass, the villains become less gentlemanly and more menacing, everyday life becomes more bitter and acrimonious (the corrupt politicians stay the same, though). Through all these changes, Ghote soldiers doggedly on, finding his murderers, thieves and smugglers, and bringing a lot of charm and whimsy into what is, after all, a very grim genre.

Merchant-Ivory did make a movie based on the first Ghote novel, The Perfect Murder, with Naseeruddin Shah as the detective, in 1988. So now that Mumbai filmmakers are rediscovering Indian detective legends, perhaps Inspector Ghote can return to the streets of Mumbai once more. And if someone comes up with a Justice League-like idea of Byomkesh Bakshi, Feluda and Inspector Ghote battling crime together, what a movie it would be.