Tag Archives: society

A bunched up Book Review

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Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

Catch-22 – Joseph Heller

Animal Farm – George Orwell

I do not why I have lumped these three books together – there must be a method behind the apparent madness.

The first two are American, the last British. The first two are anti-war while the third is on political philosophy.

But they do have some similarities. They all are from the middle of the last century, all sad-funny, what is called dark-humor. All have an underdog at the center of it, though the ‘underdogs’ in the last are the farm animals ‘minus’ the pigs and the dogs.

All these books have sensational quotes; all of them can be read happily by children and adults alike without meaning anything to them; all of them are depressing, for they ask you to abandon hope and try to understand the society ‘as it is’. All of them are against regimentation through ideology.

***

The central theme of Slaughterhouse Five is on the bombing of Dresden; but is also about Vietnam and other wars that will follow. It is about a person who is ‘unstuck’ in time and exists at all times of his life, all the time. I understand that to be merely living in memory, for the science fiction bit in the novel is really not very important.

Kurt Vonnegut was in Dresden when it was bombed by the Allied forces, for no apparent reason, killing over a hundred thousand civilans – more than the Hiroshima atom bomb. So, the novel is partly autobiographical, and probably that is why it is so rich in detail.

The anti-war sentiments are spot-on and the most beautiful passage is where it describes a war movie running on a rewind.

American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.
The American fliers turned in their uniforms, became high school kids. And Hitler turned into a baby, Billy Pilgrim supposed. That wasn’t in the movie. Billy was extrapolating. Everybody turned into a baby, and all humanity, without exception, conspired biologically to produce two perfect people named Adam and Eve, he supposed
.”

But like I said before, the novel is dark and offers no solution:

That is a very Earthling question to ask, Mr. Pilgrim. Why you? Why us for that matter? Why anything? Because this moment simply is. Have you ever seen bugs trapped in amber?”
“Yes.” Billy, in fact, had a paperweight in his office which was a blob of polished amber with three ladybugs embedded in it.
“Well, here we are, Mr. Pilgrim, trapped in the amber of this moment. There is no why
.

***

Another beautiful anti-war novel is the famous Catch-22. Here is how the novel describes the clause “Catch-22” –

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

The confused question of relevance of nationalism that has become so central to the ordering of our lives is brought out thus –

What is a country? A country is a piece of land surrounded on all sides by boundaries, usually unnatural. Englishmen are dying for England, Americans are dying for America, Germans are dying for Germany, Russians are dying for Russia. There are now fifty or sixty countries fighting in this war. Surely so many countries can’t all be worth dying for.”

The book is scathing at places, and truly insightful –

“It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Again, as is common with all the books reviewed here, it offers no hope. The society wants a total submission and eventually the life of the individual; the individual instinctively resists, for it is not in his DNA to die for others; much persuasion and heartburn later, the matter remains unresolved. Such novels, after all, can only raise questions and warn against the prevailing lies.

***

The last in the list is Animal Farm by George Orwell. This one does not have a war as its backdrop, and I probably include it to underline the fact that it is not war that is at the root of our problems – war is only a symptom, an inevitable result of the way we have ordered our society and brainwashed ourselves.

Let’s begin with the story, for it is beautifully-childish. The farm animals overthrow the regime of a cruel man and take it upon themselves to run the farm in the best possible manner, in the interests of the animals. But the newly named ‘Animal Farm’ under the democratic rule of the pigs fast degenerates into a dictatorship of ‘Napoleon’, the brightest pig, and his family, who use a group of dogs as their ‘musclemen’. They mainly use ideology and oratory to keep the other animals satisfied, but have to use ‘muscle’ eventually, when even the dumbest start to understand the true nature of the new order. The last lines of the novel shows the animals peeping inside a cabin where the pigs are having a party with the neighbouring humans, and the author concludes –

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

The beauty of the novel is that it simultaneously attacks capitalism and communism. And because of that, the novel comes to an inevitable dead-end, where human greed and cruelty comes out victorious once again.

Not surprisingly it was banned in both the US and USSR at one point of time. Written in 1944, it was before the excesses of Stalin era came to be, and so we can also salute the foresight of the author. But the worrisome part is not the “I told you so smirk”, the worrisome part is that the book is so ‘universal’ – reading it you know that this cycle of greed and domination will happen again and again. The way children pick up the same comics to read, again and again and again, despite knowing what will happen.

***

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The Great Democrat

He always has a smile ready
Has that son of a gun –
And has a tear or two to spare
For the funerals.
 
He loves his people
And all that belongs to them –
He is their father and teacher
Rolled into one.
 
He is the greatest democrat
He has never lost an election –
Why, when people want to vote
He lets them give him two.
 
His wisdom is unsurpassed
All respect his legal mind –
And when the law fails to serve
He helps the lady blind.
 
A protector, a defender, a nationalist
He is the scourge of the enemy –
And the way he is a-going
In an year there won’t be any.
 
His name will be writ in history
(To that the History Department will see – )
He will set right the ancient wrongs
And set the country truly free.
 
The papers are full of his praise
As they should, for he does no wrong –
And the schoolchildren are glad to study
His autobiography.
 
And that his good work may not go waste
He teaches and prepares –
His wife and sons and daughters
With due care.
 
***

An Ode to Greed

We want more,
And more, and more…
 
How would this poem sound
If I added, “and more”
A few hundred times more?
 
Never mind;
The fact remains
We want more,
And more, and more…
 
***

 


May Day Rally

smoking chimney
 
The sullen faces
with red flags
and red shirts
totter slowly
towards the park
for the may day rally.
 
 
Thousands of sullen faces
some with children
on their shoulders
trudge along,
braving the sun
and thirst.
 
 
The call is given
to shed fear and unite
and be free; promises
are given and taken
to make the world
a paradise.
 
 
The sullen, tired faces
totter back to their shacks
for tomorrow is not
a holiday; the huge iron gates
and the smoky chimneys
look glum, waiting for them.
 
 
And they all wait for the day
when the promises
will be kept
and the children grow
and not be fearful
and for the elusive paradise.
 
***

A bedtime story

Two children were going home
In the night
When baddies came
And cried,
‘Kill them.’
 
Where was this?
All over. In the deserts
And in the subways
And on the roads
Of busy cities.
 
The children were brave,
But outnumbered, and small…
 
And suddenly Superman comes
With a whoosh…
No. He doesn’t. Don’t interrupt.
 
The children were left to die
Around the world.
 
Later, they fought for their lives
In a hospital
And all prayed for them…
 
I know, and God heard their prayers…
I SAID, DON’T INTERRUPT.
 
No they died.
Around the world.
 
Is there a moral in this story,
The child asked,
With tears in his eyes.
 
Yes, but it is for you to discover,
I lied.
 
The child would not have gone
To sleep
Otherwise.
 
***

Doomsday scenario: Invitation to a picnic

The following advertisement, published a few days ago, had caught my attention:

“The Extreme Right Wing Association invites likeminded people for a Doomsday picnic on 21st December, 2012.

The interested people may contact xxxxx at xxxxx for bookings.

Kindly note, the seats are limited and there shall be a selection process, the details of which will be made available on request.

Needy candidates may apply for a fee waiver, along with a lack-of-income certificate.”

I contacted xxxxx, and applied for the picnic, with the sole aim of getting to know what mischief was afoot.

In hindsight, it was a big mistake. I seriously believe my doomsday is likely to be earlier than the date of the picnic.

The ERW Association is rightly named – it is far too much to the right of sanity. It is a collection of hard boiled devotees of all major gods of the world. Their passion and faith brooks no logic or argument. (Incidentally, that was the first test in a series to determine the suitability of the candidate for the picnic – but more of that later.)

The location of their headquarter is New York city, near the UN building. But they have branches all over the world.

They have adequate finances – and are patronized by the dictators and the democratic leaders alike.

But enough of the organization. Let’s come to the picnic part.

The organization has faith in the ultimate destruction of mankind, but is not too sure of the Mayan-calendar-end date. So that the members may not feel too let down by a non-event on the D-date, the leaders of the organization felt that a picnic would be good diversion to keep the flock happy and together on a potentially important date.

The process of selection of candidates is on, but I have found that the quotas for major religions are already full, and only some seats are left for the people of religions like Zoroastrian, Babhai, Navajo, Candomble, Chinese Folk Religion, Dayak, Eskimo and Cheremis and some for the new religions such as Cao Dai, Ikuantao, Wicca, and Scientology.

What the association plans for this picnic is interesting. There shall be hate speeches, suicide bombing shows from around the world (this shall be organized live and will be seen on giant TV monitors), workshops to exchange ideas on worst social practices, bonfire with burning of bleeding-heart liberals (or their effigies, I presume), gladiatorial shows and many other such activities.

Provision has thoughtfully been kept for celebrating the unlikely event of a real Doomsday happening on that date, with permission to picnickers to indulge in rape and murder in non-picnic areas.

My trouble started when I passed the first test – that of believing passionately in the existence of God. The second test, to demonstrate my hatred for the non-believers was also almost up-to the mark. It was the third paper where I did poorly – where they test your hatred for people of other religion.

I got a call from xxxxx, when the result of the third paper was declared.

“Are you a phoney or something,” he accused, angrily.

“W..Why?” I asked.

“For a person who is supposed to be such a passionate believer, how come you say you can tolerate other religions?” he asked.

I had no answer to that one. From then on I was a suspect in the eyes of the organization.

By now I know too much about them – but that is not my fault. After I did well in the first test, they sent me lots of catalogs about their work around the world, and their plans for the future. They had jumped the gun – the barrel of which is now pointing directly at my skull.

I now have to prove my innocence – just like the Afghan youths, or the Congo tribals caught in the middle of a civil war – by doing something bad to a person of another religion. And bad here does not mean throwing ink on their white robes.

So you see where I am stuck? If I fail, I am doomed, and if I succeed, Interpol will start writing a notice on a recycled paper about me and would paint its corners red.

Two things I have not yet understood. One, why these fellows from the association do not dislike the Interpol – in fact they flaunt their red-corner painted notices with sheer pride. And two, why they like each other so much – they never harm members of a right wing, even if they are not from their bloody religion. In fact, how do they work with each other so well.

Most of the members of Extreme Right Wing are looking forward to the picnic on 21st December. To confess, I am too – if only to ensure that I survive to see the Doomsday.

***


Doomsday scenario: What could have been…

I saw the following news item today (26th October, 2012):

Guatemala’s Mayan people accused the government and tour groups on Wednesday of perpetuating the myth that their calendar foresees the imminent end of the world for monetary gain.

“We are speaking out against deceit, lies and twisting of the truth, and turning us into folklore-for-profit. They are not telling the truth about time cycles,” charged Felipe Gomez, leader of the Maya alliance Oxlaljuj Ajpop.

My first reaction was – “Et tu Mayans, then fall doomsday.”

But does one really need to be that pessimistic?

I fear one does. (Warning: Those who did not pay taxes this year, and those who have purchased costly Doomsday kits are not likely to find this article amusing.)

The doomsday is every-day, like mothers’ day, for we are dying every day – of cancer and pollution and terror and apathy. As on date, a one-off climax seems unlikely.

A shame really, for it could have ended a number of things at one go – like – religious hatred, dependence on petroleum, global warming, celebrity news, politicians in general and Obama-Romney election campaign in particular.

The suspicious characters snooping around my blog (see earlier posts on the subject), seem to have changed jobs. Or else they now know that I too am clueless, and are snooping around Assange now. If they are, they are wasting their time. All that they would get there would be clueless US officials exchanging cables (in times of internet) with their embassy staff around the world, discussing, confidentially, what is commonly known and openly written about in newspapers.

It doesn’t take ‘intellegence’ to know the kind of dope that Assange would give them:

“Top Secret: US Embassy at Tehran to Washington: Iran may be on to something. Our sources saw a masseur going into the Presidential compound. Kindly advise further action…..”

(A return cable from Washington, three days later) “Hire that masseur. Independent verification shows he is good. We hinted to NYT that Iran is on to something. The idiots read too much into the tip and published a front page scoop naming un-named sources in foreign office that Iran has already tested a nuclear device of unknown power. Try to limit the damage in your private talks with the authorities in Iran. Convey our private apologies. We will, however, not confirm or deny the reports here. Chio.”

This sort of intelligence gathering does not lead to world wars, even of the Saddam kind. In fact, with the Saddam fiasco, all dictators have lost appetite for stupid ‘satellite / cable / channel’ wars, where they are sure to lose, whatever they do. No one is likely to succeed where even masters like Comical Ali failed to win laughs or audience sympathy.

Doomsday would have had a salutary effect on World Economy, which seems to have become a problem child, always seeking attention. The cockroaches, the most likely survivors of any medium sized doomsday, would have cared two hoots for New York Exchange, or the right rate for the dollar. It would also have solved the dilemma over EU, which has been exercising the minds of Europeans since the time of Napoleon.

Meanwhile, the kids can be given following essay topics to keep them occupied: What I will do on the Doomsday, or, What I will tell God when I reach heaven on Doomsday. They just might come up with something remotely funny. As for me, I give up on this article, which seems to be going nowhere, just like our world.

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