Thirteen days in September

thirteendays In 1978, U.S. president Jimmy Carter brokered a Middle East peace treaty between Israel and Egypt at Camp David. The deal still stands — this is why you don’t hear news about Israel and Egypt fighting over Sinai, a piece of land that had seen three major wars in thirty years before this treaty — and is among the rare instances of successful negotiations towards peace. Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright narrates the story of that historic autumn in Camp David, the thirteen days it took three leaders — Jimmy Carter, Israel’s prime minister Menachem Begin, and Egypt’s president Anwar Sadat — and their teams to agree on the deal.

It’s a gripping narrative structured in chapters outlining the events of each day, bookended by a prologue that sets the context and an epilogue that outlines the consequences. Woven through the chapters are summaries of key events of the region — the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the war that followed, the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 — and also the biblical underpinnings of Israel’s outlook and actions: the exodus from Egypt, David and Goliath, Samson, etc.

Historical works of this nature, where the consequences of actions described are still playing out, can leave you with a sense of despair. While the Camp David summit solved one issue — between Israel and Egypt — it left unresolved the matter of Palestine. Here’s Wright:

The War of Independence in 1948 expanded the territory that the new Jewish state claimed, including nearly 60 percent of the area designated for the still-born nation of Palestine, the remainder being taken over by Jordan. Arab refugees flooded into neighbouring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilising presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The sacrifice made by Israel at Camp David was one that entailed giving up the Sinai peninsula — a territory they had captured in 1967 during the Six-Day war — and their settlements there. In return, the Israelis received peace on that front. No such sacrifice seems acceptable to Israel in the matter of Palestine — this becomes clear in the beliefs and attitudes of Begin, defined mostly by Israel’s Biblical past and the horrors Jews have suffered throughout history.

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Bright eyes that reveal her heart


There’s a new Bücherregal in Neugasse now. The old shelf was narrow and made of wood; it matched the street’s character. The new one is taller and wider, a piece of metal under slick grey paint, modern like the new Hallhuber store opposite. Even the wooden bench next to the shelf is new, a piece whose wavy back reaches the shelf’s eight-feet. The combination looks designed, not accidental. This end of Neugasse seems as though it wants to escape into the Hauptstrasse, all glitz and chic.

I cross the shelf on my walks into the altstadt, and sometimes, if my return route leads me into Hauptstrasse, I take the perpendicular Neugasse back home too. There’s always someone standing at the shelf browsing books, but of late I’ve spotted, on three or four occasions, an old woman who mutters to herself while she goes about arranging the books. Not with a librarian’s tic for semantic organisation, but a stickler’s instinct for physical order. She picks up books left behind by careless passersby, large and small volumes lying horizontally or stacked in a pile, and sets them vertically in a row, the way they ought to stand in a bookshelf. Unused spaces are anathema to her: only when a row is packed does she allow a new one. She displays the manner of an impatient mother tidying up her son’s unruly desk, and not until she is done do I gather courage to scan the titles myself.

The other day I found her standing on the bottom shelf, which is wider than the others, reaching for books on the top one. Dressed in jeans and a half-sleeved embroidered jacket over a shirt, she seemed like someone who cared about appearances. Her white hair, sightly ruffled, was held in place under two plastic hairbands and a pair of sunglasses. A black leather handbag, slung over the right shoulder, reached her waist. She was muttering as usual, and I waited, as always.

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Rediscovering India


Words are the only jewels I possess
Words are the only clothes I wear
Words are the only food that sustains my life
Words are the only wealth I distribute among people

— Sant Tukaram

The South Asia Institute, which belongs to the Heidelberg University, offers courses in Transcultural Studies, Indology, and other themes related to the Indian subcontinent. I had heard of those courses on a few occasions, but the subjects did not interest me, and I knew no one studying or working there. So for a long time the South Asia Institute remained a name related to my country of origin, no more.

My curiosity grew when I saw, not long ago, a pamphlet that advertised a library, an English library at the South Asia Institute. It was open to the public, Monday to Friday, 10 am to 7 pm. I decided to make a visit.

* * *

No. 330, a six-storied building where the South Asia Institute is located, stands next to a group of similar buildings that belong to the local hospital. They share the same parking lot. You see a few gloomy-faced people walking about, but it’s hard to say if they are university faculty or relatives of a terminal patient. A few bicycles are parked outside 330, locked to the aluminium railing, and a small revolving door, bright red and hard to budge, ushers you into the foyer. The concrete walls inside carry a thin coat of white paint, the gravelled floor looks untidy: the hall bears the unfinished look of a parking garage. At the center a narrow stairway leads upstairs. A man with South Indian features is standing to the left, his hand holding the elevator door open, his eyes on me.

“Are you on your way up?” he asks.

“I’m looking for the library, actually.”

“Take the stairs – one floor up.”

Upstairs the reception area is large and airy. A glass partition splits the hall, and behind the glass are two rows of unoccupied computer terminals. On another glass partition, which encloses two sides of the reception desk, hangs an array of amateurish but well-composed photographs from the subcontinent: a buddhist temple, a riverside ghat in Benaras, a street in Nepal, an Indian bazaar, and so on. Returned books are stacked on a trolley, waiting to be replaced; new arrivals are displayed in glass cabinets, like gems in a jewellery store. Rabindranath Tagore, head inclined toward the half-written page, stands alone in a corner, composed, carved in black. Next to him is a notice board announcing events and courses, and on the opposite wall a series of bronze-coloured frames enclose portraits of Hindu mythological figures. I could be inside a university building in India.

The only person I see around is a young lady at the reception desk, absorbed in a collection of catalog cards like a monk with a manuscript. It is half past ten on a Monday morning.

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New York diary


I do not know what it is like to live there, but as a visitor, no matter how many times I’ve been to the city before, New York does not fail to impress. Like Venice, Paris, or Mumbai, its character assails you the moment you step into the city. Arriving by train into the New York Penn station, the same passengers who were relaxed and laid back when they boarded the train in the suburbs spring into motion, like toys with wound up keys, and march with an infectious purpose through the station into the maze-like streets of Manhattan. The press of humanity that begins here continues unabated, in the subway, the cafes, the museums, and you always know you are in New York because its signature, the dense racial mix, is hard to miss. Mexicans, Indians, Chinese, Africans, Europeans, Americans: all in one subway car, like a grand social experiment designed to observe inter-racial behaviour in a confined setting. The experiment is not a success: nothing much happens, each individual is self-absorbed: immersed in a book, listening to music, or simply lost in thought; communication, when it occurs, is not between members in the car but with someone far away, reached through a mobile phone.

The mobile devices I spotted on the subway were all iPhones. A young woman stood beside me checking her iCalender, switching between a few dates; 14th: Finish Chapter 9, Long NC; 15th: Take your pills!; 18th: Dinner with Mq & Tj. Later, in a cafe, the dozen or so tables were occupied by men and women peering into a screen in front; all those laptops bore the Apple logo, and a bluish tinge in the eyes of many suggested a Facebook page. A master-slave relationship was evident; humans seemed to have surrendered, unconsciously, to machines.

[Continued on page 2]

My problem with The Cat’s Table

My first acquaintance with Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table was through an extract published this spring in The New Yorker. Reading it, I felt like an eleven-year-old watching a magician pull a rabbit out of his hat. I wanted to see more. The book, I learned, would be published “in summer”.

Summer arrived early, but the publishers kept their date fixed not to the season but to the calender. The weekend before the book’s release I scanned some reviews, avoiding parts that revealed the book’s contents, looking for whiffs of judgement. Everyone seemed to love it. On the day of its release, the Kindle edition on Amazon was prized at $3.50. Could this be true? For the price of two ice-cream scoops I could buy a new novel from a contemporary master of fiction? And it would be delivered instantly?

* * *

I do not own a Kindle, but the iPad at home has a Kindle App that lets me read Kindle eBooks on the iPad.

Let this be an experiment, I told myself, as I greedily purchased The Cat’s Table, Kindle Edition. Perhaps this would mark my transition into the world of eBooks, a step I had avoided this far.

* * *

Months later, I am still at “location” – the Kindle analog for “Page” – 235 of 3525. And I’m struggling to understand why.

* * *

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The Left Hand of Darkness

What is the loneliest job in the world?

Imagine an envoy visiting a remote planet seventeen years from his own, living on that alien world in the middle of an ice-age, sifting through layers of unfamiliar etiquette, entangled in political intrigue, with no one to trust: this is the world of Genly Ai, envoy from Hain, through most of The Left Hand of Darkness. His mission is to enlist planet Winter/Gethen into a federation he hails from, and his quest reveals what is at the heart of this sad and beautiful story: the meeting of two vastly different cultures, and the possibility of a friendship between aliens.

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Asimov’s psychohistories, Hegel’s histories

[If science fiction is viewed as history in reverse (or as alternate history), what does it reveal about the way history is written and understood?]

The first female character in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation appears in the final third of the book. Licia, wife of the Korellian republic’s leader, is a young woman whose “face was pale and coldly formed” and whose “voice was tart”. She taunts and threatens her husband, invoking her father’s power: “My father would pulverize your toy nation to meteoric dust.” She makes another brief, and similarly insignificant, appearance thirty or so pages later, which marks the end of female presence in this novel that spans a hundred and fifty “Foundation years.”

Rereading a classic can be revealing. I remembered little from my first reading twenty years ago, and on this occasion reading Foundation was like entering a video-game world of men with their politics and guns and trading ships. The sense of place, a vital element for imagining a world vastly different from our own, was all but missing, and the only cultural references included a “vegan” cigar, a two-century old wine, and a game of solitaire. Technology, too, seemed old-fashioned for a world fifty-thousand years in the future: calculators, elevators, public “visiphones” to make calls, “spy beams” to snoop on conversations, “air tubes” between ships, alchemical “transmuters” to convert iron into gold, atomic weapons, identification through a photo-bearing passport, and an encyclopedia containing all human knowledge. The novel was first published in 1953, and the last six decades have turned this view of a future world into an anachronistic vision. A sobering thought, it suggests that predicting the arc of technological progress is harder than we think it is. With our imaginations influenced by extant or emerging technologies, can we conjure up anything that wouldn’t pale half a century later?

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Just let it be, my friend

Sometime in the late Eighties, during my school days in Secunderabad, I watched a movie on television that left a strange impression on my mind. I must have been thirteen or fourteen, a typical Indian teenager fond of cricket, comics and movies. (Girls were only a curiosity, but that would change soon.) Every Sunday I would check the Deccan Chronicle for the scheduled evening movie on Doordarshan, and if it looked interesting I would be home in time for the 5:45 pm “Hindi Feature Film”. There was a Black & White TV at home, an Uptron portable fourteen inch with a V-shaped antenna that stuck out like a pair of bunny ears, and Doordarshan, you’ll remember, was the only channel we received those days.

On this Sunday the movie, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, was not one I’d heard of before, and there were no big stars listed either. But the name intrigued me for some reason, so that evening I skipped a game of cricket and settled myself on the sofa at a quarter to six. The next two and half hours had me in splits. I don’t remember laughing so much to a movie before, and since then only Johnny Stecchino, starring the incomparable Roberto Benigni, comes anywhere close. But there was one problem with Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: I did not understand the ending, which left me sour and confused all evening, and I decided I didn’t like the movie. Next day, at school, I asked my classmates, but no one had cracked the puzzle. Why did the Vinod and Sudhir, dressed as prisoners, make that throat-slitting gesture? Were they to be hanged? Or were they already ghosts, spirits of two innocent men who were hanged, wandering in Bombay like zombies? Why, after all that fun, did the ending need to be so tragic? It simply wasn’t fair!

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In the woods next to a gentle stream


[ Part two of a series – a conversation about the book Open City – that began here. You will find this post accessible even if you haven’t read the book – try it. Then, go buy the book. ]

The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author.

Roland Barthes

Dear Teju,

I’ve been thinking, in these past few days, about classification. How does Open City compare with other novels in the reading experience? If I relate reading a conventional work of fiction – with its apparatus of plot, well-developed characters, a beginning, middle and an end – to the act of watching a tennis or soccer match, with its well-defined boundaries, roles and actors, winners and losers, a start and a finish, then Open City makes me feel, at this moment after a hundred or so pages, like someone sitting in the woods next to a gentle stream watching the water flow by, with its characters who appear, linger for a while, and go away, as it has been going on since millennia. There has been no beginning – the first sentence led me into the middle, really – and I do not expect an end. What I see in the stream is guided by Julius’s eye (he is both a character in the stream and, like me, an observer watching it) but my eyes can wander, and so can my mind. Unlike a match, where the anticipation of what happens next often robs me of the joy of the present until, in almost no time, it is all over, sitting by the stream and watching it flow is a reflective activity, unhindered by any plan of action, unlimited by boundaries of space and time.

On the flight to Brussels, as Julius entered into conversation with Dr.Maillotte, I was reminded of my weekend trips to Brussels (when Wife still lived in that city) and those train conversations. One particular encounter stood out; you’ll soon see why.
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