The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.

Books · China · Travel

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star- book review

The Trans-Siberian Express is one of the world’s most famous transcontinental journeys, spanning across Russia from Moscow to Siberia. But in American novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux’s Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, the Trans-Siberian is merely his way back home after a gruelling journey from London to Tokyo across Asia, mostly by train. Theroux crossed Europe by train, went through Turkey and Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and Southeast Asia, before traversing half of Japan. This bold journey was not even the first time he had done in, as it was the repeat of an earlier one he made in the 1970s, which he also wrote about in The Great Railroad Bazaar.

Going through over a dozen countries, Theroux writes at least one chapter about each of them, with India and Japan getting several chapters. Besides those two, I found the chapters on Sri Lanka and Myanmar very interesting as those countries were going through civil conflict and authoritarian rule respectively. The chapter on Singapore is surprisingly colorful as it mentions the seedy side of that super-modern island state. Theroux is scathing about Singapore’s nanny state and its famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. He finds Eastern Europe (Romania, Hungary) and Central Asia to be quite bleak and dowdy.

However, one of the most memorable chapters is the one about the Trans-Siberian Express. During the trip, Theroux stops off at a Russian town which has one of the last remaining gulags, which has been converted into an asylum. Theroux talks about how harsh the gulags were, used by a repressive regime under Josef Stalin to obtain mass slave labour by imprisoning its own citizens on often spurious charges to rebuild the economy. Writers were also victims of the gulags, being critics of the state, with Nobel laureate Alexander Solzhenitsyn being a famous example. Theroux’s local guide also had a direct connection as his uncle spent 25 years in one after being arrested in 1946 for picking up a few grains of wheat from a field because he was desperately hungry. Russia is not a country that I’m too interested or care too much for, but I did feel some sadness for its people after I read this.

During his travel, Theroux meets with several famous writers including Orhan Pamuk in Istanbul, Arthur Clarke in Sri Lanka, and Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer, who he considers a friend, in Japan. He is extremely frank, perhaps too frank, about his conversations with Iyer, during which they talked about other writers including VS Naipaul, the Trinidadian-British Nobel laureate who Theroux had a significant falling out with after having been longtime friends (about which he consequently wrote a book “Sir Vidia’s Shadow”).

Though this book was published in 2008, by no means is it out of date. The world may have changed, but some things are still almost the same. Theroux is especially critical of China, decrying its soullessness (though he also says that about Tokyo) in its wanton pursuit of wealth at the cost of its environment, historical preservation and social morals.

Having also read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari, as well as Last Train to Zona Verde, which was about his travels through Africa, I would say he is less critical and pessimistic about Asia. However, as with Dark Star Safari, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star (the names of two of the trains he took during his journey) is also a very good read.

Books · Hong Kong

Ten Cities That Made an Empire- book review

At its peak, the British Empire covered territories around the whole world on almost every continent from Africa to Asia to Australia. I’m sure most of us know and have been to countries that made up this empire. However, at its core were illustrious cities like Bombay, Hong Kong, Cape Town and New Delhi, which provided the industry, commerce, and wealth that enriched the mother country of Britain greatly and allowed the empire to be sustained. Ten Cities That Made an Empire is a fascinating look into 10 of these cities that tell the story of the empire’s development.

In addition to those mentioned above, Boston, Calcutta, Melbourne, Dublin, Bridgetown, and Liverpool (the lone British city on the list) also feature. Boston, of course, stopped being part of the empire once the United States won its independence. An argument could be made for Singapore, Sydney or Kingston to be included, but otherwise the list is very sound. Bridgetown, as the capital of tiny Barbados in the Caribbean, might raise eyebrows, but having been colonized since the 17th century, it played a great role in the sugar industry in the British Caribbean, acting as a lively and prosperous shipping hub.

With three cities, India features prominently which is appropriate given its nickname as the “Jewel of the Empire.” While Bombay, now Mumbai, and Calcutta (Kolkatta) were built by the British, Delhi was a historic city that had been the capital of the Mughal Empire. The British built a new section adjacent to Delhi, aptly naming it New Delhi as its grand seat of power, a role which it still fulfills today. Cape Town in South Africa was taken from the Dutch and not surprisingly, soon became an important refuelling station for British ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope heading to the East. Hong Kong was seized as a prize of war from China’s ruling Qing Dynasty after victory in the Opium War, and hence saw its fortunes transformed from a mere fishing village to a free market business hub that it still is now.

The author, who has written several books and was a former Labour MP who is now the head of the Victoria and Albert museum, does very well bringing each city to life, showcasing fascinating historical facts and developments concerning architecture, politics, and economics. I admit I am very biased because I do enjoy cities very much, whether visiting or reading about them. Of course, there is always controversy and debate about the empire, regarding how much harm it inflicted on colonial subjects and the actual benefits that were derived from the British rule. Hunt does not vilify the empire or glorify it, though he shows how imperial officials often thought they were doing great work.

The chapters proceed in loose chronological order, and in so doing, illustrate the changing fortunes and status of the British Empire. We see how the empire develops and expands from an Atlantic slave-based power to an eastward-looking empire centered on its prized possession of India. The irony is that by starting off with Boston, the author begins with the British loss of America in the late 18th century, but instead of wilting, they went on to greater things by conquering the world. And in ending with Liverpool and its decay and slight resurgence in the 20th century, we see the empire and its power finally ending as Britain comes to term with a new era and world.

Books · China

Flood of Fire- book review

The Opium War is one of the most famous episodes in modern Chinese history, being the moment when China realized how feeble it was compared to the British who thrashed it in battle and forced it to open up its ports to Western traders. This came as a rude shock, putting it mildly, to the Chinese and their ruling Manchurian Qing Dynasty, and even after well over one and a half centuries, it still hasn’t been forgotten by the Chinese. Hong Kong owes its existence and prosperity to this war, because it was officially handed over to the British after the war under whom it changed from a small fishing village to the financial hub it is today.

Flood of Fire is the third and final book in Amitav Ghosh’s epic Opium War trilogy that spans India and China and features an eclectic cast of Indian, Chinese and British characters. The book sees the outbreak of the Opium War as the British launch an attack on the ruling Qing Dynasty over its ban on opium imports. As Guangdong is attacked, Hong Kong is captured and the Qing are humbled by the British navy and army, characters on all sides strive to exploit their differing situations. There are Parsi businessmen, British merchants and officers, an American sailor, Bengali soldiers, Chinese Tanka boat people, and Cantonese.

The trilogy began with a ship, the Ibis, which set sail from India in the mid-19th century with a diverse group on board, including runaways, fugitives and nobles, who dispersed after a mutiny mid-voyage. The bulk of these characters made their way to Hong Kong and Guangdong, which by then was the only point of exchange between Western merchants and China. Opium was the main import from Western and Indian businessmen, which as most of us know, caused a lot of anger among Chinese officials. But that is because many Chinese enjoyed this narcotic so much that addiction became a scourge (something that few Chinese accept responsibility for). A powerful Chinese official, Lin Zexu, (who is revered as a national hero in modern China) soon orders a ban on opium imports and burns a huge load of opium in public, bringing about hostilities that lead to a declaration of war from the British.

With such a large cast, it can be confusing at times, especially as there are several plotlines going on simultaneously, involving both sides. But most of these plots are interesting enough, though the conclusion ties them together a bit too neatly.

Indian-born Bengali Amitav Ghosh is probably my favorite novelist after I read Glass Palace, one of his novels which spanned Burma and India during the British colonial period. Ghosh has a gift for writing sweeping novels set across different but places, especially South Asia, during major historical events like the Opium War in this case, Partition (of British India into India and Pakistan), and the conquest of Burma by the British. Other books of his that I’ve enjoyed include Hungry Tide, a contemporary novel about a scientist studying Bangladesh’s vast Sundurban wetland, and this Opium War trilogy. His most recent book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable is not a novel, but a work of non-fiction, examining how climate change threaten a lot of countries, especially through global warming and unpredictable weather changes such as rising sea levels that can put coastal cities and settlements at risks.


Last Man in Tower- book review

Vishram Society Tower A is an aging apartment tower that still retains a trace of its former appeal as a respectable middle-class residence in a slum-infested district in Mumbai. Its longtime residents, mostly families and retirees, possess a sense of belonging towards their building. But this is severely tested when a property tycoon or “builder” makes a stunning offer to them to move out so he can redevelop the building.

The second novel from Aravind Adiga, who won the Booker Prize in 2008 for his debut book The White Tiger, Last Man in Tower is a tragicomic look at how the residents of Tower A deal with the offer from the builder to leave their revered building. The book starts off a little mundane but gradually tensions build up as the residents increasingly become tempted by the offer. The plot twists a bit, tackling multiple issues like greed, poverty, inequality, and human nature, especially how people sacrifice their ideals for their families. As the book is wholly set in Mumbai, India, it puts a spotlight on local issues like corruption and the prioritizing of development, mostly of high-end apartments and buildings, over providing for the mass poor and working class, some which is also a common sign of urbanization in many developing cities around the world.

There are several key tenants, including Masterji, a retired schoolteacher who copes with recently losing his wife and has a tense relationship with his son and daughter-in-law, Sanjeeta, a housewife who is devoted to her teenage mentally-disabled son and is willing to do anything to get him cured, Miss Rego, otherwise known as “Battleship” for her stout socialist views, and Ajwani, a greedy property agent. The builder Shah may be one of the less unscrupulous in the business but is not averse to using dark means to get his way, especially involving his henchman Shanmugham. As Shah makes his generous offer, while augmenting it with something extra for a few of the more influential tenants, resistance from the tenants gradually melts away except for one stubborn holdout who sees staying in his longtime home as a moral quest.

I don’t want to give away too much of the story but I’ll just say it doesn’t end well.

Books · China

From the Ruins of Empire- book review

Pankaj Mishra is a respected non-fiction writer from India who has written several nonfiction books about India, South Asia and Asia. From the Ruins of Empire (The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia), the first book of his that I’ve read, is a sweeping historical account of several major Asian intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century who challenged European imperialism at a time when its power loomed over much of Asia. Asia was largely subordinate, with India and most of Southeast Asia colonized by European powers, China defeated in the Opium Wars and bullied, Iran subdued, and the Middle East ruled by the Ottomans, who themselves would see their empire torn up by the Europeans after World War I.

Several of these intellectuals, besides challenging European domination and trying to revive their ailing countries, also shared a vision of pan-Asian unity. Mishra is a bit liberal by including Turkey as an Asian country because if anything, Turkey has been trying hard to become part of Europe via EU membership. That aside, the historical account of various countries across Asia, specifically China, Japan, and Iran, is compelling.
One of the more intriguing Asian thinkers profiled is Jamal al-Din al-Afghani who traveled across the Islamic world -Egypt, Iran, Turkey – agitating for a pan-Islamic sphere. Due to recent events, I couldn’t help think of ISIS while reading this part though al-Afghani seemingly had a more benign vision that alternated between tradition and modernism or democracy with Islamic elements. However, the desire to modernize while being able to retain Islamic characteristics is a struggle that is still true today throughout the Arab region (I admit I am not an expert on the Middle East or the Arab region).

Other major thinkers/activists include Chinese Liang Qichao and Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet and Nobel laureate, who is admired in China and Japan. Mishra does well to bind the stories of these disparate individuals by linking them to a similar purpose and a common foe (Western powers). The end of World War II saw European colonization brought to an end in Asia and the “rise” of China and India and Japan makes for a tempting vision of Asia rising. There is a trace of sympathy and admiration for China, who Mishra sees as having risen to a power, though he is also aware about the injustices in that country. Mishra concludes with the thought that Western dominance is short-lived but admits that deep challenges remain, such as Pakistan and Indonesia. Personally, I think he is too optimistic about Asia and the end of Western dominance, but the book is still a fascinating and informative read.


Random links – Vast Chinese limestone caves, India wet wonderland, Roman Empire, and China’s poor urban planning

China’s Guangxi is famous for its karst hills but what’s underground is just as impressive. See National Geographic’s amazing video, 3-D footage, and article about the exploration of several of the world’s most massive underground limestone caves in Guangxi and neighboring Guizhou. And there’s more to China’s attractive karst hills than just the postcard-perfect hills in Guangxi. People from the cave expedition climbed several karst areas (Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangxi) with the best being a slim standalone tower in Hubei’s Enshi Grand Canyon. How they got down from that one, I don’t know and I wish the writer had described how they did.

Here’re some great photos of the wettest place on Earth, in India’s Northeast region. There’s a bridge made out of the roots of an old tree, a hilltop village that gets perpetual rain, clouds that descend vertically over a cliff, and whole-body traditional “umbrellas.”

This Guardian article slams China’s urban planning for mimicking the worst of contemporary American cities, repeating the mistakes of previous decades. There’s valid critiques, but one thing is for sure There’s no need to wonder why China has done this because it’s simple. Chinese want to live Western middle-class lifestyles which means enjoying comforts including cars, big houses, shopping malls and so on. And of course, property developers want to keep building more houses and skyscrapers, no matter how inefficient or unnecessary, while local governments want to keep selling their land to developers.

Here’s a cool collection of 40 maps that explain and clarify the Roman Empire, from its beginning to its peak to its end. It pretty much explains the major developments and changes, from the Romans’ rise to decline. 



The Lowland- book review

I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland and the writing is fine and the story flows well. Unfortunately as a novel, it was disappointing because it just was not very interesting and deep. It’s gotten a lot of acclaim and is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, which was a factor for me in deciding to buy it. However this also made me expect more from the book and my expectations were off the mark.
Perhaps the main thing is I mistook the focus of the story, believing it would be based on India and the Naxalite struggle, a Marxist rebellion in 1960s Bengal that one of the protagonists was heavily involved in. Yet the Lowland is not a novel about India or the failed uprising, but a tale about immigration, love and duty.
The Naxalite rebellion, which I wasn’t familiar with, has a decisive role in the unfolding of the characters’ lives for the entire book, but it fades from the scene quickly. It’s not that I have a special attraction for Marxist movements, but I do like books that have significant or notable historical events as backdrops. The characters may have been heavily impacted, in different ways, by the movement but there is no deep narrative that explores it in-depth, so we fail to understand why one of the protagonists become so involved or the mood of society that enabled such a movement to spread. Also disappointing is the lack of emphasis on India and Calcutta/Kolkata, though the neighborhood where the protagonist brothers grew up is described in rich detail.

Two brothers grow up in Calcutta, close and inseparable, but during university, a fledgling Marxist movement takes hold of the younger brother Udayan. Things start to get tense as the movement becomes violent and Udayan becomes more active. Subhash moves to the US on a scholarship to study and eventually chooses to stay. However, he returns briefly to Kolkata after his brother is killed by the police and finds out Udayan’s widow Gauri is pregnant but ignored by their parents. Subhash decides to do the honorable thing and marry her and hence raise his brother’s child.

The story drifts as its moves to America as Subhash builds his life there with Gauri and her daughter. It then becomes a little like an immigrant story, except the problems and issues are not with the issue of being immigrants in a foreign country. It almost becomes banal but the story raises some valid questions about the choices you make in life and the sacrifices between personal desires and family responsibility. The biggest question is whether if one feels incapable of doing her duty, should one still persevere or abandon it. This takes up the core of the story, with the beginning and end touching on the events of the Naxalite uprising, almost like two separate stories. And of course, it means the tragedy that sparked the events in the story is neglected for the bulk of it.

The characters are not easy to sympathize with or care about, other than Subhash, the responsible husband and father who bears most of the burdens, and even he is not really interesting. One of the most striking scenes is at the end when we get to see an earlier tragic event unfold from the perspective of Udayan, but by that time, it is too late to have any major impact on the book. It’s a decent read but at the end, the hollowness of most of the characters reflects how I feel about the novel.

China · Travel

Random links- high-speed rail issues, old Beijing, and Arundhati Roy profile

China’s high-speed train network is the envy of many, but apparently not everything is as sound as it’d seem. It is impressive, having started in 2007, it’s become the largest high-speed rail network in the world, and traverses many major cities from north to south. China’s expertise and manufacturing capability now sees Chinese firms going across the world bidding for construction contracts, including even the US. One can take the train from Beijing to Guangzhou in 8 hours, a distance of over 2,200 km. However, you can also take a plane which would be much faster and only a little more expensive, as the article points out. And this is just one of the big problems with the high-speed rail, as the article explains. The network isn’t making money and the rail authorities are finding it hard to maintain financing and pay for construction and operations. Even worse is that some tracks are unsafe, owing to shoddy construction materials and hasty construction. Personally I’ve taken the high-speed rail several times, and find it good to use, however this article does raise some valid points.

A man goes back to Beijing after 75 years with his son, stunned by all the changes he sees, while remembering his life in the city when Peking (as it was then called) was still surrounded by an old city wall and was about to be invaded and occupied by the Japanese. It’s an interesting read that provides a picture of what old Beijing was like, albeit from a sheltered Western perspective, and reflects a disappointment and disapproval of the political and social changes in China. It’s not surprising that so much has changed in 75 years, though events like the Cultural Revolution, by literally destroying so much physical aspects of the past, caused a lot of the change.

Arundhati Roy won a Booker Prize for her novel God of Small Things, but she is far better known as a forceful Indian social activist who has no qualms about taking her government on about major issues like an ongoing rural rebel movement, indigenous rights, giant dam project and Kashmir insurgency. Even the late Mahatmas Gandhi is not safe from her criticisms, which you can read about in this fine NY Times profile of her. She’s also been outspoken about international issues such as the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Her fearlessness extends, not surprisingly, to her writing in the form of several nonfiction books of essay, which I read a few of back in my university days, and it’s fair to say she pulls no punches as her anger is palpable throughout her writings. She’s currently writing a new novel, which she refuses to say what it’s about.


China, Asia will rise, but not dominate the future

One of the more popular lines of thinking about the future is that Asia will dominate the world, this being a variant and accompaniment of the idea that China will dominate the world. Yet it’s become annoying for me to see this often repeated in the media, in books and by big business, since I’m a huge skeptic and strongly feel there’s a lot of hot air and wishful thinking behind those claims. It was good to see an article like this that says why Asia will not dominate this century. While it’s specifically about a debate at an Oxford alumni event in HK, the arguments made are sound and point to a very strong conclusion – Asia will rise, but it won’t dominate. Most arguments for why Asia or China will dominate center around numbers, as in quantity (size of national GDP, markets for products, growth etc), while not focusing on quality. Asia will rise, no doubt, as China and to a lesser extent India, Indonesia and others, will grow economically, become more wealthy and more influential in more fields. But at the same time, they’ll need to cope with and handle a whole host of problems such as large populations, socioeconomic inequality, deteriorating natural environments, and internal tensions. At the same time, in soft power and military alliances, technology, pop culture, China, and the rest of Asia, still lag the US considerably. Even Japan, as prosperous, innovative and dominant (in various sectors)  as it has become, has not come close to “dominating” the world. A far more telling argument is that in international ideas, innovations, inventions or campaigns to tackle issues such as the environment or nuclear proliferation, China has not contributed or taken on a leading role. Of course, noone knows what the future will bring but I think that it’s safe to believe that in the next few decades, Asia will still not dominate.