Sunday, March 26, 2017

REVOLTING PRUNES

Prunes are dried plums. In Marathi they call them जर्दाळू, சரிக்கரை பாதாமி in Tamil, खुरमानी in Hindi and so on. This rendering has to be qualified a wee- bit. Strictly speaking the trio refers to Dried Apricots, whereas Prune is a dried sister fruit aloo-bukhara or Red-plum and what goes under the name Prune in India is an import from California, whereas the former set is produced locally. They share the same alleged health benefits, being laden with Anti-oxidants, bursting with Calcium and all that.

To cut a short story long, the name ‘Prune’ decidedly sounds uncouth and hence in spite of a barrage of press-reports about the newly discovered benefits the fruit confers, sales remained flat in the US. A marketing study identified the appellation Prune as the chief culprit, so the California Prune (not Prude) Board ‘pressured the FDA to change the name of Prunes to the more inviting “Dried Plums”- and it worked’. This is, verbatim as reported on NDTV.com, and not on aajtak.com, and hence one may be pardoned for believing the same.

Names can be quite off-putting. As residents on the North East we always had issues with such a beautiful place being named ‘Guwahati’. Kamrup or even Dispur would have done more justice to the ambience, Guwahati sounds gooey!

The disaffection with the term Prune, in the estimation of YT, basically stems from the ‘disdain’ showed towards the well-intentioned fruit by British Boarding School kids. Other candidates of the ‘disdain’ could be the Broccoli and the Radio Malt which famously, was administered to young Boarding School girls “in an attempt to change skinny young girls into prettier roundness”. For the records, ‘as a fule kno that’, George Molesworth, brother of the protagonist of today’s blog, Nigel Molesworth, loved Radio Malt (which was a sort of treacle sold under the proprietary name Syp Minadex, if seniors will recall).
Nigel Molesworth

Of course ‘as a fule kno that’ is a Deep Purple hit. But as any fule kno, it’s  the refrain of the adventures of the mythical boarding school kid Nigel Molesworth, enshrined in the St. Custard diaries created by the wayward writer-cartoonist duo of Geoffery Williams and Ronald Searle. Searle in fact illustrated the books based on a series Jeff had been writing in the late, lamented Punch magazine, in the late lamented 1940s, he, he, he... ‘Down with Skool- A Guide to School Life for Tiny Pupils and Their Parents’ is the flag-bearer of the series.

A rich genre exists in serious literature about life in British Boarding Schools. This includes depiction of posh boarding schools as in Enid Blyton and Angela Brazil, basically meant for educative purposes, and the satirical or titillating variations considered by the authors of St. Trinians, St. Custards (both Geoffery Williams and Ronald Searle), Harry Potter, Narnia etc. Any number of movies have being made on the subject, some quite serious and haunting like Picnic on the Hanging Rock.

The Nigel series belongs to the mid-1950s, when YT was born. Down with Skool fell into his hands in the School’s History and Culture readings period when the slim volume somehow got mixed up with the 30 identical copies of “Myths and Legends of the Greeks” (not Geeks) which we sleepy kids were supposed to read in order to familiarise ourselves with time-less European contexts like Hercules, Paris, Troy, Athena etc. etc. The passage where Nigel contemplates the ‘Revolt of the Prunes’, a word-play on the revolting taste of prunes left us rolling in the aisle with laughter, leaving class-teacher Miss Parks wondering as to what Act of Greek mythology could be the object of such mirth. We were caught with the book but given the circumstances in which it befell us, she could only say “my, my, what spellings and I don’t think words like ‘chizz’ are there in any dictionary”….

You can buy this book on Amazon today or borrow it from an online library like archive.org, but as is said, the exploits of Nigel grow on you and you have to read it at the right juncture of your life to find it hilarious, best when you are sailing through troubled middle-school academic waters.

Let’s return to the book’s last chapter Revolt of the Prunes. Nicholas Lezard, fellow Molesworth enthusiast writes in the 1st October 2005 number of Independent: ‘The school prunes, weary of the disdain they encounter among all schoolboys stage a revolt’. Nigel in his nightmare conjures up the following:
Prunes plan attack

“The chief prune was a regular soldier and the moment the Revolt broke out, he did what all generals do. He burrowed underground and established his head-quarters. He had lot of relations and made them all staff prunes”.

Lezard continues: ‘It is not, it may strike you, the most sophisticated of satires. But if you read it at the right age, the Revolt of the Prunes- and just about any flight of fancy on Down with Skool!...will stay with you until your deathbed…whoever was behind the works, they knew what was going on in the mind of a 10 to 12-year-old schoolboy..”

Contempt for his younger brother George makes whimsy appearance even here:   George is referred to as molesworth 2 in the diary, and about his eating habits, prune number 4 says “ imagine being inside molesworth 2 with all those common lozenges spangles carots radio malt and all other things he hav pinched”. Note the parsimony showed towards the comon comma…

So Nigel uses phonetic spellings while writing the St. Custard diaries, doesn’t capitalise initials of names, is very economical with punctuation marks, but still often sounds sage beyond his years, though his interpretation of words and events is sometimes misplaced. Needless to state, these are all reflections of the rebellious mental make-up of Jeff, the original writer. But the misspellings are so endearingly natural: foopball, peotry, anebode, lunatick, fast blower (i.e. fast bowler)…look more authentic than the actual spellings!

Nigel’s take on the subjects:

 History: "History started badly and hav been getting steadily worse”
 Literature: "Peotry is sissy stuff that rhymes. Weedy people say la and fie and swoon when they see a bunch of daffodils."
 Botany:"Boo to birds beasts crows trees grass flowers also cristopfer robin and wind in the wilows. Charge at the tinies and mow them down."
 Geometry: "To do geom you hav to make a lot of things equal to each other when you can see perfectly well that they don't."

Pythagoras who uniformly comes in for criticism gets mixed up with  Archimedes of the famous “eureka” episode. Nigel writes : “ Whenever he found a new thing about a triangle Pythagoras who had no shame jumped out of his bath and shouted ‘Q.E.D.’ through the streets of athens it’s a wonder they never locked him up.” Then, critical of the Bible, he remarks “Cain did his bro Abel which is enuff to give me an idea occasionally about molesworth 2.”

Incidentally this juvenile, cocky wisdom reminds one of the misinterpretation protagonist Holden Caulfield places upon the phrase ‘catcher in the rye’ in the eponymous book. As you’ll recall, Holden believes the phrase to mean ‘saviour of innocent children’, in which role he fancies himself, the imagery being hundreds children playing in rye fields, and Holden saving kids from falling off a cliff as they play in abandon… In reality the 1782 poem by Robert Burns “Comin’ Through the Rye” is a middle-English poem with sexual overtones. Similar cocky wisdom is also displayed by Huckleberry Finn when he describes his encounter with ‘the widow’: “After supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses…I didn’t care no more about him anymore because I take no stock in dead people”! Incidentally, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye are considered the three most perfect books in American Literature by top American critics…

About the illustrations by Ronald Searle in the series, Lezard writes..”I can think of no work except perhaps Alice in Wonderland. Where illustration and content are on such good terms with each other…take a look, that’s the way to go:
   
Maths with Pythagoras on my side
Bet the images match your conception 

A Word about Aldous Huxley


(wiki on St Trinians, another landmark):

St Trinians was a British gag cartoon comic strip series, created and drawn by Ronald Searle from 1946 until 1952.[1] The cartoons all centre on a boarding school for girls, where the teachers are sadists and the girls are juvenile delinquents. The series was Searle's most famous work and inspired a popular series of comedy films that has outlived the short-running cartoon series.
Irresistible charm of St Trinians'girls'hostel


Peace loving St Trinian girls!

So persuasive!

Leading St Trinians' initiatives


Friday, December 23, 2016

DANGERS OF A SINGLE STORY

Times were when the population of Cartoonistan was relatively sparse. That was maybe in the late 1950s and early 60s. Possibly famous cartoonists outnumbered prominent Cartoon figures like Popeye, Mickey, Donald, Baby Huey, Tintin, Haddok, Archie and Co., Blondie, Jiggs, maybe Tarzan, and on the Indian papers one recalls Mandrake, Garth, Prof. Lumiere, the indigenous crop including Chotu and Lambu, Tik and Tock- Chacha Chowdhary, Modesty Blaise, Simpsons belonged to a later generation. 

Toons vs Humans: watch the Movie Review columns in the Papers: animation films rule the roost-they 'garner' I sayyy...more stars than brick-and-mortar ones. Whattsmore-the world's two greatest Democracies are ruled by Toons!

So there was this masked hood - the Phantom by Lee Falk whose ancestors set about in the 16th century AD to save Africa from baddies. Our Phantom was the 21st in the lineage and was born Kit Walker*. There was one strip about Phantom and the Aliens, invaders who were opening their innings on various cartoon strips. This popular story shows a space-ship land in Bangalla, and as luck would have it, the first human they run into is the Phantom himself. Naturally he trounces the aliens with his usual heroics, leaving the skull mark on the equivalent of their jaws, so that the aliens scurry back into space assuming that the Phantom faithfully represented the inhabitants of this planet!

That was a joke, OK, but the same inductive fallacy takes a heavy toll of humanity, and wise and dumb are equally susceptible to this phenomenon of generalisation on a single instance. You had a rowdy Punjabi neighbour, and you’ll pass a whole life-time believing Punjabis to be an uncivilised lot. Not only that, you’ll leave a legacy of the belief for your family, as also infect your extended family called Facebook and Whatsthat! Kids, whose learning proceeds essentially by observation are notorious generalisers, but so insidious is this tendency, that your stoutest mental defence will permit of some invaders once in a while. That’s thinking fast and slow for you (recall the famous book by Daniel Kahneman).  
CHIMAMANDA
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the charming Nigerian writer-publisher recently created this great TED Talks video, tellingly named “The Danger of a Single Story”. We tend to get wedded to the first story about a person, place, thing etc., she says, and confesses about her own acts of omission, cautious as she is. It’s like this- you say ‘Bangladeshi’ and across your mind the visions that flash past are- may be refugees from Bangladesh crossing over to Assam, or cheap labour, or guys wallowing in floods. You have to go there and see with your eyes first. My son recently visited Islamabad, attending a UN sponsored conference on Human Rights. The first notable encounter with Pakistan will make anybody’s head spin. Sporting a beard, he was received by clean-shaven hosts at the airport, who apologetically requested him to occupy the middle in the pick-up car’s rear seat. If you sit beside the driver or at the window sporting this beard of yours, the car will be stopped and checked by Police at each nakabandi, he was told. The Pakistani hosts confided how after each  terror incident in their country, all bearded men in the vicinity are rounded-up by police (not women, they can’t sport beards, he, he, he..). Ditto, said my dumbfounded son, we are both like that only, nice !

Or why not talk about Nigeria itself!? A Nigerian will be a drug peddler sending fake lottery emails to the world, forgetting Nigeria is the 7th largest oil-producing country in the world, whose per capita income is one and three-quarter times that of India, and whose official language is English!

You must watch this TED video, or you may like to read this transcript, which I found worth being read many times over:

I'm a storyteller. And I would like to tell you a few personal stories about what I like to call "the danger of the single story." I grew up on a university campus in eastern Nigeria. My mother says that I started reading at the age of two, although I think four is probably close to the truth. So I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children's books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write, at about the age of seven, stories in pencil with crayon illustrations that my poor mother was obligated to read, I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading: All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out.
Now, this despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn't have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather. My characters also drank a lot of ginger beer, because the characters in the British books I read drank ginger beer. Never mind that I had no idea what ginger beer was. And for many years afterwards, I would have a desperate desire to taste ginger beer. But that is another story.
What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Because all I had read were books in which characters were foreign, I had become convinced that books by their very nature had to have foreigners in them and had to be about things with which I could not personally identify. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. There weren't many of them available, and they weren't quite as easy to find as the foreign books.
But because of writers like Chinua Achebe and Camara Laye, I went through a mental shift in my perception of literature. I realized that people like me, girls with skin the colour of chocolate, whose kinky hair could not form ponytails, could also exist in literature. I started to write about things I recognized.
Now, I loved those American and British books I read. They stirred my imagination. They opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.
I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. My father was a professor. My mother was an administrator. And so we had, as was the norm, live-in domestic help, who would often come from nearby rural villages. So, the year I turned eight, we got a new house boy. His name was Fide. The only thing my mother told us about him was that his family was very poor. My mother sent yams and rice, and our old clothes, to his family. And when I didn't finish my dinner, my mother would say, "Finish your food! Don't you know? People like Fide's family have nothing." So I felt enormous pity for Fide's family.
Then one Saturday, we went to his village to visit, and his mother showed us a beautifully patterned basket made of dyed raffia that his brother had made. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that anybody in his family could actually make something. All I had heard about them was how poor they were, so that it had become impossible for me to see them as anything else but poor. Their poverty was my single story of them.
Years later, I thought about this when I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my "tribal music," and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey.
What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story, there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in any way, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.
I must say that before I went to the U.S., I didn't consciously identify as African. But in the U.S., whenever Africa came up, people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity, and in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country, the most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in "India, Africa and other countries."
So, after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate's response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide's family.
This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature. Now, here is a quote from the writing of a London merchant called John Lok, who sailed to west Africa in 1561 and kept a fascinating account of his voyage. After referring to the black Africans as "beasts who have no houses," he writes, "They are also people without heads, having their mouth and eyes in their breasts."
Now, I've laughed every time I've read this. And one must admire the imagination of John Lok. But what is important about his writing is that it represents the beginning of a tradition of telling African stories in the West: A tradition of Sub-Saharan Africa as a place of negatives, of difference, of darkness, of people who, in the words of the wonderful poet Rudyard Kipling, are "half devil, half child."
And so, I began to realize that my American roommate must have throughout her life seen and heard different versions of this single story, as had a professor, who once told me that my novel was not "authentically African." Now, I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed at achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle-class man. My characters drove cars. They were not starving. Therefore they were not authentically African.
But I must quickly add that I too am just as guilty in the question of the single story. A few years ago, I visited Mexico from the U.S. The political climate in the U.S. at the time was tense, and there were debates going on about immigration. And, as often happens in America, immigration became synonymous with Mexicans. There were endless stories of Mexicans as people who were fleecing the healthcare system, sneaking across the border, being arrested at the border, that sort of thing.
I remember walking around on my first day in Guadalajara, watching the people going to work, rolling up tortillas in the marketplace, smoking, laughing. I remember first feeling slight surprise. And then, I was overwhelmed with shame. I realized that I had been so immersed in the media coverage of Mexicans that they had become one thing in my mind, the abject immigrant. I had bought into the single story of Mexicans and I could not have been more ashamed of myself.
So that is how to create a single story, show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.
It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is "nkali." It's a noun that loosely translates to "to be greater than another." Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they're told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.
Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story and to start with, "secondly." Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have an entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.
I recently spoke at a university where a student told me that it was such a shame that Nigerian men were physical abusers like the father character in my novel. I told him that I had just read a novel called "American Psycho" --and that it was such a shame that young Americans were serial murderers.
But it would never have occurred to me to think that just because I had read a novel in which a character was a serial killer that he was somehow representative of all Americans. This is not because I am a better person than that student, but because of America's cultural and economic power, I had many stories of America. I had read Tyler and Updike and Steinbeck and Gaitskell. I did not have a single story of America.
When I learned, some years ago, that writers were expected to have had really unhappy childhoods to be successful, I began to think about how I could invent horrible things my parents had done to me.
But the truth is that I had a very happy childhood, full of laughter and love, in a very close-knit family. But I also had grandfathers who died in refugee camps. My cousin Polle died because he could not get adequate healthcare. One of my closest friends, Okoloma, died in a plane crash because our fire trucks did not have water. I grew up under repressive military governments that devalued education, so that sometimes, my parents were not paid their salaries. And so, as a child, I saw jam disappear from the breakfast table, then margarine disappeared, then bread became too expensive, then milk became rationed. And most of all, a kind of normalized political fear invaded our lives.
All of these stories make me who I am. But to insist on only these negative stories is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that formed me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story. Of course, Africa is a continent full of catastrophes: There are immense ones, such as the horrific rapes in Congo and depressing ones, such as the fact that 5,000 people apply for one job vacancy in Nigeria. But there are other stories that are not about catastrophe, and it is very important, it is just as important, to talk about them.
I've always felt that it is impossible to engage properly with a place or a person without engaging with all of the stories of that place and that person. The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
So what if before my Mexican trip, I had followed the immigration debate from both sides, the U.S. and the Mexican? What if my mother had told us that Fide's family was poor and hardworking? What if we had an African television network that broadcast diverse African stories all over the world? What the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe calls "a balance of stories."
What if my roommate knew about my Nigerian publisher, Muhtar Bakare, a remarkable man who left his job in a bank to follow his dream and start a publishing house? Now, the conventional wisdom was that Nigerians don't read literature. He disagreed. He felt that people who could read, would read, if you made literature affordable and available to them.
Shortly after he published my first novel, I went to a TV station in Lagos to do an interview, and a woman who worked there as a messenger came up to me and said, "I really liked your novel. I didn't like the ending. Now, you must write a sequel, and this is what will happen ..." And she went on to tell me what to write in the sequel. I was not only charmed, I was very moved. Here was a woman, part of the ordinary masses of Nigerians, who were not supposed to be readers. She had not only read the book, but she had taken ownership of it and felt justified in telling me what to write in the sequel.
Now, what if my roommate knew about my friend Funmi Iyanda, a fearless woman who hosts a TV show in Lagos, and is determined to tell the stories that we prefer to forget? What if my roommate knew about the heart procedure that was performed in the Lagos hospital last week? What if my roommate knew about contemporary Nigerian music, talented people singing in English and Pidgin, and Igbo and Yoruba and Ijo, mixing influences from Jay-Z to Fela to Bob Marley to their grandfathers.
What if my roommate knew about the female lawyer who recently went to court in Nigeria to challenge a ridiculous law that required women to get their husband's consent before renewing their passports? What if my roommate knew about Nollywood, full of innovative people making films despite great technical odds, films so popular that they really are the best example of Nigerians consuming what they produce? What if my roommate knew about my wonderfully ambitious hair braider, who has just started her own business selling hair extensions? Or about the millions of other Nigerians who start businesses and sometimes fail, but continue to nurse ambition?
Every time I am home I am confronted with the usual sources of irritation for most Nigerians: our failed infrastructure, our failed government, but also by the incredible resilience of people who thrive despite the government, rather than because of it. I teach writing workshops in Lagos every summer, and it is amazing to me how many people apply, how many people are eager to write, to tell stories.
My Nigerian publisher and I have just started a non-profit called Farafina Trust, and we have big dreams of building libraries and refurbishing libraries that already exist and providing books for state schools that don't have anything in their libraries, and also of organizing lots and lots of workshops, in reading and writing, for all the people who are eager to tell our many stories.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.
I would like to end with this thought: That when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.
You could count endless single stories we have in our own society. For the majority of our majority co-religionists, a Muslim will be an enemy of the Nation and a Dalit, a cadger of Government jobs at their cost. But can the majority survive without their capabilities or talents? If they were not there, who would write the Ramayana or the Constitution, or regale us with forms of literature and arts that are unique to our sub-continent- shayari or Hindustani Classical Music?    


[* For the Ghost Who Walks]