Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Enchantress of Florence – novel by Salman Rushdie

The story starts with a yellow haired westerner on a bullock cart on the road to Sikri, the capital of Emperor Akbar. He calls himself as Mogor dell Amore and lands in the royal court of Akbar claiming that he has secrets of the family to reveal. He shocks the court with his claim that he is the son of the lost Moghul princess, Qara Koz, the youngest sister of Akbar´s grand father Babar. The story causes confusion and incites emotions among the members of the royal household. Akbar is fascinated by the audacious character of Mogol dell Amore who outwits the other members of the royal court with his intellect and sharpness. He enjoys the tall tales and fantastic fables of the ingenious European.

Qara Koz, later known as Angelica, is the enchantress of Florence, known for her irresistible beauty and magical power of enchantment. She commands her own destiny in a man´s world during the medieval times. She is captured as a war booty by a Uzbeg warlord, then by the Emperor of Persia and finally she becomes the lover of Argalia, a Florentine soldier of fortune. Angelica has a servant girl who looks exactly like her. She includes the servant in the threesome entertainment of her male lovers with kamasutra skills. The Enchantress is a strong-willed and clear headed woman who lets her heart host the men of her choice. But when she reaches the cross road, she chooses her next destination without letting her heart cloud her mind. When her last lover is killed in Florence, she decides to take her final journey, this time to the New World.

This is the story which straddles the west and the east through the middleeast. It is about how the culture and mindset of east and west understood each other and interacted in those times. Rushdie has used the Moghul court of Akbar and the Renaisance Florentine society to bring out their characteristics vividly. Akbar, was, of course, ahead of his time with his enlightened approach and freedom of thought.

Rushdie has delved into the features of Hinduism, Christianity and Islam, using the character of Akbar as a thinker. Akbar is not a believer in the unquestionable superiority of his religion. He learns, understands and respects the other faiths. He entertains doubts, like the Hindu sages, about himself, his empire, religions and the universe. As a true philosopher he is caught between the empire and self, cruelty and tenderness, treachery and loyalty, war and peace, fantasies and pragmatism.

Argalio is an inimitable adventurer. He is part of the group of three Florentine boys Niccolò Machiavelli and Ago Vespucci who grow up together with different dreams. Machiavelli writes the book called as Prince, an advisory to the kings, while Ago becomes a merchant. All three meet at the end. The other two are also captivated by the charm of the Enchantress, the lover of Argalia .

Salman Rushdie has excelled himself yet again with this story of magical realism. He connects the Moghul court with the Florentine society, fantasy with facts , love with sex and magic with reality. Rushdie excels in story telling in his own unique and entertaining way blending history with fables. Rushdie lays out a buffet of love, romance, magic, wonder, politics, religion, history , the west and the east. He is profound and profane, sarcastic and sagacious, poetic and mysterious. Rushdie has done lot of research, which is evident in the details of his story telling. He has given a long list of books he went through for this novel.

Here are some excerpts from the book
- there is a weakness that comes over men at the battle´s end, when they become aware of the fragility of life. At such time, men can think of nothing but the women´s embraces, the healing words whispered by the women and the joy of losing themselves in the fatal labyrinth of love.
- she found his vanity seductive. She was in love with his faults
- when a prince takes power he should do his worst right away, because after that his every deed will strike his subjects as an improvement on the way he started out.
- all true believers have good reason for disbelieving in every god except their own, said Birbal, and so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none.

Rushdie had kept me spellbound to the magical journey of the Enchantress and fulfilled my craving for and addiction to magical realism.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Post-American World – book by Fareed Zakaria

This is the second non-fiction book I finished reading the fastest in recent years. The first one was Tom Friedman´s The World is Flat.

The current implosion of the American capitalism , which was dominating the world for well over a century, provided the backdrop for understanding the analysis and conclusions of the author.

Zakaria has concluded that the US dominance of the world is set to decline politically, economically and culturally. This is followed by the Ascent of the Rest ( emerging powers such as China and India). He has illustrated this with tennis. The number of American players in the US Open was 78 in 1982 but came down to just 28 in 2007. His reason; ¨everyone has started playing the game now¨. He extends the illustration with the financial game. In 2005 twenty four of the 25 largest IPOs happened in countries other than USA. He has pointed out that many of the tallest, biggest, best and other superlative things are coming up outside USA.

He has diagnosed that although USA has a strong society, it is handicapped with a weak state. The American political system has got itself in a quagmire with its partisan petty wars and has been captured by special interests, money and sensational media and ideological attack groups. This has been compounded by arrogance, carelessness and lazyness. It does not have what it takes to address the fundamental problems such as health care. He points out that USA is one of the only three countries ( Myanmar and Liberia, the other two illustrious deviants ) in the world which do not follow the Metric system. The Americans left it for the rest of the World to understand USA and adopt to them. Continuation of this attitude will only accelerate the decline of USA, he concludes.

Zakaria has brilliantly summarized the problem in another American way. They used to say that what was good for GM was good for USA. Nothing seems to be going good for GM now. It has lost its supremacy to Toyota and is in a losing struggle to survive. The lesson for USA is so obvious.

He has offered some constructive suggestions for the US policy makers.

- The US should learn from the decline of its predecessor, the British Empire and should recognize the new reality and adopt a collaborative approach to tackling global issues, as the British did so gracefully.
- The US cannot solve all the problems of the world. They should prioritise and take on only those of their vital interests. Legitimacy should guide US policies.
- Follow the Bismarckian strategy of engaging the other powers and have better relations with all of them than they have with each other.
- Learn from the American MultiNational Coroporations such as IBM and GE who have successfully adopted new business models to take advantage of the new emerging markets and the globalisation.They have formed joint ventures in many countries, giving up the managerial Imperialism of their past.
- Prepare to deal with asymmetric threats arising from terrorism, drug cartel etc through innovative range of instruments.

Zakaria has brought out the folly of creation of Africom. He has explained this with a quote from Mark Twain ¨To the man who has a hammer, every problem looks like a nail¨. Brilliant !! He has commented that the US administration, while trying to scare its enemies has terrorized the rest of the world. He says that the the American policy makers are consumed by fear, paranoia, anxiety about foreign trade, foreign companies and foreigners. Contrast this with the hope, confidence and optimism of the Indians and Chinese, who want to take advantage of globalisation to conquer the world.

Zakaria has argued that USA has many strengths, unlike UK which could do nothing to arrest its decline especially the economic one. These are: economic strength, solid tradition of innovation and renewal with an educational system which nurtures these spirits and rejuvenation of the society with the energy and spirit of the immigrants.

He has brought out one of the the contrasts between the west and the east. While Christianity and Islam , believing in their inherited superiority seek to convert the non-believers, the Hindu Indians and the Confucian Chinese believe in the goodness of other faiths and do not seek to change them.

Zakaria has not pretended to be a prophet with any new revelations or new theories. He has analysed the issues in simple and clear ways understandable for readers with plain commonsense. He has advocated new ways of measuring prosperity, savings etc since the old methods of GDP and others have become inadequate for the complexity of the new realities.

The only weakness he has openly displayed is his passion for USA. Hmm.. what can I say ? …with my own passion for Latin America.

Zakaria is an Indian who went to USA for studies in 1982 and rose to become the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs magazine and now as International Editor of Newsweek. He has concluded that to thrive in this new and challenging era and to to succeed amid the rise of the rest, USA needs to fulfil only one test. It should be a place that is as inviting and exciting to the young student who enters the country as it was for him in 1982.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Tamil connection to the ski resort in Las Lenas, Argentina

While it is summer in India and in the northern hemisphere, it is skiing time in Argentina and Chile. I was in Las Lenas ski resort in the Mendoza province of Argentina 5-8 July. This is the biggest resort in south america with long slopes. The longest slope is seven kilometers and that too in both blue ( for intermediates like me) and red and black for advanced skiers. This is a favourite place for dare devils who want to try the off-beat extreme slopes.

Before starting the skiing on 6 july, I was invited to the Snow Festival in Malargue, a town seventy km from the resort. The governor of mendoza province and the mayor of the city were there. Ther cannot be a Fiesta in latin America without a queen ! They had a beauty contest and selected a Snow Queen. The fun and frolic went on till five in the morning.

Las lenas is located at an altitude of 2249 meters at the base and goes upto 3340 meters, above the tree line. The view from the top is spectacular. With this high altitude it receives more snow in comparison to the other esorts such as Bariloche and Chappelco.

While ninty percent of the skiers are Argentines, there are a lot of Brasilians too. They come in chartered flights from sao paulo direct to malargue.

The ski resort turns into a mountain resort in summer with adventure activities such as mountain biking and horse riding. The resort hotels here have a total of 4000 beds.

Let us now come to the Tamil connection... The owner of Las Lenas resort is Arumugam...not from tamilnadu..but from Malaysia. He owns 600,000 hectares of land in and around the resort and has sheep farms and a horse breeding farm. He also owns 12000 hectares of land near Buenos Aires where he grows soya and wheat. I taught a few tamil words to the managers there so that they can surprise mr arumugam with tamil greetings, next time when they meet him.

Congrats Mr Arumugam for taking Tamil to the peaks of Las Lenas !

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Golf at the age of 87 ...yes ...87

As usual, I was fixed today also to play with three new golfers at the Jockey Club in Buenos Aires. This is how I have been making contacts and friends by playing with new people. One of the three, Mr Carlos Bracht became my partner when they threw balls for partners.

When I reached out with a handshake, my partner smiled and said he was 87 years old. I got a shock. Then he showed the earplug and said he was hard of hearing...another jolt...I got further depressed when I saw he was going to play without the assistance of a caddy.. He was driving a single-seater cart. I thought I was going to have a miserable four and half hours.

I came out of my depression when Carlos made a par in the first hole. My spirits were lifted up when he made another par, missing birdie in the second hole. He made the third consecutive par in the third hole and then went on to score many pars and I was overwhelmed. Together we made a good score.

Carlos has been playing in Jockey club for the last 72 years! He started golf at the age of 15. He has won Argentine amateur championship several times and has won tournaments in other countries too.

Carlos now plays to a handicap of 12. He plays a serious and competitive game. He hits straight and putts sometimes with a three wood. His only frustration is that he is not able to hit drives beyond 200 yards.

The experience with Carlos reminded me of my partnership with Dr Bharat Ram in ITC golf course in Delhi in 2005. He was ninty years old when he played with me. He expired last year.

Playing golf competitions at 87 and 90 years ! What a life ! This reminds me of the saying in Latin America, " We dont stop having fun when we grow old.. we become old only when we stop having fun".

They say old golfers never retire...they just lose balls ! Bharat Ram had a ball at 90 years and Carlos is going strong at 87....playing golf competitions and having fun. I have now become a fan of Carlos.

Viva Carlos !

Sunday, February 03, 2008

An Argentine who sees India through her heart

During my endless (and exasperating...) declaratory campaign about my passion for Latin America, I come across Latin Americans who are equally passionate about India. Some of them are followers of Indian Gurus ( such as Sai baba) or spiritual groups (such as Hare Krishna). For them it is a matter of faith. The other day I came across someone who does not belong to either of the groups but whose eyes dance while talking about India.

She is Fabiana ( Fay), a young, smart, ambitious and enterprising person from Rosario. She is the chief of her own business consultancy company. She has been to India many times and to many parts including Coimbatore! She is a friend of the embassy and has been helping Indian delegations voluntarily. Now she wants to take a business delegation to India.
I have just received her write-up on India, which she has sent with a note saying she lifted the " passionate" from my emails to say she is "passionate about India ". She describes in the article below what made her passionate about India.


India is not a country but a continent. From North to South, from East to West people are different. Languages, dialects, food, customs are different. The way they dress; and the country itself is different from many others I have explored. It is a place that somehow gets into you. Love it or hate it, you can never ignore India.

I read somewhere that poverty can bring you down, bureaucracy tries the patience of even a Hindu saint and the most experienced travellers find themselves at the end of their tempers at some point in India. Yet if you ask me, it’s all worth it. Basically India is what you want it to be. If it is history you are looking forward to re-live, you will have come to the right place, there is a profusion of temples, palaces, forts, and abandoned city ruins in the middle of the desert- and they all have their tales to tell. If it is art, music or crafts … it will be just your kind of place. If it is Ayurvedic (or traditional) medicine, pharmaceuticals, IT, automobile, or agro-business etc. …. you name it … they do it! And they do it well. But, undoubtedly its biggest treasure, in my opinion, is its people. Their wide smile, their ”Namaste” or “Vanakam” when they greet you- some people say this greeting means the divinity in me greets the divinity in you.

So this combination of people, history, arts, medicine, together with its current bustling economy make of India not just a place to simply “visit”. These factors will all contribute to making a totally different experience, an assault on your senses, a place you will never forget.
The smells are definitely strong and diverse, spices, incense sticks- especially those in Mysore- made of sandalwood burning in the countless temples you will visit or come by, the variety of flowers and specially the jasmine flowers carefully woven into long threads that are worn by women on their heads after visiting the temples. And, yes of course there is the smell of dirt, but if you are smart enough, and you “see” the struggle of this country to fight the dust, the garbage that accumulates because of the over population of its cities, because of the simple fact that they are over a billion people, you will be able to enjoy all the other things, and not just be a prisoner of pre conceptions, like "I don’t know if I will be able to cope with the dirt of India", “There’s so much poverty”, typical clichĂ©s that I have heard so much, and humbly tried to fight with all my heart since I first visited India for the first time 10 years ago.

The sense of touch is stimulated by the rich silks of the saris, the embroidered garments and brocades, the softness of the hands of the people who greet you from the bottom of their souls ... caresses to the heart I still go to when I need comfort.

The taste of Indian cuisine is also varied and delicious. There are considerable variations from North to South. Curry (which is a blend of almost 25 freshly grounded spices) produces masalas or mixes. The most well known flavours come from chillies, cloves, coriander, cardamom, cumin, and bay leaves, and several seeds that will surely captivate your palate. It is such a long list that would take pages to describe. And no fears, I won’t! But I have to mention the “breads” are also incredible a big favourite with us foreigners.

The hearing- probably most influenced by the traffic noise and its diversity in means of transportation that range from simple rickshaws, old white Ambbys (Ambassador cars), big old bikes that glide their away in dusty, sleepy streets of small cities ... and now the newest models, including the now newly released Nano (the cheapest car in the world). Then there is the chanting at the temples, the OM (really pronounced aum, some people assure if the universe had a sound this would be it!)

The sight, probably the most shocked of the sense you will experience, include the fact that you’ll see elephants, camels, holy cows, goats and other animals wandering free amidst all the vehicles, and in the middle of this chaos (an organised chaos I must say) there’s peace. Maybe the one that springs from the heart of the inhabitants of a land of religious tolerance. The colors of the saris the women wear, from bright yellow, to turquoise, fuchsia, red and green, the turbans worn by the men in the Rajasthan, the gold bracelets, the earrings, the faces of the kids that jump around you …

But besides the senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing, it is your spirit what will probably benefit more from the daily lessons of compassion, love and tolerance I personally have experienced almost on a daily basis in this beautiful country. It is a world so exotic to us; so marvellous that can instantly take you back to your childhood; to a time of fantasy and endless surprise, or to the future with all the developments that this republic is experiencing now. I hope you feel someday that it is worth taking the risk of “seeing poverty, and dirt” …but here is my tip, if you see India through your heart, I assure you, you will never regret having visited it! And like me, you will never stop going back!
(Your Honorary Consul of India in Rosario) Unquote