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.