Thursday, October 27, 2016

Hullabaloo



You must have heard the expression,  “ Do what you love, and you will never work a day in your life”. An ideal work life would be to have a job that feeds both our souls and our bank accounts. Having said that , even a job that you start off  loving and enjoying  can be rough if it turns out to be too demanding and stressful to the point that you find that the monetary reward is not commensurate with the level of stress and responsibilities you have to cope with or for whatever reasons you are no longer happy with what you are doing. Every job comes with its own pitfalls.
Most people have to work to earn a living, some have to hold several jobs to make ends meet. To many people it is not a matter of choice as we live in a commercial world. Some take it all in their stride while some may feel that they are trapped by the circumstances they are in. To those who are determined to escape the mundane trappings of the modern world, they will somehow find ways to attain their dreams even when there is not a chance seemingly, be it thrift, steal, borrow or beg. It takes courage and resolve to live the life we want.

The story of Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard  written by Kiran Desai  is set in the Indian village of Shahkot ( State of Punjab). Sampath Chawla avoids the responsibilities of adult life. He is a bored peon , a lowly paid post-office clerk who takes pleasure in reading the postcards that have been brought in for them to be delivered and from these postcards he picks up all sorts of interesting information. ‘He had read of family feuds and love affairs, of marriages being arranged, of babies being born, of people dying and of ghosts retuning, of farewells and home-comings. He had read of natural disasters, floods and earthquakes , of small trivial matters like the lack of shampoo. Of big cities and of villages much smaller than Shahkot.

He turned them over, smelled them, looked at the stamps, studied the names, the strange-feathered words : Bombalapetty, Pudukkottai,Aurangabad, Torik, Coimbatore, koovappally, Piploo, Thimpu, Kampala, Cairo, Albuquerque. He held them up against the light, the envelopes filled with promise, with the possibility of different worlds. He steamed them open over mugs of tea, just prised them open , the humidity in the air having rendered the gum almost entirely ineffectual, and lazily, through the rest of the day, he perused their contents.'

When Sampath loses his job, he does not mind it as he does not want the job. He needs to find a solution to his misery.
‘How would you approach this problem?
 Strangely for some odd reason, from way off in the distance, he remembered the taunting voice of Father Matthew Mathematics at the classroom board at the Mission School.
Show all steps leading to the end result for full marks.
           In his mind, the days, his work, his life and even his thoughts all whirled. The same days. The same place. The one road –
          The post office at the end of  his journey like a full stop.
          He did not want another job.
          He wanted open spaces.
        And he wanted them in large swathes, in days that were clear stretches he could fill with as little as he wished. Here a person’s experience of silence and space squeezed and warped into underground forms that were forced to hide, found in only a few places that Sampath could discover. In his small lapses from duty; between the eye and the print of a newspaper held by someone who never turned a page; in a woman who stared into the distance and past the blur of knitting needles in her fingers; behind muttered prayers, once in a long while in eyes that could look past everything to discover open spaces. But no, Sampath was to be allowed no peace whatsoever. He was found out and turned away from every refuge he sought.'
When Sampath’s family departs to attend a wedding, leaving him at home, he lets himself out of the house and  catches the first bus he sees. He  has taken the bus that takes the milk sellers home after they have brought their milk to be sold in town. When an old woman sits next to him and does not leave him alone by badgering him with questions, he leaps from the window of the stalling bus and runs with a feeling of great urgency through an old  orchard. He ends up  on top of a large and magnificent  guava tree.

When he settled among the leaves, the very moment he did so- the burgeoning of spirits that had carried him so far away and so high up fell from him like a gust of wind that comes out of nowhere, rustles through the trees n melts into nothing like a ghost.

‘Yes, he was in the right place at last. Tiredness rolled over him like a wave and, closing his eyes, he fell into a sleep slumber, lodged in a fork in the guava tree.

When his family finds him sleeping on top of the tree, there is a lot of hullabaloo. His quest for a contemplative life is invariably disrupted and  many people come to visit him. When these visitors ask him for advice, he makes use of the information he has gathered from reading the letters secretly and he thus appears to be bestowed with second sight. Due to his simple-minded love of adages, he manages to utter very seemingly wise sayings that builds him a reputation for unfathomable wisdom. He becomes Monkey Baba in his treetop hermitage and his father makes use of the situation to make a lot of money by setting up a tea stall for tourists and churn out posters, fliers and newspaper articles. When the monkeys come to live in the guava tree with Sampath, they start to attack people and steal alcohol and become very drunk. There are many colourful characters including Sampath’s eccentric mother and sister, the town officials charged with containing the monkeys and there is also a spy for the local Atheist Society who wants to expose Sampath as a fraud. It is indeed hullabaloo in the guava orchard.

Kiran Desai based her book on real life story in which a man, Kapila Pradhan lived on a tree for 15 years. The story is comical and the author has composed a parable based on Indian culture and an absolutely delicious satire describing the follies of humankind, the behaviour of public servants,  entrepreneurialism and the credulous creation of gurus.
Journey to Infinity MC.Escher's World of Wonder , Artscience Museum, Singapore

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Something's gotta give


Corner House, Singapore
Lewd comments are repulsive and uncouth. At times I tell the person off but at other times, I let them pass because even if you make a fuss about it, they will never get it. When grown men's sense of humour is like they were still in their adolescence, it is best to ignore them. 

We live in a materialistic world that measures people in terms of power and money. Just as much as I want to believe that success cannot be measured in terms of power and money, I also want to believe that it is not nature but nurture that makes the women behave the way they behave and the men act the way they act. Even if nature plays a part, education at home and in school play a significant role in how a person conducts himself or herself.

I have often believed that women play an important role in bringing up a child since traditionally, it has been the women who stay home and take care of the domestic front but the men of the house must be supportive of the way the women are bringing up the children. If the adults of the house behave badly, the child would not have a  good role model to emulate. According to scientific researchers, a mother’s genetics matter while the father’s makes no difference. The xx chromosomes transmit intelligence genes. If the cognitive functions are primarily determined by the xx chromosomes, does that mean that if women who are mothers have it in them that women must be given due respect and equal treatment, they will inculcate the right mindset in their  male children? I guess it will be a tall order if the man of the house has been brought up in a traditional home where sons are given preferential treatments and women are expected to obey and serve as it happens in some cultures around  the world.

I find that working women have to be calculating and shrewd in order to stay in control and be on par with or get ahead of their male peers in the same industry. Apart from focusing on their own interest, women must train themselves to be  resilient, street smart and calculating in order to take care of her family and herself. In the present world, many women work so that they can be autonomous and financially independent but they find that they face certain challenges such as gender bias at work and difficulties in balancing their work life with their home and personal life.

Opening  Belle is written by Maureen Sherry, a former Wall Street insider who tells us a story about women working in finance. After twelve years on Wall Street, Maureen Sherry quitted her managing director position at an investment bank and studied MFA at Columbia University.She writes mysteries for middle school audiences. Opening Belle is her first novel.

In Opening Belle, Isabelle McElroy, aged thirty- seven,  has a top paying job as a managing director Feagin Dixon, a firm on Wall Street in the midst of a financial boom. She is married to a handsome husband who stays at home to look after three adorable children in their apartment at Upper West Side.  She finds herself losing respect for her husband who seems to breeze through life with yoga classes and in search of six-pack abdominals. Enters Henry her ex-fiancĂ© whom she never quite got over, tempting her with  a glimpse  of how their life together could have been and he happened to be the second in command of her largest client. When the subprime mortgages she has stocked in investor’s portfolio starts to tank, she begins to see that the finance world does not make any sense. While she takes a good look at greed and the money she has made, her pragmatic self compels her to endure rampant sexism and disregard lewdness that exist at the male- dominated firm. As she comes to realize that the glass ceiling is quite impossible to break, she decides to start her own firm with the hope to achieve an optimal work-life balance by determining her own work environment and culture.

In the story, the women at  Feagin Dixon  formed the Glass Ceiling Club to tackle issues on pervasive sexism and gender inequality at their firm and Belle was invited to join them. It is sad when the club that she had been practically begged to join deserted her due to her unsuccessful performance at the lunch where a dozen senior women of the firm had been summoned to meet the big boss, B. Gruss to address the women's concern about glass ceiling. She was the only GCC member who was invited to lunch.  The story has been written in the protagonist’s voice.

Candlenut, Singapore 
‘“ I requested that the most senior women of the firm be gathered so we can talk about issues of concern to women,” he says. “I see some memos running around here that I don’t like and I thought a good place to start would be by discussing the glass ceiling.” I blush and then hate that I’m blushing.

“ However,” he continues,” since you’re all sitting here, it’s obvious there is no glass ceiling at Feagin or you’d all be taking steno downstairs.” He guffaws at his own humor and I scan the room thinking someone here must be too young to even know what steno is, but no, I at almost thirty-seven am close to the youngest.  “ So let me now throw the podium your way and let anyone discuss anything she’d like.”
          An uncomfortable pause follows, which he uses to pick up his cigar and inhale the contents deeply. His fingers roll it around with absentminded affection while we wait.
         “ I’d like to say,” pipes up the woman from corporate communications, “ that Feagin has been such a wonderful experience for me and I’d like to tell other women how great it is here.”
         I take a hard look at this woman, whose job includes spinning everything and who doesn’t work for a profit center of the bank. Her sprawling Upper East Side apartment is dependent on smooth relations everywhere and she will be of no help to me today and I start to wonder if she’s been invited here for that very reason.
      “ And the meritocracy here, “ boasts a British banker.  “ I’d have never gotten this far had I stayed at my other bank.”
        I can’t believe this . I’ve dropped into the bleachers of a pep rally.’
   
 So Belle decided to speak up and when she tried to explain why it’s so difficult to attract female college recruits, she found herself all alone as none of these senior women supported her.

She told Gruss that many women trainees “ don’t  even make it through the two years. They feel abused here. They don’t see any women on the executive board so they don’t see much future here for themselves. 

       ‘“Nonsense.” Gruss looks up from the cigar. With that single dismissive word he gets up and uses a phone on the sideboard to connect with someone presumably more interesting than us.’

When Belle tried to elaborate, Gruss shot her down and guffawed,
“ Let the quitters go home”
When  Kathryn, another senior woman suggested that they should only entertain clients in ways suitable to a professional business and Belle proposed that reimbursing expense accounts for entertaining at strip clubs ought not to be  allowed, Gruss dismissed and retorted that ‘ if women are that sensitive, they’ll never cut it in the business and don’t belong here.” 

Gruss left the room without touching his lunch as he concluded that he had not heard anything that sounded remotely like a moral or ethical issue and he told the senior women that they had to get along with the male partner sitting next to them and be the most productive they could be.

While I am far from earning a million a year, I do find that  my male partners generally stand in solidarity with each other when come to decisions making  and as  my partners and I do not share the same dynamics, I have difficulties making them see how we should run the  small firm we share. I do not think that  I am being overly sensitive when I encounter situations where I need to employ tactics in managing some subordinates in order to get them to execute the tasks according to how I want them. I remember decades ago, one senior lawyer uttered, “ Female lawyers are only good for  crying in court.” That is so wholly untrue.

Story, London
Opening Belle is set around 2007 and it gives an acute insight of  the corporate jungle on Wall Street and  how someone who earns a million dollars navigates her work life and home life. Can you have it all? The answer is  something’s gotta give or perhaps more appropriately something has got to trade.

I read that Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard,  is developing the film adaptation for Opening Belle  and Witherspoon is expected to star as Belle.  The name Belle reminds me of the spirited headstrong village girl, a fictitious  character in the Walt Disney animated feature film  Beauty and the Beast. Could it be the reason that the author has named the character Belle? 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Adversaries


We cannot trust what we remember completely because our memories are unreliable and inclined to be distorted. We may not recollect things in the right order. Often our memories are made up of our impressions of how things were and what we remember is our perceptions and what we are given to understand. There are days when my senses are all over the place and I get a little disoriented. I will not trust my judgments on such days as I am afraid my perceptions of things can be skewed and inaccurate.

Very often we should not  trust what we hear and what we see. We have a tendency to form opinions about stories we hear and people we know. All of us are multi-faceted but in this social media frenzy era,  we see  only nice posts and pictures of people having a good life. We can conjure up our own images of people we know and passers by but we will never know their lives and what they experience.  It is probably best to stay that way unless you are prepared to be in for a shocker.

The Girl on the Train written by  Paula Hawkins is a page-turner. It is one of those books you might want to  drop everything you are doing so you can get to the last page in one sitting. The characters in the book are not likeable but they get your attention and somehow you empathize with their sufferings some of which appear to be self-indulgent. There are three unreliable narrators, Rachel, Anna and Megan. Rachel is a self-loathing alcoholic and she has lost her job due to her drinking problem. She is broken and a clichĂ© of a damaged individual. Anna is the woman who is married to Rachel’s ex husband, Tom. She and Tom have a child and they live in  the same house that Rachel used to live with Tom.  She is happy with her life but for Rachel who does not seem to stay away. Every day Rachel takes 8.04 train from Asbury to Euston. She has a perfect view into a trackside house. It is number fifteen, Blenheim Road  and she used to live at number twenty-three  on the same road.  She sees a picture perfect couple and imagines the life they live. She names them Jason and Jess when their names are Scott and Megan. When Rachel commutes on the train, she sees Megan and Scott and  imagines the life she could have had if she were still  married to Tom. As the story unfolds, Megan goes missing one day and  Rachel has seen something that has shocked her when she is on the train. Due to her drinking problems, the police finds that she is an unreliable witness.

Rachel feels unattractive and undesirable. She is a very lonely woman and she struggles to keep afloat.

I am not the girl I used to be . I am no longer desirable, I am off- putting in some way. It is not just that I’ve put on weight , or that my face is puffy from the drinking and the lack of sleep ; it’s as if people can see the damage written all over me , they can see it on my face ,the way I hold myself, the way I move.

Not only Rachel’s narration is unreliable so are Megan’s and Anna’s. Megan has a dark secret that she is not telling Scott. You know she is extremely troubled and depressed. She has insomnia  and  difficulties telling things to anyone, whether it is Scott or strangers. Scott suggests that she has to see a therapist and she ends up seeing Kamal, a  mental health professional. Her big brother,  Ben is the big hole in her life . She and Ben were going to be road trippers. They had dreamt of following Che Guevara’s tracks from Bueno Aires to Caracas but she did not get to do all that as Ben died on A10 in a motor accident but that was not the crux of what has been  troubling her.

'So , I’m going to see a therapist! Which could be weird, but it could be a laugh, too. I’ve always thought that it might be fun to be Catholic, to be able to go to the confessional and unburden yourself and have someone tell you that they forgive you, to take all the sin away, wipe the slate clean.'

Here is an entry from Rachel.
She’s missing.Jess is missing. Megan is missing. Since Saturday. I googled her- the story appeared in the Witney Argus, but with no further details. I thought about seeing Jason- Scott  - this morning , standing on the terrace, looking at me , smiling at me.I grabbed my bag and got to my feet and ran out of the library , into the road, right into the path of a black cab.’

Megan Hipwell is missing and Rachel tries to tell the police what she thinks she knows.

Rachel is barren and she is not allowed to get away with it. Failure to conceive cloaks her like a mantle. When she and Tom were trying for a baby, she was not having a drinking problem. As it turned out, Tom was virile since he managed to impregnate Anna. When a guy drinks a lot, he is just partying and having fun. When a woman drinks, she is frowned upon. Rachel has to clean herself up. Your heart does go to her as you see her fail to quit drinking once and once again. You could feel her sadness and misery.

It is a psychological thriller. It is gripping and taut.  But there is more to it than just a thriller. I look forward to reading  the next novel by Paula Hawkins.