Saturday, 17 September 2011

A Grumpy Chick

A British novelist by the name of Polly Courtney has publicaly ditched her publisher, Harper Collins. Courtney is miffed that Avon, a Harper Collins imprint with which she had signed a three-books deal, decided to ‘shoehorn’ her novel ‘into a place that is not right for it.’  

The place where the publishers believed the novel fitted was women’s fiction. In other words chick lit.

‘The real issue I have,’ Courtney explained (at the launch of the novel, funded, I guess, by the publishers), ‘is it has been completely defined as women’s fiction.’ Which, Courtney will thank us to remember, it most certainly isn't.

What is it then? Lest the readers mistake the novel (entitled incidentally It’s a Man's World) for some gigantic Russian classic that would be a cure for insomnia, Ms Courtney hastens to add, ‘It is not War and Peace.' 

Well, thank f**k for that. Imagine going to Waterstone’s (this shouldn't require too much imagination), spotting It’s A Man’s World, thinking to yourself: this seems exactly the kind of novel like Leo's War and Peace, buying it and rushing home because you can’t wait to find out the impact of the Napoleonic era on Tsarist Russia, and finding out, instead, that it’s about a chick who works in a lad’s magazine and participates in a witty banter. 

What is chick lit anyway? WIkiPedia defines it as genre fiction that addresses issues of modern womanhood, often humorously and light-heartedly.  

What is It’s A Man World about? Not having read the novel I couldn’t be absolutely sure, but according to The Guardian, it follows the life of Alexa Harris who heads a lad’s magazine and is subjected to light-hearted misogyny of her male colleagues and hate campaign of women’s rights activist. 

Does it sound like chick-lit to you? It does to me.

Mind you, I have nothing against the genre of chick-lit fiction; in fact I have nothing against genre fiction at all. Frequently I find that genre fiction is more interesting and entertaining than literary fiction. (Recently I ploughed through two unreadable award winning literary novels: The Road, which won the Pulitzer a few years ago, and The Tiger’s Wife, which won this year’s Orange prize. I usually have a high threshold for crapola, but these two novels crossed it by the width of Siberia.) As for the genre of chick lit I have read a few, which I have enjoyed. I quite liked the first Bridget Jones novel (not its sequel, though), which unleashed an army of Bridgets. I remember enjoying an early Lisa Jewell novel, too, the title of which I forget. These novels were fast-paced, entertaining, had well defined plots, and had witty dialogues, which is more than what you get in a Martin Amis novel (which has witty dialogues but no plot to speak of and progresses at a pace slower than that of a shuffling Parkinsonian victim). I am seriously thinking of borrowing from the library Sophie Kinsella’s Shopaholic Diaries.

It all comes down to connotations and implications. Polly Courtney has nothing against chick lit (she says). But her novel, she insists, is not chick lit. (We have already established that it is not War and Peace either.) Helpfully, Courtney provides us with her definition of chick lit. ‘The implication,’ Courtney says, ‘about chick lit is about a girl wanting to meet the man of her dreams.’ Whereas Polly Courtney’s books, she would like us to note, are about ‘social issues, this time [her most recent novel] about a woman working in a lad’s mag and the impact of media on society and feminism’. And how has Courtney dealt with this weighty social issue? According to her, the novel is ‘commercial and page turning’.

What about the jacket of the novel? It is apparently a chick lit staple. It shows a pair of slender legs in high heels, wrapped in a tight skirt that hides what you suspect is a very shapely ass. 

Courtney, a former investment banker who left the city and self-published her debut novel before she was picked up by Harper Collins, is not happy about the jacket. Her objections are: the jacket is ‘degrading to her writing and ultimately degrading to women. It’s sexist.’ ‘They dressed up my book,’ Courtney complained, ‘as something frivolous, light, and racy, which is the complete opposite of what is inside the books.’ So Alexa Harris, the heroine of It’s A Man’s World, might be working in a lad’s magazine and participate in witty banter with her light-heartedly misogynist male colleagues, but it is a serious book about an important social issue that gives a sombre social message. And it wouldn’t do at all to trivialize it by wrapping the message in a saucy jacket cover (which, heavens forbid, might make all those out there, fans of chick lit, buy it, and millions of copies might be sold), says the woman who, according to her official website, has posted saucy pictures of her poledancing on the Internet.

What we have established is It’s A Man World is a work of fiction about a young woman working in a lad’s magazine and, according to its author, it is commercial, fast paced and page turning.  But the author has a problem with it being labelled as chick lit. It’s a bit like your very popular local Chinese takeaway (which ladles out mouth-watering quantities of grease and mono-sodium glutamate at bargain prices) taking umbrage that it is not awarded a Michelin Star.

We all have pretensions, and, like most pretensions, they serve the function of making the pretenders comfortable. 

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Book of the Month: Becoming British, the Making of Mr Hai's Daughter (Yasmin Hai)

Becoming British, the Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter, is the memoir of Yasmin Hai, a journalist (and a television reporter in the past) of growing up in the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s.

Yasmin’s Hai’s father  went by the very impressive name of Syed Samsamul Hai. He was a Pakistani immigrant who arrived in Britain in the mid-1960s. Born in India before it was partitioned, Mr Hai went to the prestigious Aligarh University in Uttar Pradesh, India. While at Aligarh University Mr Hai, along with a few close friends, joined the Communist party of India and came to hold a view that only through Communism would the Indian people free themselves of the fetters of religion and poverty. When the British left and the country was partitioned, Mr Hai moved to the other side of the continent—Pakistan—which, you have to say, was probably not a very smart move, as he was vehemently opposed to the concept of a Muslim nation, the very basis of Pakistan. In Pakistan Mr Hai became a professor of English at a prestigious collage in Karachi. He also continued to dabble in politics and wrote polemics against religion. In the 1950s, the inevitable happened. The Communist party of which he was a member was banned and its leaders imprisoned. Mr. Hai went underground and lived in hiding for much of the 1950s before coming to England courtesy of the British immigration policy fuelled by labour shortage. He was well into his forties and a bachelor when he arrived in England. But he was well equipped with facts and figures which he thought would help him adjust to his adopted country: he knew all the words of the English national anthem, could reel off all the English national holidays, and—this was most important for him—knew inside out and back to front all the English sayings. He was in a progressive country (he thought) and wanted to be progressive himself. And to prove his progressiveness, he would go with a friend—an Indian Muslim who had married an Englishwoman (and not just any Englishwoman, but an educated woman with a Ph.D in English who taught at London University)—in the evenings to the local pub to have a drink. Nothing—not even the loud comments by White men in the pub who asked the ‘stupid Paki’ to give it a rest—would diminish Mr Hai’s enthusiasm for his adopted country. Then Mr Hai got married. His was an arranged marriage, to an educated woman (who had done MA in political science) from Pakistan, who, nevertheless, could not speak a word of English when she arrived in England. So Mr Hai began teaching her English. In due course Yasmin, their eldest child, was born, followed by two more children. Mr Hai was almost fifty when he became a father. He now turned his attention to his children and systematically went about making them model British citizens: operation English had begun.

The Hai family lived in a lower-middle class Asian ghetto in Wembley, London. Almost all of young Yasmin’s friends were Pakistani Muslims. But there was a difference. Mr Hai prohibited his children from going to Koran classes. He insisted that they speak in English all the time, even though it meant that their mother, who despite her husband’s efforts had not managed to become fully proficient in the language of her exile, had difficulty in communicating with her own children (he eventually decreed that the mother could speak in Urdu, a language the children understood, but they had to reply in English, a language, he reasoned, she understood). And they had to learn to use forks and knives while eating. He was also very keen that his children do well academically—here his job would appear to have been made easier, as his eldest daughter was a bright student. He did not believe in corporal punishment; instead he discussed issues with his children, hammering out at every opportunity his message: be like the English. In an incident, very touchingly narrated, teenage Yasmin truanted from her secondary school and went clubbing (during the day) with other Muslim girls from her lane to a Bahngra party, and while coming out of the club was spotted by one of the ‘aunties’ from her community, who promptly passed on the news to her parents. This is how Mr Hai chose to approach the issue when Yasmin returned home: ‘Asian party one day and next thing, you’ll be wanting to watch Bollywood filums and go to the mosque.’ When Yasmin protested that her friends were not like how he depicted them, that they were, like her, doing O levels, Mr Hai retorted, ‘What do you know? Underneath they are still steeped in religion. One day you will see.’ And finally, as his bolshy daughter began answering back, he concluded, smiling, ‘Our disagreement is what is commonly known as “generation gap”’.

Mr Hai’s prognostications about Yasmin’s friends would bear out. In the 1990s, one by one, almost all of her friends had had arranged marriages and embraced orthodox Islam, becoming devoutly religious. However, Mr Hai did not live to see his prophecies come true. In 1987, when his seventeen-year daughter was doing O levels, Mr Hai dropped dead of a heart attack. He was sixty-eight. In the second, much more sombre, part of the memoir Yasmin Hai describes how her mother and she (we do not get to know a lot about the younger siblings) came to terms with the sudden loss of the most important man in their lives. She also describes events, beginning with the Rushdie affair, that would come to have a profound effect on the way in which the West would come to view the community to which she belonged by birth, if not by practice. Yasmin enrolled to study politics at Manchester University, a decision her father, who was very interested in politics, would have wholeheartedly approved. For a while she moved back home with her family, but then, while her childhood friends were getting married, having babies, covering themselves in traditional Islamic scarves, and immersing themselves in the reading of Koran, she moved out and, over the next few years, worked on several programmes (including the Newsnight) and for many companies. In other words she lived the lifestyle of the modern, educated career woman in the twenty-first century many in the West would approve. Throughout this period she remained very close to her family and visited her mother—who had, after the sudden death of Mr Hai, rolled up her sleeves, pulled up her socks, and made all the necessary sartorial adjustments, to bring up her young children—who continued to live in Wembley. She was therefore a witness to the hardening stance and ultra-religious beliefs, which her childhood friends, with whom she had truanted from school to go to clubs, came to adopt. There were times when she was assailed by doubts about the path she had chosen, and envied her childhood friends for their certitudes; many a time she felt unaccountably angry at her dead father, and blamed him for her feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty, as she struggled to find her place in the multicultural, multiracial Britain. In the end, though, she continued on the path she had chosen for herself and persisted with her personal belief-system. As the memoir ends we learn that Yasmin Hai is happily married to a Jewish American man and, for the first time in the twenty years since he died, is planning to visit her father’s grave.

Becoming British, The Making of Mr Hai’s Daughter is a delightful, compassionate, humorous and utterly captivating portrait of the realities of modern day Britain from the eyes of a child of an immigrant. It is a family chronicle, a social history, and an oblique commentary on the politics of those times—all rolled into one, throwing into sharp relief the dilemmas and problems of identity young people of immigrant stock are faced with on a daily basis. Above all, it is a story of a man, who was in awe of what he clearly felt was a superior culture, was grateful for having been given the opportunity to live in this country, and who made strenuous efforts to assimilate. In this Mr. Hai was probably not very different from other immigrants who arrived in this country in the 1960s to fill the labour shortage in Britain. They were all aware that they had to make extra efforts to fit in; in their minds they were perennial outsiders who were expected to be eternally appreciative of and thankful (and many did feel that way) for the benefits of living in England. That perhaps was also the reason why the generation of Mr Hai was able to take the casual racism, to which it was routinely exposed, on the chin and move on. Where Mr Hai was probably different from many other Muslim men of his generation was that he was not a religious man; indeed he would appear to have formed a very clear view in his mind that religion was the source of all the strife in the world. Almost twenty years after his death, his daughter discovered a very old article Mr Hai had written in a Pakistani magazine in the 1950s. This is what he had written:

‘.  . . unless we remove the blinkers of ‘religion’ from our eyes, we cannot take an enlightened and correct view of our predicament. Religion may act as a channel between an individual and his creator, but it has no place in state ideology or politics. Religion always encourages dogma and it has always been an irrational force. It has always denied validity of human reason. It has tried to understand the world by intuition rather than experience. It has always stood for authority against the individual.’

Having always held these views, Mr Hai, an educated man, had little pangs of guilt about removing religion from the lives of his British family. It is interesting that he was a member of the Communist party in Pakistan; however, when he decided to leave the country, he chose to come to England, which, whatever you might say about her, was not a Communist—not even a Socialist—country. That Mr Hai chose to live there for the next twenty odd years, until his death, without any apparent regrets, is, one can say, a proof, if proof be needed, that it was the full bellies and not nuclear weapons that ultimately defeated Communism. Had he lived a bit longer, Mr Hai would have witnessed the collapse of Communism all over the world.

The difference, one guesses, between the men of Mr Hai’s generation and the men and women from the next generation was that the younger generation was not prepared to accept the pervading racism in the British society with the phlegmatism of the community elders. For them there were no reference points such as the less than salubrious conditions and the poverty and other iniquities of the countries of their parents’ origins in comparison with which the frequent racism to which they were subjected in Britain, while unpleasant, was bearable. They were born and bred in this country and had not known anything else. The feelings of anomie, one would imagine, were very acute for this generation, a crippling sense that they did not belong. It is perhaps not surprising that some or more of them sought refuge in the orthodox Islam, which probably served the dual purpose of providing an anchor in lives which were otherwise drifting and of being an up yours gesture to the mainstream community. I suspect that a significant proportion of the young Muslim women who have chosen to wear the head-scarf or even the black chador, is not necessarily repressed by a medieval religion as clamoured by the right-wing, crypto-racist, brigade; these women are making a socio-political statement. That Yasmin Hai did not choose to go down this route is primarily down to her strength of character and self-belief, but you can’t help feeling that the seeds were sown by her liberal, non-religious father. Operation English was a success after all. 

Saturday, 3 September 2011

9 / 11: We Shall Never Forget

It can’t be very easy these days if you were a Muslim living in the West. If you are, say, brown skinned; have a name like, thinking at random, Osama; have a flowing beard; and if you were, say, travelling, wearing a flowing robe with a rucksack on your shoulder, muttering under your breath—if you were, say, a religiously minded individual—whatever it is that religiously minded Muslims mutter under their breath, in a London underground, you shouldn’t at all be surprised if the carriage you are travelling in is less crowded than others.

You would find yourself (if you were a browned skinned Osama) in this situation because in the last decade or so, a stereotype of Islam (and Muslims—the two are not the same, as far as my understanding goes; the former is a religion, the latter denotes the followers) seems to have taken shape in the Western psyche, which goes something along these lines: religious fanatics, misogynists, terrorists, barbarians, not willing to assimilate and adopt Western values (democracy, liberalism etc.), and potential Fifth Element.

Then there are other terms coined such as Islamists—I am not entirely sure the origin of this term; it may have been originated in the West to denote those Muslims who fit into some or more of the above identifiers. (Martin Amis tried to make this distinction in his intemperate outburst against Muslims a few years ago.)

A few weeks ago I saw a Muslim woman on a bus I was travelling on, covered from head to toe in a black chador (the woman, not the bus; the bus was covered in dirt). As I tried to check out whether I could check out her ass, it struck me that it was precisely men like me that Muhammad probably had in mind when he decreed (would ‘suggested’ be a better word?) that women should hide their beauty behind a veil. The veil, Muhammad probably hoped (I hope I am not causing offence to anyone by daring to guess what the prophet hoped), would serve two purposes. The first is obvious. The veil would protect the woman from the dirty gaze of the lecher, although, come to think of it, would it, really? True, the lecher might not be able to check out vital statistics, but surely the woman would notice that she is being gazed at (I am pretty certain that they can see from behind veils, otherwise they would be bumping into lamp-posts all the time). (This assumption further assumes that women heartily disapprove of guys ogling them. A friend of mine recently returned from a weeklong holiday in Rome and declared disappointedly that Italian men of younger generation were nowhere as lewd as their fathers and grandfathers, because no one pawed her on the buses and no one spontaneously exclaimed ‘Carina!’ when she was walking on the streets. I felt it prudent not to point out to her (because I did not want to disappoint her further) that that was probably because she was 36 and they like them younger.)

Secondly (we are discussing, in case you have lost track, why Muhammad thought that a veil was a good idea), if the lecher had any sense in him he would realise the futility of leching and do something useful with his time (such as participating in the philosophical discussion of what is a just punishment for shoplifting: ASBO?, community service?, probation?, hand-chopping?). However, if the lecher happened to be living in the decadent and amoral Western society, there would be no pressure on him to change his infidel ways, as there would be plenty of infidel women displaying their goodies he could feast his eyes on.

Anyway, as it happened, the chador-clad woman and I got off at the same stop, and, funnily enough both entered the local mall (I swear I am not a stalker of chador-clad women). As it happened, I was behind the chador-clad woman, and walking—or should I say rolling along?— towards us in the opposite direction was a woman, pushing a pram in which was a squawking child, and three more children (some of whom, I hoped were hers), ranging in ages from two to six. The woman was not all that old, but the layers of make-up caked on her face were totally inadequate to conceal the toll taken by years of unhealthy living and eating habits, as was the top  (and pink bra) to conceal her mammaries. As she passed us, this fine specimen of British womanhood cleared her throat and shouted, ‘Oi Paki! Fuck off back. We don’t want you here.’ Then she walked on, her gut hanging over her leggings. The mall at that time was fairly crowded, and people walked on as if nothing had happened. This is something we Brits are very good at. We can give a master-class in how to present a poker face to the world. (This is not the only skill we have, it would appear. Last year I read a novel by the 2003 Nobel Laureate, J.M. Coetzee. The narrator of this novel remarks at one point: ‘There is a certain English manner that infuriates me, that infuriates many people, where the insults come coated in pretty words, like sugar on a pill.’ So it seems our other talent lies in pissing people off by the way we speak. When we think we are being euphemistic or polite when we criticise, there is a chance that others see us as two-faced faced hypocrites.)

I thought about the incidence when I read an article in the Guardian about a children’s colouring book recently published in America.

What is so special about a children’s colouring book you may wonder.

Well, this book, published by a company called Real Book Coloring Books, purports to tell children, in a graphic form, about the attack on the World Trade Centre and subsequent hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

The book, the company declares, is created with ‘integrity, reverence, respect, and does not shy away from truth’.

And what is the truth? The truth, as the publisher, one Wayne Bell, eloquently explained on American television, is:

19 terrorist hijackers that came over here under the leadership of a devil worshipper, Osama bin Laden, to murder our people.’

The narrator of J.M. Coetzee’s novel should approve of Wayne Bell. Whatever else Bell may be accused of he can’t be accused of coating his insults in pretty words. He cannot be accused of subtlety or decency either. Nor can he be accused of giving undue importance to logic in his arguments. According to Bell it is an incontrovertible, undeniable truth that Osama was a devil worshipper. How did Bell find out that Osama was a devil worshipper? Did the devil confirm in writing that Osama was his follower?

As the Guardian article shows, one of the pages of this book, entitled, unsurprisingly, ‘We Shall Never Forget’, shows Osama hiding behind a chador clad woman while a US Navy Seal aims his rifle at him. Osama looks as if he is having an acute attack of gastritis. It is not easy to figure out the expression on the face of the woman, who is spreading her arms, giving, in the process, a good impression of a bat, but my guess is that she is not alarmed (or not having gastritis).

What takes the biscuit is the text that runs with it. It goes like this:

‘Being the elusive character that he was, and after hiding out with his terrorist buddies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, American soldiers finally locate the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.’

I don’t know to whom or to what the book, as the publishing company announced, is showing respect, but, if the above text is anything to go by, it is not showing much respect to grammar. The sentence, grammatically, is not just a car-crash, it is a multiple pile-up on a motorway.

In case the American children haven’t cottoned on to the message that Muslims are enemies of the state, the book goes on to inform:

‘Children, the truth is, these terrorist acts were done by freedom-hating radical Islamic Muslim extremists. These crazy people hate the American way of life because we are FREE and our society is FREE.’

Islamic Muslim extremists? Who are they? They are ‘crazy people’ (unlike, I suppose, the publishers of the colouring book who come across as paragons of sense and moderation—oops! I should be careful; it wouldn't do to sugar-coat my insults with figures of speech) who hate freedom and obviously think syllogistically: we hate freedom; Americans are free (or FREE); so we hate Americans.

It goes without saying that what happened in September 2001 at the World Trade Centre was horrible. It is also true that (as a Tibor Fischer character might say) that there is little point in tournamentizing miseries; but the way the American (and frequently British) media go on and on about the 9/11 is enough to turn all healthy stomachs: as if this is the ultimate tragedy—the mother of all tragedies—against which all others pale into insignificance. When I last checked, in the history of humankind, so far, only one country dropped atomic bombs on another country in the full knowledge that tens of thousands of civilians would be vaporised; and that was not any of the countries of ‘Islamic Muslim Extremists’. I do not think any Muslim countries napalmed Vietnam and brought untold miseries to its people. To the best of my knowledge not a single Muslim country has illegally invaded and destroyed another country, as the Americans and British did in Iraq. And, if you go back in time, you will discover that the first ‘concentration camps’ in a war were run by the British in the Boer War.

I am currently reading a memoir entitled Four Girls from Berlin, of a Jewish American woman named Marianne Meyerhoff. The book tells the story of Meyerhoff’s mother, who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and came to America (the rest of the family was not so lucky) and her friendship with three other (non-Jewish) German girls which survived the war and the Holocaust. Inevitably the book describes, in unflinching detail, the atmosphere of hatred stoked up by the Nazis against the Jews, which, as the 1930s wore on, affected many Germans, who, until that period, had existed peacefully with the Jews. Meyerhoff’s mother (who, despite living in America for decades, could never master the ‘foreign tongue’ and preferred to speak in her native German) used a German word to describe what was happening in Germany at the time. ‘The Nazis took over,’ she said, ‘and we began to feel, in our bones, Gleichschaltung.’  

Meyerhoff requested her mother to translate Gleichschaltung into English. The mother had to consult her German-English dictionary and discovered that the word, like many other German words, packed in complicated concepts for which there was no equivalent word in English, and could be translated into it only by a long, train-car type, series of words. This was how Gleichschaltung was translated into English:

‘The forced and mindless joining in lockstep with the crowd.’

One hopes that the indecent, disrespectful (and agrammatical) children’s colouring book and its message—despite the protestations of the publishers—full of distortions, crude generalizations, lies and xenophobia, which tries to demonize a section of its society, are not a symptom of an underlying sick society. (There is always the possibility that the Guardian goes out of its way to ferret out fringe happenings and publishes them, which gives an opportunity to people like me to feel outraged about.)