Babur Namah

I became a fan of historical fiction thanks to an attack of smallpox when I was 12.

Dad and mom went off to work leaving me in my sick bed, protectively buffered by layers of neem leaves and watched over by a maid. To alleviate the crushing boredom, I raided dad’s bookshelf and, since I was growing up in the Tamil Nadu of M G Ramachandran, got attracted to a book with a sword-wielding swashbuckler on the cover.

Relevant digression: I had a horror of having my teeth pulled. So whenever such removal – most often accomplished through the medium of a string tied to the base of the tooth, and the insertion of a spoon at the strategic moment – became necessary, the deal was if I submitted quietly and refrained from biting dad’s finger off, I would be treated to an MGR movie. Most MGR movies of the time involved swords.

The book that hooked me

The book that hooked me

So. Samuel Shellabarger’s Prince of Foxes was the ideal antidote to the pain of pox; I followed it up with Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche and Captain Blood [Three weekends ago, I spent a lazy Sunday afternoon re-reading Fortune’s Fool] and by the time I was back on my feet, had become addicted to period dramas.

Still am. Favorites include in no particular order all the works of Alexander Dumas pere [not fils who in any case was a playwright and wrote only one novel]; the historical plays of William Shakespeare; Conn Iggulden’s Emperor quartet on the Rome of Julius Caesar and his more recent Genghis Khan series, now three books and counting; Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series [in which three of seven books remain unread]; Tariq Ali’s Islam quartet [Shadows of the

The face that launched a thousand books

The face that launched a thousand books

Pomegranate Tree, The Book of Saladin, The Stone Woman and Sultan of Palermo]; Margaret George’s ‘autobiography’ of Henry VIII and her other novels Mary Called Magdalene, The Memoirs of Cleopatra and Helen of Troy… [Add the Elizabethan romances of Georgette Heyer, repetitive though the plotlines are; the HBO television series Rome and the Showtime series Tudors..]

Warning: the sex scenes are in surround sound. Mute. Or turn it up and let the neighors sweat.

Warning: the sex scenes are in surround sound. Mute. Or turn it up and let the neighors sweat.

Their subjects vary, ditto treatment, but all these writers are linked by certain common traits: an infinite capacity for research [it is a different matter that some adhere to the history they have delved into while others permit themselves varying degrees of freedom to reinvent]; vivid imaginations that permit them to make a long dead past come alive in glorious color, light and sound; superb narrative technique; an educated eye for the telling detail and a cultivated year for pitch perfect dialogs…

All of them take seminal events and transformative personalities of the past as the base for their narratives and, in the hands of the really skilled writers, the events come alive as avoidable tragedy or inevitable triumph.

These books take you out of the present into a fabled past and allow you to inhabit it; some even pull off the delicate act of using the prism of the past to address contemporary concerns. One of many possible examples is Robert Newton Peck’s Hang for Treason. Writing in the mid-seventies against the backdrop of nationwide angst over the Vietnam war [I stumbled on a copy somewhere in those eight miles of books that make up NY's Strand bookstore, and read it some four months after the start of the war in Iraq], Peck reinterpreted the career of American revolutionary hero Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys and spun it into the prevailing zeitgeist; thus, in Peck’s telling Allen and his band were motivated not so much by a driving desire for liberty as they were for a selfish, greedy hunger for land; their story in Peck’s telling was not a noble struggle for liberty but terrorism, pure and simple.

Even as I continued to enjoy the historical romances, it bugged me no end that fiction based on Indian history is almost non-existent, at least in the English language [if you have recommendations, appreciate it much].

Our history is a vast untapped mine for fiction, but given the national proclivity to take offense at the slightest – or even no – provocation, attempting fiction based on Indian history is the modern equivalent of the time-honored Japanese practice of sepukku.

A welcome addition to the limited canon is Raiders From the North, the first in what is planned as a five-book series on

The first Moghul

The first Moghul

the Moghuls by ‘Alex Rutherford’, the nom de plume of English husband and wife team Michael and Diana Preston [‘Alex Rutherford lives in London’, is all it says on the inside dust jacket].

In terms of narrative skill, I’d rate ‘Alex’ fairly low down in the list above. But the authors have a lot going for them — not least a story with immense scope and sweep which they tell through the eyes of people, some real, some imagined, who are in close proximity to the protagonist, Babur. Nilanjana Roy has a full-sized review of the book on her blog, so I’ll leave you with that. It made my weekend. Next up, Humayun – can’t wait for it to hit the shelves.

And now I have no more excuse for putting off the mystery of the misplaced symbol – while on which, you might enjoy this Telegraph list of what in any other writer would be outright howlers, but what in Dan Brown is the highlight of his ‘style’.

The Da Vinci Code, chapter 4: A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Do not move.” On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly. Only fifteen feet away, outside the sealed gate, the mountainous silhouette of his attacker stared through the iron bars. He was broad and tall, with ghost-pale skin and thinning white hair. His irises were pink with dark red pupils.

A silhouette with white hair and pink irises stood chillingly close but 15 feet away. What’s wrong with this picture?

We can likely come up with 20 times 20 high quality howlers, but think the readers care? Publisher Sonny Mehta is over the moon that the book broke existing first day sales records; and Amazon has the best of both worlds, selling both the hard cover and the Kindle version with the latter outpacing the former [Amazon shares went up $7.75].

So what, sniffs MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman – they’ve already begun discounting the book. And the Telegraph tells you what the problem with that is:

But, as happened with J. K. Rowling’s books, heavy discounting means that the real financial bonanza is likely to be limited to Brown, his agent and his publishers (Transworld in the UK; Doubleday in the US) rather than booksellers.

Supermarkets, internet retailers and the big chains are selling it at around half price (although Waterstone’s claims that it can still make a profit doing that). Most independent bookshops will simply not compete.

PS: Back here Wednesday.

Eye Browse

1. The feud that launched a thousand books — or at least, one sports book that ranks among my favorites — is finally over.

The Adidas-Puma feud

The Adidas-Puma feud

Adidas and Puma kiss play a football match and make up today.

2. Back in the day, it was the ‘want-ad killer’ Harvey Louis Carigan whose killing spree provided Ann

The Harvey Carigan story

The Harvey Carigan story

Rule with the material for one of her early true-crime stories. Different era, different writer: Maureen Orth, in The Atlantic, on the Craigslist Killer — a story of crime, played out against the backdrop of the internet and its hidden dangers. Also in the same magazine, a Robert Kaplan love letter to Al Jazeera.

3. Update on previous post: Huntsville, Alabama defense contractor Cathy Maples will pony up $63,000 bucks for dinner with Todd and Sarah Palin. It takes all kinds — and some kinds take a lot of money.

4. Bride wanted for world’s tallest man. Must have head for heights.

5. New York bridal shop adds incest to injury.

6. Here’s how you can prevent fatigue and conserve body heat: stand on one leg.

7. Top marks in the recycling stakes goes to this building — made entirely of CD jewel cases.

8. A study on how, and why, music alters our perceptions of others.

But music does emanate from our alarm clocks in the morning, and fill our cars, and give us chills, and make us cry. According to a recent paper by Nidhya Logeswaran and Joydeep Bhattacharya from the University of London, music even affects how we see visual images. In the experiment, 30 subjects were presented with a series of happy or sad musical excerpts. After listening to the snippets, the subjects were shown a photograph of a face. Some people were shown a happy face – the person was smiling – while others were exposed to a sad or neutral facial expression. The participants were then asked to rate the emotional content of the face on a 7-point scale, where 1 mean extremely sad and 7 extremely happy.

The researchers found that music powerfully influenced the emotional ratings of the faces. Happy music made happy faces seem even happier while sad music exaggerated the melancholy of a frown.  A similar effect was also observed with neutral faces. The simple moral is that the emotions of music are “cross-modal,” and can easily spread from sensory system to another. Now I never sit down to my wife’s meals without first putting on a jolly Sousa march.

9. Got 57,000 years to spare? Then do this.

10. Political correctness to the max: The Antiblurbs blog examines classic novels through a politically correct lens; the footnotes are totally to die for.

11. Up close and intimate: a William Dalrymple essay on the future of travel writing.

Later, peoples.

Beggars, choosers

Back when he was in the final leg of his campaign for the White House, Barack Obama put forward as one of the differentiators between his candidacy and that of Senator John McCain the fact that he alone was talking of the perils of Pakistan.

There was the statement that he would follow al Qaeda to the gates of hell. Then the even more famous statement that the Bush administration had been lavishing money on Islamabad, with no accountability, no strings attached — and that Pakistan was using that money to prepare for war with India.

The Bush administration added to the fun. Its officials found massive misuse of US funds; they found too that much of aid meant for anti-terrorism efforts were being diverted towards beefing up Islamabad’s anti-India arsenal. So what did the Bushies do? They went ah fuck it, why give Islamabad the trouble of double-entry bookkeeping — let’s just make the damn thing official and divert ‘anti-terror’ funds sanctioned by Congress to Islamabad’s real goal.

Obama, of course, wasn’t having any of this:

So Obama the candidate defined the problem: Pakistan is misusing US aid. Obama the President has now hit on the perfect solution: give more aid. [There is a huge difference, as Obama-ites will point out: Bush was just giving money; the Obama administration is pursuing an Af-Pak strategy. Not the same thing at all.]

Thus, somewhere in the corridors of the Capitol, a bill authored by Senators John Kerry and Richard Lugar is wending its way through the process, and will sooner, not later, reach the desk of President Barack Obama for his signature.

The bill, which provides for US aid to Pakistan to the tune of $1.5 billion each year for five years, was the brainchild of then Senator, now Vice President, Joe Biden acting in tandem with Lugar — for which a grateful Pakistan named the two lawmakers for the civilian award Hilal-i-Pakistan [Kerry missed out at the time because he was junior to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; he is now its chair, so he can look forward to getting his gong soon].

While this bill was being prepared in the House and Senate committees, Congressman Howard Berman among others warned of the danger of handing over large sums of money without attaching conditions relating to how it could be spent — concerns that were bulldozed out of the way by Kerry and Lugar, with the Obama White House throwing its clout behind the two Senators and getting Berman to remove the bulk of the conditions he had sought to impose in the House version of the bill.

An administration has changed, but nothing much else has. Pervez Musharraf routinely bluffed the US by pointing at Pakistan’s imminent economic collapse and arguing that if the US did not pony up, Islamabad would not be able to prosecute the war on terror. Musharraf is gone, Mr Ten Percent Zardari [who rewards jokes at his expense with a 14 year prison sentence] is in power, but the tactic remains the same: through a spate of opeds, Zardari repeatedly argues that (a) Pakistan is the greatest victim of terrorism; (b) The terrorists were actually created by the West, read US, as part of its anti-Soviet policy and (c) It is therefore up to the West to now open its purse strings and come to the aid of the party [Opeds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, WashPost again,  and the Wall Street Journal, as exemplars].

What to say? Actually, Bush said it best, in a speech in Nashville in 2002 that has since made it to the list of top of Dubya’s pops:

“There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”

Here, watch — the thing is best savored direct from the horse’s mouth:

Turns out, you can get fooled again. And again. Question though is, is ‘fooled’ the right word to use when successive administrations know exactly what is happening, but chose to play blind? Bush’s officials spoke of massive misuse of
funds, but the Bush administration went ahead and provided more funds. Obama spoke of misuse of funds, but is going ahead to provide more funds.

Which is fine — your money, your idiocy [yeah, at some point India will pay a price for all this, but we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it]. Musharraf last week admitted to  misuse of US funds [before he admitted that he had never made that admission].

The Harpoon

The Harpoon

Shortly before Musharraf spun like a top, the New York Times reported that Islamabad had made illegal modifications to the Harpoon missile to expand its anti-India offensive capability.

The administration’s response, and that of the current and future Hilal-i-Pakistans [or is that Hilals-i-Pakistan] has been hilarious in the extreme.

Aides to Kerry and Lugar told my friend and colleague Aziz Haniffa that the two Senators were “studying the report” relating to the Harpoon modification and “waiting for the investigation to be completed”. But, added the aides, they did not expect that the revelations would prompt any changes in the Kerry-Lugar aid bill.

Err — so you are ‘studying’ it why?

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly for his part redefined the parameters of ‘disingenuous’. “We’ve seen these reports in The New York Times,” he said. “We take the possibility of any potential of any violations of obligations entered into pursuant to the Arms Control Act — we take these allegations very seriously.”

Oh good. And you did what? “We have engaged the government of Pakistan at the highest levels. We recently negotiated an agreement in principle to establish mutually agreed inspections to address possible modifications to any arms that we’ve transferred, and we’ve notified Congress of potential violations of obligations entered in pursuant to the Arms Control Act to ensure that key leaders are provided information on US efforts to address them.”

Eh? The Arms Control Act mandates that you cannot change or modify in any way arms that have been provided by, or purchased from, the US. Penalties include the immediate stoppage of all further military aid to the concerned nation. The Harpoon modification is a fact verified not by the NYT but by the government itself. So why is that not game over?

Kelly was asked about the Musharraf statement. His response was a classic: “Musharraf is a private citizen,” the State Department mouthpiece said, in a supreme WTF moment. Really? Kelly likely doesn’t read the reports the Congressional Research Service puts out. Like this one — on Pakistan’s arms purchases during the tenure of Pinocchio Pervez.

One face of AQ Khan

One face of AQ Khan

In what is rapidly becoming the book of revelations, the latest is the Simon Henderson article in the Sunday Times yesterday. The media in India has been going nuts-r-us over the ‘revelation’ that AQ Khan’s nuclear blackmarket was overseen by Pakistan’s government and military establishment. As revelations go, this one doesn’t go a long way. Despite devoting extensive space in his self-serving memoir, In The Line of Fire, to advancing the claim that Khan was operating on his own and that the state apparatus was not complicit, no one believed Musharraf then.

India at the time went ‘I told you so’ and pointed out to the US that it had been warning of Khan’s activities and Islamabad’s complicity for years now. The Bush administration’s response was tut, tut, Khan’s been a naughty boy, but chill on Pakistan, it is our ‘foremost ally’ in the war on terror, didn’t you know?

For me, the real revelation in the Henderson article is not the Khan letter

Alt-image

Alt-image

itself, but the story of attempts to suppress it [Incidentally, Henderson has much to say of the West's attempts to suppress the letter; I wish he'd tell us why it's taken him two years to read a four page letter and tell its story]. Extended clip:

It could be a scene from a film. On a winter’s evening, around 8pm, in a quiet suburban street in Amsterdam, a group of cars draw up. Agents of the Dutch intelligence service, the AIVD, accompanied by uniformed police, ring the bell and knock on the door of one of the houses. The occupants, an elderly couple and their unmarried daughter, are slow to come to the door. The bell-ringing becomes more insistent, the knocks sharper. When the door opens, the agents request entry but are clearly not going to take no for an answer.

The year was 2004. The raid went unreported but was part of the worldwide sweep against associates of Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan, the Pakistani scientist and “father of the Islamic bomb”, who had just been accused of selling nuclear secrets to Libya, Iran and North Korea. The house belonged to one of his brothers, a retired Pakistani International Airlines manager, who lived there with his wife and daughter. The two secret agents asked the daughter for a letter she had recently received from abroad. Upstairs in her bedroom, she pulled it from a drawer. It was unopened. The agents grabbed it and told her to put on a coat and come with them.

The daughter, Kausar Khan, was taken to the local police station, although, contrary to usual practice, she was neither signed in nor signed out. The Dutch agents wanted to know why she had not opened the letter and whether she knew what was in it. She didn’t; she had merely been asked to look after it. Inside the envelope was a copy of a letter that Pakistan did not want to reach the West. The feared Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had found the letter when they searched Dr AQ Khan’s home in Islamabad. He had also passed a copy on to his daughter Dina to take to her home in London, as rumours of Khan’s “proliferation” — jargon for the dissemination of nuclear secrets — swept the world. The Pakistani ISI were furious. “Now you have got your daughter involved,” they reportedly said. “So far we have left your family alone, but don’t expect any leniency now.”

Dr Khan collapsed in sobs. Under pressure, he agreed to telephone Dina in London and ordered her to destroy the documents. He used three languages: Urdu, English and Dutch. It was code for her to obey his instructions. Dina dutifully destroyed the letter. That left the copy that was confiscated by the Dutch intelligence service in Amsterdam. I know there is at least one other copy: mine.

And later, the payoff:

It was not rocket science to work out a plausible explanation for the Dutch seizure. Bloggers will probably err on the side of more imaginative conspiracy theories, but the truth is probably simpler. After the September 11 attacks, the West in general, and the United States in particular, had to work with Pakistan to counter Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda in neighbouring Afghanistan. That meant that they had to work with President Musharraf, even though he was no democrat. As part of the bargain, Pakistan’s nuclear sins also needed to be placed to one side.

In other words the US, which pays lip service to the ideal of nuclear non-proliferation, was fine with covering up a nuclear proliferation operation of potentially catastrophic consequences as long as its ‘war on terror’ was not affected.

So, nine years and unnumbered billions of dollars later, where are we on that war? Here. Here. And here.

In passing, a good book on the subject of the nuclear blackmarket and Pakistan’s official role in it is Deception: Pakistan, the United States and the Global Nuclear Weapons Conspiracy, by Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Clark.

Viru quits Daredevils captaincy

Not one for half measures, this guy. Not so long ago, the news came that he had decided to renounce his claims to the national captaincy. Turns out, he has also quit as captain of the DD franchise, where good mate Gautam Gambhir will take over.

“I would like to thank GMR [the franchise owners] for their understanding in accepting my request to step down,” Sehwag said. “Personally, I would like to concentrate on my own batting and contribute to the team.”

Sehwag – who recently had said he had no desire to lead India – informed the franchise of his decision immediately after the IPL’s second edition in May this year. But given the team’s great success in the tournament – they topped the league table and lost to eventual champions Deccan Chargers in the semi-final – the owners believed the decision was impulsive and decided to give him more time.

“We thought he [Sehwag] had made a statement in the heat of the moment,” a team official told Cricinfo. “We consulted him once again, about a month later. He stuck to his stand. So after deliberations we started to look for a successor and zeroed in on Gambhir.”

Opus dei

Holiday post: Today is Ramzan [and tomorrow I'm taking the day off to attend to some personal stuff, so more off than on blog till Wednesday]:

Say 'aaa' and 'cheese' together

Say 'aaa' and 'cheese' together

Among the cricket-related articles that caught my eye this morning, there is Sachin Tendulkar talking to CNN-IBN about enjoying cricket two decades after he first played it at the international level, and about his Opus, the 30-plus kg monument Kraken is erecting to India’s reigning cricket deity [is it only me that finds a touch of the bizarre about a vial of certified blood being included in the package? Oh, and among the lesser known of Tendulkar's records, he earlier became the first man in history to give his DNA swab live during a press conference -- an honor I thought would have long since been taken by some bloke falsely accused of serial killing and anxious to clear his name].

Elsewhere, Osman Samiuddin is not too convinced by those who argue that the fate of the ODI format will hinge on the success, or lack thereof, of the Champions Trophy. Neither is Anand Vasu of the Hindustan Times. Both point at the proliferation of meaningless games — a theme frequently aired here these last few days; and while on that, here’s more evidence for the prosecution, courtesy Simon Wilde:

WHEN England’s Champions Trophy squad pass through customs at Johannesburg on Tuesday and are asked if they have anything to declare, Andrew Strauss would be well within his rights to contend: “Only a sense of utter hopelessness.”…

…the ECB should take some blame for this brutal fixture congestion because have so often put a love of money ahead of the requirements of the players. Not so long ago, a six-week break was built into the England calendar — after a determined fight by Duncan Fletcher when he was coach — but was quickly abandoned.

Sean Morris, chief executive of the Professional Cricketers’ Association, said: “If you want the guys to produce good quality cricket there needs to be a better balance between rest and play. At the moment they have practically got to drop dead to be given a rest.”

Right, there’s a tournament starting tomorrow, which hopefully will produce some decent cricket for us to get excited about. In the meantime, Eid Mubarak/Shubh Navratri as applicable, all. Cheers.