Saturday, September 26, 2009

Review: Tagore's Short Stories

I recently finished reading a collection of Tagore's short stories. Knowing my affinity for literature, some family member of mine gifted it to me after returning from a trip to India, almost as a way of introducing me to the literature of the subcontinent. It turns out that was a really appropriate move: If you were to single out the single literary giant of India's modern history, you would pick the Nobel-prize-winning, early 20th century, Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore.

For those of you unfamiliar with Tagore, a quick biography: Rabindranath, the youngest of 14 children, was born to Debendranath Tagore, a zamindar1 and prominent figure in Bengali politics and elite society.2 Naturally, then, Rabindranath's education consisted of private tutoring, multiple trips to Europe, and close interaction with the leading intellectuals of the day. The stories contained in the anthology I read were all written during the 1890s, when Rabindranath was called away from his home in the Bengali capital of Calcutta to manage the family estate in the countryside. This experience—though somewhat lonely and isolating for him, as he confesses in his letters—proves a fertile source of inspiration for his stories, which often focus on rural life, both for the common folk and for the zamindars.

Although Tagore's stories take place so long ago, they still feel relevant and familiar to contemporary Indian society. Of course, some social mores have changed drastically since then (making, for example, awkward reading during many of Tagore's stories about child marriage), but others haven't. Child marriage may be outdated, but marriage itself is still central in Indian culture. Like many contemporary Indians, all of Tagore's characters seem to regard marriage as the most important event in life and the most important social institution. In fact, Tagore himself seems to believe this as well, for he often places a marriage scene at the most critical point of the story.

Nowhere does he do this more prominently than in his story "Kabuliwallah." In it, he describes the affectionate relationship that forms between a traveling salesman (a kabuliwallah)3 and a little girl named Mini. Rahamat and Mini shared an amusing, inside joke where he would ask her if she was going away to her father-in-law's house, and she would roundly reply, "Are you going to your father-in-law's house?" Rahamat visits her frequently and thus they develop a strong bond, until one day Rahamat is sent to jail for committing assault and the two don't see each other again for many years. The day after he is let out of prison, Rahamat goes to visit Mini. This day, it turns out, happends to be Mini's wedding day, so when he arrives at the house, he finds it all decorated for the occasion. Rahamat asks Mini's father for permission to meet Mini, but he, hesitant and afraid, tries to turn him away, saying that there is some event in the house and everyone is too busy. Crestfallen, Rahamat then walks up to Mini's father and says, "I have brought this box of grapes and nuts and raisins for the little one. Please give them to her." Mini's father is about to pay him for the box, but Rahamat stops his hand and tells him:
"Please, don't give me any money—I shall always be grateful, Babu. Just as you have a daughter, so do I have one, in my own country. It is with her in mind that I came with a few raisins for your daughter: I didn't come to trade with you."
With that, Mini's father instantly connects with this fellow father's longing, and ignoring all objections, all worry that this murderer would tarnish this most auspicious day, all concern for propriety and social class (since he was, after all, a Babu), he brings Mini, decked in her full bridal sari, out to see him. At first Rahamat is shocked to see Mini all grown up, but then he smiles and asks, "Little one, are you going to your father-in-law's house?"

Though the narrative is simple, and the events are simple, the emotions in this story are suprisingly powerful. The poignancy of Rahamat's final question and the suprising boldness of Mini's father make your heart both ache and rejoice at the same time. Often, you don't know what to feel, or you feel a strange mix of both at the same time. Many of Tagore's stories are like this. They put you through complex emotional situations, where you find yourself stuck between multiple characters and perspectives.

The "Kabuliwallah" story also highlights another salient feature of Tagore's stories: they always have something to teach us. In "Kabuliwallah," Tagore brings out a moment when we're at our best, holding both Rahamat and Mini's father as an example of both generosity and simple love. Alternatively, Tagore also shows us when we're at our worst—lusting for wealth, valuing social custom over people, forgetting our duties. In both these cases, we find teachable moments, and not because Tagore moralizes, but because he shows us what we are capable of—both for good and for ill. After that, we're free to make conclusions as we will.

I have come to view Tagore's stories as a sort of guide to life. They do not pretend to offer any advice, of course, and supply no moral strictures; but I feel I always come away more humble, more appreciative of the complexities of life. That, for me, is guidance enough.

1. A zamindar is essentially an aristocratic landlord, an Indian squire of sorts.
2. His name, Tagore, is itself is an Anglicization of the Bengali/Hindi word Thakur [ठाकुर], meaning "lord."
3. Traveling traders in those days were known as kabuliwallahs (the ones from Kabul) because they often came from Afghanistan.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Economics in Film

For some reason it's film season for economics.

For example: The Informant!, which came out about a week ago, stars Matt Damon in a true story about how the vice-president of agri-business giant worked undercover with the FBI to reveal that his company was engaged in an unprecedented global price fixing scheme. Now price fixing may not sound like much—and I thought as much myself until I heard this week's podcast of This American Life.

This week on the This American Life radio program, Ira Glass (the host) replayed a clip from c. 2000, which, it turns out, was essentially responsible for getting this story onto the big screen. Apparently a screenwriter was listening to the program, thought the story would make a good movie, and, well, here we are.

So, what did this screenwriter see in story about price fixing?

Ira Glass explained it something like this: We rarely, if ever, get a chance to find incontrovertible proof of a conspiracy. We may be able to tell that something's amiss, we may have hunches, but in the end we can only speculate, grope in the dark, and collect circumstantial evidence. There's never proof, never closure. Except now. This story represents that one rare opportunity we have to truly truly know what's going...which in this case turns out to mean that evil men are hatching to take over the world.

Ira Glass makes it clear that world domination is by no means a stretch from price fixing. He played some of the FBI's clips of these business executives carving up the markets of the world amongst themselves at some Marriott hotel. [Carving up—as in carving ham, or roast: they argue over the best parts, but in the end they make sure that everyone has a decent meal.] They laugh, chat, and work out complex sums; crumpled wrappers litter the room and stale coffee sits; and, really, in all respects the meeting seems perfectly normal. The only catch is that they're in the process of puppeteering the world food market—food that almost every person on this planet depends on—and, in doing so, ruining small businesses and exploiting the rest of us (and especially the poor). Which is why price fixing is so egregiously criminal and all, but you wouldn't know it from their casual demeanor and guiltless expressions.

I think what makes this storyline so gripping is its dark undercurrent. Nothing is more scary than the idea of men manipulating our lives with such ease. Gods we can live with, but self-appointed gods are too much.* These agri-business crooks get caught, sure enough, justice is served (at least nominally), but the story still doesn't leave you with a happy ending, because all the time you can't help but think: How many more of these guys are there?

Uncannily enough, that's where Michael Moore seems to pick up in his latest film, Capitalism: A Love Story. I don't know much about the movie, but from the previews it seems he's trying to show how big corporations (like the ones from The Informant!) are engaging in unfair practices to con over the rest of us.

Michael Moore is rather radical, of course, and I realize he trucks primarily in publicity stunts, but looking at his track record I'm still really curious about what he has to say. After all, he got the two big-picture ideas of his last two films mostly right: the Iraq War was, after all, misguided and misplanned; and health care is, after all, a national problem. Let's see if Mr. Moore can go 3 for 0 (speaking big-picture, of course).

*This line comes from one of Tagore's short stories, "Housewife":
But clearly no god can be more malevolent than a man-god. The immortal gods cause nowhere near so much trouble. If we pick a flower and offer it to them, they are pleased; but they don't harass us if we don't offer it. Human gods demand far more; if we fall the slightest bit short, they swoop, red-eyed with fury, not at all godlike to look at.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Moving Towards Murky Waters

From an old David Brooks article:
"It turns out that it's hard to change the destinies of nations and individuals just by pulling economic levers."

For the most part, economists—and macroeconomists in particular—used to think of the economy as a machine. They looked at the various inputs of the system (interest rates, capital levels, investment expenditures, etc.), related them with the outputs (chiefly GDP), and derived neat mathematical formulas to express these relationships. From there it seemed obvious that if you set public policy consistent with the theory, you'd have a prosperous society: if all the cogs were whirring along harmoniously, then a nation had no choice but to get richer.

We now know, of course, that reality is much more complicated. Prosperity, it seems, is not just about what the central bank does; fiscal and monetary policy do not fully contain the "destiny of nations." Instead, as we're slowly realizing—and as Mr. Brooks points out—it's the "murky" socio-anthropological stuff—like social norms, historical trajectories, culture, and institutions—that really counts.

In the 21st century, then, I think we're seeing the discipline move into increasingly murky waters. The old "economist-as-engineer" paradigm is giving way to "economist-as-anthropologist/sociologist"—which, I think, can only be a good thing. Although the latter approach is messier, it's the only natural next step; it's the only honest thing to do.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Narrative Is Not Necessary

Last week I came to a small realization about literature.

We were reading two of Nabokov's short stories—"Sounds" and "Gods"—and at first I was really annoyed because they didn't have strong narrative structures. OK, technically "Sounds" did have a narrative structure, but the plot was so...banal: a man watches a woman play the piano, they go to a friend's house, have an uninteresting conversation, leave, the man runs back to pick up a forgotten item, he comes back, the woman proposes to leave her husband for him, he rejects her, and they go their separate ways.

My friends, however, were enraptured. They talked about the beauty of the language, its flow and rhyme and rhythm, but for me that wasn't enough to make me like the story. It had to have a strong narrative; it had to be eventful and "worth telling."

Not true, I came to realize, and for several reasons. First: For me, one of literature's charms (and, arguably, one of its essential features) is its ability to take ordinary events and makes them extraordinary. Most often writers use plot to effect this transformation (e.g. having a mistreated orphan discover he's a wizard [Harry Potter]); but it can also be done through language—and Nabokov does so extremely effectively. Alliteration and assonance abound; sentences ebb and flow without hitch; and, in the end, if you read carefully, you find yourself transferring the beauty of the language to the beauty of the events. A seemingly insipid afternoon turns into a colorful, evocative event.

Another reason: Although the events of the story seem trivial, they're really not. In fact, it is these small, everyday acts that contain all the deep meaning and significance of extraordinary acts, just in more subtle ways. Heartbreak, determination, victory—these are all contained in glances and gestures. It's all there, if you only take a close look.

Lastly: The line between poetry and fiction is less strict than I thought it was. "Sounds" is better understood as poetic fiction rather than pure short story; and poetry is, after all, not just about what happens but about how we "see" what happens.

Now, after having this change of heart, I can actually benefit from reading "Sounds": it seems more pleasurable, more relevant and provides me with a richer way of seeing the world. I know, then, that the discussion was worthwhile, for anything that makes reality richer and more beautiful always is.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Means of Production

We're pretty much all familiar now with Marx's main critique of capitalism: capitalism, he said, concentrates or keeps the means of production in the hands of a powerful minority, who abuse this privilege to exploit the masses.

Given Marx's 19th century vantage point, it seems he was right on. But now that we've allowed capitalism to develop continuously for two centuries it seems these criticisms are becoming more and more irrelevant.

Case in point: I was flipping through Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat the other day, and I found an entire chapter devoted to examples of how diffused and easily accessible the means of productions have become. With free online software, off-sourcing, and social networking, Friedman argues, entrepreneurs can now create websites, find contacts, and develop their brand at little to no cost. All that's left is to have an idea for the business.

If we take Friedman's word that the world really is "flattening," then free trade (the global epitomization of capitalism) may be the most Marxist system out there (in that it diffuses the means of production the most). I really hope this is so, for it would prove to be at least one ray of sunlight in this stormy world of ours.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Washed Up?

I knew from the beginning that writing a blog would require discipline. What I didn't foresee, though, was the creativity I would need to have to come up with something worthwhile to write about every single day.

I think my experience is similar to most beginning blog writers: At first it's easy to come up with posts because you have a bunch of old ideas swimming in your head that you've been waiting to let free. They come out all in a splash. But then when you realize you have nothing left to say, you end up all washed up.

That's about where I'm at right now: NOT that I couldn't make a post if I wanted to, but that I think my posts are getting to the point of talking for the sake of least I think.

These next few weeks, then, will be a sort of test to see whether or not I have the necessary creativity to come up with interesting topics everyday. Let's see (myself included) if I really am up to the task.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Not My Problem

Ever since I can remember I've been taught not to be racist, particularly against blacks. We would learn about MLK Jr., Frederick Douglass, and tolerance; and we'd learn the flipside: slavery, Jim Crow, the ugly bleeding stain of American history.

Before, I didn't think much of blacks: they were there just like the rest of us, just another part of society. But now I can't meet a black person without thinking of Harriet Tubman and affirmative action debates and studies claiming we're all entrenched with subtle, "symbolic" racism.

Ironically, I think all this education is making me a racist—in that I have ended up committing the cardinal sin of looking at individuals in terms of categories. I don't see John; I only see a living, walking struggle for equality.

All this education has also changed how I see myself. I used to think that Civil Rights, racism, and all that jazz were things that Whites and Blacks needed to sort out, that it was their problem. But the more I learn about it, the more I'm drawn in, and the more white guilt and black anxiety become mine.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Tuesday Night Rides

Picture a stock scene from The Fast and the Furious: a crowd milling in an open lot; rows and rows of tricked out cars rev their engines and flash neon lights; new entries gracefully skid up, and their drivers gracefully step out; buzz in the air; anticipation. Now take that scene and swap bikes for cars and that's pretty much how Tuesday Night Rides begins.

At TNR the entire biking world converges for a joyous celebration of biking. There are the Lance Armstrong bikes, regular Target mountain bikes, BMX bikes, beach cruisers, and unicycles. There's a bike with two wheels in the back, which makes it look like a chariot; and there are low-rider gangster bikes, with super long handlebars and an extra curvy South-Side frame.

With a couple whoops and shouts, the ride gets going. Even from the inside I knew the sight was something to behold, like watching a flock of Canadian geese embark. You know there's a leader out front, as does everyone else, but as you turn through streets and lanes, striking amazement in drivers and pedestrians, you feel as if you yourself know where you're going, and that the path is intuitive, natural, and right, guided by natural forces like magnetic poles.

Even though we ride as a pack, everyone does their own thing. Some face the road ahead, not saying anything. Others catch up on conversation. Others share cigarettes as they ride.

It's on Tuesday nights that bikers gather to claim back the streets. No longer confined to falling off the edge of the road, we stream through empty parking lots and take up both sides of empty lanes of quiet, dark neighborhoods. Sometimes dogs bark--and when we run through red lights cars honk—but we don't care. For once we don't yield.