August 29, 2013

Mieville's "Embassytown" Reveals the Potency of Language.

‘Embassytown’ by China Mieville was a very difficult and perplexing read; yet, there was something about it that would not let me abandon it.  Science Fiction has not been one of my favorite genres in recent years. Complexity of plot and more so the discomfort of being transported into an alien world, has made me distance myself from this genre. Embassytown, a sci-fi novel, was no different, but it held my attention and my interest.  Although I had to re-read several chapters of it, some more than once, to comprehend what was happening and to decipher meanings of words and phrases that Mieville coins throughout the novel, I quite enjoyed the challenge this book offered.

The setting of the novel is Embassytown, a city located on a remote planet that has been colonized by humans, but continues to be home to the native Ariekei, an intelligent species who speak a language that expresses only that which is true or factual. The city is a diplomatic enclave and hosts different alien life forms including humans, some of who are ‘ambassadors’ as they can communicate in the Arikei language.  During the course of the novel, however, the Arikei learn to lie, and develop an addiction to this new language of lies and will resort to extreme violence if deprived of this new-language stimulus. 

The story is from the point of view of Avice, “a human colonist who has returned to Embassytown after a deep space adventure.  She cannot speak the Ariekei language, but is ‘an indelible part of it, having long ago being made a living simile in their language…a language she cannot speak – but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.”  It is on her return to Embassytown with her linguist husband that the story really begins.  Avice, though a facilitator for the ‘ambassadors’, is not an insider to the developing situation in this diplomatic colony, where a new speech is being introduced to the Ariekei through a ‘new ambassador’. What results in the aftermath of the ‘introduction’ is violent, frightening, and appears unretractable as Arikei society starts falling apart and diplomacy seems to have fled Embassytown.

Will the Ariekei, who ‘before the humans came didn’t speak so much….but speak now, or will speak now and be able to say how the city is a pit.....a vessel on the sea and (they) are fish in it” learn the new language and rise in revolt against the ambassadors?  Will the language addiction of the Ariekei bring about total destruction of Embassytown? Will Avice, who belongs as much to the Ariekei as to the human ambassadors, resolve her moral dilemma and pick a side? These are questions that the author may or may not answer in the novel. However, Mieville does force these questions into the mind of the reader, who then faces the ultimate question of 'how important is language to consciousness and thereby to society?' 

This novel is definitely a must-read for sci-fi enthusiasts, but I would also recommend it to language lovers.  The power of language is very strongly felt as the Ariekei speech-experiment unfolds.  Additionally, Mieville has carried out a ‘reverse personification’ in his characterization of Avice, the protagonist and narrator; I've never read/seen anything like this before.
This novel is definitely not an easy read, but it can't be set aside once you start reading it. It sticks; in fact, it is still resonating in my 'consciousness'.

August 14, 2013

Delhi Monsoon - Just Let it Rain!

I've never seen Delhi look so green as it did this time when I was visiting India in the months of July and early August. The monsoon was unrelenting, and there was barely a day when the sun managed to break through the blanket of clouds that covered the Indian capital.

The monsoon season is much awaited in India because of the largely agrarian nature of India's economy; in fact, the cropping pattern of this country depends on the rainfall the monsoon brings. The sheer joy and relief of a good monsoon was evident  even in Delhi, the capital of India. Despite the unrelenting downpours that were oftentimes inconvenient and sometimes costly, the people of Delhi   appreciated it, and went on with their lives even as the monsoon lashed over the capital for more than 3 weeks.
 Picture :TOI

Traffic was obviously impacted as roads and bridges were water logged. Even the Parliament House had waters coming in as did the Indira Gandhi International Airport, both of which were shut down sporadically to accommodate the onslaught of the monsoon. Several overpasses became rain shelters for two wheelers, and consequently blocked the thoroughfare for cars and buses slowing all traffic to a crawl, if at all. Those riding the two wheelers stayed put, unashamedly or perhaps helplessly, under the concrete shelters of bridges and overpasses and watched the water levels rise and the traffic come to a grinding halt. This would remain so until the rain ceased momentarily, and then the two wheelers would all together try to move in the direction of their destination violating several traffic rules, even as the traffic police watched from the sidelines.
 Children in Delhi react to the monsoon depending on the time of day.  If it's a weekday morning, they groan and moan the rain because they have to now carry the additional weight of a raincoat or an umbrella over and above their already heavy school bags.  However, if they encounter the rain in the PM hours, they can't wait to splash in and wade around in the water playing makeshift water games as they splish and splash home from school. I saw some raincoats tucked neatly around the book bags while the children gleefully soaked in the downpour.  The unpredictability of the monsoon makes for sharing, even with strangers, and so the children proved as they pulled in as many as they could to huddle under the 6 x 6 mackintosh cover to brave a thunderstorm while on way to school.
However, come afternoon, and it's now a different story, the monsoon rain is no longer to be battled!  it's now a source of fun and excitement.  It makes for creative water sports that couldn't be imagined by those living in a non monsoon country.  
Picture AFP/Getty IMAGES

The monsoon season in India is also associated with special food. As I travelled around Delhi, I saw business booming in the road side 'dhabas' (kitchens) because they were serving a two fold purpose: providing immediate shelter from a monsoon downpour, and while waiting for the rain to cease or at least lessen in intensity, getting to sip some hot 'adruk or elaichi chai' (tea) for a paltry sum of Rs.5/- (about 8 cents). If time is not of consequence, which oftentimes it isn't, then you could even buy a 'samosa' or 'pakoras' for about Rs.30 /- (50 cents) a plate to go with the chai to make for a full meal. In case you are looking for more variety or want a healthier alternative that is less oily, there is usually a 'bhuttawalla' located in close proximity to these 'dhabas' from who you can buy a freshly roasted 'bhutta' (yellow corn) with zesty lemon and spice rubbed on it. As I drove by these shelter seekers sipping chai at various dhabas, I couldn't but envy their 'enjoy-the-moment attitude' which brought them priceless joy of stolen/unexpected moments of happiness within the monotony of a workday, and all thanks to the monsoon.

'bhutta' :

'dhaba' :
Rain is symbolic of rebirth and rejuvenation in literature, and I was lucky to witness a living example of this in the Indian Monsoon. What is incredible though is that the people of India, despite the nature of the monsoon and the people's familiarity with it, they still retain the ability to appreciate the significance and the beauty of this natural phenomenon.

Cheers to the Indian Monsoon and to the people who celebrate it!