Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The F word

Blast from the Past- in which I am all strident and sanctimonious.

The journalist heroine gives in a piece about the importance of looking good. Based on painful personal experience, her account argues that appearance is our greatest asset. Her editor is surprised and concerned. Leaving aside his soft corner for her, he is worried because the cover article for the week’s issue is the Miss India beauty pageant. He does not need dissenting wet blankets while India joyously celebrates International Recognition. “But no sir,” our heroine replies, “I am not anti beauty pageants, nor am I a feminist. I simply want to delve into the psychoblahblah….”

That is when I switched the TV set off and logged onto the machine..

Did the writer know the meaning of feminism when he wrote that sorry line in the serial? I always thought Manisha Koirala considered herself a liberated soul until I read some interview. “I am not a women’s libber or a feminist”. Why are women so scared of the F word? I am forever coming across women deathly scared of being typecast. Thinking individuals yes. Independent, smart, talented, free, ambitious, can take care of herself - yes. Lovely, gracious, classy- well…is it politically correct to admit…what the hell, yes yes yes. But call a woman a feminist and she sits back and faint frown lines appear on the forehead.

For heaven’s sakes it is not so terrible.

Sure, people get defensive about labels all the time. So you may be against the Pokhran blasts but possibly hate to be called a pacifist; just like a Hindutva supporter does not want to be a communalist. But at times the courage to stand under a label, can give it the legitimacy that it needs.

Feminism is not another word for bra burning. Feminism is giving women their rightful place in society. And if our level headed, competent and successful sisters who are busy enough leading complex lives thank you and  please do not complicate it further, stop and consider it- something that they agree with. It is tough to be part of a movement. But it is the easiest thing in the world to say, “I am a feminist”. It will definitely be an honest statement.

My maid was a good student, but she could not go to school after she got her period. She was married when she was fourteen. Her husband was eighteen. She had her first baby when she was fifteen and almost died in the process. Her husband was unemployed, and she supplemented her father-in-law’s income by sweeping in buildings and clearing garbage. A come-down certainly but it held the family together for ten years, until her man got a job as a unionised bank employee. She still works buildings, gritting her teeth and waiting for the day her son will come up and get her out of her rut. Her husband sits up late in the night drinking with his friends. If Krishna gets upset waiting up for the men, (there are only two rooms in the house) her husband rages and refuses to eat. Indeed he insisted on taking a peg with his multivitamins when he had jaundice. Like Krishna says, ‘Aurat Paon ki Juti hoti hai. (Woman is the slipper on your foot).

Muga’s husband drinks and makes a fool of himself at every party I go to. I am waiting for a woman to do the same.

Taranjit is twenty five and lives with his retired parents. He throws a tantrum if the promised pudding does not arrive. Indian children are very spoilt I know, but what takes the cake is the mother saying the pudding was eaten by the dog. Just what kind of women do we breed who resort to lying to their own children over stupid matters.

Even today the advice meted out by many well meaning parents is not to argue. Living off the son is fine but check out the families where the girl’s parents stay with her. You will be furnished with justifications galore. Not to miss that halo behind the son-in-law’s head.

When I passed out of management school it was different. Now everyone is married and I am shocked at the ease with which men and women slip into traditional roles. What starts as ego and one-upmanship (I will be the best hostess) ends up in a bind. I have not seen a single party where the men do not sit at the bar while the women walk into the kitchen helping out, cribbing about maids and exchanging home-making tips.

Count the number of men who help out in the house. Compare that with the number of women who bring in comparable amounts of money into the house. Check the man’s attitude during his honeymoon when he cannot believe this goddess wants to actually cook for him. Contrast this with his quibbling seven years and two babies later- he is the sole breadwinner, she gave up her job to look after the kids- he cannot handle upuma three days in a row. Sure its tough having upuma day after day, but your wife does it baby. You want eggs, go ahead and scramble them.

I think I am getting carried away and unidimensional, but we live in an unequal world. You may or may not feel it all the time and it depends whether you are all worked up and want to do something about it or not. But surely you can recognise inequality. That is all it takes. Go ahead and say you are an F---ist. It will not bite you.

Monday, October 14, 2013

A Few Quick Reads

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin – Mary mother of Christ comes to life in this 100 page novella, delineating the story and attitude of a peasant woman whose son has been killed horrifically, who now endures the machinations and hubris of his followers. They need her cooperation in order to make him into a cult figure, but Mary’s impotence, rage and attitude towards the myth making mechanism sets her apart as a special person, and sets the book apart. Toibin succeeds in recreating a different time, but I do not know if the book is very interesting or if Mary is likeable. A quick read, not difficult. Similar in size and structure and vibe to Naguib Mahfouz’s Akhenaten.Click here for my Akhenaten review. It does not compare too well with the story of Pontius Pilate by Mikhail Bulgakov, extracted from ‘The Master and Margarita.’ I loved Bulgakov's Jesus. That is my favorite Jesus story. And Brooklyn, the luminous story of an Irishwoman who moves to New York City remains my favorite Toibin.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn- I would rate this the best of the three Flynns I have read. A young woman faces up to her gory past and discovers that the truth can be very messy. Dollops of a certain sort of Americana. Keeps you turning the pages and delivers up on the
suspense in a sensible way. Hope they make this into a movie. Oh they are making it into one? Yay- although I would have preferred someone shorter for Libby Day than Charlize Theron- here she is looking tense on the sets of the movie- Theron as we know lived through the aftermath of her mother killing her father in self defense and must identify with Libby Day's character. 

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn- At a pinch go for the thrills. This book will keep you on edge but if you thought Gone Girl goes to pieces in the end, this one shatters into smithereens. Too much random psycho nonsense, but a movie adaptation would work. And if you want a riveting read…

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

In 2010, unprecedented rainfall brought floods and mudslides to the Mexican town of Angangueo, and posed a serious threat to the spectacular colonies of Monarch Butterflies the region was famous for. The possible loss of winter habitat could have interfered with the hard coded flight behavior of the Monarch population, leading to unforeseen results. Barbara Kingsolver blends fiction into these facts—the sudden relocation of the butterfly colonies to the Appalachian farm of our heroine Dellarobia Turnbow—and comes up with a book that works well at many levels.

As a little township grapples with the lepidopteran visitation, scientists, tourists and newsmongers descend on the thinking heroine’s farm. And while the reader is exhorted in none too subtle language to wake up to the grave peril of global weirding (I do prefer the author’s terminology for climate change), Dellarobia achieves her own predictable awakening. This is a novel with an agenda. Not that it is a bad thing. In fact I would rate this as a great achievement, the fact that Kingsolver is able to make an agenda driven book readable—after a fashion.

The book begins fabulously, right up to the introduction of the butterflies in our heroine’s lackluster life. It ends reasonably well, in a rush of gorgeous nature welling up in all its glory to impress mankind. However, what lies in between is tedious to say the least. The science behind the story is developed through conversations between Dellarobia, and the entomologist camped out in her backyard, in a Master and Acolyte style that has a cloying, gimmicky feel to it. Nor does the scientific exposition arouse in me a sense of amazement, the kind of wonder for example that E.O. Wilson’s “Trailhead,” did. (This New Yorker extract from Wilson’s novel “Anthill” centered on the establishment and demise of an ant colony. I give the link below-)

Amirrezvani- she looks like Kingsolver! 
A woman rises to her potential
Apart from the science, a good part of the book is devoted to a study of Dellarobia’s mis-marriage. We have it on good authority, from Dellarobia herself in fact, that she is dissatisfied and that she wants out. But the source of her unhappiness, her husband’s lack of character is not fleshed out well enough for us to feel much sympathy. Neither do I find her state of dissatisfaction credible. Why for example, does she find Chinese toys in a store tacky if she has never seen any better? Oh yes the seamstress mother and the wood craftsman father. I am not buying it. I have seen children of Kanjeevaram weavers flocking for chintz prints on fluorescent nylex because they believe it is fancier. I recommend Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers for a superior treatment of the same subject – the awakening of a subjugated woman to her potential. 

However the fact remains that Barbara Kingsolver is a wonderful craftswoman, her work abounding in interesting metaphors and observations borrowed from the mundane.  Check these out: 

In the normal course of events everything got snatched from her (Dellarobia’s) hands – “her hairbrush, the TV clicker, the soft middle part of the sandwich, the last Coke she had waited all afternoon to open.”

They built their tidy houses of self-importance and special blessing and went inside and slammed the door, unaware the mountain behind them was aflame.

…a child thinking what snow should be: soft and lovely, instead of the cold, wet truth.

The tumbling dog feet on the stairs sounded like a waterfall in reverse.

But being a stay-at-home mom was the loneliest kind of lonely, in which she was always never by herself.

She felt like a picky-eating toddler having a spaghetti nightmare.

Dear Abby had a smart mouth and a kind heart, that’s why people read her; the combination was rare.

She’d tried to get dressed, but the child had pelted her all morning with a hail of no; she felt like a woman stoned for the sin of motherhood.

It was a rule of marriage: the more desperately you needed alone time with your spouse, the quicker you’d spoil it with a blowout.

On television, deriding people was hip. The elderly, the na├»ve —it shocked her sometimes how the rules had changed.

(The butterflies clung) “to their family trees, lulled into dormancy from which they would not wake."

There are many more. You could check the book out. Or not. I found it a tad lacking in plot, implausible and preachy, written in a reasonably engaging way. If you want the verbal virtuosity I would suggest you first read her wildly successful Poisonwood Bible. There is a gripping tale.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A duo of dispatches. Of Questionable Class.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

E.L. James with her book
I had heard mostly derisive stuff about Fifty Shades of Grey. I picked it up at a whim, from the boy at the Haji Ali crossing in Mumbai, the one who sells glossies and photocopied novels wrapped in cellophane, the same one who had the Ken Starr report out even before we could drive to work, log on to Reuters, and drink in the salacious shenanigans of a beleaguered American President.

Fifty Shades of Grey has few literary pretensions, but I did not expect it to be so poorly written. The heroine of the Mills and Boon variety of romance novels, is transplanted into the twenty first century between the pages of this book. But whereas Anne Mather et al, wrote dreamily of hopelessly helpless damsels landing Mr. Right, the protagonists were depicted as coherent, even articulate in their expression. Whereas the 50 shades heroine mucking around in the potentially dangerous world of BDSM is trite as trite. She is supposedly interested in literary fiction but her inner monologue cannot get past “Holy cow! He is so hot!” and ‘Holy shit! He was coming for her now.’ However she has the usual identifying features of the romance novel heroine, including above average but unspectacular looks, lack of poise, a tendency to blush, virginity and importantly, a go with the flow attitude. Our damsel is chased by her hero Mr. Grey, and the graphic action takes off from here, for Mr. Grey is no Mr. Right but deals in Bondage and Dominance.

It gets racier but the writing does not get any better. I could give you meme theories and marketing success stories, but you have to hand it, no product, no readership. My points in favor of the book—

It is graphic but less so than mainstream pulp writers like Irving Wallace and the later day Harold Robbins—am I dated and located by my reading?—E.L James has kept the content from tipping over the abysmal edge. There are no ad-nauseum descriptions of a woman’s anatomy. Or for that matter a man’s. If you don’t count, “He is so hot.”

Once you reconcile yourself to her irritating holy cows, and get past the distressing fact that a BDSM Non-Disclosure Agreement does not freak her out, (and temptation is a mitigating factor here,) the heroine is actually credible.

In terms of the politics of the book, the heroine is weaker, poorer, less regarded by the world, than her weird boyfriend. She does not wish to submit, but her hormones, her compassion, her curiosity, her gushing mates, her approving parents, her otherwise powerless, lonely condition, are all pushing her under his thumb. Will she or won’t she stand up for herself? Will it or won’t it work out? These are universal themes; to negotiate unequal power relationships is not a theoretical exercise for women the world over.  

Women have been much too repressed. There is a dearth of graphic literature that works well for women.

Why is Grey the way he is?  Women have a biological interest in nurture, in seeing how children shape up. E.L. James has handled the suspense well, and she has ammunition in the form of back stories to last her a sequel or two. Will I pick them up? Umm, no. Too many books to read, too little time.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

A good looking couple, uprooted from New York City living in the Midwest.  There is something strange going on between the two when the novel opens and soon, the girl is gone. That is, we are in Part one proper of the book—Boy loses Girl. Part two follows—Boy Meets Girl. The concluding part is the reassuringly titled— Boy Gets Girl Back (and vice versa).  It seems a rather neat way to describe Gone Girl, and all credit should go to Gillian Flynn, the author of this year’s runaway bestseller sensation.

The book is in the form of real time accounts of the ‘boy’—the thirtysomething Nick Dunne who has been accused of 'disappearing' his wife Amy. Interspersed with his account is Amy’s version of events. So, the book is not only a first class thriller but also, because of its narrative structure, a peek into a modern marriage.  We are Aunt Abby as Nick and Amy take turns crying on our shoulder, giving us their viewpoints and their excuses. And like most people who try to make peace between warring couples, we realize soon enough that we are the fools dancing to the tunes of two unreliable narrators. But just like in real life, this too adds to our fascination, this desire to apportion blame, making the suspense in the story—who is the baddie?—that much more unbearable. We may have taken sides, and although Flynn manages a few surprises, at some point, it becomes not so much of a mystery as a thriller—we want our side to prevail. That keeps us turning the pages although like most thrillers, Gone Girl deteriorates as it moves closer to the end, relying on over the top climactic events to rescue the plot from the corner it has been painted into.  It is all tied up neatly in the last chapters though not everyone will be satisfied —I was not— but hey, isn’t this the era of the sequel? Will I read it? I might.

And the reason is that Gillian Flynn is a writer of enormous talent, with a gimlet eye for the ridiculous and everything else. Take this, from Nick Dunne: ‘We named the bar The Bar. “People will think we are ironic instead of creatively bankrupt”, my sister reasoned.  Yes, we thought we were being clever New Yorkers, that the name was a joke no one would get like we did. Not meta-get. We pictured the locals scrunching their noses: Why’d you name it The Bar? But our first customer, a gray haired woman in bifocals and a pink jogging suit, said, “I like the name. Like in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Audrey Hepburn’s cat was named Cat.”’

Give me a writer who can weave something like that into a regular thriller; along with observations of a town going bust, of homeless people living in deserted malls, of tamed husbands shown off as trophies, of the media circus that crime reportage has become. Gone Girl has all this and more and if Gillian Flynn channeled her social satirist more and her latent Hadley Chase or Ruth Rendell less, I would have been happier, but we cannot ask for everything.

Read it on the beach, in a plane. Do not pick it up when you have stuff to do. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Dithering woman speaks - On Intuitive Surgical (Ticker ISRG)

Now and then my husband asks me for a call on our investments. My thoughts on the Intuitive Surgical Story have run away with me.

Intuitive Surgical is a US based company that makes robotic surgical systems. There is a surgeon who sits on a computer console from where he directs the robot to perform laparoscopic surgery.  

Laparoscopic surgery means surgery where the surgeon has no direct visual access to the surgical field. He sees through the laparoscope. The laparoscope is a tube attached with video cameras, and it is inserted into the patient through a smaller incision. Using the image from the endoscope, the surgeon traditionally uses long handled instruments to perform the surgery. This is also called Minimal Invasive Surgery – MIS for short.

Suppose you dropped your ring in the trashcan. You could wade in and get your hands dirty or you could shine a torch and look carefully before picking it up with a pair of long handled forceps. The second option requires more skill. What you do is key when that trashcan happens to be a human body. Surgeons receive special training for laparoscopic surgery.

The Intuitive Surgical Robot is called ‘da Vinci’. It has 4 arms and it can be moved around the operating table. 2 arms have surgical tools like scissors scalpels etc. 1 arm has electrocautery instruments, 1 arm has the endoscope with two lenses.

Using the console the surgeon maneuvers with his two hands the two tool arms of the robot. With his left foot he manipulates the lever that controls the robot’s endoscopic 3rd arm that gives stereoscopic visual access to the surgical field. With the right foot he controls the AC current flow to the 4th electrosurgical arm for cutting/blood coagulation/ cauterizing purposes.

So you’re not struggling with those long forceps, you have your own friendly robot, wristed and all, capable of listening to your remote control commands to pick that ring up. An expensive but probably the better solution, right?

Makes sense, and the operational and financial success of Intuitive Surgical attests to it. It has helped that the company has pursued an aggressive and concerted marketing strategy, managing to make inroads in the medical sector, selling the robots in greater and greater numbers. How did they do this? By going directly to the customers to explain the advantages of robotic surgery so that patient demand drove hospital purchases. The sales team is linked into the use of the machines in the hospitals and is looking at all times to increase applications.

Intuitive Surgical has shown great results. It is trading at USD 500, with a Price to Earnings ratio (exactly what it means -  Price of the share divided by the Earnings per share; Earnings per share is again what it means Net profit of the Company divided by the Number of shares of the company) of 29; Net Income at USD 657 mio has exceeded expectations. And the market for revolutionary surgery techniques should only grow.

However some questions have been raised. Apparently evidence that robotic surgery delivers much benefit when compared to other MIS (minimally invasive surgery) is scarce. Since it is much more expensive this puts a question mark on insurance funding. Then there is the matter of lawsuits that allege that system malfunction has resulted in adverse surgical results, which would definitely be a negative. An FDA investigation has seen people scurrying to the MAUDE (Manufacturer and User facility Device Experience) database to make sense of what is going on. The product replacement initiated last week by Intuitive Surgical I feel is very key although the market has not responded to it.

The naysayers like Citron say that the P/E multiple should be in line with that of the medical devices industry while the yaysayers like Motley Fool contend that the numbers look good, it is the technology of the future and what more do we need.

So buy or sell?

I was very ambivalent about rat dissection in school. I was never starry-eyed about cutting up a rat and labeling its innards, I was clear I did not want to be a doctor. But Biology came easy to me, as a good middle class Indian I did not want to close a door to professional success, just like that. But I was bad at the cutting pasting, knotting and sewing kind of craft. The dissection started with one delicately pinching and pulling outward the chest skin of the rat with forceps, then making a tiny incision with the scissors. The technique now was to maneuver the scissors into this incision and through that split open the rib cage without cutting the heart. I could not do it.

I remained nonplussed until tired of my own hesitation I grabbed the rib cage with my hands and split it apart. It was neat and it worked. My dissection looked the same as everyone else but had been performed by touch rather than sight. My teacher commented as she walked by, “She will be a doctor!” I have no idea what she meant, but I wonder how many doctors depend on tactile feel for completing their surgery. Now the ones who perform traditional laparoscopy are obviously the superior craftsmen, so how about the ones who are not, who are being co-opted into new age techniques that rely on optics rather than haptics (communication by touch)? How many of them are being coerced into jumping on the new age bandwagon? Nothing wrong with that, but only some of them will be able to do it. Who is monitoring that?

It reminds me of the derivative business of banks. Derivatives have great value. They monetize risks, parcel out value and cut across market inefficiencies. But in the hands of fools and rogues it can become dangerous. More fools than rogues they.

What are derivatives? Let me give you an example. You want to buy your rented house but not at current levels. At some point the market starts to move down, down, down until at last you feel it is time to buy. But now you have a new problem; your landlord also feels that the property market cannot go any lower, or he is in the middle of a messy divorce and has no time to look at your bid. What do you do? You curse your luck of course. But what if you buy a different apartment? As and when the landlord decides he needs to sell to pay off his alimony, you could sell the apartment you had bought and buy the house. If the property market had risen like you thought, you would still make the gain on the sale of the purchased apartment, which would offset the higher costs of the house. If the reverse happened, well, you were going to buy your house at a higher price anyway.

What if you have an agent who sells apartments whose value corresponds to the house that you are trying to buy? The apartment is a derivative asset, standing in for your intended house, and the agent is your derivative salesman. But the more transactions you do, the greater are your transaction costs, and the cost of unwinding your arrangements if circumstances change. There is also the risk that the linkage between your derivative asset and the underlying asset starts to unravel. But your agents' commissions increase all the time. If apartment prices collapsed while bungalow prices skyrocketed- the agent is fine, you are the one with the big hole in your pocket. So here is a high value, high involvement, agent-intensive product, which does not reward the agent for alignment with your needs but for turnover. And if you disregard this basic fact, at some point, the sh—t will hit the fan. If a business imagines that a high involvement and high-risk product should be a revenue stream, then that business is a high-risk business.

That is what I think is happening to Intuitive. It is a high-involvement product that requires high-end practitioners and regulatory oversight, both of which are missing now. Another story where the marketing is overreaching itself. Further the product design is not being driven by the practitioner, but by the manufacturer. And for every doctor who embraces the da Vinci Robot enthusiastically, there is one who is taking it doubtfully perhaps fearfully, but the learning curve they say is steep and soon everyone is jollying alone. Until the sh—t hits the fan. This is not the iPod or the Tesla car, with its hyper perfectionist sexy bosses but a regular nuts and bolts operation, with an aggressive marketing department. I will not give it a different P/E multiple than the rest of the medical devices industry.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Yacoubian Building - Alaa Al Aswany

The Yacoubian Building stands in downtown Cairo, a handsome Art Deco building, housing offices and some old time residents. The author, a dentist by occupation opened his first clinic here.
A building bearing the same name and perhaps modeled on the original, is the setting for the novel. 

Originally written in Arabic, it traces the lives of the various building residents. They pursue different professions, profess differing allegiances, swing different ways, but they are all united in their subjection to the Egyptian condition. That is how the book started to appear after I had gotten through a third of it—initially I thought it was a pretty, slice-of-life narrative that would affirm some fuzzy-warm, feel-good aspect of humanity. I expected an Egyptian R.K. Narayan as I took in the various characters and their back-stories, but at some point I got rather startled by the sheer carnality of the book.  I wondered among other things, about the author's attitude towards homosexuality. He implies a character turned homosexual after being abused as a child, and seems a little too fixated on the actual act. No R.K. Narayan this. It is almost as if the sexual exploitation of the poor young by the established wrinkled is the thread that binds the stories, with a few accounts of lust making in happier circumstances standing out. Tad depressing. However, the writer has a mesmeric voice and despite the all- too aggressive male gaze that informs his observations, he tells his stories with a touch of understanding and compassion. It is just enough to keep the book from becoming either a political rant or a piece for the prurient. Also, Al Aswany manages to sew up a lot of Egyptian history, politics and culture in his novel, giving one a snapshot picture of modern Cairo society. 

The book made me understand how the latest revolution had come about. Clearly even the middle classes—the ones willing to work hard and keep their head down, if only they had some prospects—had become disaffected in Egypt. In India, which is not exactly behind in the exploitation and corruption parameters, there has been some trickle down to the middle layer. Does one attribute that to democracy or press freedom or both?

 The book reads very well and the translation is superb. I love the Arabic cadence and the switch to present tense for descriptions – a West and South Asian conceit that I am much partial to.  It is important to me that the book was a runaway bestseller in the Arab world. It reminded me too much of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, and the resonance suggests that truth is reflected in the stories of the Yacoubian Building. I can only hope the author, in his zeal had not given thought to the fact that so many shocking but perfectly conceivable stories cannot take place at once. It is a bit like ‘A Fine Balance’- almost everything bad that can happen in India happens to the four likeable protagonists of Rohington Mistry’s novel.

Yet unlike Mistry’s book, the Yacoubian building does not end in despair. It shows people acting out their wants, and at some level reconciling to their situation. They do not get a great resolution, but it could be worse.

Definitely go for the book. It speaks the truth, is racy but not a rag. And great if you want an introduction to contemporary Arab literature.