Thursday, September 18, 2014

THE SILKWORM: a book review

Following on ‘Cuckoo’s Calling’, the first book in the Cormoran Strike series by J K Rowling aka Robert Galbraith is ‘The Silkworm’, so called because it is English for ‘Bombyx Mori,’ which in turn is the name of a novel written by Quine, one of the characters in the book, the plot of which has a bearing on the story. A Bombyx Mori is the larva of a silk moth cultivated for the silk of the cocoon it spins. The larva must be destroyed before it becomes a pupa, or the silk is ruined by a chemical the pupa secretes.
I mentioned, when I reviewed Cuckoo’s Calling a year ago, that to pass the acid test Galbraith/Rowling must exorcise the ghost of Harry Potter. Well, Cormoran Strike, the private investigator central to this series, a flawed hero carrying over two stone of excess weight now stands with both feet firmly planted on the ground, which is quite an achievement since he’s missing a leg below the knee.
Having said that it’s worth noting that half the characters in this book, all writers or publishers, would be quite at home in Knockturn Alley, a street in Potter’s London devoted to the Dark Arts.
Strike is not a great reader, or a man who has patience with celebrities, but after being hired to investigate the disappearance of Owen Quine the writer, he finds himself breathing the rarefied air of celebrities belonging to writing circles. Most of these people appear in some shape or form in Quine’s book: Leonara, Quine’s wife, as a demon, Quine’s girlfriend as a harpy, another friend as a slave to the harpy, and yet another as a parasitic woman who leeches off Quine; other people, all of them writers or publishers, feature as trolls, murderers, and torturers… which explains the observation regarding Knockturn Alley and makes you wonder if Rowling’s relationship with her publishers has been entirely amicable.
The characters are drawn with Rowling’s usual attention to detail from the forlorn Leonora, to the overbearing author Kathryn Kent who specialises in erotica, to Robin, Strike’s assistant who aspires to become an investigator herself. Strike, a meticulous man, has his emotions and experiences with his ex fiancĂ©e, his famous father, family and friends explored with ruthless accuracy. Strike wouldn’t like that if he knew it. He is the man on your bus ‘scowling, effortlessly and silently repelling anyone who might consider sitting on the seat beside him’… an endearing man in spite of that, and he would hate to hear that too.
Rowling’s disdain for the privileged classes comes through in this book as in her others, in for example her description of Strike and Robin’s visit to the home of Daniel Chard, a massive oblong, skeletal house without walls, constructed entirely of glass and metal, and the description of Chard’s manners. Chard is the president of Roper Chard, a London publishing house specialising in modern literature.
Her empathy for the less fortunate is also obvious. It is a trait that Strike shares, taking on Leonora’s case as he did with little regard for payment, the chance of which appeared slim at the time.
Rowling is still too descriptive. There are times when you wonder if a particular detail has any bearing on the story, and if not why it’s mentioned so carefully. She misses nothing, not even a cat walking on the edge of a balcony; the cat actually reappears, very briefly and is acknowledged as ‘the same cat’ at another visit to the same house. On the flip side if she did not visualise her stories in such minute detail she could never have given us this new series with its intricate twists of plot and subplot. Unlike with some other writers these descriptions are only sometimes irksome. Because of them London comes alive, a London that Rowling obviously knows very well, both its underbelly and its supercilious side.
All told, my only real problem with this book is that it has left me feeling rather uneasy about publishers in general, which is unfair, it’ll go away, Pique. I’m hoping there’ll be another book in the series. I want to know what happens to Strike and to the other people in his life.


By Rabia Ahmed 
I needed clean currency notes, so this year found me as usual at my bank the day before for Eid, clutching a service number (1576) waiting for 1465 and up to be dealt with at the counter. The single teller, an earnest man with a permanent pucker between his brows was excruciatingly slow. I took a seat and waited.
The young receptionist, dressed in a frilly kameez shalwar and chappals, flip flopped around the bank. A customer stepped on her trailing dupatta and she hitched it up with a vague frown. The Manager shouted at her. ‘Miss XYZ, please remain at your post! I didn’t hire you to walk around the office.’ She therefore remained at her post and yelled information, including an account number to the teller on one occasion.
The Manager’s phone rang. A man waiting to speak with him waited some more while he spoke into it for ten minutes and then waited some more again, because as soon as he put the phone down I accosted him.
The service number had progressed only to 1466 after twenty minutes, and ten minutes later had moved but another digit. The reason for the delay was also that three persons had appeared at the window without numbers and been dealt with. Hanging over the shoulder of the man in front each took his time when his turn came while those with numbers waited. I asked the Manager to bring in more tellers or make sure people did not jump the queue.
The Manager took my money from me and apologised for the delay as he handed me the change. He explained that they were short staffed that day because employees had taken an unauthorised day off, adding that it was not possible to enforce the queue at any time. ‘Yahan pay tho aisay hi hotha hai jee,’ is what he said.
If this whole episode at the bank could be captured as a single picture captioned ‘spot the errors’, what would you find?
Almost all banks have a machine that spews out a service number yet it is common for people to skip the queue, or for members of staff to break it on someone’s behalf as in my case when the Manager got my change for me by jumping the queue, because others were doing the same in turn. That is how it works.
The bank Manager’s claim that it is not possible to enforce a queue is invalid. Banks, schools and other institutions can become the cradle of change and achieve miracles, particularly if they all act together.
The people of Pakistan detest queues. We cannot say which came first, the chicken or the egg, but in today’s culture of safarish and bribery this dislike is understandable since the person who awaits his turn is liable to be left out, so each person pushes his way in.
Not only is a queue necessary but a decent space must be maintained between each person in the line to allow for movement and privacy of speech. Bank employees must also understand the need for privacy; no one appreciates having his account details shouted out across the bank.
The young receptionist was inappropriately dressed. Frilly trailing clothes are unprofessional, and dupattas should be pinned in place. Her slouchy walk and manner were inappropriate to a professional setting, but the Manager’s behaviour was inappropriate as well.
Employees at any level must never be humiliated and certainly not in front of customers. What’s more it indicates poor management if employees take leave without permission. It is the Management’s job to enforce attendance, particularly during the rush preceding Eid. It is also exceedingly impolite and unprofessional to allow phone calls to interrupt dealings with a customer. Phone etiquette is utterly lacking in our society, professionally and socially; it died in the stampede that resulted when cell phones flooded the market.
It is in this setting that the first Friday of September which falls on the 6th of September this year, comes in. The first Friday of September is ‘Bring Your Manners to Work Day’. The purpose of this day is to bring protocol and etiquette to the forefront at the workplace for both employees and employers.
Etiquette is as important as business ethics and acumen. It requires a man to for example, respectfully allow a woman to precede him in a social or a professional setting, but protocol within a professional setting requires a female worker to allow her boss of whatever gender, to lead on a formal occasion without relinquishing her right to being treated with respect. There is an overlap between the two, but protocol in a professional setting varies from place to place and may override some aspects of etiquette at certain times.
Etiquette is based on respect for your fellow humans, and on business and customer service expectations which in the current global atmosphere are very high. Queues, phone manners, professional dress code, and dealings between professionals and customers are all a basic aspect of etiquette.
The bank manager was only partially wrong this time: manners may not now be a feature of public life but we were a politer people once. The fast pace of modern life has, like the cell phone, outstripped our values in the race to the workplace and other public ground. It is a matter of some concern in our current affairs, and a crying shame that we are now so far behind the international community in this field. It is an idea for institutions and their umbrella organisations to give the matter of business etiquette and protocol some priority and groom their workers so that Pakistanis can once again pride themselves on their ‘tehzeeb’ and ‘adb’ which appear to be more creatures of Ghalib’s imagination today, than reality.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014


The people of Pakistan are hopefully finding the voice they ought to have found long ago. PHOTO: FILE
There are times when something you dream of actually happens, like Senator Rehman Malik getting booted off that Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flight.
Had anyone else been booted off this way it might not have had the same impact, but with Rehman Malik… it’s like being presented with a large, a very large, box of chocolates, a complete set of Harry Potter books (which are amazingly yet to be read), and a tonne of ice cream all at one go! Oh joy!
My salams to the gentleman who took that stand. May you live long in a genuinely better Pakistan, with my prayers for your health and safety, should Mr Malik ever regain power. Yet I don’t support him all the way.
Having gotten that off my chest, let’s examine the viral video and what caused it: a Karachi-to-Islamabad PIA flight had been waiting for two and a half hours on the tarmac at Jinnah International Airport. The reason, although not yet confirmed, was that it was waiting for some ‘VIPs’ to arrive, and when they did arrive they turned out to be Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Senator Rehman Malik and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani.

As they arrived at the door of the plane, passengers barred their way accusing the VIPs of delaying their flight and making 250 passengers wait. Crew members joined angry passengers in booing the politicians, forcing them to retreat amidst humiliating slogans. It’s all there on two videos which have since gone viral. The one with Mr Malik will probably be viewed in lieu of Prozac for days to come.
Passengers can be heard shouting on the video clip,
“We have taken it for too long… 68 years… are we going to take it for another 68 years?”
“Malik sahab, sorry. You should go back. You should apologise to these passengers. You should be ashamed of yourself… 250 passengers have suffered because of you. It is your fault, sir.”
This wave of euphoria, which spilt over everyone when they saw that video, speaks of pent up resentment, anger, disdain, frustration, and a thirst for justice. In my own case, I couldn’t have cared less if Mr Malik was responsible for this particular flight delay, or not. I was happy to see him turn tail in the face of those vociferous voices, to see him retreat to a safe distance before turning to protest feebly and to see him thrown off, for whatever reason.

I saw the whole thing, in short, through a red mist. I was a one woman mob. And that is the scary bit.
Former interior minister and others like him had it coming. There’s little doubt of that. There’s also little doubt that our cricketing hero has managed to bring the matter of abuse of power to the forefront turning a sore point into (almost) grounds for war. But when has war ever been rational? I have no idea what sort of a man Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani is. Did he deserve the same treatment? If indeed the flight was held up because of some VIPs, was it not PIA’s responsibility to refuse to wait for them? How was the gentleman taking this video able to override the crew completely? PIA was quite obviously helpless on every front. Think of the undiscerning blame, hatred, accusations, disregard for what is right and just, and most of all the mass hysteria that drives people into violence and even genocide. Mobs and masses do not make for long term change and good outcomes, nor do slogans and tsunamis. It takes education and debate.
It also takes awareness and that is what this appears to be.  The people of Pakistan are finding the voice they ought to have found long ago. But they need to be careful, aware that a game is never won by means of bouncers. It takes skilful footwork, accurate bowling, well placed strokes, canny field placement, keen fielding, a strong captaincy and a devoted and disciplined team to win matches and series. Mobs feed on emotion not sense. They don’t discern between innocent and culpable. People die in great numbers when a mob and its emotions hold the field.
“Malik sahab, you are not a minister any more. And even if you are, we don’t care… anymore.”
That’s a good line, particularly when the minister in question asked for such sentiments. We should not care who it is, all persons who do a job, any job, must be accountable. But we have a tendency towards licking the boots of people in power. That is what has brought us to this point.
It is well to remember that there will always be those who disagree with what is done by any given government. If the masses taste blood once, they will take matters into their own hands repeatedly.
What happens then?