Monday, January 22, 2018

In the Midst of Winter

In her latest novel "In the Midst of Winter”( mas alla del invierno), published in November 2017, Isabel Allende brings together a trio of tragic stories from Chile, Brazil and Guatemala. 

The three protagonists Lucia, Richard and Evelyn meet together after a minor car accident caused while driving in the snow in Brooklyn, New York. In the course of trying to solve the problem of dead body in the trunk of the car, they start telling each other their life stories which are poignant accounts of violence, dictatorship, struggles, exile and migration.

The Chilean dictatorship, disappearances and deaths are familiar themes in many novels of Allende.  Her portrayal is authentic since she herself is a victim of the Pinochet dictatorship from which she escaped to Venezuela on exile and finally migrated to the United States, where she is living since 1988. In this story, Lucia Maraz is the Chilean character, whose family is subjected to suffering by the military dictatorship. Lucia’s brother Enrique is one of the ‘disappeared’, as punishment for his left wing activism. When the secret police comes after Lucia also alleging that she is a sympathiser of guerrillas, she seeks asylum in the Venezuelan embassy. Later she goes on to live as an exile in Venezuela and Canada. She returns to Chile after the restoration of democracy. She comes as a visiting professor to New York where she gets to meet the other two characters.

Lucia is described by the author as “ blessed with the stoic character of her people, accustomed to earthquakes, floods, tsunamis and political cataclysms”. Lucia grows worried if there is no disaster within a given length of time. And disaster comes in the form of a snowstorm in the winter of 2015. Her basement apartment is freezing and it makes her feel even more lonely and insecure.  But the New York winter cannot subdue Lucia’s Latino heart which pines for the warmth of sex, romance and love. Lucia, aged sixty two, is looking for mature love, after her divorce and a few flings in her earlier life.  She fantasises about romance with her landlord Richard who lives in the house above her basement.  The car accident in the middle of winter gives her the opportunity to melt the ice cold Richard and win him over. When Richard recalls his sins and sad past, Lucia tells him, “ Enough wallowing in the sorrows of the past. The only cure for so much misfortune is love”. 

Through the story of Richard Bowmaster, the author brings out some Brazilian cultural aspects. He goes to Rio for his research work on the Brazilian dictatorship and there he falls in love with the Brazilian dance teacher Anita. Unable to adjust to Anita’s complex personality and her large extended family, he takes to drinking and drugs and runs his car over his own son killing him accidentally. He returns to US to work in the New York University as professor for Latin America studies. After Anita’s death, Richard leads an austere life in the company of his four cats named um, dois, tres and quatro in Portuguese. Lucia finds him as ‘ liviano de sangre’ a chilean expression for someone who is good natured and loveable.

Evelyn Ortega, the Guatemalan without documents, works as a nanny in the New York house of Frank Leroy who is involved in human trafficking of Latin Americans into US. Evelyn is from a small Guatemalan village Monja Blanca del Valle, which is also the name of the the national flower. Evelyn’s mother migrates to US, like many of her compatriots, to earn a safe livelihood and to escape the violence in the country. The Guatemalans who had earlier suffered the reign of terror of the right wing regimes are now traumatised by more cruelty and violence inflicted by the deadly gangs such as MS-13. Evelyn and her two brothers are brought up by their grand mother. The elder brother joins MS-13 but is killed and his body hung over a bridge when he is suspected of betrayal. In its typical way of revenge on the whole family, the gang kills the other brother also and rapes and brutalises Evelyn.  After seeing the gruesome death of her brothers and her own nightmare of rape, Evelyn loses speech and starts stammering and becoming almost like a mute. The grandmother sends her with a coyote to enter US illegally through Mexico. On the way she and her group face the Mexican gangs who torment the migrants with extortion and violence. Evelyn is lucky to reach her mother and later to get to work with the Leroy family.

The experience of the main characters in the three countries are not much different from reality. Fortunately, Chile has now become peaceful and free from violence. But Brazil has pockets of violence in major cities where drug traffickers operate. Guatemala still continues to suffer from the gang violence along with Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. In fact, the actual violence and crime are much worse than the fictional portrayal of Allende. 

Allende uses every opportunity to compare and contrast Latino and American cultures, based on her own experience of living in US since 1982. This is one of the recurrent themes in her novels. She briefly mentions Trump whose hate speeches have hurt the feelings and image of Latin Americans. Trump ignores the fact that it is the US which is mainly responsible for the past and present tragedies of Latin America through its consumption of and demand for drugs as well as its political destabilisation of the region on the pretext of containing communism. The CIA had the lead role in the overthrow of democratically elected governments of President Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954, President Goulart of Brazil in 1964 and President Allende of Chile in 1973 and subsequent installation of military dictatorships which were responsible for death and disappearance of hundreds of thousands of people in the three countries.

Having read most of her books, I found that the main plot of this novel is somewhat thin and less complex than her previous works. But the author’s focus on the Latin American spirit,  colours and expressions takes the readers through a virtual journey of the fascinating region .
Allende is at her best when she gives voice to the female characters in her novels. They are emotional but strong enough to survive and succeed at the end. It is for this reason that she has been described as the diva of “ Magical Feminism”. Some of her novels belong to the Latin American signature genre of “ Magical Realism”.

Allende’s inspiration for the title of her book is the following quote of Albert Camus,“ In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer”. In her own winter years at the age of 75, the summer of Latino love is still shining within Isabel Allende. In one of her interviews, Allende says,”I have been in love all my life, with different men, of course. Love is beautiful and melodramatic”.  In this novel as well as in her last one “The Japanese lover”, the theme is about old people falling in love. In an essay written in November 2017, she says,” I am in my seventies and I want love, passion and romance, like any teenager, but is not for me. No one online would ever be interested in a short, bossy Latina grand mother. Now, if I get to meet a guy I like in person, well that’s different. I grab him by the neck, or whatever part of him is closest to me, and he doesn’t stand a chance. We humans are sexual and sentimental creatures to the very end of our lives, a fact that makes my grandchildren cringe. This reminds me of the advice given by my Argentine friends at my retirement party in May 2012, “ Don’t stop having fun when you are old. You become old only when you stop having fun”.

Monday, January 01, 2018

தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள் - South American Tamils

I was browsing in Amazon for books to kick off new year reading yesterday. One of the titles, "தென்னமெரிக்க தமிழர்கள்" (Thennamerica Thamizhargal-South American Tamils) struck me like a lightning. It had the effect of not only intriguing me but it also challenged my self-proclaimed Latin America expertise. How come I did not know the Tamil link to South America despite having spent twelve years in the region and read so many books on Latin America. So I ordered the book on kindle and read it immediately. It did not take much time to finish reading, since it is just 174 pages. The book, published in July 2017, is in Tamil language only. 

The author, Naveena Alexander, has tried to establish a link between ancient Tamils and the Meso Americans such as Olmecs, Aztecs and Mayas. He claims that the Tamils had discovered the American continent long before the Europeans  and much before the birth of Jesus Christ.  He believes that the Tamils had the capacity to travel long distance through the oceans, with their knowledge of the winds and ocean streams. He is of the view that the Tamils had established trade settlements in Meso American ( Mexico and the northern part of Central America) region. He has identified some similarities between the Tamil and Mesoamerican cultures. Pity..He has forgotten to mention the common role of ‘chillies’ in the spicy Mexican and Tamil food.

But the book has not done justice to the audacious title it bears. The author has given flights to his fancy based on speculations and conjectures, without any credible evidence to prove his theories. However, he has given an overview of the history and culture of Mesoamericans which is educative for the readers in Tamil language. 

I called the author who lives in Chennai. His real name is David J Praveen. I told him about my feeling about the book. He told me to wait till his next book on the Incas and other South American native Indians come out. He sees Tamil connection with the Indians of the Andean region too. He is enthusiastic about his discoveries and theories.  He recalls having read a Tamil book " South American Cholas". There is, of course, proof that the Cholas had conquered south east Asia but South America? hmm..

Praveen is a prolific writer and has authored over a dozen books on diverse topics such as artifice intelligence, e-commerce giants, Magic and Magicians,the streets of the colonial city of Madras and the mystery of Egyptian pyramids. His mission is to educate and provoke the curiosity of the readers in Tamil language. 

My curiosity, triggered by his book, took me to google for information on Tamil link to South America. I was not disappointed. A historian and General Secretary of Kanyakumari Historical and Cultural Centre, Mr S Padmanabhan has found striking similarities between South Indian and Mayan culture. He claims that the ‘Padala Logo’ ruled by Mahabali, as described by the Puranas, is actually Mexico. The Professor had found evidence to this theory during his field trips in Mexico. In a lecture in 2010, he has claimed that there is influence of Dravidian culture, particularly Keralite culture in Mayan architecture, domestic equipment and social and religious practices. He has called for research into the submerged Kumari continent and the Mayans.

Am I puzzled and confused after reading these? Not at all. In fact I see a clear and solid similarity between the South Indians and Latin Americans. That similarity is ‘Magical Realism”, the signature genre of Latin American literature. Magical realism blurs the line between imagination and reality. In fact, some Malayalee scholars have claimed that magical Realism was invented by O V Vijayan in ‘Khasakkinte Itihasam’, much before Gabriel Garcia Marquez. No wonder that the book “ one hundred years of solitude” was the best seller in Kerala at one time. More on this in my earlier blog

Perhaps the theory of Magical Realism explains why the Tamils vote for actors to become chief ministers. They don’t seem to distinguish between the filmy magic and the political reality. 

In any case, the South India-South American link of Magical Realism promises to be an interesting area for research..

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Volver al Oscuro Valle - return to the dark valley - book review

"Volver al oscuro valle" ( Return to the dark valley), the latest novel of the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, explores the Colombian society in the aftermath of the peace process agreed between the government and the FARC guerrillas. While most Colombians are trying their best 'to forget and forgive', it is impossible to do so for some of the victims who had suffered terrible trauma by the violence and crimes committed by FARC and others. Manuela Bertran a Colombian, who lives in Madrid, cannot get over the cruel way in which the guerrillas killed her father in front of her when she was a child. After this tragedy, Manuela, goes through more sufferings in school and afterwards. But she manages to finish university studies in philology in Madrid where she has an accidental encounter with the Consul. When Manuela proposes to go back to Cali on her revenge mission, the Consul and his Colombian friend Juana accompany her. Tertuliano, the Argentine pries, tracks down the guerrilla who killed the parents of Manuela and gets him tortured and killed.

On the trip to Colombia, Manuela, Juana and the Consul are overwhelmed by nostalgia and nightmares of their past lives in Colombia and  feel as though they have returned to a dark valley.

Tertuliano, the crazy Argentine priest claims to be the son of Pope Francis. According to his story, the the Archbishop of Buenos Aires Jorge Mario Bergoglio ( before he became the Pope) was requested for mediation with the Argentine guerrilla group Montoneros to release a family member of the rich Bunge family kidnapped by them during the time of military dictatorship. Bergoglio is advised to wait in a hotel room in Cordoba for a call from the guerrillas. One day, there is a knock on the door from the hotel cleaning service. The cleaning lady turns out to be a member of Montoneros. She and the priest finalize the deal for the release of the kidnaped businessman for a hefty ransom. But during the negotiations, the lady stays in the night with Bergoglio. This is how Tertuliano is born. Who knows?  This reminds me of the true story of the Paraguayan catholic priest Fernando Lugo who became the President of the country in 2008. Soon, a Paraguayan woman claimed that she had a son through Lugo. President Lugo accepted the claim and agreed to take care of the family's financial needs. Later, another woman came out with a similar story. Lugo did not deny or nor accept this. Then there was a chorus of more claims from other women. Father Fernando Lugo came to be called jokingly as "the father of the nation". In any other country the President would have been impeached. But not in Paraguay, where they took the scandal as part of life and moved on. Why the Paraguayans did not make a big fuss is ..yes ..another big story. President Lugo was later impeached for a trivial reason by the Congress. 

Gamboa has combined this Colombian story with the real life story of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. Manuela, Juana and the ex-consul are admirers of Rimbaud. Gamboa takes the reader on a fascinating journey with the poet prodigy whose provincial character and Bohemian life shocks even the Parisian society given to libertine excesses and experiments. Rimbaud has a torrid affair with an older poet Paul Verlaine, driving him and his wife and family to nuts. Rimbaud gives up poetry for a while and goes to Ethiopia and Yemen to try his hand in coffee and arms trade. Consumed by diseases, he dies in France at a young age. The story of Rimbaud's stay in Harar, a trading post in Ethiopia, inspires the Colombian characters so much that they also visit Harar after completing their revenge mission in Colombia.

Gamboa's linkage of the Colombian characters with the French poet has made the novel not only colorful but also profound with literary and cultural richness. Gamboa quotes many of Rimbaud's poems and put them in perspective giving the readers the background of emotions which drove Rimbaud at different times. Almost half of the book is devoted to Rimbaud's story. Gamboa has cleverly juxtaposed the violence in the Colombian society with the violence of war in Europe which Rimbaud witnesses first hand. 

There is a side story of Boko Haram terrorists holding the Irish embassy in Madrid as hostage. Gamboa has used this episode to explore terrorism and its shocking impact on the democratic and civilized societies. He has also introduced a character from Equatorial Guinea who works as a nurse in a prison hospital in Madrid and loves Rimbaud's poems.

Gamboa, who had worked as a cultural attaché in the Colombian embassy in Delhi, had made an interesting connection between  Colombia and Asia in his earlier novel " Night prayers". My blog on this book Juana, the Consul and the Mexican diplomat in the novel " Night Prayers"have continued their stories in Volver al oscuro valle.

Gamboa has covered a wide spectrum of the political, economic, social and cultural issues of Colombia as well the rest of the world and has interpreted and analyzed them philosophically and intellectually. He uses the characters of Bergoglio, Tertuliano and another priest Fernando Palacios to examine the religious and moral issues.

Since he is a Colombian writer, Gamboa is often asked about and compared to the greatest writer from his country Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Gamboa distinguishes himself as having the mindset of the cosmopolitan city of Bogota, which is cool at an altitude of 8000 feet. He does not relate much to the hot and humid Aracataca in the Caribbean part of Colombia where Marquez was born. While the Bogotans are formal, reserved and sober in taste, the Caribbeans are informal, talkative, laugh loud and like bright colors. Marquez has written mostly about Colombia. But Gamboa has explored other countries besides Colombia. His Colombian characters living in and travelling to other countries give their experience of other cultures. He says he was influenced by the American writer Paul Theroux's advice to writers, "Read a lot of books and then leave home". This is the reason why Gamboa has chosen the Consul as a protagonist in his novels. The Consul lives abroad, moving from country to country, and interacts with other peoples. Gamboa has not given a name to the Consul who narrates his story in first person. It appears that the romantic, poetry reciting and gin loving Consul is the alter ego of Gamboa himself.  Gamboa admits to being inspired by the Consul characters in the novels of Malcolm Lowry's " Under the Volvano" as well as Graham Green's " Honorary Consul" and Marguerite Duras's " the Vice Consul". It is a pity that Neruda who was a Consul in Rangoon did not write much about his Asian experience.

Having enjoyed the two books of Gamboa, I have just bought another one ' Perder es question de metodo' ( loss is a matter of method). I can't wait to start…

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Lenin's Ecuador victory lifts the Leftist spirit in Latin America

Lenin Moreno (popularly called as Lenin), the leftist candidate has won the Presidential run-off elections of Ecuador on 2 April, beating his rightist rival Guillermo Lasso, a wealthy banker.

Moreno's victory is being celebrated by the Latin American Left which had lost power to the right in Argentina and Peru in the recent elections. In Brazil and Paraguay, the rightists have brought down the leftist Presidents through constitutional coups. There is talk of 'retreat of the left' and 'fading of the pink tide' in the region. Against this background, the victory in Ecuador has come as a moral boost to the Left in the region. Moreno is the hand-picked candidate of the leftist President Rafael Correa, who has ruled the country since 2007. The outspoken Correa is known for his fierce crusade against neoliberalism and Washington Consensus. He had refused to sign FTA with US and pulled out of the negotiations even when the other neighbours Colombia and Peru went ahead. He closed the American airbase in Ecuador when the lease expired in 2009. In a bold move, he gave asylum to Julian Assange who is wanted by US prosecutors after he had published secret American documents in 'wikileaks'. Assange is still staying in the Ecuadorian embassy in London since June 2012. Lasso threatened to evict him if he won the election.

The victory of the Left in Ecuador comes as a relief and hope for those frustrated with the rise of the right-wing extremism in Europe, US and some other parts of the world. It should not be forgotten that the Left continues to rule in Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela. Ex-President Lula is still rated as a potential winner in the next elections in Brazil, if he is not banned by right-wing conspiracy. The chances of Lopez Obrador, the Mexican Leftist candidate, has become brighter in the elections next year, as a reaction against the anti-Mexican diatribes of Trump. 

The credit for the victory of the Left in Ecuador goes to the the exemplary performance of Rafael Correa's government in the last ten years. Correa has pulled the country out of its economic mess of the past when it had suffered one crisis after another. He has reduced the poverty rate from 40% in 2006 to 23% in 2016. He has doubled the social spending and improved the living standards, infrastructure and public services. He has included native Indians and other marginalized groups in the political and economic development. He achieved all these without stoking inflation, which stood at 1.3% in 2016. Under his government, economic growth increased steadily while unemployment decreased. He redrew the unequal oil and mining contracts of the multinational corporations and made them pay more. He used the additional revenue for education and healthcare. Alarmed by the fact that 38% the government revenue went to service external debt, he cut it down by aggressive and compulsory restructuring and by standing up to IMF and World Bank and the western creditor mafia. While his close friend Chavez ruined the Venezuelan economy with disastrous policies in the name of 'Twenty first century socialism', Correa, who got his economics Masters and PhD from a US university, showed pragmatism. For example, he continued the policy of his predecessors in keeping US dollar as the country's currency as part of the economic stabilization, despite his anti-US rhetoric and his own criticism of dollarisation when it was introduced in 2000. 

More importantly, Correa gave political stability to the country which was notorious for chronic political instability. It had seen eight presidents in the previous ten years and witnessed military coups and congressional impeachment of Presidents before Correa came to power in 2007.  Three of his predecessors in the previous ten years were forced out of office before completing their terms. Correa was the first Ecuadorian President elected to serve a third consecutive term in the last hundred years of Ecuador's history. After his first election in 2006, Correa got a new constitution approved in 2008 under which he won the elections in 2009 and 2013. Correa is leaving the Presidency honorably with his head high and a respectable approval rating of 44% after ten years in power. He has announced that he would pursue academic work in Belgium, where he had done university studies and married a Belgian student.

Moreno, who had served as Vice President during Correa's first term (2007-13), has promised continuation of Correa's inclusive agenda of development. He is more moderate and conciliatory than his sharp-tongued and thin-skinned combative predecessor who was intolerant of criticism. Moreno is a paraplegic and uses wheel chair, after he was shot in a robbery attempt in 1998. He had used 'laughter therapy' as part of his recovery process and has created a foundation "Eventa" to promote humor and joy as a way of life. He is the author of numerous books on his theory of humor.

Lasso, who lost narrowly with 48.83% of votes as against Moreno's 51.17 %, is contesting the results claiming irregularities. He has asked  his supporters to protest peacefully but forcefully. But he has not come out with solid evidence to substantiate his allegations. The external missions of observers sent by the Organisation of American States (OAS) and UNASUR (the South American community of States) have not reported any adverse observations on the polls. In fact, the Secretary General of OAS has already congratulated Moreno for his victory. It may be noted that Lasso  got 10% less votes than Moreno's 39.36 in the first round of elections held in February. His party CREO got just 34 seats while Moreno's Alliance Pais (Country Alliance) party has got 74 and secured a majority in the 137- member National Assembly in the February elections. Lasso had lost to Correa in the 2013 Presidential election getting  just 22.7% vis-a vis Correas's 57%.

Ecuador, a small country with a population of 16.4 million and 100 billion US dollars of GDP, depends largely on oil exports for its revenues. With the drastic decline in oil prices in the last two years, the country faces problems of budget deficit, foreign exchange shortage and austerity. The GDP growth in 2017 is projected to be just 0.3% after the contraction of 2% in 2016. The country is in deep debt to China which has given a cumulative credit of 17.4 billion dollars. The Chinese are taking oil against repayment and are dominating in the oil, mining and infrastructure sectors of Ecuador.The excessive dependence on China for credit and investment is the price Correa had to pay in view of the hostile and high-handed approach of western cartel of financial institutions.

India's trade with Ecuador was 378 million US dollars in 2016 (January-December) of which exports were 165 million and imports 213 m. India's imports have fallen drastically from 987 m in 2014, due to the fall in price of crude, the main import of India. Ecuador is an OPEC member with an estimated 8 billion barrels of proven reserves and daily production of 540,000 barrels. TCS has implemented a 150 million dollar IT project for Banco Pichincha of Ecuador. This is one of their largest contracts in the region. India had exported seven Dhruv helicopters to Ecuador but four of them have crashed. The delay in amicable resolution of this issue has caused some strain in bilateral relations. In spite of this, Ecuador is keen to strengthen trade with India and attract Indian investment. It had sent a large business and government delegation headed by their Vice President to the Indo-LAC Business Conclave organized by CII in December 2013. PetroEcuador has signed a MOU with ONGC Videsh Ltd (OVL) for cooperation in hydrocarbons. Ecuador has established a consulate in Mumbai besides an embassy in New Delhi. This is noteworthy given the fact that only Brazil and Argentina are the other Latin American countries with consulates in Mumbai. It is time for India to consider opening an embassy in Quito. Ecuador is more important than Iceland where India has an embassy for unknown reasons. India's exports to Iceland are less than 20 million dollars and imports below 5 million. The cold and barren Iceland, with a tiny population of 330,000 and an insignificant GDP, does not have oil, minerals or opportunities like Ecuador has.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Cinco Esquinas - the latest novel of Mario Vargas Llosa

Cinco Esquinas (five corners) is the latest novel of my favorite Latin American writer Mario Vargas Llosa. It is a story about the times of Peru during the worst authoritarian rule of Alberto Fujimori, the criminal and corrupt activities of his Intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos, the intimidation of political opponents by slander through yellow journalism, the terrorism, kidnappings and extortions of Sendero Luminoso (Shining light), Tupac Amaro and other extremist groups.

Llosa has contrasted the struggle of the poor people to survive in the violent neighborhood of of Cinco Esquinas with the hedonistic lives of the elites from the affluent Miraflores area of Lima, the capital city. While the poor face violence, crime and drug trafficking in their streets every day, the rich take off during weekend to Miami for shopping and vacation. Cinco Esquinas is part of the historic and colonial Barrio Alto section of the capital which had seen glory, decadence and revival epitomising the ups and downs of Peru.

Here is the picture of Cinco Esquinas..

Rolando Garro, the editor of a tabloid blackmails Enrique Cardenas, a mining baron with the photos of the latter's orgy. When Cardenas refuses to give in, Garro publishes the photos but is killed afterwards. Cardenas is accused of the murder and is detained briefly. La Retaquita, the editorial assistant of Garro is summoned by El Doctor, the chief of the intelligence agency. El Doctor is none other than the real Vladimiro Montesinos who was Director of Intelligence during the Alberto Fujimori regime. The chief tells Retaquita that it was he who got Garro killed after the latter went beyond his control.  He asks her to continue to run the tabloid and be part of his campaign to slander and discredit the opponents of Fujimori government. El Doctor gets Juan Peineta, an innocent reciter of poems, blamed and forces him to confess as the killer of Garro.  But La Retaquita gathers courage and exposes the intelligence chief as the real culprit and brings him down. 

There are some steamy erotic scenes in the Llosa's signature style. The story starts with the discovery of Lesbian love between Marisa, the wife of Cardenas and Chabela, the wife of Luciano, the lawyer and ends with a threesome at the end of the novel when the ladies get Cardenas to join them. In his interview at the launching event of the book, Llosa says that "sex and exploration of variety in sex had become provocation and consequence of the tensions caused by the uncertain, insecure and curfew times of the country"

In his novel "La fiesta del chivo"(The feast of the goat) Llosa has given a poignant portrayal of the Trujillo dictatorship of Dominican Republic. I had been expecting a similar Llosa novel about the Fujimori dictatorship and the excesses of Montesinos both of whom are in jail for their crimes. Llosa has also a personal agenda against the Fujimoris after he lost to Alberto Fujimori in the presidential elections of 1990. Llosa had campaigned strongly against Keiko's (the daughter of Fujimori) candidature in the 2016 elections. With these experience, Llosa has much to tell about the Fujimori period. But I was disappointed that Llosa has not done so in Cinco Esquinas. He has given only a superficial sketch of the use and manipulation of yellow journalism by Montesinos and has not mentioned Fujimori at all. The actual story of Fujimori is adequate material for several novels. He started off as an agricultural engineer,became a Maths professor and turned a politician. He won the presidential elections unexpectedly as a last minute dark horse. In his first term as President, he put an end to the guerrilla violence with a strong hand and turned around the economy. But later he became autocratic and messed up the country. He is the first President in world history to resign by fax while he was on an official visit to another country. He got asylum in Japan on the basis of his Japanese nationality. He could have continued the rest of his life peacefully in Japan but he came back to Peru with bravado. The peruvian authorities simply tried him in the court  and punished him with long imprisonment. The story of Fujimori is distinctly colorful even for Latin America which has seen all kinds of politicians and dictators. It is remarkable that his daughter Keiko who functioned as First Lady in the Presidential house of her father, has got over the legacy and is now the leader of the party which has majority in the Peruvian Congress. She lost the Presidential elections narrowly in 2016. 

Cinco Esquinas, like other Llosa's novels, has interesting characters such as La Retaquita and Juan Peineta (with his cat Serrafin) among others. But Llosa has not developed them as memorable as he has done in his other novels. I am even more disappointed that Llosa has not gone the full length in portraying El Doctor, the evil director of intelligence. 

Cinco Esquinas has the usual formula of Llosa with ingredients of special characters, suspenseful storyline and eroticism. But these are cursory and underdeveloped and without depth and elaboration. Could my disappointment be attributed the fact that Llosa wrote Cinco Esquinas close to his eightieth birthday in 2016?  Has senility set in? No.. No.. Look at his smile in the picture below…

Llosa has been rejuvenated by his latest love seen in the picture. Age has not reduced the flow of testosterone in the Latino Macho. In 2015, he announced his relationship with Isabel Preysler, a Phillippino celebrity and has sought divorce from his second wife. Isabel is the ex-wife of Julo Iglesias and the mother of Enrique Iglesias. She was married three times earlier.

This is the second book of Llosa, I have read in Spanish. The English translation of this book has not been published yet. I had read in Spanish  El sueño del Celta ( The dream of the Celt) but it took too long a time to complete. Because of this reason, I have read all the other books of Llosa in English translation. But I was able to finish Cinco Esquinas within three days, thanks to the embedded Spanish-English dictionary in the kindle version. Encouraged by this experience, I plan to read more books in Spanish in future. English is inadequate and no match for the distinctive and colorful Latino Spanish to express Latin American emotions, excitement and effervescence. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

From Brahma beer to Prem Baba

Brahma, the Indian god of creation is not a popularly worshipped deity unlike Shiva and Vishnu the other two gods of the trinity. But Brahma is popular among the Brazilians. Hmm..Not as a god but as a brand of beer. Brahma is advertised in posters, bill boards and media all over Brazil. The company which produces this beer was established in 1888 with the name Companhia Cervejaria  Brahma (Brahma beer company). Brahma beer is an essential ingredient for the spirit of Brazilians, known as 'happy go lucky', 'beach-loving', 'football-crazy', 'samba-singing' and 'carnival-parading' colorful, cheerful and playful people.

Most Brazilians who imbibe Brahma beer do not know that Brahma is the name of an Indian God. It was also true of Janderson Fernandes de Oliveira from Sao Paulo. After the age of thirty three years, Janderson has stopped drinking Brahma beer and opted for Ganga Jal (Ganges water) chanting the name of Brahma and other gods. He came to India for honeymoon but ended up embracing celibacy. He has taken to Indian spiritualism and become a Guru in the spiritual capital Rishikesh with the name Sri Prem Baba. He says, "One does not choose to become a Guru. One is chosen". He was, indeed, chosen as the successor by Hans Raj Maharajji Sachcha Baba, head of the Sachcha Dham ashram in Rishikesh in 2011. Maharajji declared," A new saint brings a new message". Prem Baba is proud to be a son of the Sachcha lineage.

Janderson visited India for the first time in 1999 with his wife for honeymoon. They travelled to many touristic and spiritual places. But the young couple got a cultural shock, like most other western tourists. The poverty, unhygienic conditions, dust, noise and crowds made India as an uncomfortable and strange world for the newly married couple. They even thought of cutting short the trip and getting back to Brazil. But someone suggested a visit to Rishikesh. While travelling from Haridwar to Rishikesh in an old Ambassador car, Janderson got a new sensation. A wave of divine love and light flooded him. Filled with an intense happiness, he began singing. He had a premonition that he was finally in the right road to fulfill the mission of his life. He had audience with Sri Hans Raj Maharajji of the Sachcha Dam ashram in Rishikesh. He realized that the old man with the white beard who had invited him to Rishikesh in his recurrent dreams since adolescence was none other than Maharajji himself.  He fell on the Indian Guru's feet and surrendered himself.  Maharajji smiled and said that he was expecting this moment. Janderson wanted to ask him many questions but the questions disappeared overcome by a profound silence and a new energy. He felt as though his search was over and had received answers to all his questions about life. After three years of learning and apprenticeship in the ashram, he reached ' self-realisation about his purpose in life', got 'illumination' and had experienced 'communion with God'.  He went to Ganges river, dipped his feet in the water, meditated and prayed. He heard Mother Ganges saying to him, "See how free I am and unattached to anything ". He felt an ecstasy again. When he went back,  Maharajji told him, ' Now you are a Guru. You are free to teach as you like" and named him Prem Baba. Just before his death in October 2011, Hans Raj Maharajji nominated Prem Baba as his successor in the line of the Sachcha ashram tradition and passed on the 'Gurumantra' to him.

Prem Baba has given a Brazilian touch to Indian spiritualism with emphasis on 'love' to resonate with his name Prem which means love. The Brazilians are curious and excited with the 'Brasileiro que virou Guru' (the Brazilian who has turned into a Guru) and who can teach the Indian wisdom through their own language and with a Brazilian perspective. In his lectures in Brazil, Prem Baba goes beyond the spiritual and refers to the political, economic, environmental and social issues and the recent crisis of Brazil. He has established two large Sachcha mission ashrams in Brazil. One is located in Nazare Paulista, a small town about 80 km from Sao Paulo city. The other one is near Alto Paraiso, 200 km from Brasilia. There are other centres in Rio de Janeiro, Fortaleza and other parts of Brazil. The Baba has many celebrity followers in Brazil. Prem Baba's rise as a Guru has taken Brazilian interest in Indian spiritualism to a new level. Thanks to him, Rishikesh is receiving more Brazilian and Latin American visitors. 

Prem Baba spends two or three months every year during winter months in India mainly in Rishikesh. In 2017, he will be there from 2 February to 15 March. His daily programme includes meditation, chanting of mantras, yoga and sat sang. Many Indians throng to Prem Baba, curious about the Brazilian way of interpreting Indian Sachcha (truth).

The Baba has gone global and joined the jet-set Guru circuit, supported by wealthy people around the world. His Awaken Love Movement and Path of the Heart Institutes have centres in fourteen countries which include US, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Argentina and Spain.  It is a new experience for non-Brazilian foreigners to be taught Indian spiritualism through Portuguese language spoken by a Brazilian Baba. He speaks only in Portuguese and his speeches are translated into English and other languages. 

Prem Baba's teachings include 'may love awaken in everyone', 'reconnecting with yourself', 'ABC of spirituality' and 'experiencing your truth'. He has his own brand 'Path of the Heart' method of self-knowledge, in which he gives courses. He combines Indian spiritualism with western psychology. Besides explaining the mysteries of existence, he gives advice for day to day life such as how to control anger and envy, how to develop one's talents and maintain relationships. He supports the Clean Ganga project and Clean Rio Tiete ( Tiete river going through Sao paulo city also needs cleaning up) and other environmental and educational projects.

He has authored three books: 'Love and be free', ' From suffering to joy', 'purpose: the courage to be who we are'. He has a blog, twitter account, facebook page, youtube, Instagram and websites and 

Janderson was born in 1965 in Sao Paulo city in a lower middle class family. Even as a child, he started having visions and profound thoughts. At the age of fourteen, he went to yoga classes where he heard Indian prayer songs in Sanskrit. He used to get dreams in which a wise old white bearded man from the Himalayas telling him,' when you reach the age of thirty three, come to India, to Rishikesh'. He took up a job as office boy in a slaughter house from the age of 14 to 19. Therafter he started a yoga school and practiced alternative therapies. In 2003, he got a degree in clinical psychology from the University of Sao Paulo. At this time he had many students and followers but still felt as though he was a blind person guiding other blind people. He had studied many spiritual schools of thought including shamanism from the Brazilian jungles but did not get the answers to his questions. When he was 33, he went through an existential crisis. In 1999, he married Mara Regina Caccia from Sao Paulo city. He changed her name to Prem Mukti Mayi and named his daughter as Nuyth Ananda. Prem Baba is now separated from his wife and is a celibate.

Brazil, the largest catholic country in the world, has several thousands of followers of Sai Baba, Art of Living, Hare Krishna, Brahma Kumaris and other major and minor Indian spiritual groups. There is an active Ramakrishna vedanta mission centre in Sao Paulo city (with branches in other parts of Brazil) which is headed by a Tamil-speaking Swami Nirmalatmananda, who gives discourses in fluent Portuguese. The Hare Krishna temple in the Novo Gokula community near Pindamonhangaba ( 150 km from Sao Paulo city towards Rio de Janeiro) has one of the most beautiful settings  in the world,  similar to the pastoral scenery depicted in the Krishna tales of India. It is located in the midst of a forest and on the side of a stream with hills around. It is a perfect spot for meditation; serene and quiet except for the sounds of water rushing through the pebbles, the chirping of birds and the rustling of the leaves in the breeze. Yoga and meditation have become mainstream activities even among young Brazilians. Ayurveda is also becoming popular in Brazil as an alternative medical treatment. Palas Atena, a reputed NGO in Sao Paulo offers courses in Indian philosophy besides propagating Gandhian thoughts and methods of non-violence. There are a few Brazilians who perform and teach Indian music and dance. There is a Catholic priest (of Indian origin) Father Joachim Andrade who dances and teaches Bharatha Natyam in Curitiba city.

Prem Baba is the first Brazilian and Latin American to become an Indian Guru. Although many Latin Americans have become teachers of Indian spiritualism, no one has reached the highest level as Sri Prem Baba who is building a fascinating bridge between the spiritual Rishikesh and the sensual Rio de Janeiro.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Magical Realism meets Asian Culture in the novel " Night Prayers"

Night Prayers is the story of three Colombian characters and their encounter with four Asian cultures. The Colombian protagonists are: Manuel, the philosophy student; his adventurous sister Juana ; and  a diplomat posted in New Delhi. India, Thailand, Japan and Iran are the countries where destinies take the Colombians. The author of this novel is Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa. 

The lower middle class family of Juana and Manuel are ardent supporters of Alavaro Uribe who comes to power promising to put an end to the FARC guerrilla war. They are frustrated with the bombings, assassinations, kidnappings and drug trafficking by the guerrillas who had deviated from their original ideological agenda and become a criminal terrorist organization, pushing the country to the brink of 'a failed state'. President Uribe manages to break the back of FARC with an iron hand. But the liberals and intellectuals including Juana are critical of the excesses of government and the military as well as the paramilitary atrocities in the name of the war against the guerillas. 

Manuel, a shy philosophy student and dreamer, does not understand the challenging world around him . His sister is the only person to understand and support him. When his sister goes missing to Japan, he wants to go and find her. In order to finance the expensive trip, he agrees to carry drugs for the traffickers. He gets caught in Bangkok and put in prison there.

Juana, the rebellious and audacious sociology student, is an angry critic of Uribe's methods.  When she wants to run away from the violent Colombia to a 'civilized place like Europe' a French man settled in Bogota tells her, 'you have to give time for Colombia, a young country still looking for a language.  Europe which has peace today, cost two thousand years of war, blood, torture and cruelty. The last European war left fifty four million ( more than the entire population of Colombia at present ) dead'. Juana wants to take revenge on the Uribe government and infiltrates the secret service by becoming an escort to the officials. But when she is about to be caught, she slips away  to Japan and  joins the escort service there. Later, she escapes from the Japanese mafia by running away with an Iranian bodyguard to his country. She is rescued from the Ayatollah tyranny of Iran  by the Colombian diplomat who takes her to reunite with her brother in the Bangkok jail. But the brother commits suicide just before the meeting with the sister. 
Santiago Gamboa has given a vivid portrayal of the Colombian society which has paid a huge price in blood in the deadly feud between the revolutionaries, liberals and conservatives in the last seventy years. In the Colombian history, the ten years between 1948 and 1958 is known as the period of ' La Violencia'. It is not over yet. Uribe's supporters defeated the referendum held in october last year on the government's peace agreement with FARC. Naturally, this internal conflict and violence is the typical and inevitable theme of Colombian writers just as many writers in South and Central America cannot get over from the sufferings caused by military dictatorships. The author, a product of the Colombian culture of violence, says, ' violence and wars are always part of the history and culture of mankind. Force is the argument most often used by man in history'. It is interesting in this context that a Gujarati has set up a Gandhi Foundation in Medellin to propagate non-violence. More on this in

The Colombian diplomat in the novel finds New Delhi as 'unconventional to a Latin American, requiring a somewhat adventurous frame of mind' to survive. He lives in Jangpura Extension, unable to afford the expensive areas like Vasant Vihar. He gets used to the dust, rickshaws and fly-infested fried food stands 'that are like factories for typhoid or dysentry'. From his second floor window of the embassy in Vasant Vihar he observes women in saris carrying bricks for construction while their children play amid the rubble. He finds the Sai baba temple in Delhi as the place where the fragrance of the saffron flowers and smell of incense mix with the intolerable odor of the decomposing matter. As a consular officer, he deals with all kinds of problems and people, especially Colombian visitors who get into troubles caused by the gap between their romantic and distorted image of India and the realities on the ground. Rich ladies from Colombia who come seeking spiritual enlightenment end up offering not only their soul but some times their body also to Indian Gurus. 
The diplomat pays homage to the neem tree under which the Mexican poet diplomat Octavio Paz married Marie Jose in 1964 in the Prithvi Raj road residence where Mexican ambassadors used to stay. It was Paz who introduced the Indian culture to Latin America through Latin American eyes based on his personal experience of long stay of over six years in India. Paz's book 'Vislumbres de la India' ( in the light of India ) was an eye opener to Latin Americans.  He was also the first one to give a comparative perspective in Indo-Latin American cultural history. His poem " Tale of two gardens- poems from India 1952-1995" compares his Indian inspiration with his Mexican roots. Like Paz, the Colombian goes for walk in the Lodhi Garden ' a park that reconciles you to the city'.
The Colombian diplomat describes his travels to Thailand, Japan and Iran,  in his pursuit to reunite Juana and Manuel. In Bangkok, he is struck by the the smells of canals of stagnant water, the ubiquitous massage parlors and bordellos, traffic jams and the deafening din of the tuk-tuks in the ' land of smiles'. The Thai prosecutor gives the Colombian diplomat an outraged lecture on the evil consequences of sex tourism to the Thai society and takes pride on the fact that Thailand is one of the very few countries which has remained uncolonized by others. He gives a bit of  magical realism back to the Colombian, saying" Ten years ago, there was a traffic jam that lasted for eleven days. We had to lift the cars out by helicopters". This is like the story  of the Colombian writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez "One Hundred Years of Solitude" in which it rains continuously for five years. 

The " Night Prayers" reminds me of the book of short stories " Lotus flower-stories from Asia" in which another Colombian, Juan Alfredo Pinto (and another writer diplomat) in which the magical realism of Latin America meets the cultures of Asia. Each story in this book takes place in a different Asian country such as India, Indonesia, Cambodia and Kazhakstan to which the Colombian characters travel. Pinto's book has been translated into Hindi and English by the Sahitya Academy.

This the first novel of the Colombian writer Santiago Gamboa, I have read. He has joined my list of favorite Colombian authors which includes Gabriel Garcia Marquez ( whose book ' love at the time of cholera' initiated my Latin American literary journey ) Laura Restrepo and Juan Gabriel Vasquez.