Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ngabelungu....

Ok, point taken. My post titles tend to be slightly weird, and usually indecipherable. But the entire point is that they make perfect sense to me, and through some random acts of association, they also somehow seem appropriate. Agreed that while to me they may seem completely apposite, others will think them obscure. But hey - and I've said this before, but humour me while I say this again - my blog, so my rules! :)

Ngabelungu literally means, "It's all the white man's fault" in a South African language (I believe !Xhosa) and was both a standard expression of dismissal, and also a rallying cry for some parts of the ANC. And even though it might sound terribly racist to say this now, South Africa is the one country where most things that were abhorrently wrong were the white man's fault.

Ok- next question. I can hear people saying, "So he's explained what that ridiculous title means, but of what relevance is it?" The fact is, dear reader (I do love writing those two words in - sounds so totally Jane Austen-ish) that South Africa is looming in my consciousness.

The reason that this intriguing South African country is quite so active in my imagination for the past two weeks is because I am actually moving down there for three months for work. I am due to fly out of London this coming Sunday, and not counting the odd week in London for meetings, will only be back towards the end of July. So that's three months of my life that I shall choose to spend in a different city, different country, different continent.

Many people ask me if I'm concerned, especially given the security concerns in the area. The point is, I've spent most of my life, thanks to my dad's job, being in high security mode, with high threat perceptions. So the idea of being careful isn't unusual; its probably more natural to me than the idea of being casual!

The second most important reason is that going to South Africa is like going back in my past. My closest friends will remember that I spent four years of my life (from 1991 to 1995) in Namibia, and used to travel regularly through South Africa to fly back to India. As such, Johannesburg isn't so much a stranger as a friend from a past long ago. I am actually keen to go back and see how things have changed.

For so long, South Africa had been the country of Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer - a country with institutionalised inequality, where racism was institutionalised through national law, where it was legal to separate families depending on the slope of one's shoulders or the curl of one's hair. A slighly Orwellian society where bigotry was rationalised and ensconced in deeply legalistic terminology and used to destroy individuals, families, entire communities.

And then 1994 happened - a year when, after decades of struggle, Apartheid finally came to an end. A year when, despite everyone's predictions, a peaceful transition of power took place. A year which saw the white flight - a year which saw limited violence. A year which saw the handover of power from a decayed, ageing hegemony to a new, vibrant and hopeful administration - an administration that had suffered with its supporters and had great visions for the country.

I last went to South Africa in 1995. Back then, everyone was optimistic and everything had a positive slant. Suffering was temporary, poverty was a state of mind, and hope was what everyone projected. I would like to think that the country had the same mindset as a newly independent India had back in 1948 - the only difference being that the New India's optimism was tinged with the poignancy of Partition.

So going back in 2006 will be interesting, both from a personal & from an interesting perspective. What will have changed, what will have developed? I don't know, but I'm keen to find out. And more importantly, I'm keen to go back to having South African wine and biltong...

Of course, there's tons to organise before that, so until next time, adieu..... or as they say in Afrikaans, tot siens!

Monday, April 24, 2006

There are No Penguins in Madagascar...

I could be accused of many things, but being a profilic blogger is definitely not one of them. I could also be accused of finding many excuses for this, but I guess the most straightforward one, and its not even an excuse, really, is that if I don't think I have a lot to say, I just won't say it. And anyway, its my blog, so who are you to complain if I don't update this so regularly...

Leaving all confrontations aside (apologies, but this is now an early Monday morning, and I'm due to be in work in a couple of hours, so my crankiness is hopefully forgivable) I should really go about explaining the title of this post. While it may appear to be something from a bad acid trip, it was actually the product of a rather unusual conversation I had a few weeks ago. As with most evening conversations (mine, anyway) this one was being conducted over some very nice red wine, and as a result, I think there could have been some lack of clear thinking on the part of one of the participants. The end result ended up being whether or not there were any penguins in the animated movie Madagascar, a sweet, but somewhat stilted, movie about a bunch of New York City zoo animals wanting to go live life on the wild side. Anyone who has seen the movie and is not drunk enough to confuse it with Ice Age (either one) will remember the mafiosi penguins in the movie, but anyway! I just remembered this slightly odd comment, delivered with great equanimity, and decided it would make a good title...

Anyway, the reading continues - I'm still reading three books at a time. I'm convinced that at some point its going to hit a deeply hidden switch and reveal the secrets of the universe, but no luck as of now...

While I won't write about all three, I'll talk about just one - I've got a copy of E.L.Doctorow's The March on my side table. Set around the march of Sherman's army through the US deep South during the US Civil War, the book is all about the horrors of war, as seen through the eyes of people, both ordinary and extraordinary. There are former plantation owners' wives, Union army doctors, former slaves, cavalry officers, English journalists, and also General Sherman himself.

I haven't finished the book yet, but I have to admit, Doctorow has disappointed me this time. Not because of his style of writing, but because of the content. His sentence structure, and even the plot, is fairly tight, and I'm guessing he's got a good editor. But somehow, if the book was to be about the horrors of war, and how human life continues in spite of it, I failed to see it.

Perhaps this has to do with the number of characters he's got in his story. Its very difficult to weave more than four narratives together, and you almost feel cheated because just as the story starts developing and getting interesting with one person, its like someone hit "Cut" & then "Paste" on some editing keyboard to put another story in place. End result - not much engagement with any character.

The other book I faced a similar problem with was The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh. In fact, I think he was being harassed by his editor for the last 100 pages, because suddenly, everyone starts dying. After spending something like 400 pages building up this huge panorama, he pulls out a dart board and starts knocking each one out of the picture. And its all reasonably sudden, in many cases only a page or two.

Perhaps modern authors have a Tolstoy hangup. I can see the egotistical issues of writing the next War & Peace, but the key difference is that most Russian realists were writing huge books to pass those horrible Russian winters, when there wasn't really much else to do; ditto for the readers of the time, who were probably quite happy to pick up Turgenev's latest best seller in four encyclopaedic volumes...

Anyway...I promised to tell you about the doctor. I'm going to South Africa in a couple of weeks for work, and needed to go get all my jabs and medications sorted out. While the clinic was a nice private one (no hideous NHS facilities, thank you!) the doctor didn't seem too inclined to examine me. His exact comments included "Why you're here for this, I'm not sure. You're only 25, and most of these are for fat, middle aged business men", and "We'll do a blood test, but don't be disappointed if it doesn't show up anything exciting"

However, as an expert of tropical & infectious disease, he was quite excited to learn that I was off to Africa. I had the distinct impression that he'd have been a lot happier some 85 or 100 years ago, treating intrepid English travellers & colonisers, who were off doing the work of God in the heathen lands (Note - this last sentence is purely sarcastic. Besides, as someone who formally qualifies as heathen myself, I can take as many pot shots as I like at the practice)

Having finally bored of his litany of what all to do or not, I confronted him and asked him what exactly his bread & butter was in London, since its hardly a tropical climate. Smooth rejoinder, "I get a lot of HIV patients", to be followed by dire warnings of ignoring fevers that could be malaria "I know of businessmen who went to bed thinking that they had a cold, and they never woke up...)

That's beginning to sound like a long post already...and since I should really get up and get ready for work (this post is an early morning one since I couldn't sleep) I will end this here.

Until next time, dear reader...