Archive for April, 2014

Why Nemesis?

Personally, I had no idea what the word “nemesis” meant, before I started reading the novel Nemesis by Philip Roth.

Google gives us the following definitions:

– the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall.
– a long-standing rival; an arch-enemy.
– a downfall caused by an inescapable agent.
– retributive justice.
Digging a little deeper, one can find that the term “Nemesis” is directly tied to mythology.
 In Greek mythology, Nemesis (Greek, Νέμεσις), also called Rhamnousia/Rhamnusia (“the goddess of Rhamnous“) at her sanctuary at Rhamnous, north of Marathon, was the spirit of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris(arrogance before the deities). Another name was Adrasteia, meaning “the inescapable.” The Greeks personified vengeful fate as a remorseless goddess: the goddess of revenge. (Wikipedia)

All in all, if Nemesis is the goddess of revenge or a spirit of retribution, does P. Roth try to initially portray the events of Newark as a a direct consequence of the actions of people living there? By naming his book Nemesis, did the author mean to portray its characters as victims of the polio outbreak or people who met their retribution?


Judging the Infirm

Philip Roth’s Nemesis tells the story of 1944 polio outbreak in Newark, where Mr. Bucky Cantor works as a playground director after being unable to join the army due to his impaired vision. The death of Alan, a 12 year old, triggers mass hysteria as villagers undertake a frantic search for the causes of polio. As the cause of the disease remains unknown, extreme measures such as “exterminating alley cats” are taken but fail to stop the spread of the illness given that they are unrelated to polio. Parents and villagers insist on “disinfect[ing] everything” and forbid play and enjoyment to an extent that seems to prevent life from happening altogether.

In this context, blame and responsibility become central themes in the novel.  First, we must consider the use of scapegoats (Italians in the beginning, Jews towards the end) and its implications given the historical context of the novel. Moreover, morality is used to cast a judgement over those infected.  For instance, many villages consider Alan had an exquisite character, hinting at the fact that there might be some divine justice in the disease. On the other hand, we must think of the character of Bucky and whether his attitudes towards his own responsibility in spreading the disease render him likable or not.  Although once an active participant of communal life, Bucky becomes increasingly isolated as he is haunted by guilt to the extent that he leaves Marcia and becomes a hermit.  All these, motivated by his desire of living with integrity:

“[H]is last opportunity to be a man of integrity was by sparing the virtuous young woman he dearly loved from unthinkingly taking a cripple as her mate for life” (Pg. 262)

Bucky is haunted by the frustration of not serving in the army and by the idea that he might have been one of the sources of the contagion, all this embedded in a quest to validate his manliness.  This, considered in the moral and historical context of the play prompts to ask: is America a place for the infirm?

The Yes Men – Dow Chemicals Give Additonal Compensation to Bhopal Victims SCAM

This video is about a duo of activists, who describe their mission as ‘Identity Correction:’ Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them, and otherwise giving journalists excuses to cover important issues. Among other things, they impersonated Dow Chemical (the owner of Union Carbide, which ran the factory in Bhopal) spokespeople on BBC. You can see how it turned out at this link.

The World Without Us

Animal’s People sets up thinking about post-apocalyptic scenarios.  Surfing the internet, I came across Alan Weisman’s book The World Without Us in which he comments how cities and infrastructure would collapse days after humans disappear from the face of the Earth.

A few more clicks led my to these pieces by Nick Pedersen, in which he proposes an alternative view of how a post-apocalyptic world would look like.  How do these representations fit our ideas of an post-apocalyptic landscape?


The Martyrdom of Animal’s People

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People (re)presents an interplay of a variety of religions in the fictional city of Khaufpur. Tape Fourteen (pages 205-222) coincides with the ritualistic mourning of Musharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, and on the tenth day, the Day of Ashurra, the night of the fire walk happens.

Historically, it refers to “Zibh-e-Azeem,” the Great Sacrifice. The tragedy of the oft-mentioned Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was a brutal massacre on the plain of Karbala (about 60 miles soth/southwest of modern day Baghdad) in the year 680 C.E., year 61 of the Muslim calendar. It was a direct result of a struggle between the Sunni and Shia Muslims for the claim to power. After the Prophet’s death, two factions emerged from the schism that occurred regarding a dispute over succession to Muhammad as the leader of the Islamic community – the Sunnites advocated the customary tribal tradition of election while the Shiites believed the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali had a divine right of succession as the first Imam. After a series of assassinations, Hussein became the head of the Shiites and had to flee Medina for Mecca because he refused to swear allegiance to Yazid, the Sunnite caliph in Damascus. His army caught up with Hussein’s company in Kufa in southern Iraq, where they were given an ultimatum to pledge loyalty to Yazid or face water deprivation amid the scorching desert. Nine days later, on Ashura, a brutal massacre took place: the men were all killed (except for Hussein’s ill son) and their heads taken as trophies to Damascus, while the women were taken hostage.

Shiites consider the battle as the ultimate example of sacrifice and dramatically reenact it every year during Musharram in a ritual performance called ta’ziyeh (the word ta’ziyeh literally means “to mourn” or “to console”). Ta’ziyeh belongs to a genre of passion play, most often associated with Christian theatrical tradition, and is the only serious drama in the Islamic world. It is performed in theatres-in-the-round where spectators are surrounded by and even participants in the plot; main drama is staged on the central platform and subplots and battles take place in a surrounding sand-covered ring. The stage and props are stark, echoing the barenness of the desert plain at Karbala. An interesting and important distinction between protagonists and antagonists is that the former sing their parts in a classical manner while the latter recite or shriek theirs. There is also a strong musical presence (the accompaniment of drums and trumpets in intervals sets a mood or advances the action) and the most complete ta’ziyeh performances even involve horseback riding. You can see a few short excerpts below.

Although originally performed by Shiite Muslims in Iran, it has spread to other Arab countries and even places in France and Italy. There, the specific religious themes resonate more with the Christian sensibility and ideas of rebellion against tyranny. A cathartic experience is one of the common denominators everywhere. How does Hussein’s martyrdom function within the contexts of Animal’s People? What effects are produced when the narrative becomes interwoven with marsiyas, elegiac poems? What do religious motifs contribute to the discussion of the novel and its characters?

Source: Peter Chelkowski’s Time Out of Memory: Ta’ziyeh, the Total Drama. You can also read one of the versions of the play, The Ta’ziyeh of the Martyrdom of Hussein.

The Gulabi Gang

“There’s a whole Yar-yilaqi quarter of Khaufpur, the women in that district wear high heels under their burqas and lipstick under their veils, but if you upset one of them with some Eve-teasing type of remark she’s liable to out with a knife and stick you, this too Farouq told me, in which case it’s a shameful miracle that he has lived so long.” (Sinha, 88)

Let’s take a closer look at the role of women in this book. These veiled women with the ability to stick Eve-teaser with a knife actually exist in India. They go by the name ‘The Gulabi Gang’ (The Pink Gang). Founded by Sampat Pal Devi, The Gubali Gang is a group of Indian women vigilantes and activists who pay visits to abusive men around India and threaten to beat them with laathis (rods/sticks) if they continue to abuse their wives. They also question corrupt policemen and officials, forcing them to return bribes that they have received to cover up the truth about what has happened to burn and rape victims. The Indian media portrays these women extremely positively, causing the gang to gain immense popularity worldwide. In 2012, a well-received documentary was created on the group which also became the inspiration of a Bollywood movie that was released earlier this year.

With prominent characters such as Nisha and Elli taking control of unjust situations in the novel, we have to consider the role they play in questioning the law and uncovering truths about crimes committed against the people of Khaufpur. We’ve seen that on the other hand, the men in this novel (specifically officials, judges and the Kampani owners) run away from justice rather than delivering it.

“The ever-swelling crowd is full of energy, it wants to do something, but no one can agree what. The women, possessed by nothing’s power, begin their chants, “We are flames not flowers. With our brooms, we will beat the Kampani, we will sweet them out from Khaufpur. Out of India we will sweep them. Out of all existence.” (Singa, 311).

Since the introduction of Ma Franci and her love, Nisha and her charity, Elli and her attention to strangers’ health, the women in this book are portrayed as being strong individuals with honest, respectable and moral goals. Why was there a brief mention of the mysterious veiled women? Is the author intentionally depicting the women of this book to be wise and good while portraying the men as ‘bad’ and unjust? What role do they play in delivering justice and uncovering the truth about what happened ‘that night’?

Morrissey narrates.

Considering how much Bryan mentions The Smiths in class, I figure they might as well be another source to consider in our class. And I didn’t feel like people appreciated my comparison between Morrissey and Animal enough today in class… (created by yours truly)


hehe, okay, sorry for all the references — by uploading these quotes, I would like all of us to think about Animal’s character, not just as a question of his struggles but in the context of his personality. For me, personally, I think the fact that I find him sympathetic means something, more about me than really about him. And I think this novel has a way of making you choose a side and then making you think about your place as a reader. When you read the tapes, you think about whether it is genuine, whether it is believable. When you read the conflicts of misunderstanding between Elli and Somraj, you think and consider each side’s points and weigh them. You are implicated in the story, and you are not allowed to be passive. When Animal says these Morrissey-like quotes, I see him as an honest-to-self expression of alienation and human struggle, not just isolated in the incident of the Bhopal disaster, but as a participant in a universal dialogue that we find in 1980s England (The Smiths), 1880s Switzerland (Friedrich Nietzsche), 1950s US (Catcher in the Rye), and other times and places that have not the fortune of such widespread attention (or simply my knowledge) but carry likewise in themselves the same sentiment.

EDIT/NOTE: Afterwards, I thought about this comparison between Animal and Morrissey/Holden Caulfield/etc and I don’t want to ignore one big fact. Animal has suffered from a man-made disaster, is disabled, and lives in poverty. His hope for the rest of his life was mostly stripped from him since the incident. I think there is merit in comparing the sentiments, but I don’t want to put them on the same level too simply.


Abused By Progress

Image from

After our reading of Dream of Ding Village, it would seem only appropriate to change the “Tibet” and “Darfur” tags in the picture for “Ding Village” or “Henan Province”.  As we’ve discussed in class, the novel alludes to the ethics of China’s rapid economic growth, posing questions about the urban-rural divide, the competence of state officials and the greed of local (and national) elites.  However, we have also come to realize that Dream of Ding Village is also trying to spark a larger conversation about the consequences the commodification of life as a consequence of the new economic forces at play in the post-Cold War era.

In light of this new conversation, I thought it was relevant to post a set of questions that might inform our reading of the novel as well as enhance future discussions.

The first one speaks to the theme of community.  David Graeber is an American anthropologist who has written extensively about direct-action and the myths surrounding capitalism.  In one of his books, Debt, he explores (among many other things) the different moral rationales behind economic activity and proposes that all societies are communist at the core because communism relies on the assumption that, in eternity, accounts will even out and therefore it is only natural that we help those in need when we are able.  This contradicts the logic of humans being self-interested and profit-seeking individuals.  However, we have constantly seen how, in many contagion narratives, communities fall apart at the face of death.  It would be interesting to think about how human beings are portrayed under pressure, do the assumptions of classical economics hold true? or does Graeber’s analysis makes more sense?

Another issue worth considering is the link existing between life, bodies and money.  Dream of Ding Village maps this interaction through the idea of the Ding Dynasty, the village’s blood-boom and the different manifestations of consumerism.  In a broader sense, it is forcing us to think about the tension between reproduction and accumulation.  From one end, there is the idea of sharing one’s resources with the community be it through feasts, employment or gifts.  On the other hand, there is the notion that one must save and try to lift oneself out of poverty.  How does one reconcile this in a world where one’s culture may favor caring for other but the economic rationale prompts us to think only of ourselves? 

“A Minority of One”

Animal’s People offers insight into the lives of people who experienced the trauma and the aftermath of the gas leak that plagued the Indian city of Bhopal.

Victims from the Bhopal Disaster

The story is narrated by a nineteen-year-old boy who survived “that night,” and is written as a series of transcripts of oral recordings. The novel is about the fight between the American owners of the Kampani and the innocent people who are still facing the after-effects of the disaster. The main characters of the novel are involved in the struggle to get the Kampani to take responsibility for the disaster at the factory in terms of paying for ongoing medical problems, cleaning up and detoxifying the land and water into which poisonous chemicals continue to exist.

The factory where the Bhopal Disaster occured

The catastrophe left the narrator half-crippled, his back twisted out of shape so that he has to walk on all fours. Hence, it is not surprising that he was named by peers as Animal and was mistreated by the society for his appearance. “People see the outside, but it’s inside where the real things happen, no one looks in there, maybe they don’t dare. I really think this is why people have faces, to hide their souls” (11), says Animal to justify their offensive behavior towards him.

The theme of societal pressure and its effect on the characters permeates throughout both Ibsen’s play Ghosts and the novel Animal’s People. In Ghosts the societal pressure or the need to maintain a good reputation haunted the Alving household, with Mrs. Alving financing an orphanage to maintain the falsified but well respected reputation of Captain Alving. This pressure manifests itself as the “ghost” in the novel and causes characters to feel trapped. However, in order to free themselves, the characters must break away and not conform to the norms, becoming outcasts.

Mrs. Alving suffers complete desolation at the end of the play, and the same thing is happening in the novel. Characters such as Animal are trapped by societal pressure, along with a personal desire to be what he used to be, as evident by his desire to walk on two legs and be like normal human. However, due to his appearance, which cannot be hidden, Animal was not the norm of society, making him an outcast. Though he is not the only person who was affected by the poison, he sure does get the spotlight for being the strangest of casualties. The other kids called him an animal, and it takes him a while to finally accept this title. He starts off attacking people much like an animal, biting others, and he ends up introducing himself as Animal. A contrasting case in the novel is Ma Franci. Ma Franci suffered very much from the poison herself. Once fluent in Hindi, she came out of the incident only being able to speak and understand French. When talking with Animal, she asks, “ Animal, if you can learn to speak properly, why do these fools talk rubbish all the time? “  She finally asks, “Why won’t they treat me like a human being?” (40). Language and communication have essentially rendered Ma Franci an animal too.  Out of concern, Nisha questions how Ma Franci could possibly have lived in India for so long and not know any Hindi. Against her will, Ma Franci becomes even more displaced in a foreign land because she cannot understand its people. Even as a nun, a socially accepted position, Ma Franci manages to be an outcast. To her, there is absolutely no way she can accept that, because she honestly believes that she is completely fine. The problem lies with the blabbering society she has chosen to stay with and help. Animal has the upper hand when it comes to dealing with the people around him, because he knows exactly how they view him in such a way and why.

But what’s amazing about a person becoming an animal is the fact that the very cause of their societal exile is in fact a common one, shared widely. Tons of people suffered from that poison, but people like Ma Franci and Animal are either driven crazy by this or forced to accept being casting out. So, how much of a leveler was this poison, this widespread catastrophe?