Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Creativity and Connectivity
(A review of ‘Clueless in California’ by B.S.Prakash. Konark Publishers

Foreign Service officers, by definition, are people with a flair for words, whether in print or in speech. They also have the opportunity to have a variety of extraordinary experiences worthy of sharing. No wonder, therefore, many of them turn writers of imagination and talent. But their writings are mostly consigned to the archives of the Ministry of External Affairs, sometimes even unread. Many a gem of unimaginable worth must lie buried in the dusty cupboards of South Block, Akbar Bhavan, Shastri Bhavan and even Patiala House. Some, of course, find the freedom of retirement conducive to creative writing for a wider audience. Of late, several people find time and leisure to write fiction or essays on non-political matters, which do not attract the provisions of the official secrets act. One of them, Vikas Swarup, has not only produced a sensational novel, but also reached, with its movie adaptation, the red carpet at the Oscars. With the standards set so high, it is difficult for others to measure up to expectations.
B.S.Prakash, presently ambassador in Brazil, was the right man in the right place at the right time in California as the Indian Consul General, with a parish bigger and more important than those of many ambassadors. Even while doing a splendid job there as the representative of a resurgent India, Prakash was dazzled by the technology and the lifestyle of the new breed of multitasking youngsters, including those from South Asia. They spoke a different language, worked differently and even dreamt differently. The American setting and the entrepreneurial atmosphere added more mystery to them. His curiosity was aroused more than the call of duty required him to do and he began to delve into the phenomenon and, what is more, began recording his observations in highly readable essays for Rediff.com, India’s premiere web portal. ‘Clueless in California-America in Bits and Bytes’ is a collection of those essays, brought out imaginatively by Konark Publishers, Delhi. The book is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the body of literature on the dot com world in Silicon Valley and beyond. It also tells the saga of thousands of Indian immigrants, who chased their dreams to California and either made their millions or eked out a living by driving taxis. Prakash treats them all with objectivity, sympathy and good humour.
The fascinating tale of an enigmatic American, imploring the author to be wary of a chip being put under the skin to make him an agent of the devil, right in the beginning of the book sets the tone. It is a world full of people and ideas, bewildering in its variety and reach. The strange shopping habits of the Americans are equally fascinating. Even millionaires carefully clip shopping coupons from newspapers and use them to get discounts in cents. The art of availing of sale in stylish shops is something to master. Things are purchased to save money, not to spend it, but you may never see them again till you have your own garage sale, when one man’s trash becomes another man’s treasure. Even the author is tempted to stop writing to rush to buy a digital camera at half the price.
The gun culture in America puzzles Prakash, but he is assured that guns do not kill people, only people do. The similarities and differences between cricket and base ball lead to the conclusion that each is crazy as the other and equally addictive to players and spectators alike. The burger culture convinces him of George Santayana’s theory that the special character of the American is to “apply mind to matter”. In America, mind is being applied continuously, rigorously and systematically to produce solutions to every problem. The book has its own fairy tales like an arranged marriage taking place after a chance meeting on a plane leading to romance and wedding of total strangers. Well, authors of essays should be permitted some flights of fancy. But Prakash swears that such things do happen in Silicon Valley.
California was, after all, the birthplace of the United Nations and Californians are as interested as the Ghanaians about the future of the UN. But they have long considered the UN as a useless body, which has not stopped any war, not even the Bush war on Iraq. Passports and visas are perennial subjects of conversation among the Indian immigrants till they finally get their green cards, or, even better, US nationality.
The heart of the book, of course, is the life and culture of the computer geeks and dot com millionaires and the way India has finally captured the imagination of the Americans. Prakash quotes Tom Friedman, recalling his mother telling him to think of the hungry millions of India before wasting food. Today’s mothers are telling American children to finish their maths homework for fear that the bright kids of India would come and make them starve. The whole transformation is beautifully described. By listening “silently and respectfully to the paeans sung for technology”, he has discovered “the speed, the ease, the efficacy, the joys of the toys, the quantum transformation, in short, how the ungadgetted world is indeed not worth living.”
Away from the tumultuous world of California, Prakash must be either enjoying the relative calm in Brasilia or having severe withdrawal symptoms. But write, he must, not just for the archives but also for his admirers he has won through his first book. The creativity must continue despite less connectivity. “Clueless in California could not be more clued up”, declares the new IFS icon, Vikas Swarup, enthusiastically.

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