Thinking of Mumbai

To Abhishek, who occasionally reads this blog from Mumbai: Condolences and sympathies for this week’s events!

Abhishek, of course, is the podcaster who has had me on his show a few times, and who contributed this very witty video reportage to The Economist as part of my Special Report on Mobility. (Unfortunately, I can’t link to his video, but search for Abhishek on our video page. Sorry!)

Abhishek, in time, whenever you’re ready, I’m sure we’ll hear what your experience was during these past couple of days.

For now, here is an elegy to Mumbai, by Suketu Mehta.
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Ruined by success

Syd Barret

Syd Barret

Thanks to Abhishek for pointing out a life story that fits the theme of my book, which is that success and failure can be impostors, as Kipling would say. Abhishek emailed that

The other day, I downloaded a documentary on Syd Barret [the co-founder of the band Pink Floyd] from You tube. This is a classic story of Hannibal of the 1970’s. A 22 year old Barret was at his peak as the lead singer of Pink Floyd and then he lost it all to LSD. During concerts, he stood on the stage stoned and out of sorts strumming his guitar playing all the wrong notes. His colleagues would somehow cover it up, but one fine day they had to pick up their bags and leave him behind…

Now, this actually not a “story of Hannibal,” because Hannibal’s life trajectory had more twists and turns and was more perplexing. But I do have a chapter where I explore this–ie, Barret’s–sort of life trajectory, which we might call “premature success.”

Contemplating his premature success

Contemplating his success

Contemplating Barret, I think of people like Diego Maradona, who soar to fame, success or some other kind of triumph in their field, but apparently too early in life to be able to cope with it. Then they fall apart. Drugs, alcohol, or less obvious but equally insidious lapses of personal discipline. They become wrecks.

The book in my bibliography in this regard, which I recommend, is Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West.

Meriwether Lewis, you recall, is the first half of the Lewis & Clark expedition that explored the North American continent west of the Mississippi and to the Pacific after Thomas Jefferson bought those lands from Napoleon. Lewis is, in many ways, an American Hannibal: a young, dashing hero who did what many thought was impossible.

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis

But what came next? Whereas his friend William Clark, upon their return, married and lived happily, Lewis fell apart. He couldn’t handle the fame. No luck with women. Booze, later even morphine. He did not publish his famous Journals. Jefferson made him governor of the territory he had explored, but he failed in every respect, defaulting on his debts and drinking himself into oblivion. In his mere thirties, only a few years after his breathtaking success, he killed himself in a dingy Tennessee tavern (although the event remains a bit of a mystery).

Impostor triumph indeed. To me, this sort of tale is not the end of a story but the beginning of one. What happens to these people?

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Podcast about my book

Abhishek and I are talking for half an hour in this podcast about my book. The Indicast, if you don’t know it, is an up-and-coming podcast show in India.

We’re really having fun and getting side-tracked a bit, so it’s not until 16 minutes in that I actually summarize the book’s plot. The sound quality is a bit grainy, because I’m talking from California, and Abhishek from Mumbai.

Click play:

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Mixed metaphors

I’ve weighed in a number of times on various style crimes in the English language, starting with my rant on this grammar felony. Now Abhishek, India’s up-and-coming podcaster, tells me that he’d like more on style and language on this blog. Well, Abhishek, this one’s for you.

We’re in the middle of a financial meltdown, you may have noticed. Well, meltdown is a metaphor, from the nuclear industry. It’s fine to use metaphors from time to time. But let’s have a look at two articles published in the last hour by esteemed organizations, the New York Times and the Associated Press, about today’s market drop (another metaphor).

First, the two opening paragraphs of the NYT article:

Stocks fell by nearly 9 percent on Monday — the worst single-day drop in two decades — after the government’s bailout plan, touted by its supporters as a balm for the current market stress, failed to pass the House of Representatives, setting off a fresh wave of anxious selling.

In yet another day that has shaken the embattled canyons of Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials fell 777.68 points after it became clear that the legislation could not muster the support it needed to pass the House.

You notice I had some fun here by giving colors to each kind of metaphor. This was actually quite hard, because I ran out of colors of sufficient contrast. And that’s exactly my point.

In a passage of 85 words, I counted nine different kinds of metaphors, and I was being conservative. That things should be falling and dropping and otherwise succumbing to gravity when prices are going down seems obvious. That bailout nowadays refers more to Wall Street than to ships in distress I can accept. But….

… do we really need–simultaneously!–to imagine ointments (balm) for wounds, in this case stress, as well as waves, even though these do not go on to deluge anything, but rather shake things? In fact, it turns out that the things being shaken are canyons, which makes us wait for some quaking or perhaps erosion. Instead, we discover that the canyons are embattled (although it is not clear by whom). Just as I settle in for more siege and war images, I am asked to go back to falling, and then to take a side trip to mustering, with an image of congressmen standing at attention.

Ouch. My head is spinning. If the writer just wants me to know that this is all really bad, well, I get it. But do I need word torture as well?

Surely, this one slipped through the editors. The Associate Press, in its opening paragraph, probably does it better. Let’s see:

Wall Street’s worst fears came to pass Monday, when the government’s financial bailout plan failed in Congress and stocks plunged precipitouslyhurtling the Dow Jones industrials down nearly 780 points in their largest one-day point drop ever. Credit markets, whose turmoil helped feed the stock market’s angst, froze up further amid the growing belief that the country is headed into a spreading credit and economic crisis.

Oh well. So we have the bailout, then a whole lot of plunging and dropping with some hurtling (not the same thing) thrown in. Fine. But now we also get turmoil and then, instead of waves and canyons, feeding! Of angst, no less, which I recall means fear in German. This fear is apparently what caused a temperature drop because the markets froze. And this in September. While this was going on various things were either growing or spreading.

Pulitzers to all involved.

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