Thursday, January 28, 2010

Digital Books Versus Conventional Books

After the advent of e-book and technologies like the Kindle, pundits have started doubting the future of conventional books.

The Jaipur Literary Festival hosted a discussion on whether books will survive the digital age. There were many luminaries from the world of literature and film writing.

The discussion was a cordial one which involved exchanging of views and not contesting them. The panel was mainly divided on two lines, adoptation and spurning of technology in general. The consensus was in favor of technology.
But some differed.

Gulzar, the Bollywood lyricist, said he has a nostalgic bonding with books and authors and that the digital format is too artificial for him. He said his thoughts flow only when he writes on a piece of paper, not the computer screen.

I have heard many old timers say this, but have often found them extreme in their dislike for technology regardless of form. I think moving from paper to screen is a matter of mental adjustment. Technology makes life very easy once you know how to use something and if anything it helps you present a more polished creative output.

Refuting Gulzar, another panelist said, use of technology doesn’t hinder creativity. What you create is important and not what you create with, he added.

But, like any old timer, when it comes to reading, I am more for books than the Kindle kinds.

However, I drew up a list of benefits e-reading offers:

• Books are a costly affair and a person of modest means sometimes doesn’t have any option but to buy a pirated copy if he/she wants to read a good book: spawning notorious piracy. E-books are cheaper and sometimes available for free and so can take books to greater number of people.

• If you are an inveterate book buyer, books tend to pile up taking up lot of space; the pile keeps growing until the books spill out of the shelf, then another shelf, then another shelf. Not so with e-books.

• Although lot of page markers are littered on your table, the page marker you page-marked your book with the last time you put it down somehow makes its way out of your book with you having to painstakingly find your way back again. With digital books, you page-mark electronically and unless you have really goofed up somewhere which is very unlikely, nothing goes wrong.

For all my e-evangelizing, I have never read an e-book (although I read online papers and magazines) and don’t think, as the host of the literary discussion had once tweeted, will ever like to give up the tactile pleasure of turning pages for the e-format.

But technology has a way of overcoming mental blocks and making itself acceptable and then indispensible. Think about e-mails.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Jyoti Basu's Death, End of an Era

Jyoti Basu’s demise has brought politicians of all hues together in agreement that India has lost a great leader with Basu walking into sunset. To cynics the reaction would have come as a customary PR exercise politicians do upon the death of a leader, but people familiar with Bengal politics would know better.

With Mamta Banerjee inching closer to Chief Ministership, I don’t know how long the Communist government will be able to continue its stint in power unbroken since 1977, but Basu will always be remembered as being among the founders of Communist rule in Bengal and also parts of India.

Though the Communist party came to power in Bengal with Jyoti Basu as Chief Minister after the Emergency got over, the Communist movement had found its footing in the state long before the Emergency was imposed. The Communist party - which had boycotted elections before the Emergency to protest rigging of elections by the Congress and majority of whose leaders including Basu were underground during the Emergency - came to power with a thumping victory after the Emergency was withdrawn in 1977.

When I was a kid growing up in Calcutta, we used to blame Basu for everything: frequent powercuts, potholed roads, a rigid educational system, etc. I think it was so because Basu had become the face of Bengal - good or bad - and there was no political alternative. Mamta Banerji changed the situation later.

During the mid 90s, when Basu’s 23-year-long Chief Ministership was coming to an end (he stepped down in 2000), I got interested in current affairs and started forming an informed world view. And my views about Basu and his Bengal started to change.

I understood Basu’s Bengal had among the highest literacy rates in India; that it didn’t have any communal tensions and political outfits feeding on regional chauvinism like MNS (Ramachandra Guha has recently praised how during 1984 riots Basu ensured that the Sikhs in Bengal weren’t persecuted); and that development is not only about glamorous IT industry (although IT is very important and Calcutta has some big names now), it's also about inclusive growth.

I also came to know Basu wasn’t the stubborn ideologue I knew him to be. He went to the US (Left's ideological foe) to attract investments for the state, braving alienation within the party. Last year, when the Left was threatening the UPA about withdrawal of support if the latter went ahead with the nuclear deal with the US, Basu had said a withdrawal of support would only unite the opposition. The Left was trounced in the elections that followed.

Later in his life, after his Chief Ministership was long over, he understood tradeunionism, which was a creation of the Left, had kept industrial development away from Bengal - and admitted that. But it was too late by then.

When Basu got admitted in hospital few weeks back, the papers reminded me that Basu would have become India's Prime Minister in 1996 had his party not pulled out from government formation. Later, Basu had called the party’s decision a historical blunder.

I hope my analysis of Jyoti Basu was not an emotional one. Even if it was, you can’t blame me: Basu was a politician I grew up knowing, like any other guy who grew up in Bengal.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Is Your Neighborhood as Unique as Mine?

During my last five years of stay away from home, I have changed neighborhoods many times and realized that every neighborhood has its unique characteristics and although they feel disturbingly novel initially, as time goes on, the unique traits become part of your small world, giving a flavor of earthy familiarity – that you fondly miss when you have made a new locality your home.

I moved into my current residence one and half years ago. As time went on, the unique features of the place started emerging. The neighborhood is host to commercial and residential establishments. You have modern apartments and even villas coexisting with shops of varied sizes and interests. You can also find people of all stations – the rich, the poor and the ones between them.

The locality is home to a thick population of street dogs. They have divided the area into spheres of influence and each time a canine strays into a foreign territory, quarrels break out with ear-splitting howls. They bare their teeth menacingly and leap onto the transgressors digging their nails into the fleece. But, as a well-fed domesticated dog strays out on the road with its manicured fleece bouncing up and down, the street canines keeping their territorial conflicts aside gang up and bark from a distance. There are many ways in which dogs are similar to humans.

There is more to my neighborhood – a homeless man you can spot every now and then. He earns his leaving cleaning shops and also doubles up as rag picker. His real duality lies else where, though. While sweeping the porch of the shop opposite my building, he suddenly stands straight, lifts the broom and starts hitting the air angrily, shouting profanities vigorously. Then with his other hand positioned at waist height, he indicates an imaginary kid and his face breaks into a mock piteous bawl.

Repeating these actions, he goes across the road. A little further up, he stops, turns about, walks to the porch and resumes sweeping. As if the intervening moments didn’t exist. The other workers of the shop, tired as they are seeing this everyday, see in boredom and return to their work.

Completely oblivious to the goings on in the area, there is a miniscule flock of bovines seen grazing the weeds and small patches of green here and there. The absolute laidbackness with which they go about their lives makes me envious.

In a few months, I might leave Bangalore to return to Calcutta for good. I will miss my neighborhood.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Avatar - the 3D Way

After watching Aamir, a suspense thriller on terrorism, last year I had taken a hiatus from movie watching, not a deliberate one but because no movie really stirred my interest since. I decided to break my film fast with Avatar, the new movie made in 3D technology.

Avatar deals with a problem the world is currently grappling with: a huge corporation trying to displace a tribe to get access to natural wealth. In India, how a handful of mining barons hand in glove with governments are exploiting areas rich in natural resources upsetting environmental balance and displacing and dispossessing the inhabitants of the places – is reported by the media everyday. So it is elsewhere. My friend tells me the Amazon basin, being a delta, is a repository of natural resources with natural wealth from multiple directions flowing into it, and so shares the same plight of encroachment and exploitation.

The story of Avatar goes like this. A large corporation sets its eyes on a slice of land which is brimming with natural bounty and splendor. The only hurdle is a group of tribes, humanoids, inhabiting the place for ages. The corporation has to force their cooperation or submission to find unobstructed access to the natural bounty.

A highly trained marine recruit is found to have identical DNA with the tribes and sent there in disguise to learn their ways, win their trust and then either persuade them to cooperate or coerce them into submission. He succeeds in his mission but oversteps the line: he emotionally identifies with the tribes and switches loyalty. Trouble follows.

It was my first 3D experience, and I was a little skeptical to start with. I had expected every action-oriented event, like trading of blows or firing of a bullet, would give me the tactile feeling of being at the receiving end of the action, and I, mistaking the virtual for the real, would move away from the trajectory of the action. But I didn’t.

Although the 3D technology makes you feel that the characters and props in a scene are touchable, it doesn’t induce a feeling of fear – that you might be hit or hurt. An object hurled at you travels in your direction for a while and before it becomes too close for comfort for you, it disappears. The idea is to make the 3D experience pleasant and not scary.

The members of the humanoids tribe are a cross between humans and monkeys with long stout tails behind them. When the marine recruit (the imposter) in his new avatar as a member of the tribe was appraising the place with his back facing the audience and the tail swishing gleefully – a person sitting behind me told the person next to him: “I expected the tail to come and hit us.” The other person replied: “For those sitting in the balcony of the theatre, the effect is only virtual; the hitting-hurting part is for the people sitting below – because they have paid less for their tickets!”
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