Monday, December 17, 2012

Bangalore Literature Festival and what makes lit fests work

India is going through very exciting literary times. New publishing houses have set up shops here. There are many more books being published today than a few years back. Literary festival is a part of this trend. Almost every big Indian city has its own literary festival now.

Bangalore also hosted its own literature festival last week and I was there on the last day of what was a three-day affair. It hosted three discussions on issues slightly broader than books (like Bangalore, scripting on India etc) and had two author interviews.

It was my first time at a literary festival and until I attended this one I wondered what makes these festivals work. Is it only books or is there more to them? The basic reason for their success is, of course, books, but there is much more to them. A festival, unlike a book launch, is not just about books but many things including books. They usually are held at palace-turned-hotels and therefore are sprawling affairs.

At Bangalore Lit Fest, the central activities (discussions, interviews etc) took place inside a tent and outside the tent, it was just like any other fair. You had stalls hawking various wares, from books through trinkets to food. Apart from standalone food stalls, you also had a festival-backed food court. You had celebrities from varied walks of life, some of them from the film world. (The Jaipur festival had roped in Opera Winfrey.) And above all, you had festivity and atmosphere. I am sure other literary festivals are not very different. For any family with cultural pretentions, they are a great day out.

But even with all this, would these festivals work in, say, the 80s as they are working now? It’s difficult to say. Book enthusiasts were always there, but there wasn’t so much enthusiasm about books in the past. In the last 10 years or so, that has changed. Although English books, in India, still are embarrassingly outsold by their Hindi and other regional language counterparts, now English books sell much more than in the past. (Now for an English book to be called a moderate success, it has to sell at least 20 thousand copies.)

When I visit bookstores, I find youngsters checking out books and some buying them. At BLF, the number of 20 somethings present and participating in the discussions by asking questions was another indicator of enthusiam around books and writing. This is partly because some recent time literary successes in India in the popular genre have made becoming writer look like an achievable goal.

The Internet has to thank for this in no small measure - because it has made it easier to be a practicing writer today (through ebooks and blogs) without having to be accepted by a publisher. Similarly, social media have also contributed to this. 

At BLF, the discussions and interviews were perfect windows to these changes: changing reading preferences; an enthusiastic army of aspiring writers inspired by recent successes; the unapologetic attitude of new-gen writers about their unliterary language.

In the course of a discussion, Scripting India (roughly on books on India), a girl from the audience stood up and asked if travel blogs should also be considered as part of literature on India. The question was asked to Mark Tuli who was part of the discussion panel and he said he doesn’t read travel blogs. The compare of the discussion, Pavan Verma, said that the English language is being regularly pauperized. One of the panelists retorted saying if that works and democratizes English reading, then there is nothing wrong with that.

This is, of course, not the whole picture of Indian literary scene. There are enough literary work being written and globally India is known for its literary work and writers. (And BLF had enough of them and they contributed to its success). But subaltern writers started an important narrative about a decade back and it has slowly made itself unavoidable claiming its space on at least the domestic stage. I am sure the first two days were far more exciting.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Life of Pi - a Movie That Disappoints and Delights

Generally newspaper reviews are my guide to which movie is watchable and which not. And I generally don’t find newspaper reviews misguiding. But this time I refused to agree with them. I watched Life of Pi on Saturday with high expectations and was left a little disappointed.

Pi Patel is growing up in Pondicherry where his father owns a zoo. When Pi is 16, his father decides to migrate to Canada with his family for better business prospects. The zoo animals will be sold there. On their voyage to Canada, their ship, a Japanese liner, finds itself in a storm and sinks leaving Pi’s parents dead and Pi floating on the Pacific on a lifeboat with four animals, a Royal Bengal tiger, hyena, an orangutan and a zebra. The hyena kills the orangutan and zebra and the Bengal tiger slays the hyena becoming the only animal on the boat sharing it with Pi. The story is being narrated, in flashback, years later, by a grown-up Pi to a writer.

The movie is around one-and-half-hours long and what I outlined occupies just 40 to 45 minutes of the movie.

The rest of the movie is about Pi and the tiger negotiating different challenges on the sea in what seems like ceaseless sea wandering. That’s my problem with the movie. Since the time the ship meets with a shipwreck till the time Pi and the tiger make it to an island, there is no story, only some adventures which make for excellent visual experience but fail to prevent you from feeling – great, but where is the story headed. Actually the problem is not with the story; the problem is with how it has been structured. I don’t know how the story pans out in the book and how much of it has been changed for the movie. But the movie doesn’t work beyond the shipwreck until they reach the island.

I think, instead of telling the story in a linear form, starting where it starts and ending where it ends, if the movie had started from the point where the Patel family boards the liner, and then moved the narrative back and forth in time showing their present with brief visits to their past to substantiate their present - then the empty space from the shipwreck to island wouldn’t have stared at you for 45 minutes. And because of the background narration by the grown-up Pi, the back-and-forth style would have worked just fine.

However, to dismiss the entire movie only for those 45 minutes would be cruel. The movie has many delightful moments created with the aid of technology. When Pi is in a caste-away mode floating aimlessly on the ocean, there are some breathtaking scenes – and they leap (thanks to 3D) at you to break the monotony. The scene that particularly stands out is when after a while on the sea, after facing a few hurdles and having overcome them, when Pi seemed set for a hassle-free journey, a huge whale loops up sending Pi’s coracle up in the air on its way up, tossing his stock of tinned food up and then down into the water. The screen blacks out only showing the whale while it's under water and then lights up as the giant leaps out of the surface.

For children, these scenes are breathtaking; they will surely delight adults, but they may want a little more than them out of the film.

The movie is worth a watch and a repeat only for the visual effects and nothing else.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

There are books that come and sink without a trace and there are books that figure in literary discussions even centuries after they were written. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson is one of them.

I had read a book on the day-to-day account of Christopher Columbus’s voyages to the Indies and had developed interest in stories about people from the Western world travelling to obscure lands in search of treasure. Treasure Island for me is part of the family of such adventure books written in 18th and 19th centuries.

However, Treasure Island is conventionally considered as a book for children, like Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Dafoe. As a kid I had read Robinson Crusoe as part of my school syllabus and remembered the story vaguely and used to confuse it with Treasure Island. Reading Treasure Island helped me separate the two.

Treasure Island is written in first person and the hero, Jim Hawking, narrates the story. Jim comes to know of a treasure trove tucked away in an unknown island. He together with others goes to the island in search of it. They meet with lot of challenges on their voyage, wading through rebellions, fights, switching of loyalties etc., they finally get to the treasure.

The characters have no grown-up complexities. Their simplicity, however, is their strength – it endears and immortalizes them to the reader. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Homes is one such character. A reviewer had written that had Arthur Conan Doyle been a better writer and sketched Sherlock Homes more skillfully, the detective would be forgotten by now.

The fact that Sherlock Homes is nothing but the sum up of some styles (how he lights up his pipe, how he delivers his repartees, how he dresses etc – not personality traits but style statements) has made him easily interpretable to successive generations and adaptable to movies. Similarly, if you read Treasure Island, characters like Long John the ship cook and Captain Flint will remain with you. They become lovable whether they are good or bad.

The book I read is a Penguin Classic and it contains an author’s note at the end where Stevenson shares his experience of writing Treasure Island. He admits he hadn’t bothered about fine writing and characterization as it was going to be a children’s book. Treasure Island was Stevenson’s first published book but certainly not his first attempt at writing a novel. He had tried writing novels before but had not been able to take anything to a satisfactory end.

The idea of Treasure Island had come to him from a map of an island he had made sitting in painter friend’s room. He started writing the chapters and the book started taking shape. Stevenson also confesses to having been inspired by several books that had been written before. From them he generously borrowed ideas, characters, changing their names and details to masquerade them. My Penguin edition produces a chapter from a book to which the character Captain Flint owes its origin.

Ever since I finished Treasure Island, I have been looking to read the book I had read as a kid and have almost forgotten - Robinson Crusoe.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

How Calcutta Durga puja has changed

This time I saw Durga puja in Calutta for the first time since I left Calcutta eight years back. Durga puja has remained the same in spirit but a lot else has changed. Earlier pandals (make shift structures hosting the idol) resembled hastily put together relief camps; now they look like grand arty affairs. In fact, most attention of puja organizers now seems to center around aesthetics of pandals and idols, which, unlike in the past, are built based on various themes. Some of the puja pandals I visited were built based on lotus, universe and so on.

Except a very few pujas, organizing pujas has become an extremely costly affair. Earlier, puja organizers used to visit families residing within the sphere of a puja (almost all areas have their own pujas) and collect donation, anything from Rs. 10, 100 to 1000 and above. Your donation amount depended on your social standing and affordability and if you were too stingy the collectors would put soft pressure on you to part with a decent amount but nothing abnormally high.

Collecting donations from households has become a thing of yore. Pujas have become so big that minor household dole outs can’t accommodate their costs. Now pujas subsist on advertisement revenues collected from corporations. It’s not that corporations weren’t part of Durga puja earlier. But now their presence has become much bigger and they are the biggest funders of most pujas. So you have big banners and buntings surrounding all puja pandals (much more than before).

All these have increased the number of people going pandal hopping, unlike in the past when people coming from main Calcutta mostly used to stick to their area pujas with very minimal venture outs.

Street food is a significant part of puja and it has got substantially corporatized. For every five vendors who come from the unorganized sector, there are at least two to three who represent brands.

I think corporatization has happened for good reasons – because, if anything, it has injected a longer life and vigor into Durga puja by ensuring a stable stream of fund for it, without essentially changing the character of how Durga puja is celebrated or displacing anyone from the economic ecosystem of the puja (organized brands and individual vendors exist side by side). And as for emphasis on aesthetics and grandeur, any person familiar with Durga puja will tell you that it was always more about revelry and celebration of a culture and less about religiosity.

I arrived in Calcutta on Sashti and read the Telegraph, but a little towards the afternoon on Saptami, the next day, I realized I hadn’t read any paper at all. I asked my mother and came to know of another change – that there would be no paper during the four days of the puja.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Moon and Sixpence - Somerset Maugham

Some have artistic talent. Fewer have artistic aspirations. Fewer take their aspirations seriously and pursue art alongside other professions. Fewer leave their professions to pursue art fulltime. And still fewer pursue art just for the sake of art, not for money or fame. Charles Strickland, a conventional stockbroker, left his family, in England, at 47, and went to Paris to become a painter. He never sold his paintings during his lifetime. After a few years in Paris, he went to Tahiti and after living for a few years there, he died. About seven years after his death, when his portraits were discovered by art agents and they yielded astronomical prices from art enthusiasts for their artistic brilliance, they woke up to Strickland’s genius and Strickland found fame.

The Moon and Sixpence was my second Somerset Maugham book and it shares a few things with the last Maugham book I read (Theatre, reviewed below). One is marriage is not a watertight compartment, but a porous relationship which often loses its integrity due to various factors preying on grey areas (discord or dissatisfaction either expressed or suppressed) that work under the surface of any relationship.

In Theatre, the advent of an accountant in the life a of married actress changes the complexion of the actress’s relationship with her husband. In The Moon and Sixpence, one day, Strickland’s wife finds a letter left behind by her husband telling her that there is nothing left between them anymore and that he is going to Paris, tossing her world upside down as until then theirs was a contented marriage and Strickland seemed unlikeliest of husbands to leave his wife. One losing its integrity  due to the advent of a foreigner, another due to presence of a unexpressed desire (to free oneself from the clutches of relationship which could restrict one from fully dedicating oneself to fulfill a desire).

The other attribute is, I think, part of Maugham’s style of framing his characters which also forms, according to me, his belief about human nature – that no man is monochromatic: we all have conflicting character traits; that we all have some redeeming qualities; that a tip is always a deceptive indicator of the size of the iceberg behind it. Also a part of Maugham’s style is making panoramic observations about human nature based on the actions of his characters and in such places as his plots warrant. The observations read well and form extremely quotable quotes. Maugham is a very quotable writer and his quotes mainly come from these sharp and insightful observations he makes.

Published in 1942, The Moon and Sixpence is loosely inspired from a great impressionist painter’s life, Paul Gauguin. The story is written in the first person with the author as narrator who traces Strickland’s life starting from a few years before Strickland left home and family to a few years after his death when Strickland had come to be known as a genius. But being just a social acquaintance of the painter, during these years the author had seen or known Strickland in bits and pieces making it difficult for his experience to throw up any concrete picture of the man, how he lived his life in Paris, what were the reasons behind his actions/behavior etc.

Maugham has had to bridge a lot of gaps in his knowledge of Strickland’s life to give the reader a concrete picture of the man whose behavior was often puzzling and differing with the author’s view of him. And his efforts notwithstanding, Maugham has admitted that he has not been able to present a coherent picture of Strickland’s personality. Maugham has summed up incidents and stitched together facts some known by him and some gathered from others whose paths crossed Strickland’s mainly when the painter stayed in Tahiti.

The Moon and Sixpence is about pursuit of art for art’s sake. During his lifetime, Strickland never sold his portraits. He saw women in his life as means of fulfilling his bodily needs avoiding the trappings of relationship so that he could completely devote himself to painting. Until his death, he achieved nothing of material value and lived the last years of his life in terrible penury (contracted leprosy) and in the last year of his life lost his eyesight. Each year he spent trying to be an artist materially pauperized him. Finally fame came to him seven years after his death.

While reading the book, I found Strickland’s dedication bizarre because of his indifference to success. Later I realized that what revolted against my belief is that for us dedication and success are part of the same package. One must lead to the other; the absence of one makes the other lose its vitality: without success dedication becomes pitiable and without dedication success seems unreliable. For Strickland, however, this relationship didn't exist; his dedication was a self-fulfilling component which didn't need to draw sustainance from success or hope of success.

The Moon and Sixpence doesn’t leave you long after you have left it, shut and put it down.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

A Black Dog Evening

Whiskey is one of the most interesting things in the world. Each whiskey is different from another with its distinct characteristics, color, smell and feel. I vaguely knew some of these facts but didn’t know the technicalities that go into chiseling these traits and making a whiskey different from another. I woke up to these facts on Saturday, at Habanero, a Mexican restaurant, where Black Dog held a scotch-tasting event.

Black Dog has three blends (12 years, 18 years and 21 years ) and each one has its own characteristics and maturity. And at Black Dog Easy Evening, Mohit Nishchol the compare (and a liquor consultant) took us through the entire ritual of tasting and explained each characteristic of the variants.

Each part of the tasting ritual (sipping a peg, rolling it in your mouth and then quietly swallowing it letting the drink slowly make its way down your innards) is meant to reveal a particular aspect of the liquor’s personality – colour, aroma, palate and finish. These characteristics come from two factors, the region where a whiskey has been processed and the number of years it has been stored in a barrel.

Each blend of Black Dog is a collective of whiskeys coming from different regions of Scotland with their distinct regional characteristics (aroma, taste, flavor) and barreled for a particular period of time, giving each blend a completely different flavor and taste.

Black Dog 12 Years Old is a blend of whiskeys from Speyside, Islay, Highlands and Lowlands of Scotland, each matured for a minimum of 12 years which contribute to its colour, taste and flavor. After I sipped it, Mohit asked me for my reaction and I was lost for words. I felt it had a network of flavors, some working in the foreground and some lurking behind. I said it was robust and had a woody taste.

Mohit agreed and mentioned a few more streams of flavor and taste that Black Dog 12 Years is supposed to have, like fruitiness and vanillic sweetness. I tried to feel the taste again by rolling my sip in mouth and it did reveal some of these tastes in whiffs and bits.

Mohit informed each blend acquires its taste from the ingredients used to make it (which, in the case of Black Dog, are again dependent on which regions of Scotland the whiskies come from) and the barrel in which it is kept for maturing. The inner wood of the barrel constantly interacts with the liquor aging together with the liquor and giving the liquor its color and flavour which undergo changes (in tone and intensity) as years roll on. It’s just like a human relationship.

When I tossed back a sip of Black Dog 18 Years, it seemed to have a soft lingering effect on my tongue. Black Dog 18 Years owes it to the fact that it has been matured in oak casks and vats and is an outcome of aged malt and grain whiskies blended together. But what I found most pleasant about Black Dog is when you finally gulp the whiskey, even without diluting it with water or anything else, it goes down smoothly and pleasantly without the feeling of a fire ball rolling down your throat. This, according to me, is the attribute of a good whiskey.

As Mohit was taking us through the testing rituals, a blogger asked in interesting question: “Have these blends changed overtime to suit changing tastes and market priorities.”

In 1883, Walter Millard, a Scot staying in India, travelled to Scotland searching for a good whiskey and discovered a blend created by James Mackinlay, of the second generation of the Leith Scotch Whisky blending family. Being a keen angler himself, Walter Millard named the whisky Black Dog in honour of his favourite salmon fishing fly used in the Spey and Tay rivers of Scotland.

Mohit informed it’s been about 120 years since, and to this day, Black Dog has retained its original blend.

A regal-looking-oval bottle with intense color arrived at our table – Black Dog 21 Years old scotch. Mohit asked us to take a generous mouthful and hold it over and under the tongue – to unlock its traits. I did, and after that, I churned the whiskey in my mouth and left it for fraction of a second…and found the aftertaste too aromatic for my liking.

Partly that’s expected because Black Dog 21 is most mature of all the blends and is specially made and crafted to be rich and rare in experience, which it, of course, is. And it perfectly lives up to the awe it causes when you set your sight on its bottle and the special ingredients used to bring it to what it is.

Some of us truly liked it, but, for me, the lighter ones worked better. I discovered whether you enjoy a whiskey or not, it depends on your reaction (which is guided by your innate taste and temperament) to the drink, which varies from person to person.

Chicken Wings
  As drinks share a complex relationship with the barrel in which they are matured, they also have an equation with the food you savor your drinks with. And Habanero had arranged for a variety of Mexican food items to go with our drinks. Except a few, I liked all of them. But the one accompaniment I enjoyed the most with my drinks was dark nutty chocolates: they didn’t interfere with the taste of the drinks and complemented instead of dominating them.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Biography of Twitter

It’s surprising how far Twitter has come in a short period of time. I still remember joining Tweeter about a year and half ago and being greeted by some friends who were already on it. Since then a lot has happened. I have got new followers, added new people to the list of people I follow, been witness to changes and developments at a national and global level, read new articles and posted blogs. Some six or so months back a prominent journalist had tweeted if we are developing a Twitter fatigue. Well, I have not and I continue to find Twitter exciting.

It was launched in 2005 and took about two years to become popular. And although, when it started becoming popular, many called it an alternative to Facebook, Twitter was neither modeled on FB nor had been meant to rival it. FB was originally launched as a photo sharing app which eventually became a platform where you could do several other things around networking apart from photo sharing.

Twitter, on the other hand, was launched a networking site where you could only post short (140 letters) messages. Given the succinct nature of messages, it never became another FB-like site and established an alternate pattern of networking, less chatty and more impersonal, promoting, in sum, the kind of messages you wouldn't share with a friend or a family member but a person you shared an interest with. This is why Twitter became a platform to engage with others on issues of public interest, politics, social issues, films, books etc.

There are enough rabble rousers on Twitter but very few people who have no opinion or at least are not on a networking site to express them or review them based on others', the type FB mills with.

But does Twitter have an impact? Last week, the India govt blocked the Twitter accounts of some journalists and social commentators because they had attacked the government. A couple of days later, however, their Twitter accounts were unblocked again. Nothing can establish Twitter’s power better than this flip flop by the govt. First, fearing that a few Tweets might cause a fire, you block an account; then realizing that blocking will lead to a backlash both on and offline helping the blocked person to become the face of opposition, you unblock his account again.

This kind of incident is not new to Twitter. While I have been on Twitter, the site has faced threats and demands from various governments and heads of states (China being one of them and very frequently so) demanding that Twitter content be sanitized, dissenters blocked, etc. Although Twitter resisted the demands to block sites or give sanitized content initially, eventually it gave into the coercion, promising to sanitize content based on regional preferences/threats.

You can’t blame Twitter for this because the networking site may be one without national boundaries but its servers are vulnerable to being blocked by national governments and their cyber security apparatus. There are ways to circumvent even that but lack of easy access to the site will still shoo away some users from the site.

Twitter is not the only networking site that has suffered this fate and no networking site can avoid this for too long. And, if you were not a starry-eyed idealist, you would realize that toning down content is more preferable to being blocked. However, this whole cycle of people expressing their dissenting views and governments asking networking sites to block them or remove dissenting content and the networking sites resisting the demands – is not a futile affair.

The bad press governments receive each time they try to curtail networking sites’ freedom will eventually make them hesitant about attacking networking sites and push their boundary of tolerance a little further . And each time a new fight between governments and dissenters breaks out, it will be fought from a point where the boundaries had been laid last time, making each clash a step towards a more tolerant world. That’s the role Twitter has played since its birth together with other networking sites.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Theatre by Somerset Maugham

Good actors are difficult to understand because they can fake their emotions so easily. And after recently finishing reading Theatre by Somerset Maugham, I have very few doubts about it. Julia Lambart is the best stage actress of England and has a somewhat happy family life with a husband and a son. But the family tranquil starts coming apart as she falls for a clerk, who works in her husband’s theatre company, and is two decades younger than her. The affair continues for some time, her lover finds access to the world of celebrities through Julia and Julia, now in her 50s, rediscovers her youth and starts visiting places (night clubs) where she had never been seen and, as is common with such affairs, tongues start wagging. (What is Julia Lambart doing with this young nothing?) Reputation matters for show business people and the rumour mills shake Julia a little and Julia tries to move away from her lover only to return to him again.

However, meanwhile, her young lover has met a beautiful upcoming actress and has fallen for her. He has also promised the newbie a role in Julia’s husband’s home production. Julia can easily deny her the opportunity but lest her lover thinks she is jealous of the upcoming actress having lost her lover to her Julia arranges for her to get a role.

It’s a dream come true for a struggling actress to find a role in a play which casts Julia Lambart; but, alas, for Julia’s romantic competitor, the play turns out to be a disaster as Julia, using her stage prowess, undermines her performance slaying her career without even anybody noticing Julia’s sinister thespian moves. Expect her husband, who being oblivious to Julia’s cuckolding, fails to understand why Julia would try to destroy the newbie’s performance, having helped her get the role in the first place. When he confronts Julia with his discovery, Julia, again by her sleight of hands, deceives her husband into believing that she destroyed the young actress’s performance to avenge the fact she had tried to seduce her husband. And the husband takes it as a compliment for his looks and believes it remaining oblivious to the real reason - that Julia had exacted revenge because the actress had seduced her young lover.

This was my first Somerset Maugham book and having read many writers write about Maugham reverentially, I partly knew what to expect and wasn’t disappointed. Maugham is a breezy story teller and holds you tight till the end and although he produced a commendable body of work, he never found enough literary acclaim. Maugham is read to this day but not bracketed with the likes of DH Lawrence and EM Foster who roughly came from the same period. Commenting on the puritanical attitude of literary snobs, Maugham had one said you can’t write just for the pleasure of telling a story. However, Maugham has inspired two three, generations of writers and it’s from some of their books that I first came to know about Maugham.


The characters are all human with their limitations and virtues, all trying to do the best they can within them, none is one-dimensional. Various situations bring out various sides of their personalities.

Julia Lambart is brilliant but she is self centered, an artist who attributes all her human shortcomings in some way or the other to her artistic abilities. She manipulates people around her and situations to her favour and generally has her way. Her husband is a good husband but is too believing of Julia. He is stingy but his theatre employees overlook that as he is also very courteous. He is unimaginative but that helps him to be disciplined and makes him a good manager. He is good looking and vain and can be easily won over if praised about looks. Julia’s son is growing up and developing his views on things around him and with a father busy trying to be the most attractive man in England and mother wrapped up in her acting career, he feels lonely and ignored. And so on…

The story is set in the pre Second World War period when cinema had still not overshadowed theatre and the celebrity of stage actors could be just as big as the screen ones. The novel’s central character Julia, for example, was the most famous of stage actresses of her time in England but she had limited success on screen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Chinese Cottage and Chinese in India

“The specialty of Chinese food lies in its blandness. If you put too much spice it kills the authenticity. Any Chinese restaurant you visit in Bangalore the food is spicier than Chinese food is supposed to be.”

I was sitting at a Chinese restaurant which promises to serve Chinese food Tangra style, a Chinese food hub in Calcutta which is host to many small to medium size Chinese restaurants owned by Chinese people most of whom originally owned tanneries until a few years ago (foot wear and other leather products made by Chinese people are very popular in Calcutta) which had to be closed down following a state government edict forcing the Chinese owners into different occupations, food being one of them.

However, there are other Chinese food hubs in Calcutta and, according to Anthony, the one on Poddar Court Lane is the best and the oldest. Poddar Court lane is where Anthony grew up in and in later years, after doing a hotel management and failing to find any satisfactory job in Calcutta, he moved to Bangalore. His initial years in Bangalore were tough. He worked in various small to medium size Chinese hotels with Indian owners. Being a Chinese food puritan, Anthony was unhappy with the general approach towards making Chinese food in Bangalore.

Opening his own hotel was nowhere in sight in early years as Anthony was mostly busy with his day to day existence. His marriage changed that. Anthony got married to his childhood sweetheart from Calcutta and a few months after marriage his wife joined him in Bangalore and started to work. After a few years, they felt together if they saved money from their income they would be able to open a restaurant of their own. About seven to eight years of hard work, saving and a bit of loan from friends and bank led to Chinese Cottage.

Antony said the focus of Chinese Cottage is authenticity. (He told this when I was chewing my way through Chinese Chopsuey. Chinese Chopsuey was not the correct dish to check the verity of Anthony’s claim as all Chinese restaurants make it bland and have its spicier versions separately on menu card. I am a conservative food enthusiast who tries out different joints but sticks to familiar dishes. ) Blaming the Bangalore Chinese taste orientation, Anthony said, “You have to eat chilly chicken to understand what I am saying. Chilly chicken is supposed to be so bland as to be perfect for a 16 year old kid. Here it’s opposite.”

Chinese Cottage (located opposite Koramangla Club) is quite sparse with very few people on its staff and Anthony is involved in everything in a hands-on way, expect cooking. He makes sure to explain an unfamiliar dish to you, so you make an informed choice.

What brought Anthony to Bangalore? “Calcutta has become inhospitable to its Chinese population. They are approached by local bullies for huge donations for Durga and other pujas. Not having access to any power base, Chinese people don’t have anybody to turn to. Despite being into its third or fourth generation, they are treated like foreigners. Some of them don’t have any legal documents to establish their citizenship. When they try for passport, papers establishing their ancestry are asked for which are very difficult to furnish now, almost a 100 years after their ancestors came to India.

Their ancestors had been taken captive by British forces during the First World War and sent to Rajasthan whence they came to Calcutta. But why Calcutta of all places which is anyway quite far from Rajasthan? Anthony said maybe their group leader went to Calcutta first and the rest followed. In later years, the descendants of the Chinese group which came to Calcutta went on to make Calcutta the city with the highest Chinese population in India. However, this population is gradually shrinking because over the years many have moved to the US, Singapore and some to China.

While Anthony was talking to me, a bespectacled kid was running up and down the restaurant, the restaurant being quite empty at this hour, early evening. Anthony said he was his son. He was born in Bangalore and has never been to Calcutta.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Bangalore and Booze

Caravan a literary magazine I read has carried an interesting cover story on how Bangalore became an alcohol city, The Liquid City: How Alcohol made Bangalore by Raghu Karnad. Long before Bangalore came to be known as the IT capital of India, it was known as a city of pubs.

Bangalore was chosen as a summer capital by Brits, Scots and Irish soldiers because its weather was similar to England’s . The soldiers set up their houses in north Bangalore and there rose a sharp social divide between the northern part of Bangalore (known as Cant, short form of cantonment) and the part of the city inhabited by natives. The divide was not just social but also one of drinking preference. The Cant residents drank whiskey and the poison of the natives was arrack. After some years, beer replaced whiskey as a more handy beverage for the white soldiers.

With the independence of the country the social divide between the whiskey drinking and arrack drinking population of Bangalore decreased and the two types of drinks found their own torch bearers and political patrons in political parties and governments. Karnata lost three chief ministers to the liquor lobby. In 1948, Vittal Mallya bought United Beverage and with time it grew while arrack grew under the ownership/leadership of KN Guruswami, who, to steer Bangalore clear of prohibition under Murarji Desai, launched two newspapers (Deccan Herald is one of them) to influence government policy against prohibition of liquor. KN Guruswami was also the first person to set up a pub to serve draught beer and a few years later, following the example of KN Guruswamy, Vijay Mallya set up a pub which became a huge success leading Mallya to open more. It was the 80s.

But, in later years, where Guruswami and his likes restricted themselves to manipulating the system to ensure their survival and advancement, Vijay Mallya understood the importance of branding and chose sports, among other platforms, to promote Kingfisher.

When I first saw the cover story on alcohol in Caravan, I thought whether a cover story on alcohol is a serious enough topic especially given that Caravan’s cover stories tend to be quite long and they deal with serious topics. After reading it, I know that my hunch was wrong. It was worth making and reading the story.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

In Custody by Anita Desai

Anita Desai, the author
A language provides a window to the history of a place. Take any language and trace its development across time and you will see in it the history of its people and its country of origin and adoption. The biography of Urdu is not an exception. Urdu was born out of a practical need. Soldiers serving the Mughal army came from varied religious and linguistic backgrounds and when they stayed together in army camps awaiting the start of military campaign they didn’t have a common language to speak. The Muslims among them couldn’t speak Hindustani and the Hindus weren’t familiar with Farsi and so on; in such circumstances Urdu was born, a mix of all languages spoken by various communities serving the Mughal army.

Somewhat similarly was also born Biriyani, out of a need to have a food which contained meat and rice together so that cooked rice and meat wouldn't have to be separately carried to army camps as soldiers’ food. Alas, unlike Biriyani, Urdu didn’t survive the test of time. It became popular in its day but after the fall of the Mughal empire and the coming of the British, Urdu’s decline started. It further hurtled down the road of decline and eventual obscurity with the independence of India, and the growing prominence of English and Hindi and that followed.

However, Urdu is a language of poetry and there are fans of Urdu even today. Written by Anita Desai, In Custody’s Deven is one of them. Deven is a Hindi lecturer in a college in a small town and loves Urdu poetry. His friend, an editor of an Urdu literary magazine, commissions Deven to interview Nur, a famous Urdu poet, who is now old and decrepit, for his magazine. Nur is Deven’s childhood literary hero and Deven happily takes up the project and goes to Chadni Chowk, in Delhi, to interview the poet.

Far from finding the poet in an environment fit for poetry and reflection, Deven finds Nur in an unwholesome condition, staying in a dilapidated house in Chandni Chowk, heavily drinking and gorging on greasy Biriyani from the bazaar and surrounded by spongers and hanger-ons. In the raucous created by Nur’s visitors in the terrace where Deven meets Nur, Deven’s repeated attempts to interview the poet fail.

Finally, Deven persuades his college to pay for a tape recorder to interview the poet and arranges to smuggle Nur out of his house away from his envious relations into a somewhat quieter place , a brothel, where he can record Nur’s autobiographical account in Nur’s own voice and leave it for the posterity. Alas, many goof ups later, the endeavour fails again.

In Custody opens with a great promise but that promise somewhat fizzles out as the story settles into what I would say a limited plot. I had expected a detailed account of the birth, rise and fall of the Urdu language  through Nur but no such thing takes place (except some lamenting by the poet about Urdu's declining prominence) and the poet’s plot time has been mostly spent on his indulgences and senilities. The poet seemed like a physical representation of the condition the Urdu language is in today.

Anita Desai’s writing is completely natural and her sentences read like she writes them just as they form in her mind without any attempt to embellish them, and they read surprisingly simple, completely unpretentious, light, crisp and fresh. No matter what’s the plot of her story just her writing style has the ability to carry the reader through.

She is a story teller in the mould of RK Narayan with simple plots that can sometimes read a little slow but surprises the reader with twists and turns. Her characters, like Narayan’s , are ordinary people with foibles coming from small towns and caught in the tangle of their problems. Her simple language also reminds the reader of Narayan.

At the end of the story, when there is no practical way left to salvage anything from the recordings Deven made, in a moment of reflection, Deven realizes that even after Nur dies his poems and soul will not quit with him; they will live on with Deven who through his regard for Nur’s work and an earnest effort to preserve it has become the rightful custodian of Nur’s legacy. That’s Deven’s success.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Hip Hop Nature Boy and Other Poems - by Ruskin Bond

Ruskin Bond recently visited Bangalore to launch his new book of poems, Hip Hop Nature Boy and Other Poems. I had decided to visit the venue but couldn’t. However, later I visited the bookstore Bond had launched the book at and bought the book. Some of the poems the book carries were written by Bond in the past and some are new and have been written particularly for the book. The poems are for children but I liked them anyway. Some of them tell short autobiographical stories and some just are stray thoughts on various things related to nature.

Not many people read poetry because they think poetry is about esoteric profundity. That’s partly true – poetry is about profundity dealt with brevity and wit. And I like such poems, but what I particularly look for in poems is simple truth and observations told with easy language and occasional peppering of wit; it should read natural and not forced. It leaves you feeling light and easy just how peppermint leaves you feeling after you have finished sucking it.

What the poems have in common with Bond’s other writings is that the poems are about the ordinary and the hum drum. Bond has made a career out of writing about ordinary things, people, places. Even a history book I had read by Bond was not about kings and leaders but ordinary people who lived their lives in times that were historically significant.

A few lines of a poem:

The simplest things in life are best

A patch of green,

A small bird’s nest,

A drink of water, fresh and cold,

The taste of bread,

A song of old,

These are the things that matter most.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Notes on Media

The other day a friend retwitted an article on how the English television media have a fetish for English-speaking and suave-looking Indians and seek their views on issues affecting a much larger section of India than suave and English-speaking represent.
This blogger, who was herself a TV reporter with NDTV, detailed how, when she was out to get reactions of people on a petrol price rise and collected reactions and visuals of truck drivers on the issue (since they are most likely to be affected by it) and sent them to her editorial team, they rejected them and asked her to get reactions of English speaking people instead since they would make better TV, although they, generally coming from richer sections of society, are less likely to be affected by petrol price rise.
However, based on this it would be wrong to conclude that English TV media don’t give representation to, let’s say, un-TV-friendly people at all, but neither can it be completely denied that the English media have an up-market inclination. And they can’t be fully blamed for this as up-market types, without doubt, make better TV and therefore help the image of an English channel and its viewership by extension.
Some would say Hindi TV media are much more representative but I think they are equally lop-sided: if the English TV media ignore the non-English speaking types, Hindi channels generally overlook the English-speaking ones.
The problem lies in the fact that TV media have become more about showmanship and less about news, which is why preferring convenience to fairness as long as it’s in interest of viewership is the accepted mode of operation.  Many of the social movements of recent times would have hardly met with the kind of success thhey did had it not been for TV media – which gave them unbridled coverage not so much for their news value but because they had become spectacles.  If you follow questions asked during TV discussions, you will see the larger intent is not to do justice to the topic in discussion but to be sensational.
Vernacular channels, I think, are more representative because they don’t need to have English speakers but they are also sensational and more than their English counterparts. Honestly speaking, even after the profusion of so many channels, newspapers continue to be the best mode of journalism. They are generally less sensational (expect the naughty photos in page-three supplementaries) and are far more analysis-driven.  But this analytical approach towards news is a post-TV phenomenon for news papers.
There are many things you can blame on media, but there is no end to how self-righteous you can get on this. It’s difficult to survive in any show business given that the competition is immense and you constantly need to do new things to ensure viewership.  We may talk about media ethics but how many of us will watch channels or read newspapers that passionately uphold them, like the BBC and Hindu for example? You can’t demand infotainment and expect high standards of journalism – it will be just like watching general Bollywood movies and getting sanctimonious about their low standard of cinematic aesthetics. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Great Unknown by Shankar

Last week I was on vacation in Calcutta and I finished The Great Unknown by Shankar while on the vacation, an autobiographical account of the author’s days in the High Court of Calcutta where he worked as a clerk for the last British barrister in India.  The book is a novel with a series of short stories in it about the people the author met during his years in Calcutta High Court.
 The people who come to court for solution of their problems are as varied as the problems they seek solution for, so naturally the book is an interesting read always keeping the reader guessing what story will come next just as a book of short stories does.
 Shankar, whose real name is Mani Shankar Mukherjee,  is among the popular Bengali writers and his novels started coming in English translations a few years back. Shankar’s writing and observations are simple and they make him immensely readable, but they can sometimes read too Bengali middle class.
The book is breezy and once you start reading it you are left with the yearning to return to it. I found myself lost in the lives of its characters soon after I started reading it. Helen Grubert (an Anglo-Indian typist ), Nicholas Droulas (a Greek sailor) – characters just flit in and out of Calcutta High Court, some with tragic consequences and some happy. The book carries a plaintive character and the stories convey the flavour of 50s' and 60s' Calcutta.
Written in the early 50s and serialised in a Bengali magazine fisrt, it was the first book by the author. In a way, the book was a precursor to the nature of writing to come from the author: novels set in the heart of an industry, in this case High Court being that setting and men of law the main characters. Few years later Shankar wrote Chowringhee, which predated Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, which was later made into a popular Bengali movie.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Corruption, Betrayal and Murder in China - A Great Book in Making

Neil Heywood
Over the last three weeks or so, a new development is unfolding in China. I don’t know how many of you have been following this news but I have been and with considerable interest. It has all the ingredients of a gripping novel and an edge-of-the-seat spy movie.

A few weeks back, a high-ranking Chinese politician, Bo Xilai, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party on charges of corruption. And later, Bo’s wife was accused of having ordered the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.

The corruption scandal decidedly ended Bo’s political career…. And also opened a window into the lives of the leaders of Chinese Communist Party, most of whom are multimillionaire businessmen with business interests spanning across contents and wealth stashed abroad.

However, although the Bo bit of the controversy has been hogging the limelight, the Neil Heywood part of it is just as exciting. Who is this guy Heywood? Despite being from another country, how did he make his way into the heart of Chinese political elite (the Xilai family) and become such a threat to them that they had to get him killed? And why has the British government, which is otherwise pompously vocal in seeking explanations from foreign governments if their nationals meet with unnatural death on foreign soil, has been curiously quite over Heywood’s murder?

The Hindu, on 27th April, ran an oped-page article, sourced from Britain, which answered some of these questions, although speculatively. The article said the British government’s silence on Heywood could be because they knew Heywood was an intelligence freelancer. (Govts react in this way when their spies are arrested or murdered on foreign soil while on mission.) Albiet, when journalists tried to find out whether Heywood was really in employment of the British government, they found he wasn't. They concluded it could be that he was working as a freelancer for a private espionage agency – there are many of them in China run by former British intelligence officers – and the British government knew it.

However, what the article told with greater certainty is that Heywood came from British privilege. He had been to elite schools and colleges, and it’s possible that his British aristocratic background and a cultivated Britishness helped him to charm his way into the heart of Chinese elite, where there are many takers for them.

This background helped Heywood become a bridge between British privilege and Chinese elite. By using his British connections, Heywood provided an easy passage to the children of high-ranking Chinese politicians and businessmen to the heart of British privilege – Harrow, Oxford etc – and the Chinese in turn helped Heywood further his business interests in China. (The Hindu article is not clear about what businesses Heywood exactly did. I think he was just a gold digger who picked up anything his contacts could help him with.)

While working his way through this Chinese stratosphere, Heywood met Bo Xilai’s wife and did business with her. Some even link Heywood and Bo Xilai’s wife romantically. Alas, their relation soured when Bo’s wife refused to pay Heywood money the Xilais owed to him. The British businessman threatened to expose their seedy business interests and was found dead in a Chinese hotel room a few days later.

Initially, Heywood’s death was blamed on his heavy drinking, although there were speculations that he could have been murdered by Bo Xilai’s wife. But soon after, BoXilai’s political fortunes nosedived and the Xilais' foreign business interests and money trails came into light. The Chinese Communist Party , in a desperate rush to perform a clean-up act, launched an investigation into the Heywood murder and it revealed that the British spy-businessman-charmer’s drink had been laced with poison causing him death in the Chinese hotel he was in.

It’s not because of the Xilai family’s fall from grace and this Heywood angle that I think this controversy lends itself to a good book, but because it’s far more important in many ways than it superficially appears.

This has had a social and political impact in China. It went viral on Chinese social networking sites. A western journalist observed that it’s not every day that Chinese people come to know about their leaders’ lifestyle as they live under a shroud of secrecy.

It has also got a global angle. Although the British government’s reaction to Heywood’s murder has to do with Heywood’s dubious activities in China, China’s rising clout in international politics can’t be ruled out as one of the things that deterred the British government from acting tough with China.

And a little on the life of intelligence freelancers working for private spy agencies in China, like Heywood, is something none of us will complain about.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Bend in the River - VS Naipaul

 I finished reading VS Naipaul’s A Bend in the River. I had known the book for a long time and had expected it to be very different from how I found it. The opening line of the book eulogizes the importance of success in life – “The world is what it is; people who don’t make it have no place in it,” which is also the title of VSN’s biography  – and I thought it would be the story of someone’s rise against odds, but the book is about other things. It’s about identity, history, worldview, imperialism, the bequest of the white man and the struggle of the black man to find his own identity and pride based on his own culture and history and his opposition to the white man even as he looks upto him, copies his ways to raise himself in the estimate of his own people and find his approval. Naipaul has chosen Africa as his setting to explore these themes.
Salim comes from a decently off family that has stayed in Africa for a few generations now. His doesn’t have great professional opportunities in the place and takes up a shop dealing in this and that and located in a town in Africa, that’s situated at the bend of a river. White rulers have just withdrawn from the town and tribals have come to power. Initially there is some quite and Salim’s shop flourishes but the tranquil is broken by a coup which brings an African chieftain – President – to power.  
Through the President, Naipaul shows insecurities of a tyrant who wants to use his African background to his political advantage and at the same time shows off his white connections to heighten himself in the estimate of his people.  Naipaul uses this small town, its people and their antagonism toward the white man to show how while they are opposed to the white man ruling them and want to erase all his vestiges, they don’t know how to rule themselves and left to themselves they can only bring chaos and killing. I was thinking that this has become an obsolete pro-empire view today, but then Afghanistan came to mind.

Salim goes to England briefly and returns to the town to find that the President has nationalized all private properties, and his shop is one of them. The shop has been put under a trust and an African, who Salim knew, has been entrusted to oversee it. Salim works as a manager in the shop for a while before is he arrested by police one day because the President is to visit the town and once released, Salim leaves the place for good together with may other ‘outsiders’.
The book is disturbing in many ways in that it forces you to visit things about you and your country which you don’t want to and Naipaul has an acerbic and mocking way of putting things. But what’s surprising about it is although written almost 30 years ago, it reflects the global realities of today and reminds you that themes like empire and identity never become dated.
Salim the protagonist thinks to himself that colonizers need to make statues to themselves because their needs are complex: they need to glorify their rule to the posterity by making statues and also enjoy the material benefits of their rule when it lasts. But simple people from simple civilizations don’t have such multi-tiered necessities.  
The book can be slow sometimes but finally rewards you for holding on till the end.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Goodbye, Gangarams

For a few weeks I have been hearing that Gangarams will close down. Today I went to the bookstore and found a notice outside, actually a note of parting by the owner which emotionally thanked Gangarams’ customers and bade them goodbye and asked them to visit the store one last time before it closes.

By the time I came to know Gangarams is the oldest bookstore in Bangalore I had visited it a few times. It is located on MG Road which is close to my office on Residency Road and whenever I had time I walked from my office to visit the bookstore. I liked it for several reasons. It's different from flashy bookstores we find in malls which I also like but for other reasons.

Gangarams has a sizable staff for a store that's not too specious and they never bother you even if you are a casual browser who will mostly likely not buy anything. Over the years I have been visiting Gangarams, I have bought some books and many magazines from the bookstore but most of my visits were for casual browsing. I just love doing that.

When you are new to Gangarams, the staff may appear a little intruding, not because they mean to be intrusive – in fact they want to leave you your space – but because there are too many of them and as the bookstore is not very big you will find one of them standing in any direction you see giving you the impression that they are keeping an eye on you, how much of a book you are reading, whether you are trying to shoplift, etc. But that's not true.

Even in the glitzy bookstores in malls, the staff mostly leaves you alone, but that you can attribute to their modern shop-management methodology, while Gangarams is too old and old-fashioned to adopt (or even bother to) such sleek strategies to convert casual browsers into buyers. For them leaving book explorers alone, even if that doesn’t lead to any sale, is part of their value for customer service.

Gangarams has five to six shelves of books running end to end of the shop forming narrow aisles where you walk and browse books.

Another reason I like Gangarams is that it's completely unorganized. Books are not arranged based on themes or authors - expect in some parts of the shop - but just piled together. This disheveled look gives it a certain scholarly and old-world charm. I frequent many bookstores but I owe my soft spot to Gangarams, I think, to its informal appearance which makes you feel at home. It has many elderly loyal visitors who, I am sure, prefer Gangarams to other bookstores. I had once seen an old lady accompanied by her son who was visiting India from the US.

However, the love for the old somewhere led to reluctance to adapt to the new for Gangarams. They retained not just the old values but also refused to pick up new practices. I had placed a book order with Gangarams and two, three days later when I had called them to check if the book had arrived they seemed to not even remember that I had placed an order. I Googled to check if Gangarams has any website and didn’t find any (if you know, please let me know).

Gagnarams is not the first and certainly not the last bookstore that’s closing down. It’s part of a new global trend triggered by e-books and chain stores taking over the book retail business and eating up standalone shops that are finding it difficult to compete with their financial firepower and reach. But with each Gangarams shutting shop something of the old Bangalore (or any city) will be lost forever.

Old bookstores, just like old buildings and shop and markets, contribute to the character of a city. They form the landscape that reminds you of the bygone, without which you lose your point of reference to the past. I came to Bangalore some seven years back and Gangarams was part of my life, sharing space with other bookstores I visit, for a little more than three years. But Gangarams being so old, there would be those who would have been visiting it for half of their lives. I am sure that elderly lady – and many like her- will miss Gangarams more than I will.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Iron Lady - A Great Biopic

Usually, I am not my own man when it comes to choosing the movie I want to watch. The choice is mostly driven by public opinion, newspaper reviews and Tweeter posts. But the problem is most times these opinions are divided on a movie. The Iron Lady, however, is an exception in this regard. It has been attracting praise both in organized and social media. Last week I watched the movie.

I liked the movie but I was reluctant to write about it because writing about the movie would also include writing about Meryl Streep’s performance as Thatcher and I, not having seen much of Thatcher during her days, am not familiar with Thatcher enough to assess how close was Streep’s Thatcher to the real thing.

But having read about her and seen her photos, I had a mental image of Margaret Thatcher and Meryl’s enactment seemed very close to that picture – the gait, composure, style of speaking and subtle changes in personality after Margaret Thatcher’s taking up of a bigger role in national politics. However, my post-viewing Youtube investigation revealed that Streep’s Thatcher’s style of speaking slightly differed with that of the original Iron Lady.

Meryl’s role moves back and forth between two phases of Thatcher’s life: one, an old and frail Thatcher now ailing from dementia; two, a vigorous young political leader on the rise. The narrative is anchored around Thatcher’s old age, a retired public figure spending her last days reminiscing about her past glories, and visits various phases of her life, from childhood and adolescence to her rise in public life, in flashback.

The movie is something to remember not just for its cinematic merits but also the dramatic life of its protagonist – Margaret Thatcher, who, from humble origins (a grocer’s daughter), rose to become one of the most charismatic prime ministers of her country. Thatcher’s political career lends itself naturally to movie because it coincided with many a crisis Britain went through – the Argentinean transgression on the Falklands island, IRA terrorism, economic problems, etc. Her dealing of all these crises explains her sobriquet – The Iron Lady, which, incidentally, was given by Russians.

Margaret had a tough upbringing. She used to manage her father’s grocery shop and didn’t have too many friends. She, in fact, was a quite an odd girl with a studious personality. Her political education started early in conservative political discipline and her conservative convictions grew deeper and deeper as she grew up. Although her initial brush with the world of power and the powerful was not without its awkward moments due to her unassuming upbringing, gradually she became comfortable, came into her own as a leader and handled important portfolios in the Conservative government.

The movie has its moments. It starts with Thatcher shopping in a departmental store with Panjabi songs playing in the background to convey the hybrid culture with a dominant presence of Punjabis in the current day Britain. It delivers its surprises and plot twists smartly. I conservative party leader close to Margaret is suddenly killed in a car bomb, planted by IRA, a few seconds after he had told Margaret bye on his way out of the parking zone. Margaret was considering standing for party leadership election; the bomb blast steels her resolve. Similarly, there are other moments you will enjoy as you watch it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Reading Alexander Pushkin's poems

I am not an inveterate poetry reader but I do enjoy poetry once in a while. Some years ago I had bought a translation of Urdu poetry by Khushwant Singh and had enjoyed them. Last month a collection of poems by Vikram Seth – Rivered Earth - drew my attention. I bought it and liked all the poems, some translations of ancient Chinese poems with the historical incidents on which the poems were based explained and others poems on Indian mythological characters and various other themes. All of them were good.

Last Saturday I bought a collection by Alexander Pushkin, a 19th century Russian poet. Pushkin was among the first poets to write stories in verse. Vikram Seth’s The Golden Gate, a verse novel, was inspired by Pushkin’s work. It’s said about Pushkin’s poetry that they don’t translate well into English (or any other language), but I am finding the poems well translated, in easy, fluid language that’s nice to read. I have not finished the book but am taking a dip some times and am liking the experience. Pushkin’s style is simple and his poems are mostly based on his experiences and reflections on various aspects of life, Russia and social themes. Here is one of his poems.


The dead delights of frenzied younger days

Weigh on me like alcoholic haze.

The aching sadness of my past endures

And, like good wine, gains body as it matures.

My future life is grim without relief,

A surging swell of struggle, toil and grief.

And yet, my friends, I have no wish to die;

I want to suffer, live and wonder why.

I know I can expect amid the torment,

Trouble and care a rare delicious moment.

Sweet harmonies just fill me with delight

And I shall weep with joy for what I write.

And it may be that at my sad demise

A smile of love shall light in someone else’s eyes.

Pushkin is considered among the greatest Russian poets. However, he didn't die the death befitting his stature as a poet. He died of a freak accident: while having a fight with his wife.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Charles Dickens

About a week ago, the Google home page featured a scene from Victorian England. I couldn’t establish its relevance until I found in the paper next day that it was Charles Dickens’ 200th birth anniversary. Since then newspapers have been writing about Dickens and I was tempted to blog about him but I was hesitant because I felt although I know tit bits about the author’s life and have read two of his novels (Oliver Twist and Tale of Two Cities) and want to badly read The Great Expectations, I don’t have much to share about Dickens because I have never had the affinity for Dickens you have for authors whose work you like, so whatever I would tell would be impersonal and dry pieces of information.

I liked Oliver Twist and parts of The Tale of Two Cities, but they did not leave me with the yearning to read more Dickens, mainly because of his language - long-winding sentences with a single sentence often running into a paragraph with multiple possibilities packed into it and separated by commas. Another thing about Dickens is over theatricity of everything, the characters, situation, homour. By the time I read The Tale I knew what to expect but I was callow when I tried out Oliver Twist. The climax of The of Two Cities is just like the ending of a Bollywood movie. Perhaps that’s why it’s commonly said his books lend themselves to films very well, because of their strong visual character.

I was not sure of my views about Dickens for some time, but over time I found most of my Dickensian misgivings confirmed by many authors and even when Dickens lived he had enough detractors who attributed the popularity of his works to low art or mass appeal. 

However, what can’t be taken away from Dickens is that he was the pioneer of the novel. Until he started writing and publishing his work in serialized form in various magazines (remember most of his works actually appeared in serialized form in magazines first) and became popular, prose was highly looked down upon; verse was the order of the day.

Melodrama is often a component of popular fiction, but what is surprising is despite the turgidity of Dickens' language, his novels were popular, unlike modern popular works that use a very easy language. Probably the language that reads so odd today was the norm in Victorian England. (If you read Thomas Hardy, who wrote some decades after Dickens, you will find the language far friendlier than Dickens.) I also think it’s a little unfair to blame Dickens for his lack of art because the novel was a new-art form then and it has gone through lot of refinement over 150 years of its existence and anything written so long back, if measured by modern literary standards, would feel deficient.

Albeit, Dickens is liked by many because, unlike many contemporaries of his who mainly wrote on upper class British society, Dickens’ singular muse was poverty and poor, parhaps the empathy came from the fact that his own childhood was one of hardship and impoverishment. And maybe the melodramatic character of his work owed to his own melodramatic life - which went from poverty to fame of the kind which even big movie stars of today seldom enjoy.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Twitter Works for Me?

I am among those who joined online social networks very late and even after joining some of them, like Face Book and Linkedin, I wasn’t regular on them. Twitter changed that. I joined even Twitter very late but once I did I got addicted. I found it very different from FB (remember, it was launched as a rival of FB) and other networking sites. What, according to me, separates Twitter from other sites is that it’s not a platform for purposeless chit chat among family members and friends, but informative and purposeful exchange of ideas expressed with a hint of style and snap and lot of brevity, just 140 characters . (Some manage to pull their messages into one- liners really well.)

Another thing that works for Twitter is that it is personal without being intrusive. People connected with you on Twitter may get to know you over a period of time but not through sharing of personal details but purely on the basis of commonality of interests. In fact, if you see the format of Twitter, it encourages sharing personal information only so much as is required for another person to be acquainted with you (a one-sentence bio and photo), underlining the character of networking it promotes: sharing ideas.

Many may complain about Twitter’s restriction on number of characters – 140 – but I find it engaging to contract a complex message into a sentence or two and if you have exceeded the limit, it’s interesting to figure out how you can drop letters from words and words from sentences without distorting the message. In fact, that we understand the message contained even in savagely truncated Tweets suggests that you don’t necessarily need to bend over backwards to explain something to somebody; if you supply the reader with little bit of details, the reader works out the rest. It promotes brevity and precision in communication.

It would be ignorant of me to say there is nothing in the networking world that can match Twitter because there are so many networking sites and I am not familiar with most of them. For example, for a very long time I was not a Linkedin fan; although I had an account I used to seldom visit or update it. Then a friend one day made a strong case for Linkedin and explained how prospective employers or consultants access you through Linkedin and the bigger your network the better your visibility with them, and for last five months or so I have been regular on the site. And I read some time back that there is another networking site like Tweeter open only to people coming from the scientific community.

The net is too infinite and viral a place for any idea to remain restricted to handful of sites, but if you divided the networking sites into two types – say one based on interest and the other on social interaction – I would throw my lot with the former.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Strange Men Strange Places by Ruskin Bond

There are two types of histories, one is about the life of nations and people who decide their course and the other is about ordinary people who live their lives under the cross currents of big events (social, political and economic) that are never of their own making but often shape their lives and circumstances.

I am reading a book by Ruskin Bond which visits the lives of people who live in the backwaters of history, and even though some of their lives and achievements may be extraordinary, they never attract the interest of historians and are seldom remembered beyond the span of their time and space. 

To exhume these characters out of obscurity, Bond visits the early years of British rule in India when the British were yet to establish themselves as a national power and parts of India were still ruled by small-time rajas and chieftains who had their own armies and used to employ Europeans in them, much in demand for their ability to coalesce ragtag armies into disciplined fighting units. Apart from soldiers, the book also documents the lives of European marchants, mercenaries, bootleggers, etc.

Many of these Europeans returned home wealthy men and some of them met with their end in India.

It was a time when lot of social intermingling between the ruling English and natives existed; which stopped following the 1857 Sipoy Mutiny that shocked the British and forced them into a social stratosphere, bringing up a separation from Indians that would last until the end of the Raj. There are stories that give the glimpses of pre-1857 society and social trends.

One of the stories tells the tale of the hukkah, a smoking pipe much in use during those days by English men and women who had taken to Indian ways. But with the passage of time as division rose between the English and Indians, the hukkah fell out of favour with the British.

Bond has had to undertake extensive research to write the book as the material on the men he has written about would have been hard to come by. These men lived in different places in India and served different masters, but some of them knew each other and you will find the recurrence of one character in the life/story of another.

Writers are generally a recluse lot, but modern-day writers are hardly so (at least if you go by the visibility they enjoy thanks to TV shows and literary festivals). However, Bond continues to be a throwback to the idea of the writer as a recluse.

I have never heard him make any political statement or seen him involved in a public spat. He continues to stay in Mussoorie, which is a recurrent theme in his writing, and deals with the ordinary. Therefore Strange Men Strange Places may be an oddity as a book of history, but it sits well with Bond’s general body of work, which is neither about nations nor national heroes or villains, but about ordinary people, places and events.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Shrinking Artistic Tolerance in India

Recently the Indian government armtwisted Jaipur Literature Festival organizers to have Salman Rushdie dropped from their invitee list. The government has justified its decision by saying that Rushdie’s visit will hurt Muslim sentiments thanks to his book Satanic Verses which insulted Islam by caricaturing the Prophet Mohamed.

Rushdie has been coming to the festival since it started, but it’s the first time the government wants us to believe his visit will wound religious sentiments. UP elections are near and UP has a sizeable Muslim population. UP is a place the Cong, the leading party of the ruling coalition, can ill afford to lose because being among the largest states in India, UP has a big impact on general elections.

The Rushdie controversy is not an isolated incident. It’s the recent installment of a series of incidents in India where outfits of all political hues or their affiliates have attacked people or work (books, movies , paintings, etc) opposed to their strain of beliefs.

The reasons for the outbursts are varied. Sometimes it’s a political party desperate to retain its political space, sometimes a political newbie trying to make a mark for himself, sometimes a political party making a desperate bid to woo a community (Hindu or Muslim).

Three incidents related to books will help you understand the pattern.

Around seven years ago, Taslima Nasreen (the writer of Lajja) had been forced out of Bengal by the Left government and then out of the country by the central government which refused to renew her visa. Why? Because Taslima had expressed blasphemous views in her book Lajja and mobs had taken to the streets demanding her ouster from Bengal when her visa was due for renewal. The Left government justified its decision saying her stay would have led to communal riots.

About a year ago, a political aspirant from the Thackeray clan (a family that founded and heads a regional political right wing outfit which models itself on Hindu nationalism and chauvinism) got together a mob which burnt the copies of Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry alleging the book to have provocative material (not sure to provoke whom) demanding the removal of the book from English honors syllabus. The authorities obliged (apparently to quell the mob).

And then came this Rushdie controversy.

As the instances above demonstrate, it’s not just parties coming from one strain of political or social belief who demand book bans and persecute writers (or creative people guilty of challenging popular beliefs through their work) for their ends, but parties of all political color (from left to right) partake in them and frame their demand and actions according to their constituency.

If you read the books as against the claims that the ban-seekers make, you will know that they don’t read the books they seek ban on. Lajja has nothing against Islam in it; it’s a story about a Hindu Bengali family in Bangladesh; and Such A Long Journey was published in the 70s (and demanded a withdrawal of in 2011) and is loosely about Congress politics in Bombay, in the 70s, a party which the Thackerays are anyway hysterically opposed to. (I have read Lajja, but not Such a Long Journey.)

This hostility on books or any creative output works on a certain belief.

Banning of a book or movie doesn’t hit people’s interest in the way, say, closing of a factory does. So whether you are part of the establishment imposing a ban or forcing out an author or you are part of sloganeering mob demanding a ban or an ouster, the belief on either side is since the common man won’t be hurt beyond, say, the denial of a book or a movie, they will move on and the intelligentsia will stop shouting on TV once the media get another story. Elections are won and lost on more immediate and tangible issues, not on books, after all.

And, of course, there is the additional gain for the political party of ingratiating itself with a group/community (whatever) through the emotive route, which has a long-lasting electoral value, where reason is always a casualty.

What the establishment overlooks is each time you yield to a bullying mob, you concede a space that is hard to retrieve. What they also forget is when application of force becomes an accepted means to silence a contrary voice, you lose the ability to tolerate because you don’t need to stress your endurance to tolerate; an easier option is available – force.

It’s one thing to brag about having great values (in this case, freedom of speech and free thought) as a nation; it’s another to be ready to defend them at whatever cost they demand. Great Britain gave knighthood to Rushdie in the teeth of opposition from the Islamic world. France gave political asylum to Taslima Nasreen after she was hounded out from India.

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