Sunday, December 21, 2014

David Copperfield - a very long canvas autobiographical novel

I recently finished Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield. I enjoyed the book – and found myself wanting to finish it only towards the end – and that too partly because my book purchases had formed a pile by now and it was demanding attention.

But let me first start on a note of disappointment. (It’s so difficult to admit to disappointment over a time-tested classic, isn’t it?) The book is an autobiographical novel and I expected it to tell how Dickens developed as a writer, his source of his early inspirations etc. It’s not that Dickens doesn’t talk about his beginning, development and finding of fame as a writer, but not as much as I had expected from a book which I had chosen to buy to read primarily about Dickens as a writer.

An eponymous and large-canvas novel, it traces the life of David Copperfield his birth onwards and takes you through the various phases of his life. The novel changes its mood several times over as David’s life goes through various phases, meeting and parting with friends.  

Dickens had called David Copperfield his best work. He had written it during the later phase of his career (after his visit to the US). The change in style and temperament is understandable if you have read any Dickens from the earlier part of his career. I read Oliver Twist many years ago and felt DC was a little more introspective, character treatment a little deeper.

One of the highlights of the book for me is how Dickens has handled the changing shades of relationship among different characters. There is a romantic sub-plot which runs across the story. David meets Agnes as a child at a school. Agnes’ father runs the school and David becomes very close with the family and remains so through the rest of his life – and what also remains is David’s soft spot for Agnes, an affection which changes its complexion over time and goes from brotherly liking, bordering on obsession and excessive admiration, to a full blown romantic feeling.

And finally, towards the end of the story, David’s first wife dies and he proposes marriage to Agnes and some bouts of indecision later she accepts. Dickens had a wide readership. And, in what were Victorian times in Britain, many would have frowned upon it.

Another is Mr Macabre, which Dickens modeled on his father. Mr Macabre flits in and out of the story, such that I felt Dickens used him to provide the reader a departure from the monotony of an ongoing subplot. Mr Macabre is one of the most famous characters of literature. And, I feel, the utter idiosyncrasy of Mr Macabre makes him so talked about.

His language is so erudite and sentences so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. He goes from bouts of depression to optimistic outbursts with lightening frequency, which is one similarity he shares with Dickens’ father. He moves from one professional disappointment to another, which is another similarity he shares with John Dickens, who was always hard up. Another one is both Mr Macabre and Dickens’ father were irresponsible with money. Finally Mr Macabre finds success and fame in a new country, Australia (this, however, he doesn’t have in common with senior Dickens).

David’s relationship with Mr Macabre changes its shades. David meets him as a boy and is left awe-struck by his world (so does the reader – there are wonderful descriptions of Mr Macabre’s life which are very visual). The Macabre family welcomes David into their lives with open arms and David finds a home. He is somewhat grateful for this generosity but later as he sees Mr Macabre’s plights David develops an understated sympathy mixed with affection for Mr Macabre – from a benefactor he starts seeing Mr Macabre as his friend who deserves his kindness and consideration. And these remain his emotions for Mr Macabre for the rest of his life.

David’s outlook towards Uriah Heep, another famous character of David Copperfield, remains the same throughout the book. He loathes him and treats him shabbily throughout the book, partly because during the book Agnes was betrothed to Uriah, a relationship which breaks later.  But partly also because Uriah is a greasy, scheming and opportunistic character who uses humility, he owes to his humble origins, as a decoy.  

David Copperfield is full of characters, sub plots – the canvas and sweep of time, in fact, are so large that when Dickens throws in a reference of a character long lost in the swirls of the plot, you feel a pleasant nostalgia. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

How we remember Nehru and why

On every birthday of Nehru, emotions spill over both from the Congress and BJP camps. BJP blames Nehru for all the ills that plague India, from economic to political, and the Congress credits Nehru for most of India’s successes as a modern nation state. 

While BJP wants to project Nehru to the current generation as an elitist who forced foreign ideas on India without much caring about the sentiments of Indians, the Congress says any departure from the path of Nehru (socialism and secularism) is a disaster for India. There is a grain of truth in all these accusations and approbations. All these also form how Nehru is remembered in India.

Some blame him for his political mistakes. Some call him a nation builder. Some say his socialist economic policies are responsible for India’s lack of economic growth. Some remember him as an atheist who had utter disregard for India’s religious character. And so on. But funnily, these views are not held sporadically across all sections of society. Different sections of society remember Nehru in different ways, but there is a uniformity of views within each section.

Generally academics and left leaning intellectuals see Nehru as a builder and guide of modern India. Communists remember him as a representative of bourgeois class to be hated because he suspended the first communist government in India, in Kerela. The business class dislikes him for his socialist model. The conservative middle class criticizes him for his romantic dalliances, videshi ways and, to an extent, his atheism. 

But to the current generation, in general, Nehru comes from so distant a past that he is not much worth caring about. There are several reasons for this.

There was hardly anything muscular about Nehru. He was a gentle, sober politician (his occasional mood bursts notwithstanding) whose speeches used to be inspiring and eloquent but without any thunder.

Like his daughter, war-winning was not among his achievements (in fact, he had lost one as a PM). Nehru disliked the Hindu right and also the Communists; but there wasn’t any campish  character to his loathing – it was a dislike based on ideological differences. The divide between the two sides became pronounced in later years due to self-styled Nehruvians and the progenies of Shayamaprasad Mukherjee.

The other chief reasons for his slide into oblivion with the current generation are the two ideals he stood for and is most remembered by – socialism and secularism.  Both socialism and secularism have had a rough time, in India, in post-Nehru years.

Indira Gandhi, unlike her father, had no sincere loyalty to socialism; for her garibi hatao was a political plank not an ideological obligation. Rajiv Gandhi moved away from socialism – in fact, his was the first Congress government (actually the first since independence) to flirt with market economy (now his son attributes the entry of computers into India to Rajiv, though the claim is contested by BJP).

In 1992 India opened up its markets to the world and with passing years the economic reality of India started shifting away from what it was in the pre 90s. And as India’s economic complexion has changed year upon year since then and the middle class increased, socialism has more and more looked like a relic of the past which is best kept at a distance.  

On the secular front, too, India has not fared any better in post Nehru years. Several provincial riots had taken place since Partition, but nothing had made national headlines.
That changed when Indira Gandhi fell to the bullets of two Sikh security guards leading to anti-Sikh riots - something Congress is still blamed for (and as later reports suggested rightly so).

Rajiv Gandhi, a few years later, by now a PM for a few years, dealt Indian secularism, which was already smarting under 1984 effects, another severe blow with the Saha Banu case.
In the post 90s, the rise of the BJP confronted the Congress with a new threat, a potential loss of the Hindu vote, pushing the Congress to reclaim its secular space. 

And secularism and whether the version of secularism followed in India is a departure from actual secularism borrowed by Nehru from the West – became a bone of contention between the two largest national parties.

And the two parties constantly clashing on the question of secularism divided the Indian political narrative into two halves – the Hindu right and the secular front. Gradually the Right narrative found legitimacy in national politics. 

In reality, Nehru may still be the founder of modern India, but, due to the follies of his very own, to the current generation, Nehru has become the grand sire of all that the Congress has done wrong since Nehru. And if his own have degenerated his legacy, the changing times (both globally and in India) have made the merit of his ideals a little contestable and  anyone representing them appear a little out of tune with times.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Haider, a film worth watching

When we talk about a land, we first talk about its culture and people, but surprisingly these two attributes drop off our list when the land is a disturbed one.  Politics takes the center stage and completely subsumes the land’s narrative, such that even if you want to tell personal stories, you have to place them within a political framework.

As time goes the political narrative becomes complex with various strands braiding themselves into a thick and intricate narrative.   Vishal Bhardwaj has had to deal with a similar situation for  Haider, his latest movie,  where he has had to tell a personal story, that of Haider, placing it within the complex political narrative of Kashmir. And he has successfully done so.

Haider is a beautiful film (or told beautifully) which manages to tell a personal story set in a political framework. Where the movie disappoints a bit is it at times bends over backwards to show the separatist movement in a positive light. You will see likable terrorists singing while grave-digging and shooting. 

No one should have any problem with this political lop-sidedness. It could well be the director's line of belief. But if he had explained the role of all the parties involved in Kashmir cauldron to the extent the plot warranted without taking political sides, Vishal Bhardwaj would have done a better job as a story teller. Instead, he chose the easier option. However, the redeeming point is that despite this political posturing, he has managed to tell the main story well. 

Haider is pursuing a PhD on revolutionary poets in India at Aligarh university, where he has been sent by his conniving paternal uncle (Haider’s father’s own brother) and mother so that Haider is not witness to their growing intimacy following Haider’s father’s disappearance engineered by his uncle who is an Indian army informer. Haider visits Kashmir in search of his father and gradually discovers how his uncle had laid out a plan to bring the downfall of his father and eventually get him arrested and killed. All to win over Haider’s mother.

The story unfolds in the first half amidst political problem, so that by the second half the political context is established with the viewer and the main story races up without the anchoring of politics around it. You can’t praise a film without the performances that make it possible. Haider’s transformation from an average guy to a terrorist has been enacted well by Shahid Kapoor… cold anger and determination come through very convincingly.

Transformation, in fact, is not unique to Shahid Kapoor’s character. Haider’s uncle played by KK Menon also undergoes a slow transformation, showing signs of repentance gnawing him from within even as he maintains his conniving exterior, trying to prevent things from sliding out of control as Haider is out to avenge his father’s death.

Although the song, dance, romance and loud comedy routine makes you feel it’s just another commercial movie, Haider has many redeeming qualities that make it worth a watch.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How European nationalism is different from Asian nationalism

Although the Scottish decision to forgo independence in view of economic security may have dampened the secessionist spirit in Europe, it has hardly been able to put the question of secession off the table.

The reason for this is that these independence-seeking pockets in Europe have a long history secessionism behind them. In the course of which their efforts to be independent have been thwarted many times by forces of history but never been put to rest for good.

Between 1640 and 1659, Catalonia, a part of Spain, stood up to the presence of the Castillian army in its territory, and became a republic under French protection. But unfortunately, a hundred years later, following the War of the Spanish Succession, Catalan institutions were institutions were abolished and replaced by Castillian ones.

Catalan past has the two ingredients – achievement and oppression - required to create a nationalistic feeling and sustain it. And the fact that Catalonia is rich (in fact, one of the richest in Spain) gives it the economic viability it requires for statehood.

Similarly, Belgium’s Flemish region, Flanders, which may be the next one to have independence referendum, represent 80 percent of Belgium’s economy and 60 percent of its population. The other 40 percent of Belgium’s population is Wallonians which Flanders has had to coexist with since the formation of Belgium in 1830 despite complete absence of cultural similarity.

Vlaams Belang, the only political party in Flanders which espouses the independence cause, says Belgium has been an artificial state from the very beginning which was formed by forcing into it two people (the Flemish and Walloons) who have nothing in common including political outlook; Flanders is center of right while Wallonia is socialist.

Another European place seeking self-realization is Veneto, one of the wealthiest and most industrialized regions of Italy. Veneto was an independent state which ruled over a series of city-states until, following Napoleonic wars and the Congress of Vienna, Veneto was annexed by the Austrian Empire and later given over to Italy in 1866. Here emerges another profile similar to Flanders and Catalonia.

But is not nationalism, in any place in the world, always an outcome of the past as a source of pride and indignation coupled with economic viability? Yes, but what’s unique with European nationalism is the presence of EU.

55 percent of voters in a poll conducted to find out support for independence among residents of Veneto said they would want Veneto to remain a part of the EU and over 51 percent said they want to remain in the eurozone. A larger percentage said they would want Veneto to remain a part of NATO.

In Catalonia, according to polls, although there is strong support for independence among its people, there is very little support for an independent Catalonia outside of EU indicating diffidence about not having EU’s encompassing presence behind them as an independent country.

Some have argued that it’s the presence of the fatherly EU and the assurance that the father will come to the fiscal rescue of the hard-up child and ensure its survival on the dole out of another child which is doing well which gave the Scot independence seekers the mental cushioning they needed to clamour for freedom. 

It may not be so much the case with Catalonia and Flanders given their economic strength, but the presence of EU gives them the unique advantage of having a neutral body to moderate matters which is specific to Europe, unlike UN whose character lacks regional specificity. However, the support for NATO membership among the separation seekers is understandable given the new geopolitical challenges like Islamic terrorism and expansionist drives.

 The presence of EU as political, economic protection umbrella available to European countries seeking self-realization is absent for their Asian counter parts. What is also absent with their Asian counterparts is a strong economy which could make their statehood viable, except in some cases like Hong Kong. 

Absence of an EU-like body, NATO and lack of economic strength are reasons why Tibet, Kashmir, Baluchistan etc, if given separate statehood, will become vassals of Asian expansionist powers and be vulnerable to Islamic terrorism always looking out for new frontiers, while Catalonia, Flanders and so on will remain afloat as independent nations without hugely changing the configurations of European geopolitics. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Rosemary & Thyme - a British detective TV serial with a difference - we need more like this

Youtube is a land of possibilities. Last month while browsing I hit a video link by mistake. As it started playing, I realized it was a recording of a British television serial. While browsing Youtube I accidentally hit lot of links but after the video plays for a while I lose my patience and close them.

This time I couldn't close the video. It drew me in as the story progressed and thinking that I would close it after I saw a little more, I ended up watching the whole episode. One of the things I couldn't have enough of was the locales it was shot in. You will just fall in love with the the English countryside, old estates, mansions etc. in it.

I Googled to check if my guess that it was a British serial was correct – and Wiki informed that my guess was not off the mark.

Rosemary and Thyme, which ran from 2003 to 2007, is a British detective tele-serial with a difference.  Rosemary and Thyme, two middle-aged women, one a former police whose husband has left her for a younger girl and the other a spinster, are professional gardeners. Their gardening assignments take them to different parts of England and beyond, mainly towns and countryside where we expect to find gardens or enough space to build one from scratch. And a murder takes place in the setting and Rosemary and Thyme find themselves solving the murder mystery even as they work on their assignment.

The plot lines are quite simple or only so much complex as much can be handled in a 30 minute episode. As is the convention of detective stories, there are some obvious suspects, some red herrings, some, minor plot diversions to neutralize the plot speed, some British humor and the murderer is mostly the person you are least supposed to suspect.

After watching some episodes you will start figuring out the culprit….But despite this simplicity there is something which will make you want to return and watch another episode – it’s the mesmerizing locales which give it a laidback feel and a little more . I have seen some American sitcoms; the crime ones are too gory and the comedy, too haa haa hii hii.  Rosemary and Thyme is quite a departure – gentle, relaxed, old-fashioned. There is another kind of departure from the American stuff – prudery.

Generally crime sitcoms are expected to have some sex in some form, either in the way of sexual innuendos or direct sex scenes, Rosemary and Thyme is stoutly celibate: even mild kissing scenes, included only when strictly warranted by the plot, are flitting and shown with a frowning attitude. I have not seen too many British TV serials or films but have read some 19th and 20th century British novels – and even in them sex rarely finds a mention.

So it could be British restraint but it could also be because its target audience is not young people - a fact which is further confirmed by the middle-aged main characters it casts.

In India there were good detective tele serials in the 80s and 90s based on detective novels – Feluda, Bomkesh etc. Alas, the quality of mystery tele flicks has declined in last 10 years or so. They are mostly too glossy and robotic – without the slow build up and the subtle cultural nuances (dialogues, attire etc) and a credible detective (who has to be a good actor) at the centre.

Some of you may say Bomkesh and Feluda come from a different era and are too sophisticated and culturally rooted to have a mass appeal. I may be reluctant to admit this - as a whodunit works on the strength of the yarn and of course the credulity of the person playing the sleuth; but if you really want a light ‘low on substance and high on style’ stuff, then Karamchand (played by Pankaj Kapur in the 80s, if you remember. It still plays on Sony)  will work for you – an investigator at the center with his stylized idiosyncrasies with a lady assistant.   
But according to me, where Rosemary and Thyme scores above the conventional sleuth flicks is here you have two ladies who are not like conventional investigators. They solve cases almost accidentally after stumbling, fumbling and wrong-guessing. This trial and error or amateurish touch where the detective doesn't intimidate the audience with the pretensions of intellectual superiority – is a departure from the conventional detective who constantly patronizes. Not that this has not been tried elsewhere but with Rosemary and Thyme everything seems to come together.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Euthanasia - to be or not to be

After Supreme Court called for a nation-wide debate on euthanasia, there is lot of talk in the country around the issue. Given the morally ambiguous nature of euthanasia, it’s little wonder that multiple school of thoughts is emerging on it.

According to me, the Supreme Court’s suggestion for a nationwide debate is in acknowledgement of two facts. One is euthanasia has been in public discourse for many years. There is varied level of public awareness about it. Some may have a vague about about it, others may know a little more about it - that it exists in some parts of the world as an accepted practice followed when a patient is above all possibilities of survival. Awareness is not a problem.

But the other fact of the two is more interesting. If we debate euthanasia threadbare and it’s taken up by the media, more clarity will emerge and maybe the smoke around euthanasia, which gives it a sinister feel, making it something you are comfortable discussing but not accepting as a medical means which can be applied to a family member - will dissipate.   

Let us look at why we are resistant to this idea if we are aware of its existence and also accept its merit at least at an intellectual level. This idea flies in the face of the filial values we grow up with. At some level, we believe this may leave us to decide, one day, when and whether to withdraw life support to our parents, a decision which may leave us with a lifelong sense of guilt.

But this is where we are wrong. Whether life support will be withdrawn to a patient or not, is not decided by the close relations of the patient at the eleventh hour, but by the patient himself/herself when the patient is in a sound mental and physical condition to decide whether he/she would like to continue life, enduring unbearable physical pain when all possibilities of recovery are over, or terminate life by withdrawal of life support.

If someone decides to go for euthanasia, the person signs a contract called Living Will which includes such details as how and in what circumstances life support should be withdrawn, what kind of life support the person would be given, where etc. The Will may be signed by a person at any age, any time when he/she is eligible to sign a legal document.

But is it possible to foresee so many details about a health situation that is nowhere on the horizon when you are signing a Living Will?  Probably advocates of Living Will will say you are free to sign a Living Will when standing on the threshold of a treatment, a position that allows you to foresee, to a great extent, how a treatment can unfold and arrange details around it. 

Maybe but, with some health conditions, the course of a treatment may depart radically from what was envisaged before the treatment had started. Being a speculative document, how accurate can the Living Will be about a situation which it considers only hypothetically? Things become foggier if you consider the school of thought which argues that medical science is advancing every day and what is irreversible today may not be so sometime later. 

These questions would have to be considered very carefully before euthanasia was accepted as an alternative to continuity of life through support. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Childhood days - life and times of Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray’s greatness as a film director obscures us to his writing. In an earlier blog, I had reviewed a collection of short stories by Satyajit Ray. Recently I read a short, obscure autobiography of Satyajit Ray – Childhood Days. It’s not an autobiography in the conventional sense. Half of the book is about Ray’s childhood, about his family, his aunts, uncles, school days and so on. The other half is about his experience of film making, making of various films he made, explained mainly for the uninitiated reader.  

The book was first published in Sandesh, a magazine Ray edited and his family members contribute to, in episodic bursts. Many had shown interest in translating it into English but Ray refused. Later Penguin took it up and the result was this book. The first half of the book takes you to the Calcutta of the 30s and 40s in which Ray grew up. Ray had a legion of interesting relatives so it makes for interesting reading.

He had an eventful time at school – Mitra – too. There were all types of pranks played by boys. There were funny teachers. There were tensed moments. Etc.

Equally interesting are the tit bits about the India of the 30s and 40s Ray grew up in. Ray was witness to the coming of the motor car. Some of the things he says may be unimaginable today, like pamphlets being dropped by helicopters to promote products.
 
Cine lovers reading this book will be particularly interested in the details Ray shares about the making of various movies he made for children. (His movies on adult themes have not been included in the book.) Ray the perfectionist comes through the details. You will be surprised by the challenges involved in the process of movie making. Ray recalls many  scenes which occupied very little screen space but were very troublesome to shoot. 

The one I found most challenging and even funny was a scene from Gupi Bagha Phire Elo (Gupi and Bagha return), a sequel to Gopi Gain Bagha Bain. Ray needed to shoot a scene which would include a tiger. A person from Chennai (then Madras) contacted him and assured him that he would be able to arrange for one. Ray arrived in Chennai with his entourage and the person took him to a circus owner.

The circus owner assured him that he had a healthy tiger. After a while Ray sensed there was something wrong: A while had lapsed but the tiger hadn’t been shown. Ray demanded to see the tiger but the middle man said the tiger was all right and there was no need to see it. Ray insisted upon seeing the tiger and said he wouldn’t take the tiger for his shooting unless he saw it. Then they brought the beast. It was a mangy old cranky tiger. Ray rejected it.

That day, some search and anxiety later, they got to know about another tiger, and went to see it. This one was perfect, a young raging big cat. But that wasn’t an end to their woes.

The scene was - the tiger would play a royal guard guarding the key to royal treasury. The key would be located in a square cleft on a wall under which the tiger would sit. The hero had a special musical gift: which could freeze listeners to their spot when he sang. To take the key from the cleft, the hero would sing to the tiger putting the animal under his spell so that it couldn’t move when the hero would go and get the royal treasury key from the cleft.

The tiger had been tranquilized but as the camera started panning the tiger started to move setting up an alarm among the crew members: the effect of the tranquilizer had worn off. How much they had to go through to shoot the scene tells the reader something about the patience and improvisation film making requires.  Ray has recalled many more instances like this.

These are just the lighter aspects of the book. The serious reader may look for when and how Ray’s interest in films began. As is natural, there is no specific time, day, or year when Ray began being interested in films.

As with any artistic interest, it began slowly moving from one thing to another, small to big. As a boy Ray was interested in photography (the book as a photo of a young Satyajit with his mother taken by none but the camera itself which Ray had configured to photograph without the assistance of a human). And there was a practice of film watching – mainly foreign ones - too.

Ray has avoided delving too deep into anything to sustain the book’s light and juvenile touch. So it might disappoint those looking for a scholarly study of the great man, but those just interested to know about the world of Satyajit Ray, his family, times and influences, may not be disappointed.  

Friday, June 6, 2014

What European and Indian General Elections Have in Common

The anti-establishment wind we saw in India during general elections also swept Europe in European Parliament elections where voters from different EU countries electorally rebuked the European political elite.

In Britain, U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, got 28 percent of votes, in a first since 1910 when neither of the two main parties in Britain – the Conservatives or Labour – has won the nation-wide vote. In France, Hollande's Socialist Party came a distant third. Golden Dawn, a Holocaust–denying ultra-orthodox bellicose neo-Nazi outfit which has long survived attempts to outlaw by Greek authorities came into European Parliament.

Some will call it a rise of the European right, but among the parties that enjoyed unexpected electoral gains some are not necessarily right wing, like Podemos, a new leftist party got five of Spain's 54 seats and Beppe Grillo, a former Italian comedian who founded a party which describes itself as having no political ideology (like APP in India), entered the Italian parliament.

With the alleged right wing character as the common theme running across all surprise parties absent, they are left with only one common characteristic: that they all are fringe political forces trying to force their way into European mainstream politics and what is finding them takers is that they espouse simple tangible issues, like anti-migration and unemployment, which cut with voters better when there is a sense of despair among them.



In India we saw a similar public mood in the general elections which just concluded with BJP coming to power with Narendra Modi as prime minister. In the pre-election period, there was a similar sense of despair in India, as in Europe, which started building up some years ago with the exposure of corruption scams the ruling party Congress – leader of UPA – was found involved in. Additionally, the economy wasn't doing well for some time. The opposition effectively used them to create a general sense of despair.

On the other hand, in Europe, a continuing economic slump is responsible for the sense of despair and the big parties which have traditionally ruled are to an extent held responsible for failing to improve the situation.

Hopelessness doesn’t take too long to lead to anger and anger, like wave, eventually finds a rock to consume itself. That rock in India, as in Europe, became the parties that have traditionally been in power and are thus seen as representing the establishment.  

In India, trying to take advantage of the anti-establishment rage, the contesting parties scrambled to be seen as outsiders to the establishment in Delhi - removed from people responsible for the prevailing mess and  as ones who could provide a departure from the current state of affairs and bring a new order.

Each party tried to claim the outsider-to-the-establishment tag and tried to make their opponents look like a chip off the old block. But finally, the party which successfully managed to do so is BJP.

BJP, however, is not a fringe party on political sidelines. It has been a formidable force in national politics for many decades now and has been in power at the center, too, in a coalition arrangement. So BJP as a party may not fit the definition of an outsider.

But the outsider-to-establishment tag sat easy on its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, coming from a humble background, lacking the elitist appeal of establishment politicians of Delhi and enjoying a reputation of being a doer owing to his good-governance record in Gujrat (a claim contested by his political rivals) and his austere but stern personality and decisiveness.  

So BJP’s coming to power in India is not an exception to this global trend where voters are increasingly showing a loathing for traditional political leaders and reposing faith in the political outfits that have traditionally been frowned upon by the political elite and espouse very brick and mortar issues that have a resonance with common people. Instead, BJP’s victory is part of the global trend.

Both in Europe and India, voters have voted for change.

A few weeks back, a well-known Indian editor Shekhar Gupta published book, a compilation of columns written by him. In it, he writes he is grateful to Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal (who founded APP which has been compared with Beppe Grillo’s 5 Star party) for not failing to give him ideas to write his columns.

Even 10 years later, Shekhar says, they would continue to give him ideas (meaning that would remain relevant in India politics) – but by that time all three would have changed a bit. Rahul would be a little less reluctant, Kejriwal would have become a little more establishian and Modi a little centrist.

In other words, as time goes, to find greater acceptability, all outfits have to shift from their radical positions and move towards moderation. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Lowland - A Sampurna Anubhav (a complete experience)

I had heard and read about Jhumpa Lahiri, but had never read her works. Recently I finished her Lowland, her latest offering, which was nominated for the Booker prize. I am happy that I have arrived if a little late. Lowland deals with the Naxal period in Bengal and peels one layer after another off the movement to show its various sides.

Let me first admit that my interest in the book owes itself to this subject, Naxalism. Taking the movement as the center, Lahiri’s plot uncovers how Naxalism changed the lives of people involved in it, its impact on their families and later generations.

Subhash and Udayan are two brothers growing up in Tollygunge, Calcutta, in the 60s, in a middle class family where not wealth but education is valued. The brothers share a strong bond and their relationship is one without any sibling rivalry. As the two grow up, while Subhash remains chiefly interested in studies, the storm of Naxalism that’s building up in the city gradually attracting impressionable middle-class Bengali youth into its vortex, slowly draws Udayan into its fold. And Udayan starts moving away from his studies and family plunging into the world of Marxist and Maoist ideas. On the other hand, Shubash goes to the US to pursue higher education.

After Subhash leaves for America, the story gets split into two parts, Subhash’s life in the US and Udayan’s in Calcutta. Subhash, now staying in America, loses day-to-day touch with Udayan’s life in Calcutta, only staying updated with it in snippets through Udayan’s occasional letters.  

One day, Udayan writes about Gauri, the girl he is courting, although Subhash keeps his brief affair with an American middle-aged lady a secret from his parents and brother. Another day, Subhash gets a letter from his parents, written in a laconic manner, telling him that Udayan has died and that he should come to Calcutta immediately.

From here on, the style of narration changes, moving back and forth in time, to reveal to the reader, bit by bit, the circumstances in which Udayan died. 

Back to Calcutta, Subhash finds Udayan’s widow in a neglected condition and decides to gives her a new life by marrying her. They get married and as Gauri starts her life in America, Lahiri frequently moves back in time to chronicle the circumstances in which Udayan had met with his end.

Udayan’s Naxalism-affected life forms the spine of the story and Lahiri has revealed it in small doses keeping her readers looking out for more and refusing to quench their thrust until the last page of the book.

Shubash’s and Gauri’s life in America on Rhodes Island, has a lot to offer to the reader, too. Just as Jhumpa Lahiri has described Calcutta very well, her descriptions of Rhodes Island transport you to the place. In that, Lowland is a novel that constantly explores the differences in the two worlds and how they shape the lives of people inhabiting them. 

As the story progresses, Jhumpa sometimes skips important bits of some incidents as they unfold and covers them later, springing a surprise on you after you have reconciled to having been shortchanged by the author. Later, you realize that sparing you some details involved in an incident keeps you interested and when you are finally thrown those details at, you feel your thrust has been pleasantly quenched.

She narrates key incidents related to Udayan’s death several times over, each time through the perspective of a different character, making the same incidents look different each time and thus bringing the story full circle or as a  Hindi reviewer put it, giving you a Sampurna Anubhav (a complete experience).

Perhaps the thing I liked the most is that she has not tried to eulogize Naxalism calling it a fight between rich and poor to create an equal society. Instead, she has handled the subject unsentimentally blaming all sides, sparing none.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

A film and a friendship

A few months ago while reading a Hindi film review, a name suddenly seemed familiar, but I didn’t pay attention to it, moved on and finished reading the review. Even after moving to other news items, the name refused to leave me and I returned to the review to see it again. Chandan Roy Sanyal and the movie was D-Day. Chandan was a close friend of mine at the school I attended in Delhi – Raisina.

Not even once during the three years that I studied with Chandan did he show any interest in or flair for becoming an actor. He was short and average to look at with wavy hairs. He was shy and hardly looked at you while talking. However, he was also popular and was liked almost by everyone in class partly because he was good at studies, particularly at maths.

I watched D-Day on CD last week and was happy to hear my wife say he was quite natural. The movie is a thriller set mostly in Pakistan (Karachi) with parts of it in India. A mafia don (modeled on Dawood Ibrahim) is visiting Karachi to attend his son’s wedding. In Karachi are also a RAW agent and an ex-army officer on the mission to capture him and bring him to India to be tried for several terrorism cases filed against him in Indian courts. Chandan Sanyal has played the right hand man of the mafia don. 


The best part about the character Chandan has played is it’s multidimensional: a shrewd and merciless person with a touch of eccentricity who is also loyal to his master, the don. Chandan has been able to bring all these essences into his performance.

My father was in a transferable government job and after we stayed in Delhi for three years, he was transferred to Calcutta, our base. I got admitted in another school. My friend circle changed and so did my world. Consequently, Chandan started receding into a past I had left in Delhi.  Suddenly one day  I got a letter (it was before emails had become part of our lives) from him telling about his days in Delhi and school since I left. After that we started exchanging mails, roughly once in two months, updating each other with our lives in Delhi and Calcutta.

In these letters, we started writing about the crushes we had in school which we couldn't discuss freely while together at the school in Delhi. After a year or so the frequency of letters dropped until we stopped writing letters to each other completely, without realizing it. Some years later Chandan broke the silence.  I got a letter from him telling me that he would be visiting Calcutta to perform a play with his troop. This was the first time I came to know he had started acting in plays. I wrote back I would come and meet him.

The troop was lodging in the same stadium that they were staging the show in. I have forgotten what the play was but remember that they were staging one show every evening of their stay in Calcutta. A part of the troop was staying in a guest quarter inside and another was lodging in long tents with three tier iron beds inside. 

After walking in, as I was scanning the place, I saw a thin youth with long hairs waving at me. As I neared the youth, I saw a Chandan completely different from the one I knew in Delhi. 

We talked about our Delhi school days. He asked me about the crushes I had written about and said how they were placed in life then. There was a girl in our school who wasn't particularly good looking but very prim and proper and stylish. Chandan said he liked the girl but now she had moved to another place.

A patrician-looking man was loitering and Chandan told me he was their mentor, Habib Tanvir. Later I read about Tanvir and came to know his stature in Indian theatre. Chandan wanted me to stay back to watch the play, but it was quite far from my home, so I decided to leave earlier.

After returning to Delhi, Chandan wrote a letter and I responded to it, but that become the last time we wrote to each other. A year later I passed my board exams and joined a college and gradually Chandan became a friend who represented a phase which was behind me by many years now. Similarly, passing years and changing whether of life would have turned me, a friend from another time and space, into someone he knew once.

In D-Day Chandan seemed to have changed very little from how I had found him at the theatre venue, in Calcutta. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Goodbye Khushwant Singh


In 1989 VS Naipaul was travelling India to research for Million Mutinies Now. While on his way from one place to another in Mumbai he was reading a popular Indian magazine trying to understand the reason for its success. Meant for house wives, it was a lowbrow magazine covering issues of domesticity without any intellectual pretensions. After flipping through it, Naipaul decided that the magazine was popular with its readers because it didn’t intimidate them, a fact that made it endearing and friendly.

It would be unfair to compare an obscure magazine with a successful author journalist who wrote on a wide range of issues and was read equally widely for close to five decades. But many of Khushwant Singh’s readers would be tempted to draw this analogy between the magazine and Singh as a writer arguing that it’s the simplicity of his style which made him one of the most popular columnists and writers of India.

There are few writers and columnists who can connect with their readers so well. Khushwant Singh’s writing was never too deep or insightful but unpretentious and direct. There was another attribute of KS’s writing which was available in almost all his essays I read – I read almost all his essays and articles – brevity.

Except a few of his essays and articles, all his pieces were short, so you could know about historical personalities, famous entities, swathes of history (mostly Indian), books and writers reading two or three pages. He, in fact, had less patience for lengthy pieces or long books - he liked the quickies. This ability to cover lengthy subjects with brevity meant you never spent too long on any piece to know its subject from one end to another.

Although his simple style is much celebrated, not many readers have noticed that Khushwant Singh’s language was not always as simple as it had become later. If you read his early pieces from the 50 and 60s, the style is direct but the language is guilty of authorial indulgence. I think he did away with his turns of phrases and use of literary words as he started spending more time on journalism than novel writing. Or it could be that as India started becoming more and more comfortable with English, some heavy phrases which were in use in the 40s and 50s became obsolete and they fell off Khushwant’s writing.

One day, when the post partition riots were at their pick, Khushwant was driving to a place somewhere in north India. And he saw a group of Sikhs standing on the way. They hailed his car and asked Khushwant for a lift. Once in the car, they told they had just killed a train full of Muslims headed to Pakistan. And A Train to Pakistan was born, a tight novel with well-crafted  characters, and the milieu of a village in Punjab authentically created. Albeit, Train to Pakistan never found respect from critics who mostly call it a flimsy work.

It’s a novelist that Khushwant Singh had set out to become; journalism was just a career compromise although it brought him much more renown and success than novel writing. I have read all his short stories except one which he had written much later in life….I liked some of them, found some passable and some a little silly. 

But all of them were characterized by ribaldry with earthy humour which was Singh’s trademark and was available in all forms of his writings. Perhaps telling that Singh had set out to become a novelist is a little factually wrong. He had, in fact, not even set out to become a writer. He started considering writing as a career when the other careers he had pursued earlier - law and diplomacy - disappointed him. He used to call himself a briefless lawyer and a tactless diplomat who didn’t have too many career options before him.I read this many times in his columns and interviews, but don't really believe it.

I think that failure in other professions pushed him into writing and he became a famous writer - was a clever story he had created later, having found literary success. His law and diplomatic careers may have been disappointing but writing wasn’t an afterthought. He had written a collection of short stories – The Mark of Vishnu and Other Stories – while on a diplomatic assignment in Canada and the book had received good press in the west. 

Profiling Nirad C Chaudhuri, Khushwant Singh had written that Chaudhuri lived a dual life: when he stayed indoors he was in dhoti and kurta and ate on floor but when he stepped out he was in suit and hat. Khushwant Singh also had a duality to him, the Khushwant Singh that emerges from his writings – a fun-loving, garrulous, light-hearted, sex-obsessed Sardar and the other is how people who personally knew Singh describe him, a serious person who liked the company of women but was very decorous to them. I am not sure which one was the real Khushwant – maybe both of them or maybe how his readers knew him was just an image he had created of himself to find acceptability as a writer of light pieces.

So as obits are pouring in since Khushwant “‘made an exit” last week, what must the iconoclast, agnostic and loner (whose favorite place was graveyard because of its calm) be thinking sitting up there? He must be sipping his favorite scotch chota, chuckling and telling: “They still take me seriously!”

Death was among his lifelong obsessions - when he was 28 he had written a short story titled Obituary. Goodbye, Khushwant Singh.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Midnight's Children - an experience

About 12 years ago, I had bought a pirated copy of Midnight’s Children while strolling in Dalhousie, in Calcutta, and 20 pages into the novel I had lost track of the plot (too many things were happening and the narrative timeframe was shifting back and forth too much and too fast).

I still continued reading only to give up 30 to 40 pages later. In early 2013, I read Anton Joseph, Rushdie’s memoir, where Rushdie extensively described the making of Midnight’s Children, starting from conceptualization to finish. The process had taken four years.

The idea for Midnight’s Children had come to Rushdie in bits and pieces. And once the bits and pieces crystallized into a concrete idea, he knew he had a novel, one whose setting would be India, his homeland which he had left as a child to go to England for studies but where his cultural roots still lay. But India is no England. It’s a country which is not just geographically vast but also diverse in every possible sense.

To taste its soil in all its complexities and diversities, Rushdie decided to come to India and crisscross the country as a low-budget tourist. After he returned to England, he left his full time advertising job to begin work on Midnight’s Children. Four years and some months later, this novel hurled him into the world of literary stardom.

The reason why I brought up Rushdie’s India tour is that it’s the key to my Midnight’s Children experience. The plot seems to join all the dots that together form the map of India also taking Pakistan and Bangladesh (in other words, the entire subcontinent) into its whirlwind narrative. At another level, the book is a deep and rich experience of India, to the extent that it can be safely called an India book, above everything else. (Rushdie has, in fact, called it his love letter to India.) Through the use of language, imagery, anecdotes, mythology, history, lives of common people and those not so common, it creates a complete image of the country reflecting all its characteristics.

MC is also a piece of stupendous story telling including three generations of a family, some 80 years in the life of a country (India – starting from 1920 to 1981). However, it’s on 15th August 1947 that the story takes its most significant turn with the birth of Saleem Senai. (How Rushdie has mingled fiction with history - Saleem is being born and the coming of independence marked by celebration on streets by people and Nehru's momentous speech - is legendary and something for writers to learn from.) From here on, the plot traces the life of Saleem Senai together with the life of its co-born, India, with the paths of the twins crisscrossing several times over as the two move through their formative years through triumphs and disasters. 

But enroute to adulthood, Saleem's life takes him to Pakistan and from there to Bangladesh where he is witness to and participants in their histories (some military coups and the 1971 war) and then returns to India to go through the travails of Emergency. (The story ends vaguely in 1979.)

In the narrative, Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Bhutto, Mujibur Rehman share space with commandeering grandmoms with speech quirks, philandering husbands, conspiring aunts etc. It makes the canvas not only vast but also deliciously varied.

In the foreword, Rushdie has acknowledged his debt to Dickens and that’s one thing that any keen observer will notice almost throughout the book – its similarity with Dickensian milieu: in situations, characters and the overall canvas – all of them have a dramatic and larger than life character to them. 

Almost all the characters have some idiosyncratic trait (either in appearance or behavior or speech) which makes them endearing and enduring, both within the plot and beyond. In almost all situations, you will find drama and theatrics of the kind that we have come to associate with Dickens.

The canvas, characters, the language, as also its success (two Bookers), Midnight’s Children is every bit a grand affair. And reading it was a special experience.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Why we shouldn't blame Penguin for the Doniger debacle

After quite some time book banning is in news again with the withdrawal of Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger by Penguin from Bharat.  It has triggered varied reactions from the media and intelligentsia alike but one question no one seems to be asking: in an internet era can books really be banned? I have not heard whether if you want to buy an ecopy of Hindus online you will be denied the purchase if you are from Bharat. I don’t think you will be.

Nor do I think if you buy a hard copy online and want to have it delivered at your place the online retailers will refuse to deliver you the copy if the delivery venue lies within India. The book is still freely (and also for free; someone circulated it on Twitter) available online. If we go by the court verdict, it doesn’t mention anything about the online fate of the book (at least as much as has been reported by papers)..

Really, in the internet era, that is post Satanic Verses, it has become pointless to slap country-wide or state-wide ban on books. Internet has contracted the potential of a book ban to the confines of, at the maximum, a university syllabus or school curriculum. In other words, outside the controlled and controllable contours of educational institutions or defined programs book bans don’t work anymore.

And frankly, it’s not that ban seekers aren’t aware of futility of book bans.  Despite knowing that ban doesn’t work anymore, if they continue to seek ban on books or films, it’s because it has been seen time and again that ban politics ensures returns for ban seekers with little or no cost borne by them: because each time a brouhaha is kicked up on a book or a film (or any artistic output) our institutes cave in giving the ban-seeking group the halo of being protectors of community pride or identity which was under attack. This pays rich dividends to practitioners of identity-based politics which most political parties in India practice, a fact that explains why all of them have subverted freedom of expression (books, films etc) from time to time.

The Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi caved in and banned Satanic Verses. The Congress government in Maharashtra, few years ago, had Such a Long Journey removed from syllabus. Narendra Modi slapped a ban on a book on Gandhi because it argued that the Mahatma had homosexual leanings for a Jew. A year or so ago, Jayalalitha didn't offer Kamal Hasan any protection to  ensure the release of his movie Viswarupam until the actor producer agreed to truncate his movie to make sure his movie didn't offend some mad mullahs who alleged that the movie had scenes that showed them in poor light. The Left government in Bengal hounded out Taslima Nasreen some years back in the wake of protests by a fundoo Muslim group. And now an obscure Hindutva group manages to bully Penguin. 

I don’t know the legal details of the books that were slapped ban on by our courts, but one – Satanic Verses. There is no ban on production or possession of Satanic Verses. The ban is on public display of the book: you can’t keep the book in stores but can at home. (And I don't think the other court verdicts on books differ very much in essence.) 

If public display is the issue then I am sure those who slap bans don't read the content of a book to determine whether the allegations made against the book indeed stand the test of logic; what is considered is the impact of availability (public visibility) of the book. In other words, it's the risk that its public visibility poses to law and order which is the deciding factor for slapping a ban. 

This, in other words, means a book ban slapped by an institution is an admission of its inability to handle law and order without submitting to the demand of a gunda group. One can  also say putting to test the ability to maintain law and order without submitting to the demand of a gunda group for the sake of a nebulous concept like freedom of expression is not considered worth the effort by our institutes. 

The Wendy Doniger incident is a little different. Here the publisher agreed to withdraw copies of a book directed to do so by a court. And many have said that Penguin, with its deep pockets, could have challenged the verdict in a higher court. But, given the commitment shown by our institutes to protecting artistic outputs when attacked by lampoons, who can say that Penguin wasn't worried that Hindutva elements would harm their business interests in India, especially in an election year, unless they met their demand without showing a whimper of protest? You can't count on authorities anyway!
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