Monday, December 25, 2006


Small Town Ruminations

It’s not often that I travel beyond big cities in the country. So when work took me to Bareilly, I was quite looking forward to getting a deko at small town India. Bareilly is not really a small town – it has a population greater than 7 lakhs. Yet, in the hierarchy of Indian towns, it does get classified as a less than 10 lakh population town, so yes, it is a small town relatively speaking.

Of course, I had heard of Bareilly being the home town of Priyanka Chopra and had heard the song ‘bareilly ke bazaar mein, jhumka gira re’. Beyond that, I had difficulty recognizing that Bareilly and Rae Bareilly are 2 different places (I actually spent a whole lot of time planning my trip to Rae Bareilly, thinking they are one and the same). While this is an indicator of course of my dumbness, it is also a pointer to how insignificant any place beyond the big cities is, to the average metro dweller.

My drive from Lucknow to Bareilly was quite uneventful, despite several people warning me about travel (especially 2 women traveling without any male protection!) in UP during the UP elections. The sugarcane and mustard fields by the sides of the highway, the slow moving tractors on the roads that seemed to forever slow us down, the women with saree pallus covering their heads (completely incomprehensible to a south Indian), the mud huts with thatched roofs…all pointed to a stereotypical view of village north India.

Bareilly town itself was a dusty, crowded affair. There was the obvious clock tower, the mosque, some semblance of colonial construction and the railway station. Beyond that, what registers is the rash of 2 wheelers, cycle rickshaws and auto rickshaws. The hotel we were taken to was supposedly the new plush one in town. There was little plushness in evidence – a cockroach in the bathroom and a possible one in the food put paid to any claims of luxury. Yet, it was serviceable. There was hot water and even a heater in the room. And the service staff was friendly.

A visit to the market place brought the whole small town feel right to the forefront. Coming on the heels of a film production, where we spent lakhs to re-create this bazaar feel in a set in Mumbai, this was ironic. The colours of the sarees hanging in the shops, the cacophony of sounds and smells, the women sitting on the cycle rickshaws, the absolute chaos of traffic where there was no way a car could get through those streets – it was the age old marketplace. Nothing might have changed in a century. The surma seller selling nothing else but kohl for the eyes was a revelation. We later learned, of course, that Bareilly is famous for the surma.

Yet there was evident change. ICICI, HDFC and SBI all had their ATMs here. We spoke to some young lower middle class girls (as part of ‘research’) and they were all dreaming big. There was no doubt in their minds that they were going to become a somebody in their lives. Bareilly was not the world for them. They want to move out – to Delhi and to other big cities. They want to become engineers, fashion designers and air hostesses. Marriage was a given, but that wasn’t stopping them from dreaming beyond it. And their mothers had the same dreams for their daughters. Where was the subjugated small town girl?

Bollywood and TV soaps ruled, of course. Hearts beat for Shahrukh, Salman and Hrithik, just as they beat for them in the big cities. Yet, going out to the cinemas was not all that common. The local theatre was showing the latest Hindi and Bhojpuri cinemas, but the girls were not watching their heroes there. They were watching them on VCDs at home – piracy rules! Kyunki was still going strong, but there were a rash of other replacements including the latest reality show – Big Boss. And advertisements were a window too to the world beyond.

Small town males though seem to have undergone little change. At a research group, the only males around were the guys from the local video recording unit. It was obvious that they had little clue on how to make a DVD player work with the TV. So when the female local recruiter suggested that they try plugging the cable into a different socket, the guy reacted so violently, it came as a minor shock. His expertise was being challenged by a woman and it was clear he didn’t like it one bit. But when it became obvious that the woman was right, the bully backed down and went away sulking. I guess the world around is changing too rapidly for a large section of Bareilly…and the reactions aren’t always going to be pretty.

When we took the road back to Delhi after two days in Bareilly, we were not unhappy to leave. Small towns at the end of the day are small towns. You can romanticize them to a certain extent, you can observe and make your research notes. You can note the fact that young women everywhere are the same – they squeal when they see a cockroach or a picture of a shirt-less Salman, they want to travel the world as an air hostess, they giggle when asked about boys. Yet, at the end of the day, you want to leave. You know there is nothing here for you. The big city lights beckon and you feel claustrophobic enough to do anything to catch the last flight home.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


The Alchemy of Desire

By Tarun Tejpal

The book grabs you immediately with a dramatic opening line: “ Love is not the greatest glue between 2 people. Sex is.” The narrator (nameless throughout) you soon discover, is a young man in a marriage that is coming unglued slowly but surely. Desire, which has been a constant presence in their relationship, summoned up at will, any time anywhere, has suddenly and quite mysteriously disappeared. The narrator finds himself no longer desiring his wife Fizz (Fiza), a beautiful almost impossibly perfect woman. The novel takes us along their story at a brisk pace. A young couple, hopelessly in love, gets married, sets up house and with the husband’s ambitions of becoming a writer, struggle with holding down day jobs while allowing him to write at night. For this, they move from cozy Chandigarh to a harsher Delhi. With some money coming to them from his dead grandmother ( her story is one of my favourite parts of the book), they buy an old house in the Himachali hills. For a while, they enthusiastically do up the house, coming there every weekend from Delhi. While the husband struggles with writer’s block, their dream house is getting completed, a new roof is laid, bathrooms built and trees planted. That is when the buried diaries are discovered and their lives are irrevocably changed. The diaries detail out a parallel story, that of an American woman, Catherine, the original inhabitant of the house.

Catherine’s story is set in the late 19th century and veers from her American upbringing, her dad’s ‘exotic’ Indian store in New York, her flight to London and Paris to escape a marriage and her hedonistic life in Paris. It is in Paris that she meets an Indian prince who marries her and brings her to India. The Nawabi life, the strange relationship she shares with her homosexual husband and the palace intrigues that drive them into the hills to the house that Fizz and her husband buys in another century form her story. Catherine’s sexual appetite, her love affair with her husband’s lover and the strange turns this affair takes are detailed by her in her diaries. The diaries and her husband’s obsession with Catherine drive Fizz away. And the narrator is left to himself to play detective and uncover the mysteries that Catherine’s story contains. His discovery of the underlying truths unblocks his writer’s block and the end of the book sees him seeking Fiza out again and starting a book with the line, “Sex is not the greatest glue between 2 people. Love…”

Tejpal’s writing is bold and striking and he has an unabashed way of using drama in his words and phrases. The sex is prolific and after the initial excitement, it begins to pall. Catherine’s story especially has some pretty graphic descriptions of all kinds of couplings. Soon you begin to skip the sex parts and you realize that it is a lot of skipping. You then have to force yourself back into the story.

Overall, the book is interesting, purely because it tackles a refreshingly unusual theme – exploring the substance of desire. It goes just that bit over the top though – in language, in the depiction of an exotic 19th century India, in the sex. A bit more restraint might have made this a better book. But then again, it might have taken away some of its originality as well. My recommendation? Read it. There are worse books out there.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Lazy Poetry

Old woman sighs
In winter solitude;
A baby’s cry shatters it.

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Rain falls ceaselessly
In its pitter patter.
The walls form a prison.

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I wait.
The phone rings
And silences my thoughts.

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Old age shivers
Middle age covers it with a shawl
The young look away bored.

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Framed photographs and
Fresh flowers beside.
The decay smells.

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Friday, October 27, 2006

#9 Dream

By David Mitchell

I don’t know what it is with the books I choose…Japan seems to be a big theme. #9 dream was the only David Mitchell I hadn’t read so far. And now that’s done too.

This was Mitchell’s 2nd novel – after the success of his debut novel Ghostwritten, he had huge expectations to fulfill. I loved the book. Better than his first, in fact. His cleverly constructed multiple narrative style in the first book gives way to a single story – that of Eiji Miyake and his Tokyo sojourn. Yet, he does manage to slot in different narratives even in this single story. A World War II diary of a kaizen pilot, Miyake’s sometimes Matrix-like dream sequences and a book of off-beat short stories Miyake comes across in a safe haven. There is a touch of Murakami in here (even the title is a Lennon song…Murakami’s Beatles mania at work?) and I will not be surprised if Mitchell admits to some influence here.

The lead character is Eiji Miyake, a 20 year old from an outlying Japanese village who comes to Tokyo in search of his father who he has never seen. His mother, who he despises, was his father’s mistress. Abandoned by his father when she bears him twins (Eiji and his twin sister Anju), she leaves her kids with her mother, takes to drink and becomes mentally unstable. The book is about Miyake’s discovery of Tokyo, the Japanese mafia, new friends and loves. And a re-discovery of who and what truly matters in life – not his disappointing father who never cared, but his mother who is too afraid to care, the memory of his dead twin and a new found love. It is Miyake’s journey into adulthood, into reconciliation with pain and disappointment.

Mitchell writes beautifully. His clever way with words and narratives can be quite intoxicating. He is currently my favourite writer and my newfound mission is to introduce him and his books to friends. A David Mitchell fan club is in order.

Friday, October 20, 2006


Maqbool


To be honest, I was disappointed with Maqbool. Maybe, coming into it from Omkaara, I had pretty high expectations from Vishal Bharadwaj.

The thing is, Maqbool lacks a hero. The closest anyone comes for me is Pankaj Kapoor as Abbaji. He is a powerful man who knows his power, inspires loyalty in at least some of his followers and is shown to have some principles when it comes to business (that his business is the Bombay underworld and what he refuses to do is smuggle arms into India for an ISI-like character is beside the point).

Irfan Khan or Mian Maqbool, the lead in the movie is to me a completely flawed character. While overweaning ambition is his fatal flaw, his susceptibility to Abbaji’s mistress Nimmi (played by Tabu in an excellent performance) and his complete paranoia after his crime of murdering his boss Abbaji make the viewer view him with something less than sympathy.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the basis for this Vishal Bharadwaj movie (he does have a knack of getting the settings right – the fight for the Scottish throne is transplanted to Mumbai’s underworld while later he would transplant Othello’s Venice to the heartland of UP). If you know of Macbeth, this movie resonates better. The 3 witches are superbly transplanted as 2 clairvoyant police officers in cahoots with the Abbaji gang – Naseer and Om Puri as usual are brilliant. Banquo’s ghost does not appear but Lady Macbeth’s famous speech of blood on her hands finds a parallel with Nimmi’s increasing loss of mental stability.

While individual pieces of the film are pretty brilliant, the overall effect is underwhelming. It is certainly less slick than Omkaara and lacks its star power as well. But that notwithstanding, the movie does stand out among the movies that get churned out of Bollywood.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The number of apps for Flickr that abound are amazing. Here is a mosaic I created with my Flickr snaps.

This is a calendar I created.
A fun movie poster I made with an old Uttaranchal trekking photograph (it was truly a physically exhausting trek!).

A watercolour framing of an old Taman Negara snap.

I feel like a kid with a toy with these tools. I love it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


V for Vendetta

This is a ripping good movie – haven’t been entertained like this in quite a while. The Wachowski brothers tell a darn good story. They had a tough act to follow after Matrix, but they come good.

Of course, they have it in for Mr. Bush and that is pretty obvious. The England they portray, somewhere in the not-so-far future is a good estimate of what the US could be in 20 years time if the neo-conservatives had their way without any opposition. It’s an extreme portrayal, but if you can ignore the agenda, and just watch the movie as a movie, you can come away pretty satisfied with the experience.

The story is set in an England ruled by a Chancellor Sutler (John Hurt)who oversees a police state. He bans the Koran, torments gays and fosters a climate of fear. People who protest disappear overnight in camps that seem like Aushwitz but could as well be an approximation of Guantanamo Bay. V (Hugo Weaving whose face is never seen in the movie) is a Guy Fawkes mask-wearing former victim of the camp who is out to create a revolution. He spouts Shakespeare, leaves a rose as his signature in death scenes and is holed up in an underground Bat-cave-like hide-out filled with all things banned in the state outside. Evey (Natalie Portman) is the girl next door who is caught up in V’s grand plan – he starts off by blowing up the Old Bailey on Guy Fawkes day and announces his plan to blow up the Parliament buildings on the next 5th of November, inviting people who believe that they are living in a freedom-less world to join him. He has some pretty powerful lines – ‘a building is a symbol’ he says, when asked why he sets out to blow up buildings. After 9/11, that is a brave statement to make in a mainstream movie. I liked another line of his – ‘what is a revolution without dancing’, he says.

V gets the revolution he wanted – in a series of stylish, perfectly co-ordinated action sequences reminiscent of and yet distinct from Matrix. Leaving behind another classic line as a reminder to his by now vanquished foes – about how a man may die but the idea he represents will not. And a politically mature Evey to carry out his final grand plan.

I thought it was a brave movie made in an age of terrorism(one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter, after all). It drew flak from a lot of people about the kind of messages it sends out (the original author of the graphic novel this book is based on, removed his names from the credits – his setting was Margaret Thatcher’s England) but as a pure entertainer, it is quite one of the best I have seen in a long while.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Ghostwritten

By David Mitchell

Here I am, reviewing yet another David Mitchell. I quite dig this chap – his stories are clever and interesting, his characters span a variety of timescapes and landscapes and he’s on his way to perfecting a narrative format that is pretty unique (at least I have not read another quite like this).

Ghostwritten is Mitchell’s debut novel. It was noticed almost immediately, winning itself the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. For a debut, it is a pretty ambitious book – as its sub-title reads, it’s a novel in nine parts. Nine parts that are as diverse as they come. From a cult member terrorist in Okinawa on the run, to a broken investment banker in HK, a record store salesman in Tokyo finding love unexpectedly, an old woman living through China’s tumultuous history in south China, a transmigrating ghost who finally finds her human body in Mongolia, an art thief in post-Soviet St. Petersburg who is double-crossed, a depraved musician and ghostwriter in London also finding love, a nuclear physicist running away from the consequences of her work and last but not the least, a kind of super-intelligence that is controlling the world. Each of these stories is distinct and yet inter-connected in strange, inexplicable ways. One of the characters saves the life of another story’s character, one witnesses another’s death, characters in one keep re-appearing in others, and somehow one gets the feeling that each story is the cause or the effect of another.

This is a format Mitchell carries forward in Cloud Atlas (he loves repeating characters from his other books) to an even better effect. I am captivated and entranced. I love stories, and Mitchell is storyteller par excellence. One almost waits for the next surprise or twist round the corner.

There is one more book in his repertoire I am yet to read. I can’t wait to get my hands on that one.

Monday, September 18, 2006


Goa!

Goa conjures up images of the sun, sand and sea. For many Mumbaikars, it is the idyllic getaway; the perfect antidote to the city’s traffic and noise, pollution and dirt. Goa is where Mumbai goes to refresh its soul, to recover from the daily fast-paced grind of big-city life. They say time itself moves slowly in Goa; almost the antithesis of Mumbai, where everyone seems to be in a terrible rush. It is almost a cliché – Goa is Mumbai’s alter-ego.

Over the years I have lived in Mumbai, I have had innumerable people tell me of their definitive Goa – the no-name shack that serves the best prawn balchao, the perfect hidden-away beach, the seaside café that serves the best apple pie, that little corner shop where you can buy the best grass in town. Each time I have heard this, I have listened to it with a bit of impatience. After all, I had been to Goa a handful of times and I had not discovered the magic of the place. Blame it on my indifference to beaches, the office conferences that have taken me there or the plain inability on my part to laze around on a holiday (shouldn’t we be making the most of a holiday, seeing as many sights as possible, doing as many things we can?), but all these descriptions of Goa were to me just plain clichés. Wouldn’t I much rather see Mandu’s historic forts than taste the local Goan beer?

But then, a weekend trip (coz of an office picnic) this Saturday showed me a glimpse of the Goa I had never before discovered. Lazing around on a beach shack with King’s beer and the fresh catch of the day, driving around through its leafy quiet by-lanes, taking a leisurely walk up to Vagadore fort to see the most amazing views of the Goa coastline (Dil Chahta Hai showcased it memorably), stumbling upon an unexpected flea market on one of the many beaches, sipping cashew feni and eating goan sausages while listening to the waves crash on the shore… maybe, I think, Goa is not over-hyped. Maybe the thousands of Mumbaikars who flock to Goa at every possible opportunity have a point. Maybe there is a point in just ‘being’ in Goa. Maybe, just maybe, as a copy writer colleague once put it, ‘There is a Goan in everyone’. Maybe there is a Goan in even me.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Picture-postcard pretty Prague. The river, the bridges, the castles - like a fairy tale come alive. You almost expect Prince Charming to come in and sweep you off your feet.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


An Artist of the Floating World

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Post-war Japan is the milieu. The protagonist and narrator is an aging painter, once renowned in Imperial Japan, now denounced in the period of the American occupation.

The book raises interesting questions. What is it like to lose a World War? And what is it like to have to look unflinchingly at your country’s past and your role in it and acknowledge that you and your country might have been wrong? And should an artist have a political role at all?

Masuji Ono is the painter and narrator who is at present leading a quiet retired life with his unmarried daughter in a Japanese city that hasn’t escaped the ravages of war. He spends his days tending to his home and garden and going out to the local bar with his drinking buddy. An occasional visit by his married daughter and her young son and the marriage talks for his younger daughter provide the only ‘events’ in his life. Yet these events precipitate the onset of darker memories, of a time when Ono was a renowned painter, used in the Japanese imperial war machine. Of a time when he denounced his teacher and his pupil, artists of the ‘floating world’ (‘the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink’, a transient world of beauty worth celebrating) in the cause of a narrow nationalism. Ono, of course, grows to believe that art needs to go beyond the world of pleasure and seek something more tangible and purposeful. And so he becomes a part of the Japanese propaganda machine urging his countrymen to build an empire.

Japan loses the war, of course, America brings democracy to the country and Ono is discredited. His past becomes an embarrassment to his daughters and he is forced to confront it. It is not easy, yet he is honest enough to be able to be able to come to terms with the fact that he and his generation might have been wrong. “I accept that much of what I did was ultimately harmful to our nation, that mine was part of an influence that resulted in untold suffering for our own people….All I can say is that at the time I acted in good faith.” It is a recognition of the faults of a generation and at the same time a justification for it.

What struck me most about the story was the unabashed readiness of post-war Japanese society to accept that the past is an embarrassment. A whole nation goes to war, and 10 years later, you accept you were wrong? Is it that easy? Isn’t there a kernel of resentment against the victors? Apparently not, as the new generation channels its resentment towards the older Japanese who led them to the war.

Ishiguro’s simple and straightforward writing as usual is able to evoke a time and place that is completely alien to the reader. The portrayal of Japanese society in the first half of the century is detailed – the round-about way of approaching delicate matters in dialogue, the extreme formality in father-son/ teacher-pupil relationships, the preponderance of suicide. Ishiguro has of course, never lived in Japan past his 5th year. Yet his representation of post-war Japan reads authentic to someone who has never been to Japan. It is strange that the last book I read was a Murakami – an authentic Japanese writer who writes of a Japan that could have been any country in the world (the place is quite incidental to the plot and characters). And here is Ishiguro, an English writer who tells a story that could be set in no country but Japan.

Sunday, September 10, 2006


Norwegian Wood

Haruki Murakami

This is the book that made Murakami so famous in Japan that he had to take refuge in the anonymity of Europe and later the US. Norwegian Wood is a simple straightforward narrative with little of the ‘fantastic’ that is so much a part of his other novels. It is the story of a young man, Toru’s journey into adulthood.

Written as a remembrance by a 37 year old Toru, this story moves from school life in Kobe to university days in Tokyo. University life in Tokyo seems very Western – Toru reads Scott Fitzgerald, Updike, Thomas Mann and listens to the Beatles, Bill Evans, Cream, Simon & Garfunkel. It’s the late ‘60s and there are rumblings of the student unrest in the background, but there is never any intrusion of that into the story. In fact, there is very little intrusion of the outside world into Toru’s inner world. He does go out partying and picking up women with his college friend Nagasawa. But that is never the real Toru – he is most himself with his books and his intense relationships.

The story is of Toru’s relationship with 2 women – the Naoko who is the love of his life and Midori, his college-mate. Toru’s obsession with Naoko is long-lasting; 17 years after he has last seen her, airplane renditions of Norwegian Wood, her favourite song, can still bring him to his knees. He knows Naoko from his schooldays in Kobe. She is his best friend Kizuki’s girlfriend. Kizuki, for reasons he cannot comprehend, commits suicide at the age of 17. Later when he and Naoko make their way to college in Tokyo, they meet again and Kizuki’s death binds them together like nothing else can. He begins spending more and more time with her; their Sunday walks across Tokyo providing the highlights of their weeks. He begins to see however, that Naoko is a troubled young woman with demons to fight in her head. She retires to a home in northern Japan to get her bearings back, and he visits her there periodically, spending time just ‘being’ with her and her roommate, an older woman Reiko. He believes it is just a matter of time before Naoko will become alright and she can come back to Tokyo with him. But life isn’t always that easy - Naoko soon loses her fight with her demons and she is lost to him forever.

While Naoko is fighting for her sanity, Toru meets another woman – Midori. The antithesis of Naoko, Midori lives in the here and now. Vivacious and highly energetic, Midori knows enough of the downside of life to realize the importance of living life fully. The more Naoko withdraws from the world, the more Toru is drawn towards the life Midori shows him. Yet at the end, Norwegian Wood is Toru’s paean to Naoko.

Death and suicides stalk the book. At one point, Toru says, ‘Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life’. It could prove the guiding principle of the book. Pain accompanies a loved one’s death. But it is living with that pain, even learning from it, and yet getting on with life – that is the journey into adulthood. To me, this book was Toru’s learning of that lesson.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Omkaara

Omkaara is Shakespeare’s Othello set in the heartland of India, in UP. It translates to this setting well. Othello is a Moor and a soldier, Omkaara a half-caste and a gang lord connected to the most powerful politician in the territory. Desdemona was white nobility, her hand sought by all who matter in the highest echelons of Venetian society. Dolly is a fair and beautiful upper caste girl, daughter of a prominent lawyer. In both cases, society does not sanction their union and they are forced to come together stealthily.

The movie is shot beautifully – the vast barren landscape provides a fitting backdrop to the tragedy unfolding. It is also shot stylishly, with camera angles, the editing and the music building up tension and intrigue. The script is grabbing, though a lot of the meaning was lost to me in the mix of regional dialect and Hindi.

At the end though, this movie had to be about the actors. And the casting is quite faultless. Ajay Devgan as Omkaara is pretty good, there is a dignity to him that suits the role of the quietly efficient and confident gang leader. Kareena Kapoor exudes a certain ethereal beauty mingled with a sadness that portends tragedy. Saif is Langda Tyaagi, a fitting Iago consumed with bitterness and rage. There was a lot of hype about his acting. I found him good, not exceptional. A lot of actors could have essayed this role equally well, I thought. Vivek Oberoi as Kesu Phirangi plays the young and charming Cassio quite nicely. He looks and remains the outsider, the college educated kid who can’t quite hold his drink the way the world of Omkaara demands. Konkana Sen as Langda’s wife provides one of the few deviations from the Bard’s original storyline while Bipasha Basu as Billo is there to provide a couple of earthy item numbers. A heavy star cast that does not for once detract from the intensity of the script.

A character in Salman Rushdie’s Fury sums up the character of Othello thus: “…Othello does not love Desdemona. ..He says he does but it can’t be true. Because if he loves her, the murder makes no sense. For me, Desdemona is Othello’s trophy wife, his most valuable and status giving-posession, the physical proof of his risen standing in a white man’s world….He loves that about her, but not her…Desdemona’s death is an ‘honour killing’. She didn’t have to be guilty. The accusation was enough…She’s not even a person to him. He has reified her. She’s his Oscar-Barbie statuette. His doll.”

I thought it was a fitting description of Othello. I am not entirely sure this holds as true in Omkaara. Om, like Othello, is brave and intelligent and a true leader of men. Yet at the end, his fatal flaw is not his inability to see Dolly as anything but a possession, but a deep seated sense of inferiority – he really cannot believe he can deserve a Dolly.

Omkaara as a film is worth watching, even buying the DVD for. It has been quite a welcome relief from the mindless stuff being currently churned out.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Londonstani

Gautam Malkani

Here is chick-lit in reverse – a boy-book if I can call it that. Fun to read on a plane, not to be taken too seriously.

Set in a part of London, Hounslow, that’s more South Asian than English, the first thing that strikes us is the lingo - fresh and therefore interesting. It is an unabashed mix of English, Hindi and Punjabi – the ‘pehndu’ and ‘innit’ and ‘bhanchod’ and ‘wikid’ all flow effortlessly together. And this is probably the best thing about the book.

Londonstani showcases a fusion culture where kids grow up in Britain, yet stay Indian or Paki. In this twilight zone, arranged marriages are the norm and families are more Indian than those back home. Dads drive ‘Beemers’ and moms hold satsangs. Kids listen to Bhangra pop and integration is a dirty word. In the heart of Britain, the line dividing India and Pakistan is as strong as it has ever been – Muslim and Hindu are swear words you throw at each other across the line. It is all very laughable if you don’t get the sneaking suspicion that this is all true.

The narrator is a boy named Jas and it is a tale of him trying hard to belong. He makes sure he talks in the right lingo and does the right things, just so that he can be part of the ‘rudeboys’. The group he desperately wants an in into consists of Hardjit (right name Harjit), a Sikh boy, the leader and body perfect, Amit whose brother Arun’s marriage is becoming a soap opera and Ravi, innocuous and tactless. His plans of integration into this world soon come apart – with his obsession for Samira, a Muslim and therefore a complete no-no for his group, his advice to Arun to rebel against his mother that makes for unfortunate consequences and the group’s growing involvement in a mobile phone scam.

Jas’s story is pretty engrossing at the beginning. But after a while, the lingo no longer surprises and the situations drag. The ending of course, is completely farcical. Londonstani is, like I mentioned earlier, a decent read. Nothing more, nothing less.

Friday, July 28, 2006

ta prohm


ta prohm
Originally uploaded by paronair.

Trees growing out of the ruins of an Angkor temple. Provides an unusual and extremely photogenic sight. One of the most distinct temples in Angkor.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Faraway Land

Brown, blue and grey – those to me were the colours of Ladakh. The Uttaranchal Himalayas were lush and verdant. Ladakh is barren desert and mountainscape, an expanse of craggy snow-covered peaks and muddy deep rivers. The silence-filled expanse is magnificent and mysterious. It feels like few people have walked these lands before.

The Indus was the river we followed on its course. The Indus that gave India and a whole civilization its name, the Sindhu of our puranas, the main water resource of the Punjab and Sindh provinces of Pakistan. We saw it in its upper reaches, closer to its glacier source. So it is muddy and brown and unlike the Alaknanda of Uttaranchal, much less frisky and playful. The white water rafting on the Indus was exciting but not scary – the rapids not being so wild and untamed.

The mentions of height above sea level are casual and matter-of-fact – Leh is at 12,000 ft, mountain passes at 17,000 and 18,000 feet. To a plains-dweller, that is pretty awesome. A little reflection and you realize you are talking of 2/3rds the height of Mt. Everest, the height of the tallest mountains in Europe, higher than any in North America. And a car gets you there! Khardung La, the highest point we got to is one of the highest motorable passes in the world. We got there on a cold and snowy day and the mountain views were truly memorable. But it is quite difficult to imagine being posted in a place like that. The Indian Army guys have it pretty tough.

The Indian Army is ubiquitous in Ladakh. The proximity to the borders (of both Pakistan and China) is evident by their presence. And probably because of this the roads are pretty good, especially the mountain roads. The locals seem happy to have the Army there – they provide employment, build roads and keep them safe. Though I am sure there are bound to be conflicts with the local administration. The Kargil war is still a close memory and when we were on the Leh-Srinagar highway, on our way to Lamayaru, we were reminded of how close Pakistan was to being able to shut out this road.

We were in Ladakh for about 10 days and there was no way we could escape the gompas of the land. These are ancient monasteries and quite like the temples of south India, have managed to withstand foreign intrusions into the land. Most of these gompas are situated on cliff tops and though these days roads can take us up to most of them, in ancient times, these might have been quite inaccessible, adding to their mystique. The Diskit monastery in the Nubra valley is a pretty gompa with some stunning views as is the Rizong one on the way to Lamayaru. The Shankar Gompa in Leh is pretty disappointing but the Likir one has this massive statue of the Buddha that looks out into the countryside. The wall murals and the ancient thankas inside these temples are beautiful works of art – treasures that we need to protect.

Leh itself has little of great interest. It is a capital town, overflowing with tourists from abroad. Tibetan shops and people are everywhere and its main market roads are pretty crowded and noisy. But it’s a nice place to stay for a couple of days to get away from the heat of the plains. Leh palace is in ruins and though it is supposed to be modeled on the Potala palace of Tibet, has little to really distinguish itself.

The Nubra Valley on the other hand is truly unique, with the Shyok river running through it. Sand dunes in the midst of snow-capped mountain peaks is a rather distinctive landscape. It is like a Rajasthan has been transported to the Himalayas. Geographically speaking, it is not really an anomaly. The mountains form a blockade against rain giving clouds and hence much of Ladakh is really a desert. The Nubra valley and its thinly populated expanse though will remain in memory for quite a while. We did not see a single soul on our 8 km walk from the Hunder to the Diskit village. It was just the mountains, sand and us.

Pangong Tso, the lake that lies on India’s border with China provides yet another mind-numbingly scenic landscape in Ladakh. Only one-third of the lake lies in India, yet it seems pretty big. The blue-ness of the water and the sky is so beautifully set off by the brown of the mountains and the land. And the different shades of blue in the water can let you stare at it for hours. Getting there through Chang La, yet another impossibly high pass is an adventure by itself.

Ladakh was an experience to remember. Rarely have I seen such true scenic beauty. We went there in the height of summer, when there was hardly any snow and ice. Ladakh in winter would be impossibly tough yet impossibly beautiful as well, I am sure.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Your Personality Is Like Acid
A bit wacky, you're very difficult to predict.One moment you're in your own little happy universe...And the next, you're on a bad trip to your own personal hell!
What Drug Is Your Personality Like?

Saturday, June 24, 2006


An Iron Harvest

By CP Surendran

The ‘Rajan case’ as it came to be known, rocked Kerala in the ‘70s. It was the emergency, Rajan was a student of REC Calicut, a hot bed of Naxalite sympathizers and one day he was taken into police custody and never seen again. It is supposed that he was tortured in police custody and killed. His father Eechara Varrier waged a courageous battle against the authorities, pressing for information about his son and filing a case against the government when the emergency was finally lifted. The case led to the resignation of the chief minister Karunakaran (who was the home minister at the time of the incident) but the police officers who were in charge of the police camp where Rajan was taken were prosecuted but later acquitted.

This incident forms the kernel of Surendran’s novel. He describes a time in Kerala where Naxalites had fired the popular imagination, with students rallying behind an ideology that promised revolution and a changing of the old guard. It is an unrecognizable Kerala today. When Surendran describes feudal landlords exploiting tribal labour mercilessly, it seems like he is talking about today’s Bihar. Just goes to show how much Kerala has changed since the ‘70s. It is also the time of the emergency – a strange and troubling time. Trains run on time but midnight knocks are common as are forced sterilization drives.

The story is of John, an engineering college student, the leader of Red Earth, a Naxalite group that beheads cruel landlords and raids police stations. John is as close to a Che Guevara as one can get – the beard, the intellectualism, the on-the-run life he chooses. John’s friend Abe is the Rajan who disappears. It drives John further into the arms of the revolution that he is intelligent enough to recognize is not going to come to pass. John and his fellow-revolutionaries go deeper into the beautiful forests of Wynad where it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize friend from foe. A parallel story of Abe’s father, Sebastian, runs through the novel as he attempts to get justice for his son’s disappearance. Sebastian is the character you sympathise most with – his is an intense personal grief that hard to ignore by even the most hardened police officials. The DIG Raman, the man responsible for Abe’s death is portrayed as a sadist, taking pleasure in the torture he inflicts on his helpless prisoners.

Surendran’s tale is fast-paced and engrossing. As the police web tightens around John and his fellow-revolutionaries, there are events set in motion that work towards helping Sebastian. The darkness of the emergency is lifted and Sebastian can hope for the courts to grant him recourse. But it is already too late for John. His hopes for the revolution are fading along with his life.

It is a first novel and Surendran has chosen a subject that is obvious he is intimate with. He writes of the lure of leftist ideology in the time of fascism. It is an alluring concept, more so because of the juxtaposition. An interesting read of a time that no one should ever forget – when we came so close to losing so much of what we take for granted today.

Surendran’s language evokes a lush green and wet Kerala. He does not use language to mesmerize like Arundhati Roy, but in his quiet way he paints beauty beautifully. Yet he uses English quite self-consciously, translating a lot of the Malayalam that Roy uses without compunction in her English. That is a bit unnecessary and takes away from naturalness.

I’ve always enjoyed CP Surendran’s columns. And An Iron Harvest is definitely one of the better Indian novels in English I have read in a long while.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


A drizzly morning in the rain forest of Taman Negara. Remote, lovely and calming.

Black Swan Green

By David Mitchell

I knew Cloud Atlas would not be the last novel I would be reading of David Mitchell. Black Swan Green is his latest and is really quite different from Cloud Atlas, though there is a character from Cloud Atlas here too. Mitchell seems to love carrying forward characters from one book to another. A slightly endearing trait, I find.

BSG is a book much narrower in scope than Cloud Atlas. It is a simple narration of a 13 year old boy with a stammer and a skill for poetry. It traces a single year in the life of this boy Jason Taylor, the year of the Falklands war. Through him we live his life filled with all the angst of a pre-teen boy with a stammer in a school full of bullies. It does not help that he is a poet, a skill that is seen as so ‘gay’. And that his parents are in a relationship that is not so healthy and that his sister, who was a hated character till recently, is now going away to college.

It’s an uncomplicated tale of the complications in Jason’s 13th year. The Belgian émigré, the gypsies who come into town and the tangled emotions girls as a species generates allow for excitement in the boy’s life.

Through this straightforward narration, Mitchell manages to make Jason Taylor a fairly interesting character, parts of whom are recognizable in any 13 year old boy. BSG makes for a compelling read, mainly because of Jason Taylor’s wry and vibrant voice. I am sure to continue reading Mitchell.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

cambodia


cambodia
Originally uploaded by paronair.

One of my most cherished holidays - Angkor Wat and Cambodia. A lovely country unaffected by the unabashed tourism. I guess camera-wielding tourists are preferable to the horrors of war.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

The Legends of Khazak

By O.V.Vijayan


It is easy to see why this book is considered such a seminal work of fiction in Indian literature. Published first as a novel in 1969 (it was serialized in the Mathrubhoomi Weekly a year before), it pre-dates a lot of the magic realism that Rushdie brought to the fore by more than a decade.

But The Legends of Khazak is not just a tale of magic-realism. A lot of the fables in the book are very real for a Keralite. They are reminiscent of stories that you grow up hearing – the ‘velichappaadu’ (oracle), the ‘poothams’ (ghosts), the ‘yakshis’ (spectres), all are familiar. As they are for the villagers of Khazak, these are an everyday presence, real and true, not just a part of some writer’s fantasy.

The tale is of Ravi’s – a would-be astrophysicist who chooses to come to the remote village of Khazak to teach at a single-teacher school. Khazak has not seen a school before. And so the conflicts between the local madrassa, the Hindu paathshaala and the new school master are inherent in the situation. But maybe because it is a more innocent time (the ‘60s were more about communism than fundamentalism), these conflicts do not form the basis of the story. Instead, the tale focuses sympathetically on very local characters, the old mullah who realizes his time is past, the dwarf-cretin Appu Kili, the poverty-stricken and abandoned Chaand Umma, the child Kunhamina, the toddy-drinking oracle Kuttadan. The small pox epidemic, the liquor prohibition and the resultant illegal toddy tapping, the advent of communists – all of them form a backdrop to events at Khazak.

Ravi, who is escaping personal demons from the past, is drawn into the stories of Khazak until he is a part of them himself. He comes to teach the village children the logic and rationality of the outside world. He ends up being taught that the so-called irrationality of the locals is as rational as anything he has learned in physics. The first school inspection passes off with flying colours. Ravi and the school do not pass the second. By then, he is telling the children stories instead of teaching them the alphabet. The village has changed him. What starts off as a regular tale of a city-bred schoolmaster coming in to the village to revolutionise it, becomes inverted. The teacher becomes the learner. And the enchantment of Khazak works its magic on the outsider. Until Ravi’s death wish is fulfilled.

‘Kazakinte itihaasam’ is supposed to have brought about a change in the Malayalam narrative structure as well. Unfortunately, to readers of the translation, we will have to take everyone’s word for it.

Friday, May 26, 2006


Cloud Atlas
By David Mitchell

A riveting read. My first David Mitchell and this will definitely not be my last. What strikes me when I read him is how comfortable Mitchell is in so many different worlds. The book is a series of 6 different but strangely interconnected stories set in different geographies and different times, varing from the Pacific Islands in the 19th century to Europe in the early 20th, to a Reagan-era California to a 21st century middle America, a clone-era somewhere in the future and an even further future after the fall of civilization. The connections between the stories are tenuous - there is a strange birthmark that travels across characters and diaries and manuscripts of one character from one time period are found by characters in other periods. Most of the narrative is in first person and that is what makes it so amazing. Mitchell manages to get the differences in language and narrative patterns between the different worlds down so pat - the early 20th century Englishman, the clone's fumbling learning of the language and the back-to-nature native's rythmic tone. All so different and yet sounding so authentic. Borders on brilliant, in my opinion. The book is almost an un-put-downable read. There is something of the mystery in it and the thriller. One of the best reviews I have read is by AS Byatt, featured in The Guardian.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Cheong Fat Tze mansion


Cheong Fat Tze mansion
Originally uploaded by paronair.

The 'blue' mansion in Penang. A heritage building over a century old, this perfectly feng-shui-ed home belonged to a Chinese businessman. His rags-to-riches story had him dubbed the Chinese Rockefeller. Currently the house proves to be a popular tourist attraction, it being one of the few original Chinese courtyard mansions left.

Tioman


Tioman
Originally uploaded by paronair.

Rated one of the ten most beautiful islands in the world by Time magazine sometime in the late 70s, Tioman was also the setting for the magical island of Bali Hai in the film South Pacific. For me, Tioman was the my first weekend getaway from Singapore. It was also the site of my first snorkelling attempt. It's a beautiful island, though thronging with tourists from Singapore and Malaysia.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Bali


Bali
Originally uploaded by paronair.

Have seen this a million times on postcards. Yet being there was special.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Sputnik Sweetheart

by Haruki Murakami

Sputnik Sweetheart is not one one of Murakami’s most representative books – or so people who have read a number of his books tell me. But it’s different enough from normal for me to recognize this writer as unique. For one, the book has a Japanese setting without anything in it being particularly Japanese. Other than the names of the characters and the places, the story could be set anywhere, in any of the big cities of the world. So there is no exoticisation (if there is such a word) of a culture – nothing at all like, for instance, Memoirs of a Geisha. For another, while the novel tells a seemingly normal story, there is always an undercurrent of the surreal which gets magnified as the story progresses.

The narrator of the story, identified only as K, is in love with a childhood friend, Sumire, a writer. Sumire’s life is untidy and chaotic, with no fixed plan, unsympathetic to a commercial world outside. The only steadying influence is K, a school teacher who she can call at all times of the day and night and be assured of a listening ear. As Sumire waits for time and experience to teach her to be a writer, she meets Miu and falls in love. Miu is 17 years older and a woman, married, a business woman, as far removed from Sumire’s world as Sputnik is from the earth. This unlikely triangle is the base of the book.

Sumire gets closer to Miu, changes herself to fit into Miu’s world (wears business suits, gets a haircut, is unable to write anymore) and goes off with Miu on a business trip cum holiday to Europe. Which is where she disappears ‘like smoke’ never to be seen again. There is enough of a clue earlier on in the book about this strange event. Miu has a cat that disappears from the top of a tree that it has climbed. No explanations, it disappears just like that. As K goes to the Greek islands to help Miu in her search for Sumire, the tale gets stranger still. He discovers some of Sumire’s writings where she details out Miu’s story. Fourteen years earlier, Miu is stuck in a ferris wheel for the night in a remote Swiss town and as she looks into her apartment from the top of the ferris wheel through her binoculars, she sees herself making love to a stranger. The Miu in the ferris wheel is repulsed, but the Miu in her apartment seems to be enjoying herself. In the morning, Miu wakes up in the ferris wheel with one half of her self completely gone. So the Miu of today is just one half of a whole self, thus explaining her lack of ability to feel anything, to love. Her other self took that away – the ability to love, the ability to make music, the ability to feel.

Sumire disappears, goes into ‘the other world’, Miu loses half her self and K returns to Tokyo to continue his life as a school teacher, a job he seems to be good at, but not something he seems to care too deeply about.

The whole alienation thing seems to be a big theme in Murakami’s novel. Sumire is a writer alienated from the normal world where no one seems to get her. So she has to, in a sense go to ‘the other world’, presumably a world in which the ‘other Miu’ resides, a world where she can live out her passionate life, hopefully with the Miu that can feel. The book is a stark commentary on the commercial, normal world that makes people lose things that are intrinsic to them. It is a deeply unsettling theme, and one that stays with you long after you have finished the book.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Saturday

by Ian McEwan


Henry Perowne, a London neurosurgeon, wakes up before dawn on a Saturday in February 20003. He goes to his window, sees a burning plane land, turns on the TV and discovers that it is not a terrorist attack, goes back to his bedroom, makes love to his wife, goes out for a squash game in the morning, crashes into a BMW while trying to avoid an anti-Iraq war protest in the city, is saved a roughing up by the driver Baxter because he diagnoses Baxter’s neurological disease, finishes his squash game, buys fish at the fish market, visits his ailing mother in an old-age home, attends his musician son’s concert, comes home and makes fish stew for dinner and awaits his son, poet-daughter, poet-father-in-law and lawyer-wife for a re-union dinner. The family re-union is interrupted by a furious knife-wielding Baxter but the day ends with Perowne saving Baxter’s life in an operation theatre. It’s all a Saturday in the life of Henry Perowne.


The plot is deceptively simple. The running track through Perowne’s mind takes us through his unambiguous love for his family to his ambivalence about the Iraq war (he argues for it with his dove-ish daughter and against with his hawkish American partner) and his compassion for and fear of Baxter. It weaves the specific Perowne story with an awareness of the happenings in the world – the growing possibility of the Iraq war, impending terror attacks on London and the war in Afghanistan are never too far away. At its heart, Saturday is a story of an individual’s moral code, executable at a personal level, set against a backdrop of an increasingly uncertain world morality. Henry Perowne is all that is decent in humanity.


McEwan’s language is precise and sharp. You can feel the dry red chillies between your fingers when Perowne crushes them for the fish stew. You can sense the tension in the room when his father-in-law, the famous poet Grammaticus, trashes his 19-year old daughter Daisy’s award-winning poem. And you can feel for Perowne when he describes the dismantling of his mother’s house when she has to be taken to a home. Even the medical procedure in the operating theatre is so vivid it’s like being there.


Saturday reads honestly. There is little here that seems false or clichéd. It’s real and complex and true to life. You can imagine this Saturday happening to a similar man in a similar place. And it holds your attention in a way that reality manages to do. It’s a riveting book.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Proof

Just saw a small, sweet movie - Proof. It's based on a Pulitzer-winning play and all the reviews I had read about it were mixed. So I went into it without a lot of expectations and was pleasantly surprised.

Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Anthony Hopkins and Jake Gyllenhaal, Proof is a story about a young woman Catherine (Paltrow), daughter of a brilliant mathematician (Hopkins) who leaves college and any semblance of a real life to look after her father when he becomes mentally ill. Years of taking care of her unstable father leaves her little scope for furthering her own mathematical genius. And when her father dies and when her less-than-understanding sister comes back home for the funeral, Catherine begins to doubt her own mental stability, especially since she knows she has inherited some of her father's genius. Things come to a head when one of her father's pupils and her lover Hal (Gyllenhaal) discovers a notebook filled with the construction of a 'proof', that both he and Catherine's sister attribute to her father but which she herself claims to be her own.

It's not a long story, but it explores the thin line between genius and insanity with a lot of power. Short, sweet and well-told is how I would describe the film. I am not terribly fond of either Paltrow or Gyllenhaal. But in this movie, they fit their roles admirably. Paltrow's terribly waxy, pale skin is a downer, though.

Proof is a good movie, not one of the great ones for sure. But it has its moments. Worth a watch, I would say.

Thursday, March 02, 2006



Adventure in Queenstown

You have to be at least a bit crazy if you can jump off a plane. Or a bridge for that matter. But you head to Queenstown in New Zealand’s pretty South Island, and you realize that there are a lot of crazies out there. Queenstown advertises itself as the adventure capital of the world. Going by the number of sky divers and bungy jumpers and river rafters it attracts, that is no tall claim.

The town itself is pretty as a picture. It lies on Lake Wakatipu and the foothills of the Remarkables range of mountains. The snow-topped mountains and lake combine to make Queenstown a year-round tourist destination. Summer sees skydivers and bungy jumpers and river rafters do their thing, while the winter brings on the skiers. So, if you have even the smallest adventure bone in your body, you need to come here.

We didn’t get to do this ourselves but if river rafting is your thing, the Shotover and Kawarau rivers can provide you thrills and more. There are half day rafting trips over Grade 4 rapids and the Kawarau river has some wild segments including New Zealand’s longest commercial white water segment. If you don’t have the time, you can try the Shotover Jet, a half hour wild ride at over 70 km/ hr through the canyon, skimming impossibly close to the canyon walls. I had fun screaming my lungs out.

The Kawarau Bridge is the site of the world’s first bungee jump. You jump off a 43 metre bridge over the beautiful green waters of the Kawarau river. You can jump forwards, backwards or with someone else. You can also touch the water when you jump. I did the tandem bungee with my husband. That fateful moment when you will yourself to take the plunge is hard to forget. Your legs are tied together and you are standing on the ledge looking down at those blue-green waters. Every instinct in you screams at you to step back. There is no earthly reason you need to do this, you tell yourself. Yet in one heart-stopping moment you jump. The waters rush up towards you and before you know it you are pulled back by the rope. The second time you go down, you are expecting it and then you enjoy it more. It is quite crazy.

Even crazier is jumping off a plane. I never dreamed I would do something like that. Ever. But an adventure-crazed husband and a persuasive salesman at the NZone office on Shotover street made sure I did the impossible. I did not sleep the entire night before the sky dive. I had already done the bungee the day before, but I knew jumping off a plane at 9000 feet was going to be different. I was scared witless. The pep talk the Hungarian instructor was giving me in his heavily accented English was going over my head. All I could do was curse my husband for getting me into this mess and I was sure that if I got out of this alive, I was going to leave him. They strapped me up to this instructor, him behind me with the parachute and we hopped onto a small plane. As the plane flew up to the required 9000 feet, I was so nervous, I was almost in tears. The 2 minutes when you sit at the edge of the plane door looking down at the clouds below was almost interminable. And then you fell. The free fall was the most terrifying 35 seconds of my life. I could feel the skin of my cheeks flapping against my face as my instructor and I fell headlong into earth. Then the parachute opened and all was well with the world. The 5 minutes or so we floated down to earth with the parachute was magical – the clouds above, the mountains and lake below. It was paradise on earth. Especially as it seemed we had snatched ourselves from the jaws of death.

After that bit of madness, it was good to have that refreshing mug of beer in one of the innumerable English-type pubs dotting the town. Nothing else in our stay at Queenstown quite matched that sky dive. But we spent a nice afternoon strolling by the lakeside, enjoying the sunshine and looking up at the sky watching the other crazies do other wild things like paragliding. Queenstown sure is fun. If you are a little twisted in the head.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Sunday, February 26, 2006


Carl Sandburg 1878-1967

Here’s some poetry from a favourite poet – Carl Sandburg. I first came across Sandburg’s poetry at an Americal Literature class, and I was immediately struck by the sheer simplicity and force of his words. His words strike at you – there is no holding back here. There is passion, strength of emotion and a bold and distinct point of view that looks at the underdog as the real hero. He is obviously a working class poet – a socialist, who wrote about the common man and woman, everyday struggles, loves and joys. His most famous poem is of course, Chicago. It’s a tribute to what surely must be a magnificent city and I sometimes can see Mumbai in those words. In his long career, he wrote a Pulitzer-winning 3 volume biography of Lincoln as well as a book of children’s tales. Critics might not rank him in the American poetry pantheon as one of the best American poets. But to someone who is easily moved by emotive words and pictures, Sandburg is right up there.

HAPPINESS

I ASKED the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell
me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of
thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though
I was trying to fool with them
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along
the Desplaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with
their women and children and a keg of beer and an
accordion.

GONE

EVERYBODY loved Chick Lorimer in our town.
Far off
Everybody loved her.
So we all love a wild girl keeping a hold
On a dream she wants.
Nobody knows now where Chick Lorimer went.
Nobody knows why she packed her trunk. . a few
old things
And is gone,
Gone with her little chin
Thrust ahead of her
And her soft hair blowing careless
From under a wide hat,
Dancer, singer, a laughing passionate lover.

Were there ten men or a hundred hunting Chick?
Were there five men or fifty with aching hearts?
Everybody loved Chick Lorimer.
Nobody knows where she's gone.

A FENCE

Now the stone house on the lake front is finished and the
workmen are beginning the fence.
The palings are made of iron bars with steel points that
can stab the life out of any man who falls on them.
As a fence, it is a masterpiece, and will shut off the rabble
and all vagabonds and hungry men and all wandering
children looking for a place to play.
Passing through the bars and over the steel points will go
nothing except Death and the Rain and To-morrow.

CHICAGO

HOG Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on
job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the
little soft cities;

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning
as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
Bareheaded,
Shoveling,
Wrecking,
Planning,
Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with
white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young
man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has
never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.
and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing!
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of
Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog
Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with
Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer I like. His prose is spare and minimalist yet manages to imbue drama in the plot almost effortlessly. Never Let Me Go is one of his most recent novels and like Remains of the Day, one of my personal favourites, it takes you into the mind of the narrator and leads you through the days of her life, without fuss, without melodrama.

The narrator is Kathy H. No surname, no one in the book has one and no explanation as to why it is so. Her narration is simple and seemingly normal – about her memories of her old school Hailsham and her 2 closest friends Ruth and Tommy. Except for stray words like ‘carer’, ‘donations’ and a complete lack of any reference to family, there is nothing unusual in a woman’s memories of a boarding school – the usual bullying of weaker classmates, the mindless cruelty only children are capable of and the fierce inexplicable loyalties between friends. Yet slowly, the reader begins to become aware of unusualness. You start to realize that this is no ordinary school. And the students are not your normal teenagers. The students themselves seem aware at some level of their own ‘differentness’ but as the novel unfolds, their awareness grows with that of the reader. And soon the reader begins to grasp that there is something quite horrific going on. That this is a world where humans are cloned with the express purpose of donating healthy organs to the rest of the world. And that Hailsham is a place that tries an experiment – trying to give these clones a semblance of a normal human life by burying some of the reality, blurring the truth a bit. And the central debate of the book is revealed as it moves along – is hiding reality from these children really a form of cruelty? Is it really kindness or pity that drives the founders of the school? Kathy and Tommy at the end decide that it would have been better to know. That it always is better to face the entire truth, that ignorance in the long term is not bliss.

It is quite a strange plot, not a normal everyday one. But it drags you along, curious about the triangle of Kathy, Tommy and Ruth. The juxtaposition of the normal love triangle in the bizarre, almost science-fiction-like setting is quite riveting. And Kazuo Ishiguro once more has a winner on his hands.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rang De Basanti

Here's a decent Hindi flick after a long time. A good, taut script and the right casting make this a film worth buying the DVD for. It’s a coming-of-age movie, much like DCH, but with a ‘cause’ added on, a la Swades. It’s a story of 5 young college students hanging out together in an urban apathetic cocoon and whose lives are irrevocably changed when a ‘gori’ comes in to make a film about some of India’s freedom fighters. The 5 students along with a rabid Shiv-Sainik kind of character (Atul Kulkarni in a nicely crafted role) are chosen to play the leads in the film. Starting out cynical and not really caring about the Bhagat Singhs and the Chandrashekhar Azads, the students slowly get into the skin of the characters and when they face a real-life ‘cause’, they soon get drawn into it and make a decision to do something to change things. This decision and the consequences they face form the climax of the movie.

To me the best moments of the film are in the casual ‘hanging out’ scenes of the 5 protagonists. The dialogues here are witty, casual and very real – there is a huge dose of Punhinglish, if that is a word (a mix of Punjabi, Hindi and English). That is the way students in Delhi speak, I assume. The inter-cutting of the movie with the ‘film-in-film’ of India’s freedom struggle comes out nicely in some scenes and quite badly in others. There is something vaguely obscene about drawing parallels between Chandrashekhar Azad and Amir Khan’s DJ character. But that is what the movie does and to be fair, the script does not completely condone the vigilante justice it propounds. It does offer ‘better’ solutions – join the IAS or politics or become a police officer. But these are just words. What the protagonists do and become heroes for is not something we want our children to emulate. And there-in lies my issue with the film. Yuva for all its faults, I thought, offered a ‘right’ solution. RDB takes the easy way out.

But I liked the film, nonetheless. It tackles issues that I haven’t seen in any Hindi film before – the scandal of the MIG21 crashes and the ghetto-isation of Muslim communities are 2 that come immediately to mind. It does this but does not forget to entertain, unlike a Swades. All in all, it’s a good tale and quite well told.