Sunday, February 25, 2007

Shalimar The Clown

By Salman Rushdie

It is always a pleasure to read Rushdie. The more recent works do not possibly have the power to surprise as much as Midnight’s Children and their plots may seem a bit more laboured…but man, can this guy write!
As is his wont, Shalimar the Clown has a sub text of bigger plots. The characters are motifs of Kashmir and the turmoil they go through is reflective of Kashmir’s troubled history. Ultimately, the novel is a paean to a notion of Kashmiriyat – a Kashmir that is the land of a softer, more benevolent Islam, a land whose legends are as much Hindu and Sikh as Muslim, where the beauty of its land and its people are quite unparalleled anywhere else. It is of course a Kashmir that no longer exists. And Rushdie tracks the breakdown of this beautiful land through the horror unleashed on it as much by foreign Islamic militants as by the insensitive Indian army.

That unfulfilled dream of Kashmir is embodied in Boonyi Kaul and Shalimar Noman, a dancer and a clown, and their beautiful village of Pachigam that accepts the unacceptable union of a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. It is Boonyi’s moment of madness, when she makes a pact with the devil, to get away from her claustrophobic Pachigam to see the larger world outside that sets in motion the spiral towards horror. The devil in this case, is the American ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, a man who has himself lost a beloved homeland to the Nazis and in the process become a war hero. Max’s war-time story is an engrossing sub-plot.

Boonyi never quite gets over her flight and neither does Shalimar. When she does come back to Pachigam, she has already been pronounced dead by her village including her beloved father. Dead she is, metaphorically at least, as she leaves behind a daughter she has named Kashmira and comes back only to wait for her promised death at the hands of her beloved Shalimar.

Shalimar in the meantime has joined hands with the international network of Islamic fundamentalists for whom Kashmir is but one stop in their journey. They introduce unknown concepts of Islam into the valley, forcing women to wear the veil (an alien concept in Kashmir till the insurgency) and forbidding contact with the Kashmiri Hindus they call kafirs. Shalimar does not share the burning faith of his militant brotherhood, but what he does harbour within him is the burning fire of vengeance against Boonyi and her American lover. It turns him into a ruthless assassin aided by his clowning skills of tight-rope walking.

When Shalimar ultimately reaches Max, he shockingly discovers the daughter – India Ophuls, named India by one woman and Kashmira by another. The reader cannot but wince at the double metaphor. But that is Rushdie – unabashed about using obvious literary devices to further a tale. India or Kashmira’s tale is a 3rd sub-plot. And possibly the least interesting. The book climaxes to the confrontation-to-the-death between her and Shalimar and Rushdie’s lament on the disappearance of a simpler and more beautiful world is complete.

Is Max’s story a metaphor for the dangers of American intervention in areas best left alone? He is a hero during WWII just as America was. He comes out as less than one after his Kashmir fiasco. There is little sympathy for Shalimar as he lets his personal demons lead him to those who destroy all that he loves best. There is even less sympathy for the Indian army – whose ruthless rape and pillage measures to contain the insurgency lead to a worsening of the situation.

The best parts of the book are the idyllic Pachigam scenes in a less brutal time – the time when Boonyi and Shalimar love each other on the banks of the Muskadeen, the time of the Banquet of 36 courses and the descriptions of the entertainment shows put up by Shalimar’s father Abdullah and his troupe, the rivalry between Pachigam and its neighboring village of Shirmal and the prophecies of the Gujur prophetess.

The book is Rushdie’s requiem to Kashmir. It is a powerful love story and he spares no one who tears the valley apart.

Thursday, February 22, 2007


By Vidhu Vinod Chopra

The story of Eklavya in the Mahabharat is well known. A lower-caste by birth, Eklavya goes to Dronacharya asking to be taught archery by the great master. Drona refuses to take him on as a pupil because of his caste. So he practices archery in the forest by himself, worshipping a clay image of Drona he creates, as Drona continues to teach the kshatriya-born Arjuna and his cousins. He becomes a master archer and when Drona accidentally sees his archery skills, he is worried – Eklavya has become a better archer than his best pupil Arjuna. In a cruel move, in order that his favourite pupil Arjun remains the best archer in town, he asks Eklavya for a guru dakshina that would in effect destroy his effectiveness as an archer. Eklavya unhesitatingly cuts off his right thumb and gives it to his revered guru.

Eklavya remains in our popular imagination as the embodiment of guru bhakti. Yet there is no denying the fact that it is a cruel story portraying the excesses of a rotten caste system. Eklavya stays true to his dharma unhesitatingly, unquestioningly, even though it ultimately destroys him.

It is this unhesitating and unquestioning pursuit of dharma that Chopra calls into question in his movie Eklavya. At heart, the movie subverts a lot of what Hinduism holds close to heart. Was Eklavya right, Chopra asks, in doing what he did. And the movie’s resounding answer is no.

Chopra sets the story in a modern day feudal state – where Eklavya is a royal guard, guarding a Rana. He unquestioningly performs his duties protecting his master, just as his father did when he died protecting the current Rana’s father. However he is growing old, and with his failing eyesight, he is not the guard he once was. The Rana is killed and the rest of the story is about Eklavya’s pursuit of his dharma and the moral dilemmas it leads him to.

The cast is apt. Amitabh makes a powerful Eklavya, though one wishes for fresher faces in Hindi cinema. Saif portrays the torn son well. And Jackie Shroff, Vidya Balan and Jimmy Shergill play their parts competently. Boman Irani as the fey Rana is, as usual, pretty good. Sanjay Dutt has a great cameo as the local police officer. The setting is opulent and visually quite stunning. All in all, the ingredients are probably right.

Yet, the movie falls flat. The premise of the movie is powerful and subversive. Yet it is a flat rendering of the story. The drama is not drama enough and there is very little that touches you. As someone who freely cries even in a Karan Johar film, I felt a bit cheated. There was not a single tear drop. The parts add up to less than a perfect whole.

It is a brave effort none the less. The film is unlikely to light up the box office – the premise of the film is a bit too subtle, the story drags in places and even the normally dependable Amitabh sometimes sleepwalks through scenes. Yet it is a good film to have been made – it calls into question a few basics of stories that we have been brought up on. Was Eklavya right in what he did, was Rama right in going off into the forest, was Arjuna right in sharing Draupadi with his brothers, all in pursuit of the unquestionable personal dharma?

One only wishes these questions were confronted in a more dramatic manner. Perhaps the setting is a bit off (the transportation of the Eklavya story into modern-day Rajasthan is less credible than that of Othello into UP or Macbeth into the Mumbai underworld), perhaps the script is not gripping enough, perhaps Amitabh overwhelms the character. Whatever the missing link, the movie is disappointing.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Roger Waters Concert

The concert happened. Went. Enjoyed. He played all the songs I knew of Floyd (countable on my fingers). He looked old (he is almost as old as my dad), a bit like Gere and had a band member with a sexy voice. The pig went up into the air and we all went wow!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Demon-Seed (Asura Vithu)

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

Reading a Malayalam book in an English translation is personally slightly humiliating. After all, I do know the language, can even read it with some degree of capability. But somehow I know I don’t currently have the patience or the time to read an entire book in the original Malayalam. So, when I saw the English translation of Asura Vithu, I had to pick it up. I am somewhat familiar with MT. I have seen some movies that he screen wrote. And I have heard enough about him to know from my mother to know he is one of the more respected Malayalam writers of today.

Asura Vithu is a book that, even in an average translation, reads authentic. I could picture the village of Kizhakkemuri with its lush paddy fields, the river running through it, the coconut and jack fruit trees at each house, its unforgiving monsoons. It is beautiful Kerala at its most pristine, a beauty most Keralites take for granted. But the landscape is not the only thing that rings true. The pettiness of village life, the caste and religious politics and the grinding poverty among such incredible beauty – you know it’s a life lived by the writer.

The story is of Govindankutty, the youngest son of a proud Nair tharavaadu, Thazhathethil. The pride (in its ancestry that can go back a hundred years, in its long-lost riches, in a golden yesterday that exists only in memories) is all the tharavaadu has left. It’s a familiar story told a million times by a million writers and filmmakers. Poverty has ensured that the family land is mortgaged and rice gruel is the only food on the plate. Yet appearances have to be kept up. The eldest son has to give gifts on Onam to his wife’s family – even if it means the jackfruit tree in the compound has to be sold. And it is beneath one’s dignity to labour with your hands in another man’s field – that is only for the lower castes. Caste is important enough to dictate with whom you play, eat or employ in your home. The matriarch of the family Kunhikaliyamma is someone most Nairs have encountered – crusty, old, the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, in complete control of her family. She has little real power to decide anyone’s fate; but in her closest circle, her helpless unmarried daughter, her youngest son she bitterly calls ‘Asura Vithu’, she wields the power to hurt.

It is a story of a desperate Nair boy, tricked into a marriage to redeem his rich nephew’s shenanigans. In a fit of desperation, to flee his shame and his poverty, he converts to Islam. To be forever shunned by his family and all who matter in the village.

There are characters who stick in the reader’s mind – the unmarried sister Kunhioppol leading a life of quiet desperation, the sensible and statesman-like Kunharakkar, the luckless Meenakshi, seduced by a spoiled nephew and thrust upon, as unwanted baggage on Govindankutty. They bring to life the picture of a decaying society where money is concentrated in a few hands and there is little opportunity for anyone else to make a decent life. Unless of course, you leave the village. To anyone who knows Kerala, it would seem little has changed in 50 years.