Friday, August 18, 2017

The woman who minded the heavens and hunted comets (while also keeping house)

[Did a version of this piece – about one of my favourite literary and scientific heroines – for Mint Lounge]

Early one morning in August 1797, a shy, middle-aged woman named Caroline Herschel did something very uncharacteristic, saddling a horse and riding twenty-odd miles from Slough to share information with the Astronomer Royal in London. She had discovered a new comet, her eighth. Later she wrote to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, apologizing for not having visited him too – “I thought a woman who knows so little of the world ought not to aim at such an honour; but go home, where she ought to be, as soon as possible.”

Herschel was probably combining humility with knowingness. Regardless of how much she knew of the world, the scientific world was getting to know her well, her fame having transcended her original role in this arena: as housekeeper and dutiful assistant to her astronomer brother William. By 1797 her work had been chronicled in journals and she had even appeared in a mildly scatological cartoon, “smelling out” a comet depicted as a flatulent child soaring across the sky.

The publication of Angela Saini’s new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the subsequent discussion about the overlooking of women’s contributions to science – got me thinking again about Herschel, whom I first met in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. This superb biography of a scientific epoch is about the work of many great men – including Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy – with one major exception: Caroline Herschel is one of the most fascinating characters in a book filled with them.

I say “character” advisedly. The Age of Wonder isn’t a dry, academic work. As a colourful narrative history dealing with 200-year-old lives (and inner lives), it involves the weaving together of different source materials and a degree of conjecture. And the chapters about William and Caroline Herschel are so compelling in part because much of the information comes from Caroline’s journals, which were personal and expansive in ways that her brother’s writings were not.

What emerges is a marvelous, often contradictory account of a woman who was self-sacrificing and compliant, but also had reserves of pride and ambition. And she was indefatigable. (You might get tired just reading about her daily routines.) She moved from Germany to Bath to live with William, under the pretext of pursuing a singing career, but really to be his apprentice. If she had stayed content with this, no one could have faulted her. It was a demanding, more than full-time job: apart from running the house – and negotiating the business of being a foreigner in an insular British town, gradually improving her English during forays to the market – she aided William in arduous tasks such as marathon lens-polishing sessions, as he constructed his giant telescopes.

Remarkably, she then made the time to pursue a parallel astronomical career. While William made big discoveries like a new planet (soon to be called Uranus), she used the smaller telescopes and reflectors available to her for “comet-hunting”, an ostensibly lesser pursuit but one that would provide vital information about bodies that came from beyond the known solar system.

From a modern feminist perspective, Caroline’s story might not always seem triumphant. She was a product of her time, her bursts of self-expression were achieved within a social bubble, and she must sometimes have felt underappreciated. In one of her more self-effacing (or bitter?) moments, she wrote “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done.” And she perhaps – justifiably, given her many sacrifices – resented the decline in her household status after William got married: The Age of Wonder mentions that she destroyed a decade’s worth of personal journals written during this period.

Despite all this, she cracked a glass ceiling, getting the first ever royal stipend given to a woman scientist in Britain, becoming the first honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and setting benchmarks for what women might achieve in a field they had previously not been welcomed into. No wonder she blazes like a meteor across the pages of Holmes’s capacious book.

A last, possibly whimsical observation. Since Caroline lived to a very old age, almost 98, her life-span stretched beyond the Romantic era covered by The Age of Wonder, and this has an unintentional consequence for the reader. The book describes the physical decline and deaths of all the other protagonists, but as the
narrative winds up, the octogenarian Caroline is very much around: still mentally agile, keeping late nights out of lifelong habit, counselling her nephew John Herschel (a major figure among the next generation of scientists), ruefully wishing she could “shake off some 30 years from my shoulders” to aid him in his work and travels.

And because there is no real closure when it comes to her, the mental picture we are left with is of a small, sprightly woman still on the roof of a house, peering through a 40-foot telescope – “minding the heavens”, as she eloquently put it in one of her diaries – while also keeping an eye on the many things to be done on terra firma. One can imagine her tut-tutting if a passing time-traveler – perhaps an infant riding a comet – were to tell her that two centuries later, the role of women in science was still being undermined. 

[An earlier post about some of my other favourite popular-science books is here]

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Narrative or anti-narrative? Thoughts on Gurgaon, a film of ellipses

[Did this for Daily O]

Shanker Raman’s intense film Gurgaon accomplishes something very strange, something I can’t completely put my finger on after just one viewing, but here’s an attempt. This could have been a strictly plot-oriented film, and it starts off seeming that way; and yet, almost without the viewer realizing it (and without any identifiable shift in tone), it segues into something much more existential and dreamlike – less concerned with how its story unfolds than with observing the characters and their private motivations and impulses.

All the elements of a narrative film (and a fast-paced thriller to boot) are established early on. There is a well-defined set of characters, mostly members of a nouveau-riche family living in Gurgaon: the patriarch Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), who has worked his way up from grimy beginnings to become a real-estate magnate, yet seems a little melancholy about the road he took to get here; his favoured child Preet (Ragini Khanna), who has studied architecture abroad and is stressed about her father’s property being in her name (and the fact that she is beholden to him as a result); and her jealous and resentful brother Nikki (the glaze-eyed Akshay Oberoi, holding the screen in almost every scene he is in). 

So: emotions run high, though they aren’t always expressed. Gurgaon kids behave like brats, placing obscene sums of money on a cricketing result and incurring debts they can’t repay. An uneducated but astute woman holds up a mirror to her husband, and he can’t always face it. A minor-league abduction – partly played for laughs – foreshadows a carefully plotted kidnapping that will occur later. A criminal plan spins out of control.

Which, you might, say, is enough “story” for a 105-minute film. And yet, as Gurgaon proceeds, it becomes obvious that this isn’t so much a “this happened. Then this happened” narrative as a collection of poetic vignettes. You wouldn’t exactly call it an avant-garde or experimental film (like some of the “art cinema” of the 1950s and 1960s, when New Waves exploded around the world – or even something like Ashim Ahluwalia’s freewheeling Miss Lovely), but it is unconcerned with providing clear-cut resolutions or explanations.

Consider its very last scene (no spoilers - I won’t be too specific), which manages to be both predictable (at the level of what we expect to happen) and startling (in the way that it happens); shocking and hilarious at the same time. It involves a character being cut off right in the middle of a monologue – in fact, right as he begins a pedantic-sounding sentence (the opening words of that sentence are “Itihaas gava si…” “or “History is witness that…” and those are also the last words of the film).

Abrupt as that ending is, it makes perfect sense, because Gurgaon has little patience with characters who speechify. And because this is a film of ellipses. You see this at different levels: at the level of the terse dialogues, or the way in which little things are deliberately left un-spelled out. (For instance, what precisely is the nature of Preet’s relationship with her French friend, who comes to stay with her for a few days?) But the effect is achieved visually too, through some very elegant dissolves, where it feels like scenes aren’t so much following each other in linear fashion but flowing into each other, making the passage of time a vague, ambiguous thing. (Watching Gurgaon, one of the things that struck me was how long it has been since I have seen a Hindi film that uses dissolves often and well.)

Some of the establishing scenes and long shots reminded me of passages from Terrence Malick’s early work (Badlands, Days of Heaven). But the way in which the film appeared set up to be a straight thriller but then moved towards a “aw heck, none of this really matters that much” tone was a bit like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or Robert Altman’s 3 Women – all of which at various points appear to be very concerned with storytelling but gradually slacken the pace and become much more about simply watching, or straining to listen.

And you DO have to strain to hear in some of Gurgaon’s scenes, because it is all so quiet. Sentences trail off, people talk languidly, even when they are speaking in rough-sounding Haryanvi accents, and even when they are saying not very nice things, or planning crime. The term “noir” is associated with night and the darkness that accompanies it – a visual darkness that, in literary or film noir, also becomes a symbol for the darkness in people’s hearts – but here is a noir film that made me think of another “night” association: these characters come across as indolent and sleepy; they speak as if afraid to wake up someone in the next room (even when there is no one in earshot).

At first I thought Pankaj Tripathi’s mumble was purely an affectation, an actor’s nod to Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. But as we learn more about Kehri Singh’s past – including some terrible things he did many years earlier – and see him speaking in a more normal voice in the flashback scenes, I developed the theory that over time, he has been suffocated from the inside by the world he has built; his throat is constricted, he is so bloated by his own misdemeanors that he is now physically incapable of speaking loudly or for long stretches.

Or maybe it’s just that the concrete-and-glass world he now inhabits – the New Gurgaon – doesn’t afford the sort of acoustic encouragement that the wilder, more open Gurgaon does. Perhaps these people are just constrained by their setting, by the need to appear “sophisticated” or “civilized”.

There are many things that Gurgaon is “about”, if you need to look at movies in those terms. The talking points can be easily ticked off: it is about a place that is straining hard to be modern and developed even though it barely has enough water to meet its basic needs (much less sustain huge green parks and swimming pools); about a family that doesn’t know what to do with the wealth that has come its way, and is mildly suspicious that it doesn’t have enough “culture” to go with its lifestyle; about youngsters who move between the world of their rustic upbringing and international education, even moving between accents. It is about female infanticide and parental guilt that manifests itself in unusual ways; it is about young people who bury their insecurities beneath a surface of swagger and entitlement.

These are all “relevant” subjects in today’s cinema, and many other films have confronted them head-on in recent years. The charm and mystery of Gurgaon for me was that it understands all those things, but rarely seems to be about them in any overt sense. It is more about the slow creation of a very particular, very menacing mood.

Friday, August 04, 2017

In which Devdutt Pattanaik gets mad as hell and won't take it anymore

As a follow-up to my profile of Devdutt Pattanaik – and to provide added context – here's a rough chronology of what happened during our second phone conversation, when Pattanaik got irritated with me. (Some of this was hurriedly scribbled out after the conversation, and I have probably forgotten a few details - in addition to setting out things in a way that makes me look like the tragic hero - but even so…)

It began with my making a reference to our earlier chat. I asked DP: further to what you said the other day (about Dalit and feminist narratives never acknowledging other perspectives), what about a perspective telling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of (to take a very clichéd example) Ekalavya? Why in that case would the author have an obligation to be “fair” or “balanced” or accommodating of other viewpoints? Wouldn’t he use a single lens throughout, that of the protagonist? 

DP: but that is fiction. You’re talking about novelized versions now. 

J (more or less expecting this answer, but still a little confused about DP’s exact position on the texts he deals with): I’m a huge Mahabharata obsessive, but to my mind it is a great work of literature, which reveals so much about people, their relationship with the world, and how they respond to situations. Could you let me know how you distinguish myths from fiction?

At this point, DP starts to lose it. Says things like “fiction is entertainment, it is authors telling stories. Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?"

Pointedly asks me a series of questions, starting with: “Would you say the Bible is a work of fiction?”

I say: yes, it certainly can be viewed that way. As a very old work that was a product of its place and time, put together by different people at different times, with both interesting and problematic things in it. 

“How about the Quran? Would you say that is fiction?”

“Sure. I don’t know very much about it, but if it is made up of stories about prophets and people who lived a thousand years ago, with references to a Supreme Being, yes, I would treat it as literature.” 

“Would you say that to a religious Muslim?” 

“No. But only because self-preservation is a little more important to me than honesty, and I wouldn’t want to risk getting my head lopped off.”

“If Ram Guha writes about India after Gandhi, would you call that history or fiction?”

“I would think of it as a useful history, dealing with events that can be verified or questioned through many other sources – with the proviso that any such history is always filtered through the writer’s lenses: biases, life experience, education, nature of research, etc. So it doesn’t have to be viewed as undisputed truth.”

At this point I also try to clarify to DP that when I refer to something as great fiction (or great literature), it is just about the highest compliment I can pay that thing. I don’t see fiction in the terms that he does, as “just entertainment”. But he is fuming by now, and launches into a monologue that includes mild forms of personal attack – mentioning that he is surprised that I am arguing with him about these things, that he was under the impression that I was trying to interview HIM, that this was about the things HE has to say, not about my views. More than once, speaking with some annoyance, he says versions of the phrase “Jai, I am NOT interested in what you think.” 

On one occasion, he tempers this by adding that he gets that we disagree about some things, which is okay – but that he thought this was an interview where he was the interviewee.

Which is a fair point – and, partly to placate him, I apologised for being a little more long-winded than I should have been. At the same time, I tried to explain – when I could get a word in edgewise, for he was quite angry – that my putting forth my position was a way of trying to understand exactly how his differed (on the myth-vs-fiction subject). And also that I had hoped to have a conversation – that I look at indepth interviews as conversations; I wasn’t a 20-year-old kid sent off on a brief assignment with a boiler-plate list of questions on a subject that he knew very little about.

[This is conjecture, but my feeling is that one reason why he initially got so annoyed and frustrated was that when he asked those questions about the Bible and the Quran, I didn’t provide the answers that would slot me in with the Evil Pseudo-Secularist who finds it easy to mock Hinduism while being cautious or respectful of other faiths.]

The overall impression from his tirade was that of someone who was expecting a young journalist to play supplicant and obediently note down everything he was saying (which I actually did do for large parts of the main interview two days earlier), rather than raise any points of his own or express even a mild difference of opinion. And he definitely wasn’t expecting to be in a two-way discussion with someone who was invested in mythology, knew a few things about it, and had a perspective that didn’t match his own.

He kept repeating “It is deeply disrespectful to call other people’s beliefs fiction”, even after I had tried to clarify what I meant by fiction. And he used the words “respect” and “disrespect” in a way that implied that the only possible way I could be “respectful” of religious beliefs was by holding those beliefs myself! Anything less would automatically be “disrespectful”. This is, to say the least, a bizarre usage of an already problematic and ambiguous word.

If I were thinking more clearly at the time, I would have asked him, “Well, what about MY atheistic beliefs? Shouldn’t you be respectful of those as well? How does respect flow only in one direction?” This isn’t a flippant question: it is pertinent given that DP often sardonically writes things like “Atheism is just another religion” on Twitter. Even Harry Potterheads and Star Trek convention-attendees can be deeply wounded and offended if you mock their myths (and one of the ways in which Pattanaik defines myths is "a set of beliefs that get accepted by a community").

He also peremptorily referred to an email I sent him the previous day as “that long essay you wrote to me, when I thought I had made everything clear”. As it happens, that “essay” was written as a prelude to a specific question I asked DP about the growth of chauvinistic Hindutva in the currently climate, and whether that concerns him. A question he never got around to answering, by the way, though he always seems to find it very easy to take potshots at Dawkins and other “atheist fundamentalists” or “secularists”.

Here, for the record, is the full text of the “essay” I had sent him, and his response:

J: To take off from something you said earlier, and which you have also touched on in your Twitter feeds: I politely disagree with this idea that “militant” or “hardline” atheism can be equated (in terms of the damage it can do) with religious fundamentalism. Of course, we all know that non-religious people are capable of violence or savagery (any human being is – and one doesn’t need to look further than the Communist atrocities), but surely history shows us that religion-driven extremism drives people towards barbarism and intolerance more surely than any other force. In today’s context, it would be problematic to draw an equivalence between what the ISIS does (or what the RSS endorses in some contexts) with the mocking invective of Dawkins, Hitchens etc, as if they were a similar magnitude of violent behaviour.

I admire people who manage to be “moderate” about these burning issues (you, for instance, have been trolled by both the Left and the Right – which perhaps indicates that you are doing something right!), but in the current climate I wonder how you feel about the more hardline manifestations of Hindutva we are seeing around us – especially this triumphal narrative that aims to build a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past. Is this something that goes against the spirit of the benevolent Hinduism that you prefer to engage with?

DP: I feel men like Dawkins in mocking religion just fuel fundamentalism. In their obsession with being 'right', they end up fermenting the 'wrong'. They do not know the function of religion: "meaning"

So they end up destroying sacred knowledge and transforming 'Buddha' into a prop for a spa. Its rational, therefore ok. They do not see that humans are emotional creatures who rationalise the world, not rational creatures who are emotional.

Very easy to attack ISIS and RSS, but they are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.

I guess because they have no understanding of karma, and absolutely no understanding of Indian philosophy. 

I won’t soft-pedal this: while I appreciate what DP says about humans being emotional creatures who try to rationalize the world, I am appalled by the statement (which I have put in bold above) that atheists and secularists bear responsibility for the worst extremes of religion-driven violence. It comes across as another version of the equivocating, the “but…but…butting” we saw from so many “liberals” when the Charlie Hebdo murders happened. And as I mentioned, there was no answer to the actual question I asked DP, about militant Hindutva.

More than anything, I was surprised when he lost his temper, because I had had him pegged as someone who was so secure and thick-skinned and Buddha-like that he simply wouldn’t respond in this way, even if he found me a pest. (Maybe he would just beg off, say he was busy or that the interview had gone on long enough.) But what came across in those 3-4 minutes was the slipping of a mask to reveal an insecure, slightly childlike persona that couldn’t deal with measured counter-argument. And there was a very telling moment when he sulked “Please go ahead now and write for your magazine that Devdutt Pattanaik is an evil person!”

He somewhat calmed down after I assured him that I had no intention of doing any such thing, that I respected a lot of his work, and only that morning I had read his wonderfully generous 2014 piece where he defended Wendy Doniger after the pulping of The Hindus, despite having strong disagreements with her about Hinduism.

When I mentioned this, he said something like “see, that’s exactly what I mean by having respect for different views.” But where was his respect and consideration for MY views – not that I had even got to express them at any length before he lost his cool.

“Fiction is nobody’s truth,” he says. How reductive this is.

When I told him that some of the people closest to me, whom I care for and respect, were religious believers, he went: “So would you go to your grandmother’s prayer room and say, oh, all these God figures are like Barbie dolls?”

I didn’t mention it to him at the time, only later on WhatsApp, but my nani – a very devout lady, so devout that she clapped her hands and cheered loudly when she saw TV footage of the Babri Masjid being demolished in 1992 – used to refer to her Krishna murtis as her “dolls”, which she could play with and arrange in different positions. Other friends, whose grandparents were just as religious but perhaps had a more open-minded and inclusive upbringing than my nani did, tell me that it was possible for them to have frank, long-drawn conversations about faith and lack of faith with these pious grandparents. Pattanaik may be doing religious believers (especially believers within a traditionally fluid religion like Hinduism) a disservice when he treats them as one homogenous group of children whose feelings must absolutely not be “hurt” in any way.

The mythologist's many heads: an encounter with Devdutt Pattanaik

[Here is a longer version of a profile-interview I did of mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik for Open magazine. I admire a lot of Pattanaik’s work, but I also feel there are a few blind spots - including the disproportionate amount of scorn he directs at atheists and “secularists” - and have tried to mention them in this piece. Along with a brief account of a phone conversation where he lost his temper at me.

There wasn’t enough space here to get into details about that conversation (and it would have been too self-indulgent for this magazine piece anyway), but I’ll soon put up a rough account of what happened


Early in his new book My Hanuman Chalisa – a verse-by-verse discussion of one of Hinduism’s most popular devotional hymns – mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik offers an insight about “north” and “south” in the Ramayana. These are not literal references to north and south India, he says, but metaphors that reflect attitudes or states of mind: the north is an empathetic, caring world while the south stands for fear, insecurity and covetousness. And in between them “is the land of the monkeys, our animal core, that can move either way, towards Rama or towards Ravana”. Hanuman, he writes a little later, “stands on the frontier between wilderness and settlement, between the animal and the human world”.

Speaking to Pattanaik on the phone, I tell him that on reading this sort of analysis – and there is plenty else like it in his books – I think of him as a version of the literary or film critic who offers subtextual interpretations and new ways of looking.

He chuckles softly, doesn’t say what he thinks of the comparison (later I will have reason to reflect that he probably didn’t approve), but affirms the importance of subjectivity and open-mindedness. The “my” in the title of the new book is essential, as it was in his earlier My Gita. “When you deny the possessive pronoun, you are propagating the idea that your view is the single, objective one. But in the same way that we might read the same poetry and see different things in it – or get different things out of Shakespeare’s plays – we can respond differently to myths too. There are so many diverse ways of looking at the same things.” In his Introduction to My Hanuman Chalisa, he states that he isn’t interested in locating a definitive truth but in “expanding ‘my’ truth and the truth of my readers”.

He wanted to analyse and decode these hymns – composed by Tulsidas more than four centuries ago – because “we have all read and heard and played them, they are ubiquitous, but I wondered: do we actually listen to the words and pay attention to their meaning? I wanted to make it accessible to a younger generation.”

“The worldview it expresses is very Indian, and can be hard to explain to a Western reader or someone who has been trained to look at things through a Western lens. It’s difficult to explain, for instance, why Hanuman is even there – and treated as a God in his own right – when the god Rama is already the centre of the epic. Many people don’t understand this tradition of multiple Gods or demi-Gods, and Indians tend to go on the defensive too: if a friend comes and asks ‘why do you worship a monkey’, we don’t know what to say, we can’t explain.”

These are running themes of his prolific career as a writer and lecturer: that Indian myths are so fluid, wide-ranging and ambiguous that they can confuse or daunt even devout readers, who don’t always know how to make sense of them; that because Hinduism, compared to the other major faiths, doesn’t have a single canonical or prescriptive text, it is often decried by those who hanker after certainties. This is where Pattanaik sees himself coming in, to “join the dots”. To distill or synthesize myths, make sense of them for modern readers.

He has been doing this for over twenty years now, a period that has seen the publication of thirty books and hundreds of articles, all dealing broadly with myths and what they may teach us. The output includes lucid retellings of the epics (Jaya and Sita, about the Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively), examinations of the many legends surrounding a specific deity (99 Thoughts on Ganesha), books for children (Pashu: Animal Tales from Indian Mythology) and guides for management students and entrepreneurs (Business Sutra).

He has also written about non-Indian mythology, notably in Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, published last year. “I wanted to reverse the gaze. When Roberto Calasso and Wendy Doniger write about Indian myths, they are eagerly published and their work is seen as more valid somehow. Which would probably not have been the case if Doniger had been African-American or Calasso had been from Beijing University! We have to study other cultures too, to understand what is special about ours. My intention was to bring my perspective to these non-Indian myths and say, let’s have a conversation.”

Through all these books, one constant is Pattanaik’s delightful illustrations, which are minimalist yet detailed, affectionate and drolly funny at the same time. “I have been drawing from a very early age,” he says, “and I often find that I can’t properly explain something unless I draw it – this helps me achieve clarity in my own mind.”


One of my favourites among those hundreds of drawings is a seated Ravana as a “strategic” figure, a CEO of his era, with the ten heads depicted as blank square boxes, spread out in a pyramidal pattern that evokes flowchart boxes in computer-science classes of 20 years ago; this image is in the just-published Leader: 50 Insights from Mythology. I was looking at it in the company of a friend when the latter said “Pattanaik has ten heads himself.”

This was an admiring reference to the many sides of the mythologist’s personality: from the well-travelled motivational speaker to the disciplined author who maintains a solitary writing schedule each morning to the management guru who serves as consultant to high-profile businessmen. And someone who subtly tailors his work to the demands of many readerships and publishing
houses. One of his finest books, Shikhandi and Other Tales They Didn’t Tell You – an exploration of gender roles and alternate sexuality in myths – was done for the feminist publishing house Zubaan. Another, The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana, is with the children’s publisher Puffin. In a charming video introduction to this book, he relates how a schoolteacher asked him to use the Ramayana to impart good values to children, and he raised an eyebrow and said “A book that begins ‘There was a king who had three wives’ – you think children will get good values from that?!” (Of course, this little joke didn’t prevent him from doing the book, and reframing the story to make it appeal to youngsters.)

“I enjoy writing for different sorts of readers,” he says. “There is a lot of adapting: for business people, outcomes tend to be important; when writing for children, you have to be more linear. I like all these modes – it forces me to think about what I’m saying, and how best to say it.”

Apart from the many Pattanaiks on view in his books, there are also the avatars that show up in television shows, interviews, video-blogs – and of course, on social media, where he often comes up against people who disagree with or attack him. Including the “trolls” to whom he has dedicated My Hanuman Chalisa.

It isn’t easy being a moderate – and a very high-profile one – in a field where emotions are easily inflamed, and at a time when the growth of a virulent, chauvinistic Hindutva can lead the softer, more reflective aspects of the religion to become tainted by association. In such a climate, someone like Pattanaik draws fire from both religious literalists – who take offence to the mildest observation that doesn’t chime with their rigid beliefs – and from those secular-liberals who find any close engagement with old texts problematic.

To the irreligious mind, some of the things he writes can sound like sophistry, faux-philosophy or even mumbo-jumbo; to a religious Hindu, the very same things can seem inappropriate or upsetting. And so, it isn’t uncommon to see him being assailed, at the same time, as a Hindutva apologist AND as a betrayer of sacrosanct texts. “The Ramayana is the Ramayana – it doesn’t change” someone scolds him on Twitter when he mentions that there are many versions of the epic apart from the mainstream one favoured by the Hindi-speaking belt. When he posts a tweet that goes “Did Ram live 7000 years ago and Krishna live 5000 years ago? No way to verify it”, there are angry comments about “scientific dating” through the Ram Setu bridge.

“Everyone who has an agenda will hate you when you write something that discomfits them, and love you when you affirm their point of view,” he tells me. “I have no agenda – I don’t want to save the world, only understand it.”

It does seem, though – and this could be my own bias at work now – that Pattanaik finds it easier to sympathize with and engage with the religious mind than the non-religious one; that he is more willing to hit out at the “secularists”, the “atheist fundamentalists” as he sees them, than at religious hardliners.

At one point, instead of answering a question I ask about his views on hardline Hindutva – including the triumphal narrative about building a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past – he chooses to lash out, again, at atheists – as if villains like Richard Dawkins were running around killing people in the name of their “militant un-beliefs”. The ISIS and RSS, he says, very perplexingly, “are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.”


But if liberals can be described as fundamentalist, it is just as possible for a mythologist – even a moderate one – to become inflexible. Beneath the soft-spoken, genial man who values subjectivity and discussion – and prefaces much of what he writes with a humble-sounding epigraph about how the Gods may have a thousand or a hundred eyes, but “you and I, only two” – there may be another, more complex Pattanaik: someone who is very conscious of his reputation as a guru, and can get riled when his definitions are questioned.

I sense this during a second phone conversation, when I mention that as a Mahabharata-obsessive, I see the epic primarily as a great work of literature, and ask if Pattanaik can clarify the distinction – as he sees it – between myths and fiction. At this point, he becomes very annoyed, as if the difference is a clear-cut one that should be obvious to anyone, and says reductive things about fiction being just entertainment. “Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?”

“Myth = somebody's truth,” he writes in a tweet. “Fiction = nobody's truth.” But isn’t this a very limited view of what good fiction – or literature – can be? Any such writing – regardless of genre or the many other labels critics stick on literature – can contain deep poetic truths and can teach us a great deal about people and their lives.

When I suggest that the line between myth and fiction may not be so clear, the conversation takes a southward turn and Pattanaik loses his composure, accuses me of disrespecting the dearly held beliefs of others by calling them “just fiction”, and wonders if I would tell my grandmother that her Krishna murtis were like Barbie dolls. Notably, he frames the concept of disrespect in a way that is common among those who believe religious sentiments are automatically more important and respect-worthy than any other sort; in such a framing, non-believers are better off keeping their mouths shut all the time! But Pattanaik may be doing religious people (especially those within a traditionally open-ended faith like Hinduism) a disservice by treating them as a homogenous group of infants whose feelings must never be hurt, nor their views challenged – and as being incapable of having nuanced conversations about faith and lack of faith.

He apologizes subsequently for having lost his cool, soon returns to his usual gracious, soft-spoken self – but just for a few minutes it was as if a Ravana had lost one of his heads.


As a writer, Pattanaik has a sense of humour, the ability to make interesting connections between ancient and modern life, and can be very frank and inclusive when it comes to topics like sexuality –or when providing information about the many regional interpolations of the epics, as he scrupulously does in Jaya’s chapter endnotes. But there are little blind-spots too, such as a deep suspicion of retellings or analyses that stress certain viewpoints or political positions. “Nowadays,” he says, “there are these bizarre writings that look at myths purely through the lens of Dalit oppression, or present them as misogynistic from the feminist point of view, or try to further the RSS agenda.”

Since you champion subjectivity, I ask him, why are those readings any less valid than the benevolent, comforting ones? Why would the perspective of a marginalized, underprivileged character not be just as important?

“But how many of these writers stay open-minded about alternate interpretations?” Pattanaik responds. “They market their version as the only possible one. Words like ‘privilege’ are political words, used with an agenda, and these writers don’t recognize their own agendas. Literature is politicized, academia is confused with activism. I have never heard a proponent of the feminist or Dalit view say ‘here is one possible point of view’ – it is always more rigid than that.”

There is a sliver of truth in this. The use of a purely political or ideological lens to look at creative works – at the cost of closely engaging with the human complexities in those works – is a familiar one, and it often tars literary and film criticism too. Personally, I have plenty of experience of people who, without having closely read the Ramayana, will reflexively make sweeping statements about Rama being a bad husband (in much the same way that rigidly religious people will refuse to see Rama as anything other than a God whose actions mustn’t be questioned).

However, it is problematic to say that privilege and under-privilege are just political terms – they are real things and take many forms, including more complex, intersecting, context-dependent ones than caste or gender inequality. To take one instance, the mighty Pandava prince Bhima would not be deemed unprivileged in any conventional sense of the word – yet, in MT Vasudevan Nair’s excellent Randaamoozham, Bhima – the narrator-protagonist – is decidedly the underdog, forever in the shadows of his siblings Arjuna and Yudhisthira. He sees himself as hard done by, and this is necessarily the lens through which the whole of that book unfolds; it would be silly to expect the author to provide a “balanced” viewpoint.

And yes, there is something either disingenuous or deluded about any position that goes: “Other people have agendas. I do not.” To some degree or other, everyone has biases, born of countless unquantifiable life experiences. The impulse to be seen as an authority figure, a conduit who provides wisdom, can be a sort of agenda too – a non-malicious one, but one that might grow over time as you become a bestselling author and protective of your own image.


[I have written way too many posts on the Mahabharata and other mythological works to link to individually, but you'll find a few dozen of them here. Also, here is a piece about Randaamoozham. And a piece about so-called liberal "extremism" here - with a comments section that's more invigorating than the post]

Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Crime-story recommendation: Stanley Ellin's "The Twelfth Statue"

In recent months, having had to cut back on work, I have indulged myself by spending some time with reading material purely of my choice: nothing “topical”, nothing that has to be urgently reviewed or otherwise written about professionally. (Any books-page editors reading this, please feel free to commission a “non-topical” or “irrelevant” piece though!) This includes rediscovering one of my oldest pleasures: dipping into massive anthologies of popular/genre writing. Especially this super collection of 68 “impossible-crime” stories, The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries.

More on this book and its varied contents soon, but for now: if you’re a film buff who enjoys crime fiction (and especially if you have watched Godard’s Contempt or read the Moravia novel on which it is based), here’s a shout-out for a terrific story titled “The Twelfth Statue”, by Stanley Ellin. It was first published in 1967, and I’m almost certain Ellin had seen Contempt sometime before writing it.

This is basically a “vanishing person” mystery about a dictatorial and tightfisted producer of B-movies, Alexander File, who disappears one evening during a shoot in Rome, on a heavily guarded outdoor set, and is never heard from again. This basic information is tersely provided in the story’s very first paragraph, after which the narrative back-tracks to give us more details. We meet File’s main employees, all of whom to varying degrees are victims of his crassness (and hence presumably had a motive for harming him). Among them is the film’s director Cyrus, a one-time assistant to Cecil B DeMille and a man who has fallen on hard times and alcoholism, but who still retains vestiges of his artistic integrity – and still hopes to make that one film where he can put something of a personal vision on the screen instead of just being a workman for a money-minded producer.

In other words, this well-paced, suspenseful story has a subtext about the troubled relationship between Art and Budget, or between the serious-minded creative person and the money-obsessed financier who holds the reins and demands compromises. It worked on both those levels for me. I kept thinking of the unlikable character played by Jack Palance in Contempt, and what that film might have looked like if he had suddenly vanished into thin air.

(Two of the main characters in “The Twelfth Statue” are a conflicted scriptwriter and his perceptive wife, much like the Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli characters in Contempt – except that the couple in the short story have a happy marriage and they serve as anchoring figures for the reader: we see and learn things largely through their perspective.)

About how the story pans out: I won’t give many details away, even though this isn’t as much a denouement-dependent mystery as most of the other pieces in the anthology are. (By the story’s midpoint, a seasoned mystery reader should be able to make a largely accurate guess about what happened, but Ellin throws in a double-bluff and a couple of mini-twists near the end.) I will say though that I thought the story’s ending very moving and powerful, with a brilliant final image – one that involves a bullied director and a martinet producer locked together in the afterlife, their roles now reversed: Commerce stands, helplessly and subserviently, at Art’s feet. Many movie directors and scriptwriters (and film students and historians) will have wished, over the decades, that this happened more often in real life.

P.S. I’m a big fan of Stanley Ellin’s work, based on the 8-10 short stories of his I have read so far. Here is an old post about a brilliant story titled “The Question My Son Asked”.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The music man and his treasure bag: songs in Aashirwad

[My song-sequences series for Mint Lounge, continued]

When I heard of the passing of Sumita Sanyal last week, my first memory was of an elegant young woman, restrained in expression and movement, lip-synching to three songs in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. The best known of those is “Na Jeeya Laage Na” from Anand; the other two are from the 1968 Aashirwad, in which Sanyal plays Neena, the daughter of the film’s lovable protagonist Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar).

If I were to make a best-of list based on only fragments or passages of films, Aashirwad would occupy a very high spot on it. This movie has a dual personality. Much of it, especially the formulaic second half, follows the template of the 1960s social drama-tearjerker. The plot is busy and familiar: a good-hearted man is imprisoned because of the machinations of others; a village is destroyed by a fire started by unscrupulous land-owners; the hero doesn’t get to see his child grow up; years later, there is a tearful reunion.

Yet there is another, more dynamic, formally experimental Aashirwad below this safe surface. Watching parts of the film, it feels like a group of friends had decided to record their informal addas for posterity, to share their love for classical music with the world. The main members of this group would be Mukherjee (who was a proficient sitar-player himself), music director Vasant Desai, the wonderfully impish Harindranath Chattopadhyay (who plays Jogi Thakur’s friend and music-teacher Baiju), the young Gulzar (who wrote the lyrics that had not already been penned by Chattopadhyay) – and of course, Ashok Kumar, who rarely had such a grand old time in a film as he does here.

Kumar, one of Hindi cinema’s giants, had a long career that encompassed both the bashful leading man of the 1930s – one of our first male stars – and the jolly dadaji (grandfather) figure of the 1980s. In the decades between those poles, he spent much of his time as a sombre character actor watching while younger stars did the fun stuff. For instance, he could seem so staid compared to his madcap younger brother Kishore (an indelible image from Chalti ka Naam Gaadi: the three brothers standing side by side, Kishore and Anoop wisecracking away while “serious” Ashok stands stoically in the middle, just about tolerating their tomfoolery). Or watch him all stiff and embarrassed, a fish out of the Hooghly, while Madhubala sings “Dekh ke Teri Nazar” in Howrah Bridge – he looks very far from someone who might wholeheartedly participate in a song sequence.

That’s misleading, though: he was trained in music, and Aashirwad – made more than thirty years after he chirped “Main Bann ki Chidiya” in Achhut Kannya – is the rare film of its era that fully tapped this side of him. The results are often magical.

We use terms like “suspension of disbelief” for most Hindi-film song sequences where the characters (who are not musical performers within the narrative) sing to each other. But a different sort of tension can come into play when the characters are artistes, and Aashirwad’s most inventive scenes involve Jogi Thakur as singer, storyteller and creator of worlds. The best-known song is probably the children’s rhyme “Rail Gaadi”, written by Chattopadhyay years earlier and sung by Kumar – for a group of children – in the rapid-fire style that saw it labeled India’s first rap number. But there are other terrific musical interludes. Consider “Kaanon ki ek Nagri Dekhi” and “Jhingaapur Takur Takur”, in which two men (Jogi Thakur and Baiju) carry on an intense yet playful jugalbandhi, exchanging banter as they create new “bol”, including nonsense rhymes, on the spot. Even when the camera only cuts between their faces (occasionally providing close-ups of Baiju’s hands playing his dholak), the effect is anything but static. In scenes like these, it feels like the film has done away with such perfunctory things as narrative, and entered a vibrant new realm.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. All these scenes do contribute to our understanding of Jogi Thakur, who believes that music and stories have an equalizing power. The nine-minute-long song “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo”, in which Jogi Thakur and Baiju play a game of riddles with Lavani dancers, provides the film’s finest demonstration of how differences between groups – men and women, upper class and lower class, performers and audience – can temporarily be erased by a shared love for art and performance.

Another of my favourite sequences is “Neena ki Nani ki Naav”, in which Jogi Thakur uses a bioscope, and a song, to tell children the story of a “naav” (boat) that contains apparently limitless treasures. The sound of water fills the soundtrack; we see crayon drawings and cut-outs of the many items and creatures – “tokri mein ek billi ka bacha” (a kitten in a basket) – in the boat. And then he describes a crocodile stealthily coming up, stealing everything and dragging it away.

This scene works as an entertaining interlude for kids – the sort that we innocently loved when it played on Chitrahaar in the old days – but it is also a dark foreshadowing. With hindsight, the naav can be likened to the bagful of stories and songs that Jogi Thakur carries around with him, to spread joy. And soon, all this will be taken away by sharp-fanged predators. It is a fine example of a musical sequence that manages to be whimsical, apparently standalone, but is also essential to the film’s purpose, and to our sympathy for the main character.

[Earlier Mint Lounge columns here. And here's an earlier piece about the Aashirwad song "Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo"]

Monday, July 17, 2017

Scary movies and what lies beneath them (or: Do Gaz Genre ke Neeche)

[This is the intro I wrote for my friend Shamya Dasgupta’s book Don't Disturb the Dead, about the Ramsay Brothers. Excerpts from the book are here and here]

Cinema has been a running theme in my relationship with Shamya Dasgupta, ever since we found ourselves doing a post-grad communication course together in 1998. The first time I really paid attention to him was when he mentioned that my poker-face reminded him of Buster Keaton; I had long given up on ever meeting anyone who knew such esoteric names, or shared my interest in old, non-Indian films.

In a class of thirty-five students, Shamya and I were the only ones already on first-name terms with Citizen Kane and Aguirre and A Short Film about Killing, and we sneered superiorly when the others – most of whom were priming for a career in marketing or advertising – looked foxed by the “classics” shown in our (much-too-infrequent) Cinema Studies classes. Back then, if a time traveler had told me that nearly two decades later I would be writing an introduction for a cinema book authored by Shamya, I would have been elated.

I’m not sure, though, how either of us would have felt if told the book would be about the Ramsay Brothers.

While I loved horror films even back then, at age 21 I still mainly thought of them as a guilty pleasure, not as something that was part of the Good Cinema canon. (Caveat: Hitchcock’s Psycho was, then as now, one of the key films in my life, but I didn’t classify it as “horror film”; I thought of it as equal parts a brilliant black comedy and a Greek tragedy-level story about loneliness and private traps.) As a child, my horror-love had begun with B-movies, including the slasher franchises of the 1980s (House, Demons, The Evil Dead, Friday the 13th). Later, the jaal spread to many subgenres, from Dario Argento’s stylized gore-fests (Suspiria) to David Cronenberg’s gruesome excursions into the human body (Shivers, The Brood) to psychological horror like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf, and films that somehow combined the above modes, like Georges Franju’s magnificent Eyes Without a Face.

However, for one reason or another, this net never extended to the Ramsay brand. So I won’t pretend to be any sort of expert on their films (feel free to disregard anything I say about their work that sounds informed or educative – you have the rest of this book for that). But I’d like to touch on a point about the genre they worked so passionately in: horror, even B- and C-grade horror, has always had subtexts that, if handled with even basic competence, can tell us very interesting things about a society, its people, the prejudices and paranoias acting upon them.

David Skal’s book The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror is an excellent start if you want food for thought on how horror movies (as well as TV shows, short stories, and comic books in the genre) have reflected, or distorted, a zeitgeist. Writing mainly in an American context, Skal examines how burning real-world topics insinuated their way into the genre: how, for instance, the birth deformities that resulted from the prescription of the drug Thalidomide to pregnant women in the 1960s also birthed a spate of literature and films about monstrous babies and children; or the
effect that the savaging of human bodies during the two world wars had on films about misshapen “freaks” – as Skal observes, horror’s major subtext during this period was unintentionally revealed in a scene in Abel Gance’s anti-war film J’Accuse, where the ghoulish war dead (played by actual soldiers who had been disfigured) return to haunt the living.

It’s been a while since I read Skal’s book and I don’t remember if he explicitly touched on this (probably not), but one theme that I have personally always been stimulated by in horror and fantasy is that of the past and the present – or tradition and progress – in uneasy conflict, circling each other warily. How an archaic or fading world casts its shadow over a modernizing one; and how the modernizing world hits back, compromises, or capitulates.

This is a theme that stretches well beyond these genres, of course – it has driven many “respectable” classics of world cinema, from John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar to Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. And there are tantalizing intersections: Abrar Alvi and Guru Dutt’s’s 1964 Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is among the most esteemed Hindi films of its time, an elegant, mournful story about zamindari decadence and doomed love, but its last scene – where the skeletal arm of the film’s beloved but long-forgotten Chhoti Bahu is unearthed years after her death, in an unmarked grave – could have been in a B-horror film.

Within official horror, though, the theme has special resonance, and this long predates cinema. Look at the great 19th-century novels – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Bram Stoker’s Dracula – that would so influence filmic horror in the century to follow. All of them, to some degree, deal with this apparent paradox: modern, scientific methods, for all the good they do, may also open a portal to our most primitive impulses; can we deal with the results, find a way to balance the good with the bad? And these thoughts are hardly surprising when you look at what history tells us about the links between advancement and barbarism: how the development of medicine, for instance, has involved using unprivileged and voiceless people (not to mention animals) as guinea pigs for centuries.

Variants on the tradition-vs-progress theme occur frequently in horror films, and it isn’t always clear which side the film is on. That family of cannibalistic monsters in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre … they are the scary predators and we shudder for their teenage quarries; yet the monsters are also a close-knit family who dine and squabble together and have clearly defined roles within the household, while their victims are scattered trophies of an alienated new world, ripe for being picked off one by one because they rarely work together as a group.

Or take the broad plot summaries of two of cinema’s most iconic ventures into horror/fantasy. In one film, a species not long evolved from simians uses its complex brain to develop technology that can make images move; they call it “cinema”. Travelling to a remote island for a shoot, a movie crew disturbs the peace of a giant ape, captures him and brings him as a showpiece to the most modern of their cities, where he will end his life climbing atop the world’s tallest building and fending off fighter planes (and he will do it all in the service of that most primitive and lethal of emotions, love). There’s King Kong. In the other film, the same species uses its amazing brain to build an atom bomb – a weapon that can do something as “sophisticated” as kill millions of people at a go – but in the process awakens (or creates) a prehistoric monster that then stomps its scaly feet all over a sleek city, so that formal-suited office-goers accustomed to heading about their lives with brisk, mechanical efficiency are turned into screeching victims, uncertain of the very ground they stand on. There’s Godzilla.

Perhaps this theme gets a special urgency in ancient societies that are undergoing change, and need to express their discomfort with the results. In the Pakistani gore film Zibahkhana, a Dracula-like tea-stall owner hollers “Jahannum mein jaa rahe ho, mere bachchon!” (“You’re on the path to hell, children!”) at fun-seeking youngsters; not long after this, a psychopath in a burqa comes after these jeans-clad deviants, whirling a ball-and-chain. See any undercurrents there? And Japanese literature and cinema is chockfull of stories that draw on the nation’s tumultuous relationship with its militant past. In Haruki Murakami’s novel Dance Dance Dance, the narrator discovers that history is alive in a hidden corner of a gleaming, 26-storey, glass-and-steel hotel. A weary creature called the Sheep Man – a gatekeeper to a lost age? – tells him, "Everything's getting more complicated. Everything's speeding up.”

(Does that sound anything like the Ramsay Brothers’ 1981 film Hotel? You decide.)

In the Indian context, one of my all-time favourite Hindi films is Raj Kumar Kohli’s 1979 multi-starrer Jaani Dushman, a film the Ramsays may well have made if they had had large budgets and big-name actors queuing up at their door. On one level, this story about a monster that abducts and kills a village’s brides while they are in the doli en route to their husband’s house can be seen as a parable about a conservative society’s fear that its young women may become bold enough to choose their own grooms. (All of the major women characters – played by Reena Roy, Neetu Singh and Rekha –transgress thus.) But it also works as commentary in a more generalised sense, when you consider that the monster turns out to be the benevolent Thakur played by Sanjeev Kumar (who should have done much more of this sort of hirsute, snarling role, but that’s another subject). In one telling exchange, when Lakhan (Sunil Dutt) asks why the Thakur’s daughter was spared while other brides were not, the old man placidly replies “Hum toh isse kismet ka khel samajhtay hain. Bhaagya ka devta hum pe meherbaan thay, doosron par nahin” – it’s a glib way of sidestepping centuries of exploitation and injustice, and it makes us think again about the fiendish bedrocks of the feudal system. (Do gaz zamindari ke neeche?) In another scene, the Thakur berates his wayward son Shera (Shatrughan Sinha) for “dishonouring” the “izzat” of their family; but ultimately, the city-educated Shera teams up with the other heroes to vanquish this ancient evil.

Today’s Hindi cinema – and Hindi horror cinema – is much sleeker and more self-consciously sophisticated, but since we remain a backward-looking society in so many ways, proud of the best and worst of our cultural heritage (and in many cases the good and the bad are joined at the hip), certain motifs can’t be escaped. See how many major horror films of recent years centre on the idea that a strong, independent woman with a mind of her own can unleash destructive forces in a world that isn’t ready for her. The main plot of Pavan Kripalani’s excellent Phobia begins when Mehak (Radhika Apte) says a gentle “no” to a man, Shaan, who has just
propositioned her (they have slept together before, he is hoping it might happen again) – this act of exercising choice sets in motion a series of events that make her agoraphobic and dependent on Shaan, who moves her to a new flat (he is not a chauvinist in an overt sense, but the upshot is that she is now safely in a cage, the way many people prefer a woman to be). Then there is Navdeep Singh’s taut NH-10, in which city-bred yuppies Meera (Anushka Sharma) and her husband are adrift in the Haryana hinterland, witnesses to an “honour killing” and stalked by a gang of rough-spoken, homicidal men. NH-10 wasn’t quite labelled “horror film” when it came out, but is structurally very much tied to the genre, and it implicitly deals with the contradictions in a society heaving between old and new ways of life: a society where a woman may have a high-paying job in a posh, gated office complex, but may still be encouraged to carry a weapon for her safety, and to anticipate and be “responsible” for other people’s criminal impulses.

Or take Suparn Verma’s Aatma, which is a lesser film – inert, indifferently performed – than the two mentioned above, but gets a certain frisson from the contrast between the personalities of the urbane Maya and her rough-hewn ex-husband Abhay (as well as the non-diegetic contrast between the actors playing these roles, the tall and glamorous Bipasha Basu and the short-statured, rustic Nawazuddin Siddiqui) – it is possible to read the story as a conflict between a confident upper-class woman and an intimidated man who exercises a new (supernatural) form of masculine power because he can’t control her in the usual ways.


The Ramsay idiom is, of course, a universe removed from that of these technically polished, sharply shot and tightly edited films, but does anything in their oeuvre fit the old world-new world thesis? Like I said, I’m no expert, but even the four or five films of theirs that I recently watched (or rewatched) have familiar echoes in them.

Early in their first film Do Gaz Zameen ke Neeche, for example, the upright hero rescues a young woman from goons and lets her stay in his house for a night. Dressed in a western outfit at this point, she changes into a saree (but whose?) after they get home and she has to join him for dinner. Meal done, she promptly slinks into a short nightie (but whose?) for bed, and for the seduction scene that follows. The five-minute sequence plays like a condensed version of Manoj Kumar’s Purab aur Paschim or dozens of other films where the woman in a patriarchal society must shift roles, from whore to devi and back in a jiffy, depending on context and time of day. But soon the lines get blurred, and this is where the film’s biggest horrors reveal themselves. In most Hindi films of the time, a woman becomes “good” when she yields to sari and sindoor; in this one, the woman looks nicely domesticated on the surface but continues to be the predatory vamp, taking away her husband’s money, making out with her boyfriend (who is, of all things, pretending to be a family doctor – a desecration of another of the most sacred cows of the time) and plotting murder.

Or watch Pradeep Kumar as a rich man cruising a city’s roads in a fancy, chauffeur-driven car in Purana Mandir, but still haunted by an ancient family curse. See Navin Nischal in Dahshat, a doctor just returned from Russia, very much a confident, professional man of the world, finding that graves are being robbed in the creaky old cemetery in his home town Chandan Nagar. Atavistic impulses, and cries from the distant past, move alongside the monuments we have built to assert our standing as a civilized species. But what does “civilization” mean anyway? A bunch of kids heading off in a red convertible – this in a scene in Purana Mandir in 1984, when even the basic Maruti-800 had just about hit our roads – to live like modern nawabs in a bungalow, while condescending on the “junglee” tribals living nearby? At such times you almost sympathise a little with the demonic Samri as he rolls his eyes and shakes his head ruefully at this strange new world.

Speaking as an amateur viewer, with less than comprehensive knowledge, what else can one say about the Ramsay films? They are derivative, of course, and you’d think the main inspirations would be C-movies, or schlock-gore movies, from other cinematic cultures; or at best, the Hammer Films. But one of the fascinating things about watching them is to see how cinematically well-educated the filmmakers are, and how some very disparate sources seem to be in conversation. This is true of the goofy “filler” moments (e.g. Puneet Issar and Jagdeep playing a version of Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach in a throwaway subplot in Purana Mandir) as well as the paisa-vasool scary scenes. Watching Dahshat, I got a sense of what the impressionist silent-film classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari might look like if transposed to 1980s rural India and filmed in gaudy colour. Om Shivpuri’s mad scientist Dr Vishal, incongruously dressed in Western evening-wear, bears a physical resemblance – in terms of his portly, slightly hunched physique – to the mountebank Caligari, while Vishal’s mute, grave-digging servant (known only as “goonga”) is strikingly similar to Caligari’s sallow-faced sleepwalker-assistant. Yet this film also has a bit of Island of Dr Moreau in it, as well as Rajendranath’s broad comic style, which could only possibly belong to the Hindi cinema of the period. Talk about versatility.

That the films are creaky, often laughably tacky, is almost a given. But it is also true that horror movies in this register – made on very low budgets, with crude effects, poor lighting and no option of multiple takes – can have a special, visceral impact that is very different from that of more polished, more cerebrally crafted films. The very desperation of the crew, the quick-time solutions found to deal with time and location constraints, become a part of the film’s DNA, making it urgent and otherworldly in ways that may not have been consciously intended. And there are the occasional pleasing moments where execution does match intent. I would venture, for instance, that the opening-credits scene of Dahshat – with the nighttime close-ups of a serpent and an owl, a view of a skeletal arm stretched out on a cart, the slightly canted camera angle – is unsettling even when you watch it on a laptop screen, on YouTube (this should be late at night, though, with the lights in the room turned off: in an age where movie-watching has become such a distracted, casual affair, we must make some concessions!).

In short, these are uneven films, but in their better moments they show a dedication, a purity of purpose, that one sees in “disreputable” cinemas all over the world, the ones where passion and motivation exceed resources or even skill. And in those moments, they certainly can get under your skin. In this book Shamya gives the clan a taste of their own bubbling red medicine, by attempting to get under theirs.

[Related posts: Phobia, NH-10, Aatma. Here is another long essay about my horror-film love, for the anthology The Popcorn Essayists. And a few other posts about horror films and literature are here]

Sunday, July 16, 2017

They are happy? On Akhil Sharma’s short stories about trapped people

[Did this review for Scroll]

An obvious trap when reviewing a short-story collection is to obsessively trace common themes and links between pieces that might represent very different aspects of a writer’s creative life. But the characters and predicaments in Akhil Sharma’s A Life of Adventure and Delight often lend themselves to such analysis. Reading one of my favourite stories in this book, it struck me that its title – the deceptively simple “You are Happy?” – would work just as well for most of the other pieces.

In one passage in this story about a boy watching his mother fall into alcoholism and desolation, Sharma’s quiet, no-frills prose builds a litany of horrors. Lakshman’s mother must be taken to a detox centre after a nightmarish few days where she stayed in bed with her liquor and refused to get up even to go to the toilet, using a bucket next to the bed instead. Vomit lines her chin; she is led, dazed and half-dressed, to the bathroom. This is a very bleak day for the family, yet the paragraph about the drive to the centre begins “It was a bright Sunday morning” and goes on to describe Lakshman’s relief when he sees sunlight reflecting off the glass windows of the shops they pass.

“The flashes of light were like blasts of music. The occasional person walking across a road seemed like life going on, like life was always going to go on and so somewhere there was the possibility of things being different and happiness existing.”

The possibility of things being different, of happiness existing not too far out of reach… these words are reminiscent of a scene from another story, “If You Sing Like That for Me”, where a woman named Anita who stumbled into an arranged marriage – before she fully realized what was happening – mulls her discontent with her husband. He is a good man, but “what I wanted was to be with someone who could make me different, someone other than the person I was”. Someone like her sister, perhaps, who seems to have become a gentler, happier person after her own wedding.

Many of these pieces are about people who are either trapped in difficult situations or at an important crossroads. In “Cosmopolitan”, the middle-aged Gopal is adrift – minus the safety nets of work or steady relationships – after his wife leaves him. On the verge of becoming a sociopathic recluse who stays permanently at home, watching TV and bursting into giggles when he hears news of bombings in far-off countries, his senses are reawakened by the possibility of a relationship with his American neighbour. And in Sharma’s hands, what might have been an unremarkable little tale grows into a comedy of sexual etiquette and the expectations game. It is never too late to learn new things, Gopal finds, but it is also very easy to misread other people – or to deceive yourself.

Again, in keeping with the small ways in which these characters seem to call out to each from within the confines of their separate stories, Gopal put me in mind of the narrator-protagonist of “If You Sing Like That for Me” – telling us her story at a point where she has already been in a loveless marriage for decades, seemingly resigned that this is all her life amounted to. But what if Anita were to get another, unexpected chance? How would her response compare to Gopal’s, and would society afford her the same freedoms?

Frequently, we meet characters who are tied to traditional ways even as they try to be citizens of a changing world. (Some of the protagonists are Indians living in America.) In “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, a woman is startled when her new daughter-in-law boldly asks for shampoo when there is only soap in the house; she recalls her own days as a compliant bride and wonders if something is wrong with the girl’s mind. Later, though, she reflects that what she had thought was insanity might just be candour, and a small shift occurs in the terms of engagement. In “The Well”, the protagonist’s cultural references are mostly non-Indian (as a boy he has a crush on Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Mrs Muir in The Ghost and Mrs Muir), but when his girlfriend gets pregnant, he self-consciously tries to do the “right thing” (even though the girl has no wish to get married), and tells his mother “I love her” in a Hindi conversation that sounds fake and melodramatic to his own ears.

Sharma is very good at unexpected little touches that creep up on the reader: a seemingly normal encounter giving way to something darker, patches of humour in a situation that is far from inherently funny. In “Surrounded by Sleep”, the life of 10-year-old Ajay and his family abruptly changes when his elder brother has a swimming-pool accident and is rendered vegetative. In one passage that is both comical and poignant, the efforts of Ajay’s mother to please God are likened to the boy performing somersaults to amuse his aunt; while the mother prays to more conventional Gods, Ajay turns to Superman. But droll as these scenes are, they don’t detract from the basic sadness of the situation: not just the tragedy of a family having lost a healthy child to a freak accident, but also the tragedy of a younger child – naturally self-centred and restless – whose life has come to a standstill; who must feel like he himself is living at the bottom of the pool where his brother spent three minutes, in a place where everything happens in slow motion.

I particularly liked the little asides and detours, such as the coda that closes “A Heart is Such a Heavy Thing”, where a middle-aged man – whose son has just got married – watches a young boy singing on a bus. Passages like these prioritize the creation of mood over plot, and there are many quietly observant moments in this vein. A couple who have just started dating negotiate some awkwardness while dining at a restaurant that is temporarily allowing customers to pay whatever they think is fair (while the manager keeps a suspicious eye on the opportunistic Indian diners). During a fight between his parents, a boy starts hopping about and acting like a cartoon character, “as if we were on a TV show and people were laughing at my cuteness”. When Anita’s sister says of their father, “If he wants to die, wonderful […] but why is he making it difficult for us?”, Anita is shocked – not by the apparent callousness but by the directness and honesty, which makes her realise that her own sentimentality may have been a lie.


Given that these stories mainly follow the “show, don’t tell” mode – allowing the gradual accumulation of events to reveal things about the characters and their inner worlds – the weaker bits are the ones where information is explicitly provided or underlined. And some of this may have to do with the need to spell things out about a culture that isn’t familiar to the readership. (These pieces were originally published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and The Paris Review.)

I’m usually wary of the allegations of “exoticising” that get directed at non-resident Indian authors – too often, these are built on defensiveness and hurt feelings rather than an engagement with the actual writing or an attempt to understand another perspective. But it still feels heavy-handed when the omniscient narrator of “You are Happy?” informs us that “In India, on farms, pretty young women are as common as rabbits. It is easy to have sex with girls who are fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.” Or when the otherwise subtle “A Life of Adventure and Delight” throws in this bit of exposition:

Gautam was an ordinary middle-class boy. He knew he would have to get married one day, and he hoped to have as much sex as possible before then, but he also believed that any Indian girl who had sex before marriage had something wrong with her, was in some way depraved and foul and also unintelligent. He wished he could have sex with Sunny Leone.”

In a more minor key, why spell “Defence Colony” (the south Delhi neighborhood, and a proper noun) as “Defense Colony”? Or repeatedly use “lentils” when “daal” would have done perfectly well? (Especially given that the author uses “roti” in a similar context, and even has a woman address her father as “Pitaji” in a sentence that must have been spoken in Hindi but is conveyed to us in English.)

These are small irritants, though, and they don’t take much away from the universal appeal of these stories, full of attention to detail, gentle humour, and insights into how strangely people might behave when circumstances overwhelm them. And when happiness becomes hard to grasp or define.


[An excerpt from "Cosmopolitan" is here]