Saturday, January 22, 2022

Munich: The Edge of War – an elegant, often-engrossing historical thriller (with an unintentionally funny Hitler)

(I mostly liked this new film, set around the 1938 Munich Agreement, though there were a few odd things in it. Did this review for First Post)
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In the opening scene of a film that has just released on Netflix, a young nationalist speaks of a new era that is beginning in his long-suffering country, and of the larger-than-life leader – with a personality cult having grown around him – who is making it possible. “They are a bunch of thugs and racists,” replies his friend, referring to the leader and his party, but the first young man is having none of it. “We are now the proudest nation on earth,” he says.

It’s the sort of conversation that might well happen in the India of today – between two people who pejoratively call each other “sickular” and “bhakt” – but the scene is from Munich: The Edge of War, and the reference is to 1930s Germany. Paul von Hartmann (played by Jannis Niewöhner) is the German student in Oxford, while Hugh Legat (George MacKay) is his English friend, and their ideological differences will eventually rupture their relationship (after an argument that includes Paul’s hair-raisingly familiar claim that “voting for Hitler is not voting against Jews – it’s voting for the future”).

Years later, their paths will cross again – at the site of the 1938 Munich Agreement between Hitler and the British PM Neville Chamberlain, where the fate of Czechoslovakia is to be decided. That’s the premise of this political thriller, adapted from Robert Harris’s 2017 novel Munich (with “The Edge of War” awkwardly added to the film’s title, presumably to avoid confusion with Steven Spielberg’s Munich).

History tells us that the Munich agreement (also known as the Munich Betrayal) was a case of European leaders falling over themselves to appease a fascist who would never be content with simply annexing one small country; as Hitler’s ambitions and claims grew over the next year, the Second World War became inevitable, and the Munich pact is now generally viewed as a giant folly. But in Harris’s dramatized alternate history – starring the fictional Hugh and Paul – more complex games of realpolitik were afoot and Chamberlain is cannier and wiser than he is usually credited as being.

Those who find that too much of a leap of faith will do better to focus on the fictionalised espionage story, convoluted as it sometimes is. Former friends Hugh and Paul are on the same side now, since Paul has come to recognise the damage being wrought in his country and is part of a secret anti-Nazi resistance. But it takes Hugh – now a secretary in the British
Foreign Ministry – some time to fully process what the stakes are. Like many others, he clings to the hope of lasting peace. Paul, who is more urgent (“To hope means waiting for someone else to do it”), more passionate (“The great characteristic of the English is distance. Not only from one another but from feeling”) and understands Hitler better, knows that war is coming. The question is when, and how prepared can the Allies be for it.

****

This is an uneven, sometimes perplexing narrative. At its best, it’s a touching story about friendship, about the ways in which the personal and the political can collide, and about the gulf between youth and experience. (On the one hand, there are young men cocky enough to believe that the world’s fate lies in their hands; on the other, an old man, committed to protocols, says “This is most improper” when asked to participate in an urgent secret meeting.) The lead performances are very good, and as Chamberlain the veteran Jeremy Irons effortlessly shifts registers between a doddering relic from a PG Wodehouse book and a dignified statesman determined to see peace. There are some nice supporting turns too – including one by the cleverly cast August Diehl, as sinister and watchful a Nazi as he was in the guessing-game scene in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The film elegantly suggests the dilemma at the heart of its story: when a situation is so bad that the only options are to embrace disaster right now or to risk much greater disaster in the future, can one find the hope or resolve to do the right thing? Is there even a “right thing”?

In its more underwhelming moments, though, there is much ponderous dialogue (“Friends, history is watching us.” Really?) along with some strange choices. Almost every time the Führer (played by Ulrich Matthes, who looks about as Hitler-like as Raghubir Yadav did in Dear Friend Hitler, or as Asrani did as the jailer in Sholay) appeared on screen, I wanted to giggle – which was probably not the intended effect. As portrayed here, Hitler shows the same disdain for Oxford education as Narendra Modi once did for Harvard; there is also a bit of business involving Paul’s wristwatch that was probably meant to make the dictator seem menacing but felt like slapstick comedy to me. You don’t want the Hitler in this film to remind you of Inglourious Basterds, though the story does steer close to providing a similar wish-fulfilment ending.

Also, even as one acknowledges the horrors of Nazi Germany and the need for that regime to be defeated, for an Indian viewer with knowledge of colonial history and British atrocities (even around the time of the events depicted here), there is naturally some ambivalence built into watching a film like this where the good guys and the bad guys are so clearly defined. It’s hard not to raise an eyebrow during a scene where Hitler’s imperialist expansion is described as being the opposite of everything the British PM stands for.

In fairness the film does touch on this at one point. “You’re one to talk about exploiting others, Englishman!” Paul says. “I know I’m a hypocrite, but I know fanaticism when I see it,” responds Hugh. Their conversations – where we see two young men weighing ideological positions, recognising the contradictions in themselves and in their world – are ultimately at the heart of this odd but engrossing film. 

(My earlier First Post pieces are here)

Sunday, January 09, 2022

Mix and match: Aranyak, The Leopard Man, The Power of the Dog

In my Economic Times column, thoughts on beasts and men (or victims and predators) in an enjoyable new crime series Aranyak, a 1940s B-horror film and Jane Campion’s new Western
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The opening image of the new series Aranyak involves a movement from a dark space to a well-lit one: the camera follows a man in a leopard costume through a “cave” onto the stage of an auditorium where fond parents are watching a school production. It’s fun and games at first, but then the music becomes minatory, there are unsettling close-ups of the “leopard” holding a “rabbit”, and we realise that this is a performance within a performance. A human, mimicking a predatory animal, turns out to be a predator himself.

The transition from wilderness (or an impression of wilderness) to civilisation, and the blurring of Man and Beast, are central to this story, which is actually set a few years after that school-play scene. The main Aranyak narrative centres on a murder in a fictional hill town, and the widespread local superstition that a mythical creature – half man, half animal – is on the rampage. Early in the show, police inspector Kasturi (Raveena Tandon) finds a snarling leopard (a real black leopard, albeit one that’s obviously computer-generated) in her house’s compound, menacing her daughter. But we are also invited to reflect that this creature is one of many victims of human encroachment into the natural world. (An important character, a smarmy parliamentarian, is trying to convert forest land into a tourism project. “If it continues like this,” someone says sardonically, “all the wild animals will enter our homes.”)

Structurally, Aranyak is comparable to the acclaimed series Mare of East Town, which is also a crime investigation with a solid lead role for a middle-aged actress (Kate Winslet), and set in a place where everyone knows everyone else – resulting in a tangled weave of suspects, personal histories and interrelated motives. But one of the joys (and hazards) of being a full-blown movie nut is how often you see connections between generally unrelated works: how a similarity of name, or a character arc, or just a particular scene, can lead you down various rabbit-holes. Or leopard-caves. Just one whimsical example: watching a scene involving a cute rabbit – fussed over but eventually disembowelled for medical purposes – in Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog, I thought of the kidnapped “Rabbit” in Aranyak. The Campion scene was also a reminder of the different contexts in which someone can be victim or prey: the bunny-killer is a shy, bullied young man who we are meant to be rooting for but who turns out to be steelier than expected. (Along similar lines, Aranyak ends with the suggestion – heralding a second season – that the “victim” from its opening scene may have become a threat.)

Much as I liked the threads that jostle for our attention over Aranyak’s eight episodes, I also fixated on a specific aspect of it: the repeated references to the much-feared “nar-tendva” – or “leopard man”, as the subtitles had it. This had me thinking about a 1943 film by that name, produced by Val Lewton, who was a master of low-budget psychological horror in that decade.

The differences between The Leopard Man and Aranyak are more pronounced than the similarities, given the changes in filmmaking styles and tones over eight decades (from the world of the 1940s B-movie to the polished and expansive OTT universe of today). The Lewton “flick” – as it would have been described by most people in its time – is in black-and-white, looks creaky to modern eyes, and at 66 minutes it is one-fifth the length of Aranyak. But like the new series, it involves a human criminal who may be using fear of the unknown – or fear of wild beasts – as a cover for his own dark pursuits.

Once a broad connection between two such works is made, other little things fall in place. Both film and show make references to wild creatures wanting to stay away from concrete and cement dwellings unless they have no other option. If the real leopard in Aranyak looks like a CGI creation (hence not “scary” to the eyes of discerning viewers), the black leopard shown in The Leopard Man is underwhelming too: it looks puny and out of its depth in a scene where a nightclub performer brings it (on a leash!) to a crowded party. In both cases, though probably unintended, the effect is that the relative harmlessness of the “wild creature” is emphasized. The bigger menace, as is often the case, comes from humans
– especially when they combine the feral side of their natures with the big-brained ability to contrive and manipulate. Run, rabbit, run.

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Our zombie selves in Covid time: an apocalyptic essay

Outlook magazine had a year-end special built around the cheerful theme “Apocalypse”. I wrote a piece about zombies in film/literature/Covid times. (This includes Max Brooks’s marvelous book World War Z, as well as one of my favourite Val Lewton films I Walked with a Zombie, which I discussed during an online class a year ago. Here is the piece…
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It’s one of many mutation-vaccine memes that has been doing the rounds lately. “Waiting in line for your 56th booster shot to stop the 89th variant that comes with the 23rd wave” reads the text. The image accompanying it is a close-up of one of those malodorous lurchers from a zombie movie – eyes open but glassy and unseeing, slash marks on throat, half-grin plastered on his (its?) face, as if pleased by the news that the local pharmacy has a fresh stock of paracetamol.

At this point, who among us can’t relate to this shuffling wretch?

There is a long-standing connection between zombies and pandemics in horror lore, but there isn’t always a definite answer to the question: which came first? Does the mysterious emergence of zombies lead to pestilence sweeping across the land, or does the plague come first, turning us all into zombies? It depends on which book you’re watching, which film you’re reading… or which real-life scenario you happen to be inhabiting. It also depends on how you define “zombie”, or “apocalypse”.

Consider Max Brooks’s marvellous dystopia book World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), which – in amusingly straight-faced, journalistic prose – describes a global zombie infestation and how it affects (or is prolonged by) different countries and cultures. When Covid-19 got underway, my mind turned to that book, but I didn’t realise how closely it resonated with contemporary events until I pulled out my old copy recently and saw the back-cover blurb “It’s Apocalypse Now, pandemic style”. Followed by: “It began with rumours from China about another pandemic. Then the cases started to multiply […] Humanity was forced to face events that tested our sanity and our sense of reality.”

World War Z has “real” zombies, of course – the supernatural undead who cause all the trouble – but it also makes clear that there are ways and ways of being a zombie. In one stirring chapter, which reads like a nod to Edgar Allan Poe’s classic story “The Masque of the Red Death”, a super-rich New Yorker turns his mansion into a sanctuary for himself and other celebrities (along with their battalions of personal assistants and stylists) – until they learn that however carefully they indulge in ivory-tower hedonism, they can’t stay forever untouched by a raging plague. When the assault comes, it comes not from zombies but from living people on the outside, enraged by this obscene display of privilege. “It was bedlam, exactly what you thought the end of the world was supposed to look like.”

But perhaps the zombie-in-apocalypse theme is most clearly realised in the section about a young Japanese man named Kondo who spends all his time on the internet, where he feels most in control. Long before the zombie invasion begins, Kondo is an automaton: glued to his computer, mechanically interacting with people whom he doesn’t really know, staggering to his door to collect the meal trays his mother left for him outside. Little wonder that when he awakens to an unthinkable crisis – no computer or internet – he goes nearly insane. Like the zombies, he needs something to feed on: in his case, the glow of the screen and the validation of other cyber-residents. But that is gone now, and he is so socially inept that stepping out of his building is barely an option.

Prescient as Brooks’s book was, it was written before smart-phones, social media, and easy-to-access video-meeting rooms – and these are things that don’t figure in the narrative (at least not to the degree that they have now infected our world). I think of Kondo the almost-zombie whenever I come across a tragic-comic news items about a young person, so lost in a phone screen while walking, that they tumble into an uncovered manhole or something such (still gazing into the phone, their minds not having yet processed all the signals).

It is easy to recognise the zombies in ourselves in the cyber-age, where one can stay cut off from the outside world for long durations. (This even before a nasty little virus came along and forced us all into our houses, giving many of us the excuse we wanted to never meet anyone.) It is also easier than ever to grumble that technology has facilitated alienation and living-dead behaviour. But in fairness, versions of this have been happening for hundreds of years. Think of all the stories about insensate, vaguely human-like creatures – going back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and beyond – that were responses to new technological developments; born of the fear that in moving away from the comforting moral certainties of religion towards something more diffused and unpredictable, people would lose their humanity.

Zombies are a direct bequest of that legacy. One of the most famous zombie films, George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, begins with a cemetery scene where a young man (a non-zombie at this stage) is sardonic about traditional things such as putting a wreath on his father’s grave, and doesn’t even go to church. These “blasphemies” of a cold modern age prepare us for the arrival of the living dead. But a question hangs over the film: was that man already dead inside?

****

Historically too, even in the age of early, low-budget horror movies, some of the most notable cinematic “zombies” weren’t supernatural: they were regular people who had been petrified into inaction – through circumstances, or because they had looked for too long into an abyss. The hopelessness might be engendered by personal tragedy, general distress about their immediate surroundings, or cosmic destruction at an unthinkable scale.

Consider the wonderfully atmospheric I Walked with a Zombie (1943), produced by a master of subdued horror, Val Lewton. This film’s sensationalist B-movie title doesn’t begin to convey its quiet, haunting beauty and how it deals not with external terrors but with a soul-destroying conflict within a family where a young woman has turned catatonic after an illicit affair. Or take another tragic young woman from the genre – Christine, the disfigured protagonist of the 1960 Eyes Without a Face, who wanders desolate through the rooms of a large mansion while her scientist father tries to restore her features. Or another legendary horror-film character who must also have spent long lonely hours walking through an old house, Norman Bates in Psycho, rendered zombie-like by his crippling dependence on his long-dead mother.

If the heroine of Eyes Without a Face wears a mask – like someone living through a pandemic – there are other similarly isolated characters in dystopian films. In the climactic scene of the chilling The Face of Another (1964), a doctor has a nightmare vision of countless masked people – soulless ciphers – walking through the streets of a city. For the protagonists of these films, “apocalypse” is a very personal thing, as it would be for most of us in their situation: how does it matter to them if the rest of the world goes on as normal? In another Val Lewton-produced work, Isle of the Dead, a group of people are stranded on an island as a plague rages around them. They scrub their hands, wear masks when possible, and are very aware of the external dangers; but their inner demons are what consume them.

Personal tragedy often runs alongside social commentary in these stories: for instance, I Walked with a Zombie is set on an island with a history of colonialism and racial oppression; the white characters in the film may have infected the place through generations of exploitation. But then, anyone who knows the history of horror cinema knows that the genre, however otherworldly or fantastical it might seem, has always had powerful subtexts. “Unusual Times Demand Unusual Pictures” said an advertisement for the Depression-Era film White Zombie; as David Skal put it in his fine book The Monster Show, part of the reason why this film was scary was that “millions already knew that they were no longer completely in control of their lives; the economic strings were being pulled by faceless, frightening forces”. Decades later, when the American economy was in a much healthier place, along came Romero’s 1979 Dawn of the Dead – a witty commentary on the giant-shopping-mall era, where rampant consumerism could turn people into zombies.

And then there is the end of the world, non-pandemic-style – and outside the horror genre. I’m thinking about two very different types of films made in different cultures in 1955, both of which involve terror of nuclear annihilation: Akira Kurosawa’s plaintive drama I Live in Fear and Robert Aldrich’s B-noir Kiss Me Deadly. Both have scenes involving bright flashes of light that might signal Armageddon, and people who are paralysed by fear. The protagonist of I Live in Fear, an old man traumatised by
Hiroshima and Nagasaki, cowers when his house is lit up by lightning during a storm, imagining it to be another atom bomb attack. In Kiss me Deadly, when a woman opens a mysterious, glowing suitcase, we realise that this is a horrific Pandora’s Box containing a form of all-consuming nuclear power; and the house goes up in flames. Both the old man and the woman are rendered immobile and sub-human… like you-know-what.

From the fears of rapid industrialisation to the world wars, from the possibility of mutually assured nuclear destruction to climate change… and now to Covid-19 and its many avatars: every age has had its own zombie-generators. Each situation poses its own special challenges, but maybe some things don’t change all that much over the centuries. Writing about White Zombie in 1932, a reviewer quipped that zombies were especially useful in the busted economy, “since they don’t mind working overtime”. Something similar might be said for some of us in Covid’s WFH world, where the line between work time and leisure time has been blurred, where there is no “switching off”, and we stare into the depths of our many screens, fingers involuntarily tapping away to indicate slight signs of life. Perhaps the next major zombie film should be about the undead launching their most macabre attack yet… by infiltrating our online video meetings.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Two new anthologies: Cat People and The Book of Dog

Some news about two new books that I am in (and am very proud of, and looking forward to experiencing as a reader too). Entirely by coincidence, one is an anthology about cats and the other is an anthology about dogs. Different publishers, different editors, and the essays I contributed were commissioned (and written) many months apart – but as these things sometimes happen, the promotional announcements for both books are in the same week, and both are now available for pre-order.

Presenting:

Cat People (edited by Devapriya Roy)

and

The Book of Dog (edited by Hemali Sodhi)


You can scroll down and gape at the list of contributors. Incidentally, as far as I can tell, I am one of only three writers who are in both the cat and the dog book, along with Nilanjana S Roy and Arunava Sinha (two giants of the Indian literary world who have been inspirations for very long). I am as pleased about this as I was to be the only male contributor to the Zubaan anthology Of Mothers and Others nearly a decade ago.

A word about my two essays. The cat piece was one of my most intense (sometimes painful) writing projects of the past few years: a personal essay about my mother and her relationship with animals, about our cats of yore, about old diary entries and how they often contradict one’s memories. Massively self-indulgent, possibly of little interest to anyone other than myself (he says, while hastening to remind the reader that there are many other worthy writers in this anthology) – but I was very happy to have written it in the way I wanted to write it. (The first draft was something like 10,000 words, I eventually cut it down to under 6,000 words. One bit that was removed was a sub-section about the great 1944 film Curse of the Cat People, which I discovered afresh during the Val Lewton course last year. Will revisit and finish that piece soon.)

The dog essay, a little shorter and chattier, is about something that is absolutely central to my daily life: the concept of the “part-time dog” – street dogs that one looks out for on a regular basis and feels responsible for, but also experiences unease about for various intersecting reasons. It is a tribute to some such animals I have known, including the legendary Chameli and Kaali, both of whom have appeared in my earlier posts. And my Lara’s mother, who died earlier this year. Royalty proceeds from this book go to registered animal-welfare charities.

Here are the pre-order links: Cat People and The Book of Dog. Please do spread the word to anyone who might be interested – and let me emphasise that these books aren’t only for animal-lovers (though that will naturally be the primary readership), they are for anyone who likes good, heartfelt writing. Have a look at those two contributors’ lists again.

BONUS

At an unrelated event yesterday, Hemali Sodhi and I continued our dubious longstanding tradition of posing with dog biscuits (or, in this case, a milk bone). Our first such photo session since the pandemic began. See:


Sunday, December 19, 2021

A monumental feat – the Sabz Burj restoration

Wrote this short piece for India Today about the newly restored Sabz Burj – a 16th century mausoleum – in Nizamuddin. It looks especially brilliant now with the lights on at night, and it’s a very good idea to have a look while visiting Sunder Nursery or Humayun’s Tomb.
(And yes, that’s Cereberus the hound in the first photo, guarding the tomb’s gates. He was happy to pose…)

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If you crossed the roundabout at the juncture of Delhi’s Lodhi Road and Mathura Road a few years ago, your eyes may have dimly registered the unremarkable-looking monument standing there; one among countless old structures that dot this city of many histories. Take the same route today and your sensory experience will be very different: even through dust and haze and the eyesores of bumper-to-bumper vehicles, the newly renovated Sabz Burj, its blue-tiled dome gleaming, will catch your eye from some distance away. The identity of the nobleman for whom this octagonal mausoleum was built – probably in the 1530s, during Humayun’s reign – is unknown, but there is no longer any question that the burj was an important part of the large necropolis that existed around the Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia Dargah.

For the Aga Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) team that began work on the renovation a few years ago, the challenges were obvious. Much of the incised plaster patterns on the eight walls (each a different design) had faded or disintegrated, as had some of the striking large medallions with Quranic inscriptions. Previous restorations had created problems: the use of cement, for instance, leading to increased water penetration. The entire set of turquoise-blue tiles on the dome (approximately 8,000 in number) have now been replaced and fixed with lime mortar, as have a large percentage of the tiles – in four distinct colours – on the monument’s drum or “neck”.

As Ratish Nanda, CEO, AKTC, points out, something of this vintage can’t magically be restored to exactly what it was hundreds of years ago; a certain degree of conjecturing – rooted in careful studies of Timurid architectural trends and construction methods – is inevitable. Take the burj’s sandstone jaalis (lattice screens), which no longer existed and had been replaced with aesthetically jarring metal grills – possibly during a period in the early 20th century when the structure was used as a police station. In recreating these jaalis, the team didn’t know the precise 16th century design, but as Nanda says, the important thing was to restore the integrity of the material originally used, and the processes by which the screens were made.

The big discovery during the restoration was the uncovering of what survived of an intricately painted ceiling in the domed chamber – the earliest existing painted ceiling for a Mughal Era structure. Faded though it is in its current form, a decision was made not to tamper with it to make it look shinier and more “touristy”. “We differentiate between craft and art, and have different approaches for them,” Nanda says, making it clear that the uncovered ceiling was being treated as an example of the latter. A reconstruction drawing has been made by the painter Himanish Das, however, and it creates a mental image of now-forgotten artists lying, Michelangelo-like, on their backs as they did this painstaking work.

There is a poignant subtext here: located where it is, at a congested roundabout that’s tricky to cross, the Sabz Burj is not the sort of tourist attraction that will draw large crowds the way the nearby Sunder Nursery or Humayun’s Tomb do. Relatively few people will step into the interiors and see the remains of the grand ceiling. Many will, however, get to gawp at the beautiful exterior – a reminder that a diligent restoration can make the past feel more real and, well, present.

Friday, December 17, 2021

On Manish Gupta’s 420 IPC: a low-key but engaging courtroom film

(It was good to see two excellent actors, Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey, back together after a long time in the new film 420 IPC, now on Zee5 – though it would have been nicer if they had more to do. I wrote this piece for First Post)
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Few actors can play an unassuming, middle-class everyman as well as Vinay Pathak (whose skills have been sadly underused in the past decade), and this is emphasized by the opening scenes of the new film 420 IPC. Chartered accountant Bansi Keswani (Pathak) is with one of his higher-profile clients, the deputy director of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA). “There should be different rules for the family members of government servants, no?” says this official during a chat about tax filing; Keswani responds with a quarter-smile and a politely unenthusiastic “Jee” – followed by a bob of the head and a “Main chaloon?” (“I’ll leave now?”)

An honest CA made uncomfortable by suggestions of power-mongering in high places, and by the entitlement of privileged people? Not long after this, we see Keswani disapprovingly muttering “Shakkar mein bhi paise bachate hain” (“They save money even on sugar”) after sipping bland tea served in an office that he knows conducts big financial transactions. At this point the line between the big-shots who pull the strings and the worker ants who serve appears to be fairly well-defined.

And so, when Bansi and his wife Pooja (Gul Panag, in the unglamorous avatar of some of her early films like Dor and Manorama Six Feet Under) find CBI officials raiding their house, the sense of violation is palpable. “Sir, main karze mein dooba hua aadmi hoon, main EMI nahin bhar paaya hoon,” Bansi protests as the officials tear his house apart looking for evidence of financial scams. We don’t know many details yet, but the sight of a middle-class family under siege can raise the hackles of a viewer who knows how vulnerable such underdogs are to miscarriage of justice.

Though Keswani is cleared of suspicion, a couple of months later he finds himself in trouble again when forged cheques adding up to 1.5 crore rupees are stolen from the office of another of his clients. This time matters are serious enough for him to be taken into judicial custody, and courtroom proceedings begin.

****

Some ambiguity about characters and incidents is built into this scenario, and 420 IPC makes the most of this uncertainty. While Pathak is ostensibly playing a Decent Man here, he is also a good enough actor to suggest sinister currents below a quiet surface, and he has done villainous or sleazy roles before – so a small question mark hangs over this persecuted-man narrative. What if…? Could it be…?

420 IPC is written and directed by Manish Gupta, who also wrote the 2019 film Section 375, about the legal proceedings surrounding a rape allegation. Both films have a comparable arc: an accusation or an arrest is made, we are privy to different versions of what might have transpired, new information comes in, people’s motivations and interrelationships are seen in a fresh light, there are little twists. Lawyers bicker, discuss the workings of the legal system.

Section 375 involved a courtroom faceoff between an experienced senior lawyer (played by Akshaye Khanna, all eyebrows and smirk) and an idealistic younger one (Richa Chaddha), with the former patronisingly imparting life-and-law lessons as the trial proceeds. Initially it seems like 420 IPC will take the same route: in one corner we have the seasoned Parsi prosecutor Jamshed Ji (Ranvir Shorey), in the other the twenty-something defence attorney Birbal (Rohan Vinod Mehra). Shorey (who, in what seems another cinematic lifetime now, worked wonderfully well with Vinay Pathak in such films as Bheja Fry and Mithya) has played some unlikable characters recently, and here he is now, hair slicked back, giving his opposite number a smug once-over; meanwhile Mehra (son of the late Vinod Mehra who was one of the most genial performers of his era) has a fresh-faced earnestness. It seems likely that for much of the film’s duration, the cards will be stacked in the prosecutor’s favour.

But something more intriguing happens along the way. Without giving away plot spoilers: the greenhorn Birbal turns out to be more street-smart and willing to stretch the rules than one initially thought – this naïve-looking attorney knows how to be manipulative and extract data through police sources and hacker friends, and says things like “Information is power”. At the same time, Jamshed Ji becomes relatively marginalised, or at least not very threatening. There are subtle shifts in our perspective of these characters and others.

In its own way, this is also a story about social relationships and power equations across strata – how the nature of our interactions change depending on who we are with, and also on the language we speak. In the courtroom Birbal speaks crisp and fluent English, which might seem to give him an advantage, but there is a little moment where he is briefly excluded when Jamshed Ji and the judge (also Parsi) engage in a casual aside in their own dialect. There are glimpses of the different ways in which people behave with those who are more privileged and less privileged than they are (though by the film’s end, such categories and hierarchies will be blurred): in one scene, the usually mild-mannered Bansi speaks peremptorily to a security guard outside a bank; frustrated that the bank is closed and that the guard doesn’t recognise him, he mutters “Idiot!” as he walks away. The sophisticated-seeming Birbal growls “Side ho jaao na!” to two men who are taking a selfie on his scooter’s route.

There are a few jarring elements too, such as the occasional underlining of information and the repetition of statements, first in English and then in Hindi, or vice versa. “Woh faraar ho gaya,” someone says, and then after a pause, “He’s absconding.” (This sort of thing continues to a point where Jamshed Ji even ends up saying “Your Honour, shaayad accused ne handkerchief use kiya ho ya roomaal use kiya ho.”) There is also an annoying character, a junior lawyer, whose main function seems to be to ask Birbal at regular intervals (mercifully outside the courtroom): “But what if Keswani’s guilty?” In the process reminding us viewers – not that we needed these jogs – that that is an option too.

Formally speaking, 420 IPC is a subdued film, employing the aesthetic of a moderately well-produced Hindi television drama – not “cinematic” in the obvious ways (and especially not if you’ve just come from watching an Annette or a West Side Story). But it harks back to a type of cosy, comforting, low-budget indie film from a decade or two ago, including some of the ones that Pathak, Shorey and Panag used to work in. Despite the occasional stretching out of dramatic moments (and the little bilingual exercises mentioned above), it knows how to keep the plot moving, and the storytelling is largely to the point. In its better moments, this an engrossing depiction of a world where the line between small finance and big finance – or small scams and enormous ones – isn’t clear, and where it is hard to say who holds the reins of power at any given time.

Given all the balls it has in the air, and the (small and big) revelations that are made in the second half, I almost wished the film was a bit longer. It felt rushed at the end, as if a producer had looked at his watch during a trial screening, turned to the editor and said “Okay, eight minutes more max.” Another advantage of a longer running time could have been that Pathak and Shorey – two terrific actors who don’t have quite enough screen time despite their central-seeming roles – might have been given more to do. Hopefully a meaty role in a high-profile series is around the corner for them.

(My other First Post pieces are here)

Sunday, December 12, 2021

‘Wood’ you like a parenting manual with that child? On Annette and Richard Matheson

(In my Economic Times column – why the operatic new thriller Annette reminded me of a classic Richard Matheson story about a vicious child and its exasperated parents)
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There are many things to say about the new film Annette, a delirious rock opera-thriller-melodrama about a sullen stand-up comedian named Henry, his soprano wife Ann, and their baby girl Annette who inherits her mother’s singing voice. I wouldn’t try to summarise them all here, but one of the more obvious talking points – in a film that keeps breaking Fourth Walls and drawing attention to its own building blocks – is that the title character is “played” by a wooden puppet.

To clarify, Annette is not supposed to be a marionette in the story: she is no Pinocchio, she is very much a real child and treated as such – she just happens to be depicted in puppet form, right from the time she makes her first appearance as an amniotic fluid-covered newborn. (I was reminded of the chalk drawings representing the exteriors and interiors of real houses in Lars von Trier’s Dogville.) In any case it might be said that Annette’s adult protagonists, though played by flesh-and-blood actors, are puppets too, as well as their own puppet-masters – dragging themselves across their respective stages, polishing a persona (Ann is tragic, forever dying and bowing; Henry is sneering, self-absorbed, pugilistic).

Given the playful nature of this film, the gimmick of the puppet-child doesn’t really have to mean anything – it can be just another instance of Annette breaking narrative rules and wearing its artifice on its sleeve. But for those who like venturing into the thorny thickets of analysis, there is an obvious interpretation: the idea that children, even well-loved children, are to some degree playthings and blank slates for their parents. In this case, here are two artists or performers who each, in different ways, use their puppet-poppet for their own enhancement. Ann imbues it with her greatest skill, turning it into a voice-box that will outlive her; Henry milks the “magical” gift to bask in reflected fame – and continue leading a hedonistic life – long after his own star fades.

It all becomes very poignant in the end, but the darker, more savage aspects of this film – and the use of the puppet device – reminded me of another parent-child equation (also involving an artistic couple and their baby) in a literary work that is as formally unconventional as Annette: Richard Matheson’s 1954 short story “The Doll That Does Everything”.

At first this tale might seem to be the obverse of Annette: here, the child – a destructive little boy named Gardner – is the one in satanic control, and his parents, trying desperately to concentrate on their creative work, are the victims. But when they try to resolve matters by buying an almost-sentient doll as a companion for Gardner, the story moves towards a twisted resolution – and towards an image of a part-human, part-automaton family that resembles the midsection of Annette.

In terms of content alone, Matheson’s story must have been frowned upon in circles where the institution of parenthood is viewed as deeply sacred. (I wouldn’t know.) But equally central to its effect is how it is told, and this is another quality that links it to the avant-garde new film. A young Matheson used language boldly and fearlessly, taking big risks, paying no heed to the anodyne rules – “don’t use big words”, “be direct” – that get taught in so many writing classes. As the poet Ruthlen and his sculptor wife Athene despair at the balefulness of their child, a litany of startling descriptors (“Foaming moonstruck octopus! Untrammeled farrago!”), phrases (“Ulcers within ulcers throbbed”), and sentences (“Ruthlen, bogged in sticky pentameter, looked up one morning eyes marbleized […] At hipless sides, his fingers shook like leprous stringbeans in a gale”) leap out at the reader from the page. The author is having as much fun here as the cast and crew of Annette must have had putting together their most flamboyant long takes.

There are many delightful passages here to warm the nihilist’s soul, including a climactic scene where the doll starts misbehaving too and the couple are at their wits’ end – until epiphany strikes. “It’s not the doll’s fault!” screams Athene, “What good will tearing up the doll do? It’s Gardner. It’s that horrid thing we made together!”

One can picture little Annette speaking a reversal of those lines: “It’s those horrid things that got together and made me!” No wonder that when we finally do see her as a “real” girl late in the film, it is at a point where she is free from her parents’ control. “Can I forgive what you have done?” she sings to her dad, “And will I ever forgive mom? / Her deadly poison I became / Merely a child to exploit / Can I forgive you both?”

[A couple of earlier posts about Richard Matheson: The Shrinking Man; the "anyways" conundrum]

Monday, December 06, 2021

मैंने मांडू नहीं देखा: on Swadesh Deepak and his memoir of “madness”

(At a literature festival in 2016, Jerry Pinto told me about one of the many projects he was working on, a translation of Swadesh Deepak’s memoir Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha – an account of having lived with madness, written by someone who was not chronicling a long-ago mental affliction from a safe distance, but who was still to a degree steeped in it. Anyone who has spoken with Jerry knows how contagious his enthusiasm is when he is holding forth on something he finds interesting, but this was a special conversation even by those standards: his fascination with Swadesh Deepak’s book was evident, and now that the English translation is out I can see why.
Wrote this piece about the book for Scroll
)
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I don’t want to write about my illness, says Swadesh Deepak, the celebrated Hindi playwright who has recently re-entered the world of the sane after being a “prisoner of a mental illness” for seven years. I don’t remember the events in any order.

“When did I say you have to describe your illness?” replies the writer-editor Giridhar Rathi, “You have to say what it feels like to be crushed by a mountain […] Write it down as it comes back. Genre, style, forget about these things. If you want, write a poem; put in dialogue as if it’s a play – a fractured prose for a fractured autobiography. And then we will have the first book that is like us.”

And so, Swadesh Deepak wrote a memoir of his descent into madness – a journey that supposedly began when a woman (whom he calls Mayavini, or seductress) asked him to come to Mandu with her.

Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha, published in 2003, includes an account of the above conversation with Rathi. By the time the reader arrives at that self-reflexive passage – on page 119 of the English translation by Jerry Pinto, I Have Not Seen Mandu – it should come as no surprise. Because by then we know that this frightening, unclassifiable book is not just a tour through the darkest corners of a damaged mind, it is a tour conducted by that mind itself (which, as it happens, was not fully healed after all. Three years after the book was completed, Swadesh Deepak, his condition having deteriorated again, left his Ambala house and was never heard from again).

In telling his story, Deepak moves feverishly between past, present and future: the meeting with Mayavini after a Calcutta performance of his play Court Martial; the time spent in the ICU, and later in the general ward, of a Chandigarh hospital after a suicide attempt; conversations and encounters with friends before, during and after his illness; the growing despair of his family – his wife Geeta and their children Sukant and Parul. Doctors ask him questions. (“I was tired. I was answering like a telephone. I was in a country where no one spoke my language.”) Mayavini comes to visit him, sometimes accompanied by three white leopards. He shrewdly conceals her existence from others. (But when she laughs too much, the religious books in the room frown at her.) The wind is personified, it whispers at him. He rants about “destructive women”, from Draupadi to Helen of Troy. A badly burnt arm heals very slowly. Other patients jabber around him.

There are time lapses in the telling. In one passage, he and Mayavini get into her “long foreign car” and begin chatting; a short while into this conversation, with no change of setting mentioned, a woman comes in with a tea tray. The effect is a bit like surrealism in fiction – in a Bunuel film or an Ishiguro novel where space and time don’t follow the usual rules – except that here one can believe Deepak is simply recording what he experienced as faithfully as possible.

At times the section transitions are haphazard, as if mirroring the random workings of a disoriented mind (the section head “The Present” might be followed by another “The Present”), but at other times there is writerly method, or sense of structure, in the madness: Deepak ends a brief section about his first meeting with Soumitra Mohan with the line “Now I understand that his sthaayi bhaava, his permanent aesthetic mode, is a fear of his wife”. The next section, “the present” in the hospital, begins with “Today I am afraid of Geeta.”

Attempting to capture the entirety of a work like I Have Not Seen Mandu in a review is impossible, but here’s a catalogue of some of the things this book is.

It is (obviously) a chronicle of madness, a mind trying to make sense of itself, and using writing – the only available tool – to do so; while perhaps being aware that obsessively writing down everything one can think of is also a type of mental illness. (“Yeh dard bhi hai, yeh hai dawa bhi,” to misquote the lyrics of a popular Hindi song.) Like many people who feel things are constantly slipping away from them and that they must make a special effort to stay tethered to reality, Deepak remembers and cites specific dates even for mundane incidents. (“On 20-02-2000 Nirmal Verma asked me…”).

It's a story about language and its many uses – by a Hindi writer who was a professor of English. “When I speak English continuously, I have retreated to my secure country. No sorrow there, no joy. A limbo of the half-dead,” Swadesh says, but he also calls it “the language of lies”. He makes references to William Blake, Shakespeare, TS Eliot, sometimes misquoting them or rearranging the words in the awkwardly pedantic way in which some people who are proud of their knowledge of English literature – despite English not being their first language – do (and Pinto dutifully notes the correct versions).

So this is also, in a very real sense, a book about writers and writing. At times it reads like a Mad Hatter’s account of a tea-party populated by the cream of the Hindi-literature fraternity – gossiping, encouraging, ribbing each other, being friendly, envious, vindictive in turn. Here is the great Krishna Sobti, saying characteristically naughty things (after glancing at Swadesh’s wife: “Yaar, to look at her taut body, you’d think you hadn’t even raised the wedding veil”) – he clearly reveres her, describes her with awe, and but also accuses her of hiding behind her pseudonym Hashmat “like Arjuna hid behind Shikhandi” to mount a premeditated attack on him in print. And here are other writers and creative people in extended cameos – Nirmal Verma, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Jehangir Sabavala, Soumitra Mohan, Ebrahim Alkazi, Gyan Chaturvedi, Sheila Sandhu, Nadira Babbar, Piyush Mishra.

Some of them speak words of wisdom, which Swadesh seems to recognize as such, even if he can’t really make use of them. “You should always be afraid of someone,” Alkazi tells him, “It keeps your mind intact.” (This is a thought that finds a strange echo elsewhere in the book, in the idea that those who most believe themselves to be impervious, like a Karna protected by his kavacha, may be the most vulnerable.) Theatre director Ranjit Kapoor advises him to make friends with women if he wants to lessen his rage. Again, unlikely.

More unexpected guests – leopards aside – glide through these pages too: during one of his episodes, Swadesh is visited by WB Yeats, who speaks to him in Hindi and explains “I made friends with your poet Nirala in Heaven”. On another occasion Krishna – the God, not the divine Sobti – shows up and, during a philosophical conversation, makes a casual reference to August Strindberg. Of course, we can reflect that someone as widely read as Swadesh Deepak would be susceptible to such visitations. As Pinto puts it in a footnote, it may or may not be a measure of Deepak’s disorder that he can move from Gogol to the potboiler-writer H Rider Haggard in the same passage. This is a condition that is at least partly shared by many prolific readers, writers, movie-nerds, critics. When you have a large swathe of cultural references, highbrow and lowbrow, to draw on and be stimulated by and obsess about, is such “madness” far away?

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This book is also about the tragic-comic effect of Swadesh’s illness on his family, and about the neglect of mental disease in India – the lack of acceptance that adds to what is already an intolerable situation for afflicted as well as caregivers. A few years ago Swadesh’s son Sukant wrote a piece titled “Papa, Elsewhere”, for the Pinto-edited anthology A Book of Light: When a Loved One Has a Different Mind. Here is Sukant’s account of the family’s reaction to the disappearance of Swadesh in 2006:

When we – my mother, my sister and I – were convinced that he was not coming back, there was a collective sigh of relief. There was almost a celebration.
“I hope we never see his face again,” my sister said. I hoped so too. So did my mother…
Read in isolation, this might sound callous, but what it won’t tell you is how much the family had to deal with during Swadesh Deepak’s long period in the wilderness – and how an apparently unfeeling reaction can be a survival technique, a distancing device, as well as a genuine expression of relief. In the same piece, Sukant also writes with affection and concern about being the first to listen to chapters from his father’s memoir as it was being written. “He would spend hours in his study working on the book at a pace we had never seen before. Maybe he knew he was going down again.”

Revisiting Sukant’s piece after reading I Have Not Seen Mandu, I found it even more poignant, partly because its lucidity is in such stark contrast to Swadesh Deepak’s writing. Taken together, these two works – one a short essay by a “sane” son, the other a long and rambling memoir by a “mad” father – offer a complementary view of what losing one’s grip on oneself can be like, and what the continuum between “normal” and “crazy” might look like for those who have to constantly stare such things in the eye.

Both Maine Mandu Nahin Dekha and the story surrounding it (with Deepak’s relapse and eventual disappearance) are cautions against our tendency to build comforting or affirmative narratives, to tell ourselves that an illness can be meaningfully conquered with the right amount of care, with the right people doing or saying the right things. Life – and certainly the caregiving life – shows us repeatedly that such narratives are flawed; that very often you might do your very best and it still might not amount to much.

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There are questions that any reader of this book might have. If (to simplify things a bit) Deepak is writing this memoir during a period of relative lucidity after having moved past the worst of his illness, then how does he remember and objectively describe details that were symptoms of that madness? Such as watching a politician’s photo in a newspaper turning into that of a lizard (“slowly his tongue began to extrude”). On one hand, Swadesh says he doesn’t remember anything from his days in the ICU, that he has to rely on other people’s accounts; yet he also describes seeing the goddess Durga in his wife when he turned to look at her from his ICU bed. Deepak does try to explain in his own Introduction – “Many years later hazy and fractured memories began to return, but not in sequence. I began to make notes” – but some of the specifics are still mysterious to someone attempting to understand his condition and how it is expressed through writing. One does, however, get a definite sense – especially near the end of the story – that some of Swadesh’s experiences helped him to slowly come out of his seven-year writing paralysis and find new muses and inspirations, which would lead to such works as the play Sabse Udaas Kavita after his temporary recovery.

Some sections of I Have Not Seen Mandu are not easy to get through – and not just because of the morbid subject matter. When Swadesh describes his experiences in the hospital, with other patients, doctors and nurses, page after page full of staccato exchanges, it reads like part of a play set in a madhouse; you almost expect these people to address us directly and put on a performance, like characters in Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade or some such work. But fun though that sounds, it can become stifling in ways that might be too much for many readers (even those who are interested in mental illness or have encountered it up close). This is a narrative that is riveting and exhausting at the same time, with many passages that are precise, moving or illuminating, and a few that are incomprehensible (and can only be comprehended, if at all, by Deepak himself). In its rawest, nastiest passages, it reaches places that few other books can. I was often confounded, but wanted to reread it immediately – even without the hope that I would be able to understand everything in it.

If it’s possible to “sum up” a book like this, one might say that it is as fragmented and as full of contradictions as the human mind is; and that it makes most other memoirs – however self-aware they might seem – look polished and contrived in comparison. Perhaps that’s what Giridhar Rathi meant when he said “And then we will have the first book that is like us.”
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P.S. Here are a couple of Krishna Sobti references from the book. Feel like sharing screenshots of many other excerpts, but for now, here is my piece on Sobti’s A Gujarat Here, a Gujarat There.


Sunday, December 05, 2021

Notes on an online and offline friendship

See below for some pictures with my friend Tipu Purkayastha (who was passing through Delhi on his way back to the US) at the Khan Market Big Chill last week – grim-visaged fate reserved an empty table for us right next to a poster of one of our favourite films (the title of which is also well-suited to the masked world that Covid made). In pic 2, Tipu, most erudite and witty of film scholars, holds debut books by two sharp young writers – Shrayana Bhattacharya's Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh and Uday Bhatia's Bullets Over Bombay. (The Khan Market sleeping hound in the frame is not accidental.)


Funny how this plague has had different ways of affecting relationships. Tipu and I first began corresponding around 15 years ago when he started following my blog, being as nerdy about Old Hollywood (and a few other types of cinemas) as I was. In the following years I met him 4-5 times during his India visits (running theme: he would email me each time there was a big Barnes & Noble discount on Criterion DVDs, asking if there were any specific ones I wanted to buy; I would send a list, and he would bring them along on his next Delhi trip). While those meetings over coffee were always nice, there was also a rushed component to them – a sense of “this is an obligatory catch-up in a small window of time and we’ll chat briefly, ogle those lovely DVD covers, discuss the disc Extras, then say bye”.


But over the past year and a half, Tipu has been a regular presence at my online film discussions and courses, and in a weird way I feel like we got to spend more “quality time” during this period: through the Zoom sessions and the subsequent email exchanges where he shared trivia and wisecracks with the group. (He usually looks a bit drowsy during the sessions since most of them happen at 5 or 6 AM California time, but still diligently shows up for most of them, and makes sure to say goofy things on chat every now and again – “Shoulder Shoulder, meethi baatein bolkar”, for instance, when Lara nibbled on my shoulder to the delight of the participants.) Zoom windows are understandably seen as a less-than-ideal way to meet friends, and the video fatigue of this period is a very real phenomenon – but for me this has felt like one of those cases where online meetings have *strengthened* a friendship. When I met Tipu today in the so-called real world, it felt more relaxed than our previous real-world meetings; like we were catching up after being in regular touch for a while...

 

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

Mum's birth anniversary today...

...so here are a couple of very old photos. 

I like the way my nani is just sitting there, cigarette in hand, right next to a baby. Between her and my father, I probably inhaled more tobacco smoke, narcotics and hallucinogens in my first few years than most people do in a lifetime...

(Some posts about my mother and her illness: Rooms and private traps; mum and the JJ School of Art; revisiting July 4, 2016; a scan report)

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Bees saal pehle: a journalistic anniversary

(Guilty yet again of putting something on Facebook and neglecting to share it here. A short nostalgia post about November 23, 2001) 

From the archives: 20 years ago on November 23 I technically became a “journalist” by joining India Today’s 24-hour website TheNewspaperToday – after a very intimidating interview with the then-ferocious-but-now-puppy-dog-like Sudeep Chakravarti (and an HR fellow who shall remain unnamed here but whose glinting spectacles put me in mind of The Efficient Baxter in PG Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle books). This wasn’t my first job (I had worked for over two years for Encyclopaedia Britannica and got many bylines on their website, apart from writing occasional pieces for the first iteration of Tehelka, CafeDilli, The Statesman and a few other publications), but it was my first experience of being in a newsroom-like environment – though I spent most of my initial weeks at The NewspaperToday on the 2 AM to 10 AM graveyard shift, almost alone in the big Videocon Towers office.
 
Many stories to be told about my stint there (which included being part of the original team for the afternoon tabloid Today, launched from the same office after the website wrapped up), but for now: the two images below are reminders of the boilerplate film “reviews” I was doing for The Statesman around the same period. (Including one dated Nov 23, 2001.) There were even three pieces on a single weekend, after watching previews of all those films – Cats and Dogs, Kiss of the Dragon and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – at the stinky little auditorium at Mahadev Road. (I was disdainful about these sorts of 400-word reviews even back then, but I remember being pleased with a line I used in the Captain Corelli piece: “These men come across more as troupe than troop.”) 
 
 
 
Though Sudeep and my other bosses didn’t get to know this, I continued moonlighting for The Statesman for a few months despite being chained to the India Today Group – the byline I used was the not-spectacularly-imaginative “JA Singh”, and I assume the reason I was never caught was because no one other than the Statesman’s desk guys (and maybe not even them) read those pieces…

Saturday, November 20, 2021

The dying king's descendants: on the new Anees Salim novel

One of our best contemporary novelists has a new book out. The Odd Book of Baby Names isn’t among my two or three favourite Anees Salim novels, but it’s still pretty good. Wrote this piece for Open magazine.
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In a palace, an old king – once very powerful, now diminished – lies comatose, life slipping away from him as the days roll by. We don’t at first know anything about the place, the period, or even whether this is a “realistic” tale – more details will come later – but the storytelling has a fable-like quality: it is divided between many narrators, all of whom are the king’s progeny.

The official sons speak to us first: the rival princes Moazzam – fat, alcoholic, childlike – and Azam, outwardly more poised but with a small addiction, or obsession, of his own. This is followed by a din of voices of illegitimate children, each name accompanied by its meaning. There is the stammering Hyder (“the one who is as brave as a lion”) who is employed as a nurse in the dying ruler’s room: “The spacious bed looked like an oc... oc... ocean, and he, withered and tiny, a blue bedspread pulled up to his chin, like a man about to be drowned.” There is Zuhab, who was conceived in a village when the king’s train happened to break down there many years earlier. A poetic young man named Shahbaz, who lives in an alley, and the marble-playing ghost of his childhood friend (and half-brother) Sultan, who had died of the black fever at thirteen. Muneer the tailor, hoping to stitch a new fez and take it to the palace so he can have a glimpse of his father. The enigmatic Owais, trying to get through to Cotah Mahal on the phone, but repeatedly rebuffed.

And there is Humera, the only woman in the group, who tells us that her mother wasn’t just a concubine or mistress but the king’s “lover”. Among the illegitimate children, she alone received birthday greetings and gifts from her father.

Thus unfolds Anees Salim’s sixth novel The Odd Book of Baby Names. It begins with an account of a false alarm (the king is mistakenly thought to be dead), after which we are taken back and forth in time as personal histories are revealed. We also learn about a slim book in which the ruler had recorded the names of all his children – dozens, perhaps over a hundred, of them. (“What necessitated such a cryptic register was the history of poor memory that ran in the family like an incurable disorder,” Azam tells us, a line that recalls themes from Salim’s earlier novels, especially The Blind Lady’s Descendants.)

As names from this private journal are listed, the reader might inevitably become curious about what the lives of those many other children are like. And how big would a novel have to be to accommodate all of their stories?

It would probably have to be an epic, a baggy monster aiming to be the latest Great Indian Novel – but that isn’t the kind of writing one associates with Salim, who is a master of the small, intimate story that grows in the telling. Over the past decade he has established himself as one of our finest novelists, winning well-deserved accolades for a style that combines chatty, colloquial prose with sharp and poignant observations about families, communities and the inner and outer conflicts faced by individuals within those groups.

As a long-time fan, I felt the special pleasure of sinking into a new Salim novel as soon as I opened this one: the effortless mixing of moods, from throwaway humour to heart-breaking insight, the unexpectedly rude or bawdy asides. Here is a description of a pitcher that has been covered by a jacket in a tailor’s shop – an attempt to make it look less ugly but instead giving it the appearance of “a destitute man with amputated limbs, piddling drip by drip onto a bedpan”. And here is a depressed young woman pretending in turn to be herself and a “doctor who mended minds”, switching from one chair to another on opposite sides of a table, even ruffling her own hair as one part of her gets up to leave. A funny passage where Shahbaz, taking a woman and her ill son to the hospital on his bicycle, sings a love song that frightens the child. An irreverent but accurate-sounding description of a dead man on a couch, as a child might see him: “Bada Topiwalla lay almost smiling at the ceiling like saying hello ceiling how are you”.

As often happens in Salim’s work, the universal and the very particular move alongside each other: on the one hand, the clamour of competing voices represent a gamut of human experiences and concerns; on the other hand, the characters are all Muslim, and there are culture-specific references, such as a passage where two boys anger a Quran teacher with a prank involving millipedes. As incidental details creep in, one gathers that the present day of the story may be sometime in the late 1960s or early 70s: there is a reference to a recent conversation set a few years after Nehru’s death; another reference to the king making it to the cover of Time magazine in the 1930s as the wealthiest man in the world and a great leader. It is tempting to play connect-the-dots with this information, to wonder if the king is an alternate-world stand-in for a real figure (if so, Jinnah would be one obvious choice) – but such inferences aren’t necessary for a deeper appreciation of this story: this is not as pointedly allegorical a novel as, say, Salman Rushdie’s Shame or Midnight’s Children, it is more relaxed and free-wheeling.

There are, of course, larger themes at play in the story of a ruler and his “children”, from various classes and walks of life, forming an orchestra of aspirations and delusions. (“Each family had an exotic name,” goes a passage that is ostensibly about a large tree full of birds’ nests, “Each name had a meaning, a purpose. When all the birds sang together, the air was heavy with the sound of 100 maracas, probably 1,000.”) In a strangely moving scene, one of the sons recalls his old father thinking he was once a circus-owner rather than a king, complete with startlingly detailed descriptions of the beehive of activity in the circus tent. Isn’t this how any dying leader might feel about his constituency? This is, after all, a story about life’s rich pageant – about our many performances and acrobatics, the many ways in which pleasures and disappointments criss-cross. I think of life as a game of hide and seek, one narrator says late in the book, as he watches children playing that game – a boy tiptoeing up behind a girl who thinks she hasn’t yet been discovered, each of their faces marked with a different sort of joy or anticipation.

Structurally this may be the most atypical of Salim’s novels. It is the only one other than The Vicks Mango Tree (the first to be published, in 2012) that moves between multiple protagonists. In the other books, we were tied to the consciousness of a single person: the delightfully outspoken Hasina in Tales from a Vending Machine, working at an airport, dreaming of escaping on one of those “little planes” she sees from the windows;
Imran in Vanity Bagh, an imam’s son living in a mohalla nicknamed Little Pakistan; the melancholy Amar in The Blind Lady’s Descendants, feeling like he was born into a doomed family, drawing morbid inspiration from the story of an uncle who committed suicide decades earlier; most recently the unnamed adolescent narrator of The Small-Town Sea who moves with his parents to the small coastal town where his father had grown up (and where he now wants to die).

The effect of reading The Odd Book of Baby Names is trickier. One is more aware of the author’s efforts to distinguish one narrator from another (through Hyder’s stammer, for example, which gives his narration a distinct texture). Some voices are more engaging than others: I particularly liked the ones of Muneer the tailor, and of Humera and Shahbaz as their paths slowly converge; Zuhab’s story was less interesting to begin with, but becomes more central as the book progresses – and as its narrative moves towards small misdeeds followed by bigger crimes: from deception to possible incest to robbery to murder (which also happens to be fratricide).

Much as I enjoyed reading this novel, I was also left with a niggling feeling of dissatisfaction at the very end – as if it had wrapped up too abruptly, something important had been left unsaid, or I hadn’t got to spend enough time with any one narrator. The Odd Book of Baby Names is a book of vignettes – a flash from one life here, another flash there – and very engaging as the minutiae is on its own terms, on the whole I prefer Salim’s single-protagonist novels. Perhaps because one of his major strengths is building a person’s life over a span of time, with new revelations or insights coming at intervals (while we are also allowed to conjecture the more unreliable aspects of the narrative). One of this book’s most funny-sad descriptions is that of the unconscious king’s farts playing “a sad tune” (perhaps like a jester with a bugle in that circus?) and providing the only sign that he is alive. It made me wonder what this novel might have been like if his had been the sole anchoring voice, with the others floating around it as an accompanying chorus.

[Two earlier pieces on Anees Salim's work: The Small-Town Storyteller and A Tree Named Franklin]