Saturday, September 24, 2016

If a tree screams in a forest... On Peter Wohlleben's excellent The Hidden Life of Trees

[Did this piece for Scroll]

In Roald Dahl’s short story “The Sound Machine”, a man invents a device through which he can hear sound at frequencies previously denied to the human ear. Much to his horror, he hears – or thinks he hears – the shrieks of flowers and plants as they are being uprooted.

He bent down and took hold of a small white daisy growing on the lawn […] From the moment that he started pulling to the moment when the stem broke, he heard – he distinctly heard in the earphones – a faint, high-pitched cry, curiously inanimate […] it wasn’t pain; it was surprise. Or was it? It didn’t really express any of the feelings or emotions known to a human being […] A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about – something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.
Dahl, whose birth centenary is being celebrated this month, was famous for his macabre, twist-in-the-tail stories, and the “The Sound Machine” contains the very particular mix of black humour and paranoia that he did so well. Yet it also touches on a subsidiary theme of his work: how much do we know about the inner lives of the countless other creatures that share our planet, including the ones we are barely willing to impute inner lives to? Isn’t it too easy to dismiss something as improbable, even irrational, just because it lies outside the purview of human experience?

I thought of the story again when I read the following passage in Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which is a very different sort of book – a forester’s personal and professional journey of discovery that grows into a warm, accessible work of popular science:

There is research in the field that reveals more than just behavioural changes: when trees are really thirsty, they begin to scream. If you’re out in the forest, you won’t be able to hear them, because this all takes place at ultrasonic levels […] This is a purely mechanical event and it probably doesn’t mean anything. And yet? […] these vibrations could indeed be much more than just vibrations – they could be cries of thirst. The trees might be screaming out a dire warning to their colleagues that water levels are running low.
(Now back to Dahl for a moment, and a description of a tree’s response to an axe embedded in its trunk: “…a harsh, noteless, enormous noise, a growling, low pitched, screaming sound, not quick and short like the noise of the roses, but drawn out like a sob lasting for fully a minute…”)

“The Sound Machine” first appeared in The New Yorker in 1949, while The Hidden Life of Trees was originally published in German last year, with the English translation (by Jane Billinghurst) just out. Those 66 years would represent a tiny span of time to the large forest trees – often living for well over a thousand years – that Wohlleben writes so affectionately and insightfully about, but you’d expect huge advances in scientific development in the human world over such a period.

And yet, as Wohlleben repeatedly reminds us in his book, the pace of our knowledge and understanding has been creepingly slow when it comes to this vast and important subject. There is still so much we don’t know about trees, their complex co-dependent survival mechanisms, how they respond to stimulus, danger and opportunity, and this is especially true for the giants in natural forests, which have – in relative seclusion – gone about the business of interacting with countless other living creatures, while helping to maintain the stability of a whole ecosystem.

Wohlleben worked for the forestry commission in Germany for two decades, and admits that for years he himself looked at trees in the dispassionate way a butcher looks at the animals he is cutting up. When he did look more closely, his eyes were opened to a new world, one that he superbly reveals in this book.

Much of his narrative centres on research results – made available only in the past two decades – that have shown the presence of the “wood wide web”: a complex underground network facilitated by fungi, which serve a function comparable to that of fibre-optic internet cables, by helping trees transmit information to each other. Using this as a starting point, Wohlleben covers a number of issues related to trees growing in natural forests (his area of specialisation), but also making universally applicable points about plant life and its wider effects on the planet.

This book skillfully explores both the major and minor keys of its subject. On one hand, it offers a majestic view of the world’s big forests as water pumps that enable rain water to penetrate deeper into land masses than it otherwise would (which is why places located hundreds of miles from the ocean are hospitable to humans and other life forms). But there are also fascinating, ground-level descriptions of things that most people who don’t live or work near forests will never get to see, such as the “all-out drinking binges” engaged in by beeches during heavy rain: “[the rainwater] runs along the branches, where the tiny streams unite into a river that rushes down the trunk. By the time it reaches the lower part of the trunk, the the water is shooting down so fast that when it hits the ground, it foams up”. Or another roaring sound, this time caused by the excrement of millions of oak leaf roller caterpillars high up on a bare oak. (“Thousands of black pellets were bouncing off my head and shoulders. Ugh!”)

Wohlleben has some fun along the way, and since he is writing for the layman, there are some cute chapter heads like “Street Kids” (for a wonderfully poignant section about the life cycles of trees that were planted as trophies in parks or on roadside kerbs, without adequate thought to their long-term needs), “Love” (for a discussion of procreation cycles), “Forest Etiquette” and “Ageing Gracefully”. Occasionally, the prose comes close to anthropomorphizing in such a way as to give the impression that a plant’s behaviour is exactly comparable to that of humans. There are sentences like “Many Central European tree species have similar ideas about the ideal place to live…”, or “The yew, the epitome of frugality and patience, has decided to make the most of these conditions.” “The oak realizes it cannot beat this stiff competition,” we read, “and will never be able to grow tall shoots to overtake the beech. Perhaps in the face of rising panic, it does something that goes against all the rules…” And: “From then on, [the spruce] will also do a better job of rationing water instead of pumping whatever is available out of the ground as soon as spring hits without giving a second thought to waste. The tree takes the lesson to heart...”

Read closely though, and the context makes it clear that Wohlleben isn’t indulging in pseudoscience by attributing human-like agency or forethought to non-human creatures: he is trying to provide a sense of their behaviourial patterns – and how the survival-of-the-fittest theme plays out in their world – in language that we homosapiens, limited as we are by our own consciousness and our own weird ways of doing things, might understand.


When I heard the title of this book, I immediately thought of Peter Tompkins’ and Christopher Bird’s The Secret Life of Plants, which developed a cult following after it was published in 1973. In his Introduction to Wohlleben’s book, Pradip Krishen warns of the dangers of such an association, pointing out that the Tompkins-Bird study verged “more on psychobotany than hard science”.

Most serious students of the subject are likely to have similar reservations. Having only skimmed through the older book, I have been both intrigued and bemused by some of its descriptions of obscure experiments conducted outside the realm of mainstream science, and in some cases, discredited over time. It is full of anecdotes such as the ones about plants responding to spooky stories being told in a dark room, and the authors breathlessly drawn on a wide range of sources and histories, from Jagadis Chandra Bose’s work in the realm of plant physiology (“which was buried during his lifetime by Western science and hardly ever cited since his death”) to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s conception of an “archetypal plant, a supersensible force capable of developing into myriad forms”. While this means the book is full of interesting vignettes, it doesn’t quite resolve itself into a cohesive narrative (and that may not have been the intention anyway). In comparison, Wohlleben’s book is meticulously organized, professional and focused.

And yet. Whatever you think about The Secret Life of Plants – with its seemingly outlandish claims and the goofily buoyant tone aimed at a New Age readership of the 1970s (the “superannuated hippie”, as Krishen drolly puts it) – it was rooted in a serious desire to extend the boundaries of a subject that had not been given enough attention. Wohlleben is more circumspect, and more in tune with rigorous, peer-tested science, but the starting point for his book too was a sense of wonder, a curiosity about life’s hidden mysteries. And he himself mentions that research has only just begun to skim the surface of how plant-life works. “So many questions remain unanswered,” he writes while discussing the ambiguities that still surround the movement of water from soil into a tree’s leaves, and the intriguing possibility that transpiration and capillary action aren’t as important as scientists have been thinking. “Perhaps we are poorer for having lost a possible explanation or richer for having gained a mystery.”

A running theme in The Hidden Life of Trees is that trees operate on very different time-scales from the ones we are used to, both in terms of their life-spans and in terms of how long it takes them to process information and translate it into action. Is this the main reason why we find it so difficult to recognize them as truly sentient beings with their own versions of personalities, Wohlleben wonders. (“Man merely thinks plants motionless and feelingless because he will not take the time to watch them,” the biologist Raoul Francé said once. The quote is included in The Secret Life of Plants, but it could just as easily have found space in Wohlleben’s book.) Or is it because we were cut off from these distant cousins so early in our shared evolutionary history that even the colour green – aesthetically pleasing though it is to our eyes – feels closer, as a “skin colour”, to alien beings than to a species we can identify with?

Whatever the case, Wohlleben believes that the distinctions usually made between plant and animal life are arbitrary. Among the many achievements of his book is the food for thought it provides on the staggering kinds of symbiosis in nature: from imperiled trees having to close their wounds after fungal invasions to deer using young trees (often with fatal consequences for the latter) as rubbing posts for their excess skin. There are reminders that nature is implacably cruel even while it is being jaw-droppingly beautiful, but there is equally a caution about the dangers of an increasingly anthropic world. In a moving coda, Wohlleben writes, “Forests are not first and foremost lumber factories and warehouse for raw material, and only secondarily complex habitats for thousands of species, which is the way modern forestry currently treats them. Completely the opposite, in fact.”

His book should convince many readers of this, even if they have never read Dahl, even if they aren’t fans of Tolkien’s melancholy Ents or Blyton’s The Enchanted Wood – or, for that matter, hippies high on the idea of a universal consciousness linking all things.


P.S. I first developed an interest in Peter Tompkins (the Secret Life of Plants author) after reading an essay by his son Ptolemy, about his father’s unconditional love for movies, including B-horror movies, which he would take his son to watch regardless of the inappropriateness of the content. (I drew inspiration from, and mentioned, Ptolemy's piece in my horror-film essay "Monsters I Have Known".) Peter T comes across as a fascinating man in that piece, someone well and truly in touch with his own irrational side, and with the sense of otherworldly wonder and disorientation created by good horror films. This aspect of his personality is almost certainly tied to some of the more wishful/out-there claims made in The Secret Life of Plants.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Middling miss goes missing in the middle (belated thoughts on Happy Bhaag Jaayegi)

[From my Mint Lounge column]

In a caustic review of the 1997 film Con Air, Anthony Lane noted that the script spent so much time building up the film’s villains – by having the other characters go on and on about their unfathomable badness – that it was a letdown when we actually got to see these supposed embodiments of evil. Their personalities, and the dialogue they had been saddled with, didn’t justify all the fuss.

I had a version of the same complaint about Mudassar Aziz’s Happy Bhaag Jayegi, a goofy comedy in which a young Amritsari woman named Happy flees her wedding and accidentally ends up in Lahore. Throughout the film we are told how spirited and kooky and resourceful this heroine is – such a pathaaka, so endearing that it’s impossible not to fall in love with her. This notion is the bedrock of a frank, guy-to-guy talk between her Sad Sack boyfriend Guddu and the young Pakistani politician, Bilal, who has become smitten by her. All that’s missing in these scenes is a congregation of turbaned bards singing Happy’s praises in flowery verse in the background, while the main characters speak her praises in flat dialogue in the foreground.

Unfortunately, this conceit doesn’t work when the viewer has to engage with Happy herself, as a real person rather than an abstraction. In fact, she vanishes altogether for a chunk of the film’s midsection – the professed reason is that the character has been kidnapped, but it felt more like the writers had discovered during the shoot that Diana Penty wasn’t up to the task of creating the sort of heroine that Kareena Kapoor did in Jab We Met.

In fairness to Penty, the script doesn’t do much to flesh Happy out. She has the outward trappings of personality, but it’s surprisingly easy to lose interest in her, and consequently the hosannas ring false. “Uss mein tum se aur mujh se kai zyaada taaqat hai,” one suitor solemnly says to another, a line that should warm the cockles of anyone who wants our cinema to be self-consciously progressive and feminist, but which makes little sense in this context.

One can speculate that the “Happy is missing” scenes fit the character’s symbolic function in this border-crisscrossing story: here are India and Pakistan, two countries forever at loggerheads, but the regular people in both places are exactly alike (sweet-natured, bungling imbeciles, if this film is to be believed) and they want the same thing that people everywhere do – some “happy” in their lives. But how to find it?

So, one way of looking at this film is to think of the protagonist as a cipher or, to use Hitchcock’s term, a MacGuffin – the little detail that drives a plot, but which the viewer doesn’t have to be particularly concerned with. For example, in Hitch’s Notorious, the MacGuffin was the uranium ore being hoarded by Nazi spies in wine bottles: a plot device which facilitates the playing out of the complex, intense love triangle that is the truly compelling thing about that film. The love triangle (or love pentagon, depending on how you look at it) in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi is far from compelling, but the little vignettes involving the supporting cast are: Piyush Mishra as a nervous Pakistani policeman who hates the idea of India but loves many things Indian (including Yash Chopra); the marvelous Jimmy Shergill, who is making a screen career of being ditched by women with inexplicably poor taste in men, as the irritable Bagga; Kanwaljit Singh as the patriarchal father who – in the style of John Wayne in The Searchers, bent on killing his niece because she has been “despoiled” by becoming one of the Indians – wields a gun and swears murder, but returns to being soft old daddykins in the end. Such are the engaging sideshows that surround the film’s MacGuffin-like heroine and her bland leading men.

Of course, it’s a problem when a character becomes a cipher not because it was intended that way, but because of a flaw in execution. An example was last year’s Dolly ki Doli, in which the con-woman Dolly was meant to be vibrant and lovable and draw
the viewer’s sympathy, but ended up as a blank slate, thanks largely to Sonam Kapoor’s vacant performance in the lead. Something comparable happens in Happy Bhaag Jaayegi, and I think a more avant-garde (and more fun) film might have gone with this trick: don’t show Happy at all; construct the narrative in such a way that we know she is there, a flesh-and-blood person with this story moving around her, but we never see her (maybe a few ghostly glimpses of a salwar-kameez-clad figure – the film does play with that idea in a different context). Here we sit in the hall for two hours, but she eludes our eyes, much the same way that brotherly happiness and harmony have eluded India and Pakistan for seven decades. Meanwhile, the rich pageant of humanity that exists in both countries – crooks, spurned lovers, buffoons – can fumble about in a wild goose chase, never finding their happy, but doing their own thing and entertaining us in the process. That could have been a super film.

[Related post: an attempt to make sense of Dolly ki Doli]

Thursday, September 08, 2016

On the emotional viewer and the 'rational' critic

[From my Mint Lounge column]

After around an hour of watching Ranveer Singh as the obscenely privileged but oddly vulnerable rich kid Kabir in Dil Dhadakne Do last year, I leaned across to my wife and said, “I think this guy might be our best lead actor since Bachchan in his prime.”

By the screening’s end, I was already feeling sheepish about this little exclamation. Not because I had changed my mind about the quality of Singh’s performance (a year on, I still think it was one of the highlights of 2015, at least as good as his much-awarded, more “respectable” turn in Bajirao Mastani) – but because, you know, if you’re a critic reaching for the nuanced argument, for a considered view of things, you’re not supposed to make such impulsive pronouncements. Even when you’re expressing a view that has been part-sanctified by time. (“Citizen Kane is the greatest film”; “Nutan is the best Hindi-film actress”.) When you’ve watched so many different sorts of films, representing every creative approach, you know it’s silly to grade them on one scale. You rally against pompous notions about something being summarily “the best”.

But here’s a counter-argument: why should anyone, even a professional critic, be measured or rational when something sneaks up on him and takes a firm grip on his emotions? For a jaded scribe who has written lakhs of words about cinema, it’s good to be reminded that one is still capable of being electrified, in a childlike way, by a film. Or by a scene. Or a gesture. A line of dialogue, a swell of music working in just the right way alongside an elegant camera movement. Once you’re back in the real world (or whatever vestiges of it may be seen in the section of the mall beyond the multiplex’s exit door), you might feel embarrassed about your hyper-dramatic reaction – but that reaction was an honest one.

Some viewers deny their gut feelings, as if the movie-hall were a confessional where one’s guilty secrets are forever to be left behind. This is especially true of genres that produce strong visceral responses, such as horror, slapstick comedy or action. I had a talk about Mad Max: Fury Road and Baahubali recently with someone who had clearly been stirred by both films – and had reacted to all the key scenes in exactly the way the filmmakers had wanted their viewers to react – but who was now saying, weeks later, “Yes, I enjoyed them at the time, but come on, they aren’t good films!” (I’ll save an extended discussion for another time, but for now I’ll just say I don’t understand that sentence.)

In my own instinct-vs-cerebra struggles, there is a personality factor at work. On the scale that has Highly Emotional Viewer at one end and Highly Analytical Viewer at the other, I am much closer to the latter extreme: rarely do I get so engrossed in a film that I stop thinking about its nuts and bolts, stop noticing things like framing or shot composition. It is often said admiringly of an actor, “He was so good that I could see only the character”, but it doesn’t work that way for me – even while enjoying a performance, I never forget who is playing the part, and in some cases my appreciation is deepened by associations with the actor’s earlier work. (As when a director uses a performer in intriguingly complementary ways over a series of films. Or when someone is cast against type: e.g., 1980s girl-next-door Supriya Pathak in sinister roles in Shanghai and Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela).

Given this boring aptitude for “rationality”, I am all the more mindful of the need to be honest when there is a strong emotional reaction. And as a writer, this is tricky: you have to articulate the whys and hows of your viewing experience, even though you are writing the piece hours or days later, in a dusty room under a malfunctioning tube-light, with your dog pulling at your sleeve.

I started thinking about these matters when I realized that last weekend marked the 15th death anniversary of the legendary film critic Pauline Kael. Now there’s someone who could write wonderful, analytical prose without jettisoning her deepest feelings. In her later years Kael sometimes accused younger critics of being giddy hero-worshippers – but the splendid irony is that in her own best writing she reveals her emotional life, and what excites or appalls her. As just one example, here she is on two of her personal heroines becoming sentimental figures in middle age: “In Pocketful of Miracles, when Bette Davis became lovable and said ‘God Bless’ with heartfelt emotion in her voice, I muttered an obscenity as I slumped down in my seat. I slumped again during Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, because Katharine Hepburn had become sweet and lovable too […] They have become old dears […] there’s a feeling of dismay, and even of betrayal, when we watch them now.”

The thing to note is that this little rant isn’t the 1960s equivalent of a casual social-media update; it is part of a well-argued piece that serves both as film review (of The Lion in Winter) and a rumination on star personalities. There are hundreds of such moments in the Kael oeuvre, and it’s what keeps her work – the best of which marries passion with contemplation – so alive.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Cricket, aspiration and a crisis of masculinity: Aravind Adiga on his new novel

[Did this interview for Scroll]

Introduction: Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning The White Tiger was among the first Indian-English novels to adopt the vantage point of an underprivileged man moving through an increasingly capitalist, post-liberalisation India – a world ridden with danger and opportunity in equal measure. Adiga’s new novel Selection Day revisits the theme using a different lens: the main context here is Mumbai cricket, and the book centres on a chutney vendor named Mohan Kumar who lives in a slum with his two brilliantly talented boys, Radhakrishna and Manjunath, dreaming that they will be the Best and the Second-Best batsmen in the world.

Manjunath, who is 14 when the story begins, becomes the protégé of a legendary scout and is sponsored by an investor-visionary. But is he as passionate about the sport as everyone around him expects him to be, or does he have another sort of inner life? And what effect will his ambivalent relationship with another young boy, Javed Ansari – also an aspiring cricketer, but born to a life of wealth and comfort – have on his personality?

As the narrative raises these questions, India’s most popular sport is intriguingly used as a framework. The story dwells on the changes that have taken place in cricket, from being a genteel sport built around notions like personal honour and sacrifice to becoming a commercialized spectacle with temporary heroes and match-fixing (“How did this thing, our shield and chivalry, our Roncesvalles and Excalibur, go over to the other side and become part of the great nastiness?” an old cricket-lover bemoans) – and how this changing trajectory in some ways mirrors that of the nation.


From the cover to the jacket description, Selection Day seems positioned as a book about cricket, but you use it as a pretext to examine many other things: the parent-child relationship, the link between sport and masculinity, the interaction between the privileged and the poor in a country where many different universes coexist. Are you interested in cricket on its own terms? Did you set out to write a “cricket book”?

The best way to answer this would be to tell you about the original inspiration for Selection Day. I’ve always loved the Italian neo-realist film directors of the 1950s, men like De Sica, who made Bicycle Thieves, and their successors like Pasolini. Nearly fifteen years ago, in a cinema hall in New York, I watched Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers, and was profoundly moved. It’s the story of a group of brothers who migrate from a village to the big city of Milan, in the years after World War Two. They hope to become rich, but discover that all they have done is exchange rural poverty for urban destitution. The only way out for the brothers is to enter the world of professional boxing. The brothers come to hate boxing, and what it forces them to do, but they are trapped.

I knew even as I was leaving the theatre that I wanted to write a novel that would be both intimate and sweeping, as the film was. I returned to India from America in 2003, and I was always on the look out for a way to write a Rocco and his Brothers here. Boxing isn’t particularly big in India, though, so the idea lay in dormancy for a decade.

In 2011, I was having lunch in a Mumbai restaurant with a businessman who began telling me of his new venture: he was sponsoring two exceptional young cricketers from the city’s slums. Every month, their father came over and took a cheque from the businessman; in return, if the boys ever made it into the IPL or the national team, they would have to hand over a big part of their fees to the businessman. I immediately asked him how old the boys were. Thirteen and fourteen, he said. ‘What if the boys, or one of the boys, decides he does not want to play cricket, but wants to be an engineer or doctor?’ The businessman said that this wasn’t possible. Every Indian boy wants to play cricket. (He went on, if I remember right, to suggest that this was the kind of doubt I had only because – like some other N.R.I types – I wasn’t ‘mentally Indian’ enough.)

I thought his statement was rubbish – ‘Every Indian boy wants to play cricket’ is the kind of cloying generalization, so common in India, that hides many stories of frustration. The other thing that struck me was that what this businessman was doing would be strictly illegal in America, where they have laws to protect underage athletes from the greed of coaches, businessmen, and team selectors. You can go to jail in America for doing what this businessman was doing here. We always talk about America as a land of money, but the truth is, there are more laws there to regulate capitalism – or there were, until the late 1990s – than there are anywhere else. After lunch, I walked over to my favorite restaurant in Mumbai, Café Ideal on Chowpatty, and there I thought this could be my ‘Rocco.’ Two brothers playing cricket, and one of them, the more talented one, would start to dislike the game. That’s how the novel began, in 2011. It took me five years to finish it, and in the course of that time it went strange places.

You often use animal metaphors in your work. In your first novel, Balram Halwai was the “white tiger”, a rare creature of initiative and daring, who tries to transcend the class he was born into. Did you conceive of the precocious, 14-year-old Manjunath in similar terms? Or is he more like the turtle, the “domed creature” mentioned in this book, peering cautiously out of his shell?

Manjunath Kumar is certainly not Balram Halwai; he is, if anything, his opposite. All of us in India have seen the schoolboy in cricketing whites on his way to practice. When you attend a lot of school cricket matches in Mumbai, as I did during the writing of this novel, you see variations on that familiar theme. You see, for instance, the cricketer in stained white clothes, who is walking alone, his head bent, mumbling to himself, the epitome of abject humiliation. You look at him and you know something really bad has happened that morning—he has been dropped from the school team, perhaps.  I was watching a boy like this once, one Sunday morning right outside the Azad Maidan, when a taxi driver began laughing. ‘Tendulkar! Tendulkar!’ He yelled at the boy, to rub it in further. I could see that the poor boy was close to tears now. That was how Manjunath Kumar (and his brother Radha Krishna) were born.

There is a hint of child abuse – in two sense of the term – in Mohan Kumar's relationship with his two young sons. He seems to fit the image of the obsessive "sports parent", pushing his kids into a world they don't want to be in, and consequently stunting their development.

Much of what Mohan Kumar is doing to his sons – and there are hundreds of fathers like him just in Mumbai – would be illegal in the West. I interviewed a few of these 'cricketing dads' – lower-middle-class men whose obsession is turn their sons into the new Tendulkar. Some of them regulate every aspect of their child's life, including nutrition, exercise, and even in some cases hair-style. After a while, their desire to control their son's body and mind starts to feel creepy.

Many of the book’s funniest observations about India and Indians come from Anand Mehta, a globe-trotting investor who left Manhattan to return to Bombay. For instance, at one point you have him say that Indians are basically a sentimental race and that their hunger for social-realist melodrama is no longer being satisfied by Hindi cinema, but cricket is still serving this purpose. At another point he suggests that cricket is a narcotizing force that aids “male social control in India”. Are some of his views a stand-in for your own?

Each character in the book, I hope, represents some aspect of me, but no character is all of me. Anand Mehta has studied and lived in New York, like me, and he shares my interest in World War Two history. But that’s as far as the resemblance goes. I meet people like him in Mumbai and I don't like them. You must remember that I was born in Chennai, a big city, and when I arrived at the age of seven in Mangalore, I thought I was superior to everyone there because my English was better. I was the local Anand Mehta. But when I would return to Chennai on my holidays, I was mocked by my old classmates because I now spoke English with a thick accent. Like all humiliated provincials I became suspicious of the big-city boy.

It's a double perspective I retain to this day. When I am in Mangalore I wonder why people can't be more modern, and when I am in Mumbai I wonder why they can't be simpler and more honest, like they are in Mangalore. So it's hard for me to explain my attitude towards Anand Mehta easily. I'm sure I've distanced myself from him – and indeed, from every character in this book – adequately.

Perhaps he is the kind of person I was back in 2003, when, like many foreign-educated Indians who have returned to the homeland, I felt I was honouring all of you with my presence here. Numerous book reviewers in this country, including you, teamed up to disabuse me of this notion. Anand, who has not yet encountered the Indian literary establishment, still lives in NRI fairy land, and blames Mumbai, rather than his own mediocrity, for his failures as a businessman.

Without giving away much of the plot, the book has a very unusual romance in it, between two young people who start out as nemeses, or distorting images of each other. Did you see it as a love story on some level?

I wouldn’t say it is a love story. I’ve always been interested in the genre of the bildungsroman – the novel about the growth and development of a young man. David Copperfield is a classic example. Possibly because my own adolescence was so disturbed; my mother died when I was fifteen. Balram Halwai becomes a man only through betrayal and murder, and The White Tiger is a parody of the bildungsroman. So is Selection Day. Manjunath Kumar fails to become the man he should become in a double sense: both professionally (as a cricketer), and also emotionally. His inability to recognize his own bisexuality (or homosexuality) leaves him, at the novel’s end, as a stunted figure.

With a homosexual subtext in the story, was it your intention to parody the rigid ideas people have about sport being a “macho” thing, meant for “real men”?

Yes, absolutely. Decades ago in Mangalore, a boy named Radha went to bat during a school cricket match, and someone shouted – he’s got a girl’s name, he shouldn’t be allowed to bat. That taunt that went on for the rest of poor Radha’s innings. I remember that incident vividly. Now Radha, short for Radhakrishna, was a common man’s name in south India in those days. It no longer is, and possibly for this reason. One of the results of our skewed male-to-female ratio is a crisis of masculinity. The crisis is well underway in the country and will only grow worse with time. It isn’t just India, of course. An Australian friend who read Selection Day told me that even there, in a very gay-friendly country, male sportsmen have problems accepting team-mates who are openly gay. Here, as we still live in a homophobic society, things are much worse.

We have needlessly damaged ourselves in India on the question of homosexuality. There is no line in the Geeta, the Vedas, the sayings of Buddha and the Tirthankaras, or even in that usually abominable book, the Laws of Manu, prohibiting same-sex love and marriage.  The British left us their 19th-century fear of homosexuality in the Indian Penal Code. They’ve outgrown it, and we haven’t. Even though the law against homosexuality is not enforced, it still casts a shadow over everyone, gay and straight alike, in this country. Look at this man, Baba Ramdev, agitating against the legalization of homosexuality. He prints advertisements against the East India Company on August 15, but he’s championing a prohibition foisted on this country by the Angrez themselves. Ramdev is like an Ashis Nandy essay on post-colonial irony come to life. Okay, he's easy to make fun of. Then there are the Islamic clerics who also want homosexuality to stay illegal; in the long run I suspect they will pose more of a problem. Secularism in this country has made compromises it should never have made.

The Bombay Book has long been a subgenre of Indian-English writing. Did you intend Mumbai to be very central to this novel? (The upward mobility of the central character involves moving from a slum to Chembur to Navi Mumbai.) Or could it just as easily have been set in another metropolis?

The Bombay that sustained those Bombay novels no longer exists. It wasn’t just India’s richest city, but also the most multicultural and exciting. For all its problems, it was in many ways a fair city. You notice this in Kannada novels and short stories written by migrants to Mumbai in the fifties and sixties. The boy writes home to Mysore or Dharwad, ‘Mother, I’m staying in Bombay. I have a fighting chance here.’ I won’t presume to tell an online publication run by Naresh Fernandes, who knows much more than I do about the city, why that Bombay no longer exists: but it does not. Except for one visit forced upon me by a stop-over, I haven’t been to New Delhi in ten and a half years, which gives you a sense of how much I adore the capital: yet by all accounts, it is now a more multicultural and diverse place than Mumbai.

There was a piece by Shekhar Gupta on the subject of Delhi novels and Mumbai novels a few year ago: Delhi literature is happy – Bombay books are grumpy. Manjunath Kumar is given the choice for a better life if he leaves the city, and goes to Navi Mumbai (and from there to Bangalore). It is the choice he probably should have made. Yet he comes back to the city. There are sacrifices made by people like him every day that still give Bombay a chance of recovering its glory.

You have written novels set in India’s big cities – the centres of so much social and economic churn in the last two decades – as well as a short-story collection (Between the Assassinations) set in a small town in the years before economic liberalization. Which period and setting have you found most challenging as a writer?

The past is always more challenging. I've been doing research for a novel set in an even earlier period of our history, 1971 to 1984, and even though I lived through a part of that era, it's still challenging to get the details and the mood right. I'd all but forgotten about trunk calls, for instance: how you had to book them and then wait patiently. Or that you sometimes had to bribe people for a confirmed seat on an Air India flight.

You’re a bit of a white tiger yourself when it comes to book events – it’s very rare to see you at them. During a mail exchange once, you told me that you had just been invited to a literature festival and you were feeling so “reckless” that you almost said yes, but then the recklessness wore off! Is this an innate personality thing – not wanting to socialize or be a performing flea – or do you simply find it more useful as a writer and observer to be cut off from the circuit?

Book festivals? I attended one in Chennai about three years ago. I have no objection to them, but no one invites me anymore. People in Italy have apparently not heard of my reputation. Someone from Mantua invited me to a festival in 2017. 'Si' I said, at once. Isn’t it ‘Si’ in Italian? Or is it ‘Prego?’ I can never tell.

[An old review of The White Tiger is here]

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dissenting Diagnosis, a new book about devious doctors and malpractices in healthcare

[Did this for Scroll. More soon on other medical books]

When you spend a lot of time in hospitals as a caregiver, you can go through many emotional phases simultaneously. In the past few years, dealing first with my grandmother’s medical condition and now with my mother’s, there have been days where I have felt like superman one minute – marveling at my own energy reserves, patting myself on the back for having been in six different places at the same time and juggled small and big problems – and then, the very next moment, like an enfeebled old man, wanting to be free of all responsibilities, unconvinced that I’ll ever be able to get up from the chair I have just sunk into.

And then something new comes up and you’re smoothening your cape again and rushing to stop a wily doctor in the MRI room from repeating a procedure that had been done the previous day, while nurses and ward-boys giggle on the periphery of your super-vision.

One source of entertainment in these situations is to record stories (always through gritted teeth) about the goof-ups, which can make Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* seem like documentary realism in comparison: the miscommunications between teams of physicians, the exhaustion that comes with having to repeat all the details of your patient’s history to a new and oblivious doctor every couple of hours, the many little instances of apathy or insensitivity that can rise to depression-causing levels over a few days. I remember my dadi’s exasperated cackle when she was being sent home following a stint in Max Saket in late 2014: after five days in the hospital where a doctor would drop by once or twice a day, give a curt instruction and swish out in 30 seconds (having added Rs 900 to our already-sizable bill for each such “consultation”), she was discharged with a diagnosis of piles when, even in her groggy state, she knew it was no such thing; that her gastric problems were an effect of the blood-thinners she had been taking since her angioplasty. How she rolled her eyes and muttered as we put her on the stretcher for the ambulance. (Sure enough, after she spent a very uncomfortable month at home, we were back in the hospital explaining her case all over again to a new set of smiling doctors who made the correct diagnosis this time – not so much because of competence, I suspect, but because there were only so many available possibilities.)

With many such adventures having accrued over the years, the new book Dissenting Diagnosis: Voices of Conscience from the Medical Profession – co-written by doctors Arun Gadre and Abhay Shukla as an attempt to record some of the ugly truths about medical practice in India – contained much that was familiar, giving me the shudders as well as the jollies.

That malpractices in corporate healthcare have escalated in recent times will come as no surprise to anyone who has dealt firsthand with the beast; the subject has also been covered in investigative journalism and in books such as Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, one chapter of which has the author in conversation with three caregivers about dehumanization in medicine. Dissenting Diagnosis, on the other hand, is an inside account, organised around the testimonies of 78 disillusioned doctors (nearly half of whom consented to have their names published) from across the country. It’s a well-organised book with predictable but to-the-point section heads such as “Diagnosing the Malady” and “Initiating the Cure”. You won’t read it for riveting prose or for a cleverly crafted narrative – many passages are simply made up of quotes by the participating doctors, placed next to each other, held together by some basic commentary, and some of this material is repetitive – but it has a raw, urgent directness that you might not find in a more polished work.

The initial chapters contain information about things that most educated people have an inkling of: the nexus between pharmaceutical companies and corporate hospitals; the pressure on doctors to prescribe as many costly investigations and tests as possible, to earn a pre-specified revenue for their hospitals; the lack of transparency and the emotional exploitation of patients’ families in situations where every second counts and composed reflection isn’t possible. Included here are many little stories that should startle anyone who still holds a worshipful view of the medical profession. The one about a speed-obsessed senior surgeon, for instance, who accidentally cut a major artery during a routine kidney operation, consequently had to remove the entire organ instead of just the stones – and later told the patient’s family that he had executed a heroic last-minute turnaround because the kidney was damaged beforehand. Or the one about a hospital that hid a deceased patient’s body to put pressure on the family since they hadn’t been able to pay the full bill.

There are also pointers to how advancements in technology and knowledge, welcome though they are, have had downsides, as all technology potentially does. The amount of material now available online – for patients and caregivers keen to do their own research – can be a double-edged sword (increased information about things like platelet counts, the authors say, can make people unduly alarmed about variations on test results, and thus vulnerable to avoidable prescriptions). The rise of pharmaceutical companies, which should be a good thing in principle, has resulted in excessive commercialization, competition and questionable promotional measures such as taking doctors on sponsored overseas trips.

One minor problem with the book is that some of its observations are too abstract: vague-sounding statements about “cuts” or “commissions”, sentences that begin “A practitioner from a small town observes…” or “A big-city physician explains…” (The passages where doctors are named naturally feel more substantial.) At times, chatty stories pile up one atop another, and some of these can read like stray gossip which, even if true, adds little to our understanding of the big picture. I found it hard to swallow the idea that senior doctors mingling at parties would chortle about a new lamb being led to the slaughter – not because I think doctors are incapable of being malicious or greedy, but because in cases where individuals are mostly looking out for themselves and keeping their cards close to their chest, it is unlikely that dark plots would be discussed so openly or that they would mwa-ha-ha like 1970s Hindi-film villains.

Also, despite the candour running through the project, an attempt has clearly been made to avoid naming offending hospitals, individuals or corporates. There could be legal reasons for this, or it could simply be that the authors believe the problems are so deeply ingrained in the system that it would be gratuitous to single out specific individuals or companies. However, this might lead a suspicious reader to wonder if some of the book’s content reflects the disgruntlement of those who are on the outside of the corporate healthcare world, unable to get a share of the pie. (I am not one of those suspicious readers: I had no trouble believing in the authors’ sincerity or the honesty of their respondents. But again, this could be a result of my own medical experiences.)


While much of the book’s first half reads like a litany of everything that is wrong, the second section discusses possible remedies, including the potential for measures such as the impossibly idealistic-sounding Universal Health Care, aimed at ending the commodification of healthcare.

As the doctors themselves admit, there are many layers of problems and no easy answers. For example, it is undoubtedly true that some of the current ills of Indian medicine stem from the way in which a soft-socialist country made a (relatively) rapid leap towards privatization post-1991, and how the upheavals involved affected both medical education and practice, especially in cities and big towns. The authors are probably right that some aspects of healthcare (such as the proliferation of donation-based private medical colleges that produce young doctors who then need to “recover” their “investment” by falling in with corporate pressures) have not been well-monitored, and that the promises of self-regulation made by doctors in private practice have proved less than reliable over the years.

However, it would be naïve to think that economic liberalisation abruptly opened a large Pandora’s box of misdemeanors 25 years ago – that would mean subscribing to a dewy-eyed vision of the past as a place where all doctors behaved like benevolent Gods and the state was the nicest big brother imaginable. It is more likely that a degree of rot in the profession has existed as long as men have been driven by self-interest. (While on the idea of the past as utopia, look at some of the less than scrupulous doctors and pharmacists in old Hindi cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir, made six decades ago, has this line, a version of which you might overhear in a private hospital in 2016: “Aaj kal toh milavat ka zamaana hai. Dava-daaru mein bhi milavat hoti hai.” “Everything is diluted these days – even medicine.”)

Which raises the question: is increased government interference in private healthcare – one of the proposals made in the book – an unambiguously good solution? Well-intentioned though the idea may be, it can set off alarm bells in even those of us who aren’t fans of unbridled capitalism: it would mean moving down a very slippery slope – and in any case, who can ensure that a state-regulated system would be free from corruptibility?

Given these difficulties, the solutions that I thought most persuasive weren’t the sweeping measures but the softer ones, such as the increase in and dedicated maintenance of doctor-consumer forums, and the spread of awareness through education and social action – and of course, through books like this one. Its closing passages provide many useful tips for concerned citizens, including lists of websites and information about organisations such as the policy-advocacy NGO SATHI, which the authors are associated with. A favourable prognosis may be a long time coming, but such initiatives should help make a dent in a hardened, often-impersonal system.

[An earlier rant about caregiving and associated matters is here]

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde on Netflix: thoughts on the Sacred Games TV series

[Vikram Chandra’s Mumbai-underworld epic Sacred Games is being adapted into a Netflix series. Did this speculative piece for Mint Lounge]

“We are debris,” muses Sartaj Singh, the policeman-protagonist of Vikram Chandra’s mammoth 2006 novel Sacred Games, during an investigation into the Mumbai underworld, “randomly tossed about and nudging into each other, splitting each other’s lives apart.” The last few words find visual representation on the book’s original, pulp-fiction-inspired cover, where two faces merge into one, even sharing an eye. On the right is the turbaned Sartaj; on the left his nemesis, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, a red tilak on his forehead. Sacred Games is about many lives that intersect in countless ways, but at its heart are these two men, two sides of the same coin, who are linked by the narrative’s cross-cutting structure.

Between them, they stand for a murky world populated by criminals and law-enforcers, all doing what they can to survive in a heaving metropolis. But Singh and Gaitonde are philosophers too, constantly analysing the quirks of fate and how things might have gone very differently. “Nothing is given to us without something larger being taken away,” thinks the gangster, “Becoming Ganesh Gaitonde the Hindu bhai was an act of murder, it was the murder of a thousand and one other selves.”

A fast-paced thriller as well as a meditation on forked paths, the book quickly developed a cult following. Now, 10 years later, its fans have been thrilled by the announcement that it is being adapted into an original series by Netflix. The online TV network is being tight-lipped about details, but one thing is certain: the scale will be more elaborate than that provided by a feature-length film. And given that this is such an exciting time for narrative television, online and offline – with Netflix shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black being part of the renaissance – Sacred Games buffs are likely to be in for a treat.

Chandra’s epic lends itself very well to a long-form series. It is (just about) possible to imagine a good two-hour movie version, but this would involve paring the book down to its main plot and removing much of what makes it special. Sacred Games is intricate and multilayered: it keeps making detours; it moves about in space and time, even going back to the Partition riots to examine what effect that violence had on the family histories of the contemporary characters. When I first read it, even as I reveled in Chandra’s elegant storytelling and the audacity of a narrative that mixed genre tropes with the rigour of literary fiction, I felt a little stymied by the accumulation of detail. One long “Inset” near the end – an apparently random account of an old woman dying anonymously in the US, her granddaughter curious about her distant past but then getting back to writing about her favourite filmstar Aamir Khan in her diary – is rich and moving when you reread it. But when you’re encountering the book for the first time, as a thriller about Sartaj and Gaitonde, it can feel like a distraction.

In this 2006 interview, Chandra told me his intention had been to create an intricate mosaic, where none of the characters was fully aware of everything that was happening. (“Each action flew down a tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again,” Sartaj reflects.) The TV-series format, with its ability to handle multiple narratives, can do great things with such a design.

However, even serious fans might be willing to accept some changes in the narrative structure (and at this point, one can only speculate). In the book, Sartaj and Gaitonde converse once, very early in the story: the gangster has, for reasons unclear, barricaded himself inside a strange, cube-shaped building, and the cop is outside, trying to persuade him to surrender. The cross-cutting begins after Gaitonde dies: he tells Sartaj (and us) his story from beyond the grave; meanwhile Sartaj, who is very much on a corporeal plane, continues probing mysteries related to Gaitonde’s demise.

Depending on the planned length of the series, it might be tempting to tweak this format so that Sartaj and Gaitonde become antagonists or doppelgangers in a more immediate sense. By that, I don’t mean lots of dramatic confrontations or cliffhangers, just a sense of a psychological cat-and-mouse game between two people who know each other’s minds. One of the fascinating things about Chandra’s book – which is full of imagery that would lend itself to a good screenplay – is how it emphasizes the links between Sartaj and Gaitonde, in big and small ways. They visit the same places in unrelated contexts; each man is sleep-deprived and haunted by apocalyptic visions; Sartaj hums “Mehbooba Mehbooba” to himself while driving, and a few pages later Gaitonde is watching Sholay.

A series that kept Gaitonde alive a little longer than the book did might find intriguing ways of dealing with this subtext. By way of reference, I’m thinking of the creepy relationship between serial killer Hannibal Lecter and disturbed cop Will Graham in the fabulously atmospheric series Hannibal, another milestone of narrative television. But there are also recent Hindi films which have dealt with the “doubles” motif. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, for instance – produced by Phantom Films, which is also co-producing the Sacred Games adaptation – has a poster reminiscent of the original Sacred Games cover, blending the faces of a murderer and a potentially psychotic cop.
There are other ways of linking Chandra’s novel with gritty crime movies. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the author’s brother-in-law, made the 1989 Parinda, which was a landmark of the modern gangster film. The writer S Hussain Zaidi, to whom Sacred Games is co-dedicated, wrote Black Friday, which was filmed by Kashyap and featured a funny little moment of camaraderie where a cop, near the end of an exhausting chase, calls out “Ruk ja, yaar” to his quarry – a scene that reminds me of the one in Sacred Games where Sartaj, trying to persuade Gaitonde to come out of his cube, says "Come on, yaar. This is stupid."

Even at a broader level, to read Sacred Games is to be swamped by movie references, from Prithviraj Kapoor (whose booming, paternalistic voice Sartaj thinks Gaitonde has been influenced by) and the young Dev Anand to contemporary cinema. The relationship between the characters’ lives and the films they watch is like the dizzying hall-of-mirrors scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, where one can no longer separate reality from reflection, or tell what exists in two dimensions and what in three.
Young thugs watching Deewaar and Nayakan weep because they identify with the lead characters’ journeys. Gaitonde becomes fatally seduced by tinsel town when he finances a film (which gets trashed by a critic on the grounds that the people who made it seem to know nothing about gangsters’ lives!). Sacred Games knows well how escapist melodrama can help people tap into their emotional selves and make sense of the world around them. As Gaitonde says when a friend tells him something is too “filmi” to be believable, “I knew better. I had seen scenes from my own life in two dozen films […] I was filmi, and I was real.” Chandra echoed these words while discussing the book, telling me he gets put off by pat judgements on Hindi cinema. “Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!”

Yet there is also this paradox: despite Chandra’s own identification with the tropes of mainstream Hindi film, his book is written in cool, polished English with smatterings of street jargon (“The screenplay of my life had arced upwards in a single continuous movement, and I had left lovers and yaars and enemies behind”) – a language that is a world away from the everyday speech of Gaitonde and the other characters. This is acceptable as literary licence in a novel, but I’m unsure how it would translate into a TV series where we actually see and hear these characters. The Netflix press release uses the word “bilingual”, but it isn’t clear how much of the series will be in English and how much in Hindi. The answer to this question will determine many things about its tone and how closely it captures the daily realities of people like Gaitonde and Sartaj, as well as the nature of the cinema that provides reference points for them.

Either way, the show should have plenty of stimulating things in it. If successful, it could even acquire a life of its own, moving beyond the book’s ambit. The novel’s last line is “He went in and began another day”, a reference to Sartaj getting back to his work after the Gaitonde adventure is over. Sartaj could certainly make a compelling protagonist for a police procedural. A Sikh hero in an internationally watched show with a dead gangster, a modern-day Betaal, hovering over him, whispering wisdom into his ear? The possibilities are endless, and most of them come from the nature of this enthralling book, which is a very Indian story rooted in our narrative traditions and in the character of our most dynamic metropolis, while also being universal enough to appeal to a global audience. 

[Related pieces: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; the chase in Black Friday]

Thursday, August 04, 2016

How to stop worrying and film the Bomb

[a slightly extended version of my Mint Lounge column, which appears in print on August 6/Hiroshima Day]

How many ways are there of making a good movie about something as unthinkable as nuclear holocaust? Glancing through film history, I’d say there have been (at least) these modes: savage comedy; earnest message-mongering; fantasy involving primordial monsters; horror; B-movie hysteria; and 94-year-old Bertrand Russell in bright red shoes, giving his “blessings” to Rajendra Kumar (but more on this anon).

To appreciate the variety, consider two films released in 1964, with two endings that summarize their general tones. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a jet-black satire about the Cold War jugalbandhi leading to mutually assured destruction, closes with a visual symphony of mushroom clouds – eerily beautiful, like those NASA photos of galaxies in cloud formation – drifting across a desolate, sterilized earth. On the soundtrack, Vera Lynn’s mellifluous voice sings “We’ll Meet Again”; a film that has consistently shown us the very worst of humankind – hubristic politicians, mad scientists – ends with a snatch of lovely music that only our doomed species could have produced.

That same year, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe covered similar ground – an unauthorized first strike causes events to spiral out of control – but did so much more solemnly. In contrast to the mordant irony of Kubrick’s film, Fail-Safe ends with a rapid burst of freeze frames, images of New Yorkers caught in the everyday bustle of life – chatting, playing, jigging, unaware of what is about to rain down from the sky. (I wonder if Alan Moore had that closing scene in mind when he conceived the climactic panels of his great graphic novel Watchmen, in which a cataclysm – not a nuclear bomb but something comparable in its citywide devastation – strikes, a young boy and an old man reflexively reach out to hug each other, and then seem to fuse in an image of blinding white.)

As a teenager, I had little doubt that Dr Strangelove was the far superior film: surely, absurdist comedy was the best approach to this subject. Though I was a big Henry Fonda fan, it was almost amusing to see him playing the US president with po-faced sincerity in Fail-Safe when Peter Sellers had brilliantly (and with a similar deadpan expression) sent up the same position in Kubrick’s film.

Today, while I still think Dr Strangelove is better, I am more tolerant of grim, verging-on-pedantic art about tragic events. And I can certainly understand why another great director, Akira Kurosawa, said this about one of his least-seen films, I Live in Fear (1955): “We set out to make a satire, but how do you make a satire about the H-bomb? It was very difficult for us to keep a distance from the subject.”

Kurosawa and his crew were, of course, Japanese, and one can see why they would view Hiroshima and its aftermath through a different prism from the Americans. I Live in Fear (also known by the more austere title Record of a Living Being) is about crippling paranoia – an old businessman, played by Toshiro Mifune, is so haunted by the possibility of another atom-bomb attack that he wants to move his family to South America – and this is emphasized by the film’s visual language. A few years earlier, in Rashomon, Kurosawa had offered poetic, dreamlike shots of the sun glimpsed through a forest canopy. In I Live in Fear, the sun has its gloves off, so to speak: there are harsh shots set in the blazing outdoors, the heat and light seeming to beat down at the characters; it’s as if the narrative is infected by all those Hiroshima survivors’ memories of a blinding white flash.

For viewers familiar with Kurosawa’s work, the film works on another plane too. We know Mifune as the swaggering, indomitable Samurai hero of such films as The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo (and the pretender who becomes a hero in The Seven Samurai), the alpha male who can mow down everything in his path with panache – but here he is, playing a character twice his age, a man depressed and frightened. It makes the horror even more palpable: the mere thought of the Bomb can turn the best of us into quivering jelly.

Incidentally the veteran Takashi Shimura, who plays a doctor in this film, had played a similarly oracular part in another, very different sort of movie with an atomic-age resonance: the 1954 Godzilla, about a giant monster – a product of nuclear testing – that wreaks havoc on Tokyo. Any fan of fantasy and horror knows that these genres often address real-world troubles, moulding them into new shapes. One of my favourite films, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, is set in medieval Japan but invokes the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in scenes where a face beneath a demon mask is shown to be similar to the disfigured visages of 1945’s victims. Within the
context of Onibaba’s story (about two women killing wounded Samurai and selling their armour for food) there is no reason for such an allusion, except for this: a filmmaker is admitting that he can’t tell a horror story without at least one homage-reference to the greatest real-life horror his country has experienced.

Speaking of which, Saira Banu once played a Japanese woman named Meloda in a Hindi film. Sorry, I know that’s an inappropriate quip, especially since the 1967 Aman is for much of its duration a dignified film. Rajendra Kumar plays Dr Gautamdas, who goes to Japan to work with the victims of nuclear radiation and spread the message of world peace. Before doing this, though, he is
granted an appointment with his idol, the “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell, who delivers a brief monologue and sends Gautamdas on his way. It’s one of the most unexpected cameos ever, and you’ll find it these days on online lists of gobsmacking moments from old Hindi cinema, but it shouldn’t detract from Aman’s mournful and conscientious approach to its subject. I’m not sure that a mainstream Hindi film made in today’s increasingly jingoistic climate would be so strongly pacifist, or treat the Bomb with as much dread – especially now that we are nuclear-empowered ourselves.

[Some related posts: Onibaba; Aman; Dr Strangelove; Mifune in Yojimbo]

Monday, August 01, 2016

On Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, and other books about cultural heritage

[From my Forbes Life column]

As a film buff, I am often appalled by how much neglect or apathy there is when it comes to India’s cinematic heritage. Important material isn’t archived, movie prints degrade over the years, and there are farcical cases such as the one where an invaluable Satyajit Ray-Marlon Brando interview from the 1960s was accidentally taped over – by our state-run TV channel, no less. When I have contacted family members of deceased directors, cinematographers or scriptwriters, it often transpires that there are no extant documents about their work, or that the family has little information or insights to share.

Things are not much better when it comes to chronicling other aspects of our cultural past, including the events and movements that continue to shape our thoughts today. Which is why one of the more heartening byproducts of the Indian-English publishing boom has been the arrival of such books, which are well-researched but also written for a general – as opposed to an academic – readership.

A recent example is Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, an excellent history of one of the country’s most influential publishing ventures, Gita Press, which was founded in 1923 by the Marwari businessmen Hanuman Poddar and Jaydayal Goyandka. Through its bestselling publications – including the monthly journal Kalyan, which has a circulation of 200,000 – Gita Press has for decades propagated an idea of India that is based on Hindu supremacy and a rigid interpretation of sanatan dharma. Mukul’s book traces how this came to be, the personalities and philosophies involved, and the complex ways in which the project intersected with the ideologies of such prominent people as Mahatma Gandhi, who had a cordial relationship with Poddar but who also decried the latter’s views on the caste system and other social ills.

So much ground is covered here – in the fields of historical research as well as analysis – that this book deserves multiple readings. One of its most stimulating chapters centres on the Gita Press’s obsession with preserving the purity of the Hindu woman and in laying out her duties and proscriptions, notably through a 46-page monograph titled Stri Dharma Prashnottari (Questions and Answers on Women’s Dharma), which took the form of a conversation between two women. In this dialogue, Sarala is the simpleton who asks questions about women’s rights and responsibilities, while Savitri – a stand-in for the “ideal woman” – gives her the answers. For instance, on the question of education, Savitri states that Western education – which can have the effect of making women question traditions – is a no-no; they should read only religious epics and texts. On the few occasions that Sarala asks a provocative question or adopts a challenging position, she is met with sophistry: when she cites cases of physical abuse towards women and wonders if husbands don’t have any responsibilities, Savitri replies that what women should be concerned with is their own dharma (stri dharma), irrespective of what men do.

All this makes for absorbing reading, but Mukul’s book reminds us that it would be a big mistake to see the monograph as an antiquated product of its time. Though first published in 1926, it is still in print, having sold over a million copies, and continues to provide “moral guidance” to generations of people – women and men – who haven’t had the benefits of modern education.

I didn’t know much about Gita Press before I read this book, but Nandini Chandra’s The Classic Popular deals with publications that I savoured as a child and still sometimes turn to for comfort reading: the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics started by Anant Pai in 1967. Chandra’s book, which began life as a dissertation, is notable for its analyses of the visual iconography of ACK. It includes plenty of artwork from fondly remembered old comics, but
the ACK fan will feel some discomfort too, since Chandra often uses those images to demonstrate how they have subtly manipulated readers’ perceptions of mythological and historical characters, or affirmed stereotypes. Thus, the dominant male gaze is pandered to in such scenes as the one where Arjuna abducts Subhadra and her skirt is shown rising up to reveal her legs; a bullying schoolteacher – whose background we know nothing about – is drawn with a moustache-less beard, thus subliminally identifying him with Muslims (who usually figure as the “others” in these comics); Rajput women who are about to immolate themselves rather than submit their honour to invaders are drawn in a way that accentuates their voluptuousness and potential for ravishment.

If Chandra’s book made me feel ambivalent about a key aspect of my childhood, Ambi Parameswaran’s Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles: India Through Fifty Years of Advertising was a much less complicated source of nostalgia. For a boy who grew up in the Doordarshan era, the very chapter titles make the heart sing – “Ab main bilkul boodha hoon, goli kha ke jeeta hoon” and “I am a Complan girl! I am a Complan boy!” being just two of them. This book chronicles some of India’s major advertising campaigns, using them as prisms to look at the country’s sociological history:
what do these ads tell us about the changing roles of women, children and elderly people, for instance? Or the ways in which we have consumed various categories of products and services, ranging from milk to junk food to wedding jewellery. Parameswaran adds the necessary personal touch by drawing on many of his own experiences from a long career in advertising.

But to return now to my preferred subject, film literature. Many books in recent months have covered aspects of cinematic history that are in danger of being forgotten – these include biographies of old-time stars (such as Mekhala Sengupta’s Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema) or exercises in documentation, notably The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, which brings together all the sketches Satyajit Ray had drawn for his seminal 1955 film (the drawings were once thought to have been lost by Paris’s Cinematheque Francaise museum) and Sidharth Bhatia’s The Patels of FilmIndia, about the caustic film-magazine editor Baburao Patel, bane of many moviemakers and stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

And then there is Ziya Us Salam’s Delhi 4 Shows: Talkies of Yesterday, an affectionate collection of pieces about what it was like to be a movie-watcher in Delhi in the pre-multiplex era. There are many entertaining stories here that will leave today’s youngsters wide-eyed even though they involve relatively recent history. Such as the ones about theatres that had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies, or the shrewd promotional strategies followed by hall-owners, who even hired special buses to fetch viewers from the railway station. This book brings alive memories of single-screen halls – or “talkies” – of the past, many of which continue to be landmarks and monuments of the city long after they ceased to be functional. Like the other histories mentioned above, it is reminder of how the past constantly interacts with and informs the present. 

[A longer piece about Delhi 4 Shows is here]

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A love story about corpses: on KR Meera's The Gospel of Yudas

[Did this review for Scroll]

“I had heard that the blood-red, gooey mud at the bottom of the lake had magnetic power. Once you were trapped in its field, you couldn’t escape. There was another lake boiling underneath the bed of this one. I wanted to get there. The upper lake tried to stop me.”

Being mesmerized, so that you don’t want to escape, and constantly aware of other layers beyond the one you’re engaged with… such can also be the effect of reading KR Meera’s strange, compelling novel The Gospel of Yudas. On the face of it, this is a story about a woman pursuing an enigmatic man for half a lifetime – the words quoted above come from Prema, who is 15 years old when her narrative begins in 1985 – but there are other, ghostly currents flowing below that plot synopsis.

The man whom Prema is besotted with is Yudas, who spends most of his time retrieving corpses from the village lake. The bodies are mainly those of revolutionaries, including people who may have died after being tortured by the state (of which Prema’s father, an ex-cop, was an instrument), and Yudas is probably a Naxalite or one-time Naxalite himself.

For Prema, he is also “the champion of my liberation struggle”, who “carried the burden of human sins to redeem this world”. She asks him to teach her how to swim, but what she really wants is to sink, to achieve full immersion (in the lake, or in a cause?). She seems fated her entire life to fantasise about being a revolutionary without quite getting to be one, and Yudas is her ever-receding window to that world.

This is a disquieting book, its off-kilter quality coming from its mixing of conventional narrative with allegory, hard politics with abstractions about human lives and desires. At times it behaves like a story with a straightforward arc and identifiable plot strands (such as Yudas’s tragic love for a woman named Sunanda, or Prema’s meeting with her father’s superior officer, once known as the Beast but now a fragile old man), but it isn’t interested in a clear resolution. Instead it works throughout on a symbolic plane, where a reader, simultaneously fascinated and frustrated, is invited to make conjectures and ask questions like: what does the lake stand for?

Here is one possible answer (and this isn’t necessarily what the author intended): the lake’s depths represent the tug of idealism and the activist spirit; the desire to rebel against crushing, unfeeling authority. But beyond this village lake, there are – as Yudas reminds Prema at one point – bigger water bodies, markers of a larger world. As human experience broadens, as people grow older and more world-weary, they also let go of ideas that were once important to them. Except for a chosen few like the brave Sunanda and the other bodies claimed by the lake – people who never got the chance to become jaded or complacent.

It is tempting to see The Gospel of Yudas – with its many references to Naxalism and to real-world events such as the 1970s Emergency (and other possible dictatorships lurking in the future) – as a purely political story. But in its gentler, more reflective passages it is also about more general things. It is about mad love, and about what we lose and gain over time. (“I am an old man now,” Yudas tells Prema in one of the book’s starkest, most moving passages, “Time to let go of everything.”) It is about the all-consuming nature of power. And one of the most pressing questions of all: is it better to plunge full-heartedly into a cause, sacrifice yourself to it so completely that you might never surface, or to grapple with the smaller, more quotidian challenges posed by a long life? “I was alive,” Prema says near the end, “In this world, for poor people like us, oughtn’t the sheer act of being alive be counted as a revolution in itself?”

“Revolutions do not cease. Little people persist.”

In the beginning, though, she had warned us that this was going to be a story about cadavers. She is talking about the dredged-up corpses, but she could also mean the living dead who watched their opportunities slip by, constantly doomed to wonder if they made the right decisions, if they were too cowardly when it mattered. This book is an elegy for both sorts of people.


The Gospel of Yudas was first published in Malayalam as Yudasinte Suvisesham, and has been translated into English by Rajesh Rajamohan. Speaking with the disadvantage of having no knowledge of the original, I felt it didn’t read as fluidly as Hangwoman, J Devika’s translation of Meera’s wonderful Aarachaar. There is some casualness in the prose, which is fine – it could be an attempt to relay the earthy, conversational timbre of the original – but there is some awkward phrasing too, some moments that felt off-key or jarring – sentences like “My father’s generation rolled up and down to rid themselves of my generation’s bravery and grit to love, trust and fight”, or “Come inside, he invited.”

There are a few outright mistakes too: “She had a flowing long hair.” And surely the line “he seemed to recall the name from his memory” could have dropped the final three words without losing any fealty to the original text.

This sort of thing took me out of the story at times, but it is compensated for by the fact that the content itself is so evocative, and the dilemmas of Prema and Yudas so easy to empathise with as we move back and forth between them. Reading this book, I was occasionally reminded of Max Ophuls’ beautiful 1948 film Letter from an Unknown Woman, another story about a young girl – who
grows before our eyes into a woman – being obsessed with a man and encountering him at intervals in her life. As the years roll past in that narrative, the two characters change in different ways, and though the woman is our point of entry into the story while the man is a cipher, we eventually come to wonder about his inner life as well. Something similar happens in Meera’s book, which is a big story about political struggle, about history’s forgotten heroes and footnotes, but also an intimate account of two people repeatedly passing each other like boats in the night, buffeted along by the undercurrents of a deep and dark lake.