Sunday, October 31, 2004

A room from the past

Today, for the first time in nearly 15 years, I stood in the room where I spent my earliest days. Childhood bedroom. Not relating any background details here but it felt so strange, so spooky. If it’s true that we leave a part of ourselves, a ghost, in every place we ever visit or pass through, how many different ghosts might dwell in that 14 ft by 14 ft physical space where one spent one’s childhood? There’s me, getting up in the morning, sullen and bleary-eyed, making excuses for not going to school; there I am hurriedly eating a gooey, half-boiled egg in a little bowl before rushing for the school van; reading about the Gingerbread Man in a Ladybird edition (reading level four), or the Jataka tales in an Amar Chitra Katha; putting my audio cassettes in a neat little row (with my prize acquisition, Amar Akbar Anthony on side A and Naseeb on side B, right on top). And so many less-than-happy memories too…

I hadn’t seen the room in over a decade and I hadn’t even thought about it (save for fleeting little memories where the setting was a given) all these years; but when I stood in it today it felt like nothing had changed at all. Which is whimsical and sentimental, I know, for everything’s changed.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

More random thoughts post-Nagpur

Don’t have the patience to write anything very structured, so here are some ‘morning after’ musings:

- Completely expected reaction in morning papers. "Disgraceful" screams The Times of India in 60-point all-caps (a reference not to its own fucking around with every principle of news coverage in the past few years but to the Indian team). "Overpaid losers" weeps the Asian Age. The actual reports are brimful of the usual cliches: much-vaunted batting lineup, disgraceful capitulation, Final Frontier demolished (‘Final Frontier’ itself being an idiotic, misleading and over-used term that had its genesis in a jokey little statement Steve Waugh once made to some byte-seeking journos at a press conference, and which has been raped to death by every mediocre sports writer in the country in the years since).

- That old chestnut about how it wasn’t the fact of the Indians losing that hurt, it was how they, uh, capitulated. Call me thick, but this is a concept I’ve never understood. Oh sure, I understand it well enough when you’re contrasting say a 10-run defeat with a 342-run defeat. But in a situation like this, with a team needing 543 in the last innings, I personally don’t give a rat’s ass whether they make 20 all out or 400 all out. In fact, I’d probably prefer the former, it would give me some free time.

- I know this goes against the grain of all my Ozee-rah rah-ing but I think I can admit to being a fan of Virender Sehwag now. It’s been coming to this for awhile -- especially after that 195 in Melbourne last year -- but there’s no longer any need to hold back. A few weeks ago, Chuck Inn made a very good point about how Sehwag’s defence/technique as an opener is much better than people believe -- it’s just that one doesn’t get to see that tchnique too often because of the way he chooses to play. But anyone who’s followed Indian cricket in the last few years will note the disproportionately high number of times Sehwag has made a substantial score when everyone else has failed. (Something Tendu used to regularly do in the good old days.) Sure, that has to do with his devil-may-care attitude (balls to the match situation, quality of pitch, etc) but basic technique has played a role in translating that attitude into a high success rate. Sehwag as an opener has been stupidly compared to Kris Srikkanth, who had the same attitude but wasn’t one-fifth as good a player. I think it’s re-evaluation time, so I’m sticking my neck out all the way and saying: think Gordon Greenidge, people.

Will probably add to this as and when I think of anything more...

Post-Nagpur Test musings

So... when the last Indian wicket fell and the hurly-burly was done, I was by my nemesis YB’s side in a trice. "How does it feeeeelll?!!" I bellowed, doing my best Dylan imitation, which still isn’t very good. It was vengeance time. Three and a half years ago, we were in Britannica together when that series was on and he rubbed salt in my glistening wounds, sneering all the while. Well, it was my turn at the salt-shaker now; we lions never forgive or forget (or is that elephants? I forget).

Ah well, time for a change of tone now, for defensive humour can only serve to an extent. In actual fact, I have some serious things to say here and doubt I’ll be able to get them all in. But here goes a tentative poke at it. First of all -- and this is something I’m aware that no Indian cricket lover, practically no Indian for that matter will be able to relate to – Kolkata 2001 was one of the worst experiences of my life. I cringed inwardly (and occasionally snapped outwardly at vile celebrators) as the Aussies collapsed in the wake of that unbelievable Laxman-Dravid partnership. I wished I could have vanished inside my computer screen as work was suspended all around me, people even rushing out to buy sweets to distribute them in office. I felt so alone.

Why such an extreme and contrary reaction? I could never begin to articulate all the reasons, even to myself, but here go some of the easier ones: 1) I don’t have a vestige of patriotism in me, I think it’s the most grossly overrated ‘virtue’ imaginable and I constantly marvel that most people don’t feel the same way. 2) The vulgar, jingoistic gracelessness shown by most Indian cricket supporters disgusts me at the best of times. But in 2001 the raucous, masturbatory cries of self-congratulation that came from both the media and the man on the street, and they way they self-righteously postulated that it were the Aussies who were arrogant and deserved comeuppance, were far too much to take. 3) I had a genuine, near-obsessive admiration for the cricket played by the Australian side at the time. (Part of this, silly as it might sound, had to do with the sheer statistical fascination of how far they could go with the consecutive Test wins record.)

Also – I think I can say this retrospectively – the Kolkata Test was the beginning of the end of the Tendulkar Era in Indian cricket, the first real indication (on a big stage, against major opposition, in a crunch situation) that other players could turn a match on its head without a contribution from the little big man. The first Test of that series, played in Mumbai, remains a microcosm of everything Tendulkar had stood for in the decade previous: India lost, badly, but he played boy on the burning deck, top-scoring in each innings. But that changed forever in Kolkata; a new team was born. And while this change was understandably a good thing for fans who want to only see India win, for me it caused a rift with the game that I don’t think will ever mend. I tend to place the individual above the team/group at most times and Tendulkar was the individual who got me into the sport in the first place. I sometimes believe that when he goes out of the game, I will too; at any rate, cricket will never be the same for me.
(Of course, nothing is ever really this simplistic or soaked in melodrama. Fact: Tendu scored a century in the third, deciding Test at Chennai, where India actually won the series. But even so, even back then, I think I knew that the wind had started to blow in a different direction.)

But, as you might already have noted, none of these introspections have stopped me from revelling in the Aussies’ victory in the ongoing series. Things have come full circle, even if that circle is a rough, serrated one. So, to all those weeping about India’s loss: great yarbles to thee and thine....

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Moebius Gurgaon

There’s something in physics called the Moebius strip, which, put very simply, is a one-sided surface. A layperson can get a very rough idea by taking a piece of paper and folding it in a loopy way so that one side of the sheet seems to merge with the other, and you can trace the entire surface without having to lift your finger. Arthur C Clarke made eerily effective use of the idea in his haunting short story "The Wall of Darkness" (not to be confused with Rahul Dravid’s current lean trot).

I used to think of the Moebius as a concept that belonged firmly in the realm of High Science. But last night I realised that what it really refers to is the roads in Gurgaon, which have this habit of doubling back on themselves in sinister and inexplicable ways, so that it is theoretically possible to drive around the place for all eternity and never find one’s way out.

(Gurgaon, for anyone unfamiliar with our neck of the woods, was once a vast rural stretch located around 15 km south of southernmost Delhi -- my father claims he went rabbit-hunting there in that great decade, the 1970s -- but which has seen development at such pace in the past few years that India’s capital, itself no mean urban jungle, is now jokingly referred to as a suburb of this once-village.)

Anyway, an emergency necessitated my driving down to The Village around 9.30 last night. Now normally, as any driver will tell you, so long as you maintain a general sense of direction (in simple north, south, east, west terms) you can’t ever really get lost. But in Gurgaon, especially at night, this principle doesn’t hold. As soon as I crossed the border I knew I was in trouble. I drove in circles and occasionally in pentagrams. I took one small, seemingly innocuous turn that should not have had the effect of turning the compass around 180 degrees, but that’s exactly what it did: to my horror I found myself headed in precisely the opposite direction from where I wanted to go. Enervating feelings of deja vu rushed over me in waves as, in my attempts to get back to Delhi, I espied the same buildings and signboards I had seen on my way in, and on the same side of the road as before!! When, stuttering helplessly, I tried to ask for directions, people looked at me with an evil leer in their eyes, like the zombies in Night of the Living Dead, and said incomprehensible things that suggested they didn’t want me to find my way out. I still have no idea how I got out of the loop, so to speak.

Theoretically there will come a time when all Gurgaon’s roads/flyovers/highways will have been completed so that there will no longer be any need for confusing detours, half-roads, meaningless signboards and bizarre round-abouts that lead nowhere. But that time isn’t now. These people should put up a sign by the Delhi-Haryana border saying "Abandon all conventional notions of direction and dimension, all ye who enter here." The place is a Cubist universe with its own rules.

Wall wallow

There’s a doggerel-writer residing deep inside each one of us. Mine slimes out whenever Rahul Dravid is dismissed short of a big score, as evinced by this previous post. Here’s the latest:

Humpty Dumpty Warnie caught out the Wall,
Humpty Dumpty Warnie made the Wall bawl
All Ganguly’s masons and all the groundsmen
Couldn’t put the Wall back together again

More prosaically though, there’s that Anthony Burgess. He knew exactly the right words to use to describe my feelings yesterday.

"Bliss, bliss and heaven…it was gorgeousness and gorgeosity made flesh…oh it was wonder of wonders. And then, a bird of like rarest spun heavenmetal, or like silvery wine flowing in a spaceship, gravity all nonsense now…"

And no, I don’t care about being labelled sinfully sadistic, because the man might easily end up making another double-century in the next match/innings, such being the vagaries of the game, and then I’ll be sulking. But for now, I’ll bask.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Cat squad

Cerebral friend Amrita got to play Good Samaritan yesterday, a role unfamiliar to our Cynics’ Brigade -- but since the act in question was the rescue and restitution of a lost tom-cat to its home, she’s forgiven. (As a connoisseur of things feline Amrita is - a very distant - second only to your blogging host.) This cat showed up near the JNU hostel where she’s currently staying, demanding to be fed; closer inspection revealed a collar with an address around its neck. (Will wonders never cease! Like a story from the little town of Pithlochry making its way to our Delhi.)

Anyway, I warned A on the phone that the creature might have been deliberately off-loaded and so the owners would perhaps not wish to see it back. But she kept the cat-lovers’ faith, took an auto to the Panchshila Park address and later proudly reported how tears of joy were shed by all (except of course the Tom, who stayed stoical). She’s pretty sure they were tears of joy anyway. (To quote her SMS without permission: "The two kids and mom were totally crying with joy, and the cat looked somewhere between baffled and irritated with all the fuss. Also, the hostel guard had lured him into the loo with milk and locked him for 15 mins till collection, a very irked and bristly Tom yowling as a result.")

As the sage said, to err is human, to purr feline.

What Di read

Lit quote of the day:

"I am a voracious reader. I’ve just finished The Da Vinci Code and am now reading The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari.

-- Diana Hayden

(Whoa! Only just read The Code? When every other model is already halfway through Angels and Demons? Catch up, girl!)

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Five Easy Pieces: making connections

One of the rewards of reading a lot/watching lots of movies is the thrill one gets from spotting little thematic connections between works that are otherwise completely unrelated in terms of genre, mood or time period. Experienced that again last night when I watched one of my neglected London-returned DVDs, the 1970 film Five Easy Pieces, just hours after blogging on Kazuo Ishiguro and The Unconsoled.

This was Jack Nicholson’s first major film as a lead actor (he had won acclaim for his supporting performance in Easy Rider the year before). He plays Robert Dupea, a man who comes from a wealthy, intellectual family full of musical eccentrics and who once showed great promise as a classical pianist – but, for reasons never explicitly stated, turned his back on his roots and became a drifter, moving from one blue-collar job to another. There’s the hint of a suggestion that his father may have been too demanding, too authoritarian, and that’s what led Robert to go his own way.

It’s a wryly funny and often moving film, very acclaimed in its day but a wee bit dated now – being as it is over-preoccupied with the notion of the Drifter/Loner as a romantic figure. But I was struck by two unusually powerful scenes. One has Nicholson getting out of his car during a traffic jam, clambering onto a goods truck that has a piano in it and playing the instrument, oblivious of what is going on around him -- all this while still dressed in his oil-rig worker’s uniform! The other finds him at his family home (he’s returned to visit his dying, stroke-afflicted father) where he plays the piano for a friend, while the camera pans to show pictures on the wall – family photos from a happier time as well as portraits of great musicians/conductors who Robert might once have aspired to be like.

Back to the connection with The Unconsoled. Ishiguro’s novel of many layers has a world-renowned pianist as its central figure, and two other pianists as supporting characters – one a once-great musician now trying to regain his lost glory, the other a young man trying to make a start in the field, in the face of his parents’ apathy. Running through the lives of these men belonging to three different generations is the common theme of disenchantment with family. As struggling youngsters, they are emotionally crippled by lack of parental support and encouragement. Later, though acclaimed by the world, they are still making a desperate bid to prove themselves worthy in their parents’ eyes; and in the process, they neglect their own families, perpetuating a cycle of disappointment.

That’s it, really. I never claimed it was a strong connection. But it was sufficient for me to sit up and take notice, and maybe even enjoy the film a little more than I thought I would.

Monday, October 25, 2004

Kazuo Ishiguro and The Unconsoled

Am distraught that Shamya’s beaten me to it; thought I had the cosmological right to be the first ever to blog on Kazuo Ishiguro. I console myself that since I got him interested in the first place, the moral victory, in cricketing parlance, is mine. Nevertheless, I have dallied enough and must now put down my own thoughts on the man who I usually designate my favourite living writer (with a few qualifications: Rushdie’s non-fiction and Philip Roth being among them).

I came to Kazuo Ishiguro, oddly enough, through cinema. I had just seen Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins in an incredibly moving performance (far better, I thought, than his throwaway Hannibal Lecter) and something about the film made me want to read the book on which it was based (something that rarely happened in those days). So I went out and got it, and read it, and liked it as much as I’d liked the film. That was about all. This was 1994 or thereabouts, my beat was still cinema rather than literature, and I was hardly into contemporary writing at the time anyway.(I use "my beat" in a manner of speaking, for I was still years away from writing reviews professionally.)

As the time, I should add, I thought of Remains of the Day (the book) not as something that was part of a particular writer’s oeuvre but as an independent work that I had perchance stumbled upon. My interest in it was limited to its connection with the movie and much as I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to read anything else by this (sniff) living writer, a man who was only around 40 years old at the time. (I had my Melville, I had my Dickens, I had my books on cinema.)

Seven years later, I came upon Ishiguro’s latest book, When We Were Orphans, bought it on pure whim and finished it by the next day, and that’s when my fascination with the man began. Within a fortnight, I had read his 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World and I knew I was hooked.

What is it about Ishiguro? To me, his work (along with that of Somerset Maugham’s to an extent) exemplifies the truth of the adage that simplicity can be very deceptive. His writing style is so direct compared with that of his contemporaries (think of the first Granta list of best young British writers in 1983: Ishiguro in the company of Rushdie, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and Margaret Atwood among others) that you’ll never once have to reach for a dictionary or even pore over a sentence while reading one of his novels. But his narratives are tricky things: they deal mostly with the unreliability and subjectivity of memories, and it’s only by putting oneself in the writer’s position that one can appreciate the concentration of effort required to tie the various plot strands together. His protagonists/narrators search futilely for the defining moments in their lives and come up against dead ends; and his work is marked by the repeated use of words like "indeed" and "considerably" that may seem genteel (leading to much criticism of Ishiguro as overly mannered) but that are also very well-suited to narrators who are introspective and uncertain about themselves. And there is a turbulence of unexpressed emotions in his work that never ceases to grip my attention.

My regard for Ishiguro reached high tide when I read his longest, and most underappreciated, novel, The Unconsoled. I would think 20 times before venturing to set down even the most informal, free-flowing list of my favourite books, but if I ever got around to it The Unconsoled would be very near the top. This is a dream of a book that also just happens to be one of the best, purest examples of surrealist art I’ve ever come across (the soft spot I have for that movement helped my appreciation of this novel).

While there is no change in Ishiguro’s writing style (it’s stayed the same through all five of his books so far), The Unconsoled is different from all his other work in that it doesn’t permit a "logical reading". Well, actually, the book does give the impression of having a formal structure. It’s about a world-renowned pianist who has come to a (unnamed) central European city to give an important performance, one that somehow also has political connotations for the people of the city. But the narrator, Mr Ryder, seems to have arrived with his mind a clean slate. He learns things about himself and his reason for being in this place only as he goes along: he doesn’t know anything about his schedule and has to be gently rebuked by the organisers; little annoyances and distractions continually detract from his main purpose, although he himself appears unaware of what exactly that purpose is; he meets an unfamiliar woman and her child and begins a conversation with them, o nly to realise after a few minutes that they might be his own estranged wife and son; he encounters figures from his distant past who he hasn’t seen in years, and who have no logical reason for being here; and he meets other people who could be real or could be versions of himself at different stages in his life.

One way of looking at it, I suppose, is that the central character suffers from a form of short-term memory loss (a la the protagonist in the film Memento). But that explanation doesn’t even begin to provide the key to all of The Unconsoled’s mysteries. Ishiguro plays with time and space: a porter delivers a 4-page monologue during an elevator ride that should have taken no more than a few seconds; a hotel employee takes Ryder to the "annexe" which turns out to be a ramshackle hut atop a hill, several minutes’ drive from the hotel; after an exhausting day, Ryder goes to sleep at what seems a perfectly reasonable hour, only to be woken a few minutes later so he can "see to the next item on the agenda". On a conventional plane, the book just doesn’t hold together. This is indeed a nightmare of dislocation, as a reviewer put it.

And yet, remarkably enough, Ishiguro’s themes shine through this confused tapestry. This very enigmatic book is, among other things, about the unrealistic, often debilitating expectations parents have of their children, the demands of a life lived in the public glare, and the myopia that allows people to substitute superficial rewards for the things that really matter (in this context, the novel’s ending, with Ryder happily regarding a sumptuous buffet laid out in front of him in a city tram, blew me away).

Despite my own fascination with this book, I can understand others not getting drawn into it the way I was. Persusing it the other day, I realised that entire passages are very frustrating (from a structural point of view, you have to be at least a little interested in surrealism, otherwise the irritation level is very high). I also have this theory that if it’s the first Ishiguro you read, you’ll hate it. Besides, the themes have to appeal to you, otherwise you’ll be left cold. (Something I haven’t mentioned about the book, incidentally, is that it is also very very funny in parts. But that, again, is if you get drawn into its very strange world.)

Ishiguro publishes a new novel once every five years on average. His next, titled Never Let Me Go (sounds like a Mills & Boon, wot?), is due in March 2005. Come February you’ll find me camping outside the nearest IBH warehouse with blankets, hot-water bottles and a (considerably) silly grin on my face.

Quoting Cairns

Chris Cairns was in Delhi a couple of days ago. Excerpts from the HT City front-page report:

"Indians are beautiful people. The culture is rich, people are helpful and the food is great. I love spicy food...chicken lababdar..." Cairns is also a connoisseur of Indian beauty. "One only has to look at the beauty competitions won by Indian women to know how beautiful they are...Aishwarya Rai...blah blah..."

Why don’t newspapers just keep a little template handy with quotes like these that they can freely put in each time there’s a visitor in town? I’m sure they’ll never be sued for misquoting (unless of course the visitor is Fidel Castro, but then what are sub-editors for?)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Remembering Sandy

“We must remember. They are a part of us, aren’t they – those we once knew?”

This line from M G Vassanji’s elegiac The In-Between World of Vikram Lall keeps coming back to me and now – I’m not sure why, maybe it has to do with the torpor-induced melancholia of a quiet Sunday afternoon – I’ve been thinking about Sandy. About how it’s been over 10 years since he left us, whether he might still possibly be living somewhere in one of Saket’s colonies, not too far from our house (or, for all one knows, miles away in another part of town – for cats have a knack for travelling long distances under duress, and little Sandy was very frightened that night in early 1994 when he shot out of our house for the last time, driven away by our older cat Kittu, whose exclusive male preserve he had begun encroaching on).

But on the off-chance that he is alive, he would be very old in Cat Years, and that’s a thought I can’t bear – Sandy being old. I’m still only 27 myself! It wouldn’t be right.

Sandy entered our lives yowling sometime in June-July 1993 (haven’t checked my diary for the exact date). My mother and I were visiting relatives and had just hailed an auto to go back when we saw this little ginger-coloured thing, not more than 20-25 days old, looking up at us through astonishingly bright, intelligent eyes. Lots of things about him were surprising: he had a remarkably bushy tail even at that age, and an incongruously gruff, guttural voice for such a beautiful, delicate-looking kitten. Picking him up and taking him home was an instinctive move, and came more out of our concern – there were cars tearing about on the road at the time – than anything else.

There were breaking-in problems. On getting home and actually thinking about what we’d just done, we worried about how Kittu might react, but things went off surprisingly well on that front (there being no threat to Kittu’s sole-bachelor-in-colony status at the time). We fed Sandy milk with a dropper and initially fretted that we might have separated him from his mother when he was too small. When he started teething, I happily offered him the entire length of my left arm as a chew toy (for weeks, all you’d see on that limb were several parallel red lines and fang marks).

Have you heard of a cat on a leash? We weren’t yet ready to let Sandy go out by himself the way Kittu freely did; but he was a stray after all and needed to explore the wild occasionally. So every morning (very early, 6 am or so, before I left for school) and every evening I would take him down for 15-20 minutes on a very long leash (a couple of them tied together). I even gave him his first rudimentary lessons in tree-climbing; okay, that’s an exaggeration but I would goad him up the trunk of the solitary tree of note in our park and watch (still holding on to the leash) as he cautiously tested branches.

Would it be too sentimental to admit that I learnt a lot of things about responsibility and care during my time with Sandy? When Kittu first came into our lives a few years earlier, he was almost entirely my mother’s responsibility – except for the tummy-rubbing, which I helped with – and it mostly stayed that way. With Sandy, I had a coequal role to play: in the feeding, the walking, the providing of general entertainment, the collecting/disposing of sand for the kitty litter. I’m not comfortable with the idea of using a fixed set of experiences to conveniently explain a human life, but I think I did grow a lot as a person during those months.

I’ll rush through the rest of it. Once Sandy was a few months old and started going down by himself, it became obvious that a dangerous rivalry was fomenting between him and Kittu. Things reached a point where if they were both in the house at the same time, they had to be kept in different rooms, which caused much tension for all of us. Eventually, there came an evening when we had guests over, someone got careless, the two cats had a brief scuffle in the living room and we hurriedly allowed Sandy out the door while keeping Kittu locked within. Sandy never returned. I spent 15 minutes each morning for the next two months or so scouting all the familiar spots where I used to take him walking, but with no luck.

Sandy was with us for only a few months compared with Kittu’s 8-odd years, and it might seem strange that I feel a greater ache for the former. To a large extent, it has to do with the lack of closure. Kittu was with us for a cat-lifetime, or nearly that. We watched him progress (?) over the years from being a reasonably lithe young cat into an undignified, burping mound of corruption and laziness; gluttonous, hang-jowled, scruffy and torn from the occasional tom-fight. And when he died (in 1998, from a kidney ailment) we knew about it. I found the body, buried him in a spot just outside the house. There was completeness, and a sense of a life full-lived. None of that with Sandy. His time with us was so ephemeral, it’s still easy to wonder whether we dreamt him up.

Anyone who believes it’s possible to be as close to an animal as to another human being will know that it’s completely pointless trying to explain or defend the feeling to someone who can’t empathise with it. So I’m leaving countless things unsaid here. Suffice it to say this is a more personal blog than I ever intended to post on this forum. But it just happened, and I’m sort of glad it did.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Once Upon a Time in the West: The Sholay connection

Watched Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West again last night; my enthusiasm for it remains undimmed by the demoralising revelation that it is also one of Paulo Coelho’s favourite movies. The film isn’t as well known in India as Leone’s Dollars trilogy (especially The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) which preceded it, but in my mind there’s no question that it’s his best work.

And it’s ironical that it isn’t better known out here. For actually, even Indians who haven’t seen this masterpiece know it quite well by proxy – through one of this country’s most beloved movies, Sholay.

The films that are most often cited as having influenced that great "Indian western" include Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (for its pathbreaking handling of action: the slow-motion deaths of men on horses, the painfully detailed attention to the trajectories of bullets as they enter and exit human bodies); Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (for the ‘hired gun’ theme) and even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (for the wisecracking buddy relationship between the two leading men). Leone’s spaghetti Westerns with Clint Eastwood are sometimes named in this context, but I can’t quite recall Once Upon a Time in the West being specifically cited as a Sholay source. Which is odd, since the inspiration for the latter film’s most memorable character – the villainous Gabbar Singh – comes from Leone’s movie. Further, the look and feel of Ramesh Sippy’s film – with such elements as the eerie sound of a swing creak ing in the wind, and the association of a harmonica with a central character -- owe more to Once Upon… than to any other international production I can think of. And even one of Sholay’s most visceral sequences – that of the Thakur’s family being slaughtered, complete with the agonising wait before a little boy is killed point blank by the central villain – is taken directly from Leone’s movie.

There’s another connection. By all accounts, Amjad Khan was an unpopular choice to play Gabbar Singh in Sholay. The thought makes us shake our heads in disbelief today, but back in 1974 the film’s scriptwriters Salim-Javed thought he was all wrong for the role; he had a weak voice, they said! In Once Upon a Time in the West, the villain was played by Henry Fonda, and this too was one of the most controversial yet effective casting choices in movie history. For over 30 years before this film was made, Fonda had epitomised Decent Americana. In movies directed by the great John Ford – the preeminent chronicler of American history on film – he had played Tom Joad, Wyatt Earp and Abe Lincoln: some of the most revered figures (real and made up) in the short corpus of legends that a young country without a mythology had managed to create for itself. His intense, searching eyes and his hesitant voice seemed to open a doorway that led straight into the soul of the sincere working-class American man.

Fonda was in his early sixties when he got word that Leone, an Italian director who had been making unconventional but successful "Dollar Westerns", wanted him to play the villain in his new film. The actor in Fonda rose to the challenge; in his autobiography, he relates how, for his meeting with Leone, he grew a beard and used contact lenses to turn his blue eyes black, in keeping with the scruffy Lee Van Cleef-ish image of a spaghetti western villain. But it wasn’t long before he realised that the tempestuous director wanted his face as it was, with blue eyes and firm jawline intact; for as soon as Leone saw him, he exploded into a string of incomprehensible Italian phrases punctuated by the English words "Shave! Shave!" and "Blue eyes! I want baby blue!"

It was the genius of Leone to take Fonda as he was and use him against type, to chilling effect. But that’s scarcely the only thing Once Upon... has to recommend it. It has a fascinating cast – the other key members being Charles Bronson (whose strong, silent Harmonica makes Clint Eastwood look like Stuart Little), the lovely Claudia Cardinale, and that wonderful character actor Jason Robards. And it has one of the most mesmeric original scores ever, by the incomparable Ennio Morricone, who creates separate themes for each of the four protagonists. All of this adds up to the great final showdown between Bronson and Fonda that is far more about panoramic cinematography, the human face (with extreme close-ups of the weather-beaten faces of the two men) and the use of music in film than it is about the actual shootout, which takes half a second.

Watch Once Upon a Time in the West for its Sholay links if you must. But you’ll come away from it as a fan number 1 of the film in its own right.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

A roach riposte

Yesterday Rubaru posted a deeply felt blog about how his paternal side burst to the surface on descrying a sweet little roach that was encroaching on his computer space. This has caused me to re-think my own long and tortuous relationship with these creatures...actually, no it hasn’t: I still loathe them with every atom of my being.

But ‘loathe’ is too courageous a word. I’m terrified to death of them. My recurring nightmares are scripted around them, especially the flying ones. I’ve never been able to kill one, no, not even by the impersonal method of flinging a shoe at it from the next room. (How oft I remember my mother humming "All Creatures Great and Small" off-key as she sallied into my room for a killing operation.) In fact, I can’t even bring myself to spell out the full noun here (the one that begins with a ‘C’), for then I couldn’t bear to visit my blog ever again knowing THAT word was hanging there in its full black, insidious horribleness.

What is it about roaches? On the one hand, there isn’t even a widely known word that denotes fear of them (the equivalent of arachnophobia for spiders). But on the other hand, it’s almost univerally understood (without being explicitly stated) that they are far more repulsive than spiders, which have a peculiar symmetrical beauty of their own. You won’t see films about giant roaches terrorising the countryside. (The one that came closest - Mimic - was more a psychological horror film than an explicit one.) And you can watch the National Geographic for hours on end -- including footage supplied by micro-cameras that have been poking about in insects’ burrows - without seeing a single closeup of one.

A few half-hearted attempts have been made to deconstruct their dark, creepy mystique. I remember vaguely a passage from Gorky’s My Childhood where his grandmother or aunt says she’s terrified of them because she can’t comprehend their purpose. Woodworm and lice signify something, she says, but heaven knows what these creatures are, whence they derive their power and why they have been put here among us. This otherworldly aspect is accentuated by the fact that a roach’s face -- triangular, with bulbous eyes -- closely resembles caricatural archetypes of creatures from other planets. They don’t quite belong among us, seems to be the message, even if they’ll eventually outlive us by millions of years. Whose planet is it anyway?

Of course, I haven’t ever been close enough to a roach to see the details of its face. The closest I’ve ever been was a couple of inches away, and in unusual circumstances. This was class seven or thereabouts, and for a science class we had all been asked to "collect a dead insect and stick it onto a blank page of your exercise book with scotch tape" (adequate grounds for the dissolution of the entire edifice of formal education, one would think). A fellow brat called my name while I was speaking with someone else, I turned around as he opened a tiffin box -- a tiffin box - right under my face and instinct kicked in as I shut my eyes and jerked my face away. I have no clear memory of what I saw in those 0.2 seconds - something glistening, something black - but the smell has stayed with me all my life.

Well, that’s it for this blog. To all a pleasant night.

Subcutaneous shockers

Always nice when someone stands up to defend the horror movie, and especially horror movies that haven’t somehow succeeded in growing a veneer of respectability over the years. From the Roger Ebert website, here’s a tribute by Jim Emerson to four cult films that get under your skin. These films are all victims of that unfortunate phenomenon whereby movie-goers emerge from the theatre and start ‘intellectualising’ -- which usually means dismissing a movie’s content as lowbrow or puerile -- when in fact they were genuinely scared during the actual viewing process and will in all probability continue to be haunted for days afterwards.

Horror movies are more vulnerable to this intellectualising than any other genre, and those who defend such films (and other cult cinema) tend to write with great passion -- it comes from protectiveness. Which is why you’ll find far intenser, far more compulsively readable writing in a biography/study of say John Waters or Russ Meyer than in a bio of a universally respected director like Kurosawa or Bergman.

Review this!

How to write a 2,000-word review of a book like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell without being over-expository and, inevitably, over-analytical? This is a book that must simply be opened to page one, and read, without the weight of reviews dragging it down.

Unlike Cloud Atlas, a novel with reviews that merit reviews of their own. Examples:

"...makes almost everything in contemporary fiction look like a squalid straggle of Nissen huts compared with its vertiginous edifice..."

"...a Rubik’s cube structure that repays closer attention with still more with the most perplexing dreams and riddling rides [??!!!] Cloud Atlas courteously sets us down where we began... [no, really? Like in Pulp Fiction, huh? Who plays John Travolta in this?] a Venn diagram spread across centuries and continents... [dude, you’re good and ready now to write your own book]

"David Mitchell may well be possessed of genius. Even if he isn’t, there is no doubting that he is talented in the extreme..."

"Mitchell has been edging towards a masterpiece for some time now..." [and now he’s gone right over...]

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Me and Dilbert in the office corridor

"Never take a comic strip too lightly. Oh sure, laugh by all means, but don’t dismiss it as not reflecting real life just because it’s a compendium of funny little drawings. Expect apocrypha in the specifics, for that’s part of comic licence, the nature of the beast and so on; but accept that there will invariably be some truth in there somewhere, something that you can relate to your own life…oh, wait, there’s an opening, grab it, grab it, grab it!"

Such were the thoughts that rushed through my mind whilst I was walking down one of the longer corridors in our office today. I was thinking them because I was stuck behind a gentleman who was strolling right in the middle of the traversable stretch at a pace several metres a minute slower than mine, and moving nary an inch to either side that I might squeeze through. I suddenly felt deep and regretful empathy with poor Dilbert, who found himself in just such a predicament in one of the strips I recently saw, and was forced – in an example of the comic licence mentioned earlier – to sail over the heads of his tormentors.

What with all the other badnesses that occur daily in office, this may seem a trivial thing to complain about. But it really is very difficult to deal with if you’re a brisk walker and disinclined to expel energy on a very loud "excuse me" (it has to be very loud, because people who walk in front of you at a slow pace in narrow corridors also always happen to be deaf) or elbow someone out of the way. And heaven forbid if it’s two people talking away merrily in front of you – then you may as well just retrace your steps and find another path to the tea machine, or the loo, or the accountant’s cave, or the suicide chamber, or wherever else you were going.

When I first saw that Dilbert comic in the office library while pretending to scan the Economic Times for story ideas, I chuckled patronisingly. "Funny, yes," I said, scaring a bureau reporter who was trying to sneak a look at the ET front page from beneath my elbow, "but is it true to life? Can such a thing ever actually occur in an office corridor?"

Well, now I know it is and can, and I bow to Scott Adams. He is one of the great seers of our age, or of any other age that has had offices with cubicles and cabins and corridors and I shall show my respect by embarking anon on a Dilbert anthology-collecting spree. (Well, not really anon because I’ve just spent a wallet-burning sum on the new Philip Roth -- which Shougat, being even poorer than me, then promptly mooched -- and cannot buy another book for several weeks, or at least two.)

Hinglish: like this only

Further to Prof David Crystal and the debate over the future of Englishes, here’s Nilanjana S Roy’s column on the Hinglish toofan, ‘What’s Veni, Vidi, Vici in Hinglish?’ Try not to be distracted by the para breaks, which are whimsies of whoever uploads the thing on the Net.

Monday, October 18, 2004

On reviewing

A friend of four years and a colleague twice over (we were together in Encyclopaedia Britannica before fate threw us together again) saw me surreptitiously posting a blog on office time the other day. "Joy Orjon," he said through his droopy moustache, using the Bengalicised form of my name (I wear my honorary Bong status with a brave smile), "what makes you think anyone in cyberspace is interested in your scattered thoughts and self-important musings?"

The question wasn’t really a serious one – provocative, meaningless repartee has been a motif of my association with YB (whose very initials hint at an existential dilemma) since the Britannica days. But it got me thinking, an event that usually precipitates a new blog. Scattered thoughts and self-important musings, I mused, aren’t restricted to blogging; they apply equally, though in a more structured form, to reviewing, which is something I do at a professional level.

I’ve always had an ambivalent attitude to reviewing. On the one hand, from a purely personal vantage point, I love doing it. Writing film and book reviews have given me the opportunity to structure and articulate my thoughts to myself. But on the other hand, I’m not sure I’d be able to convincingly argue with someone who opined that reviews were of no real worth to anyone. That’s because I believe any good, honest review is, by its very nature, an exercise in self-indulgence, one that will tell you more about the person who’s written it than about the thing being written about. People who don’t understand this are those who deal in absolutes, who believe that there is one all-encompassing truth about a certain book or movie. But if I write an honest review (as opposed to the hack jobs written to cater to PR companies), it will necessarily convey the way a book or movie has affected me personally, and that in turn will be influenced by a myriad factors: defining moments in my life, some of which I might only sub-consciously be aware of; the issues and concerns that are of special relevance to me.

All this seems obvious when I set it down. But to some people it isn’t. It’s one of the curses of Indian journalism, for instance, that an editor will call you into his cabin, tut-tut at a review you’ve written that is at odds with his opinion/the general opinion, and ask you to "be objective" in your reviewing. (What he’s really asking you to do, of course, is to write an objective review that endorses his own [subjective] view of the thing.)

But HOW can a review possibly be objective? It’s written by a human being; it is, after all, only his opinion. At best one person might, by dint of experience, be more qualified to be a professional reviewer than others. But no one is so qualified that his opinion can be set in stone and held up as the final, definitive word.

Did I say reviews were of no real worth to anyone? Well, actually they are – but only if you’re open-minded enough to read and assimilate well-argued, well-written reviews that express a viewpoint opposed to your own. I like to think I am. Some of my favourite reviews (Pauline Kael’s trashing of Scorsese’s Raging Bull, for instance) are written from a perspective completely different from my own; but if the arguments they supply adequately support that perspective, I appreciate the insights I get into someone else’s way of thinking. It’s a humbling process.

Of course, I do compromise to an extent when I’m reviewing professionally. Whenever I sense that I’m getting carried away, I stop for a reality check, and then try consciously to make a few general statements about the film/book. If you’re the sort of person who likes dash dash dash you should enjoy this blah blah blah. It’s not a completely happy compromise but I kind of understand the need for it.

But if it’s complete "objectivity" you’re looking for, read synopses/summaries that give you merely the bones of the story, with no personal opinion attached.

P.S. The attempts by editors to "standardise" reviews into assembly-line productions remind me somehow of this vitriolic comment by Ray Bradbury on the editing of stories for school textbooks:

"How do you cram 400 short stories by Twain, Irving, Poe, Maupassant and Bierce into one book? Simplicity itself. Skin, debone, demarrow, scarify, melt, render down and destroy. Every adjective that counted, every verb that moved, every metaphor that weighed more than a mosquito - out! Every simile that would have made a sub-moron’s mouth twitch - gone! Any aside that explained the two-bit philosophy of a first-rate writer - lost!
Every story, slenderized, starved, bluepencilled, leeched and bled white, resembled every other story. Twain read like Poe read like Shakespeare read like Dostoevsky read like - in the finale - Edgar Guest. Every word of more than three syllables had been razored. Every image that demanded so much as one instant’s attention - shot dead.
The point is obvious. There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running around with lit matches."

(P.P.S: Rumman, hope you finally get around to reading this, now that I’ve typed out half the thing!)

Chennai Test, Day 4

What a day at the Chepauk! In this age of the Twenty-Twenty and the Super Max, it’s heartening to discover that one can be completely captivated by seven hours of Test cricket where a team as dynamic as Australia scores just 200-odd runs in 80-odd overs. I thought my days of following a cricket match ball by ball were long gone, but this was worth freezing everything else for.

Loved Damien Martyn’s batting. Loved the way Jason Gillespie stuck it out. Loved the confidence Michael Clarke showed in moving nimbly out of the crease from practically the first ball he faced, even though his team was still in trouble at the time. Loved the way McGrath swept Harbhajan for a single. And – though I hate to say it, since it portends ill for Australia – I even loved the dismissive way in which Sehwag packed the last ball of the day off to the boundary.

And now, it’s raining...

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Sunday paper commentaries (17/10/04)

I don’t usually consort for more than three-and-a-half minutes with the Sunday TOI (and even that often grudgingly) but I enjoyed Jug Suraiya’s Jugular Vein column this week. It’s about the indignant public response to Suraiya’s last column, where he spoke about some of the unsavoury aspects of Indianness. So this week he’s taken the theme further. (Our self-endowed moral superiority convinces us that what we do is right and what others do is wrong…our bomb is a friendly, peaceful creature, not to be confused with the Pakistani bomb, a rabid, untrained beast whose sole function it is to bite all and sundry without provocation…)

What I really liked about the column was that its author didn’t take the chicken’s way out. He didn’t first set down a list of flaws in the Indian character and then, in the last para or thereabouts, snivel about how all he really wants is his beloved country to open its eyes to its faults. It was a criticism, harsh and uncompromising, from beginning to end, and that takes real guts given the strident self-righteousness that’s so much a part of the national character.

Meanwhile, in the HT, Indrajit Hazra manages to produce something about V S Naipaul that’s actually worth reading, and which provides glimpses of that elusive other side to the man. Naipaul speaks of how he was culturally destitute while growing up in Trinidad and one of the things that saved him was Hollywood movies like In Old Chicago -- “films about good and evil, right and wrong – Westerns.”

Of course, the trademark inflexibility is still very much in view. And it’s a bit rich when he says “A book has to entertain above all” (I think of his pronouncement last week that fantastical literature is a perversion) But it’s comforting to learn that the man might actually have had a human side half a life ago.

P.S. If someone had told me last week that I would post three consecutive blogs with references to Naipaul, I would have given them the old Mwahahahaha routine. Oh well, as Marshall Mathers said, “This is it, that’s all, last straw, that’s it!”

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Naipaul: the day after

What happens when you throw together a tight-assed author who has nothing at all interesting to say at his book launch with a gaggle of wide-eyed young journos who have to find some sort of peg for a story on this dull man? Answer: you get screaming headlines in the next day’s papers, all announcing that V S Naipaul has - gasp! - announced his retirement (most memorable, the HT City strapline that marries sensationalistic reporting with bad copy-editing to tell us: "Nobel Laureate Naipaul says Magic Seeds is the last book he has written"). Never mind that the man first "announced his retirement" years ago (simultaneously announcing the Death of the Novel), only to return with another novel, and now another one. Never mind too, that many book-lovers would frankly not consider his retirement all that much of a loss to the form he so decries.

So, for whatever it’s worth: I was at the Naipaul book launch on Thursday and can vouch that his statement of retirement was unaccompanied by "distraught gasps of horror", as was widely reported. (I did attempt a snort myself, but since I had a slight cold it turned into something more honk-ish.)

Now don’t inconvenience me by asking what peg I would’ve chosen if my editor had stuck me between a gun barrel and a deadline and insisted I file a piece on the thing. I was a disinterested observer that day, not a journo.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Dull as Naipaul

Went to British Council for V S Naipaul book launch last evening. Can’t recall the last time I yawned so much. Let me admit this at the outset: I haven’t read much Naipaul, and almost nothing he’s written in the past 20 years or so. It’s one of my guilts as a book-lover (though it’s almost turning into a guilty pleasure now). But that hasn’t stopped me from forming strong opinions about the obnoxiousness of the man in general and shaking my head in wonder at the stridency of some of his statements. Based on all I’ve read and heard, I could safely have said that I had no inclination to ever be in the same room as him, not even with free cocktails a-waiting after the event.

Which is why, paradoxically, I felt a peculiar excitement while sitting in the auditorium last evening. The way I looked at it was, when expectations are so low, there’s bound to be something interesting to take away from this experience: a hitherto unseen side of the man, an unobtrusive little remark that might suggest he’s more than a caricature. Being open-minded in this way has worked well for me on previous occasions.

Unfortunately, it didn’t this time. The man SO lived up to the caricature. There was nothing interesting beneath the surface. He’s everything you’ve ever read about him. Nothing he said or did fell outside the borders of what I could have conjured up in my own mind had I chosen to just sit at home and imagine what the launch/discussion/reading would be like.

Naipaul sat, legs crossed, looking for all the world like a walrus that knows it’s constipated and is resigned to the fact. He said things I don’t even remember now, they were so forgettable. Death of the Novel, writing when young, writing when old, nationality, identity. Someone in the audience asked him "Sir Viddiyyaa, what do you think of the Hindu nationalist movement?" He replied, "I didn’t hear the question." (At this point I thought, ah, there’s something interesting, he’s side-stepping the question. Cheap tactic for a Lord, or Knight, or whatever he is. But a little later Naipaul responded similarly when asked an innocuous lit-related question and then I thought, what the hell, he’s just deaf, which isn’t very interesting at all, given his age, and all the years of hearing his own thoughts in his head.)

I don’t like being so dismissive about someone, and like I said before I don’t know enough about the man’s work to pass anything approaching a summary judgement. Guess I’m just expresing the disappointment that comes from being in the presence of an important writer for an hour and coming away with nothing worth cherishing.

Rude ode to Dravid dismissal

Chennai Test, 1.30 pm

Dravid lost his middle stump
Hope this prognosticates a slump
Of such vignettes get I my kicks
May the Wall keep shitting bricks...

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Me and Paulo (Coelho)

I am alarmed. My faith in the neat, immutable classifiability of people and things has been bestirred. Why is this? Because I stumbled across a Paulo Coelho interview on the Net (don’t ask how and why) and was traumatised by his answer to the question "What are your favourite movies?"

He answered thus:
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West
Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel
Truffaut’s Day for Night

"But those are some of my favourite movies!" I cried aloud, unmindful of the Conscientious Colleague sitting next to me, doing what he is paid to do, ie work assiduously on a corporate story. "What is Paulo Coelho doing with my list? How can I possibly have anything in common with the man who wrote Manual of the Warrior of Light? And why would Paulo C have anything to do with a movie that has the word ‘exterminating’ in its title (even if there’s an ‘angel’ in it as well)?"

I’ve been trying to think of a single Coelho-ish moment in any of those films. Evil computer sends hapless human astronaut spinning, oxygen-less, off into the Great Unknown? Umm, nope. Bandit strings man up and and makes him stand on his kid brother’s shoulders so latter can be the instrument of his death? Nuh-uh. Sheep wander into a dining room and are slaughtered by bourgeosie-guests-turned savage? Naah. Pre-historic forerunner of man discovers use of tools that will raise him above other species, and promptly uses them to savagely bludgeon a member of another tribe? Nahin, nahin, nahin...

On learning further that William Blake is one of Coelho’s favourite writers, I was driven to the brink of despair; but the revelation that his favourite Blake work is the sunshiney Songs of Innocence (the late 18th century equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations) drove me back to safety. At least Songs of Experience, that glorious paean to hopelessness and pessimism, is safe.

I know I wrote some pompous things about the all-inclusiveness of human experience a few blogs ago, but having to deal with this sort of thing firsthand is another matter. Paulo Coelho is now the Pet Shop Boy to my Eminem.

Oh well, as long as Dale Carnegie doesn’t admit to liking Philip Roth....

Paulo Coelho wrote: Everyday God gives us the sun, and also the moment in wich have the ability to change everything that makes us unhappy. Our magic moment helps us to change and send us off in search of our dreams

William Blake wrote: Cruelty has a human heart, And Jealousy a human face; Terror the human form divine, And Secrecy the human dress.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Journalist's lament from an ambulance

Spent 20 minutes sitting in an ambulance today (yes, yes) with an unctuous small-time doctor who was under the impression that I was keen to do a comprehensive story on the little nursing home he was affiliated with. In truth, I was making a feeble final attempt to make something out of this non-story I’ve been pursuing for the last few days. It’s a non-story on ambulance services -- the various types there are in the city, the companies that provide them, the number of vehicles and the facilities they offer, and so on.

Well, between yesterday and today I’ve been to the Apollo, Escorts and Batra hospitals, endured long waiting periods in those unendurable disinfectant-soaked hospital rooms, interviewed doctors and ambulance-in-charges, and thus far all I’ve gathered is: yes, there are indeed ambulances in the city; they are large, white, four-wheeled vehicles that transport the ailing hither and thither. And that’s it. Oh yes, they are driven by drivers and they have sirens atop them.

In part at least this indicates I’m a bad/indifferent journalist. But no crime warrants the kind of punishment I had to take this morning. I had planned to spend no more than five minutes tops with this doc, but he kept me in his office for half an hour, and then, just as I was making to flee, he insisted that we must go and sit in the ambulance for a while. The logic was, how can you have a useful discussion about ambulances unless you’re sitting in one? "Let us move to the scene of the crime, ha, ha, ha," were his exact, alarming words.

After 20 minutes in the aforementioned vehicle, listening to him blabbering senselessly about how he was the only doctor with a conscience in the entire country, a terrible ringing commenced in my ears; it felt like many demons of hell were frying my brain with their steaming pitchforks. I was tempted to lie down on the stretcher that was appealingly placed just a couple of feet away from where we sat; but gathering my last reserves of energy I jumped up suddenly and told my tormentor I was late for another appointment and besides I had all the information I needed. He cautioned me to use his new address "in the article", not the one on his visiting card. I promised him I would and bid him farewell. Like I said before, I’m not doing the story, and I hope he doesn’t somehow get hold of my mobile number.

GSB, you’re out of it now, lucky lucky lucky girl. I wish I were too.

I'll Go to Bed at Noon

Am halfway through that unlikeliest of literary beasts -- a Booker Prize-shortlisted novel that’s quite readable (okay, that’s a little unfair I know, but any book lover should have some idea of what I mean). This is Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, a surprisingly low-profile book (last I checked, even had practically nothing on it) about a large family of drunks in 1970s Britain. That’s a very loose description, but I think it captures the gist; the running joke here is that every one of the characters is an alcoholic in one way or the other.

Like I said, the Booker stamp on this novel made me queasy when it was thrown my way for reviewing; but since I was wading unhappily at the time in the turgid prose of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (which is tipped to actually win the Booker this year -- that’s even worse than being shortlisted) I welcomed it as respite. This is a whimsical little book that doesn’t start very promisingly (I was distracted by a number of awkward sentences; the fact that my copy is an uncorrected proof could have something to do with it) but draws you into its fold as you go along. The central character is the middle-aged Colette and we are introduced not just to her immediate family -- husband and children, including the perpetually drunk, and dangerous, eldest son Janus -- but a large cast of other characters, including Colette’s siblings and their families. The other major alcoholic in the story is also named Janus -- he is Colette’s recently widowed brother and early on we discover that he has been searching for ways to extract the spirit from a can of shoe polish. (He is still relatively sane at this point but his condition steadily gets worse.)

Woodward for his part extracts humour from what is essentially a very bleak, even unpleasant story. He’s very good at dark humour and this is what’s kept the book alive for me so far. Check this bit, where Colette tells her supercilious sister-in-law how to take care of her inebriated brother:

"The diarrhoea is the worst thing," said Colette, after a pause, "worse than the vomit. That’s the first thing I learned. The second is that Janus Brian tends to neglect his toenails. You need to trim them for him once a fortnight. The third thing is not to be bothered by nakedness. Janus Brian likes to walk around in the nude. If he’s very far gone, he is likely to take hold of your breast. He will eat steamed fish, nothing else. Also, he needs to be talked to, for hours on end, sometimes. Or read to. I’m reading him the complete works of Dickens, but so far we’re still only on Bleak House. You will need to visit him every other day. If you leave it any longer he is likely to die. And he won’t thank you for anything you do for him. Is that enough information for you? Do you think you can cope with that?"

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Michael Moore lights up again

Watched Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 911 last night. Pretty good, though my attention wandered during the last half-hour. All the focus on the incendiary aspects of his movies means that his talent as a filmmaker is sometimes overlooked -- but he has a seriously good sense of timing and of how to deliver an effective knockout blow after a buildup.

Of course, Moore is also obnoxious to the point of being a comic figure, and the only thing that saves him here is that he isn’t as ridiculous or as loathable as his principal target -- Dubyaman Bush. (No one could be.) But in his last film, Bowling for Columbine, I hated the way Moore went for the softest, easiest targets and especially his heckling of the aged, Parkinson’s-stricken Charlton Heston (complete with the shamelessly, exploitatively sentimental shot where he holds up a photo of a young black schoolgirl killed in a shooting and taunts the pro-gun lobby Heston with it).

With Bush and his inner circle of thugs, Moore is on firmer ground. Because while they are soft targets too in a way, there’s little danger of anyone feeling sorry for them or disgusted by Moore’s potshots at them. So I didn’t mind even when Moore made cynical use of shots like the one where Bush practices facial expressions just before going live before a television camera (that’s the sort of thing any public figure, even Abe Lincoln, would have done, but Moore uses it to underline his Bush as Hypocrite stance).

Incidentally, Moore’s well-publicised statement that he wants Fahrenheit to get the same treatment as a regular feature film (including wider distribution and, perhaps, a best picture Oscar nomination instead of a best documentary one) has me contemplating that George W Bush is now possibly the greatest comic leading actor of all time. Don’t misunderestimate him.

Colour con

Terribly annoyed about the computer-colorisation of Mughal-e-Azam (it’s being re-released across the country in its garish new clothes next week) and, worse, the way some people seem to think this is a good thing. Back in the 1980s Ted Turner launched a similar evil scheme in Hollywood but movie-lovers managed to fight back and stem much of the damage. (I retched when I saw a meretricious colorised version of Arsenic and Old Lace -- Frank Capra’s glorious black comedy -- telecast on TNT a few years ago. Cary Grant looked like he had jaundice.)

Problem is, in India, this sort of thing has the potential to get out of control, what with the general apathy to the finer points of filmmaking and the ridiculous equating of black-and-white with "old and boring". It’s worth noting that for all the experimentation that has (supposedly) crept into Indian cinema in recent years, no one’s actually making films in black and white -- something that is done regularly in film industries all over the world.

Something else I find interesting is that people who stand up to protest this savaging of old movies are invariably accused of snobbishness and elitism. Roger Ebert’s succinct retort to that was: "Snobbishness by definition entails the excluding of something as an option. The people doing this are those who seem to want black-and-white to be done away with as an artistic choice."

Monday, October 11, 2004

Where Eminem meets the Pet Shop Boys

In her weekly column for Business Standard, Nilanjana Roy wrote recently about the extraordinary response of the normally reticent Arun Kolatkar to the question: "Who are your favourite poets and writers?"

"There are a lot of poets and writers I have liked. You want me to give you a list? Whitman, Mardhekar, Manmohan, Eliot, Pound, Auden, Hart Crane, Dylan Thomas, Kafka, Baudelaire, Heine, Catullus, Villon, Jynaneshwar, Namdev, Janabai, Eknath, Tukaram, Wang Wei, Tu Fu, Han Shan, Ramjoshi, Honaji, Mandelstam, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Babel, Apollinaire, Breton, Brecht, Neruda, Ginsberg, Barth, Duras, Joseph Heller,. Gunter Grass, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Nabokov, Namdeo Dhasal, Patthe Bapurav, Rabelais, Apuleius, Rex Stout, Agatha Christie, Robert Shakley, Harlan Ellison, Balchandra Nemade, Durrenmatt, Aarp, Cummings, Lewis Carroll, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Godse Bhatji, Morgenstern, Chakradhar, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Balwantbuva, Kierkegaard, Lenny Bruce, Bahinabai Chaudhari, Kabir, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf, Jon Lee Hooker, Leiber and Stoller, Larry Williams, Lightning Hopkins, Andre Vajda, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Truffaut, Woody Guthrie, Laurel and Hardy."

Nilanjana says: "I look at those names now, and I think, okay, that’s a poem right there. It speaks for all of us, for our hybrid heritage, our right to claim everything that comes from our "roots", everything that comes from "elsewhere" and to put the two together in one defiant, all-inclusive category."

Why does all this suddenly come to my mind? Well, because driving to work today I was listening to a Pet Shop Boys album and I suddenly realised that one lyric had made a not-so-subtle reference to Eminem and his famed homophobia. Contemplating that both PSB and Eminem rank high among my musical pleasures, I was struck by how disparate these two artistes are in every imaginable way.

One is a gay Brit duo whose synthesizer-based pop songs have, for nearly 20 years, made gentle, perceptive observations on love (ostensibly homosexual love but in truth applying to either sexual orientation), life, popular culture and the nature of celebrity -- all of this neatly masked by lyrics that often seem embarrassingly cheesy but which are evocative and moving if you open yourself to them. The other a cussing, vulgar American hip-hopster whose genius with words and rhythm mixes uneasily with his misogyny, minority-bashing and general offensiveness. As Friends‘ Chandler would say, "Could they be more different?"

What the heck, I love them both. Occupying opposite ends of the musical/ideological spectrum, they’ve lifted my spirits at crucial times with their words and their music. And I think this is a tribute to the capacity of the human spirit for all-inclusiveness.

Pet Shop Boys and Eminem is probably a lowbrow example by comparison; this applies equally to other fields, of course. I wish more people would open themselves up to different types of experiences instead of, for instance, summarily excluding entire genres of books/films from their purview ("I don’t read science-fiction novels!" "I don’t watch Hollywood’s mainstream trash!" "I don’t watch Denmark’s Dogme trash!") I’m not saying one should be completely indiscriminating but it’s sad that so many people don’t trust themselves to filter something good from whatever they read/see/listen to, instead of just shutting their eyes to it.

I was faced with a choice at a difficult age
Would I write a book, or should I take to the stage?
But in the back of my head I heard distant feet
Che Guevara and De'bussy to a disco beat

("Left to My Own Devices" -- Pet Shop Boys)

Sunday, October 10, 2004

The future of Englishes

Attended a talk entitled “The Future of Englishes” by Prof David Crystal, a renowned linguist, at the British Council last evening. The professor was very engaging, a 63-year-old sprite who used the auditorium as his own private pantomime stage: he held his head in his hands, pulled at his white beard, mimicked, twitched, mock-frowned and tap-danced about skittishly, all in the course of an entertaining and informative lecture on the role of English as a global language, and how it has been “first adopted, then adapted” by countries around the world. (Inevitably, he was self-deprecating too, making good-humoured jibes at various elements of clipped, “propah” Britishness – this is a trick visiting Brits quickly pick up when they address audiences, however sophisticated, in third-world countries; they know it makes them popular.)

He spoke of how the centre of gravity in the English language is shifting from first-language users (Brits, Americans…) to second-language users (like us) and how, consequently, the future of the language is largely bound up with what the latter do with it. While statistics are notoriously difficult to trust in these matters, he extrapolated that there are some 400 million first-language users of English in the world today, around an equal number of second-language users, and around 600-700 million third-language users; and that the last two categories are growing at a faster rate than the first.

There were also some interesting perspectives on the combination of factors that has led to English becoming the global language today (“never before in human history has one language been spoken by as much as one-fourth of the world’s population – but then, countries are talking to each other today as they never did before”).

Crystal believes human beings are naturally multi-lingual – “don’t let languages die, bring them off the street and into classrooms, even if you maintain one lingua franca for official purposes”. He believes the future of English is the future of cultural studies of the countries that adopt it. All over the world, new “Englishes” are growing, he said – we’re familiar of course with Hinglish, but there’s also Japlish, Spanglish, Shanglish (in Shanghai) and Wenglish (the prof’s native Wales!) among others. Incidentally, the prof made his point in the best, most practical way possible, by interspersing his talk with decidedly un-Oxfordish expressions – e.g. “unsexy” for “gender-neutral”.

Later, during the audience question round, I found myself inwardly cringing when one gent stood up and rambled in broken English – but then I reflected that this is precisely the kind of snobbishness the prof was exhorting us to discard. That said, I have one reservation to this all-inclusive attitude: I can’t pretend to be comfortable if it translates itself to literature, where people writing in English adopt the “anything goes” attitude. I’m all for English being treated as a fluid, dynamic language, but a complete abandoning of the rules of syntax? As it is, we see far too much inelegant, lazy writing by people with no real sense of (standard) English, masquerading as literature that is taking us into bold new directions. I can hardly bring myself to even look at half the Indian writing in “English” being published these days. Or is that too colonial an attitude? If it is, well, the British Council is hosting L-o-o-r-r-d Vidia Naipaul next week. I wouldn’t mind being a fly on a wall of a room in which he and Prof Crystal exchanged their views.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Car's back

Have got my car back -- it was in the workshop for two weeks after the accident. I think Thomas Harris wrote something about the way people in a neighborhood behave when passing a house where a murder has occurred: they avert their eyes, turn their faces away, act as they would if they had been betrayed by a member of their family. It sounds silly, and of course it isn’t really comparable, but for a tiny melodramatic instant yesterday I felt the same way as I approached my car. At the very least, I felt like acquaintance had to be renewed (of course, that isn’t entirely unreasonable, since the bonnet/windshield/much of the front is new!).

It was a little awkward too, driving along the same stretch of road where the accident happened. Kept feeling the urge to test my brakes by slamming down on them when I had reached 60 km/hr -- which would not have been a prudent thing to do, the road being quite traffic-heavy even on a Saturday.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Roth's latest

Can't wait to get my hands on Philip Roth's latest, The Plot Against America. Have taken to loitering about the Midland’s store and was all but bodily thrown out last evening. I feel like those Star Wars nerds who camp for weeks outside a cinema hall to be the first to get tickets for the latest film. Never mind.

The feeling of well-being that comes from the knowledge that there's a new Roth book out there waiting to be devoured is enormous. It's remarkable how much the man has grown in stature at an age when most writers stop bothering to dust off their typewriters/computers. By the time he turned 60 in 1993, he had already done enough to seal his position as one of America's greatest writers (despite Martin Amis’s lament that by turing to "serious writing" in the 1970s, Roth had deprived the literary world of one its greatest comic talents). But in the decade since he's produced: Operation Shylock, Sabbath's Theatre, American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain. Off the top of my head, the only artist I can think of who had a late flowering of similar quality is the great Spanish director Luis Bunuel, who first announced his retirement sometime in the early 1960s but then went on to make films like Belle du Jour, Tristana, The Phantom of Liberty, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire (the last when he was 77 years old).

Roth’s latest is an alternative history of America in the 20th century, based on the hypothesis that aviation hero (and Nazi supporter) Charles Lindbergh became president of the US in the early 1940s. I can’t wait, I can’t wait, I can’t wait (or did I say that already?)

Thursday, October 07, 2004


If you’re a confirmed bloggist like me, you’ll know what it’s like to leap up suddenly from bed just as you’re about to doze off, run eight times around your room screaming excitedly (P. G Wodehouse claims he did this when he thought of the title "Summer Lightning" for a book), and then settle down to scribble furious notes because you’ve just been struck with an idea for a blog.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing ends almost invariably in disappointment, for an idea that seems inspired in the middle of the night generally loses most of its sheen when viewed through the cold prism of daylight. In the course of his famous interviews to Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock told the tale, probably made up, of a scriptwriter who woke one night convinced that he had the kernel of the greatest story ever told. Trembling with excitement, he wrote it down on a piece of paper, kept it under his pillow -- and then woke the next morning to find the following plot summary: "Boy meets girl."

So the next time I get blog ideas when I’m in bed, I’ll just revert to the old counting-sheep-over-a-fence technique. (Except that’ll probably make me want to blog about sheep.)

400 wickets and unsung

Followed the first day of the India-Australia Test in Bangalore only in the most perfunctory way; I used to be a big supporter of the Aussies but that’s waned somewhat recently (which perhaps has to do with Steve Waugh’s retirement), and India minus Tendulkar holds no charm for me. But I did gather that Anil Kumble took his 400th wicket, and that had me thinking: has any other cricketer of similar achievement been as roundly dismissed by so many people as Kumble has?

Eight other bowlers have 400+ Test wickets. Their names are: Muttiah Muralitharan, Shane Warne, Courtney Walsh, Wasim Akram, Kapil Dev, Richard Hadlee, Curtly Ambrose, Glenn McGrath. Of these, a black mark has often been put against Muralitharan’s name -- but that’s because of the perceived illegitimacy of his bowling action, not on the grounds of talent/ability/achievement. The rest? Read the list again.

Batsmen. Remembering that the mean batting/bowling average after 127 years of Test cricket is somewhere between 23 and 24, the batting equivalent for the 400-wicket feat is roughly 9,400 Test runs (this is, of course, a simplistic direct conversion, but I have neither the expertise nor the inclination to go into PriceWaterhouse ratings-style computations here). For argument’s sake, let’s bring that down to 9,000, and we have: Allan Border, Sunil Gavaskar, Steve Waugh, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar. Again, would you question the relevance of any of these men? (We’re talking overall importance in the scheme of things – not Border’s ungainliness or Gavaskar’s dourness or Lara’s mercuriality. And though when Tendulkar is reviled he is reviled as no cricketer has ever been, his ability and his importance to the Indian team is rarely doubted.)

To Kumble then. If I had a wicket for each time I’ve heard someone (inevitably Indian) disparaging him, - well, let’s just say I would have more wickets than he does today. It’s mind-boggling how often he’s been taken for granted by people who ought to know better. I don’t even feel like listing the charges, I’ve heard them so sickeningly often: he can’t spin the ball, he can take wickets only on Indian pitches, the opposition can play him as they would a medium pace-bowler.

Most charges should immediately be refuted merely by the weight of the man’s numbers, and by his contribution to India’s Test victories through the 1990s -- which is greater than that of any other individual. But coming to the biggest weapon in his critics’ stockpile -- the discrepancy between his performance at home (average 22) and abroad (average 37). My retort to that is: look closer at the statistics of some of the other cricketers, past and present, who have the "Great" label firmly stamped on their foreheads, and you’ll see similar gaps. Off the top of my head (and with a little help from Cricinfo’s Statsguru), there’s Javed Miandad, whose position as one of the top players of all time has never been in doubt -- but who averaged 61.4 in Pakistan and 45.8 away. Rest assured, there are others.

And in Kumble’s case, there have been extenuating factors. The unfairness of the treatment meted to him over the years was brought in clearest focus after the India-Australia series in Oz last year. On Australian pitches, the man took 20 wickets in three Tests and later, when questioned about this rare success overseas, said understatedly, "Well, I’ve never before had the luxury of bowling on foreign pitches with 600 runs to play with." A simple utterance, but one that spoke volumes about all those years when he was accused of being a match-winner only on Indian pitches – when in fact the non-performance of the Indian batsmen on foreign soil left no bowler a chance.

That allegation against Kumble belongs in the same canon of illogic as the blame attached to Tendulkar for India’s defeats in the bad old days when he scored a hundred and the rest of the batsmen scored one hundred runs between them. The comparison is a relevant one. Both Kumble and Tendulkar have, in different ways and to different degrees, been victims of a common myopia: a refusal by India’s cricket lovers - and, worse, by India’s cricket media - to look back, understand and acknowledge the significance of that long dark period in the early and mid 1990s when India effectively had just one batsman and one bowler, who had to deal not just with the opposition on the field but with increasingly shady developments off it as well. A refusal to accept that all the best qualities of Ganguly (as captain), Dravid (as batsman) and the youngsters in today’s team might not have translated into very much if it hadn’t been for the example Kumble and Tendulkar set in those unjustly forgotten years, and for the foundation they helped build.

But Tendulkar is a batsman in a sport that thrives on them. Even his worst critics, even those who denounce him in the final analysis as being a false god, will – if only years after his retirement – find it somewhere in their embittered hearts to acknowledge that there was a time, however brief, when he brightened their gloomiest hours like no one else could. Kumble, on the other hand, will have no such consolation. He is a mere bowler; worse, a spin bowler; worse, a spin bowler who doesn’t spin the ball. He could never hope to excite the senses in quite the same way, even in his best moments. He is a breathing example of that hoary cliché, the Unsung Hero.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Janet Leigh R.I.P.

Janet Leigh died yesterday, aged 77, of natural causes. This is an annoyingly prosaic way to die compared with her spectacular death 44 years ago in the Bates Motel shower -- which also ensured her screen immortality. Psycho was the film that got me seriously into movies and the shot of the dying Marion (Leigh) stretching her hand towards the shower curtain (and the audience) before collapsing is one of my all-time favourites. So it feels weird somehow to read the news reports and obituaries now.

Nothing really worthwhile on the Net -- most say the same things over and over -- but here are a couple of write-ups, from The Guardian and Roger Ebert.

Tuesday, October 05, 2004

In car with PR

I’ve just returned from what I hope but do not expect will be my last car journey in the company of a PR person; these creatures are necessary inconveniences of a journalist’s life. Remember the scene in the film Se7en where the detectives discover the psychopathic serial killer’s (Kevin Spacey) diaries? Contained therein are the stream-of-consciousness scribblings of a man greatly angered by the garrulousness of the world. One entry describes how once an old man sitting next to him on a park bench went on babbling senselessly about his life until Spacey threw up all over him. ("He was not pleased" goes Spacey’s deadpan voice.)

Well, I felt the serial killer’s pain as I sat in the car today, though I held my vomit. This PR guy actually said things like "So, how many brothers and sisters are you?" to me. (Answer: "One.") He asked me about my education, my parents, where and how and why I grew up, and many other details of my life I had succeeded in consigning to my sub-consciousness years ago. And there wasn’t even a reason for his curiosity. He didn’t have a sister or a mother he wanted me to marry. He just had to keep talking. It was intolerable. It got so bad that after a point I started saying inane things of my own volition in order to pre-empt him. (That way, at least I’d get to listen to my own nonsense instead of his.)

How, in the depths of my despair, I wonder, can people just blabber on and on and on without pausing ONCE to look outside the car window and appreciate the sky, the birds, the trees, the profane motorists and the Okhla Industrial Area smog? Whatever happened to glorious uncomfortable silences?

We evolve!

We’re all used to hearing that Delhi has a high traffic fatality count. But the more I think about it, the more astonished I feel that the number of serious road accidents here isn’t actually much higher than it is. Each day, without exception, one sees countless instances of little road crimes that can add up to so much: cyclists leaping out in places they have no business to be in; drivers scraping others’ cars in desperate attempts to take advantage of even the smallest gap; people stopping their vehicles in the middle of a crowded road and getting out to do battle with someone/something that has angered them; buses swerving suddenly and dangerously to the right, completely unmindful of their own size and the laws of physics and geometry; all cars sticking dedicatedly to the right side of the road so that the left lane becomes, by default, the fast lane; the horn-blowing that deserves a long, impassioned blog all its own; and much more that I can’t think of now because I’m still gathering my senses, having gotten off the road only 10 minutes ago.

As I experienced firsthand a couple of weeks ago, you don’t have to be driving badly to be involved in an accident here. All it takes is a momentary lapse, and sometimes not even that. Which is why it surprises me that we don’t hear of/see many more accidents than we do. It’s probably the case that, like entire species rising to meet nature’s challenges, Delhi’s roadsters have developed a subconscious code all their own, one that enables them to factor in the improvised traffic "laws" unique to this city. It’s called evolution. The unknown water-creature that first successfully clambered onto land millions of years ago would have been proud of us for keeping up the tradition.

Fear, Manhunter and William Petersen

Watched bits of Fear on TV last night -- this being the late 1990s film about a father trying to protect his teenage daughter, and the rest of the family, from her possibly psychotic boyfriend (a Hindi movie along the same lines was recently made, with Amitabh Bachchan and Bipasha Basu -- I forget the title). Have seen Fear before - it used to be telecase ad infinitum on AXN - and find it strangely compelling. Of course, it’s flawed in some very obvious ways (as most "strangely compelling" things are). Towards the end it degenerates into vigilante porn, almost, with gratuitous servings of machismo. But it never ceases to be interesting. Parts of the movie, especially the climax where the family is terrorised in their own house by the psycho and his leering goons, reminded me of Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which I saw just a few weeks ago (and which is a seminal example of the mild mannered family man-turns vigilante movie). Incidentally, both films also have a visceral, cruelly unsparing shot of a slaughtered family pet: the strangulated cat in Straw Dogs, the decapitated doggie in Fear.

Yes, the point, the point. Much of my interest in this film has to do with William Petersen, a superb actor who has worked a lot in television in the past couple of decades but somehow never had a movie career of any significance. He plays the dad here and, despite being nearly 50 now and a little pudgy, he retains much of his trademark intensity: a quality I first saw in Michael Mann’s 1986 Manhunter. That film was based on Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon; it was made 5 years before Silence of the Lambs and I still think it’s the best of the "Hannibal Lecter movies" (though Lecter, played here by Brian Cox, appears only in two and a half scenes). This isn’t just hip revisionism; Manhunter is a darkly stylish film that is almost unbearably tense and manages to chill without being explicitly gory. And it owes much of its effect to Petersen’s performance as the tortured Will Graham -- the detective who caught Lecter in the first place and must now reluctantly come out of retirement to track another murderer and face up to his own demons. With minimal "acting", Petersen takes us into the mind of one of Harris’s most interesting characters - a man simultaneously fascinated and frightened by the extent to which he can understand the mind of a serial killer. His haunted, distracted gaze adds layers to the film. For comparison, see Edward Norton’s indifferent, unremarkable performance as Graham in the inferior, recently released Red Dragon, which was made only to cash in on the Anthony Hopkins-as-Lecter craze.

Petersen was at his peak in the late 1980s/early 1990s and mainstream American cinema could have done with him during that vapid period. Among its other problems, there was a lamentable shortage of leading men worth the name. Tom Cruise was trying unsuccessfully to prove he could act; Tom Hanks was still stuck in his toy boy mould; the action stars (Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal) had the biggest hits and the leading box-office draw for a time was, gulp, Kevin Costner (who I’ll refrain from commenting on, since I’m only marginally fonder of him than I am of Julia Roberts). Petersen’s brooding talent would have given American film an edge, and an identity, it badly needed.

Well, it was their loss - and, thanks to Hollywood’s influence over planet earth, ours.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Strange and Norrell - redux

Turns out my earlier misgivings about Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell were completely and gloriously unfounded. Between yesterday afternoon and now I’ve finished a further 400-odd pages and wow, has this book taken off or what! Where my response to it after the first few chapters was lukewarm, I can now happily describe it as enchanting, entrancing, spellbinding, mesmerising, bewitching, talismanic (and whatever other words one might use to describe a great book about magic, provided one does it with a nudge and a wink).

But seriously, I can’t think of the last time I experienced such discordance between the way a book began and what it eventually turned into. Some of the dreariness of the first 70-80 pages might, I suppose be put down to a first-time author struggling with the introduction of her characters and the establishment of her setting. Or maybe Clarke was just being too clever for her own good, by deliberately fashioning her narrative in a way that would reflect the personalities of her two magicians (Mr Norrell, who we are introduced to first, is dull beyond imagining, and the far more dynamic Jonathan Strange doesn’t properly appear until around 200 pages into the story).

I wonder if other readers will react the same way I initially did, and consequently give up on it. That would be a great pity, because it’s really worth sticking with. (To be honest, one of the reasons I didn’t stop reading myself was that I had paid good money for it; another was professional interest. But what of casual readers who might have borrowed it from someone?)

I don’t want to say much more about the book here, because I’m hoping now to review it for some publication or other. But here’s one of many passages I loved:
- - - -

On learning that Emperor Alexander of Russia was a curiously impressionable person much given to mystical religion, Strange decided to send him a dream of eerie portents and symbols. For seven nights in succession Alexander dreamt a dream in which he sat down to a comfortable supper with Napoleon Buonaparte at which they were served some excellent venison soup. But no sooner had Buonaparte tasted the soup than he jumped up and cried, “J’ai une faim qui ne saurait se satisfaire de potage!” ( “I have a hunger which soup can never satisfy!”), whereupon he turned into a she-wolf which ate first Alexander’s cat, then his dog, then his horse, then his pretty Turkish mistress. And as the she-wolf set to work to eat up more of Alexander’s friends and relations, her womb opened and disgorged them in horrible misshapen forms. And as she ate she grew; and when she was as big as the Kremlin, she turned, heavy teats swaying and maw all bloody, intent on devouring all of Moscow.

“There can be nothing dishonourable in sending him a dream which tells him he is wrong to trust Buonaparte, and Buonaparte will betray him in the end,” explained Strange to Arabella. “I might, after all, send him a letter to say as much.”

Word soon came that the Russian Emperor had been exceedingly troubled by the dreams and that, like King Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible, he had sent for astrologers and soothsayers to interpret it for him – which they soon did. Soon Alexander neglected the business of government and war, and sat all day musing upon his dreams; and whenever a letter came for him from the Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte, he was seen to turn pale and shudder.

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Ye Olde style

Came upon this while surfing for job sites:

Job 1:7 And the LORD said unto Satan, Whence comest thou? Then Satan answered the LORD, and said, From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it.

Don’t you just love it when they talk like that? Makes you think the LORD and Satan must’ve been on jolly good back-slapping terms after all, playing corny little word games with each other in the Garden of Eden, or Purgatory, or the Old Boys Club, or whencever else it is they walked to and fro. I love archaic language, at least in small doses. Though I’m terribly peeved when people the likes of who are much better off not dabbling in such matters "quote Shakespeare" liberally (this generally takes the form of completely misrepresenting a line or phrase from one of the better-known soliloquies: most often in my experience the "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" line from Macbeth -- which, now one comes to think of it, is strangely apposite). These people make indiscriminate, foolish, uncomprehending use of "thee", "thou" and "thy". They are evil people, sent forth by the Serpent, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Revelation 12:9 And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.