Saturday, December 30, 2006

The year-end comments list

In keeping with seasonal tradition, here’s a lovingly compiled selection of the most flattering comments this blog received in the past year.

From review posts

Anonymous said:
yes, there are books like this. yes, there are. see how smart we all are? see how we all know there are OTHER books like these? see how we desperately need to talk about the newest title first? it's because none of us has ever been to college outside delhi. yes, that's true.

Dtacsfw said:
Pitiful, really! This love fest of the mediocres.

Surabjit said:
your post personifies the problem with people who attempt book reviews in india these days: terms like 'surrealism' are thrown around as if they were terms you came across in a book called 'idiot's guide to literature'. you have clearly studied that book by heart….
please understand, this is NOT an attempt to malign you in any way.

Sunny said:
You give yourself FAR too much importance, my stupid Punjabi friend

Diet4free said:
I just came across your blog about weight loss and wanted to say how fascinating your information is. Know a good site when I see one. Keep up the good work

[The post was a review of Upamanyu Chatterjee’s Weight Loss]

Rashi Jain said:
First of all I would like to remind you that Penguin team is wise enough to decide about Which works it should publish. And secondly Please let me know what actually has sounded “Drab” to you?? Was it Mrs. Puri’s hilarious take on Punjabi “desi ghee” or her mock-heroism { she talks of The hand which had a language of its own as if it was the god’s Hand} or her dexterous comparison where the burden of Family jewels become “the burden of inheritance” . I think You could understand the universal appeal of the novel.

[Beavis-and-Butthead laugh at “family jewels”]

Khozema said:
sorry no time to read the matter. Anyways keep it up…

[The most honest comment I’ve received on any of my rambling film posts]

Anonymous said:
mr jai arjun,all those gimmics which u found interesting work only when there's a good story line around which they are woven.. here the story line is wafer thin.. almost non existent and full of loopholes..
i used to be a regular visitor to ur blog but now i have doubts..
i think u were more impressed by the film coz rangan found it excellent..

Anonymous said:
Well, I am even wondering why I am commenting on this post. In any case I think people who are historians/literature experts...are really losing focus on what the epic wants to convey. The epic was written to appeal to the sensibilities of the people existing then and convey some meaningful lessons as it goes along. If nitpicking is what gives these folks the big "kick" in their lives then they are not adding too much value except for cheap thrills.

[Um yes, I can see how stories about rishis ejaculating in pots would appeal to the sensibilities of people and convey meaningful lessons]

I Luvv my Indiaaa

Anonymous said:
Just happened to got to this site somehow.. man you guys do live in a world of your own, where is it ? Seems to be on a different planet then my India.

[Oops, I inadvertently expanded someone’s horizons!]

Balaji said:
It is "because of gods" by then and in future india would lead the Human race.
I object to the title inspite of Gods !!!
She has a age-old tradition,culture & sprituality which graces the whole human race… we cannot tolerate such ridiculous writing in the name of "Journalism" .
Even the very title is hurting the feelings of we indians.
I would post a long list of objections against this book some time later(may be couple of days).

[My favourite sentence in the whole world: “this is hurting the feelings of we Indians”]

Ganesh said:
Yes, scorn away to glory guys.. The same things if you see in an english movie and you would gawk in surprise and would even recommend it to your friends.. I have observed one thing is that they wouldn't mind recommending a shady english movie to friends instead of a hindi movie.. wonder why??

Candid corner

Neelangela said:
Can I marry you? Anyone but anyone who stands up for the delectable Zidane deserves at least a proposal of marriage.

Umesh Patil said:
I won't ever send a smiley with my message it is so awfull. Thank you

Anonymous said:
I'm not going to bother with my details but lets just say - as a customs officer from Bihar - I've seen Mr Sinha's passport up close and his official DOB is 9th Dec 1946 so please stop worrying about his age and worry more about your dad's.....or your moms if you please. Yeah thats sounds about right.

[From a post where I dared to cast aspersions on Shatrughan Sinha’s age]

Life in Transit said:
At the risk of sounding cliche, I would say nothing is permanent. Anyway, it was an interesting post.

The Introvert said:
First time i read about Karna in that light.. today i lost admiration for the only character in mahabharata i ever liked.

[or: How I change people's worldviews just by clicking "Publish post"]

Anonymous said:
Dharmendra is indeed an actor blaised with artistic skills who has almost done every kind of roll. I therefore credit Garam Dharam higher than Big B. The media has just not being fair and just towards Dharam Singh Deol, our he-man hero of the Indian Celluloid.

[mutton roll, roomali roll, egg roll, rock ’n roll?]

Deepak said:
I smell a wannabe spirit in your writing. Trying to show that you're a learned man now & the norms don't apply to you anymore?..But this one's been employed by wannabes earlier too and I'll bet my bottom athanni that you're an atheist too...Keep it coming. Just make sure you don't lose your mind overdoing it..

4WD said:
You put used toothpicks in your pocket?

[Yes, that's why I’ve stopped going to fancy book-launches. Laundry bill gets too high]

And of course the anti-Julia Roberts post I wrote more than two years ago in a fit of puerile stream-of-consciousness (and which I’m quite embarrassed about now) continues to draw comments from people who take Julia Roberts (and me) very, very seriously.

Anonymous said:
i love julia roberts. how a man can hate that girl?.. i think u need help. i think u have a bad brain. well thats it.

Anonymous said:
hey i got on this site searching about julia roberts and i think u guys r soooo gay! wat the hell is ur problem and u really dont have a life. who ever made this site is such a loser and probably has no friends and no life !

Julia Roberts said:
I hate Jai Arjun Singh

Last list here, and happy 2007 etc, especially to the trolls who have enlivened the past year beyond measure.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Rupert Everett's Red Carpets (and other banana skins)

My initial reaction on learning that Rupert Everett had an autobiography out was to wonder whether an actor (and not an exceptionally high-profile actor at that) should be publishing a memoir of his life at just age 47. But Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins becomes easier to assimilate once you’ve read the first couple of chapters. Everett, it turns out, is a talented writer (he’s produced two moderately well-received novels before this one) and his book, written in a novelistic style, is as much a record of a colourful era in British theatre and film as it is a personal life-history. The absence of an index of names at the end (a pre-requisite for most memoirs) is the first hint that this isn’t a conventional autobiography; it can be read as a coming-of-age story featuring real-life personalities.

The story begins with a fascinated young Rupert watching his first film (Mary Poppins) and then takes us through his life: a vivid description of first day at boarding school; his first major role in a play (Titania, Queen of the Fairies – an amusing bit of casting, given the direction his life would later take); a blissful three months spent in Paris as an adolescent, where he mingled with the likes of Rudolph Nureyev, Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol; and his foray into serious theatre back in London.

To the average Indian moviegoer, better acquainted with Hollywood than with British cinema or theatre, Everett is probably best known for roles he has played in American films in the last decade, including the Julia Roberts-Cameron Diaz starrer My Best Friend’s Wedding and the Madonna turkey The Next Best Thing. However, his career goes back a long way, and this book is populated by anecdotes from stage and screen – such as the account of him and his fellow actors cracking up in front of a stiff upper-lipped audience when it was announced that Sir Laurence Olivier had died (“laughing onstage when you ought not to is more enjoyable than orgasm, scoring a goal, taking communion, or all of them together”). Or the many entertaining pen-portraits: of Orson Welles (“He was a cobra, a Bond villain and a Buddha. I was mesmerised”) and Bob Dylan (“On the odd occasions when he did talk, it sounded like a lyric. ‘Where’s the toilet?’ sounded as interesting as ‘Lay across my big brass bed’. But he had a hard time remembering his lines and it was touching to be with him during a scene”), among others.

The most notable thing about the writing is Everett’s talent for deconstructing the celebrity machinery. Perhaps because he never became a superstar himself, it was easier for him to chronicle events dispassionately, from the perspective of an outsider looking in. Starting with its title, one expects that this book is going to be a caustic account of life in show-business - a commentary on the fleeting nature of fame and the many foibles of a public life, full of clever analogies and biting observations. And it is all of this, but what one doesn't anticipate are the many moving passages, such as the one where he looks back on a career pinnacle, the success of the play Another Country, and reflects that “on the night a whole future seems to be sitting in the palm of your hand, but the further away in time you move from a moment of triumph, the hollower it becomes. Soon it seems to be no more than the precursor for the next period of struggle…” Or his tributes to the many friends and lovers who died young and unhappy. Or even the tenderness of his observations on life with a beloved animal (his dog Mo, a steadfast companion for 12 years): “It’s a strange and extraordinary thing, life with an animal. When one comes into your life it is so young, so full of energy, and you are old by comparison… As he gets older you become younger, so that in the end he is a grandfather and you are a thoughtless child. In denial of his great age you force him to do things, to keep going and he looks at you with the eyes of an elder, sitting in the shade of the village oak…but he still obeys instructions…

As a young man coming to terms with his bisexuality, Everett was also part of the growing gay subculture in Thatcher’s England, and privy to that community’s worries about ostracism and the terror of a rapidly spreading cancer called AIDS, which seemed meant only for them: “With the discovery that sex could kill, and in those days specifically gay sex, a new reflex in society was born. Little things: parents held their children closer when you were around; your plate was separately washed in a kitchen after lunch…” These experiences probably account for some of the empathy in his writing. However, this doesn’t mean he can’t joke about some of his exploits – like his stint as a male prostitute in the mid-1970s, which caused quite a stir when he first revealed it in a magazine interview a few years ago (wickedly, Everett quotes a letter from his bank manager of the time, informing him that his debts had been wiped off and encouraging him “to keep up the good work”!).

With a little luck, Everett might have become one of Britain’s biggest stars. Though an actor of limited range, he did wonderfully well when given the right roles – early successes included Dance with a Stranger and the screen version of Another Country. “I should have died in a crash if I had been at all serious about my career,” he writes, alluding to the James Dean story, “my first two movies were classics.” Instead, his career went off track for a few years and it wasn’t until the 1990s that he recovered some ground. No loss. On the evidence of this book (and perhaps others to follow), his contribution as a chronicler of his times might prove nearly as valuable as his acting stints.

Monday, December 25, 2006

On travelling Indians, and righteous indigestion

Happiest moment of the Dubai trip: when two vegetarian fellow travellers came within inches of ordering a veal dish (considering previous incidents such as the turbine/turban one, they had probably confused the word with “vegetable”, or thought it was shorthand). I made sure to watch their faces when the waiter explained what veal was, it felt nice. Then, clucking solicitously whenever they happened to catch my eye, I listened to their loud tirades about the “dirty eats” available outside India. Then I ordered a beef steak with pepper sauce.

Sorry if that sounds callous, and of course one doesn’t expect vegetarians (or orthodox Hindus) to try beef/veal just because they are in a foreign country – but by that point in the trip I was so fed up of these people (for other reasons too, not just their attitude towards food) that I sought malicious pleasure in anything that discomfited them. Some of the fussiness and boorishness on display was beyond belief. One keeps hearing horror stories about the insularity of travelling Indians, but this was the first time I was seeing it at such close quarters.

Personally I’m very experimental with food. When I became a feature journalist a few years ago, the restaurant revolution in Delhi was just beginning, we suddenly had access to authentic Lebanese and Italian and Thai and Chinese and continental food outside of 5-star hotels, my job provided a pretext to try new things, and I relished it. And when travelling abroad, as a matter of policy I try as many different dishes as possible – especially the stuff there’s little hope of getting in Delhi. (There was one notable aberration in Glasgow a couple of years ago when, after eight straight days of eating dry continental meals, I developed a near-frenzied craving for spicy daal/curry and hot naan and rushed to the town centre to find an Indian restaurant. Old habits diet hard.)

This doesn’t mean I expect everyone else to be adventurous in their eating habits. The fact is, most people (certainly most Indians) simply don’t like to step outside the comfort zone when it comes to food, and this is understandable to an extent, even if you don’t account for the many religious taboos. If, up to a certain age, you’ve been weaned on a particular cuisine/cooking style, it’s very difficult to break the mould. And if you aren’t professionally associated with food (as a consultant, say, or as a food writer) and if you haven’t travelled much, there’s little opportunity (or reason) to expand your culinary horizons.

But there are degrees and degrees of insularity, and when it reaches the point where you’ve completely closed your mind to any sort of new experience, and in the process made a spectacle of yourself and inconvenienced others…well, that’s problematic.

One example from this trip: just moments after announcing that he’s a hardcore non-vegetarian and extremely hungry, a chap pushed away a plate of pan-fried chicken breast because the dish was “too unfamiliar”. He dismissively ordered the waiters to take the plate away and then gave them (and our tourist guide) sidelong glares as if it were their fault. And we’re not talking oysters or scallops or octopuses or even shrimps or prawns. We’re talking pan-fried chicken breast, which is just about the least exotic non-Indian item you can find on a menu.

“Frankly speaking,” the chap then said, in the tone often employed by people who use that phrase (and “to be honest” and others such) as if they are about to bestow a hitherto undisclosed Indubitable Truth on the world, “nothing can compare with our Indian food. Even people who come to India for the first time from other countries forget about their own food after tasting our home-made cooking.” Our tour guide, to whom these words were being addressed, looked dubious but nodded politely and said he hoped to visit India soon. I wonder if he ever will now.

P.S.: “Our Indian food” was quite the sweeping generalisation coming from these people. Going by the rest of their conversations, they knew very little about the parts of India that are located outside north-west Delhi. (“Bihari people are known as very intayleegent, isn’t it?” one of them said, referring to a Mr Bose he was acquainted with.) And maybe, just maybe, I’m over-analysing and reading too much into eating habits, but I can’t help wondering about the connection between insularity of this sort and narrow-mindedness in other spheres. Fodder for future posts perhaps...

Update: should have mentioned this earlier. Dubai does of course have plenty of eating options for Indians who want to stick with comfort food - in fact there were a couple of highly regarded (and inexpensive) vegetarian Indian restaurants just a stone's throw from our hotel. But our junket-happy journos, for all their complaining, would never actually have gone to one of those places. It would have meant spending their own money (outside meals weren't included in our package) and that would have been a fate worse than starving to death.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Dubai photos

(Click on pics to enlarge)

Ice sculpture at the snow dome in Ski Dubai

Idiot tourist at the snow dome, posing as an Eskimo (a late entry for the silly pic meme)

The desert safari pictures haven’t come out well, but this is the Bedouin campsite that awaited us at the end of the safari – complete with food, drinks, tents to relax in, and a belly-dancer

(Photo of this blogger perched atop a dune bike will be sold to the highest bidder)

View from my hotel window. The Dubai Museum is in the foreground

The museum’s large underground section has some extremely well put together lifesize representations of village life in days past, with atmospheric lighting and sound effects. Given how much Dubai wants to flaunt its modern, glass-and-concrete side, it feels strange to see this stuff – and it’s almost symbolic that it’s tucked away in a basement. This is a depiction of a group of men having shisha and evening tea

Another lifesize representation, this one from the village heritage site at Hatta

Random scribblings on the rocks of the Hatta foothills. According to our tour guide, this sort of thing is done by local Romeos who want to leave their names and phone numbers for girls

The Italian-themed Mercato mall. Corridors and spaces between shops made up to resemble Venetian streets and suchlike, but the brands were the same as can be found in every other major mall in the world

The 120-boat marina at the Dubai Creek Golf and Yacht Club

Bonus: Idiot tourist holding snow for photograph that took very long to click. Full picture unpublishable because of expression on idiot tourist’s face

(Those delicate blogging fingers were frostbitten for an hour)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Dubai nuggets 2

From certain angles, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai, looks like a slightly more benign version of Superman II's grim-visaged General Zod, desirous of world domination. This could be one reason why I'm alarmed by Dubai's transparent efforts to become the world's ultimate tourist destination: to be bigger, showier, more eye-popping than anyplace else; to be all things to all people, with every sort of landscape within arm's reach (we have beach resorts! and mountain ranges! and desert camps! and fancy cruises! and cavernous, country-themed malls rubbing shoulders with heritage villages! and even a skiing slope, the only one in the Middle East). The staggering World archipelago project, currently under construction off the coast, is like a giant symbol for what the city wants to be.

It isn't enough to merely be the biggest or shiniest for now; safeguards must be set in place for the future too. A tour guide tells us that the Burj Dubai, proposed to be the world's tallest building, is being put together in such a way that the top can be extended – "so if some other country makes an equally tall structure, we can increase the size of this one to maintain our position". This is fairly
representative of the attitude of Dubai's planners. Give no one else a chance.

Everywhere you go, you see signs proclaiming future glory. Impressive as parts of the city already look (if you're impressed by large glass-and-concrete structures, that is), Dubai is apparently only 20 per cent complete at this point. Given the pace of construction – one-sixth of the world's cranes are currently in or around the city, and working round the clock – the remaining 80 per cent should be finished quite soon. It's easy to see the reason for the haste. Dubai's petroleum reserves will be exhausted in less than 10 years' time. By then, the idea is that the city won't need the oil – all the money will come in from tourism.

The building that houses the Dubai Tourism and Commerce Marketing (DTCM) office resembles a pregnant woman, with a few of the middle floors jutting out from the rest of the structure. This is bizarrely appropriate, for more than anything else Dubai gives the impression of being perpetually in labour, straining to produce one of the great metropolises-cum-tourist centres. It remains to be seen whether that happens or whether this gestation period produces a monster-child incapable of sustaining all the infrastructure, with the already-considerable gap between the rich and the poor widening even further.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Dubai nuggets 1

If you are a Sikh, why aren’t you wearing a turbine?

was one of the many eloquently worded questions I was asked by my clueless travelling companions. In my (unturbined) head I was saying, “We come in different varieties. Only the flying Sikhs like Milkha Singh have turbines. Navjot Sidhu has a motor-mouth”, but from my lips issued a mundane response about the family being cut-surd for a couple of generations.

(Another observation: “But arre, you don’t look like a Sikh. You look shmart and intayleegent.”)

Did all the usual touristy things in Dubai: there was a dhow cruise/dinner (and later, a much more downmarket abra ride across the creek); a hair-raising desert safari followed by a belly-dancing show at a nighttime desert camp; tobogganed and posed in igloos at the ski dome in the Mall of the Emirates; toured the golf and yacht club and a few other malls; visited the mountain range near Hatta.

Despite all this, the trip might still have been painful given the company I had, but what made everything worthwhile was being able to catch up at length with one of my dearest friends, Raghu, whom I hadn’t met in years. He was staying a short distance from the hotel I was in, we were both free by around 7.30-8 PM each day and spent much good time walking about the city (very good weather in the evenings), chatting copiously and drinking at the hotel pub where two excellent Filipino singers performed each night.

So nice trip on the whole, with a couple of boring patches and much antagonism felt towards people who think life is one giant freebie, complain shrilly all day if they don’t get Indian food at every meal, and make statements like “Karol Bagh jaisa khaana duniya mein aur kahin nahin milta”. More on that later, and maybe some pics too.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Off... Dubai for a few days. Back on the 21st.

The Golden Globe nominations...

...are out (link via the Bright Lights blog). No major observations - I haven’t seen most of the films - but I continue to wonder why the Globes don’t sub-divide the director, supporting actor and supporting actress categories according to drama and comedy films, the way they do with the picture, actor and actress categories. (This is one area where they trump the Oscars, which are famously neglectful of comedy/”lightweight” movies - so why not see the concept all the way through? At any rate, I always find it a bit stupid that there are only five nominations in the supporting actor/actress categories. A film with one strong lead performance might quite easily have three or four strong supporting performances.)

Also, as Bright Lights points out, immensely amusing to see Clint Eastwood nominated in the foreign language film category.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Osamu Tezuka's Buddha

When I started reading Osamu Tezuka’s eight-volume manga series about the life of Buddha, I didn’t realise what a sprawling work it would turn out to be. I had only the first volume (Kapilavastu) with me at the time and it seemed a lightweight book: beautifully illustrated and plotted, no doubt, and full of interesting characters and stories, but a fast-paced comic all the same. It took barely a couple of hours to get through and wasn’t as demanding as some of the other graphic novels I’ve read. But now that I have all eight books with me (I’ve finished six of them), it’s easier to appreciate what an epic feat the Buddha series is. For one man to have drawn and written something on such a scale (the complete work is around 3,000 pages long) is notable in itself, but to have made it so rich, complex and thematically consistent is a stunning achievement. It’s easy to see why Tezuka is revered by manga and anime buffs.

He created the Buddha series in Japan in the 1970s but the English translation only came out a few years ago, and HarperCollins has brought it to India at a price (Rs 295 per book) that’s very attractive by graphic-novel standards. (You still have to pay Rs 800-900 for a volume of Gaiman’s Sandman series in some stores.)

At the heart of Tezuka’s work is the story most of us are familiar with: the birth of prince Siddhartha in the Shakya kingdom, his encounters with old age, disease and death, his decision to renounce the world, and his eventual transformation into Buddha, the Enlightened One. But woven together with this central strand are numerous other stories and characters, some entirely fictional and others that are fleshed-out versions of historical events and personalities.

In fact, Prince Siddhartha is only born very late in the first book, the bulk of which deals with the adventures of a young shudra named Chapra and an impish pariah (untouchable) child, Tatta. Both these characters contribute strongly to setting up the larger story, and Tatta in fact goes on to become one of the series’ protagonists – his path intersecting with Siddhartha/Buddha’s at many subsequent points. Other important characters include the unyielding monk Dhepa, who believes true purity can only be achieved through mortification of the flesh; the snotty-nosed Assaji, who can see into the future and counts down the days to his own violent death; a tormented shudra-born giant named Yatala; and Devadatta, whose story serves as a counterpoint to that of Siddhartha and who eventually becomes the Buddha’s nemesis.

Dealing with these many intersecting strands requires plenty of cross-cutting in the narrative, but Tezuka’s basic approach is beguilingly simple. Within the first 20 pages of book 1, using a judicious mix of words and images, he summarises the major themes that will run through the series: the evils of the class system set in place by the Aryans thousands of years ago (“the hardship they created for Indian people endures even today”) and the idea that all life, right down to the smallest, most seemingly insignificant creature, is sacred. All living beings are interdependent and part of a larger design where each creature has its function.

These are among the great lessons of the Buddha’s life and the series stays true to them all the way through. Early on, the monk Naradatta is condemned to live like a beast in the forest
because he commits the sin of sacrificing the lives of a number of animals in order to save one human. Some of the most captivating passages in these books are the wordless stretches that deal with human-animal interaction or the lives of birds, beasts and insects. Like the sequence where little Siddhartha goes into a trance and experiences a bird’s existence from birth to death. Or the lovely montage in book 3 about the relentless workings of the food chain (a snake swallows leopard cubs but is itself consumed by killer ants, which in turn are swept into the river in a storm and eaten by fish, which are caught by a human, and so on). And Devadatta’s life with a wolf family, his subsequent travails and his adopting of the adage “the weak perish, the strong survive”.

A note about the writing: purists won’t be pleased with the use of modern slang, the irreverent bantering between characters and the cheeky self-referencing (which is a manga tradition anyway). There are lots of anachronisms scattered throughout the text, which can seem inappropriate if you choose not to have a sense of humour about these things. For instance, a regiment of guards, objecting to the induction of a low-caste in their ranks, grumble, “Doesn’t he know only the elite can get in? You have to be a Tokyo University graduate.” And after the giant Yatala kills seven tigers, someone remarks, “The Tigers hardly ever beat the Giants. Don’t you follow baseball?” Taken at face value, this is silly stuff, but it serves its function. The series was written largely for younger readers, many of whom wouldn’t have been able to relate to the setting and the characters. These off-the-cuff references make things more identifiable. And the anachronisms don’t affect the essence of the story or distort the setting. When a concept is simplified by the use of a baseball or a movie reference, we aren’t expected to believe that this world really has baseball and cinema in it. It’s still an ancient setting. All that’s happened is that a character has briefly stepped outside the panel, so to speak, and directly addressed the reader, providing an easy frame of reference

But the writing, though important, is secondary. The strength of these books is the black-and-white artwork, which ranges from straightforward children’s comic-book drawings to thrillingly detailed sketches (especially in the depictions of nature). At which point I must take recourse to an old disclaimer, also used in this post: it’s very difficult to do a satisfying review of a good graphic novel. One always ends up sounding too pedantic or discussing the text more than the pictures, and this can be no substitute for the actual experience. So read these books for yourself – or at least read the first two and then decide whether you want to complete the series. There’s much more to discover in them than I’ve been able to write about here. You'll thank me for not going on too long.

P.S. Many Delhi bookstores are now retailing manga titles, though there is still a conservatism about stocking works that have strong sexual content or extreme violence (there are exceptions, however – such as Crying Freeman, which I saw at Midlands recently).

Also see these links: Tezuka in English and Tezuka Osamu World.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

New from goo

The latest Google searches that have led to this site:

Rahul Dravid nude photos

Antics of recently divorced women

Mythology smilies [perhaps “similies” was intended?]

Picture of Krishna shaving Rukmi

toothpick used in India

Bathing scenes of Zeenat Aman

roshni chopra marriage pictures

How to be an easy woman

Ladies with nice legs

Texas cattle slaughterhouse

Where can I watch dharam veer for free online

Gemini Ganeshan children 1960

Naked in Haridwar photos

Sexy African aunty

Bangalore porn movie halls

Where the jabberwocky lives?

So many people I disappoint each day. Tch.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Atheism, intolerance

Very disturbed to read this story about a non-bailable offence being registered against JAM editor Rashmi Bansal for “hurting religious sentiments”. (Amit has more here, and yes, it’s idiotic that such laws exist.)

I got separate mails from a few friends today, jokingly suggesting that I might be the one in trouble next given some of the responses to my Groucho Marx-as-Krishna post. Thing is, you can never be sure when and how this sort of thing might develop into something serious. One minute you’re in paroxysms of delight picturing Peter Lorre as Shakuni in a 1930s Hollywood version of the Mahabharata, and next thing you know you’re behind bars in some squalid Tihar cell, with a local Sydney Greenstreet-lookalike eyeing you lasciviously.

It’s scary how eager some people are to be offended and how they want to then let the whole world know about it, and pay for it. Even scarier is how thin the line between moderate religiousness and extremism can be, and how quickly it gets breached when atavistic feelings come to a boil. My first experience of this was in 1992, when I saw my harmless old grandmother whooping in joy, doing cartwheels around the house (or almost) and rah-rahing Uma Bharati’s rabid speeches in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid demolition. Everything I had so far known about this sweet, affectionate lady vanished, drowned in a hatred that came from a 45-year-old source: the Partition riots.

Early this year I interviewed Kiran Nagarkar and he said something that resonated strongly with me, though it was on the face of it a simplistic remark expressed in a convoluted, self-conscious way. He said: “I’m always afraid that I might become intolerant towards intolerant people.” I’ve had cause to think about that statement – because (thanks in part to some unpleasant recent incidents) I’m finding it less easy to be tolerant of religious people, even the ones who are dignified and non-obsessive.

This makes me uncomfortable, because it never used to be this way. I’ve never worn my atheism like a badge, or bothered getting into arguments about God, or tried to influence other people’s worldviews. As it happens, many of the most important people in my life – including my mother, girlfriend and grandparents – are believers. They aren’t ostentatiously religious (except for one grandmother), but they have a quiet, steadfast faith in a Higher Power. I have no desire to go about poking holes in their beliefs, and I’m willing to go along with them to an extent. If my participating in a Diwali puja or accompanying someone to a temple or a gurudwara makes a loved one happy, well, that’s more important than my atheist principles. (Besides, as Groucho said, “Those are my principles. If you don’t like them, I have others.”)

But like I said, this has changed slightly. And I hope this new intolerance I’ve been feeling isn’t the beginning of “atheist fanaticism” or something similar. As history repeatedly shows us, one evil quickly begets another.

(Of course, the above reflections bear little relevance to the issue at hand, which is that some idiots decided that religious sentiments have been hurt and used an archaic, unfair law for persecution. All the best again to Rashmi.)

P.S. This is a good time to revisit these fine posts by Scott Adams: 4 Billion Losers, Education and Religion, Talking to God, and Atheists: The New Gays.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Cherished extracts-1

Partly inspired by what was said in this interview, about individual passages/paragraphs that can stay with a reader for life, I’m starting an occasional series of posts featuring short extracts from books – passages that have, for one reason or another, meant a lot to my reading life. Will simply post them without elaborating on why I like them so much (in some cases I wouldn’t be able to articulate it anyway). As ever this is largely a self-indulgent exercise, but if it gets anyone interested enough to want to read/reread the books in question that would be a nice side-benefit.

From Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a conversation between the narrator and his sister, which comes on the heels of an equally brilliant ramble about how he’d rather be seen as a human being than as a Jew:
But you are a Jew, my sister says. You are a Jewish boy, more than you know, and all you’re doing is making yourself miserable, all you’re doing is hollering into the wind…

Do you know, she asks me, where you would be now if you had been born in Europe instead of America?

That isn’t the issue, Hannah.

Dead, she says.

That isn’t the issue!

Dead. Gassed, or shot, or incinerated, or butchered, or buried alive. Do you know that? And you could have screamed all you wanted that you were not a Jew, that you were a human being and had nothing whatever to do with their stupid suffering heritage, and still you would have been taken away to be disposed of. You would be dead, and I would be dead, and

But that isn’t what I’m talking about!

And your mother and your father would be dead.

But why are you taking their side!

I’m not taking anybody’s side, she says. I’m only telling you he’s not such an ignorant person as you think.

And she isn’t either, I suppose! I suppose the Nazis make everything she says and does smart and brilliant too! I suppose the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house!

Oh, I don’t know, says my sister, maybe, maybe they are, and now she begins to cry too, and how monstrous I feel, for she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself. Or so I think.
A very short passage from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled that might not mean much taken in isolation, but as a huge admirer of the book I find myself returning to it often:
She began to talk again about the house. As she did so, I tried to recall something of the phone conversation to which she had just referred. After a while, I found a faint recollection returning to me of listening to this same voice – or rather a harder, angrier version of it – on the end of a telephone in the not-so-distant past. Eventually I thought I could recall also a certain phrase I had been shouting at her down the mouthpiece: “You live in such a small world!” She had continued to argue and I had gone on repeating contemptuously: “Such a small world! You live in such a small world!” To my frustration, however, I found nothing more of this exchange would come back to me.
And this bit from one of the greatest books ever written, P G Wodehouse’s Leave it to Psmith:
“Mine, Miss Clarkson, is a refined and poetic nature. I like to be surrounded by joy and life, and I know nothing more joyless and deader than dead fish. Multiply that dead fish by a million and you have an environment which only a Dante could contemplate with equanimity. My uncle used to tell me that the way to ascertain whether a fish was fresh was to peer into its eyes. Could I spend the springtime of life staring into the eyes of dead fish? No!” He rose. “Well, I will not detain you any longer. Thank you for the unfailing attention and courtesy with which you have listened to me. You can understand now why my talents are on the market and why I am compelled to state specifically that no employment can be considered which has anything to do with fish. I am convinced that you will shortly have something particularly good to offer me.”

“I don’t know that I can say that, Mr Psmith.”

“The p is silent, as in pshrimp,” he reminded her.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Thought for the day

The Mahabharata could have been a truly great comic work if the role of Krishna were to be played by Groucho Marx. This is one of my favourite fantasies. Not just because Groucho was an adept practitioner of the flute (as the first song in Duck Soup makes clear) but because of his all-knowing air, his prescient, faraway look, his calm confidence about being on top of any situation and his amusement at how seriously everyone else took him (as mentioned in this post). He would have been perfect in the many passages where Bheeshma, Vidura and the other elders stand before Krishna (who in his mortal state is several years their junior) with hands folded in adoration and eyes brimming over, and acknowledge that their own lives and actions are but fragments of the grand drama He has orchestrated to save the world from Evil. (Imagine what fun would come if it turned out that this wasn't true; that Krishna wasn't the Avatar after all, the whole thing was an elaborate joke, and after bringing the armies face to face on the battlefield he simply leapt off the chariot and pranced away yelling "I refuse to join a war that would have me as a member!")

Also starring: Gary Cooper as the solemn, upright and self-doubting Arjuna, Margaret Dumont as an exasperated Balarama, Chico Marx as a very shrill Draupadi and Harpo as a silently adoring Radha (to whom Krishna says, "I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought I'd rather dance with the cows until you come home").

More suggestions welcome. Has to be from 1930s Hollywood. (Falstaff, weigh in.)

Where Groucho is, there is Comedy - Sage Vyas, Dvapara Yuga 18,770

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Kiss and the City (plus: more reflections on Bollywood)

Today’s HT City has a cover story titled “Why can’t we kiss?”, about the hoopla over the Aishwarya-Rai-Hrithik Roshan smooch in Dhoom 2. The story begins reasonably enough, with the question “What is more scandalous - a kiss per se or standing in a court of law to debate whether it is vulgar or not?” but then quickly shoots itself in the foot with this remarkable sentence:
For God’s sake, would somebody tell all the self-appointed keepers of morality that it was not Hrithik Roshan kissing Aishwarya Rai but Aryan kissing Sunheri, the characters in the movie?
I am, to put it mildly, gobsmacked. For the following reasons:

- The over-used term “self-appointed keepers of morality”, which has exactly the same effect on me early in the morning as cricketing cliches such as “India’s much-vaunted batting lineup...” do.

- The assumption that those who have filed the obscenity case actually care a whit about the finer distinctions between the actors and the characters. What the self-appointed morality-keepers are objecting to, dear and earnest HT City, is the fact that a human male and a human female are locking lips on a big screen, and that the giant edifice of Indian Culture will quickly dissipate if enough people watch this. They don’t care whether it’s Hrithik and Ash up there, or Aryan and Sunheri, or Laloo and Rabri.

(Just by and by, technically speaking, it was Hrithik Roshan kissing Aishwarya Rai. Ask the Bachchans.)

- The silly controversy aside, and speaking purely as a movie-watcher, what I find most amusing about that sentence is the implication that Ms Rai and Mr Roshan have submerged themselves into their characters so fully that one can make a meaningful distinction between the portrayers and the portrayed. This is quite contrary to everything I’ve seen and heard about Dhoom 2 so far (I’ll make up my own mind if and when I see the full movie). By all accounts, most of the “acting” in this film is a chimera, jointly created by the cinematography, the editing, the background score and the costume design.

Films like Dhoom 2 are taking the cult of the Star Personality to its logical conclusion. For some time now, many mainstream Bollywood films have included at least one token scene that exists purely as homage, as self-reference. This is often in the form of a “friendly appearance” by a well-known actor, usually playing a beacon of hope for one of the film’s principals, and the impact of such a scene depends on the viewer’s knowledge of who this actor is. (Even Lagey Raho Munnabhai couldn’t resist bringing in Abhishek Bachchan for a two-minute climactic appearance where his character saves the day. The scene in question would make very little sense to a hypothetical viewer who had no idea who Abhishek Bachchan was.) I think the trend goes back to Salman Khan's role in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, though that now seems like a fully realised character compared to some of today's guest appearances.

Now at last we have an entire film that’s built on this principle. Here’s Hrithik, we’re supposed to gasp each time he shows up, and there’s Ash, and Abhishek, and Bipasha, and don’t they all look so bronzed and chiselled and gorgeous...and oh, there’s that Uday Chopra chappie. What’s he trying to act for? Why can’t he just walk towards us in slow-motion?

Given all this, why go on pretentiously about the difference between "actors" and the "characters" they are supposed to be playing?

P.S. I also loved the box with the story, about different types of smooches. Here, for instance, is the Forehead Kiss: Simply brush your lips lightly across the crown of head. (For those who don’t know what a forehead is, or have trouble locating it.)

And the Freeze Kiss, described exactly as it would be in an Instruction Manual: Put a small piece of ice in your mouth, then open mouth and kiss your partner, passing them the ice with your tongue.

That box will do a better job of putting people off kisses than any morality brigade possibly could.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket - a review

[Did this for Cricinfo Magazine. This is an example of why I prefer, where possible, to make my own decisions about whether or not to review a book. I wouldn't have volunteered to write about The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket – my reaction to the book was lukewarm, I didn’t feel strongly about it either way, and I think that comes across in this workmanlike piece. But Cricinfo asked me to do the review and as it happened I’d already read most of the thing – so it felt like a waste to say no.]

A quick warning first: if you're looking for anything like a comprehensive study of Indian cricket over the years, this isn't it. In Boria Majumdar's The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket, the emphasis is on the "illustrated" rather than the "history". As a collection of photographs, this is a more than passable effort. As a study of the development of the game in India, it falls short.

In fact, as it turns out, very little of the book is actually written by Majumdar – he plays more of an anchoring role, allowing lengthy newspaper reports and quotes to tell most of the tale. Sandipan Deb's Introduction is arguably juicier than any of the other original material; Deb starts by averring that "cricket is the greatest game invented by man and nothing else comes even close", and then builds a decent little innings by dissecting the nature of India's complex relationship with the sport: "The story of Indian cricket is the story of a society, a tapestry woven as a permanent work in progress by a nation in search of definition."

This is pretty much where the personal insight ends though, with the remaining text portions of the book covering territory that has been explored before, and explored with greater depth (including in Majumdar's own Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket). Even a cursory look at some of the subheads here will show you that this isn't meant to be more than a snapshot of milestones. The "Match-fixing" section, for instance, takes up barely a couple of pages; after supplying exactly two sentences about the Hansie Cronje imbroglio of 2000, Majumdar devotes the rest of this space to informing us, via extracts from S M Toyne's The Early History of Cricket, that match-fixing existed as far back as the 1740s.

Elsewhere, too, the writing is very basic: the summarising opening sentences of chapters run along the lines "The 1940s was a decade of struggle for Indian cricket" and "The 1950s saw India win its first Test match and then its first Test rubber". What follows these sentences isn't exactly full of acumen either, and the series-by-series descriptions are as mundane as the hurriedly typed, cliche-filled match reports one gets to see in newspapers.

All of which means that as a "history" this book isn't likely to be of much use to a cricket fan who really knows about the game. It's best treated as a schoolboy primer, a source of information for laypersons and trivia-seekers (though even in this context, it would have helped if more scorecards of key Test matches and ODIs had been included in an appendix; as it is, there are just a few scattered obligatorily through the text).

Nor is The Illustrated History... quite picturesque enough to be a high-quality coffee-table book. But ultimately, whatever value it has rests on the rarer photographs and these do, to an extent, save the book. Here, for example, is Vijay Hazare, that most elegant of batsmen, caught in a decidedly inelegant pose (something of a cross between Kapil Dev's Nataraj shot and a tailender about to be bowled behind the legs). Here's Ranji in full regalia, as effete an Indian maharajah as you could wish to see; and here are scans of the love letters he wrote to a lady named Mary Holmes.

Then there's the Indian team at Victoria station during the 1932 tour, a caption reminding us that "the 18 players spoke eight to ten languages between them, belonged to four or five different castes…but these things are forgotten in the quest for cricketing success". A British newspaper's caricature of the same squad. Vijay Merchant huddled inside his overcoat in the pavilion on a chilly day on the 1946 tour. The Nawab of Pataudi Jr standing contemplatively on a balcony, looking like the dashing hero of a French nouvelle wave film of the 1960s.

And then, of course, we come to the better known, more widely circulated photographs, from the post-1980s period...but by this point, unless you're the most enthusiastic Kapil or Sachin fan, your eyes will be glazing over.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Jha interview

[This is the sequel to the Fireproof post, which you’ll have to read to make sense of the questions]

Given Raj Kamal Jha’s reputation for reticence and not being interview-friendly, I was a bit worried when I went to meet him. But we got off on a good note: when you peruse someone else’s bookshelves and discover the points where your tastes intersect, you have a conversation starter neatly wrapped up. We touched on Philip Roth (he has a whole shelf of Roth titles, mostly those delightful Vintage matte-cover editions), Paul Auster, Spiegelman’s Maus and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials before moving on to cinema: David Lynch, Hayao Miyazaki and Spirited Away, even Unbreakable, which I was delighted to learn is his favourite M Night Shyamalan film, as it is mine. Then we realised that time was running out and the official interview hadn’t even begun.

How did “John Brown and a dog called Chum” come about? Did you already have a book in mind when you wrote it?

No, not at all. In May 2002 I was in Ahmedabad on work and went to Gulbarga [where a mob had burnt 38 residents alive in February that year], almost like a riot tourist. I have this terrible disease of getting distracted – looking at what’s in the margins instead of in the centre of the frame – and there was a child’s partly burnt workbook that reminded me of my childhood, when one would freeze in panic if a textbook went missing. And this seemed to be such a denial of those memories: here was such a book casually tossed on a huge, charred heap, lying there for three months. It kind of burnt itself into my mind.

I came back to Delhi and the piece almost wrote itself. It was a very personal response, certainly not journalistic, but I'm lucky to work for a paper that put it on the Edit page. Then I realised it was like a string I had pulled from a huge fabric hovering over me, and I had to keep pulling at it hoping to puncture a little hole in this fabric. So that I could breathe. It couldn’t be addressed in the conventional journalistic way by getting our reporters to file stories, I had to deal with it personally. That’s how the book happened.

What affected you most about the riots?

Strangely, the hate on display didn’t. Because, of course, you can't legislate tolerance – all of us have our prejudices, you have the right to hate your neighbour. But only inside your head. You can’t deny him his rights, and what was most shocking was how this denial happened. It was as if the law didn’t exist. Senior officers of the State, IAS, IPS, who must have all read their Locke, their Rawls, their philosophy of justice, their CrPC, their Constitution, let politicians ride them. And not one of them has had to pay.

Was that the driving force for Fireproof?

The driving force was the need to write it. And some questions I had about intolerance. Being intolerant isn't about being Left or Right or about religion, or about one's level of education, it's something much more elemental, I think. There are well-educated people, incredibly caring fathers or husbands, who are viscerally intolerant of The Other. Maybe it works the same way as love. Love needs a leap of faith, hate does too. So is intolerance linked in a very fundamental way to who we are as human beings? I still don't have the answer to these questions but these were things I needed to address.

I wonder sometimes about those of us who think of ourselves as liberal and tolerant… are there certain aspects of our lives (unrelated to religion or community) where we are very intolerant too? I think those who have been discriminated against, who have been judged on the basis of one attribute of theirs or because of the group they belong to, and haven’t been damaged enough to be consumed by anger…they tend to be more sensitive about these things. Because you cannot expect someone to be sensitive if he or she is seething inside.

Amartya Sen talks about this in Identity and Violence – the process by which a person is discriminated against by narrowing him down to one identity. Whereas we all really belong to so many different groups.

Yes, that’s what all of us are, like the characters. For example, one guy is a job applicant, he watches TV, he falls in love…and he’s also a bigot.

Where did the idea for the footnotes – the dead people’s narratives - come from?

I wanted to let them whisper their stories, uninterrupted. Imagine if each person killed in Gujarat had the tools that you and I have: a laptop, broadband, a good turn of phrase, access to TV studios – and of course a telegenic face would help. Think of the discourse then. That’s why when I look at this so-called national outpouring over Jessica Lall and the candlelight vigils, I can’t help thinking, where did all that paraffin go when Gujarat was burning? Is it that Mattoo, Lall, though ghastly crimes, are drained of politics and prejudice and that’s why we are more comfortable getting worked up about them? Because they don’t challenge our darker side.

The image of the deformed baby is also very striking.

The birth of a child is the ultimate rebuttal to cynicism; it's almost a physical manifestation of Hope. It's like the child is saying: "I had no choice in this but now that I'm here I’m going to live.” His deformity, of course, makes that statement louder, bolder. The child in the book, though, is many things depending on how you read him: guilt, conscience, guilty conscience and, of course, a baby.

Your fiction tends to be allusive, dreamlike, fragmented, while your day job is as a journalist who deals in hard facts. Is there a conflict there, a double life?

I think we exaggerate the importance and value of style. What's more important to me is the story, the idea. And I could never have written the book if it hadn't been for the hundreds of stories that were coming in from reporters. One of the things I like most about my job is that there’s a story pool lapping away at me all the time. So the two lives coexist quite well.

At a book discussion for your last novel If You are Afraid of Heights, everyone else was going on about how more people should read, but you said that was an unrealistic expectation. Why?

See, the few people who are damaged enough to love reading are essentially those who are comfortable with solitude. Also, reading forces you to have both imagination and empathy – two troubling little things – so you see a bit of yourself in anything you read. And to expect all of us to be like that is ridiculous.

Besides, it’s so unfair – why, if you are not a publisher, would you want huge numbers of people to read? (Laughs) People who feel the need to read will read. It's personal. Even a writer who is very full of himself will never say, "There are 150000 people who need to read me."

So you write more for yourself than for some imaginary reader?

The one reader you really need to care about – at the risk of sounding very selfish – is yourself. You write what you have to write. There's something in your mind and there's something on the screen and there's this huge gap in between. And you know that however hard you work, you're unlikely to narrow it. But you keep trying – I think that’s what forces you to go from your second to third book and so on.

So there will always be people who won’t get from my writing what I get out of it. But there is absolutely nothing I can do about it other than try to work on the writing. I can’t work on myself. And I don't say this in arrogance, it's a simple statement of fact. It sounds selfish, but the writing process is selfish. It’s like a virus – maybe that’s the wrong word but I can’t think of a substitute. Maybe “disease” without the I-V drip!

And the prescription is your book. It is unique, it’s your own shit.

But even the most selfish writers do put their work out in the public domain.

Of course I'm very happy that someone is willing to publish what I've written. And publishing makes a difference – it helps you take leaps in the dark, not worry much about safety nets. But personally, I feel lucky if just 4-5 people like something in my book. Even if a single paragraph works for them, that's very satisfying.

You have passages in your work that are almost stand-alone.

I think paras can work in isolation, pages can work, even individual lines can work in isolation. Fleeting scenes from movies leave a strong impression on me. We were talking about David Lynch just now and in Blue Velvet, more than the famous scene of the severed ear lying on the ground, the moment I remember is the one where after a very violent fight, one of the characters jumps on top of a car and starts singing the Roy Orbison number "In Dreams" about the sandman tiptoeing into his sleep every night. Even now when I hear the song, I can’t delink it from that scene.

There’s a great passage in Pamuk’s Snow where the protagonist cannot understand why the woman he loves values her faith more than his love. It’s just 1 or 2 pages but it’s so plaintive and powerful, and it tells you more about the debate over religion and faith and humanism than 500 books you might read. He doesn’t understand why she doesn’t reciprocate. That exchange, just a couple of pages, you can carry inside you for the rest of your life.

This penchant you have for probing the interior lives of characters – where does that come from?

That’s almost as difficult to answer as “Why do you write?”

These are things even I don’t understand. It’s incredibly personal. Beyond a point, as a character gets fleshed out, he starts to demand certain things and if you have those things to give him, you give them to him. Once you tell yourself that an entire spectrum is available for a character – good, bad, terribly ugly – it’s possible to imagine ugliness for a character without having experienced the same things yourself. You just go where the story pool leads you. And it doesn’t always come up with something beautiful, you might produce something unreadable as well.

What I'd really like to do is write a book where each page blows me away. But that will never happen. The shoemaker’s elves won’t come tip-toeing in at night and fix my paragraphs. There are scenes in my head but I just don't have the words to express them. This might sound like a cop-out, but maybe it’s because this language, English, isn't wired into my double helix.

You didn’t grow up speaking English?

My mother tongue is Maithili. In school it was English but with friends mostly Hindi. My wife is Bengali so we speak most of the time in that language. But like I said, it's probably a cop-out to blame that. Eventually, as the saying goes, a painter learns to adapt to his paintbox: you have a limited number of tools and you work with those. Yes, it’s possible to steal a new paintbrush once in a while and throw it into the box, a new shade of colour, but when you're 40 and your neural synapses are all wired (laughs) – "Jo hona tha, ho gaya".

All you can do now is keep searching for new bits of canvas, the occasional brush to steal.

Raj Kamal Jha's Fireproof

[This review was written before I interviewed the author (will post the Q&A soon). Incidentally parts of the book reminded me of David Lynch’s film Eraserhead, which also has a paranoid father left in charge of a misshapen baby, and I was pleased to learn subsequently that Raj Kamal Jha is a big Lynch fan.]

In May 2002 The Indian Express published a piece titled “John Brown and a Dog Called Chum” by the newspaper’s executive editor, Raj Kamal Jha. The column (online link here), which came out of Jha’s visit to Ahmedabad in the aftermath of the riots that had raged across Gujarat earlier that year, is a pastiche of images from those terrible days: charred bodies, a slit uterus, the partially burnt books he discovered in the debris, including a child’s English workbook with a story about a blind man and his dog trapped in a hotel fire. There is indignation on behalf of the marginalised and special empathy for how children (who, properly speaking, shouldn’t even be seen as belonging to a particular community or religion) were affected by the violence.

Powerful though the piece was, it cried out to be freed from the constraints of a pre-defined slot in a daily newspaper; to be expanded into something fuller. Now the culmination, Jha’s third novel, is here, and the four-year wait was worth it.

Fireproof starts with a prologue that gives us a joint statement by riot victims speaking to us from beyond the grave. These anonymous dead will continue their testimonies in little footnotes interspersed through the book: fretting about their families, wondering if the provident fund will be enough for those left behind, the older ones musing stoically that they at least got to live a full life. But the story proper begins in an Ahmedabad hospital on the day after the Godhra murders, with our narrator, “Mr Jay”, discovering that his wife has given birth to a grotesquely deformed baby. The eyes and eyebrows are perfectly formed, but the rest of the child is a mess: “the forehead a narrow strip of flesh, less than a finger wide…a slit, like a knife-cut, where his lips should have been…no arms or legs…

Jay leaves his convalescing wife in the hospital and takes the baby home for the night, reflecting on this cruel end to their many dreams for their child. But then he receives a call from a mysterious woman who tells him to come to the railway station the next day, so they can “set the baby right”. Jay has seen a glimpse of this woman earlier in the evening, through a hospital window, and he’s intrigued. Reaching the station isn't so easy, however, for the city is on fire.

At one level Fireproof can be read as a fairly straightforward allegory: a baby is born on a day that sees the full human potential for evil explode to the surface, and this ugliness is manifest in the child's physical appearance. The father, worried about this terrifying world his child has come into, sets out to make it whole again.

Simplistic though this sounds, the book does work even at this level, for Jha tells a solid, engrossing story, never allowing the reader’s attention to flag. But by the time we get to the climactic revelation, it becomes clear that he's reaching for something deeper and more complex – about the nature of universal guilt and the strange workings of conscience and redemption.

Jha’s writing tends to draw extreme reactions – there’s often an element of moral outrage in criticism of his work – and one reason is that he examines the interior lives of disturbed people; he reaches places many other writers don’t go, and he can make readers genuinely uncomfortable. (Manjula Padmanabhan is another writer with this gift – see Harvest, or some of the short stories in Kleptomania.) It isn't beyond him, for instance, to try and put himself in the mind of a person who rapes and kills a pregnant woman, cuts her belly open, removes and mutilates the foetus. (At least one such incident did occur during the Gujarat riots.)

There's one entirely fictional passage in Fireproof that I imagine will make some readers firmly shut the book, never to open it again. Near a movie-hall counter, Jay encounters a pleasant young couple who see the baby inside his bag and make fun of it, calling it a monkey. Jay hurries away from them, enters the near-deserted hall and drifts into a dream, where he imagines having the two youngsters at his mercy. I won't go into the details but it’s enough to say that not many other writers would have had the courage to describe this violent fantasy, that too in the first-person.

This sort of thing can of course be simply gratuitous, but here it serves a function. By allowing a narrator who we have so far seen only as a caring, protective parent/husband to imagine things that would send shivers down the spine of a seasoned gore-movie buff, Jha is holding a mirror up to our own darkest feelings. This also fits the lessons we learn from the worst riots – that ordinary human beings, at most times content to live their lives in peace, can turn into monsters when their identity is threatened, or when they fall under the sway of the mob.

We've had realist literature about communal violence, we've had numbing first-person accounts by victims, witnesses and reporters. Now Jha gives us a phantasmagoric tale built around a real-life tragedy, and he does it with imagination and compassion. A startling final act involves a solicitous dwarf, a watery land where the dead go to tell their stories, and first-person accounts by a book, a watch and a towel – and the author’s achievement is that rarely does any of this seem out of place. If anything, it’s poignantly appropriate to this subject matter – for could any fantasy writer dream up scenarios more unfathomable than some of the things that really happened in Gujarat in 2002?

P.S. I didn't much care for Jha's last book If You are Afraid of Heights (I thought it was leaden and too self-conscious), but I revisited a couple of stand-alone chapters recently and found that the writing was easier to take in small instalments. At any rate, I doubt anything in the book was as bad as the tasteless review I wrote; this was in my more impetuous days, I was more concerned with being clever than with actually discussing the book, and the piece was dashed off on a short deadline. If I find the nerve, I'll put it up here sometime, as an example of How Not to Write a Review.

P.P.S. That image up there really IS the book’s cover – it doesn’t have the author’s name or the title on it.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Licence to kilt: "Nice legs, 007!"

I haven't seen Casino Royale yet but I've heard many gushing words of praise about Daniel Craig's reinvention of James Bond; these include "He's grittier than Sean Connery and Roger Moore were" and "He's more sensitive, a New Age 007". The latter observation derives largely from the fact that this is the first Bond film since 1969 to show the philandering spy in a serious relationship. He even, dare one say it out loud, falls in love!

Ah, 1969. That was the year man landed on the moon, the Beatles gave their final public performance, Woodstock happened, Wal-Mart was incorporated...and James Bond wore a skirt, courtesy a couple of scenes that featured Australian actor George Lazenby (in his sole appearance as the super-spy in On Her Majesty's Secret Service) in a Scottish kilt - the plot has Bond posing as a heraldry expert.

Chauvinistic jokes about this sequence were all the rage at the time: Connery's Bond could charm any woman out of her skirt within 10 minutes of their acquaintance, young men boasted on their hero's behalf; but if Lazenby were around, he'd probably put the skirt on. (“Ol' George Nearly Kilt the Bond franchise” was a typical tagline.)

On Her Majesty's Secret Service has been a conundrum for 007 fans. On the one hand, many critics and aficionados consider it the definitive Bond movie. It had all the elements the series is loved for, some outstanding action scenes, a strong villain (played by the menacing Telly Savalas), a very appealing heroine, Teresa di Vicenzo (played by the classy and reasonably well-respected TV actress Diana Rigg, who no one would ever dismiss as just another Bond Girl) and the strongest relationship in the entire franchise. Bond actually marries Teresa, and her tragic death in the climax gives the movie the unhappiest ending of any 007 film.

On the other hand, very few people were able to warm to the Australian's performance in the lead. He was beaten before his feet even touched the ground – any actor replacing Connery would have been in a no-win situation. However, time has enabled us to see Lazenby in a kindlier light. It's true that he wasn't as charismatic as his predecessor (how many actors were?), but his laconic portrayal was just as valid as Connery's loveably raffish one (and probably truer to the spirit of the Ian Fleming books – not that that was ever a priority).

Lazenby's regular-guy-doing-an-irregular-job take on the character would probably have been better received if On Her Majesty's Secret Service had been made today; by most accounts, Daniel Craig has gone the same route in the new film. Besides, in our world, where a leading male icon can appear on a magazine cover wearing a sarong, even the kilt scene might have worked quite well – Lazenby's 007 was being metrosexual decades before the word came into use, secure enough about his masculinity to be unmindful of the skirt riding above his knees even as he charms the ladies at a party.

P.S. This is a good time to remember that one of the major candidates for the new Bond was Orlando Bloom, whose very name suggests tights and bloomers, and whose most famous film role thus far has been as a fairy (okay okay, Elf, same difference!) named Leggy Lass.

[A composite of a couple of short pieces I've been doing about the Bond men.]