Sunday, November 30, 2008

Brit's little empire: notes on Trying to Grow

Firdaus Kanga’s Trying to Grow begins with a father likening his son’s teeth to glass windows. “You can look through them, see?” he says casually to the man sitting next to him on a bus. This is followed by a funny little episode involving a visit to a holy man for a miracle cure. Within the first 20 or so pages of this book we know two things: one, that narrator-protagonist Daryus Kotwal suffers from a serious physical abnormality; and two, that he can be droll about it, and about life in general.

Daryus, nicknamed Brit (not because of his Parsee family’s affinity for the former colonial masters but because his bones are extremely brittle), is a stand-in for the author; Kanga’s book, first published in 1990 and recently reprinted by Penguin India, is a partly autobiographical account of his coming of age in 1970s Bombay and his struggle with the rare condition known as osteogenesis imperfecta. This meant multiple fractures before he was five years old, atrophying limbs, perpetual wheelchair confinement (even though the disease burnt itself out by the time he reached adulthood) and never growing beyond four feet. The story was subsequently turned into a BBC film in which he played the lead role. I haven’t seen the film, but I can’t think of many other books that are so moving and effortlessly funny at the same time.

Kanga’s fluid writing style and sense of humour bring to life a rich cast of characters, beginning with the family Kotwal, who are never less than believable, multidimensional people even as they live up to every endearing Parsee stereotype (such as the ability to talk – or holler – unselfconsciously about things that would be taboo in most Indian households; Brit and his sister Dolly address their parents by their first names, use the occasional cuss word in front of them and discuss sex openly). Exasperation and affection jostle for space in Brit’s relationships with Dolly and with his parents Sam and Sera. From his part-time teacher Madame Manekshaw he learns the valuable lesson that “it’s what you learn that counts, not what you study” and also that “precious things are brittle”. Later, his friendship (though it briefly promises to become something more) with the smart Cyrus and with Cyrus’s girlfriend Amy puts him on the road to understanding what it means to grow up.

It’s an understanding that doesn’t come easily. Though Trying to Grow unfolds as a series of episodes in Brit's life – roughly between the age of eight and his early twenties – the chapters don’t have convenient headings that establish the time period in which they are set: it's only through close reading and extrapolation that one discovers how old he is at any given point. This is appropriate, for a major theme here is lack of development, the overall effect that of a lengthy sequence of events blurring into each other while the protagonist at their centre remains frozen in time: Brit in his wheelchair, motionless, while all around him his family and friends grow up, marry, move elsewhere, get exciting jobs, travel the world, grow old, die. (It’s a bit like watching a crowd scene in fast-forward, with people scuttling about busily, but with a single stationary element in the middle of the frame.)

Accordingly, the process of growing is more complex for Brit – and the yardsticks much less defined – than for “normal” people whose bodies undergo obvious changes with time and whose lives proceed in orderly stages from school to college to office and so on. On the book’s opening page someone mistakes Brit for a child of four when he is really eight, and this sort of thing continues for most of his life, even though he is in many senses more developed mentally than most others of his age. This complicates his relationships too.

All of this probably makes Trying to Grow sound very sombre, for which I apologise. It’s a lighthearted, warm book, full of riotous throwaway descriptions (“Mrs Dinshaw wept in words, like someone from a comic strip. ‘Boo-hoo!’ she sobbed, ‘Boo-hoo-hoo!’ ”), affectionate glimpses of 1970s Bombay and insights into the Parsee community (needless to say, everything mustn't be taken at face value: I’m not sure if they really use the phrase “he hadn’t even reach the vulture’s belly...” in the same way that people who cremate their dead say “his ashes hadn’t even cooled...”!) There’s also a running joke about the idea of karma: more than once, Brit must contend with sanctimonious “sympathy” founded on the idea that his condition is a punishment for sins committed in a past life. (One of the funniest exchanges in the book sees him countering the remarks of the karma-talkers by holding himself up as a representation of the Bhagwad Gita's lesson that the body is merely a raiment for the soul.)

The ruder aspects of Brit’s narration reminded me of Jaanvar, the memorable hero of Indra Sinha's Animal's People. Comparisons between the two books mustn't be taken far – they are very different in tone – but both narrators have enormous vitality, and there’s nothing martyred or self-pitying about them. This means that we can see them first as human beings with the insecurities, even baser desires that we all have, and only then as people whose physical limitations make them "different".

In Brit’s case, we only gradually learn about the real implications of his condition – what it means for him on a day-to-day basis, and how debilitating it must be for him as well as for those he depends on. An example of this is his offhand remark, made more than three-fourths of the way through the book, that he never sat on a toilet seat because "I was too small, too terrified of falling in; at home, I had a special ring that fitted on". Another book might have taken care to underline an everyday inconvenience such as this, to present it upfront, but this one treats it as a conversational aside. Even though Trying to Grow does fleetingly lead us into the dark corners of a world where not being able to reach the top of a cupboard for something you urgently need can become an all-consuming problem, a testament to total helplessness, the book's defining quality remains its brightness of spirit. At the end when Brit says "I liked the way I looked", you believe him.

P.S. For a fictional representation of osteogenesis imperfecta – and a character who responds to his condition with much less humour than Brit does – see Elijah/Mr Glass in M Night Shyamalan’s film Unbreakable (post here).

"Our common mortality, our human responsibility"

In a moving piece titled “Atheist’s prayer” by Jug Suraiya, I was especially struck by this bit:
Prayer is often seen as a form of theft, a guilty misappropriation of another's hope. But far from being an act of stealing, a zero sum game in which one must lose for another to gain, prayer, true prayer, binds us together in our common mortality... If prayer is at all a theft, it is an embezzlement from God of our human responsibility for each other, a solidarity unmediated by any power, earthly or heavenly.
One can anticipate a certain kind of mind wilfully misinterpreting parts of Suraiya’s column (see the full piece) to mean that an atheist has been so shaken by recent events that he has had to turn to God; to prayer as it is conventionally defined. But despite the restraint exercised in the piece, his real meaning comes through: that the world might possibly be a better place if people accepted responsibility for their own actions – for their own power to spread happiness or unhappiness – and left God out of the picture, or at least allowed Him to focus His attention on non-earthly matters.

I understand the abstract “praying” Suraiya refers to: “true prayer”, as he puts it. (Another, more prosaic way of describing it might simply be “hoping for the best”, though this is of course too bleak and arbitrary for many people.) But the other kind of praying, the one where you credit a selectively munificent Higher Power for paying special heed to your prayers and allowing you or your loved ones to survive a disaster that hundreds of others didn’t? Not too impressive in my view, and not particularly sensitive or moral either (which is ironical when you consider that millions of people wear their religiosity as a badge and think of it as synonymous with being “good”). It also reminds me of the Argument from Incomplete Devastation on the humorous “Proofs of God’s Existence” website:

(1) A plane crashed, killing 143 passengers and crew.
(2) But one child survived with only third-degree burns.
(3) Therefore, God exists.

A personal aside here. I try not to be a militant, soapbox atheist, at least in my public dealings with people (you can be whatever you want to be inside your own head), but one exception occurred two years ago, during the Noida kidnapping case. A friend, usually quite self-possessed, became so overwhelmed when news came in that the little boy was safe that she began a monologue about how fervently she had prayed for his release. “I just know that if you pray hard enough for something, someone up there will listen to you,” she said. “If you pray with all your heart, you’ll be rewarded.”

Now this is the sort of thing I’m perfectly willing to hear and filter out of my mind when said a single time – long and hard experience inures you to it – but then she repeated the sentence in exactly the same triumphant tone. And then repeated it again. Such is the blissful self-absorption of the religious mind at these times that even a normally sensitive person won’t think about the wider implications of what she’s saying: that her prayers somehow counted for more than the equally fervent and desperate prayers of millions of other people who weren’t safeguarded from personal tragedy. Including other parents, in other times and places.

Anyway, this went on for a couple of minutes and I began to feel a red haze building up inside my head. Since I’m no good at head-butting people, I eventually just got up and walked out of the room, seething. Later, having calmed down, I was embarrassed about my reaction, and I also came to appreciate that my friend’s own over-the-top response was mainly an outlet for her visceral relief. But the smug conviction that can come out of religious belief - and how it can breed insensitivity towards others' tragedies - still left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.

End of aside: here’s Suraiya’s piece again. Meanwhile we will continue our abstract prayers for Mumbai’s victims, and for other victims of the past and the future.

Monday, November 24, 2008

More Bookaroo photos

(Earlier post here) The Sanskriti Anand Gram, which I had never visited before, is the perfect venue for an informal cultural event during a Delhi winter. Very well-maintained (especially if you know about the disuse that many of our museums fall into), with a fine collection of artifacts – textiles, terracotta statues, murals and wall paintings from around the country. We wandered about and looked at some of the exhibitions but our focus was of course Bookaroo, with its many events simultaneously taking place at a number of venues, none of which was more than a minute’s brisk walk from any other: the open-air amphitheatre, a giant tent and a clearing under the banyan tree at the Anand Gram’s entrance. All very relaxed and kid-friendly (and friendly also for an adult who might wish to event-hop); it reminded me of the first couple of years of the Jaipur literature festival.

A few pictures taken by this event-hopping adult (click to enlarge):

Crowd milling about near the entrance; in the foreground is the writer-naturalist Ranjit Lal, whom I wrote about here.

Lal conducted a very informal talk titled “Are Insects Like Us?” (in which, among other things, he conversationally informed a bunch of wide-eyed kids that the average 100-flat residential complex in Delhi might at any given time contain the carcasses of 25,000 spiders in spider-wasp nests – “it’s like a genocide!”). Later I spotted him wandering in the Anand Gram’s sizeable gardens with his bulky camera.

Comic-book artist Jeff Smith showing his youthful audience how to draw Bone:

Despite there being a microphone problem he managed to make the session interactive, asking questions like “When you see Bone running in the strip, what do you see behind him?” (Ans: “The wind! A cloud of dust!”). Much chortling ensued when he drew Bone salivating over a pani-puri.

Under the banyan tree, Anita Roy (left, with mike) tells “Seriously Silly Stories”.

In a wonderfully performed session in the open-air amphitheatre, Venita Coelho read from her book Dungeon Tales, as an actor played the part of a buffoonish "Badmash Badshah" alongside her. This was a very popular session.

Artist Bulbul Sharma paints “Fabulous Beasts” on a canvas, with a little prompting from her audience – they ended up getting her to draw a two-headed bird with 10 tails and a shopping bag. (“I didn’t bring my white paint!” she exclaimed when they asked her to draw “old hair” on the bird.)

Madhubani painting and terracotta figures on the inside walls of the museum.

Sampurna Chattarji and little Samit Basu pose with the horses.

Sampurna was a big hit with her session “Stuff and Nonsense”, and also participated in a panel about new ways of interpreting the Panchatantra; meanwhile Samit joined us in walking about aimlessly.

The Britannia tiger greets children while an aunty looks on suspiciously.

The Eureka bookstore at the venue was a reminder of just how much choice and variety there is in writing for children these days. With the catalogues of publishers like Scholastic, Tara, Puffin and Pratham getting ever larger, things are very different from a few years ago, when Enid Blyton still accounted for the bulk of sales.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

At Bookaroo: Gond art gets mobile

I ended up spending much more time at the Bookaroo festival than I’d planned to, and a large part of the reason was the venue, the immensely charming Sanskriti Anand Gram, on which more later (along with general photographs from the event). But for now, something about one of the more interesting sessions: the "London Jungle Book" workshop conducted by Bhajju Shyam and Stephen Guy in various two-hour slots over the course of the weekend.

Bhajju and Stephen don’t have a language in common and they met for the first time very recently, but the story that culminated in this workshop began six years ago when Bhajju, a highly regarded Gond artist from Bhopal, was invited to London to paint a mural for an Indian restaurant. His three-month stay in the city – without knowing a word of English – must have been a difficult time, but it led to the publication of the London Jungle Book, a collection of paintings drawn in the Gond style, in which he provided a distinct, whimsical perspective on life in London – combining aspects of the city that were new to him with things he could relate to. On the book’s cover, for instance, is a picture that fuses a rooster with the Big Ben clock-tower.

“I was fascinated by this big clock that told London-wallahs the time,” Bhajju told me (in Hindi) during the workshop today. “Where I come from we only have the rooster to give us a wake-up call, so it was natural to combine the two.” Another example is his painting of the “bus number 30” that he used to take to work every day. In a city where everything was alien, this bus was a rare constant; waiting for it at a fixed time each day, identifying it and hopping aboard it was a ritual that became a source of comfort for him, so he painted it as the body of a dog (“a creature that is warm and loyal”). He also depicted the London tube (the concept of an underground train system was completely new to him) as a motley group of snakes and earthworms, with a “King’s Cross” station sign and a musician thrown into the mix.

Anyway, to continue the story: Stephen Guy, who teaches theatre design at the Rose Bruford College in London, was given a copy of Bhajju’s book two years ago by Zubaan editor Anita Roy. I spoke with Stephen for a bit at the workshop and he said he found the paintings very inspiring. “I’d lived in London all my life and took it for granted, but Bhajju’s work showed me an unfamiliar dimension to the city,” he said, “That’s what great art and writing can do – make you rethink things, look at familiar things differently.”

Since Stephen works with ‘automata’ designs – “art that derives its worth from being in motion rather than stationary” – he decided to give a new angle to Bhajju’s paintings. “I got my students to make large, mobile plywood representations of seven designs from the book,” he said, “thus introducing a mechanical theatre element to what began as Gond artistry.” Thus Bhajju’s painting of London’s multi-tasking women depicted as the many-limbed goddess Kali became a three-dimensional figure where the hands could be made to move around by turning a handle or pressing a lever. As could the snakes of the London Underground.
(If you enlarge the photo below, you can make out some of Bhajju’s paintings as they appear in the book – including the dog/bus and the Kali one – as well as two photographs of the plywood figures created by Stephen’s students in Rose Bruford.)

At the Bookaroo workshop Bhajju and Stephen have been showing children how to make automata figures themed on the book, using cardboard boxes, wires, paper glasses, bottle caps and other trinkets as raw material. (Incidentally the photo of Bhajju near the top of this post shows him next to a cardboard version of “bus number 30 as a dog”, with the dog’s body made out of an air-conditioner box.) “Unfortunately crafts don’t seem to be a big part of the school system in India,” Stephen says, examining one of the kids’ creations, a miniature of a British Airways plane descending over the city of London, “there’s too much theory and not enough practice. But the children here are really enjoying themselves and they’re naturals too!”

Friday, November 21, 2008

DVD updates: boxed classics

On my recent visits to local music stores I’ve seen a series of box-sets by Sony Pictures, themed around famous male stars – James Stewart, Marlon Brando, Gregory Peck, Omar Sharif among them. Three films in each package, cover price Rs 999. In certain circumstances I would be okay with paying that much for a three-DVD set, but I have a couple of reservations with this lot. First, most of the discs are bereft of special features, which is a real letdown when you consider that the internationally available versions of these movies have a wealth of carefully put together interviews and supplementary documentaries.

Second, the selection of movies appears to have followed a well-thought-out formula: combine one undisputed must-have from the actor’s filmography with a couple of films that are of indifferent quality (or hold a relatively unimportant place in his career). Thus the Brando set contains the early biker-gang classic The Wild One (in which the Young Mumbler famously snarls “What’ve you got?” in response to the question “What are you rebelling against?”) but also includes Arthur Penn’s uneven The Chase and the 1990s comedy The Freshman, in which Brando played a supporting role. (Note: The Chase is interesting in its own right for being an overlooked work by Penn, who was among the most interesting American directors working in the 1960s, and as the immediate precursor to the pathbreaking Bonnie and Clyde, but I doubt it could be placed on a list of the dozen most representative Brando films.)

For the movie buff, the rub is that if the one true classic happens to be a film that isn’t easily available elsewhere, you might end up buying the whole box-set for it. My own undoing was the Jimmy Stewart set, which I simply had to pick up for the sole reason that it includes the outstanding courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, which I’ve been trying to locate for ages. But the two other films on this set – the Western Two Rode Together and the witchcraft comedy (!) Bell, Book and Candle – are middling at best, and the experience left me feeling slightly cheated. How easily this set could have been redeemed if they had thrown in just one of Stewart’s Hitchcock thrillers, or the dark Westerns he made with Anthony Mann in the 1950s.

In this context an honorable nod to an earlier Sony Classics box-set that isn’t quite part of this series: the five-film Cary Grant Collection. What’s notable is that none of these films is less than a minor classic, and all of them are from Grant’s peak years: Howard Hawks’ breathless newspaper comedy His Girl Friday, Leo McCarey’s romp about marital mishaps The Awful Truth, George Stevens’ comedy about clashing ideologies The Talk of the Town (an earlier post on which here), the whimsical Katharine Hepburn co-starrer Holiday and the aviation drama Only Angels Have Wings.

But really, Rs 1999 is too much to pay even for these gems; a screwball-comedy/Cary Grant hound like me might fall for it (and I did), but that price tag is hardly likely to lead new viewers to discover these films. So here’s my DVD box-set wishlist for Christmas: 1) Slash prices by at least 30 per cent, 2) Throw in an extra disc with a feature-length documentary on the actor, 3) Start a similar series for female stars, with Bette Davis and Barbara Stanwyck at the top of the list. Someone at Sony/Columbia, please get out that Santa costume.

P.S. A bonus attraction on the three-DVD sets is a collection of autographed postcards – mostly publicity stills – but these are curios at best: there’s a distinctly smudged, photocopied look about them. No substitute for good Disc Extras.

[I hope to do a longer post on Anatomy of a Murder soon but it will depend on free time, which has been non-existent lately. This post is a version of my films/DVD column for Business Standard.]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tulli cone?

A US-based friend was in town for a couple of weeks recently. Since such occasions are usually a pretext for us to nosedive into our shared past, we made a trip to the Defence Colony Nirula's where we had lost our pizza-and-burger virginity more than 20 years ago (having previously encountered these mythical items only in Archie comics). The food was as good as it had always been, but we were unprepared for how tidy the restaurant had become. The chairs and tables were gleaming, the floor wasn’t splattered with tomato sauce and crumbs, the service was fast and there was plenty of seating room even though it was a Saturday afternoon. Despite the comfort food, this sterile place seemed worlds removed from the favourite haunt of our childhood.

Anshul was disappointed. He'd come home after a long time expecting to see and experience things that reminded him of his school days. Instead people have been dragging him to see the new malls in Saket and Vasant Kunj – indistinguishable from their counterparts in American cities – and now even good old Nirula's had let him down. So I could understand his excitement when he finally had an experience that was uniquely, unquestionably Indian. "Dude!" he yelled into the phone one morning, "You'll never believe this. Do you know what the Delhi Police uses for breathalysers when they want to test drunken drivers?"

He had been driving home late the previous night when his car was stopped by a policeman who threw him a probing look, asked him to step outside and then handed him – okay, you're out of guesses – an empty paper cone, the interiors of which were slightly moistened. Whether the cone was a leftover from a chana jor garam stall or had been quickly fashioned on the spot is unclear, but Anshul was asked to exhale into it. "The whole thing was so bizarre," he said, "that I didn't even realise what was going on until the guy took a few deep sniffs from the cone himself, after I had breathed into it. That’s when I realised he was checking for alcoholic fumes."

The scientific efficacy of this method of breath-testing will probably never be determined, but Anshul was quite impressed when the policeman waved him on: apparently he had had a couple of small drinks earlier that evening but was confident – from previous experience in these matters – that he hadn't exceeded the legal limit permissible in the US. “It only proves once again that western technology is no match for homespun Indian wisdom,” he thought to himself patriotically, getting back into the car. But as he drove away he noticed a number of other cones lying about the road, and the policeman appeared to be swaying on his feet.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Notes on The Book of Ram

Anyone who knows the Ramayana only through its most mainstream depictions – the ones with a strong north Indian bias, popularised in recent decades by Amar Chitra Katha comics and TV serials – might be surprised to learn that familiar episodes such as the Lakshman rekha story were not from Valmiki's "original" but were introduced in retellings hundreds of years later. Or that the tale of Shabari feeding Ram berries comes from the Padma Purana, written in the 11th century. Or that Ram's story – in forms that would be almost unrecognizable to the casual Indian reader – is an integral part of the Indonesian, Thai and Malay cultures. (The Thai version of Hanuman is a romantic adventurer, not a devoted celibate servant.) And how about this: one regional (Indian) version presents Sita as the daughter of Ravana's chief queen Mandodari!

In The Book of Ram, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik takes a look at the many Ramayanas, in the process liberating the epic from tunnel-visioned perceptions. Pattanaik, who has written several other books about myths (here’s an earlier post about one of them, The Pregnant King), shows how the Ram story has been adapted and retold over the centuries to suit the needs and perspectives of the people who have done the retelling and the times they lived in – from Telugu, Assamese, Bengali and Punjabi versions that are a few centuries old, all the way down to contemporary tellings by Ashok Banker and Virgin Comics. He examines the symbolic function of many characters and incidents and discusses what regional variations tell us about value systems and priorities in different places. "Ram cannot be fettered to a particular period or a particular place," he writes. "His story has reached the masses not through erudite Sanskrit texts but through theatre, song and dance performed in local languages. All these retellings of the Ramayan have their own twists and turns, their own symbolic outpouring, each one valid in its respective context." The Book of Ram is a thoughtful primer for the reader who is willing to read Ram's story as a metaphor for human strengths and weaknesses, and as a window to inner divinity.

In earlier posts I’ve discussed how the specifics of ancient myths vary as you travel from one part of the country to another; and that it’s important to acknowledge the fluidity of these old stories in order to derive broader lessons about humanity from them. The religious fundamentalist would of course prefer that everything be set in stone, but for most others (along the spectrum from moderately religious/spiritual to atheistic) these stories are most useful when they can be analysed, engaged with and interpreted in different ways. Being exposed to unfamiliar tellings and variations also brings us out of our comfort zone: it’s a step forward in broadening our minds towards other types of people and other ways of living. In this regard, The Book of Ram makes for good supplementary reading to a straightforward translation of the Ramayana.

P.S. On a somewhat related note, see this post about Prem Panicker’s excellent ongoing translation of M T Vasudevan Nair’s Randaamoozham – the Mahabharata through Bhima’s eyes. Something I find very revealing about the comments on Prem’s Bhimsen posts is how frequently he gets asked to add an extra sentence or two elaborating an incident or justifying the behaviour of another character – Karna, for instance – even though this is not an omniscient-narrator telling; it’s Bhima’s perspective, complete with all his biases and prejudices. (Karna as seen through his eyes wouldn’t be the layered, tragic anti-hero so many of us admire but a pompous, mean-spirited suta who is constantly trying to rise above his station in life by ingratiating himself with Duryodhana. But this is a difficult idea to process when we are only familiar with a single, standard-issue version of the story.)

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Saket vistas: the Metro crane

The Saket metro station is being constructed near the traffic intersection just beyond the block of flats I live in and a highlight of our evenings these days is the sight of a giant crane hovering over the tops of nearby houses. Most of the time it’s horizontal, as in the picture below, but once in a while it swings around and comes to rest in a nearly upright position, and then it looks like it’s giving the finger to the colony.

The photo doesn’t really capture the effect but it's a grand view, especially after dark. Here we are in our enclosed neighborhood park, walking the pup, and it’s quiet like a village green – except that there’s a huge mechanical pulley moving back and forth in a portion of the sky, illuminated by the metro site dozens of feet below it. It makes me feel like a character in a 1950s alien-invasion novel set in a quiet British town where nothing much is expected to happen.

The construction has been going on for ever with no end in sight and our detoured roads are looping crazily all over the place, so the wife and I have been mulling ways for the DMRC to employ the crane to other purposes. I mean, if you have a monster crane in the sky, shouldn’t you make imaginative use of it? Abhilasha proposes turning it into a tourist attraction for a few hours each day: it can be called the Saket Eye and members of the paying public can take turns riding in the thing. Since most of us south Delhiites don’t have access to a bird’s-eye view of the city, this would be a welcome move.

Another option is to use the crane as a pick-up facility to help clear traffic jams. Get buses air-lifted at the intersection and safely set them down a minute or so later at the Malviya Nagar-Panchshila crossing. (These days it takes more than 20 minutes to travel that distance in the conventional way.) In fact, if a few more cranes of similar size are added to the existing one and placed at strategic locations, we could have a regular midair shuttle service at our disposal.

Even more practically: anyone who has water tanks situated on the top floor of a tall building knows what a hassle it is when the main-line supply dries out and you have to call the Jal Board’s tanker to the house. For starters you’re very lucky if the tanker even arrives on the same day, but when it does it takes a painfully long time to get the unwieldy pipes to the terrace. Give the crane an extra limb and program it to stretch out an arm, suck water out of the Jal Board’s colossal colony water tank and then distribute said water into all our little black containers one by one. (Earlier post on the evils of water tanks here.)

As winter sets in other possibilities will arise, such as using the crane as a well-lit landing aid that can point descending aircraft in the right direction on foggy nights. As responsible citizens one must keep looking for ways to extract side-benefits from interminable projects.

Sunday, November 09, 2008


Just spreading the word about the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival, which is taking place in Delhi on the 22nd and 23rd of this month; it’s been a good time for children’s writing in India and this fest comes not a moment too soon. The venue is the Sanskriti Anand Gram on Mehrauli-Gurgaon Road and the programme schedule is here. Lot of promising sessions, including the “Panchatantra in Wonderland” one with Sampurna Chattarji, Kalpana Swaminathan and Ishrat Syed (Swaminathan and Syed jointly wrote Nyagrodha, a marvelous imaginative retelling of the Panchatantra, which I reviewed here), “Are Insects Like Us?” by Ranjit Lal (about whom more here), and Anita Roy sharing word games based on the Dr Seuss books (also see this old post about Roy’s “storytelling for children” session at the Jaipur Literature festival). Another highlight: a session with Jeff Smith, creator of the popular comic-book series Bone.

There’s also an outreach programme called Bookaroo in the City on November 19 and 20 – it will have book-related events for underprivileged children in schools across Delhi in collaboration with Pratham Books, as well as eight special events. See the website for details.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Q&A with Manjula Padmanabhan

[Excerpts from a Gmail chat with Manjula Padmanabhan, mostly about her new novel Escape. G-chat is not a forum that’s very conducive to an organised, linear discussion, so I’ve had to restructure a lot of the conversation.

A quick summary of the book: Escape is set in a land where women have been eliminated and where cloned generals maintain a smooth-functioning dictatorship. A young girl named Meiji, who has been secretly brought up on an estate, makes a perilous journey to a distant city in the company of her uncle Youngest. Along the way, she must understand her own uniqueness and deal with ideas that she was never brought up to imagine. Meanwhile, Youngest’s own internal conflict – his moral sense of his responsibility to Meiji clashing with the fact that his body is aroused by her proximity – makes the book more than a straightforward morality tale. More in this earlier post.]

Like your play Harvest – about organ-selling in an imaginary future India – Escape is a bleak dystopian tale. What does this type of story help you achieve as a writer?

I don't think I set out to write dystopia-lit. It's sort of the other way around – an idea occurs to me, e.g. the organ transplant trade in Harvest, and as I try to frame a story, it becomes necessary to reach outside the frame of current reference.

In the case of Escape, the idea presented itself originally as a newspaper "middle", which would take the form of a page from the diary of the last Indian woman left alive. It was just the fingerprint of an idea I had around the turn of the millennium, when there was talk of the Year – or Decade – of the Woman and I kept thinking that despite all the positive stuff going on, it seemed more likely that women – Indian women anyway – appeared to be on the decline.

So that was the context. I didn't get around to writing that middle, but around 2006 I began to think of turning that idea into a novel. While looking at it from that angle, the woman's age dropped down, she acquired uncles, the world changed around her... and so on.

The cover jacket suggests that the declining sex-ratio of the real world provided a starting point for the novel. What concerns you most about attitudes to women in less-developed countries?

Well, book jackets tend to say things like that, and maybe, in a certain way it's true – because after all, the idea presented itself as being about "the last Indian woman" precisely because the declining sex-ratio suggested that there might some day be an end-point. But I'm not sure I see issues in such macro terms. I mean, I don't think I entered the space of the story as a sociologist. More as an...explorer. When an idea – or a character – presents itself for exploration, my attitude is one of curiosity: I follow it to the extent that it interests me. I don't start with a series of concerns about, e.g., women's issues.

One way of putting it might be that the statistics of female infanticide and the starkness of the choices facing families and mothers-to-be of daughters created an emotional climate that brought the book into being. But you know, in the end the context is just that – like the "soup" in a petri dish, it provides an environment in which an idea can grow.

We once discussed the film Matrubhoomi, which took a similar idea – a world where women are in short supply – and made it trite, painting all men as caricatures. In Escape, the portrayal of Meiji’s uncle Youngest adds complexity to the story.

The creation of Youngest was very spontaneous ...a defining incident right in the beginning occurred, a scene between him and Meiji, and his development and his relationship with Meiji curved outward from that point in a very natural way.

I still haven’t seen Matrubhoomi, but reading your blog entry reminded me of my own response to Daayra, and I can quite imagine what the treatment was like. It seems to me that there's a genre of film which appears to be about supporting women's issues but are instead used as a method of showing women being humiliated one way or another, for entertainment.

Escape is a very adult work. In India, science-fiction has often been seen as a genre for young readers. Is this something you believe is changing?

I don’t know. I suspect this book may well be dismissed as SF, but I can't help that. I anticipate that serious readers over the age of 40 will find it hard to engage with it, because the older generation of Indian readers tend to comprise people who think of reading as a sober activity – perhaps because it used to be a medium for scholarship and study rather than for personal entertainment. When I think about people in my age-range (I'm 55) there aren't very many I know who read science-fiction or fantasy on a regular basis. That's certainly changed for younger, post-Independence-era Indians.

It’s a pity that "serious" and "entertaining" are often viewed as mutually exclusive.

Yes...I don’t know if Escape is an entertaining book, but it's not scholarly either. It requires the reader to stretch his/her imagination. It offers a type of pleasure that (I believe) is specific to literature – not funny-haha entertaining, but it tickles nerves that all of us have, but not all of us can access consciously.

For instance, I found it quite weirdly pleasurable to write it. It was like a continuous adventure, exploring this WORLD.

Given that some younger readers might pick this book up, do you ever feel self-conscious when you are writing the edgier passages – such as the bathing scene between Youngest and Meiji?

No. I feel my responsibility as a writer is to be true to the moment. That doesn't mean that I throw in every bit of salacious detail that I can scrape up but I won't flinch away from what must be described. I don't tiptoe around those scenes as if they were different to any others but I do look for inconsistencies in language that may arise out of the very different expectations people have when thinking about or describing intimate matters.

I am not especially worried about young readers innocently wandering into this book. It doesn't look like SF and I think its pace wouldn't be inviting to teen-readers. Of course there's a constant risk of books being picked up and read by the "wrong" audience, but as an author I must hope that parents won't leave books lying around for their young children to pick up, if they feel their children might be damaged by them.

Who are your favourite authors in science fiction and fantasy? Do you follow any of the newer Indian writers in the genre?

I reviewed an early book by Priya Sarukkai many years ago, but aside from that, no I haven't read these young authors. I used to read much more science fiction than I do now (age? Hmmm) – there was a time when it was what I always sought out. But I read much less in general now. I read omnivorously and tend to graze a lot. I liked Iain Banks' The Algebraist. I was an extreme (Star) Trekkie for a while and also a total Star Wars groupie. Then there’s Doris Lessing's Shikasta quintet, which left a very deep impression, as did Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. But I don't think I especially respond to influences. I tend to be very alone with my writing.

You’ve worked as a cartoonist (the comic strip Suki), playwright, novelist, a writer of children’s books and dark science fiction. Is there anything you haven’t done that you’d like to do in future?

I don't set out challenges for myself. I think of myself as an extremely lazy, slow-moving entity for whom the slightest effort is a chore. (I believe that I belong to a little-known branch of the evolutionary tree, descended from the Primordial Sloth.) So I never peg out a course of future activity. I wait around for ideas to come along and ride me – force me to my feet and get me to the destination they want to go to.

I don't, by the way, think that I wear different hats – I believe all my work, writing or drawing, is pretty much the same material, but presented in different forms. If you strain very hard, you can hear echoes of Suki humour in the way Youngest speaks.

I really rather adore Youngest, I have to admit.

Interesting you say that. Did you at any point feel that you had to choose between him and Meiji as your story progressed? They are both strong characters with their own internal dilemmas, and there is friction between them by the end.

No, I don't struggle over who gets to lead in a dance of characters – I wait for the logic of a situation to work itself out. The places where I paused, thought over and back-tracked were (for instance) the Swan's Nest episode, when I felt I was veering off course, following storylines that weren't relevant. But with interactions between the characters, I take the view that once I've set them up on the "board" they have a certain amount of autonomy. I give them personalities and then create mini-movies in my mind of how those characters might behave. Then I describe those scenes in words.

Have you begun work on the sequel?

*nervous grin* Err ... well ...I know what will happen, let's put it that way.

Actually, I only began to realise the potential for a sequel around the time I reached the Swan's Nest episode. I had expected to describe Meiji and Youngest's life in the City in some detail, but by the time they got to the City the book was already quite long. No way I was going to be able to complete the cycle in this book!

But there'll only be a sequel if this book does well. Whatever that means. I can't bear the thought of writing a book for which there's no market. This happened with the second of the two "Mouse" books – Macmillan Children's Books – and I absolutely do not want to repeat that experience. If this book just vanishes into the gloom, I will simply close shop (on this story) and write something else.

[Some earlier conversations with writers: Vikram Chandra, Kiran Desai, Amitava Kumar, Mohsin Hamid, Anita Desai, Amitav Ghosh]

[Manjula photo by Priyanka Parashar]

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Kali and the serial kkiller

As anyone who follows these things would know, Heidi Klum dressed up as the Goddess Kali for a Halloween party a few days ago, in a costume that was remarkable for its attention to detail: the many blue arms carefully in place, skulls and shrunken heads dangling from the Goddess’s hips as accessories, and Klum’s husband Seal as the finger-collecting bandit Angulimaal. My first darshan of this Kali was on the pages of Delhi Times, the photo caption memorably stating that “this proves Klum has respect for the Hindu goddess”. Because apparently that’s what Halloween is all about – dressing up as people you respect.

Even so, various Hindu groups in the US say their sentiments have been hurt by Klum’s masquerade. These people should stop worrying and take a cue from Ekta Kapoor’s recent pronouncement at a Dahi Handi celebration. "Anyone who dresses up as a God is God for me," said the creative head of Balaji Telefilms, shortly after she bent to touch the feet of Mrunal Jain, the young actor who plays Krishna in Kahaani Hamaaray Mahabharat Ki.

Ekta's remark leads me to wonder what might happen if she were to encounter a Halloween Kali.

K3, a tale of the apocalypse

Dressed as the Goddess Kali, the Jabberwock enters Ekta Kapoor’s office in the Balaji headquarters, whereupon Ekta emits a squeal of delight, then assumes a pious stance and throws herself at my feet.

“I am pleased and will grant you a boon,” I tell her, “but make it quick, I have a Halloween party to get to and you know what traffic is like these days.”

“I’m torn,” Ekta replies, “On the one hand I need better TRPs for all my K-serials, but on the other hand I want my brother Tusshar’s career to reach grand heights. What to ask for?”

“Let me be the one to worry about multiple hands,” I say. “We Gods like to keep everyone happy but your wishes are so malignant that if both of them were granted they would unleash a destructive force which would promptly end this kalpa of the world. Hence I can grant only one at this time.”

Having spoken thus, I hold forth two bowls containing liquids of an indeterminate colour. “If you imbibe the contents of this one here, TRPs will shoot up and Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi will carry on for another 300 years, but Tusshar will continue to appear on pet shows for eternity. If you drink the other one, your brother will shine with the luminosity of a thousand Shah Rukh Khans
but your K-serials will soon be cancelled. Now choose quickly – Angulimaal is waiting for me outside.”

Unfortunately TV honchos have never been known for their restraint, and barely have I finished speaking when Ekta snatches both bowls out of my hands and gulps them down noisily. The sound of a distant rumbling is heard and I briefly wonder if the scion of Balaji is suffering from indigestion. But then Lord Kalki appears on a large white horse, and the world ends as promised. An extra K will do that.

[Earlier posts on Ekta and her serials here, here and here]

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Hitchcock redux

From the Bright Lights Film journal, here’s an interesting take on the Vanity Fair spread that featured contemporary celebrities such as Jodie Foster, Naomi Watts and Javier Bardem in recreations of iconic stills from Hitchcock films. As John Calendo, the author of the piece, puts it: moments I grew up on, eerie Hitchcockian mise-en-scenes whose hypnotic power can still grab me today, even after a lifetime of multiple viewings, [have been] reimagined into something rich and strange, a Mashup for the ReMix Generation, a sort of race-record cover version, with very pretty, very clean personnel — and no soul.
Though Calendo’s love for Hitchcock’s cinema comes across in the piece, I can’t really agree with his central thesis that from the mid-1950s onwards, Hitch’s heroines were (intentionally) vacuous, “soulless” characters – and in particular, with his description of Janet Leigh’s intelligent performance as Marion in Psycho as “numb starey”. If Marion were indeed an "automaton", it would seriously compromise the effect of the film, which depends on the viewer sympathising with (or at least getting deeply involved with) her predicament at the outset. There is also at least one major factual error here: Calendo claims that we don’t learn about Leigh’s motivation for stealing the money until late in the movie, when in fact it is made obvious almost from the first scene, where Marion and her married boyfriend discuss their financial problems.

I liked Calendo’s eccentric theory about the bird attacks in The Birds, though – it’s just the kind of personal, passionate over-analysis I enjoy – and he’s also right about the Strangers on a Train recreation being dreadful: James McAvoy looks like a 10-year-old school bully trying to imitate Robert Walker and being unable to conceal his merriment about doing it.

At any rate, the piece was useful for giving me a pretext to look at the VF spread in its entirety again: here it is. Don't miss Robert Downey Jr trying to be Cary Grant!