Saturday, March 21, 2009


...for a few days and won’t have regular Net access, so little or no blogging for some time. Haven’t been able to do much reading lately and almost no movie-watching (had been hoping to catch Firaaq, Baraah Anna, Revolutionary Road and Milk), but here’s some of what I have got through:

- Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – the first book in the posthumously published Millennium trilogy of crime novels. Extremely well-plotted, character-driven thriller about a journalist in disgrace, now hired to investigate the disappearance and possible murder of a young girl decades earlier. Very atmospheric too - the Scandinavian chill (and the gloom that it causes) is a character in its own right. A bit too long though. More on this soon.

- Jay Rayner’s The Man Who Ate the World: In Search of the Perfect Dinner – the award-winning food critic sets off on a worldwide hunt for “the ultimate meal”, determined to show that the world’s great chefs can preserve their individuality and creativity even in the face of homogenizing globalisation (and that the worldwide food revolution isn’t merely about providing safe consistency to the ultra-rich). He eats his way through Las Vegas, Moscow, Dubai, Tokyo, London and New York, before ending up in – where else? – Paris, where he conducts a heroic weeklong eat-a-thon at seven of the world’s fanciest restaurants. (You’re thinking you want his job, but the man assures us he was seriously jaded by the end of the adventure.)

The thing to accept first up about a book like this, written by someone who eats for a living (and who has become famous for doing this), is that it can’t be of much practical use to those of us who are serious foodies in a non-professional capacity. (To Rayner’s credit, he acknowledges the advantages and constraints of his job, both of which distance him from the ordinary diner: having access to important contacts in every city he travels to; eating in the presence of a high-profile chef or restaurateur who’s scrutinizing his every move; having to man up for a 12-course meal even when he isn’t feeling very hungry or enthusiastic.) However, this book does provide a solid insider’s view of the fine-dining world. There are many anecdotes about culinary history, like the one about the Moscow restaurant that discontinued its Chinese cuisine after the souring of Sino-Soviet relations but allowed diners to eat Russian sausages with chopsticks. Rayner also discusses the morality of eating obscenely expensive food while millions of people around the world are starving, explains why this doesn’t prick his conscience and expresses strong views on such subjects as “authenticity” being prioritized over quality (“Dishes lauded for their authenticity are either created out of necessity – would I>ouzi laban have been prepared with dried yoghurt if fresh yoghurt had been manageable in the desert climate? – or they those eaten by poor people, and most poor people’s food is not pleasant.”)

On balance, I empathised more with his wife Pat, who halfhearted accompanies him to fancy restaurants that are more about the “experience” (and the money you have to pay for it) than the food. “The first time you try high-end food it’s astounding, but after that you are just grading your experiences against themselves,” says this sagacious woman at one point. I wouldn’t mind reading a notepad filled with her perspectives on the perfect meal.

- Have also been re-reading Watchmen (earlier post here) in anticipation of the movie, which I don’t have very high hopes for.

- Also, finally got around to watching Nina Paley’s delightful Sita Sings the Blues, a jazzed-up animated version of the Ramayana as seen through the eyes of Sita (whose eventual abandonment by Rama is contrasted with Paley’s own estrangement from her husband). After reading some angry blog comments about how the beloved Indian epic had been shallowly appropriated by a foreigner, I was unprepared for how closely this film sticks to the mainstream version of the Ramayana. You have to be hopelessly literalist or thin-skinned to be offended by it. I especially enjoyed the three chatty narrators, portrayed as Indonesian shadow puppets, a reminder that a tradition of Ramayana storytelling that’s completely different from the Indian one exists in that country (and others such as Thailand). The puppets relate the story in casual dialogue (“So Kaikeyi, she asked Dasharath to send Rama away for 14 years, thinking that’s a pretty long time – if you go away for 14 years, you’re pretty much out of sight, out of mind, right?”), fumbling over details, stopping to correct each other.

The use of mixed media, including Annette Hanshaw songs from the 1920s, helps free the epic from a narrow cultural context, which is always a good thing. (Related post here.) I also loved Paley’s tribute to the Ramanand Sagar TV show, the “Sagar zoom” in the scene where Sita rebuffs Ravana's advances, and the camera keeps zooming in on him dramatically.

(While on Indonesian Java puppets, check out the last sentence of this Wikipedia entry on Kripacharya: “The picture above is a puppet form of Kripacharya and does not resemble the actual character.”)

Downloads and other online-viewing options for Sita Sings the Blues available here. I saw it on Youtube.

Until next week, or later...

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Updates from Indian Wells and ToB

Can't believe the lad pulled this one off. After facing an opponent who's a terrible match-up for him and who hammered him in their last two matches. After looking well and truly beaten in the first set and then facing five match points in the second set. (I had already written a score-update SMS to a friend saying "Nalbandian wins 6-3, 6-4" and was about to press Send.) Then he comes back and takes the final set 6-0. Someday Rafael Nadal will be hauled to court for causing someone's head to fall off because they were shaking it so hard.

In other, vaguely related news, the Tournament of Books is on and Hari Kunzru's My Revolutions has just beaten Marilynne Robinson's Home (for the record, I loved both books). Netherland, The White Tiger and Unaccustomed Earth are some of the top seeds to have been knocked out so far, but there are some intriguing match-ups to come. And some notable judges, including Junot Díaz.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Stranger to History: Aatish Taseer on Islam's 'enclosed world'

At one point in his travelogue-memoir Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands, Aatish Taseer finds himself in the streets of Damascus on the day that the city's Danish embassy is burnt down by furious mobs protesting the cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. How can anyone have the freedom or the right to insult the Prophet, an acquaintance asks him, and observing the chaos around him Taseer realises that
The offensive cartoons could not have been understood Islamically. The democratic rights and interlocking institutions that protected them were outside the faith's compass. I couldn't explain how one could have the right to insult the Prophet unless I was to step outside the circle in which it was written that it was wrong to make graven images. To explain to Nedal, I would have to ask him to suspend his faith for a moment and believe in sanctities greater than that of the Prophet and his Book...It could be said that the systems that protected the cartoons now had been set up in part to protect public life from the excesses of religion. The cartoons came from places that considered it an achievement for religion to be able to take a joke. It had not always been that way.
Taseer's own childhood couldn't have prepared him for such encounters with the certitudes of religious fundamentalism. Born of a short-lived relationship between the Pakistani politician Salmaan Taseer and the Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, he grew up with his mother in Delhi and had an irreligious upbringing. When he writes "As a child I made my way through all the sub-continent's major religions...Shiva remained the focus of my devotion until I discovered He-Man", he could be speaking for many Indian youngsters brought up in liberal households where religion, if it played a part at all, stayed on the fringes of everyday life (and where it was possible to revere the comic-book version of Lord Shiva not because he was divine but because he was such a bad-ass, with the serpents and the trident and the ganas). Later, he studied in a Christian boarding school in south India, "adding the final coat of paint to a happy confusion that was as much India's as my own". He didn't properly meet his father until a visit to Pakistan in 2002, and then the relationship was a strained one.

The starting point for this book was an angry letter Taseer received from his father in response to a magazine article he had written. As a young, London-based reporter visiting Beeston – where most of the perpetrators of the July 2005 bombings had hailed from – Taseer had been struck by the generational divide in the British Muslim community, by the need of the youngsters to forcefully assert their cultural identity. "Some were dressed in long Arab robes with beards cut to Islamic specifications. They lacked their parents' instinctive humour and openness; their hatred of the West was immense and amorphous... The younger generation was adrift: neither British nor Pakistani, removed from their parents' economic motives and charged with an extra-national Islamic identity, which came with a sense of grievance...their story began in rootlessness and led to the discovery of radical Islam."

Returning to London, he included these observations in a cover story for a British political magazine but was unprepared for his father’s strongly critical reaction, accusing Aatish of spreading anti-Muslim propaganda and failing to understand the "Pakistani ethos". The interesting thing was that the senior Taseer had been offended as a Muslim, despite being an irreligious man himself – he ate pork, never fasted or prayed and once said of the Koran that there was nothing in it for him.

"The question I kept asking myself," Taseer writes, "was how my father, a professed disbeliever in Islam's founding tenets, was even a Muslim. What made him Muslim despite his lack of faith?" Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands is an account of the journey he undertook to try and answer these questions. The arc of countries on his route included secular Turkey, where Islam had been banished from the public sphere since the 1920s; Arab-nationalist Syria, which had become the most important destination for radical Islamists; Iran, which had experienced Islamic revolution in 1979 but still had a clear idea of its past before the coming of the regime; and, of course, Pakistan itself, a country that bears the burden of having been created specifically in the name of a faith, and where even secular people live with a confusion about their history.

The result is a varied travel narrative. In protean Istanbul, Taseer visits the religious neighborhood Fatih Carsamba, a little world that has closeted itself off from the forceful secularism that was Ataturk's legacy. In Damascus's Abu Nour, with its mosque and colleges teaching the "correct face of Islam", he attends a Friday sermon that is unexpectedly political. In Tehran he encounters a covert group of Hare Krishnas and meets people who have been "made corrupt, stunted, twisted, criminalised by the tyranny of trifles" as the regime uses the faith as a pretext to pry into the private details of people's lives. And in rural Pakistan he spends time in the company of a landlord referred to only as the Mango King. Running through all these encounters are questions of what exactly it means to be a Muslim, the difference between religion and culture, and how politics and history can affect personal relationships.

Taseer's writing is thoughtful and understated and I liked many of his descriptions (a view of the Indus river reduced to a ribbon of green water; the showpiece Imam Khomeini airport as "the Islamic Republic in miniature...the world had to be kept out for it to look as it did") and little observations (a glimpse of a Muslims-only McDonald's), but I also felt that some passages had too much extraneous detail – which may be an offshoot of the author's journalistic training – and that this interfered with the narrative’s progress. (When he enters his hotel room in Hyderabad with a Pakistani-Hindu contact – a passage that exists only to make a quick point about the status of Hindus as a minority group – do we really need to know that “the room had a large white plywood bed with a satiny bedcover and thin, dirt-encrusted carpeting”? There are many other such examples.) Also, the personal bits – the details of Taseer's relationship with his father, which are interspersed with the travelogue – aren't always compelling in their own right, though they provide context and help ground the larger story.

This is very much a book where the personal and the political commingle (the very title can be seen as a reference to the different ways in which the author and his father are strangers to their histories), and towards the end Taseer attempts a summarising explanation of his father's position as a "cultural Muslim". However, Stranger to History is best seen not as a work that provides solid answers but as one that attempts to understand the very complex history of a religion and its effect on various people. It reads best in the passages about the beliefs and dilemmas of individuals. In a richly engrossing chapter, Taseer meets a man named Abdullah who tells him that being a Muslim is to be "above history", but who shows a touchingly vulnerable, conflicted side when he tries to reconcile his beliefs with the more desirable aspects of the modern world: Marlboro cigarettes, technology. A mention of Iranian cinema leads to a near-surreal discussion about the camera and the question of how its existence can be "sanctified" by making it represent something in the Islamic worldview - a scary rationalisation process that lies at the heart of many fundamentalist beliefs.

For Taseer, this is an insight into Islam's enclosed world of "prescriptive and forbidden action, which was more detailed than most other religions, but in the end could only cover those things that were common to the world of today and the Prophet's world in Arabia".
As his later experience in Damascus shows, this enclosed world can become a vacuum where modern concepts like freedom of speech hold no meaning.

Little wonder then that he counts himself fortunate to have both India and Pakistan - their combined histories, garbled though they are, still preferable to "violent purities". In this, he has a kinship with
Saadat Hasan Manto, some of whose short stories he has just finished translating into English (and a writer whose most famous creation Toba Tek Singh ended up finding a spot for himself under the barbed wire separating India and Pakistan). As Taseer reminds us in the closing chapters of Stranger to History, the world is richer in its hybrids.

[Also see: the Johann Hari controversy]

Monday, March 16, 2009

Chris Cleave and Little Bee

Not a full review but a shout-out for Chris Cleave's fine novel The Other Hand (also published under the title Little Bee). Things didn't look very promising when the book first came in – it was accompanied by the sort of publicity material that can give any reviewer the shudders: a candid Editor's Note that compared it to Cloud Atlas and Schindler's Ark and said “as publishers, naturally we only publish books we love but every now and then something comes along that is so special it gives us goosebumps”; a back-jacket that avoided getting into plot details because “this is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it ...the magic is in how it unfolds”; and a cutesy illustrated introduction by the author depicting his two children dressed as superheroes, telling the readers things like “The book is funny and beautiful but also horrific. There is no way dad will let me read this book until I'm older!”

I don't know if The Other Hand lives up to that level of hype (and that probably isn't relevant anyway), but I enjoyed and admired it a good deal. It combines lightness of touch (the narrative is quick-paced, conversational, even darkly funny) with seriousness of purpose – provocative observations about how people live in different parts of the world and what can happen when those lives collide, the attempt to reach for personal dignity in the worst situations, and whether it's possible to achieve true empathy for another person. But most importantly, it does this without drowning the reader in clichés or making self-conscious efforts to extract sympathy.

The story is told by two women who take turns narrating chapters – a Nigerian girl who calls herself Little Bee and a British magazine editor named Sarah – and these are very believable voices (it's achievement enough for a male author to create a single well-rounded female narrator, but what Cleave does here really is creditable). We learn early on that the connection between these women, whose paths might otherwise never have crossed, is that they met in horrific circumstances on a Nigerian beach years earlier. The book takes its time to disclose the specifics of that incident and its aftermath, but the payoff is worth it, and thankfully the non-chronological structure doesn't feel contrived.

Little Bee, who has spent two years in a detention home because she is an illegal alien in Britain, is the book's emotional centre and one of the most memorable characters I've encountered in fiction recently, as she negotiates the business of living in a new country, speaking the "Queen's English" the way British people speak it, trying to work out how she would explain this place to the folks back home. Her narrative, mostly addressed to the first-world reader, is often mesmerising: there's a wide-eyed sense of wonder but also a hard-won, unforced wisdom about the workings of the world. The deep sadness and fear inside her only occasionally rise to the surface as the definition of the "bad men" who are coming for her gradually broadens to include not just the hunters back home (who want to kill her because of a massacre she witnessed) but also the people in this "civilised" country who want her deported. There is whimsical humour - and the true survivor's lust for life - even in the passages where she describes working out ways of killing herself whenever she enters a new place, in case greater horrors lie in wait.
One day the detention officers gave me a copy of a book called Life in the United Kingdom. It explains the history of your country and how to fit in. I planned how I would kill myself in the time of Churchill (stand under bombs), Victoria (throw myself under a horse), and Henry the Eighth (marry Henry the Eighth). I worked out how to kill myself under Labour and Conservative governments, and why it was not important to have a plan for suicide under the Liberal Democrats. I began to understand how your country worked...

I knew they planned to deport me so I started to imagine killing myself back home in Nigeria. It was just like killing myself in the detention centre but the scenery was nicer. This was a small and unexpected happiness. In forests, in quiet villages, on the sides of mountains, I took my life again and again. In the most beautiful places I secretly lingered over the act. Once, in a deep and hot jungle that smelled of wet moss and the excrement of monkeys, I took nearly one whole day to chop down trees and build a tall tower to hang myself from by the neck. I had a machete. I imagined the sticky sap on my hands and the sweet honey smell of it, the good tired feeling in my arms from the chopping, and the screeches of the monkeys who were angry when they cut my trees down...It was a big day’s work for a small girl. I was proud.
For more of Little Bee's voice, here's the first chapter of the book from Chris Cleave's official website. And here's a Q&A with the author, though it's probably best read after you've read the novel.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Backdoor blogging

I don't often use this space to showcase blogs by people I don't know, but Briyanshu's Bollywood Butt Blog was a great discovery. It's run by a "white American gay guy" who fetishizes Indian film and TV actors so much that he has entire sections, with lots of screen grabs, dedicated to such legends as Himanshu Malik - whose butt crack has been located in a "Briyanshu Exclusive" - and Mohnish Behl (in addition to the more obvious names like John Abraham). There's a Kasautii Zindagii Kay section. There are stills from old Rajendra Kumar and Manoj Kumar films (who knew you could see exciting butt shots in those!). And in the Puneet Issar section, there's the scene from episode 90 of B R Chopra's Mahabharat where Duryodhana goes to Gandhari naked but runs into Krishna (described here as "a friend of his - sorry, didn't catch his name") who encourages him to don a loin cloth. Here and here.

I also love that the blogger's short list of favourite movies includes both Wild Strawberries and Aakhri Inteqam. Such pluralism alone will save the world.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Short, sweet and subversive: Blaft's Tamil folk-tales

The independent publishing house Blaft has been responsible for some of the most inventive and good-looking titles in recent Indian publishing, most notably the delightful Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction, with its lurid colour plates and line drawings supplementing Pritham K Chakravarthy’s fine English translations. In keeping with Blaft’s unconventional approach to book production, the last 50 pages of their new release Where are You Going, You Monkeys? Folktales from Tamil Nadu are delicately bound together with a scarlet ribbon. This is the “Naughty and Dirty” section of the book and there’s even a statutory warning about it on the back-jacket.

So naturally, the first thing any self-respecting reader will do is to unfasten the “virgin belt” and settle into this series of cheerfully ribald tales told by a twinkle-eyed “Thatha” (Tamil for grandfather, or old man in general). These include the story of the prince who becomes obsessed with finding a four-breasted woman to marry; a very pragmatic explanation for why men don’t have to experience labour pain; and the tale of a woman who seeks help from her father-in-law after a tiny land-crab enters her “burrow” (it’s an extendable story, we’re informed at the end – the imaginative teller can make it last for a long time. I won’t give the details here).

Once you’re done with the Red Section you’ll find there is much more to this anthology, which brings together around a third of the pieces contained in veteran storyteller Ki. Rajanarayanan’s mammoth book Nattupura Kadhai Kalanjiyam. These are short tales
(rarely more than two or three pages each) about kings and queens, birds and animals, ghosts and demons, gods and goddesses, and many of them have been compiled, revised and expanded over centuries. Some, such as “A Life in His Stead” (about the faltering integrity of people who offer to exchange their own lives to help save a young boy), are about social hypocrisies while others have a mildly moralistic tinge, but there’s nothing here that can be called heavy-handed; there’s a marvelous lightness of touch throughout. In fact, some of the best pieces seem to exist for no other reason than that they were made up on the spot by storytellers for quick evening entertainment (see the delightfully nonsensical “Four Hundred Goats”, about a father who knows he’s found a well-endowed boy for his daughter when he chances to cross what he thinks is a log bridge). Other stories speak of the Gods in casually flippant terms, as in the tale where Shiva is likened to “our local politicians, who never have time for us”.

As Rajanarayanan (better known as Ki. Ra.) tells us in his introduction, some of these tales “reveal the tension caused by highly moralised sexuality”. It could also be said that they use subversive plots and shocking language as tools of rebellion – to bring unmentionable things out into the open and to shake up the established order. At a time when it’s becoming fashionable to define “Indian culture” as a fixed entity and in the most conservative terms, and to squeeze tradition into an airtight box, these stories are important reading. They are a reminder not just of the difference in the tones of cultural narratives between north and south India but also that folk-tales and oral renderings of all regions – passed down over the centuries by “common folk” – are amorphous, dynamic and not especially respectful of mainstream morality.

P.S. From the Blaft website, here's a short video of Ki. Ra performing a story that couldn't have been included in this book: "The Mute Man Giving Witness".

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Kutte! Main tujhe Parallel Film dikha doonga (Revisiting Khamosh)

If you were a Hindi-movie buff in the mid-80s, you wouldn’t be at all surprised by a romantic scene featuring a pouting, heavily made up village belle named Nilofer and a city slicker called Vijay babu, with dialogue that went as follows:

Nilofer: Main Dilawar Khan ki harkaton se tang aa chuki hoon, Vijay babu. Isliye (holding up a large, ornate dagger) yeh khanjar hameshaa saath rakhti hoon. Kal usne meri chhoti behn Asha pe hamla kiya. Bechari masoom bachi ki izzat lootna chaha!

Vijay babu: Uss namak haram kutte ki yeh majaal! Main usse zinda nahin chhodunga, Nilofer. Main uska khoon pee jaoonga!

(Rough translation: Nilofer says the evil Dilawar Khan has been trying to rape her little sister. Vijay babu calls Dilawar Khan a doggie and vows to settle things by taking a sip of his blood.)

Fairly standard stuff, like I said. But you’d expect the actors performing this hokey little scene to be Jaya Prada and Jeetendra, or maybe Reena Roy and Shatrughan Sinha. You’d be very taken aback indeed if they turned out to be Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar (with the latter in desperate need of a crash course from Dharmendra on how not to seem introspective and professorial when proclaiming a desire to drink dog-blood).

But that's exactly what happens in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh, a film about a movie crew plagued by a series of murders during an outdoor shoot. Azmi and Palekar play themselves playing Nilofer and Vijay in the film within the film. Actually, scrap that, they don’t play “themselves” – they play actors who happen to be named “Shabana Azmi” (a three-time National Award winner, much as the real-life Shabana was when Khamosh was made) and “Amol Palekar”, much the same way as Soni Razdan plays an actress named Soni who gets bumped off early on (something that most certainly didn’t happen to the real-life Soni Razdan during the shooting of this film).

And yes, I know we’re firmly back in meta-film territory just a few weeks after this post. But there are also non-self-referential roles for such parallel-cinema heavyweights as Pankaj Kapoor and, “above all”, Naseeruddin Shah as the man investigating the case. And some nicely done stereotypes: the lustful Bollywood producer (played by Ajit Vachani), the overbearing mom (Sushma Seth) who wants her young daughter to become a star even if it means forcing her to do exploitative rape scenes.

I remember being terrified by Khamosh when I first saw it as a child (on a black-and-white TV, I think) - especially by the scenes involving Shabana’s sleepwalking, and the climactic revelation with the killer’s face dimly seen through a glass window. I don’t find it scary any more but it’s surprisingly entertaining still – tautly made (except for the final confrontation in the costume store-room, which goes on too long) and very well acted. Incidentally the co-writers include Sudhir Mishra (who also plays a small role), Saeed Mirza and Kundan Shah; the film has the general sense of fun that one associates with their collaborations.

I'm now looking forward to seeing Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s diploma film Murder at Monkey Hill, which is available on DVD – but anyone who knows how to get hold of his first feature-length film Sazaye Maut, do share please. Haven't seen that anywhere.

P.S. here's a post about a Chopra film I didn't think too highly of.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Early Hitchcock: notes on Murder! and Rich and Strange

Via the Bright Lights blog, I discover this amusing clip of the young Alfred Hitchcock horsing about during a "sound test" with the pretty actress Anny Ondra (who starred in Hitchcock's Blackmail and The Manxman, and whose voice had to be dubbed because of her heavy accent). “Have you been a bad woman or something?...But you've slept with men?...Come here and stand in your place or it will not come out right, as the girl said to the soldier.” More fodder for thesis writers working on studies of Hitchcock as prankster/terroriser of leading ladies. I remember seeing a series of stills from this sound test in the Hitchcock-Truffaut book, but I didn’t know the actual clip still existed.

In related news, I’ve recently acquired the latest box-set in Palador’s World Cinema collection (or the One World Collection as it’s now known): five early Hitchcock movies made between 1929 and 1932 – Blackmail, The Manxman, Murder!, Rich and Strange, The Skin Game. These are understandably creaky movies, less accomplished (when seen as a whole) than some of the films Hitchcock made later in the decade (The Lady Vanishes, The Thirty Nine Steps, Sabotage, Young and Innocent) - I can’t see them having wide appeal, but they are of definitely value to the serious Hitchcock buff or to someone who’s particularly interested in the early days of the sound era. And even the most laboured of them have scenes where you can see traces of the artistry in his best work.

Murder!, which stars the always-watchable Herbert Marshall as a juror who becomes convinced of the innocence of a young theatre actress accused of murder and sets out to do some investigating of his own, is the only real murder mystery – complete with self-conscious accumulation of clues, “Aha!” moments and a dramatic denouement – that Hitchcock made. He wasn’t too comfortable with whodunits because they went against his well-known preference for suspense over surprise (as he told Truffaut, “in such films, all of the interest is concentrated on the ending”) and generally speaking this isn’t the kind of plot that plays to his strengths as a great visual director. It’s a talky, stagy film, even by the standards of the time, and I thought some scenes had the feel of music-hall comedy. There’s a long and wearisome sequence early on where the jury members decide that the girl is guilty and then get together to browbeat poor Sir John – the sole dissident – into agreeing with their verdict; this last bit, with the repeated chorus “Any answer to that, Sir John?” is rather incongruous compared to what preceded it (imagine Twelve Angry Men done in burlesque style). You could of course argue that some of the theatricality is deliberate, since this is a movie about stage performers and a couple of key plot points have to do with the artifice of this world – costume, make-up etc. There’s even a nod to the play-within-a-play in Hamlet.

With a career as lengthy and a style as identifiable as Hitchcock’s, it’s always fun to look at early films for (real or imagined) seeds of famous scenes to come. In Murder!, the shot of the jury members collectively turning their heads first in one direction, then another, to listen to the arguments of the defence and the prosecution, reminded me of the tennis spectators in Strangers on a Train. The girl in the dock, a desolate, confused figure, the world closing in on her, seemed a pre-echo of the highly stylised shots of Grace Kelly in Dial M for Murder. There are some great static compositions too, such as the initial discovery of the body (this scene really does look like a painting) and a prison scene with the camera looking up at a warden at the angle that makes her look even more menacing and powerful. Also, a nice little touch that juxtaposes the dramatic and the mundane: during a scene where a death sentence is being pronounced in the courtroom, the camera stays in the near-empty jury room to show us a man carefully cleaning the tables where the jurors had been sitting.

Murder! is a good little curio (trivia: the scene where we hear Sir John’s thoughts on the soundtrack while he’s shaving is the first documented use of the “interior monologue” in movies), but a much better early Hitchcock in my view is Rich and Strange, though this is atypical material for the future Master of Suspense. It’s about Fred and Emily, a working-class couple who unexpectedly come into an inheritance (via a rich uncle) and take off on a round-the-world cruise, slowly becoming bored and corrupted along the way. This is a straightforward morality tale on one level, but there are many solid Hitchcock touches and the screenplay is mercifully short on flab. The film doesn’t feel the need to keep talking, so to speak, as many of the early sound films did, it’s well-paced, and Hitchcock has more space for some of the visual flourishes that he would refine in his later work – you get a sense here of a director having fun on the job, which might not have been the case in Murder!.

The little visual experiments here include a scene where Fred experiences a dizzy spell (brought on by seasickness) as he tries unsuccessfully to take a photograph of his wife; the camera’s movements mirroring the swaying of the ship. There are also imaginative scenes involving written matter: the uncle’s inheritance letter, with everything but the key words (“Money to experience all the life you want by traveling”) blanked out as Emily reads it; a menu card where the food descriptions seem to hop off the page and fly at the seasick Fred; another letter that slowly goes out of focus as the person reading it tears up. And I liked the funny title cards, such as the one that goes “To get to your room, you have to cross the hotel lounge” (a sequel to an earlier card that says “To get to Paris, you have to cross the Channel”) as a drunk Fred and Emily stagger across said lounge and the camera supplies a blurred point-of-view shot.

Though Fred and Emily are made to look silly in the middle sections of the film, there’s a clear sympathy here for people in their situation – the nouveau riche, whose wildest dreams are realised too soon, so that they don’t quite know how to adjust to their new life or to return to the old one. (“When you’ve developed a taste for champagne, how can you stick to water?” asks Fred rhetorically.) I liked the economy with which Hitchcock shows their wide-eyed entry into this new world: the little touches such as Emily surreptitiously removing her shoes for comfort when they go to watch a Folies Bergere show in high-society Paris (a daunting place for this provincial, “steak-and-kidney pie” British couple), and her exclaiming “The curtain went up too soon – they’re not dressed!” when the dancers come on. Even throwaway scenes like the one where Fred shows Emily his uncle’s letter. “Quick! Look!” he shouts, as if the paper might dissolve and the inheritance be retracted if she didn’t see it immediately.

All these scenes add up to make a well-rounded picture of this couple, their aspirations and subsequent missteps, and it allows us an emotional investment in their fate. I also thought it interesting that the film was much more sympathetic towards Emily (extremely well played by the lovely Joan Barry), who is the more thoughtful and self-aware of the two protagonists, while Fred seems like a louse in comparison. An early example of the "misogynist's" empathy for a strong female character.

P.S. Question for Hitch buffs: what are your favourite early Hitchcock films? (“Early” defined as pre-1934, the year of the original The Man Who Knew Too Much.) These are mine, in no particular order: The Lodger, Rich and Strange, Blackmail, The Ring. I’d be particularly interested in knowing if there’s anyone out there with a deep and profound love for such movies as The Pleasure Garden and Juno and the Paycock.

[Some earlier posts involving Hitchcock: Charters and Caldicott in The Lady Vanishes, the North by Northwest road scene, 50 years of Vertigo, It's Only a Movie]

Monday, March 02, 2009

More on the mass-market writers

[Did this for Biblio]

Personal experience tells me that if you’ve built up a reputation as a “serious literary critic” – even if it was entirely unsolicited and you’re not comfortable with the label – the best way to lose credibility is to write something faintly complimentary about Chetan Bhagat. This doesn’t mean proclaiming that his books are great, or even good, works of literature. All you need to do is to be less than sneeringly contemptuous. Write a blog post cautiously suggesting that Bhagat is a decent storyteller, that he knows his readership very well and is good at creating a comfort zone for them, and within minutes the angry comments will flow in. Here, from my blog, is one of the more restrained ones:

“This assertion that CB is a good storyteller is a common excuse that reviewers make when they discuss such low-brow crap. But story telling is meant for children, not for adult readers and certainly not for critics whose job should be to help other readers make an enlightened choice and to serve the cause of literature.”

Now of course, critics have a responsibility to literature. Equally important, they have a responsibility to themselves; to express their honest feelings about a work as articulately as possible – preferably backed with knowledge and context – and to understand that these feelings reflect their own distinct backgrounds, experiences and biases and mustn’t be taken as the final word on anything. But as Bhagat himself puts it, “If you’re a critic with a professional interest in what’s happening in the world of literature, you also owe it to yourself to be aware of how different types of writing connects for different people.”

And this is a man who knows a thing or two about connecting with his readers. In a world far removed from highbrow Internet literary discussions, the Chetan Bhagat session at the Jaipur Literature Festival in January this year was a huge, unqualified success that ended with the author being mobbed by autograph-seekers outside the hall. Throughout the session Bhagat showed his talent for bonding with the audience in his earthy, unpretentious style. They hung on to every word, applauded enthusiastically when he said things like “Love comes first. If there’s a book priced at Rs 500 and you can have a meal with your girlfriend for that money instead, that’s what you should do – unless it’s a book about how to get new girlfriends!” They shyly ventured suggestions on how he could improve his books – and no, the suggestions weren’t that the writing should be more literary; instead, they wanted him to remove the “bad language” and the passages about pre-marital sex, which made their middle-class parents uncomfortable.

“Critics think my books are so safe, that they don’t challenge anyone at all,” Bhagat said to me afterwards, “but as you can see, these books often shock the small-town people who are their primary readers. Whether you like it or not, you have to take into account the responses and feelings of even the most inexperienced readers.” What he’s essentially saying is that there are many different levels at which people in this country engage with the English language, many hierarchies of reading and writing; and that most literary critics only seem to care about the topmost rung of sophisticated readers.

Whatever you think of Bhagat’s books, his success provides valuable insight into the needs and aspirations of a large base of readers whose engagement with literature is still at a grassroots level. This is what the Chetan Bhagat phenomenon has been about, ever since his first novel Five Point Someone, strategically priced at just Rs 95, sold lakhs of copies in a market where you don’t need to reach even the 10,000-mark to qualify as a bestseller. The book’s success helped open the floodgates for a new movement in Indian writing in English. An increasing number of writers are now reaching out to the “casual reader” – someone who wouldn’t normally list reading among his hobbies but who might pick up a cheaply priced novel because his friends have been talking about it; someone who prefers conversational prose and easily recognizable stories and settings to the rigours of literary fiction. After all, this type of writing isn’t about opening the reader’s mind to new worlds and ideas, which has traditionally been one of the functions of good literature; it’s about reinforcing everything you already know about the world and your place in it, seeking comfort in the fact that there are others who have experienced the same things you have. (Many of Bhagat’s readers are youngsters who have studied in IIT or worked in a call centre, which are things he’s written about. Many of his other readers are people who aspire towards those experiences.) Other writers have been quick to follow this trend, and their books invite different classifications (“Campus Novel”, “Chick Lit”, “Lad Lit”), but they are really all about giving casual readers something they can relate to. As Abhijit Bhaduri, the author of the “MBA novels” Mediocre but Arrogant and Married but Available puts it, “I chose a business-school setting because I was familiar with it and no other story had an Indian business school as a backdrop. The characters are all archetypal – people every batch can identify with. One simply had to spin a story around it.”

“What we’re seeing,” says Neelesh Misra, whose Once Upon a Timezone was about a call-centre employee’s long-distance relationship with a US-based journalist, “is the end of pretension for the publishing industry.” But there’s a pretension of a different sort on view now, accompanied by inverse snobbery: the eagerness to take potshots at “serious writers”, the self-serving assumption that any writer who uses descriptive prose and trades in complex ideas must be a “pseudo-intellectual” catering to the demands of the West. “I can’t understand why anyone would write an 800-page novel or spend six years working on one book,” Tushar Raheja, author of Anything for You, Ma’am: An IITian’s Love Story, wondered aloud to me once. “My life has been so eventful that I can easily write 50 books based on my experiences.” It might bear mentioning that Raheja was all of 22 years old at the time and that his book (the second paragraph of which began with the sentence “So ya, returning to the point”) supplied little evidence of an “eventful life” other than what its title suggests.

Amidst all this bluster, it’s refreshing to talk to Bhagat, who doesn’t have any delusions about what he’s trying to do: “I’m not pushing myself in a literary direction, I’m pushing for reach.” But he does think a great deal about the issues surrounding his writing – about the effect he has on both highbrow critics and inexperienced readers. And though he is known for being unassuming and happy go lucky, he admits to sometimes getting defensive when the criticism becomes too personal. “When you condemn me, you judge my reader,” he says. “Many people don’t understand that my books are read by government-school kids who know they have to learn English if they want to get anywhere in life. My books often provide them with an entry point into that daunting world. They would be scared if they picked up a more literary work and saw intricate sentences in the first paragraph.”

This last remark makes it seem like “mass-market publishing” is only about writing books that are simple, fast-paced reads, but the truth is a little more complicated. There is an army of mass-market writers who use big words and convoluted sentences to impress, in the style of the MBA aspirant who memorizes word-lists for an entrance exam without understanding context, or the thesis writer who uses the thesaurus indiscriminately. The work of these authors gets published – with practically no editing or even copy-editing – by low-investment publishing houses such as Srishti, and some of it makes Bhagat’s novels seem like masterpieces of restraint and subtlety. “No other book will give you as many big words for only a hundred rupees” went a description of Tuhin Sinha's That Thing Called LOVE: An Unusual Romance... and the Mumbai Rain (many of these novels have intriguing sub-heads that will remind you of such Hindi movie titles as Baaz: A Bird in Danger). But ambitiously florid though Sinha’s novel is, its claim is put in the shade by other recent publications like Novoneel Chakraborty's A Thing Beyond Forever, which informs us that its central character has “been taken through a cavalcade of exclusive events”, that she has received “copasetic answers” and that “the brush of her rapturous wishes made a surreal painting of utopia on the canvass of her heart, spraying a déjà senti feeling on her” (sic). Or Pankaj Pandey’s The Saga of LOVE Via Telephone...Tring Tring, which includes gems like “I gradually started spreading my tentacles in love”, “Then, started my saturnine days” and “What will Pankaj do in this perplexed and imbroglio situation?” (sic)

Presumably, the above books are targeted at smart-alecky urban youngsters – the “anyways” generation who are willing to see a book as a fashionable pop commodity and for whom talking the cool talk is more important than an understanding of basic grammar. But then, that’s how large the spectrum of mass-market readership in India is: it includes these city brats as well as the small-town readers who diffidently ask Chetan Bhagat to tone down the gaalis in his books. It includes readers who will never pick up anything other than a Bhagat novel but it also includes at least a few people who will use his books as a stepping stone to more varied reading. Either way, it’s a market that will determine the future of Indian publishing and the literary critic would do well to try and understand it, even if he can’t bring himself to approve of it.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Metal barriers and spider dances: Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

Kamila Shamsie’s new novel Burnt Shadows begins with a short but intense description of one woman’s experience of the Nagasaki bomb. An uncertain calm hangs over the August morning and two young people – a Japanese girl named Hiroko and her German lover, Konrad – have just formalised their relationship when the world goes white and fire pours from the sky. When Hiroko regains consciousness, she is scarred in more ways than one: the only world she knew has been obliterated along with her fiancé – whose “shadow” she later imagines she sees on a rock near the blast’s epicenter – and her father, whom she envisions as a dying reptile crawling up a slope; and the three black cranes on the white kimono she was wearing at the time are permanently tattooed on her back.

Two years later, Hiroko has picked up the pieces of her life and moved to Delhi, where she stays with Konrad’s half-sister Elizabeth and her husband, forming a lasting friendship with the former and then an unlikely relationship with a young man named Sajjad Ashraf. But this is 1947, and millions of individual lives are being tossed about on the relentless tide of history; Sajjad has to leave India and move to the newly created country across the border, and Hiroko goes with him. When we next meet them more than three decades later they live in Karachi, but events in the world outside continue to exert a pull over their family, as their restless son Raza comes dangerously close to joining the Afghan mujahideen – the young warriors trained by the Americans to fight the Soviets.

Burnt Shadows is a multi-generational, multi-cultural story about the turbulence of a century where large groups of people have had to leave their homes and where events from the distant past cast a very long shadow over the present. Though Hiroko is the thread that runs through the book, the story isn’t filtered through any one person’s perspective: the omniscient narrator allows us access to the thoughts and feelings of many characters, sometimes moving from one to the other within a single passage. Apart from Sajjad, Elizabeth and Raza, they include Elizabeth’s son Harry Burton, who works for the CIA and forms a strong bond with Raza, and Harry’s daughter Kim who becomes close to the aged Hiroko in the book’s final section, set in New York post 9/11.

This is a big canvas, with many different stories that have to be juggled around and fitted together, and Shamsie handles it well, though I wish Hiroko had been given more space in the second half; I couldn’t invest myself to the same extent in Raza’s tribulations. Hiroko really is the heart of this book, a survivor who tries to transcend the past even though it’s impossible to forget it. When she reaches New York – in the week that India and Pakistan conduct their nuclear tests – and the immigration official, noting her Pakistani passport, reassuringly (patronisingly?) says “It’s OK, you’re safe here”, we see the irony of the situation: that a victim of America’s atomic bomb should “have chosen this, of all countries, as her place of refuge from a nuclear world”. But despite Hiroko’s ambivalence towards the US, there’s little doubt that having arrived, she’s going to make the best of her new life in this country, just as she has done many times before.

To do this, of course, she needs the support and companionship of people she cares about – people for whom individual relationships are more important than political histories. Running beneath the main narrative of this novel is the parable about the Prophet Muhammad being protected by a spider that weaves a web across the mouth of the cave he is hiding in, leading his pursuers to believe that no one could be inside the cave. This “spider dance” – friends and families looking out for each other – is what connects the people in Shamsie’s book across the generations, and the point is underlined (though perhaps too explicitly) towards the end, in a passage where two characters recount the connections between their families over the past 60 years.

In the connections it makes between places, people and events, this book is a reminder of history’s tangled webs, of the many strange ways in which the fates of nations and their people intersect, and of the dehumanisation
process that allows tragedies like mass murder to take place. The macho posturing of young Pakistani boys – steeped in Islamic fundamentalism and wanting to join the mujaheedin – is compared to Japanese youngsters yearning to become kamikaze pilots during the Second World War. Afghanistan – in the time before the Americans and Soviets made it a personal battleground – is likened to Nagasaki before the bomb fell. (“The light in Afghanistan. Like nowhere else,” says a character reverentially, looking at a photograph of an unreal, blue sky.) When Sajjad is forced to leave his beloved Dilli, it’s an echo of Hiroko’s departure from Japan. (“Until you see a place you’ve known your whole life reduced to ash you don’t realise how much you crave familiarity,” she says in a moving passage, “I want people to disapprove when I break the rules and not simply to think that I don’t know better...I want doors to slide open instead of swinging open”). And there are little misunderstandings and twists of fate, like the one where a young boy looking to buy a cassette player for his father ends up with an AK-47 instead.

At one point Konrad, whose shadow hangs over much of the book, tells Hiroko that metal barriers can turn fluid when touched simultaneously by people on either side. This is idealistic, but Shamsie balances it with a more pragmatic, hard-edged understanding of how individuals are shaped and damaged by history, and how easily one injustice can beget another. “Those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it,” goes the saying, but this book allows us to see that such repetition is inevitable even when knowledge and understanding exist. And it’s worth mentioning that in a crucial passage in the final section, the “spider web” is broken by an inadvertent act of betrayal. The web of shared humanity can be very tenuous.

P.S. A minor problem I had with the book was that some of the conversations are stilted and over-expository. Like this one between Hiroko and Sajjad:
“I like being with you. I would like to go on being with you. I almost put that aside myself in fear of a possible tomorrow, but if these days teach us anything it’s that all we can do in preparation for tomorrow is nothing. So let’s talk about today.

She smiled. Optimism. That was Sajjad’s gift. She opened her mouth and breathed it in.

“Can I ask, have you ever kissed a woman?”

“A gentleman doesn’t answer such questions.”

“I just want to make sure you know how to do it. My decision may hinge on the matter.”

“I see I shall have to demonstrate.”
I should clarify that this passage isn't representative of all the conversations that take place in this book, but
generally speaking I thought the descriptive passages the ones where the narrator speaks for the characters – were more compelling than the conversational ones.