Friday, April 30, 2010

Yahoo India column announcement

Starting next Friday, I’ll be writing a fortnightly film column for Yahoo India. This is part of a new section that has launched today, and which will feature many other columns on a variety of subjects: for the full list, see this post by Amit Varma, and also see the first edition of Amit’s column Viewfinder.

And I will, of course, post my columns on Jabberwock as they appear.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Sadhu aur Shaitan, the F W Murnau version

“Are we not sinning?” the married woman asks the Godman. “He who sins in secret does not sin!” he replies, smacking his lips. Then he opens the curtains to his bedchamber, gives her a meaningful look and climbs in. Earlier in the day the expression on his face was that of a man rapt in communion with a higher power, but now he’s a satyr anticipating worldly pleasures.

The scene is from a silent film made 85 years ago – F W Murnau’s condensed treatment of the Moliere play Tartuffe – but it vaguely reminds me of the Swami Nithyanand sex videos. Though there were no TV sting operations in the 1920s, this sequence IS a sting of sorts: Madame Elmira has set up a nighttime tryst to convince her gullible husband Orgon (hiding outside the door, watching through the keyhole) that his friend Tartuffe is a hypocrite masquerading as an ascetic. The husband intervenes just in time to save her honour and cast the scoundrel out. All ends well.

Being a huge fan of F W Murnau’s work – in particular Nosferatu, The Last Laugh, Sunrise and Faust – I was pleased to find this film on DVD. Story-wise, it’s a simple-minded morality tale and most modern-day viewers would find it difficult to work up much sympathy for Monsieur Orgon and his wife, members of the noble class who are in danger of losing their expensive jewellery to the fraudster Tartuffe; it’s hard to really see these people as victims. But while Tartuffe doesn’t stand up to Murnau’s masterpieces, it’s still a very interesting film. There are visual connections to some of the director’s other work: for example, our first glimpse of Tartuffe (played by the great Emil Jannings) as he stiffly descends a staircase, prayer-book in front of his face, is spookily similar to solo shots of the vampire Nosferatu (even though Tartuffe looks like a well-fed cat while Nosferatu was lean and spider-like, and would never be caught dead - or Undead - with a prayer-book).

Murnau and his cinematographer, the legendary Karl Freund, repeat techniques that were used in The Last Laugh, and which were relatively new to filmmaking at the time: shooting from a low angle to make a character look threatening and predatory, or from a high angle to make someone seem small and helpless. There’s some brilliant self-indulgence too, as in the startling shot where Elmira weeps over a small photo of her husband that she keeps in a locket: a teardrop falls on the picture and slowly glides down his face, grossly enlarging each of his features as it goes.

But the really notable thing about Tartuffe is its unusual (for the time) use of the movie-within-a-movie technique. Its “framing” device is a contemporary story about a housekeeper persuading her nearly senile employer to disinherit his grandson and leave everything to her instead. (These lower classes! Always preying on the moneyed! And she’s slowly poisoning him too!) The grandson is turned out of the house, whereupon he breaks the fourth wall by scampering at the camera, removing his hat, looking directly at us, and saying, “You, who witnessed this scene, may rest assured that I shall not give in without a struggle! I shall rescue my grandfather from this humbug!”

Shortly afterwards, he arrives at the house disguised as the proprietor of a “touring cinema”. Ringing a bell vigorously, he proclaims that the film he wishes to screen is “a story about saints and sinners”.

“We want no cinema!” sniffs the housekeeper from the window. “Pictures! Moving pictures! What nonsense!” snorts the old man.

But they both give in and the boy sets up a screen, complete with little curtains, on the living-room wall. Then he blows the candles out, darkening the room, and starts the projector with a flourish. (There’s something mystical about this buildup. He resembles a conjuror about to display his cleverest trick - it made me think of the film The Illusionist.) The camera that has so far been showing us the framing story now moves into the screen on the wall, and the cautionary story of Tartuffe begins.

Cinema was relatively young in 1925, with lots of questions being asked about whether it was capable of raising people’s consciousness (as opposed to “simply” telling amusing stories). In Tartuffe, we see a pedantic demonstration of the medium's power to warn viewers about the evils around them. (The “lesson” being that the world is full of pious hypocrites and that there could be one sitting right next to you – perhaps watching the same film that you’re watching!) It’s self-conscious but it’s inventive, and a lot of fun. And when the boy starts playing the Tartuffe film, I can’t help thinking of the anchors on TV news channels today, hysterically ringing bells (in the form of “breaking news” flashes), claiming to hold up a mirror to our sordid times.

P.S. Orgon and Elmira are played by Werner Krauss and Lil Dagover, who also co-starred a few years earlier in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Krauss was only in his mid-thirties when he played the fierce-looking Caligari in that film, and his clean-shaven, goofy appearance in Tartuffe makes for quite a contrast to the earlier role.

[Some earlier posts on silent films: The Passion of Joan of Arc, Nanook of the North, Robert Bloch and Lon Chaney, Mizoguchi and the benshi]

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Childhood’s end (the day the comfort food died)

Heartbreaking news came to me as I stood at the Nirula’s counter earlier this afternoon, and its bearer was a man with a large grin on his face.

Nirula’s has discontinued its mutton sausage pizza.

“Why?” I asked, swaying on my feet. To expand the “Indian” menu, replied the grinner. (“Try our new keema-do-pyaaza pizza, it’s very good.”)

I suddenly feel very old. Just a few days ago I was
reminiscing with an old school-friend, Nakul, over lunch (at the Chi Kitchen & Bar, incidentally – one of my favourite restaurants), and I told him that he was central to my first ever memory of a proper Nirula’s meal. A group of us were at the Chanakyapuri branch sometime in the early 80s at a birthday party when I heard Nakul telling the waiter:

“One cheese sausage pizza, please.”

Each syllable was clearly enunciated; even at age 7 he had a deep and powerful voice, seemingly tailor-made for elocution classes or annual school debates. Just as important, he spoke with the confidence of a kid who had eaten at Nirula’s many times before and knew exactly what he wanted to order.

It was my introduction to the idea that things like pizzas could exist outside of Archie comics – that they could be a part of my world too. So I ordered the same thing, trying my best to sound like a veteran, and within weeks the simple, chewy Nirula’s sausage pizza went from being something daunting and unfamiliar to being the best sort of comfort food. In later years it would become peripheral, as I got acquainted with more sophisticated pizzas at more sophisticated restaurants, but it was always just a phone call away. Even my London-based cousin, visiting last year, said it reminded him of his childhood, though he had never spent more than a couple of weeks in India as a child.

And now, it’s gone. Because Nirula’s is suddenly “Desilicious”.

I can be just as desi in my eating tastes as the next guy, but why was this necessary? What next, hot chocolate fudge with a kulfi base?

[Another food-related nostalgia rant here]

Monday, April 19, 2010

Humphing textbooks

For the past few mornings Abhilasha has been helping two of the cook’s children with their English lessons. It hasn’t been easy – she found that despite being in the eighth and sixth standard, they had a problem reading out basic sentences, or understanding what those sentences meant. On being asked what happens in the classroom, they said the teacher typically gets a chapter read out by one of the two or three students whose English is good, and then explains the gist of the chapter to the others ... in Hindi. “I’d really like to get my hands on their exam answer sheets,” Abhilasha said, “I can’t imagine what these kids must be writing – maybe their answers are in Hindi too.”

Nor was she helped by my chuckling fit when I came across the following exchange in (a mildly abridged version of) the Kipling story “How the Camel Got his Hump”:
“Does he say anything else?”

“Only ‘Humph!’; and he won't plough,” said the Ox.

“Very good,” said the Djinn. “I'll humph him if you will kindly wait a minute.”
Okay, forget that mental picture of the Djinn setting off to “humph” the camel. I’m not sure how the over-formal, old-world English prevalent elsewhere in the story is of much use to these kids, who are struggling with even basic words and sentence arrangements, and who will certainly not be using sentences that begin “Presently there came to him...” anytime in the future. Besides, what is a description like “howling desert” supposed to convey to a kid who hasn’t even been properly taught what “desert” means? (He might have heard the word “registaan” during a Hindi conversation, but he has no practical understanding of what such a place is like anyway. No wonder most of these kids have to reconcile themselves to rote-learning.)

Flipping through this NCERT text-book, I was reminded of my conversations with the redoubtable Atiya Zaidi, publisher, Ratna Sagar, during our German trip last year. Among other things, Atiya spoke about the regressive attitudes in textbooks that provide children with their introduction to the world of reading. Here are some of her thoughts, which I had transcribed at the time (and partly used in this story for the Hindu’s Literary Review):

“There are still so many gender biases and stereotypes in children’s textbooks in India. When children are asked to draw a teacher, they reflexively draw a matronly woman dressed in a sari with hair in a bun; they wouldn’t think of drawing a young woman with short hair. When asked to draw a doctor, it’s always a man. In Mathematics problems a husband will always draw a higher salary than his wife, girls will always get fewer marks than boys. These things are rife in textbooks but nobody bothers; there is no official body as such that will point out these things.

“There’s a school textbook for class 7 that says ‘Ferozshah Tughlak, even though he was a Muslim, was a kind man.’. These guys get away with any nonsense. Ten years ago you wouldn’t have found any south Indian name in our textbooks – there were mostly north Indian Brahmannical names. Even today you won’t find a north-eastern name or an Oriya name. Imagine the conditioning effect this sort of thing has on children over the years. A sheltered child might not even know that it’s possible to be called Baruah, or that Mr Khan can speak English too. A textbook is such a potent weapon but we aren’t bothered.

“Moral-science books project God as a punitive, threatening person. I remember a cautionary story where a nurse reached the hospital late and a patient died, and the ‘moral’ of the story was that you should be on time or else ‘God will be angry with you’. The people who write these textbooks are stuck in a time-warp, they are simply doing what they’ve always been doing.”

“For a child a book is like a gospel,” Atiya noted afterwards, “If you try to correct him he says no no, my book says this.” Well, Abhilasha’s been experiencing some of that with these kids. The books are sacrosanct, even when they don’t understand a lot of what’s written in them.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Short take: Piggies on the Railway

[Despite my well-documented aversion to the small review spaces in mainstream media – and the limitations of the 300-word format there are times when it’s relaxing to be able to do a short write-up about a book that I enjoyed but couldn't get too analytical about. Have been doing a few for the weekly column I write for the new Sunday Guardian paper, and will put these up here every now and again]

Private investigator Kasthuri Kumar, the narrator of Smita Jain’s Piggies on the Railway, is a kick-ass heroine. She does interior monologues in the style of Philip Marlowe and other hardboiled detectives in 1930s crime fiction. But this being a book that – improbably but successfully – combines a detective story with chick-lit, Kasthuri (also known as Katie) has more on her mind than just solving the kidnapping case assigned to her. For starters, her loins turn to mush whenever she’s in the presence of Kaustav Kapoor, the handsome movie producer who has hired her to trace his missing heroine. Then there’s the dashing Tejas Deshpande, her rival in the sleuthing business but a potential bedfellow in more way than one. And as if this weren’t enough for a girl to deal with, she can’t stop having “break-up sex” with her ex-boyfriend. (Which lands her into potential trouble when the ex-boyfriend’s wife turns up dead.)

I didn’t expect much from Piggies on the Railway when I started it – in fact, honestly speaking, I didn’t expect to finish it – but Jain’s smart, sassy style grew on me. As a mystery, this isn’t up to the Agatha Christie or P D James standard (there’s something a little random about the denouement, which occurs in the last four or five pages; you get the impression that with very minor tweaking it would have been equally possible for the murderer to turn out to be someone else) but the fun lies in the journey, not the destination. Events unfold at a quick pace and it’s refreshing to come across a female protagonist who has an edgy sense of humour, a strong sexual appetite and a short fuse, but who also manages to be ditzy and likable. (When she daydreams about winning the Nobel Prize for Physics, she's fuzzy about the details but she's very sure that she’ll be wearing “a shimmering red Valentino gown with black Fendi peep toes”.) This is apparently the first in a series of books featuring Katie and I think she’ll make a good recurring character.

I did feel that the writing (or the editing) could have been crisper in places; there are many examples of sentences that could have lost flab – enough, perhaps, to reduce a 400-page book by 50 or so pages. But that’s my only real complaint about this otherwise pleasing novel.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

BlogAdda interview

The chaps at BlogAdda sent across a few questions and I obediently answered them. Questions like "What's your favourite movie/book/colour?" make me freeze, but I've tried not to be too much of a party-pooper, and have even given rambling answers to some of the other questions. Enjoyed doing this on the whole. Here's the full interview.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Anup Kurian on his 'small' film

[A version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Business Standard. Earlier posts on The Hunt here, here and here]

When I first see him, Anup Kurian is standing on a large rock near a cliff-edge, eyes red from lack of sleep, waiting for the sun to cast just the right shadow. Possibly he isn’t in the mood for smart-aleck quips, but this is not an opportunity to pass up. “Dr Livingstone, I presume,” I say, holding out my hand – it’s been a long climb up a desolate mountain road near Kurian’s family house in Vagamon, Kerala, and there’s something surreal about stumbling out of foliage at 5.30 in the morning to find a film crew shooting here, of all places.

There are two reasons why “The Hunt” – the working title for Kurian’s second feature as a writer-director – is being filmed entirely on what is, for him, home ground. The first is that Vagamon is a beautiful, pristine location, perfectly suited to the character-driven script about a middle-aged recluse growing potent marijuana in a forest retreat. The second is that “The Hunt” is being made on a budget of only around Rs 40 lakh, much lower than even non-mainstream Bollywood movies.

That’s still a step up from Kurian’s first feature Manasarovar, which cost Rs 11 lakh to make in 2004, got good notices at the London Film Festival but then suffered from poor distribution and never really found an audience. “We lost a lot of money while releasing that movie,” says Kurian, “One thing they don’t teach you in film school is distribution – you learn it the hard way!” This time around he has more reason for optimism; with Naseeruddin Shah playing the lead role, “The Hunt” is assured of basic visibility.

Kurian has been obsessed with movies and cameras for as long as he can remember – he moonlighted as a wedding photographer during his school and college days and later did a production course at the Films and Television Institute of India (FTII) – but he isn’t what you’d call a “full-time” director. After FTII, he spent a few years working in San Francisco as a software programmer, and simultaneously began writing scripts. (“You need logic to do coding, though it’s a bit different from the logic you need to write a screenplay,” he jokes.) His IT projects have helped fund his movie-making: “I like to produce my own films.”

In one sense, making a low-budget film is easier in the Internet age. Kurian’s unit - most of whom worked on Manasarovar too - live and work in places as far-flung as Kottayam, Mumbai and the US, but this didn’t matter, for most of the early brainstorming was done online, on Skype, Google Talk and email. “Our pre-production communication costs were close to zero,” he says, “There was no need for face-to-face meetings, everyone was working simultaneously on their own projects in the comfort of their homes or offices, and we all got together only when the film actually had to roll. I wouldn’t have been able to make a movie on this scale 15 years ago.”

The actual shooting is trickier. Costs have to be carefully accounted for each day (getting 40 cans of film from Kodak for a marked-down price of Rs 5,000 each was a minor triumph), little compromises are made, tempers tend to fray easily. Artificial lights aren’t available for the last few days of shooting, which means keeping fingers crossed that the clouds stay away.
Other hitches flow from shooting in a small, homely location where it becomes difficult to separate the personal from the professional. Many people in the area know Kurian and his family well, and they expect to be involved with the film. A real-life local policeman, who has been requested to bring along his jeep for a short scene in Vagamon town, is under the impression that he will get to play a small role as well – to act with Naseeruddin Shah! – and no doubt he’s spread the news among his friends and relatives. So when he sees an actor in a policeman’s costume he gets miffed, turns his jeep around and departs. Result: shot scrapped altogether. To put it mildly, this isn’t the sort of thing that could happen on a Karan Johar production.

A situation like this threatens to mess up a tight schedule: the crew is already on location and every shift is precious. But just as Kurian is about to announce packup, he gets a call from Vipin Sharma, who is playing a small part in the film. Sharma is in a jeep on his way up to the guesthouse in Vagamon – his first scene is being shot the next day – so Kurian does some last-minute rescheduling and tells him to come directly to the town area. When he arrives, the actor is hustled into his costume and the unit manages to take a brief but important shot that had originally been scheduled for another day. Such are the exigencies of a low-budget shoot.

It’s a wonder that Kurian manages to keep a smile on his face through most of this, but then, as he puts it, “I have to be the cool and composed guy on the set. If I lose it, nothing will get done.” He even manages to say humorous things in the tone of a Zen master. “I have a theory,” he says, straight-facedly, pausing for effect, “that any good film needs an elephant in it. You need to fill the screen to hold the viewer’s attention, and what better than an elephant. Unless, of course, you have Mohan Lal!” But even elephants are costly beasts, and the one being used for a single scene in “The Hunt” will set the film back by Rs 10,000 a day.

However, there are areas where he doesn’t brook compromises. When the script was being finalised, some of his advisers suggested alterations to make characters’ motivations more strongly defined and to give the story a fixed arc – even a twist near the end. But Kurian stuck to his guns. “I’m allergic to plots,” he says nonchalantly, and you understand what he means when you watch Manasarovar, a film that isn’t concerned so much with the resolution of a narrative as with mood, character development and creating a sense of unknowable connections between different types of people. “The moment someone tells me that the script should follow a tried-and-tested template, I lose interest.”

Kurian has spent many happy years in Vagamon, going back to his childhood, and when he tells me that he wanted to “write a story that would encompass all of this locale – the cave, the rocks, the stream – because Vagamon has been in my consciousness for 25 years”, I picture him taking long walks in the area around his house, pen and paper in hand, stopping every now and again to make notes for the script: wouldn’t this be a nice spot to shoot a quiet scene between Colonel and his dog? Perhaps the hitman could use that boulder for a hiding place?

This is an idyllic image, but Kurian is equally driven by a practical desire to show that a genuinely small movie can work. “A lot of goodwill has gone into this film,” he says, “Sacrifices were made, most of the cast and crew worked on something like pro-bono terms in return for a share of whatever profit the film may make. So when a film like this does well, it sets an example. Word gets around that small, independent producers can be trusted, and more people become willing to risk doing such films.”

We’re interrupted by the DOP shouting “Clear the field!” Gathering his lungi around him, Kurian bends down to remove large pieces of paper and polythene bags from the ground. Then he moves out of the “field” himself, yells “Action!” and the camera rolls.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Movie lists and anniversaries

[From my film column for Business Standard. This was a few months ago - still haven't put up a lot of old stuff]

It was, of all things, on a tennis website that I had one of my intenser movie-related discussions. This was during “off-hours”, when all the matches for the day were long over and the inevitable squabbles between Federer fans and Nadal fans had died down, or at least begun to approximate (grudging) civility. Our conversation turned to must-watch films and a commenter supplied his list of “definitive classics”, categorised by director and genre. But what I found odd was that he made a firm distinction between the movies he personally loved and the movies that he classified as Essential Viewing.

For instance, his own favourite Kurosawa was The Seven Samurai, which he said “invigorates me like no other film”, but at the same time he proclaimed that the "best" Kurosawa was unquestionably Ran (because it was a more “formally perfect” work that belonged to the director’s mature period). Welles’ Citizen Kane headed his top 10 list though he admitted that he personally found it somewhat boring. He explained the distinction by saying that some films met the “generally accepted criteria” for greatness – being internally self-consistent, perfectly merging form with content, scoring full marks in every major department – and that therefore these belonged to the Canon of Indispensability, even if they aren't necessarily to all tastes.

The immediate problem with this view is: which supreme authority gets to decide what films meet all the criteria and to what precise degree? The fact is, if you take a large sample of the world’s most knowledgeable directors, film students and critics, and ask each of them to list their top 10 movies, you’ll almost certainly end up with hundreds of completely different titles. (If you ask each of them to list their top 50, you’ll probably end up with thousands of different films.) There will never be complete consensus even about seemingly quantifiable individual elements like camerawork or dialogue – much less the complicated mix of tangible and intangible things that determine how a particular film will affect a particular viewer.

And why should there be consensus anyway? The best, most interesting lists are the personal ones where you get a sense of the individual making the selection, and what his specific tastes, beliefs and feelings about cinema are. Not the ones that feign “objectivity” and pretend there is a scientific rating system.

My benchmark for movie lists as reflectors of different sensibilities are the fabulous top 10 lists on the Senses of Cinema website. What you get here is a range of selections from writers, scholars and film buffs from around the world. All these people are deeply passionate about films; many of them explain their choices in a few sentences, or just a few words (“a heart-stirring ending”, “combines horror with great beauty”). In some cases a single scene, or even a vignette lasting a few seconds, is enough to justify the inclusion of a movie on their list. (No pretensions here about a film having to be satisfying "as a whole".) In the more eclectic lists, animation from the 1930s sits on the same page as violent modern horror and gentle human dramas. The variety of movies – including many you’d never think of as textbook classics, and many you’d never find on the much-too-homogenised IMDB Top 250 – is astonishing; it would take the most dedicated viewer more than a lifetime to get through them.

Incidentally, a recent visit to the Senses website reminded me that last year marked the 50th birthday of some fine films (one of the list contributors had included only films released in 1959!). I have a childhood memory of an international videocassette of Ben-Hur labeled “25th anniversary edition”. Well, the Golden Jubilee year of that epic has just passed, and in the DVD era anniversary celebrations are truly grand, with bonus discs that contain hours of extra material.

That said, if you asked me for my list of best 1959 movies, Ben Hur wouldn’t be on it; some of my favourites from that year include Anatomy of a Murder, Fires on the Plain, The 400 Blows, Some Like it Hot,
Apur Sansar and North by Northwest. Special-edition DVDs of some of these are out; look out for them, and start making your own – personal – lists.

P.S. the list of my favourite films that turn 50 this year - 2010 - is even more sumptuous. Psycho. Peeping Tom. Eyes Without a Face. The Virgin Spring. Breathless. Inherit the Wind. But more on that another time.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Who shot the photographer?

Here's a photograph that came to me as part of a press release - it's from the Mumbai launch of the coffee-table book History in the Making: The Visual Archives of Kulwant Roy. On the left is photographer Aditya Arya, who inherited hundreds of photos from the late Kulwant Roy's collection, digitised and preserved them and helped put the book together; on the right is the actor Anupam Kher, who did the inauguration.

The book promises to be a fascinating collection of previously unpublished pictures of national leaders and historical events, and I look forward to it. However, the photo above - although of much less historical value - was of personal interest for another reason.

In 1982, the then 22-year-old Aditya Arya was the stills photographer on the Jaane bhi do Yaaro shoot. As trivia buffs - and devoted fans of the film - might know, Anupam Kher played a role that never made it to the final cut of that movie, a bumbling, short-sighted hired assassin known as the "Disco Killer". If his scenes hadn't been chopped, it would probably have been the actor's breakthrough part.
(Having read the original script, I was particularly amused by a scene where the Disco Killer explains that he prefers to shoot at his targets when they are in a crowd rather than when they are isolated, "because then I can dispatch the entire crowd at one go and your guys will be taken care of in the process”. Luis Bunuel, who said that the ultimate act of surrealism would be to shoot randomly into a crowd, would have approved.)

"The Disco Killer would have become enormously popular," Arya told me when I spoke with him about the film last year, "I could see him becoming a recurring character in later comedies."
Unfortunately there are no surviving stills from the Disco Killer's scenes - and what a pity, I think, as I watch these two men, now middle-aged, looking all serious at a photo exhibition.

However, Arya did send me a photograph from the JBDY shoot where, for once, he found himself on the wrong end of the camera. This picture was taken during a chaotic five-day location shoot in Alibaug, mention of which still causes the eyes of every JBDY unit member to widen in terror. Basic facilities weren't available, there were no sleeping arrangements, and people would take a bath in the open under the garden tap. Young Aditya was doing just this when the film's lead actor turned the lens on him:

Photo credit: Naseeruddin Shah who, as it happens, played a photographer in the film. (This picture was taken with Naseer's own Nikon camera, which was later stolen during the shoot.)

Friday, April 02, 2010

The Temple-goers: split cities, split identities

Aatish Taseer’s debut novel The Temple-goers turns on the relationship between two men. The narrator, named Aatish Taseer (a device guaranteed to raise questions about exactly how “autobiographical” this book is, as if such things are – or should be – neatly quantifiable), is a young writer born to privilege. After a few years studying and working in America and England he’s just returned to Delhi to revise a novel, and he has access to two apartments – his mother’s and his girlfriend Sanyogita’s – in the shaded, high-end colonies bordering Lutyens' Delhi. A citizen of the world, Aatish is estranged from non-cosmopolitan India, and always conscious of – and uneasy about – this estrangement.
This is reflected early on, in the book’s place descriptions. When the fictional Aatish writes about places like Jorbagh, Lodhi Gardens and Amrita Shergill Marg, he does it with precision and familiarity. But he’s on less firm ground with other parts of Delhi, including its growing satellite towns, and the novel is deliberately ambiguous and non-specific about those parts. Instead of Noida or Ghaziabad, they are given the abstract names “Sectorpur” and “Phasenagar”. The impression one gets is of a city map where the posh colonies of south-central Delhi – in a two-kilometre radius around Lodhi Gardens – are in sharp relief but the names start to get blurred as the map spreads outwards, until the satellite towns are anonymous smudges: unknowable and frightening places to someone who has led a sheltered life.
We are prepared, then, for the fascination Aatish feels towards the book’s other major figure, a fitness trainer named Aakash who lives in a lower-income-group flat in Sectorpur. “Double A like me!” Aakash exclaims when he learns Aatish’s name, the first time they meet at a gym, but gradually we will come to see how Aakash himself is something of a double, a doppelganger for our narrator. As a high-caste Brahmin, seemingly very sure of his place in the world, he is an object of envy too.
Their improbable friendship deepens: Aatish goes on a day trip with Aakash and his family to an ancestral village temple; later, he accompanies him to the home of a middle-aged prostitute where they share a different sort of intimacy. Aatish’s interest in his new friend’s life may suggest a novelist collecting material for his next book, but it’s just as likely that he is trying to understand himself and the country he wants badly to belong to.
This is where the story’s symbolic side becomes clear. Aakash is a developed character in his own right, but it’s equally possible to see him as a figure born in Aatish’s subconscious, threatening and attractive in equal measure. Aatish’s descriptions of him have a ring of awe and fearfulness (“His mud-coloured eyes narrowed; his darkish pink lips tightened; his small, powerful body hovered over mine, the rope of black religious strings hanging down like a noose...”). When he shows up – as a security guard – at an upper-crust Holi party where Aatish is a guest, and later, when he invites himself to Aatish’s flat, there is a hint of rupture, of one world intruding on another. And it’s significant that Aatish initially does his best to keep the trainer away from Sanyogita (“They both seemed in their own ways to be digging in an unspoken desire in me for them not to know each other”), almost as if Aakash were an aspect of himself that he is secretly ashamed of.
The Temple-goers is a carefully crafted novel in which even seemingly marginal scenes (such as a description of a writers’ meet where a young man reads out a short story that may or may not be a description of a real-life incident) become significant in retrospect. This carefulness can also be seen in its examination of identity, especially personal identity. On a meta-fictional level, this book is about the act of writing itself: how to write about people like yourself, how to write about people who lead very different sorts of lives. In one passage, Aatish and Sanyogita argue about compassion in writing and he says that plain honesty – depicting people as they are, without being politically correct or patronising – is a kind of compassion too. Is this what he himself is doing when he alludes to Aakash’s broken English and faulty pronunciation (“heavy” as havy, “bread” as brad)? Or is there a condescension – perhaps born out of insecurity – at work here?
But questions about national and communal identity run through the narrative too. In his first (explicitly non-fiction) book Stranger to History, Taseer – whose estranged father is a Pakistani Muslim – described his journeys through various Islamic countries to try and understand how the religion manifests itself in different places. The Temple-goers is, at least in part, a complementary examination of Hinduism, a religion that had pagan roots and was not founded on a fixed belief system; the repercussions – good and bad – of this fluidity; and the growing danger of it being overtaken by fundamentalist forces today.
At one point, Aatish’s Urdu teacher Zafar uses the word “vehshat” to describe India’s “history of animalism and sacrifice”, which he associates with the majority religion. “The land is stained,” he says, “It has seen terrible things: girl children sacrificed, widows burned, the worship of idols. The people in their hearts do not fear God. The law is not theirs, you see. It was first the Muslim law and then it was the English. And because the law is alien, they can always shrug it off and the vehshat returns.”
We are reminded of his words in a later passage set during a jagran, where the master of ceremonies cheerfully tells a story involving the sacrifice of a young boy – and still later, when a gruesome murder takes place in Sectorpur. But it’s also clear that this is just one perspective, and The Temple-goers offers us others. In one very entertaining passage, ideas of India are bandied about at a dinner party where a V S Naipaul-like figure – a writer named Vijaipal – holds centre-stage. Responding to the popular liberal-intellectual stand that India isn’t really a single country at all – that the common man from Gujarat, Assam or Tamil Nadu wouldn’t have the faintest idea of India as a land – this writer declaims:
Not the temple-going Indian. He knows this country backwards. He forever carries an idea of it in his head...He knows it through its holy places...there is almost no other country, certainly not one so vast, where the countrymen are as acquainted with the distant reaches of the land through their pilgrimages as they are in India...the religion itself is like a form of patriotism.
Persuasive though this monologue is, the reader might well wonder whether this generic “temple-goer” really is a pan-Indian creature or if what we’re talking about here is again a very specific variety of north Indian religious chauvinism – the same chauvinism that legitimises “honour killings” when a girl marries out of her caste. But then, one of this book’s achievements is that it presents forceful ideas without necessarily throwing in its lot with any of them. The fictional Aatish may have a clear sense of what the future will hold for Indians like him – and for Indians like Aakash – but the real Taseer appears to recognise the pitfalls of making broad statements about a vast, contradiction-ridden country.
[An earlier post about Taseer and Stranger to History here]