Friday, January 30, 2009

Stranger than fiction?

I’m talking Indian reality. The idea of pollution has forever been at the centre of it. Take Gandhi. He was always thinking and talking about purifying himself and others. His innumerable fasts and weekly days of silence and perennial enemas were for purification of the soul and of the body. Gandhi was not the only one obsessed with purity. Most Indians are in a lop-sided sort of way. They keep their homes scrupulously clean and yet don’t seem to mind, nay, even notice, if the neighbourhood is turning into a garbage dump. There are latter-day urban Indians who look upon a menstruating woman as a polluting influence in a home. I remember back in the late sixties or early seventies a young colleague of mine saying to me that he found it repugnant that women "bled every month". These were his exact words. I was taken aback and tongue-tied. I think I blurted out something about Nature and slunk away. What I did not then realise was that the young man, who by the way was not a Hindu, was merely parroting the deeply ingrained belief of his compatriots. To quote the JNU Professor, Dipankar Gupta: "According to the caste principle, all routine substances that come out of one's body, like perspiration, excreta, and menstrual blood are polluting even to oneself. By the same token, hair is also polluting which is why a ritually proper tonsure is a shaven head. The traditional roles of the barber, washerman and scavenger were precisely to absorb specific pollutants so that members of the upper castes could remain 'clean'." (Gupta earlier in the same article quotes the anthropologist Mary Douglas who once pointed out that "dirt was simply 'matter out of place'. Food on the plate is the way it should be everywhere, but becomes dirt when it is on the floor. Shoes on one's feet are fine, but if placed on the table then that's dirt." She also wrote the following: "Rules about eating and not eating certain foods, touching or not touching certain people (castes) or people at certain times (during menstruation, mourning, etc.) have nothing to do with 'primitive' ideas of hygiene." If all this makes sense, the Mangalore pub incidence is not Talibanisation of India. One of our long forgotten ancestors thought of it √¶ons ago. Indian truth is stranger than fiction. Imagine in a land where more than half the population goes to sleep hungry, hunger strike is a powerful weapon of protest and political blackmail. What's more, it works.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Scary story.

Sometimes, a story scares you without warning. I'm reading one just now. It's called The Anderson Boy. Joseph Hansen wrote it. Hansen's chief claim to fame is that he created a gay private eye character, Dave Brandstetter. I have not read a single one of the 12-book series. Apparently, they are very good. This is the first time I'm reading his work. The story line he uses in it is to confront the perpetrator of a past crime with its victim who is suffering from amnesia. The anticipation of what will happen any moment is what raises the fear quotient. Also, there is a seeming similarity in the circumstance of the past event with the circumstances of the present. It's very like what Hitchcock used to do. Raise the anticipation of the shape of something dire coming soon. The reader's mind does the rest.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Waiter.

This morning, I chanced to watch a bit of the Blake Edward 1968 comedy, The Party. Peter Sellars plays an Indian actor called Hrundi V Bakshi who is black-balled in Hollywood but gets invited to a party thrown by the hot-shot producer of the movie from which he has been fired - owing to a clerical error. Thanks to his native talent to attact accidents and havoc, he turns the party into a near-disaster. It seems the film was mostly on-the-spot improvisation with a very short written script. The guy who sent me into splits was not Sellars, though, It was Steven Franken as Levinson, the drunken waiter. He reminded me of the well-orchestrated antics of Chaplin in his two-reelers. In The Party, Bakshi's presence acts as the catalyst to get Levinson more and more inebriated every time they cross paths. In one scene, we watch over Bakshi's shoulders Levinson's boss throttling him in the kitchen every time the swing door opens and closes. I thought it was the height of Chaplineque humour. There's also Sellar's one-liner to his "partiner" who is teaching a starlet to play pool: "Don't mind me. I'm merely spectating." This hilarious movie had drawn a lot of flack when it was released in India and, if memory serves, was even banned for a while. According to Hollywood apocrypha, Satyajit Ray was supposed to make a sci-fi film with Sellars. But he was so disgusted with his performance in The Party that he refused to go ahead with the project. He was perhaps offended too by Bakshi's pet monkey's name, Apu.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nobody's perfect.

In Sydenham College of Commerce & Economics, then partly resident in the now-demolished Sukhadwala Building, close to Kitab Mahal and Excelsior Cinema, you had to climb steep rickety stairs to reach the FY Commerce lecture hall on the third floor. If you had patience, you could wait and try your luck with the rattling elevator. This was back in 1952. I had just passed my SSC exam and enrolled for the B Com course only because one of my cousins had become a Chartered Accountant. I wanted to emulate him, I guess. Anyway, that's how I came to know of Joan Robinson. Professor Gangadhar Gadgil used to teach us Economics or Eco as we called it. He wasn't as good a teacher as he was a Marathi litt√©rateur, I'm sorry to say. He lectured deadpan and made Eco sound a parched, scorched, desolate, harsh, coarse, grating and excessively rude discipline. Reading Joan Robinson, thanks to my ingrained habit of going to the source, made me realise how much fun it could be. She had quite a writing style all her own. She was perfectly lucid about imperfect competition. From her, I learned the "monopsony" concept, the buyer-side equivalent of monopoly. We did not hear of it in the lecture hall. It's amusing to note that the most striking latter-day example of monopsony is the government as the sole buyer of sophisticated weaponry in a national market. The entry of the terrorist buyers turns the scenario "duopsonic". By the early fifties, India was already showing clear symptoms of morphing into a state monopoly. In the automobile market, a duopoly was emerging. This reminds me of her perceptive remark about India made popular by her illustrious student, Amartya Sen: "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true." It seems she lived for three years with her husband, Austin, in India before the country got its Independence. "I don't know mathematics, therefore I have to think" was her other oft-cited remark. Her ability to put into words really complex mathematical concepts was the result of this realisation on her part. Reading her and W Arthur Lewis, the first Novel Prize winner of African descent, spurred me to do research in development economics for my M Com degree. Unfortunately, Robinson could not get the Nobel Prize for Economics although Business Week had tipped her as the likely winner in 1975 echoing all her colleagues' expectations. Her Indian ward, Amartya Sen, did. The reason she missed the bus was, it was rumoured, her increasing leftist leanings as she aged. For instance, she openly expressed her admiration for Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. In the meantime, perfect or pure competition continues to remain the neo-classical economist's ivory-tower fantasy. Maybe, he wasn't paying attention to Jerry Louis' repartee to Dean Martin when he called him a perfect fool. "You're wrong, Dean. Nobody's perfect."

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Time-barred jokes anyone? (Their use-before date is long past.)

You'll have to go when your time comes, common sense tells you. That's wisdom learned from experience and observation. Even jokes are not exempt from this fate, it suddenly dawned on me when I read the following jokes from an old dog-eared joke book this evening.

A veteran bank robber much hassled by his wife's demand for cash tries to placate her: "Just wait till the bank closes, dear, you shall have all the cash you need."

Then, there is the much harassed lawyer who keeps calling home and finds the line busy. So, he summons his secretary, tells her to take down a telegram for his daughter. "Send it by express wire," he tells the secretary. "Get off the line this instant, Sue," his telegrams reads.

With the advent of ATM, the first joke works no more. The second one was funny in the Jurassic era much before email, cellular phones, SMS. No such luck now, though.


Friday, January 02, 2009

Flick. Movie. Film. Cinema.

The two rhyming pejoratives in Chicks on Flicks, the Sony Pix review show title, took me back to the days when I could, and would, distinguish between movie, film and cinema. According to my then received ideas on the French theory, here is how it goes. The "filmic" facet of the art concerns its relationship with the world. The "cinematic" aspect deals with the aesthetics and the internal structure of a film. "Cinema" may turn out to be high art, for all you know. "Movie" delineates its role as an economic commodity or a marketable product. You watch a movie just like you eat pop corn and drink soda now sold in the multiplexes at as conscionably high prices as those of the movie tickets. If you dare me to spout some more of my borrowed wisdom, I would bore you with the definition of "auteur" again according to the French theory. The French word means "author". When it is applied to cinema, it means a film maker whose individual style and total control over all elements of production give a film his or her personal and unique stamp. Hitchcock was considered the quintessential auteur although he worked in the British and, later on, in the Hollywood Studio System. Ask Francois Truffaut, the originator of the auteur theory. John Ford and Howard Hawks too sailed in the same boat as the Master of Suspense. Woody Allen may also fit the bill. If you're still not bored to distraction, let me enlighten you on what a chick flick is. Simply put, it's a movie specifically designed to appeal to a primarily female audience, the exact opposite of a guy movie. Two recent chick flicks had either a made-in-India (Monsoon Wedding, 2001) or a British Indian Sikh expat (Bend It Like Beckham, 2002) bias. Was Chak De India a chick flick?