Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Sagamore Saga.

Seven-year-0ld Billy’s Uncle Sagamore in Charles Williams’ The Diamond Bikini (Simon & Schuster, London, 1956) is quite a character. As usual, I happened to have this gem of a book lying unread for years in one of my cupboards. What a treat it is. First of all, this (to me) unknown mystery writer has a great knack for story telling. Secondly, he uses Billy, the son of Sam Noonan. an itinerant race course tout, to tell it. This makes the narrative rip-roaringly hilarious because Billy recounts every shenanigan of his uncle with a straight face without understanding the deviousness behind it. Sagamore has a genius for making money without doing an honest day’s work. He sells moonshine, runs the gambling racket and even the whorehouses in the nearby town in the Deep South of the US of A in the early fifties. What’s more, he does it while claiming to be always cooperating with the law and manages to duck out of every confrontation with the Sherif, whom he calls "Shurf", unscathed. When a nightclub singer - and the star witness in a gangland killing - takes refuge on his farm and then goes missing in the wilderness wearing nothing but a diamond-studded g-string, he masterminds a whole carnival around the search for her and literally mints money. The law finally catches up with Sagamore who is incarcerated for a long, long time. In the jail too, he organises all sorts of money-making rackets until the thoroughly disgusted jailor and the State Governor conspire to have him pardoned claiming a mistrial. It’s a laugh riot.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Ray of no hope.

I am ashamed to confess that I was no fan of Satyajit Ray to begin with. http://digbig.com/4yqkf. When I joined Clarion-McCann back in 1965, the Bengalis there with whom I had to hobnob used to speak of him in a hushed, deeply reverential tone. That must have kind of put my back up. I started to almost despise Ray for no reason at all but did not articulate my views to fellow Clarionites for obvious reasons. It was only later when I started to understand the rudiments of what cinema was all about http://digbig.com/4yqkh that I did a complete about-face on Ray. This morning I read a piece in Mumbai Mirror (Interval by Chako) about a free screening of a Satyajit Ray film, Charulata, in fact, in – hold your breath! – Kolkata recently. There was only a solitary person in the auditorium – a homeless vagrant who had wandered in for the free air conditioning. Even he wanted to walk out half way but was detained by the two Ray enthusiasts who had organised the show. By contrast, the Satyajit Ray retrospective at the Lincoln Centre, New York, this April, organised by the eponymous Film Society, draws huge crowds of cinema aficionados with seats sold out weeks in advance. http://digbig.com/4yqkj. Chako also draws our attention to the fisticuffs in Venice between a female professor and a male journalist over the last ticket of Devi, a part of last year’s local Satyajit Ray retrospective. “A Ray film invites you in, but also demands that you accept it on its own terms. And those who open themselves to Ray's method are in for some of the richest experiences the cinema has to offer." This is the opinion of Richard Pena, the Film Society's director of programming. Pauline “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” Kael described Pather Panchali, the film that brought Ray to the world’s notice, "beautiful, sometimes funny, and full of love". Akira Kurosawa wrote: “The quiet but deep observation, understanding, and love of the human race, which are characteristic of all his films, have impressed me greatly. Not to have seen the cinema of Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” “Ray's magic, the simple poetry of his images and their emotional impact, will always stay with me,” wrote Martin Scorsese. All of which brings me to the question that has always bothered me. Why are Indians so grudging in accepting genius amidst them? Why are we so petty minded? The problem, I reckon, lies in Ray’s propensity to portray life at its most humdrum as he sees it (“a 5-minute close-up of water being poured from a pitcher”). “We don’t go to the multiplex except to be bedazzled and razzmatazzed, man. We want kitsch-laden, glitzy tripe, man. Hang realism, man. For us, reality Tv with Rakhi Sawant is the only reality we can face. We are Indians. We are like that only.” Chako lays to rest the usual, most-bandied accusation against Ray that he got his fame by selling India’s poverty to the world. He points out that only the first Ray film was about the rural poor. The rest of most of his ouvre was about the affluent and educated Kolkatan Bhadralok of which he happened to be very much a part.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fin de siècle.

The French, they say, always have a propensity to put across things rather stylishly. Literally speaking, “fin de siècle” means “end of the century”. The phrase contains a hint of a suggestion, though, of the end of an era and the onset of the coming one as well as of a time of degeneration and a time of new beginning. In a broader and worldlier context, it connotes a sinister mixture of decadence and opulence. All of which sounds a mouthful and bombastic and pretentious. Reading Hanif Kureshi’s The Buddha of Suburbia (Faber and Faber, London, 1990) is one entertaining way to get an insider’s view of a fin de siècle. The Whitbread Prize winning novel is set in a decaying London just before the onset of Thatcherism when Britain was said to have become totally "ungovernable”. The protagonist, Karim Amir, a second-generation British-Indian, is the bi-sexual son of the Buddha of Suburbia, Haroon ("Harry") Amir, who had emigrated from India in the late fifties or early sixties. Pop music in the times of the Punk Rock supremacy, theatre, art, deceit, fast-changing sexual mores, race relations, fake gurus, social climbing and “moving away” from the decaying suburbs are what The Buddha of Suburbia deals with in an often farcical vein.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Bear your Cross with pride.

The other day, while wading through a plethora of gifts bestowed on us on various occasions and stored away in our steel cupboard, I came across a Cross Select Tip Rolling Ball Pen with a rich brown enameled body, rather handsomely boxed. As I took it out to admire it, it triggered a memory. I’m backtracking to the late seventies and early eighties. I was working in Everest Advertising as a writer and enjoying a rather long spell of success. http://digbig.com/4yqay. This agency was run on feudal lines with many fiefdoms operating under an overlord. From time to time, durbar used to be held and favours bestowed on the deserving underlings among whom I happened to figure. One Diwali, I was among the select coterie to receive from the Overlord’s second-in-command under the benign gaze of the King-Emperor a golden Cross Ball Pen, a much coveted status symbols for executives. I was quite thrilled to get it although I did most of my writing on a typewriter. http://digbig.com/4yqba. Being absent-minded, I managed to lose my Cross soon enough and was much castigated by friends, well-wishers and associates for being so careless and uncaring.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The family priest.

At the thread ceremony we attended on Wednesday last http://digbig.com/4ypqy I saw at close quarters the presiding priest. He looked like a benevolent version of the first family priest at 233 Khetwadi Main Road. http://digbig.com/4xyxy. Our first family priest, hailed from Telangana (now Andhra Pradesh and a hotbed of Maoists and Naxalites), just like the presiding priest at the thread ceremony. My mother http://digbig.com/4yppp used to call him Shambha (Samba?) Bhatji. So he must have been named Shambhu after Lord Shiva. He was quite a jolly fellow, though bald and fierce-looking. I can hear inside my head the refrain of a mantra that used to be chanted at the fairly frequent Laghurudra puja commissioned by my mother. “Padma hastey sugandhe, sugandhe, padma hastey” which has something to do with the floral aroma wafting from lotus hands, I reckon. There used to be several priests chanting the mantra. They were divided into two teams and after one team finished chanting a verse, the other team would take up the refrain and so on and so forth. It was quite an enjoyable performance. Shambha Bhatji stopped coming one fine day and was replaced by his younger brother, Balkrishna Bhatji who used to earlier accompany him from time to time. I remember Balkrishna Bhatji telling me with his eyes closed and after silent chanting of some mantra (I presume) that I would do well in the exam I was about to write. He was later on succeeded by his son Datta Bhatji who and, after him, his son used to also preside at the temple of the Mankar family deity, Maheshwari, in Navi Wadi. http://tinyurl.com/4grxkp. Neither he nor his son is attending the shrine now. I lost track of them a few years back.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sacred Thread.

This morning, I went with Ujwal to a thread ceremony among her relations, the so-called Upanayna, the second birth of the twice-born (dvija) Brahmin, Kshatriya or Vaishya male. The first birth in the womb is followed by the second birth when the gayatri mantra is received. The three-threaded, three-stranded yajnopavitam (sacred thread) worn by him thenceforth is a reminder to the Brahmachari to be pure in thought (Gayatri), word (Sarasvati) and deed (Savitri). The Jewish Bar Mitzwah and the Zoroastrian Navjote are also rite-of-passage rituals (in both cases for both boys and girls) with similar intent. The crowd was naturally Pathare Prabhu, very hip and prosperous folks one and all with a globally spread diaspora and, surprisingly, still sticking to age-old traditions. The family of the new Brahmachari had come from Dubai to get the ceremony performed. Related posts: Breaking News. http://digbig.com/4yppm. Bad boy. http://digbig.com/4yppp. Not my best friend’s wedding. http://digbig.com/4yppn.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Fact or fiction: "A book is a product"?

No kidding. I read this eye-opening post by Sean Silverthorne in The View of Harvard Business ("What You Can Learn from the World's Top-selling Author") http://digbig.com/4ypcg. It describes how the world's top-selling author, James Patterson, has a book-writing "assembly line" of 7 or 8 writers each capable of producing a book. Patterson provides the plot, manages the "brand", writes his own ads (He used to be JWT's chief honcho once), buys the billboard space. His guiding principle is to occuply a large chunk of shelf space by producing 7 or 8 titles every year. "Sentences are hard. Stories are easy" is how Patterson with over 35 New York Times bestsellers to his credit besides an Edgar in 1976 put it to Guardian's Gaby Wood. http://digbig.com/4ypch. The Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School John Deighton http://digbig.com/4ypck (no relation of Len Deighton presumably) has this comment on the Patterson "age of brands" phenomenon: "I see his success as a sublime integration of operations and marketing ... if you want shelf space you need to publish a lot of books; that you need a production system with more than one author; and that you need to mind the brand." Julia Hanna, Associate Editor, HBS Alumni Bulletin http://digbig.com/4ypck writes in "The Case of the Mystery Writer's Brand" that the "case also highlights the spread of the blockbuster phenomenon. Ten years ago, a book was considered a success if it sold 200,000 copies. Today, the bar has been raised to 1.5 million copies, thanks in part to the dominance of "big-box" retailers (such as Wal-Mart and Costco) that only stock twenty or so bestsellers yet are responsible for 34 percent of book sales in the United States." I guess what Patterson does is a far better thought-out variation of the syndication model used by such mystery and spy brands as Ellery Queen, Michael Shayne, The Saint and James Bond.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

My brush with the Nine Naths.

Reading the story of Guru Gugga of Bagar (Bikaner) in Veronica Ions’ Myths and Legends of India (Hamlyn, 1970) – in which Gorakhnath plays a prominent role – this afternoon reminded me of my mother http://tinyurl.com/6592m5 reading the Nath Kathas when I was seven or eight years old. The roots of the Shaivaite Nath Panth, associated with Hatha Yoga and the Sikh Guru Grantha, are traced back to Adinath or Lord Shiva or Mahadeva. Shri Machhindranath, considered an incarnation of the first of the Nine Narayanas mentioned in the Bhagavata was initiated into the path of self-realization by the great Adinath Himself. http://digbig.com/4ynnr. Machhindra lived when all power in socio-religious matters was in the hands of the followers of the ritualistic form of Vedic religion, the so-called Sanatanis. The Nath lineage starting with him had Gorakhnath, Adbanganath and Gahininath, the guru of Nivrittinath, who was the elder brother and guru of Dnyaneshwar. If memory serves, according to another version of the Nath legend, Shri Dattatraya, an incarnation of the Hindu trinity Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, was its initiator and first teacher. I remember that we used to have a large framed picture of Shri Dattatraya in our puja room. The 20th Century proponents of the Nath teachings are supposed to be Nisargadatta Maharaj, Ranjit Maharaj and their guru, Siddharameshwar.