Friday, December 16, 2011

Con of the Millennium: Bharat Ratna for Sachin Tendulkar.

Whoever masterminded the campaign to get the Bharat Ratna conferred on Tendulkar must be a PR genius (or “guru” if one were to use a contemporary marketing buzzword). Imagine the amount of work that must have gone into whipping up the clamour in the media to nominate the player for the honour. The quantum of lobbying with the sports, culture and home affairs ministries and the PMO – all the foxy manoeuvres – must have required a phenomenal amount of money, influence and patience. Then came the imaginative master stroke to cloak the ludicrous proposal in a mantle of credible provenance: the enrolling of the late Dhyan Chand as his fellow conferee for the coveted award. Strike the right emotional chords. After all, Dhyan Chand played in all three Indian field hockey team winning the Olympic Gold in a row in 1928, 1932 and 1936 − the first two times as a player and in the last instance as a playing captain. He deserves to be a Bharat Ratna without doubt. Field hockey happens to be the poor cousin of cricket in India. By implication, Dhyan Chand is the underdog with whom the Master of the Universe is willing to share the crusade to win the country’s highest honour. What magnanimity! (By the way, is this the same large-hearted Sachin Tendulkar who sought in 2003 to get a Rs.1.1-crore Import Duty and Excise exemption for the Ferrari gifted to him by the manufacturer?) Even Anna Hazare, Middle India’s current hero and poster boy, and Asha Bhosale are demanding a BR for ST. The brainy Babus who have broadened the eligibility criteria for Bharat Ratna to include excellence in all fields of human endeavour need to ask themselves a simple question. Shouldn’t Har Gobind Khorana (1922 - 2011), the winner of the Nobel Prize for his role in the discovery of RNA vis-à-vis the genetic code not be the first in the queue? There is a precedence for this: Khorana’s Indian-British compatriot and fellow Nobel laureate, Prof Amartya Sen, got it in 1999. Is discovering RNA any less of a human achievement than scoring 99 centuries?

Friday, December 02, 2011

Getting caught is the only crime.

Call me cynical if you must. But, as a lifelong fan of Leslie Charteris’s The Saint, I’m hugely amused by the scathing criticism being heaped on Quentin Rowan. His crime? Copy-pasting an entire debut spy novel, Assassin of Secrets, and getting it published by Little, Brown’s Mulholland Books under his alias Q R Markham. His “sources”, according to his own confession, were Charles McCarry, Robert Ludlum, John Gardner and Adam Hall. MediaBistro’s Galleycat has copy-pasted this now no more extant bio-sketch of the author from his British publisher’s website: “Markham has been a parks department employee, laundry-truck driver, door-to-door knife salesman, telemarketer, rock ‘n’ roll bassist, literary scout, book-reviewer, small business owner, and consultant. His writing has appeared in the Paris Review, Bomb Magazine, Witness, The New York Post, and more.” To this impressive pen portrait of a “man of many parts”, Publishers Marketplace’s News Director Sarah Weinman added the precious nugget of information of his status as a co-owner of Spoonbill & Sugartown in Williamsburg. Galleycat also gives a relevant excerpt from Rowan’s essay published in October (“9 Ways That Spy Novels Made Me A Better Bookseller”): “From the great fictional spymasters like George Smiley, I learned how to be cold in my mind: free from values and concerned with nothing but the results of an action” There’s the nub of how his mind works, if you get my drift. Now even the 5 glowing reviews of Assassin of Secrets are missing at the websites ( and Goodreads) where they were originally posted. You can find their skeletons at Google Books, although the excerpts of the novel are missing. Is all this literary snobbishness, a desire to be on par with the proverbial Caesar’s wife or what? Remember the Oprah Winfrey-James Frey fracas back in 2006? That one was about fraud and not plagiarism, be warned.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

How men dominate. The inside scoop.

I just finished reading what turned out to be an extraordinary novel. It’s Dancing with Kali (Niyogi Books, Delhi, 2010) written by the erudite architect, Lalita Das. She sure had me fooled. Because it started off like one of those simple social novels that used to be published in the Diwali issues of Marathi magazines in the late forties and early fifties. What it gradually evolved into, though, was a cogent and lucid exposition of how the Indian patriarchal system works. No serious sociological tome could have explained the subject better. The chief protagonist is the matriarch of a North Goan Hindu joint family. Once she realises the nature of the beast and helplessly watches her only daughter being sacrificed on the altar of family honour, she concocts a rather fiendish plan to take over the reins of the family in order to bring up her granddaughter as a free bird. In my humble opinion, this novel deserves to be read widely instead of the trash that passes off as good reads. It is also my wish that a film director with social conscience makes a movie out of it. The story-telling is very visual and can easily be adapted for the silver screen. The novel also deals with a lot of Hindu beliefs like karma in a simple language. All in all, a remarkably rewarding read.   

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

VRI: Hum Aapke Hein Kaun?

Victoria Regina Imperatrix (queen and empress) would have loved the Internet, especially email, sms and chat. Like Gandhi, the Empress of India was an inveterate letter writer. She would probably have hogged the cell phone too. She talked and talked at the drop of a hat … oops, crown. At least, that’s how she comes across in Shrabani Basu’s Victoria & Abdul: The True Story of the Queens’s Closest Confidant. Eerily though, the narrative bears a lot of resemblance to a current-day Indian soap opera as well as a reality show like Big Boss. Abdul Karim, a lowly assistant clerk from Agra went to London to serve as the Royal khidmatgaar (personal attendant) at the time of the Golden Jubilee celebrations and rose to become her closest confidant as well as her Munshi (Hindustani tutor). As he ascended in the Queen’s esteem, he also accumulated a horde of powerful enemies at the Court. They were insanely jealous of his success and his closeness to VRI which he made a point of flaunting in their faces. The Court intrigues that followed read like episodes straight out of Big Boss. The Munshi’s behaviour was undoubtedly far from exemplary. He was overbearing and obnoxious. He also managed to parley his closeness to the Queen into a continuous stream of Page 3 mentions in the European press on both sides of the English Channel. The astounding part was the downright mean-spirited and vicious manœuvres by the snobbish British aristocracy, the Viceroys, including the Keeper of the Royal Exchequer, the Queen’s Personal Physician as well as her own offsprings all behaving no better than common guttersnipes. Victoria tried to shield her Munshi at all cost, accusing his detractors quite perceptively of colour and race prejudice. As the Great Game between Britain and Russia was always afoot on the Afghan border, the conspirators even tried to implicate Abdul’s friend Rafiuddin, a journalist, as an informer to the Afghans but with no success. By the way, one of VRI’s favourite gestures of showing favour was to have the favourite person’s portrait painted by a well-known painter. Both Abdul Karim and Rafiuddin got the treatment. The book is an entertaining read and could well be turned into an absorbing mini-series for television.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Too scared to look.

The recent reports of an asteroid (2005 YU55) passing too close to the earth for comfort reminded me of a childhood incidence. I must have been four or five years old when there was a report that a comet with a long tail was to be sighted from India. The fool that I was, I denied myself the sight of the century out of fear. There was a distant relative of mine, a kite-flying bum about whom I have written earlier. . He spun to me a fantastic yarn about a monstrous comet with a fierce moustache and a fiery tail out to devour little boys. When I cross-checked with my parents , they kind of smiled indulgently and shrugged leaving me thoroughly puzzled. I’m sure they wanted me to be brave all by myself and conquer my fear of the unknown by staring the so-called ogre in the skies right in the eye. But born coward that I was, I slunk to bed early and refused to step out on the terrace for the next couple of days. My cowardice has not disappeared with age. It has only ripened into a set pattern of behaviour. Even today, I tend to turn my back on the unpleasant, unsightly and unacceptable facts of life. Curiously though, movie monsters don’t scare me. They make me laugh.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Rear Window.

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window based on a Cornell Woolrich short story (“It Had to Be Murder”) hit the US cinema halls in 1954. Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine was launched in 1955. Alfred Hitchcock Presents, produced by his Shamley Productions, was launched on CBS the same year. The first successful TV soap in the US, Search for Tomorrow (CBS), had debuted three years prior to Rear Window’s theatrical release. To Charlotte Chandler who wrote It’s Only A Movie, Hitch described Rear Window as “a movie about a peeping Tom” and likened it to a tabloid (“a kind of peeking”). I wonder, though, if Hitch ever thought of Rear Window as the perfect metaphor for television. He described it as a “close medium” where you had to get “in close as fast as you can” and where you had “to write with the camera” rather than go “photographing dialogue”, i.e., tell the story visually. This does not answer my query. It’s possible that Hitch, living up to his taciturn nature, did not articulate his thoughts about the nature of the medium which had made him “an instantly recognizable celebrity all over the world” like Elvis Presley.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Agatha and Alfred.

Apart from the initial letter of their first given names, they shared a British pedigree, an ability to thrill and mystify – she with her novels, short stories and plays and he with his œuvre in cinema and television – and the curious coincidence of both having only one daughter. Both of them also shared a Victorian-Edwardian outlook by the accident of being born in the last decade of the 19th century. She was his senior by nine years, though. But what struck me as the most astounding coincidence is that both of them have at least one biography celebrating their respective lives which uses a similar literary device to tell the story. In The Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie, Charles Osborne unfolds the professional and personal life of the Queen of Crime using her books and plays as the milestones along the way. Charlotte Chandler follows Osborne’s example when she tells the life story of the Master of Suspense in her It’s Only A Movie. Both the books are excellent examples of how to write a biography that takes you close to the subject without slipping into a hagiographic muddle.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Positive thinking is fine. But, good grief, this is ridiculous.

“The actions of the few are not a true reflection of our city. This, what you see here, is our London. Communities coming together to clean up, reclaim, and revive the neighbourhoods they live and work and live in.

”Let it be shown that the positive action all over the city far outweighs the destruction.”

(Opening statement at This is our London

Sorry if it sounds like I’m sneering at the great tragedy that the UK is suffering at the moment. I am not. It’s only that I’m disturbed by the pompousness and the sheer naivety – nay, asininity – of the opening statement – not to mention the bad grammar (“the few” instead of “a few”; actually “quite a few” seems more apt given the situation). I guess that, in the great hurry to put the website together (“in just 8 hours”, according to the AdAge Global, a cub got the opportunity to display his/her wit and wisdom in the opening salvo – most likely, without proper guidance and quality check. What resulted was: “This is our London (in denial)”.

What was intended to be conveyed, I’d guess, was along these lines. Our city is in the throes of a serious crisis. There is a lot of death and destruction in many areas. Yet, there are also isles of hope springing up in the midst of the chaos: spontaneous acts of generosity and ingenuity by the city dwellers coming together with an abiding faith in the community’s future.

Reading the intro made me cringe also because it reminded me of something that keeps happening back home. The loose talk about “the spirit of Mumbai” that is bandied about in media and public for a every time the megapolis faces a crisis makes me want to puke too. Good grief!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Meaning is what we make of it. Momentarily.

“To live in the world without becoming aware of the world is like wandering about in a great library without touching the books.” (Manly P Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages, 1928.)

Finding meaning is a thankless and purely human preoccupation, often amounting to obsession, come to think of it. Imagine the worst-case scenario of a man lusting after an inaccessible woman plucking petals from a hapless flower and going “She loves me, she loves me not”. Jesus Christ! Coming to terms with the likelihood of life being totally, blissfully meaningless is beyond the ken of most people. (P.S.: The “meaningless” hypothesis is also capable of taking coincidences in its stride.) Our family physician is a guy who would rather short-change himself than overcharge a patient whenever he happens to be short of change. On the other hand, I know another general physician who declares that many of his patients are crooks. They often diddle him out of his modest fees and don’t keep “firm” appointments fixed over the telephone. So, his relationship with this wretched lot is governed solely by his own interests, Hippocratic Oath or no Hippocratic Oath. For instance, when planning a pleasure trip, he doesn’t give a damn about how they will cope in his absence. He doesn’t arrange for a reliable locum, either. Those days are gone for good, he avers. (My niece who has her own clinic in Canada could not come to India to visit her ailing sister for a long, long time because she could not find a trustworthy locum.) If you want to read meaning into these random happenings according to conventional wisdom, the former as also the doctor from Canada are selfless and noble healers and the other Indian doctor, a selfish, conscience-less scoundrel in perpetuity. Then, there’s the curious case of a placebo doing the work of a medicinal drug to bring about a cure. Here, the patient’s faith and trust in the doctor and his prescription impregnates the make-believe medicine with meaning to make it do the job of the real thing, as it were. Trying to find meaning may well be a trespass into an alien culture at times. Picture, if you please, a Martian hopping into a Mumbai cab and, after being taken on a long and bumpy ride by the cabbie, concluding that all Mumbai cabbies are crooks. Or, alternatively, think of the same ET quitting the cab sans his weird-looking hand-held Meltdowner 5.0, receiving a call from the cabbie about his forgetful faux pas, retrieving his invaluable weapon and reaching the diametrically opposite conclusion about the integrity and honesty of the cabbie tribe in the megapolis. Then there’s an ad currently on the idiot box that has a somewhat plump, attractively attired and distinctly flirty young woman literally bumping into a young man in a mall to catch his eye and his fancy and then flitting around to lead him into a merry chase all over the place. Were they to be quizzed, I bet the ad agency and the client would try to pass it off as an innocent fun ploy to sell the soft drink. But the way she behaves on camera with cloying, come-hither coyness, she could well be a high-priced sex worker successfully turning a “trick”. Finally, the recent controversy about the pejorative label “slut” points to the temporality of meaning. The word was originally used to describe a dirty, slovenly or untidily dressed woman. It donned its offensive sense in as late as the late 19th century. Attire is still very much the context, though.

Monday, June 27, 2011

David & Goliath, circa 2011.

The Biblical title sounds a tad clichéd, I admit. Nevertheless, it is particularly apt. The story I’m going to tell you is about the current battle between Indie US booksellers and’s publishing arm. JB Dickey, who owns Seattle Mystery Bookshop situated in the district burned to the ground by the Great Seattle Fire of 1889, has taken up the cudgels for it by refusing to stock the Amazon Mystery Imprint (Thomas & Mercer). A reader (Dave) (‘On Dave’s Thoughts’) writes that Amazon is not a monster-sized Darth Vader out to get the puny Indie Jedi. It is at a marked advantage merely because of a better, more reader-friendly business model conforming to the contemporary lifestyle and benefiting the book shopper. Likewise, a new whodunit author seeking a signing session at SMB urges JB Dickey to go with the flow. All this seems to make eminent sense. Yet it does not gel in my “forest killer” book-loving heart that harks back to the time when remaindering was magically transformed into an honourable pursuit by an astute South Bombay bookseller. In India, this sort of a grim scenario is probably far, far away in the future. My biblioidolatrous heart continues to bleed for the Indie Davids in the US of A. Meanwhile, there’s no denying the disturbing findings of a recent Cornell University investigation. A June 2011 article (‘What Shoppers Don’t Realize About Amazon’s Reviews') reveals the following behind-the-scene secret: “How do you become a top 1,000 Amazon reviewer? A new study by a Cornell professor Trevor Pinch shows that the website's elite reviewers "do not always make independent decisions about which books and other products they write about.... the reviewers in many cases acknowledge that in order to maintain their high rankings and continue to receive free products (one of the perks of being a top reviewer), they have to make surprisingly calculated decisions about what to review and what to say about those product.”

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Nature of the beast. (Hollywood, Bollywood and other wonderlands.)

The movie business, I’ve always suspected, is run by sub-humans and morons who strut around like geniuses and God’s own gift to mankind. Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon, the duo who wrote the made-for-the-summer-holidays blockbuster, Night at the Museum, and its less successful sequel, Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian, as well as two notable bombs, Queen Latifah’s Taxi and Lindsay Lohan’s Herbie: Fully Loaded, admit as much in their soon-to-be-published how-to-do-it guide, Writing Movies for Fun & Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at the Box Office and You Can, Too! (2011). They say stuff like: "There are a lot more idiots than smart people. The president of the studio is usually a very smart woman. . . but there are executives who have to approve your script. Smart people give good notes, dumb people give bad notes." And: "The position of producer is one for oversexed, megalomaniac uber-humans who for some reason feel the desire to play wedding planner to a group of dim-witted rodeo clowns, who are also, for the most part, oversexed and megalomaniacal, … Note: Throwing a phone, paperweight or fax machine at an intern is never acceptable in Hollywood. Unless your last movie made a shitload of money. Then - go nuts." They explain the failure of Herbie: Fully Loaded thus: "The president of the studio loved our take. She had one note. It was too sexy for Disney. We took out the sexier stuff and turned it back in -- and here's where it gets interesting/horrible. We were now dealing with the studio executive under the president. . . dumb as a stump and mean as a rattlesnake. We did about ten drafts for this executive: dumbing down the plot, making everything cuter, taking out things that made the movie make sense." They got fired somewhere along the way and were followed by a row of 24 writers/script doctors. In his Adventures in the Screen Trade, William (Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid) Goldman summed up “Hollywood's collective idiocy” thus: “Nobody knows anything.” This is said to have led to his virtual boycott by the industry. He stopped getting screenplay writing work afterwards. Let’s hope G&L are spared that kind of hounding. Back to Fun & Profit revelations, though. Here’s their description of how the studio steers script development: "You have a Volkswagen Bug. You sell it to someone. He says, deliver it in eight weeks. Make it pink. Then that person's underling says, 'I know we bought a Bug but all the other studios are buying SUVS this year, so lets make it a big SUV. Then: 'I read an article about boats today and how they're going to be popular this year - let's make this thing kinda like a boat.' Then they say, 'Terminator made a lot of money, let's make this thing kinda like Terminator.' Then. 'Make it green.' You go back to the person who bought a pink Bug and they say 'What the hell is this giant green Terminator boat?'” And, some truly worthwhile advice for the would-be screenwriter at the time of facing the studio critique: "Write down everything they say. Keeping your hands busy like this will help prevent you from making the 'rage faces' that you will be inclined to make when you hear their crappy ideas. . . Don't be argumentative. It's way too easy to get fired. Be thoughtful. Practice turning your 'mad' face into an 'I'm thinking about it' face." Reading between the lines of the drivel dished out in fanzines, on the idiot box and movie-related websites in India, one senses that things are no different in Bollywood. Here directors get thrown out on their butts in mid-production (remember Amole Gupte?) or denied their due credit (remember Anusha Rizvi?) The stories one hears about script-reading for the benefit of the stars and the producers along with the quality of the final product are also telltale giveaways.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

What the dickens! Great expectations? Duh!

Did I pick up Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations with – ahem! – great expectations? You bet I did. The reason was my immense enjoyment of his Oliver Twist when I read it last year. My copy of Great Expectations is hardbound in green imitation leather (or, is it leatherette?) with gold embossed lettering and design on the front and the spine. Pity, the inside does not match the pomp and show (howsoever faux) of the outside. (Never judge a book by the cover, huh?) The paper it is printed on is rough and recycled and already turned near yellow. The front and back endpapers are brownish pink with a floral motif. The front one is decorated with an Ex Libris (“from the library of” in Latin) crest which is a book owner’s identification label. (A literary aside: The Ex Libris label often used to carry admonitions like “The ungodly borroweth and payeth not again”, or “Neither a borrower nor a lender be…”; Sir Walter Raleigh’s bookplate had this whimsical comment: “Please return this book; I find that though many of my friends are poor mathematicians, they are nearly all good bookkeepers.”) The book somehow exudes decadence, decay, near-death, much like Pip’s passage in the story. The publication data is mum about when it was first published. Great Expectations was published as a serial in Dickens’ own weekly, All The Year Round in 1860-61. Around this time Dickens’ marriage was floundering and he was embroiled in an unhappy affair with a young actress. The original version of Great Expectations had an unhappy ending just like its unhappy beginning and unhappy middle. At the behest of Edward ("The pen is mightier than the sword") Bulwer-Lytton, his friend and a novelist, Dickens changed it to a conventional happy ending (“no shadow of another parting” from Estella). The narrative in the beginning and the middle is laced with a lot of what seemed to me wry humour. For instance, hilarious is what I felt was the repeated reference to Pip “being brought up by hand” by his sister. I understood it instinctively to mean she never speared the rod as far as her young brother was concerned. The other sense in which the phrase is interpreted refers to the rearing of an infant who is spoon- or bottle-fed – not breast-fed. “You will not have to complain of the want of humour as in the Tale of Two Cities. I have made the opening, I hope, in its general effect exceedingly droll. I have put a child and a good-natured foolish man [Joe Gargary, Pip’s brother-in-law], in relations that seem to me very funny,” Dickens confided to his friend, advisor and biographer, John Forster. (Please see the sidebar: Story Foretold. After the identity of Pip’s real benefactor is revealed, the story-telling turns a bit too over solemn for my liking. For some readers, Great Expectations is Dickens’ darkest work. To me, it was by and large quite enjoyable yet overfull of coincidences the most prominent among them being Estella’s parentage. STOP PRESS: Grave Expectations, the soon-to-be-published mash-up of Great Expectations by Sherri Browning Erwin, has Pip as a werewolf pitted against Estella as a vampire slayer. Help! Even Dickens has finally fallen prey to the monster mash-up mania. Will it push the teenagers to read his novel? I’m not too sure.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Plan B.

Middle India loves its wayside chaat and pani puri, never mind Ankita's on-camera whistle-blowing leak. Sharp-eyed Ankita Rane spotted the culprit at mischief from the window of her Naupada home in Thane. Her family and neighbours were skeptical when she told them. To prove her credibility, she videocammed the bum. Now her story is she was following her conscience according to her Afternoon Despatch & Courier (11 May 2011) interview. A little white lie? Memory lapse? Who knows? Meanwhile, the culprit’s excuse to his erstwhile customers was the lack of a urinal within easy reach and his reluctance to dirty the clean colony by peeing in the open. Very creditable and civic-minded, don’t you agree? Moral of the story: if you must patronize a roadside chaat and pani puri seller, at least make sure there is a public toilet nearby. Another healthy hint to Middle Indians who drool over Chinese food: never pick a fight with the restaurant owner if you don’t want to be served soup garnished with his fresh, just-cleared-the-throat spit. Moral of the story: skip the soup; better still, skip Chinese altogether if you're in a pick-a-fight mood.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Saint and sinner.

Venal, graft-riven, gimme-more-minded Middle India with so many sinister secrets tumbling out of its closet of late might as well lay a claim to Ludwig Wittgenstein as its saviour saint. Wittgenstein was seriously flawed, disturbed and tortured – nay, anguished by an awareness of sin and guilt and the need to do soul-searching aloud. In point of fact, he was the self-confessed sinner who aspired to sainthood. He was also phenomenally gifted so much so, in fact, that the Cambridge Apostles as well as the Bloomsbury crowd were duly deferential to him. Some of his biographers have revealed his “penchant for disciples” and his eagerness to dominate, cow down and virtually terrorize his followers as well as be venerated by them. Fania Pascal, his Russian tutor in the 1930s and later his colleague in Cambridge where he was the lionized philosophy professor described a bizarre incidence. Wittgenstein once insisted on reading to her, on a priority basis at a time when one of her children was ill, a written confession of his sins, viz., his failure to tell his friends about his Jewish ancestry and his denial of having physically abused a former pupil. To her irritated query halfway through the stiff recital: “What is it? You want to be perfect?” he answered with a thunderingly affirmative retort: “Of course I want to be perfect.” The other “father confessor”, Rowland Hutt, was equally uncomfortable listening to Wittgenstein’s loud recital of his purple misdemeanors delivered across a table in a Lyons café. That very year, i.e., in 1937, Wittgenstein went to the village of Otterthal (Austria) to apologize to the parents of the children who had been at the receiving end of corporal punishment meted by him in his capacity as an elementary school teacher from 1924 to 1926. His open intolerance for his intellectual equals prompted his disciples into jeering at contrarian views. Mrs Pascal, though, thought of Wittgenstein as “remarkably unself-conscious”, oblivious of his capacity to wound others or arouse fear in them. He was unimpressed by class, status and temporal success. He was as demanding on himself as on others. He seemed to her the least neurotic of men: single-minded, resolute and steel willed. All this, in her estimation, would “… make him stand out as a prophet … not intrigued or amused by human nature ... [but] sure this nature was evil; and his attitude to it was one of despair.” To her, he appeared as a “free” man, one who had given up wealth, community, close national ties, pretence, adaptation so that he inspired awe among others. To John King, a student at Cambridge and friend, Wittgenstein was “a man of high moral, intellectual and artistic integrity ... tolerant of those who had less ability than himself and never censorious except of what he considered humbug, hypocrisy, affectation”. In his view, his teacher “saw a high seriousness and purpose in life”, and said: “Of one thing I am certain – we are not here in order to have a good time.”

Penny dreadful. Utterly awful.

A couple of days ago, I finally finished reading The Sexton Blake Casebook: A Collection of Adventures featuring the other world famous detective compiled by Mike Higgs (Galley Press, Leicester, 1987). I had acquired this curious volume off the footpath on Hornby Road back in the eighties. The hardcover volume in a large format has a slip-jacket sporting a woodcut illustration of Blake in a red nightgown smoking a pipe presumably in his Baker Street flat. It also has five novellas: [1] The Mystery of Glyn Castle (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 269, 31-01-1923, 4 d.); [2] The Case of the Society Blackmailer (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 12 New Series 31-08-1925, 4 d.); [3] The Crime in the Wood (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 104 New Series, 30-07-1927, 4 d.); [4] Down and Out (The Sexton Blake Library, No. 174 New Series, 03-01-1929, 4 d.); and [5] The Missing Millionaire: The Very First Sexton Blake Story (Halfpenny Marvel, 1893, Price not stated.) After plodding through these shoddily plotted and clumsily written tales set in sylvan Victorian surroundings about status-driven perils suffered by British toffs (blackmail, kidnapping and the like), understanding why Sexton Blake was anointed “the prince of penny dreadfuls” and “the office boy’s Sherlock Holmes” was simplicity itself. It is amazing how Sexton Blake, Tinker and Pedro the bloodhound have managed to survive from 1893 to the late 1970s not only in penny dreadfuls but also in comics, stage plays, cinema, radio, a 78 rpm gramaphone record and a set of playing cards. If Blakiana cm9zyp is to be believed, the saga carries on regardless even in the Kindle era. There’s no accounting for popular tastes, I guess.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Civil as in…

“Civil society” is the phrase making the rounds in the Indian news media these days. I wonder what sense “civil” conveys here. Webster’s defines the adjective six ways. In the first sense, it means “applying to ordinary citizens as contrasted with the military” as in “civil authorities”. In the second, it means “not rude; marked by satisfactory (or especially minimal) adherence to social usages and sufficient but not noteworthy consideration for others” as in “civil behaviour”. In the third sense, it denotes “of or occurring within the state or between or among citizens of the state” as in “civil affairs”, “civil disobedience”, “civil strife”, “civil unrest”, “civil war” and “civil branches of government”. The fourth sense signifies “of or relating to or befitting citizens as individuals” as in “civil rights” and “civil liberty”. Fifthly, it signifies “legally recognized in ordinary affairs of life” as in “the civil calendar” and “civil marriage”. In the sixth sense, it conveys “of or in a condition of social order” as in “civil peoples”. Though Webster’s does not mention “civil society” and “civil life” to illustrate the first and the sixth senses, my guess is that either of those must be the intended meaning of the current usage. But given that Indians are partial to their own choice of vocabulary, I cannot be too insistent that I’ve hit the nail on the head. After all, we’re prone to saying “rubber” when we mean an “eraser”; “flat” when we mean a “residential apartment”; “eve teasing” when we are thinking of a woman being harassed sexually by offensive words. We also use “tight slap” for “hard slap”; “pindrop silence” for “total silence”; “hill station” for “mountain resort”; “redressal” for “reparation”; “expire” for “die”; “prepone” as the opposite of “postpone”; “allopathy” for "conventional medicine"; “loose motion” for diarrhoea; "charity" for "philanthropy"; and "corruption" for "graft". Indian English tends to be in an on-going state of civil disobedience or civil strife, I guess.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Humbug? Bullshit? Claptrap? Hokum? Drivel? Balderdash? Travesty of truth? Fibbing? Fraud? Swindle? Fakery? Hoax? Or, plain lying?

A beautiful young woman, on an international flight, spoke to the priest sitting in the adjoining seat, “Father, may I ask you for a favour?”

”Of course you may, my child. What can I do for you?”

“Well, before boarding the flight, I impulsively bought this expensive electronic hair dryer in the Duty Free Shop. But it is well over the Customs Duty limit and I'm afraid that they'll confiscate it from me. Is there any way that you could carry it through the Customs for me? Under your robes perhaps?”

“I would love to help you, child. But let I warn you: I shall not lie.”

“With your honest face, Father, no one will question you.”

When they got to the Customs barrier, the young lady let the priest walk ahead of her.

The Customs Officer asked, “Father, do you have anything to declare?”

“From the top of my head down to my waist, I have nothing to declare.”

The Officer thought this answer strange, so he asked, “And what do you have to declare from your waist to the floor?”

“I have a marvelous little instrument designed to be used on a woman which is, till date, unused.”

Roaring with laughter, the Officer said, “God bless you, Father, go ahead.”

Moral of the story: Never tell a lie. Use your mind.

Question to ponder for the Catholics: What will the priest tell his father confessor? (“Father, forgive me. For I’ve sinned by fibbing the Customs officer at LAX…”?)

Question to ponder for all readers: How would you describe the Father’s reply to the Customs Officer? Your options are in the heading of this post.

Hints: (1) A helpful definition: “HUMBUG: deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody's own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” (2) “Bullshit” is never well crafted or carefully wrought.

One more recent instance of probable fakery: Did Sarah Palin fake Trig’s birth just prior to running as the VP mate in John McCain’s 2008 US Presidential bid to cover up, maybe, for her daughter, Bristol? Also:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

What’s in it for me?

It may seem churlish and unfeeling to cite the following two examples that illustrate Middle India’s persistently pathological sense of entitlement. Item #1: 5 members of the family of a SAIL employee who died in 1994 took poison because the Bhilai plant refused to give a job to his son. Item #2: Arunima Sinha, an up-and-coming volleyball player, lost her leg in a chain-snatching incidence on a train in UP. The Sports Ministry offered her Rs.25000/- as interim compensation, Rs 2 lakhs for hospital expenses and a job in railways – and still face the wrath of the athlete as well as media. What I find astonishing in the first instance is that the SAIL ex-employee’s family – which till date has not vacated the government premises to which he was entitled as a staff member – feels also entitled to continued employment of at least one family member by the steel giant. In the second instance, I find it equally flabbergasting that the victim holds the railways and probably both the Government of India and the UP Government responsible for her sorry plight. If a chain of responsibility must be traced, I would say the fault lies principally with the goldsmith who made and sold the gold chain she was wearing and with her for buying it and flaunting it in a manner that tempted the thieves to snatch it. If it comes to that, she need not have resisted the chain snatchers. A limb is any time more precious than a gold chain. Passing the buck and pointing fingers at others ought to stop.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The baksheesh culture.

It’s time to celebrate the birth of Rama, the mythological king of Ayodhya who stood for all that’s just, moral and righteous in this world. It’s also the right time for Middle India to seethe with righteous indignation and rile at the ten-headed demon of corruption. What an Indian means by “corruption” is “graft”. Or, “baksheesh” in street parlance. If history is any indication, we Indians have been giving and receiving baksheesh with guiltless impunity from time immemorial. It stems from our feudal past that has seamlessly extended into our present. Again, if history is any indication, it will continue to extend effortlessly into our future too. The Middle Indian housewife who was excitedly waving a candle just yesterday to support Anna Hazare will hand out baksheesh to the peon in the school where she is seeking admission for her darling son to help her jump the queue for the admission forms the very next day − without blinking an eyelid. In the bad old days of Socialist India, it used to be fashionable to curse the licence-permit-quota regime for nurturing the baksheesh culture. It is ironic that, in the times of liberalisation, Middle India has become even more liberal with baksheesh. The baksheesh culture, further bolstered by the spread of rentier capitalism, has an insidious way of spawning an endemic sense of entitlement even among non-performers and marginal factotums. The queue of ministers, bureaucrats, go-betweens, petty officials and other hopefuls at the receiving end grows longer by the minute. Can you imagine the lewd obscenity of the baksheesh announced for the World Cup heroes. As if they were playing for peanuts in the first place!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Lost and found.

This, believe it or not, is a story with a happy ending − the ‘Lost and Found’ story, not The Cloud & The Kite tale. You may find it hard to accept the happy ending assertion simply because this blog, which as a rule tends to be subdued and cynical rather than over-the-top optimistic, says so.

The story started, if memory serves, in 1977. I was working in Everest Advertising at the time. The comprehensive dummy of the children’s book The Cloud & The Kite, written by me and illustrated by my friend Sanat Surti, was lying in a drawer in my cabin in the office. Then, one day, it suddenly went missing along with the typed manuscript or original text. This dummy had had the rare distinction of having travelled all the way to Japan and back.

Yesterday morning, believe it or not, I found the carbon copy of the long lost original text at home. It was lurking in a long forgotten bunch of papers tucked away in a drawer that had not been opened for years. If only, hoping against hope, I can now persuade Sanat to redo it, we may be able to take a crack at getting it into print as a children’s book.

Meanwhile, I am going to post the entire original text here so that, even if it doesn’t get published, it will get read by at least a few people. I have always felt that The Cloud & The Kite is a children’s book that deserves its place in the sun and that even some grown-ups with their inner child still extant may relish it.

By the way, the story-propelling device used in it is what you may call the plodding “if not this, then what” trial-and-error modus operandi of deductive reasoning. Read it and you’ll know what I mean.

[The Cloud & The Kite original text starts here …}

The Cloud & The Kite

By Deepak Mankar

Pictures by Sanat Surti

©Deepak Mankar 1976. Pictures ©Sanat Surti 1976.

A little cloud was wandering all alone in the sky one day. His name was Meghashyam.

“Oh, how I wish it were the monsoon,” he thought. “Then I would have lots of friends for company.”

But the rainy season was still far, far away. The sky was clear and blue but for Meghashyam.

“I shall change my shape and watch my shadow on the ground,” said he. “That will surely pass the time and keep me happy.”

First, Meghashyam turned himself into a rabbit with long ears and a cotton-bud tail.

“Ha, ha, ha,” he laughed. “Look at the funny bunny. Just look at his long, long ears and short, short tail.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” answered someone suddenly. “Bunnies are white and fair, not grey and dark like your silly shadow.”

“Who said that?” cried Meghashyam angrily.

He looked and looked but could find nobody.

So he went back to his game. He changed the rabbit into a flower with tiny petals and a short stem.

“Ha, ha, ha,” he roared with laughter. “This time, it is a cute little flower with a short tail. Just take hold of the tail and you will get a beautiful flower.”

“Ho, ho, ho,” jeered the same voice again. “Flowers are pink and fair, not grey and dark like your silly shadow.”

This time Meghashyam looked longer and harder than before. But he still could not find the owner of the voice.

“My ears are playing tricks on me,” he said.

“No, they are not,” said the voice shriller than before. “I am right here, behind you.”

Meghashyam turned round and noticed a kite flying smartly and shining brightly in the sunlight.

He had never met a kite before. Kites do not fly in the rainy season, do they?

“My name is Meghashyam. It means a dark cloud,” he said politely. “And, who are you?”

“Why don’t you find out for yourself,” asked the kite, smiling mockingly.

“Are you a balloon? You shine like a balloon,” Meghashyam told the kite.

Then he turned himself into a balloon and looked at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“No, you are not. A balloon looks like this, not like you,” he said.

By now, the kite was giggling unabashedly.

“Try again, you silly cloud,” he shouted.

“If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, are you a butterfly? You are full of pretty colours like a butterfly,” said Meghashyam.

Then he changed his shape to resemble a butterfly and looked at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“No, you are not a butterfly, my friend. A butterfly looks like this, not like you,” said he a wee bit sheepishly.

By this time, the kite was guffawing brazenly.

“Try once more, you woozy goose,” he cried.

”If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, and if you are colourful like a butterfly but are not a butterfly, you must be a bird. Your tail flutters like a bird’s tail,” Meghashyam told the kite.

He at once took the shape of a bird and looked eagerly at the big, dark shadow on the ground.

“Oh, no. A bird you surely are not,” he said disappointedly. “A bird looks like this, not like you.”

That remark made the kite go into even louder peals of laughter.

“Try one more time, you oaf,” he taunted Meghashyam mercilessly.

“If you shine like a balloon but are not a balloon, if you are colourful like a butterfly but are not a butterfly, and if your tail flutters like a bird’s tail but you are not a bird, you must be an aeroplane. You fly like an aeroplane,” said Meghashyam hopefully.

Then the cloud became an aeroplane and looked expectantly at his big, dark shadow on the ground.

“Oh, no. You are not even an aeroplane. Because an aeroplane looks like this, not like you,” he wailed bitterly.

The kite was about ready to split his sides with laughter.

“Try really hard this time, you numbskull,” he screamed scornfully.

But Meghashyam was feeling sorry for himself and in no mood to oblige. He started crying.

“No, I will not. Sob, sob, sob. I give up. Boo-hoo, boo-hoo. I do not even want to know who you are anymore.”

You know what happens once a dark cloud begins to cry. It just cannot stop until it has shed all the tears.

The cloud was no more his former sneering self. Now, for the first time, he felt a tinge of fear. He knew that once he got wet and soggy, he would never be able to fly again.

“Please, oh, please stop snivelling, Meghashyam,” he pleaded. “I am really, really sorry I made fun of you. I take back all the wicked things I said. I will even tell you who I am. But please stop crying at once. There’s a good boy.”

But, try as he might, Meghashyam just could not stop crying.

So the kite got wet and soggy and nosedived alarmingly.

On his way down, he got caught in a huge tree and could not free himself.

That day everyone in the neighbourhood wondered how it had rained so heavily when the rainy season was still far, far away.

Nobody thought of asking the kite caught in the tree.

But then nobody could tell he was a kite anymore.

Because he did not shine like a balloon anymore.

Because he did not look colourful like a butterfly anymore.

Because he did not have a tail fluttering like a bird’s tail anymore.

Because he could not fly like an aeroplane any more.

Well, well, well. Even Meghashyam did not find out who the kite was, remember?

[The End.]

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Love thy nemesis.

MK Gandhi did what no other Indian leader had done before him. He turned India’s struggle for freedom from the British Raj into a mass movement in a relatively short time. But, with his emphasis on religion and non-violence, he also managed to acquire a gamut of enemies. His most relentless enemy was, perhaps, the erudite Dalit leader, Dr BR Ambedkar. The good Doctor never forgave Gandhi for his chosen nomenclature for the Dalits (literally, “down-trodden” or “crushed”), viz., Harijan (“children of God”). He saw it as a devious and hypocritical ploy to keep the Dalits captive within the confines of the Hindu religion. After India became free, Ambedkar even led a mass exodus of the Dalits to Buddhism. He also never forgave Gandhi for opposing, in the early 1930s, the grant by the British of a separate electorate for the Dalits by embarking on a fast unto death. Gandhi was also hated by the orthodox Hindus for “favouring” the Muslims; by the fanatic Muslims for insisting on Hindu-Muslim unity (they saw it as a way of perpetuating Hindu dominance); and by the revolutionary radicals who thought of him as a reactionary and a coward for shunning violence. Contrast this with what happened in Lancashire which Gandhi visited during his voyage to Great Britain to attend the Round Table Conference in 1931. The boycott of British textiles that he had called for in India had been partly instrumental for triggering the unemployment of the British textile workers. Nonetheless, when he confronted them, while some of the out-of-work hecklers booed him and threatened to tear his eyes out, many others somehow sensed his innate goodness and cheered him as “Good old Gandhi”. Amazing, considering this was their first and only sighting of Gandhi.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Men in White (Khaddar). A KK Covert Op.

The WikiLeaks about the Congress Party MP Satish Sharma spilling the beans and his assistant Nachiketa Kapur taking a US Embassy staff member on a guided tour to view the chests of cash for buying votes to ensure Parliamentary approval of the Indo-Us nuclear pact in July 2008 remind me of the antics of Mack Sennett’s totally incompetent Keystone Kops. The best way to keep a secret is to let as few as possible be privy to it. Simple? Apparently not. S&K made it absolutely sure that there would be every chance of a leak or two by doing a show-and tell for their American friends. The latter made it even doubly certain by promptly sending a jubilant cable to Washington D.C. If the Corps of The Queen’s Couriers operating since the 15th century had not fallen under the axe of the jittery HM Government’s fiscal axe, cloak-and-dagger communications delivered personally by a “silver greyhound” would stay under wraps. Likewise, if Uncle Sam’s nephews and nieces had emulated their cousins across the big pond by instituting The President’s Courier service modeled on the successful UK prototype, there would have been no need to worry. Well, well. These days there’s no dodging the Keystone Kops lurking in the corridors of power and diplomacy the world over, I guess.

Monday, March 21, 2011

And so it goes. But whither?

Admit it or not, like it or not, India is still in a loosely federated semi-feudal flux. At the centre rules a royal family anointed by history. Currently, there’s a much maligned puppet regent. The various states (erstwhile “provinces” and “princely states”) are now fiefdoms – some of them supporting and others hostile in varying degrees to the central rule. There are pockets of armed revolts notably in the North East, Kashmir and the Naxal corridor. Frankly, things haven’t changed much since the days of the British Raj. There has only been a transfer of power from the departing British to their chosen Indian successors: the English- speaking middle class and crony capitalists. Some of these worthies insist that India is a successful working democracy despite evidence to the contrary. Fortunes are being made by hook or crook and the guilty seldom get punished. Juggad (innovative resourcefulness, improvisation, ingenuously devised jerry-rigged solution finding), resilience and survival tactics are much valued in a situation of perpetual shortage of wherewithal particularly among the less affluent. The recent WikiLeaks about the Congress Party buying votes to get the Parliament’s nod for the Indo-US nuclear pact on 22 July 2008 give a surreal tinge to what goes on in this country. Is the tsunami of corruption, abuse of political and economic power the tsunami of corruption of frightening proportions, ongoing abuse of political and economic power, unbridled private expropriation of public wealth with government collusion, lack of access – particularly for the poor – to public services and, last but not the least, ever-present terrorism and militancy as a reaction to the unbearable injustice of it all turning India into a full-fledged banana republic? Is the “India Shining” hubris of Middle India also a major contributing factor? Take a guess.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Aberrant exit.

The literarily inclined may well have noticed the startling proximity of locations that the two novels dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust caused by World War III have. Both of them – Nevil Shute’s On The Beach (1957) and Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948) – are set in neighbouring Australia and New Zealand respectively. In the former, human life has become so unbearable and unsustainable that the government is nudging citizens to suicide by cyanide. (No public interest litigation to stem the tide of suicides, thank you.) In the latter, life limps along somehow. Obviously, in both these fictional scenarios, the end comes with a nuclear bang. But, maybe, TS Elliot describing Guy Fawke’s demise on the gallows in the aftermath of the failed Gunpowder Plot in his epic poem The Hollow Men (1925) strikes closer to the truth if one were to judge the end-of-the-world predictions in the light of the recent events in the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The course of events also suggests that at work is the deft hand of a wily Indian soap writer team adept in the craft of dragging the tale by its tail much like Scheherazade.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

God of gall.

I'm often flummoxed by how people cunningly and adroitly make hay while the sun shines. Yesterday, I was off-colour with a touch of flu and took total bed rest after visiting the family doctor. After gulping down the first dose of tablets and capsules (5 in all), I picked up a book that Ujwal had got from her cousin, Vibha. The latter’s husband is a Trustee of an ancient Ram temple in Ramwadi, Kalbadevi. The book is purportedly written – or, shall we say haphazardly compiled? − not only for commemorating the more than 200 years of the temple's existence but also for establishing beyond a shadow of doubt its place in the history of India’s independence struggle. The Chaphekar Brothers assassinated Rand and Ayerst in Pune on 22 June 1897 when the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’s imperial reign was being celebrated all over India. The provocation apparently was the high-handed misbehaviour of the British troops in the exercise of the emergency powers vested in them for controlling the Bubonic Plague epidemic raging in Pune. The Brothers used to be the musical back-up for the daily kirtan performed by their kirtankar father in Ramwadi. They quietly vanished for a couple of days to do their appointed task in Pune and then returned to resume their daily routine in the Ramwadi temple as if it was business as usual. Later they were betrayed by a desi Judas called Dravid, arrested and sentenced to death. By the way, one of the Chaphekar Brothers had earlier tried to enlist, was rejected on account of his caste (Chitpavan Brahmin) and held a grudge against the gorra admi. A plaque honouring the Brothers was installed in Ramwadi in early 1987. All that is splendid but does it call for a disjointedly compiled, shabbily produced volume full of factual errors and quite a bit of atrocious writing to drive home the point ? The needle of suspicion veers towards vested interests. The principal compiler and contributor, a State Award-winning historian, who also happens to be the chief honcho of the Trust that owns and runs the Ramwadi temple seems to have seized the opportunity to guide the flow and components of the narrative for his own ends. The volume reads like a self- and sire- hagiography vanity-published at the cost of the hapless Pathare Pradhu temple Trust. He misses no opportunity to show how kind, considerate, humane, virtuous and far-seeing he and his dearly beloved father who is no more happen(ed) to be. If you take the drivel he shovels at you at face value, they are/were manna from heaven. Good grief, Charlie Brown. Remember Lucy’s immortal words: “I never made a mistake in my life. I thought I did once, but I was wrong.”

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A steady diet of kitsch and later.

Today, I suddenly realised that I had been on a steady diet of kitschy books for quite a while. A recent break was Kiran Desai’s 2006 Booker Prize winner, The Inheritance of Loss. The one huge benefit I got from my erstwhile diet was that my enjoyment of Desai’s novel was that much more heightened. On second thoughts, though, there was no way I could not have enjoyed the book immensely in any event. The main reason for it is personal. I am more than familiar with the historical background against which the story unfolds and find Desai’s even-handed portrayals of the Indian (for that matter, Third-World) “losers” – those who stay back as well as those who break away – something I can empathize with. Of late I also happened to be thumbing through Alfie Thompsons’s Lights! Camera! Fiction! A Movie Lover's Guide to Writing a Novel (Running Press, 2006). Thompson is clear about who her guide is meant for: only those wanting to author “popular, an-editor-will-be-interested-in-buying-it, written-for-readers stories”. What she has in mind is the product of what the Marxist art theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer called “culture industry”. This happens to be the culture mass-manufactured to satisfy “false” needs created by Capitalism, pandering to what Virginia Woolf designated as middlebrow tastes. Here readers buy books that are on bestseller lists rather than for their intrinsic literary value. According to her view, art, beauty, form, integrity and value don’t matter. What moves the merchandise is the so-called experts’ nod: The Book-of-the-Month Club, the NY Times Top 10 list, Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club and so forth. If memory serves, Russell Lynes, the erstwhile editor of Harper’s Magazine, made fun of the Woolf hypothesis but nonetheless subdivided her middlebrow category into upper-middlebrow and lower-middlebrow. According to him, the former were art patrons as well as owners and administrators of museums, operas, art galleries, orchestras and publishing houses – in short, all that comprises the fountainhead of consumable culture created by the highbrow set. A member of the lower-middlebrow set would use art to improve her minds as well as her lot in life. Today’s Middle India seems to have a surfeit of these worthies.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Fake will do.

Simply amazing! I'm referring to the perspicacity of whoever chose the Kishore Kumar number “Pal bhar ke liye koi hame pyar kar le, jootha hi sahi” from Johny Mera Naam (1970) as the finale of the “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” episode of The Simpsons. This episode, by the way, happened to be the 17th of the 17th season. It was first aired in the US on 9 April 2006 and recently telecast in India. The song of which the punch line gives a grudging nod to momentary love of the fake kind is an apt and telling footnote to the American attitude toward exotic mysterious India (cf. Raiders of the Lost Ark: Temple of Doom) as well as the Middle Indian propensity to accept anything Western (especially American) as manna from heaven without bothering to determine its provenance and authenticity. In India, fakery even when tinged with mediocrity gets celebrated mainly by default. This was proved decisively once again by the gushing obit outburst after the recent death of the so-called pioneer of Indian comics. This worthy had the gall to unleash, in the late 1960s, on his unsuspecting compatriots a spate of badly written, shoddily produced, garishly and unimaginatively illustrated and tinted comic books based on simplistic and cliché-ridden depiction of Indian folklore, mythology, religion and history. This may well have done untold harm by conditioning an entire generation of Middle India particularly to think of Indian historical and mythological narratives and characters in two-dimensional (good/evil, hero/villain, virtue/vice) terms of reference insidiously implanted in their minds by years of reading these contemporary, seemingly canonical word-and-picture spin-offs.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Worst-case scenario. Worse than a dirge.

There was actually a time in the Hindi film timeline (much before “Bollywood” became the vogue word) when really big-time stars did not flinch at being paired off with non-stars. The most glaring examples were Geeta Bali matching dancing steps with the erstwhile stunt star Mater Bhagwan in Albela (1951) and Shriman Satyawadi (1960) where Raj Kapoor consented to acting with Shakila without batting an eyelid. In those days, star earnings were not counted in crores of rupees but in single digit lakhs. They also did not have any product endorsing or ambassadoring opportunities and idiot box appearances to fall back on. Life was simple and honest and so was moviemaking. Middle India, the chief consumer of Hindi movies, too was not as greedy and self-indulgent as it has now become. To get an idea of how much of a turn for the worse things have taken since then, you should listen carefully to Middle Indian preteens slurpingly describing the food spreads they’re frequently privy to or their mall and multiplex visits. When I was their age, I did not know enchilada from my elbow. And, although I was clued in to Hindi and Marathi movies and cricket from a fairly early age, my role models were neither film stars nor cricketers but fictional characters like Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes. I was totally ill informed on the availability of goodies of all sorts and didn’t really crave for them probably because there were not too many of them around. (The only stuff I craved for was the unattainable 25-cent novelty items advertised in American comics.) I’m not saying that I was particularly virtuous, moral, principled, just, straight, honorable, honest, upright or incorruptible. I was just too dumb and deprived of temptations. I didn’t either know or use the F-word till well past puberty. Times sure have changed.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Chawls of Mumbai. Revisited.

In the Overview section in The Chawls of Mumbai: Galleries of Life (ImprintOne 2010), Sandeep Pendse, Neera Adarkar and Maura Finkelstein remark that “the current rulers [of India shining!] certainly prove themselves to be more ‘colonial’ in mentality than the white British. They too wish the ‘natives’ were not there, as citizens; that they would quietly perform their tasks and disappear into the woodwork”. The quote is lifted from Eunice de Souza’s 11 February Mumbai Mirror book review The “born in the USA” flunkeys of the present rulers emulate their masters unflinchingly. McDonalds and Dominoes, for instance, refuse to home-deliver their exorbitantly priced junk to denizens of the chawls in Girgaum at least to the best of my knowledge. This is ironical considering the fact that the delivery persons probably hail from a chawl or, even worse, a zoparpatti. Apart from “warehousing people”, meaning ordinary folks, the Mumbai chawls have also been accused of “warehousing criminals”. For instance, there is the Dagdi Chawl, literally a chawl built with stone, at Saat Rasta, Byculla. It used to be the fortress of Arun Gawli, formerly an MLA and currently a resident of the Arthur Road Jail. As far as “warehousing future cinema stars” is concerned, there is “Jumping Jack” Jeetendra – who claims to have been a Diwali kandeel (lantern) making champion in his childhood – from the chawl abutting the Girgaum Portuguese Church near Central Cinema and Rajesh Khanna from a chawl in Thakurdwar. Contrary to the rumours you may have heard, Lohar Chawl is not a building where ironsmiths reside but an area close to Crawford Market where you can shop for mainly electrical goods but also a lot else besides. The Purple Foodie confesses to having found her blow torch at Saria Steel in Lohar Chawl, in fact.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Lie to me. Once more with feeling.

Now that Maria Schneider (Last Tango in Paris) is no more, Bernardo Bertolucci, who directed it, belatedly expressed regret for robbing the actress of her youth. Sophie Taylor who wrote the above-cited article in The First Post on 4 February, writes that both Schneider as well as her co-star felt exploited and humiliated by their participation in the movie. The actress of course was a newcomer and, presumably, inexperienced when she got her $4000 break in Last Tango because Bertolucci’s first choice, Dominique Sanda, went hors de combat owing to an ill-timed pregnancy. But Brando was no starry-eyed ingénue. He was a veteran and quite capable of judging the implications of his role. In any case, this kind of talk from actors and directors makes me want to puke. As Hitch and Ashok Kumar would have said, it’s only a film for heaven’s sake. What you do on screen is acting. It has nothing to do with what you happen to be off screen. In the snippet of Last Tango I saw on YouTube, both Brando and Schneider seemed to have got under the skin of their respective characters – real troopers that they were! – and enjoyed themselves while they were doing this crucial scene. So why all those pious after-thoughts, I wonder.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Lie to me. One more time.

Those who have been trashing Arundhati Roy because of her “seditionist” views on Kashmir and the Maoists have probably never heard of Ferit Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish novelist and Nobel laureate, whom the Turkish government had imprisoned for his interview in the Swiss Das Magazin in which he said: "Thirty thousand Kurds have been killed here, and a million Armenians. And almost nobody dares to mention that. So I do." Once again, I’m reminded of what George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) about truth: “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Pamuk too had to face a hate campaign and even flee Turkey for “insulting” the Motherland. He said he was fighting for freedom of speech and Turkey’s last chance to come to terms with History: "What happened to the Ottoman Armenians in 1915 was a major thing that was hidden from the Turkish nation; it was a taboo. But we have to be able to talk about the past." Another Orwellian interjection is in order: "He who controls the past, controls the future."

Monday, January 24, 2011

Chawls of Mumbai.

Every time I think of a chawl in Mumbai, I’m reminded of a couple of lines from Phoebe’s Smelly Cat:

“Smelly Cat, Smelly Cat what are they feeding you?”

And, no offense, but:

“And you're no friend to those with noses.”

I also think of Patrick Geddes’s apt description, c. 1930, of the primarily industrial workers’ overcrowded living spaces as being not for housing but for “warehousing people”.

My first visit to a chawl was at age 8 or 9. A classmate in my first school − Sirdar High School – took me to his home in a chawl within walking distance of the school as well as 233 Khetwadi Main Road This chawl − it still stands in the 3rd Khetwadi Lane, close to Wilson High School which I attended later on − housed families of betel leaf sellers and a few white collar workers. On every floor, there were several single rooms along a common balcony at the end of which were a shared toilet and a bathroom for all those living on that floor. On an average, 5 – 10 people lived in each room measuring probably six square metres or less and having a little mori (enclosed washing space) inside it with a faucet connected to the municipal water supply. The presiding smell here was overwhelmingly verdant leafy.

The other two chawls I was familiar with in my childhood had mostly white collar workers and were near Prathana Samaj in Kandewadi close to Khotachi Wadi respectively. The all-pervading musty smell in both was of stale daal (lentil) stuck to the bottom of a cooking vessel.

In Tales from the chawl Neha Thirani calls PL Deshpande’s Batatyachi Chaal a romanticised view of the Mumbai chawl. To me, it has always been a satirical, nearly Orwellian but wittier depiction of the plight of the white collar lower middle class family trying to eke out a bare existence in heartless Mumbai. The “musty smell … of stale daal (lentil) stuck to the bottom of a cooking vessel” is very much there.

My friend Rajan describes his recent visit to the chawl near the Matunga Road Station where he had spent 26 out of his 29 years in Mumbai. He found the building dilapidated and mostly deserted but did talk to an old couple of his acquaintance there who had nowhere better to move. The experience was overall “depressing”.

There are many more chawls in Mumbai that I’ve been to other than the three I described here. Maybe, I’ll talk about them sometime later.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Sound of Money.

There was a gushing piece about a soon-to-be-staged production of Sound of Music at NCPA in a morninger recently. It brought to mind my watching the Julie Andrew movie at the Sterling sometime in the late 1960s. The pleasurable experience I had was probably as close to the one with My Fair Lady or The King and I. Watching the movie later on the idiot box came nowhere close to the real thing. It had nothing to do with big screen/small screen but my state of mind at that time. I have always felt that the reviewer’s state of mind at the time of watching a movie or a stage play has a lot to do with what sort of a review it gets – good, bad or indifferent. This may not be true at present when many producers don’t mind paying for the reviewer’s time and good mood. A post-preview table spread, for instance, may well act as an added mood improver. Why are Indians so greedy, easily corruptible and mendacious in all they do?