Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The world owes me one. Really?

In the heat and dust raised by the Delhi gang rape and similar ongoing criminal atrocities, the mention of a key trigger of such events is conspicuous by its absence. I wonder how all the expert analysts forgot to dwell on it. This key spark, come to think of it, is the sense of entitlement every criminal, be he a rapist, a murderer, a petty purse or chain snatcher or whoever, has in abundance. (The sense of entitlement, mind you, is not even a distant cousin of self-worth, i.e., “the belief that one is worthy of accomplishments earned through hard work” according to the Why Is It Always About You? author, Sandy Hotchkiss.) This narcissistic trait overrides all scruples and moral restraints in a person about to commit a criminal offence. Such a perp’s self-justification may be couched along the following lines:

I feel like I never had what I needed, so I didn't feel bad about taking what I wanted, be it taking credit for other people's work, sleeping with other people's girlfriends, or just taking whatever object I wanted at the time. Taking didn't (always) mean theft, but it did mean I sometimes shorted others, or made them wait, or whatever. If I wanted it, I would get it, because I deserved it. Rules, laws, and social contracts are for people who need guidelines. I don't, so I make my own rules and don't care if you don't like them. You just don't know any better. If you did, you wouldn't question me. http://bit.ly/WJ7FUc>

No solution to India’s systemic meltdown is on the horizon. Certainly not in the short run. What’s essential is a total overhaul. How do you inhibit the endemic occurrence of the sense of entitlement? Concessions and reservations have only worsened the situation. Excessive economic inequalities are not making matters any better. The naked use of power, political and/or economic, to make anything – including the worst wrongs – right is not going to be tolerated indefinitely by the mango people. The day of reckoning is not too far away, it looks like. The sooner everyone – VVIPs, VIPs and celebs – join the mainstream and learn to accept it (no security at public expense, no sanitized living in gated quarters), the better it would be for all Indians. Maybe, urban guerrilla action based on the 70s-style Western template won’t be such a bad thing.   

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, Mao: what’s the difference?

If my last post (From Sir Winston to Washington Post) seemed to suggest that I had joined the Churchill fan brigade – known more for its unseemly concern with the Great Man’s dentures than with his Imperial and imperious criminality – as a fresh and overenthusiastic recruit, let me clear the air. What I ought to have said in that post was that his Indophobic outburst in the June 1947 debate on the India Independence Bill in the British Parliament sounds prophetic in the prevailing Indian political context. I stand corrected and abashed for my haste. To save face, my only lame-duck – if that! – excuse could be that, in any case, a visionary – even an accidental one – is sighted and anointed only after the event. If Hitler was responsible for the Holocaust, Stalin for the Holodomor (“killing by hunger” in Russian) or the Great Famine of Ukraine (1932-33) and Mao for the mammoth number of starvation deaths in the Great Leap Forward (1958-62), Churchill needs must shoulder the responsibility for the 2000 a month death toll in the 1942-43 Bengal Famine. In his own words, Indians were “a beastly people with a beastly religion” who “bred like rabbits”. http://ind.pn/UofYOK Ergo, they probably were beyond redemption and not worth saving. What the King Emperor’s First Minister did to worsen the situation in the Bengal Famine was to deny food shipments to India and insist on rice exports from India to shore up the war effort. Churchill’s collaborators in his war crime were: the Japanese occupation of Burma that choked off rice imports to India; an untimely cyclone in the Bay of Bengal that wiped out the winter crop; and a panicky government that confiscated in a knee-jerk reaction all vehicles that used to ferry rice from Burma in order to keep them out of reach of the invaders. The government also started buying food grains on the open market to feed the troops and the war workers, thereby nudging the traders into hoarding the scarce stuff and spawning what came to be known as “the black market”. (I vaguely remember hearing the phrase repeatedly at 233 Khetwadi Main Road for the first time a bit after the Quit India call by Gandhi on 8 August 1942.) In a sense, Churchill was the blackguard who brought the black market to India. 

Thursday, September 06, 2012

From Sir Winston to Washington Post.

Most of my life, I have been far from an admirer of the late Sir Winston Churchill. I had always looked at him through a jingoistic prism as an India baiter and an India hater.  Recent events, though, have made me sit up and revise my opinion drastically. Saying the following in the British Parliament at the time of the debate on the India Independence Bill in June 1947 showed acuity, perspicacity and wisdom that was nothing short of a visionary’s. “Power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low caliber & men of straw. They will have sweet tongues & silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power & India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air & water... would be taxed in India.Why are Indians so offended now that Washington Post paints Dr Manmohan Singh in these lurid strokes: “a dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government”? http://wapo.st/Q6M00Q A part of the answer to this riddle may lie in the fact the urban Middle India craves for constant adulation from the West. Partly, it may be the backlash of believing in the hubris of India Shining and India-is-a-global-power brouhaha. Given these circumstances, the mildest rebuke or a slap on the wrist from an outsider, particularly an Occidental, may seem akin to public tar-and-feathering, even a torture rack.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Wee Bonnie Scotland.

Sir Isaac Pitman and I are old nodding acquaintances. It transpired thus. Smack after the conclusion of my Secondary School Certificate finals in March 1952, I enrolled at the Abhyankar Typing & Shorthand Institute situated bang next to the Rammohan High School at Prarthana Samaj. This much respected institution of that time happened to be within walking distance of 233 Khetwadi Main Road in South Mumbai where the Mankars used to reside at that point in my existential timeline. http://bit.ly/48tnw4. I had joined Abhyankar’s in order to learn touch typing to make up for my atrocious handwriting. The sacrilegious thought of trespassing into the venerated Pitman territory had never crossed my mind. Shorthand used to be all the rage among the young people then, particularly among girls because it was seen as a handy doorway – almost an open sesame − into the job market. The reason why I thought of Sir Isaac now is the late Ms Molly Weir, Miss Bonnie Scotland’s real- life avatar. Till the time I met Molly in print, the only Bonnie Scotland I had heard of was the eponymous Laurel and Hardy comedy http://bit.ly/N4c6ot.  I saw the hilarious movie as a child at the old Metro Cinema, a familiar Dhobi Talao landmark. To cut a long digression short, I picked a copy of Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood (Diamond Books, London, 1988) at a sale in the Sunderabai Hall fairly recently. The book that I consider as perhaps the best autobiography I’ve ever read cost me a pittance: no more than a measly Rs.50/-. Molly, the bonnie Glasgow lassie, was a self-confessed whiz at Pitman’s shorthand. She toured all over Scotland as the Pitman brand ambassador in order to popularise the training course by giving live speed demos without receiving a single farthing by way of remuneration for her work. One of the most endearing things about Molly’s memoirs is her detailed description of the lengths she and her family would go to just to save a penny or two. That, I guess, gladdened my Third World soul. So also did the description of the way they had to tighten the belt in the World War II rationing regime. Then again, her chitchat about her tramcaur journeys downtown and elsewhere in Glasgow too touched a chord in my memory of things past. http://bit.ly/NjclbB. Molly’s most appealing characteristic as a writer, to my old-school way of thinking, is her self-deprecation, her humility, her modesty, and not the least her reticence in describing certain major events centring on herself. For instance, she describes in telling details the celebration of the wedding of her aunt but glosses over her own wedding with a sentence or two. Similarly, all through her courtship by her beau, she refrains from providing us with the details, even his name. Her autobiography gives ample scope for her humanity, her candour and her wry – at times, droll − sense of humour. It’s refreshing to meet someone who calls a spade a spade, doesn’t have a swollen head and misses no chance to laugh at her own foibles. For the record, Molly started her working life as a steno-typist, took part in amateur dramatics on the side and ultimately made a breakthrough to become a renowned BBC regular as well as an acting professional in British theatre and cinema. I sure would love to read the rest of her autobiography. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The real tragedy of Rajesh Khanna.

Now that Kaka has made his exit from the worldly stage on the new moon day notorious for immoderately excessive imbibing and landing in the gutter at the end of the unbridled liquid orgy (“gatari amvasya”), it is time to ponder his real tragedy. After Devyani Chaubal, Bollywood’s own Hedda Hopper, rechristened RK “Superstar” in her Star & Style column “Frankly Speaking” and a wee bit later Stardust dubbed him “The Phenomenon”, his thirst for attention must have reached unquenchable depths especially because his “hit” count was dipping fast. This longing may have been further augmented also because he was by nature a loner, guarded – his reticence often bordering on total silence − in his social interactions and intensely insecure. Jack Pizzey, who made some of the episodes of BBC’s Man Alive, described RK on the sets of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Namak Haraam (1973) saying that he was someone with the “charisma of Rudolph Valentino, the arrogance of Napoleon, and he’s late.” http://tinyurl.com/MabfOE. His oft-quoted dialogue from Safar (1970) was: “Mein marne se pehle marna nahi chahta.” (“I don’t wish to be dead before dying.”) Unfortunately, at the end of his heyday, Kaka must have died a million deaths in his mind and finally resigned himself to an ongoing spell of mourning till his final exit for his loss of superstardom. Come to think of it, the real tragedy of Rajesh Khanna was not being here on earth to relish the eulogies from the media hyenas as well as his hypocritical Bollywoodian peers after his departure. He missed the grand hurrah. He did.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Only in incredible India, OTT goes ballistic invariably.

Correct me if I err. We almost always seem to overdo our eulogies shamelessly. I noticed this tendency in at least three recent instances: Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Dara Singh. All these dearly departed were okay in their own way in their own fields. But to raise them to the level of cultural icons and societal milestones is scandalous − in fact, the height of hypocrisy, even if it is done in a fit of extreme nostalgia. Take the case of the most recent departure. He might have been Rustom-E-Hind but he made his mark in WWWF Free Style Wrestling in the fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties which, if memory serves, was riddled with “fixing scandals” especially vis-à-vis “return bouts”. He featured in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Hall of Fame in 1996 for wrestling in India, England and Canada and as a one-time holder of the Canadian Open Tag Team Championship. http://bit.ly/MsJPaF. In his other incarnation as a film star, he was at best a D-grade actor in mostly B- and C-grade movies. He was to all appearances a decent human being insofar as no gossip about unseemly behaviour ever seems to have attached to him. So, enough already.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Lentil soup for the Middle Indian soul.

Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen’s Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit is a worldwide bestseller. It got its start from their tours as motivational speakers. It was on the circuit that they picked up the short inspirational, life-affirming and soul-uplifting vignettes about ordinary lives. These stories are meant to nurse back the sick soul of the reader to emotional health, much like the yummy-smelling bowl of steaming chicken soup served to a patient to restore his physical and psychological well-being. The logic behind this sort of pseudo or placebo therapy runs along the following lines. Even the worst sinner hopes to find a sliver of everything that’s right with the world and to feel the hope, joy, love, peace, tears and healing that he suspects are lurking somewhere just beyond his reach. Offer him an access to his wish list at an affordable price and in comfortable surroundings and he will be in your debt for ever out of gratitude and relief. Is Aamir Khan’s Satyameva Jayate with its multichannel telecast as well as webcast doing anything less for Middle India? It’s weekly therapy made supremely palatable by his much venerated, soothing presence (don’t miss those empathetic umms he peppers his listening-to-the-victim spells with!) to rid Middle Indians of their guilt and superciliousness towards the less fortunate Others. Shrewd fellow that he is, loveable Aamir Sirji may have already struck a multi-billion deal for a print blockbuster with DVD included for all you know. Once this surefire antidote is safely stored in your medicine chest – er, bookcase,  who would need to join an NGO or a candle-lit march? 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Black and white.

Should you feel at the end of this post that I didn’t work hard enough to find a more tellingly appropriate title, let me stop you right here and assert that you’ve got it all wrong. “Black and white” is not about the skin colour of the main protagonists of the Essie Mae Washington-Williams’ book, Dear Senator A Memoir by the Daughter of Strom Thurmond (Regan Books, New York, 2005). Far from it. It’s about the joyous discovery that we can read in black and white the strange tale of an always-under-the-wraps filial relationship. I am particularly impressed by the restraint, tolerance and sense of humour of the story teller – Strom Thurmond’s out-of-wedlock first-born daughter – while telling us what is mostly a sad tale beginning with a common-law wife’s rejection by her Southern aristocratic husband and finding a closure in her daughter being publicly accepted by her father’s family. Essie Mae did not betray the “state secret” of her politician father until after his death at the ripe old age of 100 − for nearly eight decades, to wit. What’s more, it took a lot of prodding from her family and friends, the way she tells it, to finally persuade her to quit the closet. Her life story seems straight out of a sudsy soap opera made on a fairly generous budget. What impressed me most is the way the book encapsulates the history of the emancipation of African-Americans and their integration in the main stream in the 20th century – the civil rights movement, in other words − along with the pertinent Civil War background (including the Jim Crow “separate but equal” era highlights) without interfering with the main, poignant narrative. An unusual and rewarding read and an insightful document of immense societal significance, I vouch. And, to think that I managed to sniff it out from the pile of books at the Strand Bookstall’s Rock Bottom Sale for a mere fifty rupees! (P.S.: A lot of the credit for the enchanting and languidly elegant style and the lucid and logically organised flow of the narrative of this excellent memoir, I guess, belongs to the “as-told-to” collaborator and scribe, William Stadiem.)   

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Right reasoning, Wrong man.

This once-upon-a-time whodunitphile happened to read fairly recently a vintage detective (Peter Duluth) novel by Patrick Quentin that intrigued him no end. Set in a virtual asylum in the post Wall Street crash period, the alleged detective is a Broadway producer who drinks himself to this place of confinement for fools and drunks. While recovering from his ailment, he falls for a fellow inmate, nearly solves the mystery http://bit.ly/IFfbYU but fails to pick up the right suspect. That honour goes to the head of the “institute” modelled in the Freud mould. The milieu is very country manorish as in Agatha Christie. The writing is quaint. For example, I had never come across the usage “the heel of Achilles” prior to reading A Puzzle for Fools (Penguin, 1986; originally published in 1936, the year I was admitted to the world). Quentin also uses a lot of sleight of hand stuff in the Christie vogue. It is a fairly engrossing debut for Peter Duluth, an about-to-become amateur sleuth in a somewhat Lord Peter Wimsey/Ellery Queen vein minus the scholastic and/or autocratic pretensions.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Why is Akshaya Trithiya like Valentine’s Day?

The answer is a no-brainer, come to think of it. Hint: Buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. Better still: splurge, splurge, splurge. Shop, shop, shop for expensive baubles and trinkets till you drop, drop, drop out because your credit card limit is kaput or ennui has finally set in. In short, both AT and VD have been spawned by Commerce as ideal days to prove how big hearted and deep-pocketed you are. Both AT and VD got a fresh lease of life in the heart of Middle India, post-liberalisation. Neither was top of the mind prior to the turn of the century. I know somebody who’s going to be very, very unpopular for telling the truth. But what to do? Satyameva jayate!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

When will the Titanic sink, Dadi?

That was one of the most astute comments coming out of the mouth of a bored 5-year-old watching James Cameron’s much hyped Titanic bleary-eyed when it was first released in Mumbai. I was sitting in a seat within earshot and couldn’t agree more with the remark and the sentiment. In fact, watching the over the top brouhaha going on the wide screen, I could not help wondering if the much celebrated director had taken – prior to making his magnum opus − a sabbatical in Bollywood in order to observe how they blow everything out of proportion out here or sometimes make it crawl to a mind-numbing statis that pretends to be the very thing it is not. This rant was brought on by the reminder over the FM Monday morning that the centenary of the Titanic’s demise was on 14 April. To me, all luxury liners stand for monumental extravagance, wastage of precious resources, elitist vanity and an insult to common folks. So what are the losers the world over celebrating the centenary for?

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Purple prose. Scarlet sirens.

When it comes to gossip, I am neophobic. Old is gold for this old timer. You may have noticed my predilection here http://bit.ly/HBk5Fl, here http://bit.ly/HeTW9E, here http://bit.ly/H8SxTE, and, here too http://bit.ly/HIDCEa. To indulge in my fondness for time-tested gossip, I recently breezed through two books of the canon. Truth to tell I had bought them both in the US in spring 2010 and devoured them hungrily post haste. Both the books deal with Hollywood’s dirty linen and scrumptious scandal of mid-20th century vintage. Of the two, Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon (Dell Publishing, 1981) is the so-called “legendary underground classic of Hollywood’s darkest and best kept secrets”. Anger’s angry and frenzied – though unauthenticated − narrative rips along merrily into the innards of the studio system, spilling rumours and innuendos galore and generally playing havoc with the filmdom’s carefully crafted propagandistic iconography. An entire chapter of Hollywood Babylon (Con Game) is devoted to the brief but sensational career of the tabloid that spawned the celeb-centric yellow-journalism culture. Confidential was its name. It trashed exalted reputations willy-nilly spreading terror in the hearts of the denizens of tinsel town for a span of no more than five years. It opened shop in New York in 1952 and folded for all practical purposes in 1957. The second book of the canon I ran through recently was Henry E Scott’s Shocking True Story (Pantheon Books, New York, 2010). A real page turner it is – fully living up to its subtitle: The Rise and Fall of Confidential, “America’s Most Scandalous Scandal Magazine”. Trying to live up to its don’t-give-a-damn motto: “Tells the Facts and Names the Names”, Confidential spawned an entire tabloid, paparazzi sub-culture whose banner is kept flying today by the likes of People, E! Online, Ok! and TMZ.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Corn sells. And, how?

Corn sells. That used to be the war cry of Mrs Tara Sinha in the good old late 60s as she restlessly paced the passage way in front of her office in Advent, next to the Golwalla Swimming Pool near Sachivalaya. http://bit.ly/Hls6wJ. This was her daily clarion call for the print ad for Tata’s Magic detergent. Almost every single morning, there used to be a planning meeting, sometimes because Mrs Sinha had come up with what she thought a better idea than the ad made by the creative team . A new layout would be presented in the afternoon. By evening, it was back to the drawing board. (The product manager for Magic was Camellia Panjabi. She was the Marketing Manager of The Taj Group of Hotels in the JRD-Ajit Kerkar era where she pioneered Szechwan and Thai cuisine in the 5-star restaurants. Later on, she made a name for herself as the trail-blazing restaurateur who almost single-handedly introduced Indian regional cuisine in the UK.) Mrs Sinha had just taken over as the Bombay Branch Manager of Clarion-McCann and was heading a group of clients as well. She was a dynamo of ideas and, later in her career, worked for Coca-Cola in India as well as the US. She was always ready and willing to chip in generously with advice for any problem, including a personal one. In the early 70s, my friend, RV Rajan, had worked closely with Mrs Sinha in the Delhi-based but unimaginatively christened Advertising Corporation of India, a Clarion-McCann sister company meant to handle public-sector accounts. In his self-published autobiography, Courage My Companion, Rajan recalls how she had clearly specified what a corporate wife should be like: her qualities and her duties, so to speak. On pages 63 and 64 of his book, he quotes Mrs Sinha’s advice “… on the type of girl I [he] should marry. Because I was a successful adman and had a bright future, she felt that my life partner should be a smart and capable girl. She said, ‘Marry a girl who will be comfortable entertaining clients at home. She must be sophisticated to be able to socialise with the wives of the clients.’ In other words, she wanted me to marry a girl who could support my career.” He did exactly the opposite. Maybe, in her heart of hearts, she thought of it as the corniest thing that could have happened to him.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers.

The book title is clunky. It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. When ordering my copy from Infibeam I typed ‘Beyond’ instead of ‘Behind’ in the search field. The search engine promptly amended it, though. The title comes from an advertising hoarding for Italian floor tiles that used to be on the since demolished wall behind which the by now world-renowned slum abutting the Mumbai airport, Annawadi, exists. Though clunkily named, the book is far from clunky. It reads like a Charles Dickens novel set in present-day Mumbai, though fiction it most definitely is not. Katherine Boo has done an exceptional job of making us feel – albeit at second hand − what it’s like to exist like a virtual nobody at the bottom of the social pyramid of Heartbreak City with the most tenuous “temp work” link with the life in the legitimate metropolis − and with all the cards in the deck stacked against the subsister. No names have been changed to protect anyone’s privacy or to ward off the peril of getting sued for defamation. The book is a piece of pure reportage devoid of judgemental subtext – an admirable feat rarely achieved in chronicling life, high or low. Being an outsider may have helped Boo to reach this state of equanimity while telling the Annawadi story. It certainly seems to have lent a down-to-earth perspective to the narrative. Will the publication of Behind the Beautiful Forevers make a difference to the lives of Annawadians? Local politician and 'slum boss' Asha Waghekar doesn’t think so. http://yhoo.it/GCn7bq. Her neighbour, Akhtar Husain, a younger sibling of Abdul who is one of the main ‘characters’ in Boo’s book, agrees with Asha. Boo is hopeful that the publicity garnered by her work may work in favour of Annawadi and other slums particularly because she has removed the cloak of invisibility from the unconscionable injustices heaped on the innocent slum dwellers. http://bit.ly/GEzqWg. Let us hope she is right. Only Time will tell, I guess.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bad to worse. Then better, maybe.

“We are headed for a Malthusian crisis,” he said, with professorial confidence. “Plankton levels are dropping. Bees are dying. There are tortilla riots in Mexico, the highest wheat prices in 30-odd years.” He paused. “The question we have to answer is: How do we kill four of the world’s six billion people in the most just way possible?” http://nyti.ms/wPL7Ah

In early 2007, 75000 Mexicans rioted over the sharp rise in the price of tortillas, staple diet of the poor. This was not front-page news. http:// aol.it/zpnUlE Yet a sharp-witted troll in the US blithely cited the civil disturbance as one of the noteworthy symptoms of the coming global crisis. Trolls are member of a growing Internet subculture which is marked by a fluid morality and a disdain for pretty much everyone else online. If the reading of the situation by the troll sounds like loony tunes, please remember that it is the opinion of someone who lurks in the underbelly of the Internet and hardly ever comes in touch with normal folks. Come to think of it, there is more than an iota of truth in what he said although his final solution may sound extreme. Take a country like Incredible India of the Economic Miracle fame. Its citizenry is blessed with more mobile phones than access to toilets, more cars than roads to run them on, more electrical appliances than electricity to power them. Iniquity, inequality, corruption, make-believe ‘garibi hatao’ programs, child abuse, delayed and/or miscarried justice, hell holes doubling as prisons, orphanages, hospitals… such is the proletarian lot. Is the Malthusian crisis is at the root of it all? Even if it is, there may be a more humane alternative to the troll’s prescription of decimating the numbers of the lesser god’s progeny. How about asking old Karl Marx’s ‘opiate of the masses’ to ride to the rescue? Renunciation is a virtue in the Hindu scheme of things. So it may just do the trick. This way, the powers that be are also spared the worry of the likelihood of a bloody rebel. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World had soma, a tranquilizer without after effects. Should Brave New India not emulate the shining example?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Neither poison pen nor mudraking all the way. Good fun, though.

The Mitford sisters and I – we go back a long way, literally speaking. I first came across them in March 2009 http://bit.ly/x7dPDE after following the exploits of the Rt Hon Unity Mitford, whom I described in a recent Tweet as ‘a U Brit brat + a Winston Churchill relation + a Hitler “groupie”.’ The Mitford sister younger to her was Jessica (aka “Decca”), the adventurous one with leftist inclinations who ran away from her stately home to fight in the Spanish Civil War and was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party in the US for a while also happens to be JK (Harry Potter) Rowling’s self-acknowledged “heroine”. After reading Poison Penmanship: The Gentle Art of Mudraking (Alford a Knopf, New York, 1979) - rescued by me as usual from my consigned-to-the-back-rack-and-conveniently-forgotten book collection - I couldn’t but concur with Rowling’s summing-up of her as “[i]ncurably and instinctively rebellious, brave, adventurous, funny and irreverent”. I can vouch that Poison Penmanship is a series of delectable (what I’m tempted to call) belles-lettres. From among them, I would rate the following as strictly falling in the “mudraking” category of investigative journalism in the US, at times accidentally so: You-All and Non-You-All, the 3 funeral pieces, Maine Chance Diary, Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers, My Short and Happy Life as a Distinguished Professor, and the 2 Sign of the Dove pieces. What comes across from her writing is what Rowling told us: “I love the way she never outgrew some of her adolescent traits, remaining true to her politics – she was a self-taught socialist – throughout her life.” And, “… she liked nothing better than a good fight, preferably against a pompous and hypocritical target” like the funeral trade, San Jose State University, Famous Writers correspondence school. Elizabeth Arden, the American South in the fifties, you name it. All told a rip-roaring read.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool.

There I’ve gone and done it once again. Excavated from the inner recesses of one of my many bookcases a very readable and moving account of a Hollywood star’s last days enshrined in a Chatto & Windus (1986) hardcover first edition − that’s what I have done – no less. I must have picked Peter Turner’s Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool off the DN Road footpath probably near its Flora Fountain end in the mid-90s, merrily chucked it in one of my numerous bookcases and forgotten all about it. The book, I confess, may not be everybody’s cup of tea. With me, it qualifies one hundred per cent because it is (a) in the historical gossip genre which has been my perennial favourite – I simply relish it; and (b) about a minor Hollywood film noir star of the 40s and 50s invariably typecast as a floosy with a heart of gold. Gloria Grahame caught my eye and my fancy in the Humphrey Bogart starrer, In A Lonely Place (1950), and The Big Heat (1953). By a strange coincidence, Gloria’s private life happened to match her screen persona perfectly. To put it mildly, she lived her life along unorthodox lines with a string of failed marriages and stormy affairs. The book depicts her as being quite quirky, living in a trailer parked in a caravan park in California, not possessing too many clothes and accessories, forever anxious about keeping her awkward feet covered in socks and so forth. It is written by her lover in a cougar relationship, the Liverpudlian stage actor Peter Turner who was 29 years her junior. The narrative intertwines two distinct streams: one of nostalgia and the other describing pre-death rites of care and comfort. It is surprisingly racy, tragic, at times unintentionally funny, very visual and very, very believable. There is no flourish or fanfare used in the telling. I feel it would make a great movie. What’s more, it deserves a wider reading public as well. P.S.: By the way, the book title comes from a chance remark by the author’s bête noire when informed of the impending demise of a Hollywood star in the hometown of The Beatles.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Manneys and I.

There was a time in my life when every visit to Pune included a visit or two to Manneys. Before the old Manneys set in a sprawling and dilapidated colonial bungalow on the Moledina Road in the Cantonment area was renovated in mid-80s, it had a charm all its own. You could lose yourselves for hours in the rows of shelves browsing to your heart’s content without anyone bothering you. In the late 60s and early 70s, I bought quite a few books there. Many of them are still stuck in my memory. One of them was a hardcover copy of Napoleon’s Book of Fate & Oraculum for which I must have paid not more than rs.70/-. (Today, the on-line bookshops are charging around Rs.1000/- for a paperback copy of it. Pity, I lost my copy. I could have got a bit of money for its antique value.) I cannot remember the titles and/or authors of a couple of memoirs of lesser known American ad professionals that I picked up there in my zeal in those days for knowing more and more about advertising. One of my other finds from there was a collection of humorous fiction and essays of the British-Canadian writer, Stephen Leacock, in a rather elegant hardcover Bodley Head edition in an offwhite slipcase. http://bit.ly A2CWzY Unfortunately, I lost all of these books somewhere along the way. I never spoke more than a few words with the proprietor who, according to the various articles about Manneys, was always very helpful and forthcoming. Were I to muster all the nostalgia at my command, I still cannot say that the closing down of Manneys will leave a dreadful void in my life. I’m sure it won’t.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Ho-hum! So what else is new?

Among the American Founding Fathers, John Hancock was said to be a smuggler in Boston; Henry Laurens, a big-time slave trader; George Washington and Ben Franklin were supposedly involved in land grabs of dubious legality. Ben was known to have been equally successful at wooing French women as well as French financiers of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson had a love slave − literally: Sally Hemings, a woman of mixed parentage whom he owned. James Buchanan, who was the President immediately prior to Lincoln, was allegedly in a three- decade relationship with a southern Senator and slave owner. His illustrious successor too was believed to have similar proclivities. Coming closer to the present, Dwight Eisenhower had his “pretty Irish driver”, an Englishwoman named Kay Summersby Morgan. He wanted to marry her after divorcing Mamie, according to President Harry Truman. Ike even went so far as to request the Pentagon to relieve him of his command so that he could follow his heart. He was threatened with dire consequences if he indulged his romantic inclination. It fizzled out and, despite Ike’s solemn promise to take her to Washington as his secretary; Kay got the sack after he left Europe. In short, she lost both her man and her job, poor dear. Monica Lewinsky, the White House intern in the notorious Blue Dress, was only one of Bill Clinton’s many peccadilloes, in and out of the Presidency. That JFK took frequent and brief breaks from his high-pressure job with his numerous flings, including the one with Marilyn Monroe, is an open secret too widely known and accepted as an integral part of US Presidential lore and unlikely to raise any eyebrows anymore. So why should we be scandalized by the recent revelations by Mimi Alford, now a 69-year-old grandmother and retired New York City church administrator, about her 18-month-long affair with Kennedy in 1962-63 during her White House internship at age 19? Why indeed? http://nyp.st/yKC9bn The reader reactions to an article http://bit.ly/zV3vul about a soon-to-be-published tell-all memoir of the secret life of Hollywood stars of the swinging 40s and 50s – long before AIDS and gay liberation, Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars (Grove Press) by the self-proclaimed “facilitator” Scotty Bowers is along the same lines. No big deal how people chose to live in private. Anyway, who the devil cares about a bunch of ancient has-beens? P.S.: The cover page image at Amazon.com website shows a 3-word excerpt from Gore Vidal’s comment that lends a semblance of credibility to the 88-year-0ld Bowers’ book, though. The full comment reads: “I have known Scotty Bowers for the better part of a century. I’m so pleased that he has finally decided to tell his story to the world. His startling memoir includes great figures like Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Scotty doesn’t lie — the stars sometimes do — and he knows everybody.” http://bit.ly/ yZRZEo, http://bit.ly/xO704s

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Kill Bill.

I had always thought of man as a polluting animal, first and foremost, who leaves a lot of mess, physical and/or emotional, in his wake. Then I chanced upon Philipe Gigantès’s Power and Greed: A Short History of the World (Robinson, London, 2002). That really made the scales drop from my eyes, big time. PG introduced me to the villain of the human continuum: the Grand Acquisitor. (He writes in a footnote that there is no such word as ‘acquisitor’. I found it on the Internet, though. http://bit.ly/z0A4a7. It looks like it has been lurking unobtrusively on page 16 of Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary [1913 + 1828].) The moral of PG’s thesis is man has been an acquisitive brute all along. His mate has been his worthy partner-in-crime. The pantheon of the Grand Acquisitors includes all the historical figures who have been hailed by orthodox historians as heroes and saviours. To me, this suggests that man’s past as a hunter continues to haunt his present and his future. We cannot help being marauders and practising one-upmanship whatever we are doing. Like Gordon Gekko, we too begin following the “Greed is good” mantra. Has the time come to pay for our historical blunders? Your guess is as good as mine, I guess. Aldous Huxley summed it up rather lucidly in Ape and Essence:

Church and State.
Greed and hate.
Two baboon persons
In one supreme gorilla.

In short, kill, torture, maim, character-assassinate, lie, twist facts, go on a bull raid in the stock market … you name it. Anything to be hailed as the Top Dog, Chief Honcho, Numero Uno, Big Boss.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Music Room.

No, I’m not thinking of Satyajit Ray’s superbly visual movie, Jalsaghar (1958). I am thinking of a book. The world of books is populated by two kinds of denizens. So far as the first kind is concerned, you want to part company with them as soon as possible. With the other kind, you never want the tête-à-tête to end. Namita Devidayal’s The Music Room (St. Martin’s Press, New York, 2009) belongs to the latter sort. It is history told to perfection in the style of a fictional tale. You could perhaps best describe it as an enchanting, almost seductive, personal narrative encrusted with details recalled with care and love. In the process of telling the life story of her music teacher, the author skilfully weaves in the history of Hindustani classical music with panache and an eye for exactitude in the many sub-narratives she offers. I’m a bit puzzled, though, by an obvious slip in this regard when she describes a peace concert at Shivaji Park after the demolition of Babri Masjid (6 December 1992). She writes that she was “all of seventeen” then (page 113). If she was born in 1968 as the blurb on the back fold of the cover slip states, she must have been twenty four at the time of the Artist Against Communalism all-night vigil. Mistakes happen. This minor lapse does in no way devalue the worth of her irreplaceable contribution to the cause of Indian classical music. I recommend The Music Room to anyone who is even remotely interested in music. A stupendous read, believe you me.

Wish you a long life, friend.

“Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities.“
(TS Elliot, Gerontion)

We happen to know a doctor – a successful and proficient eye surgeon − who is petrified by the thought of growing old. She quizzed Ujwal and me closely about our attitude. Our casual shrugs seemed to puzzle her. Frankly though, immortality is a non-starter with me. Living forever would bore me to death which would refuse to oblige as is its wont. While reading Robert Ludlum’s posthumously published thriller, The Sigma Protocol (Orion, 2001), presumably based on the myths and mysteries surrounding the Bilderberg Group, I came across a mention of the Galápagos tortoises that reputedly lives for two hundred years. This triggered off my recall of the end of Aldous Huxley’s After Many a Summer. where a band of immortality seekers comes face to face in a dungeon beneath a British stately home with the man-ape whose lifespan has been artificially elongated. Good grief! For once, I disagree whole-heartedly with this Woody Allen utterance: “I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying.”