Thursday, October 03, 2013

Adilshahi in Everest.

Does History repeat itself? I guess it does sometimes in strange (read “outrageous”) ways. When I joined Everest Advertising in October 1976, I was hired by the 20th century reincarnation of either the 4th or the 6th Adilshah of Bijapur, judging solely by the coincidence of their first name being identical with the Everest despot's surname. I did not realize it then and there, of course. The scales fell from my eyes only later when I recalled how the place had been run like a Sultanate with an iron fist in a faux ambience of camaraderie and shared authority. The short-statured Sultan was a triumph of sartorial artistry par excellence, always impeccably attired in pin-striped suits and well groomed to the hilt. His smoke was Dunhill in the maroon and gold twin pack. The everyday facial expression he wore when he strutted about among us minions was a regally supercilious scowl. It did a disappearing act, though, when he was in the presence of a client. In his durbar, there was a pecking order among his courtiers, some being more equal than others. The Sultanate had been subdivided among jagirs. These had been handed over to various courtiers who enjoyed privileges commensurate with the extent of loyalty they showed to the Sultan. Queer sort of a fellow was our Sultan, both figuratively and literally. Those were the days when, for a person in his socio-economic situation, the whole world was his closet. He had a lot of fellow travelers in the advertising business. When he was interviewing me for the job of a creative chief, he had, I remember, stoutly taken umbrage over a press ad series for room air conditioners in my portfolio that I happened to be rather proud of. He found them objectionable, he said, because the headlines addressed to the family head used sexist phrases like “Lord and master”. I tried to explain that it was tongue-in-cheek as could be judged from the tone of the rest of the text. He disdainfully brushed aside my argument. Ironically, as the Sultan himself revealed in a weaker moment during one of his daily walking tours of the Sultanate, he thought the secretaries of his courtiers-in-chief were “office wives” and expected them to display the same degree of fealty as their real-life wives. It was rumoured that, in at least two cases, his word was literally taken as God’s own truth by the minions concerned. At the time of my joining, Everest was in a creative trough. People thought their ads were so-so. Or, to call a spade a spade, mediocre. When I started writing for the agency, my work especially for Swissair suddenly caught the eye of the market. Clients started ringing the doorbell. The Sultan was happy but excessively frugal in his praise and rewards. He had learned his statecraft well from the British. Divide and rule. He decided in his infinite wisdom to divide the creative jagir down the middle making me the copy head and leaving the art honchodom in somebody else’s hands. To put me in my place so to speak, he invited the Court Jester to the Swissair plans board. But, do what he might, the fact remained that his annual all-expenses-paid junket to Zurich needed my best efforts. Fortunately, for an unusually long stretch of 13 years, the success run of Swissair creative continued. A few years after my adieu to Everest, the Sultan met his Waterloo at the hands of a bizarre Nelson: the daughter of Everest’s founder.  His own trusted courtiers-in-chief including the Court Jester too betrayed him. The bells tolled tumultuously no more for the strutting tyrant. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Lamb among wolves.

Reading an excerpt of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Man Booker nominated The Lowland the other day, I remembered a long-lost old friend. His name was Shyam Guha. He was an Art Director in the Calcutta office of Clarion-McCann. I got to know him rather well in the late sixties and early seventies. We became friends working together on ad assignments on most of his fairly frequent visits to the Bombay office.

Shyam was a gem of a human being. He was probably the only innocent and guileless Bengali I came across in Clarion’s Bhadralok mafia during the eleven years, seven months and four days I worked for the agency. He was loved – nay, revered – by all the studio guys although none of us could quite fathom the reasons for him being invited once too often to Bombay because we had a surfeit of Art Directors and Visualizers of our own.

Rumour had it that the guys sent by the head office suits were spooks trained to keep an eye on the locals and report back. None of us believed it of Shyam, though. In fact, we used to look forward to his visits eagerly. I used to rib him about the spooks business and he would take it sportingly. There was definitely some truth in the 007 rumour, though. There definitely were spies from the Bong skies among us. One of them was a suit who chewed the bones as well as the meat of a chicken dish served to him. I can vouch for this trait confidently as he used to come home to dinner at 233 Khetwadi Main Road at times. The other was a creative guy who would visit us occasionally and spend the whole working day strolling around the office presumably trying to catch snatches of conversation in the corridors and at the water fountain.

As for Shyam and I, sometimes, we would taxi down to the Strand Book Stall during the lunch break for a quick browse. I remember Shyam gifting me a copy of the Marguerite Duras screenplay of Hiroshima Mon Amour, a Calder & Boyars paperback with the signature black and white cover. Shyam also regaled me with his tales of almost daily after-work tippling at the legendary Calcutta landmark, Olympia Bar in the company of his like-minded colleagues.

His other repertoire of stories included those about the Naxalites who then were a recent addition to the Calcutta scenario. Both of us were sympathetic to the cause these urban guerillas were battling for. Shyam did not seem to know any of the Naxals or their families personally. He also had not witnessed any of the street battles. What he was passing on to us was chiefly hearsay although his narratives were always compelling and riveting. Whenever he came home to dinner, this was one topic of conversation Ujwal and I used to look forward to listening.

During his Bombay sojourn, Shyam usually lodged with the Bombay Resident Director, Subrato Sen Gupta, now deceased. The Sen Guptas apparently did not have a spare latch key for the front door of their palatial Neapean Sea Road flat. So Shyam had a curfew to observe whenever he planned an evening out. He had to be back and in bed by 11:00 p.m., the family retiring hour, exactly one hour before the witching hour. This deadline was the theme of our favourite parting shot every time he took our leave hurriedly and distractedly after dinner.

By the time I decided to quit Clarion in 1976, Shyam’s visits to the Bombay office had petered out. We lost touch with each other because both of us were bad letter writers. The “out of sight, out of mind” bug was also probably at work.

I picked up the threads of the Shyam Guha episode once again much, much later. In the late nineties, to be exact. I got acquainted with a Calcuttan on-line because of my column on the Hindustan Times website at that time. Well educated and cultured, she was married to a widely-connected advertising guy. She happened to mention Prasanto Sanyal and other denizens of the Clarion Bhadralok in one of her emails. I promptly asked her if she could get her husband to trace the whereabouts of Shyam. Much to my chagrin, after a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, her spouse hit a dead end in his pursuit of my will-o’-the-wisp. There was no Shyam to be found. It seemed he had retired from Clarion long ago and moved bag and baggage out of the metropolis for terra incognita.     


Wednesday, September 04, 2013

The wearisome burden of superheroism.

In his fifth voyage, Sinbad came across a taciturn old man inhabiting the island where the Arabian Nights sailor was marooned. This worthy hopped on to Sinbad’s shoulder with his tacit consent and then refused to let go of his seat. Finally, according to Scheherazade, Sinbad had no alternative except to get his tormentor drunk and stone him to death.
Ever since the US of A usurped the role of World Supremo – did it happen in 1898 when it declared war on Spain and with the Paris treaty wrested virtual suzerainty over South America and the Philippines? – the mantle has rested heavily on its shoulder.
In the wake of Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt dispatched his Great White Fleet of 16 battleships with assorted escorts on a 14-month global cruise in order to demonstrate his country’s naval capabilities and preparedness. (Remember Nixon and Kissinger sending the US Fifth Fleet post haste to the Bay of Bengal in 1971?)
Once you’re on the superhero/superpower throne, it’s not easy to abdicate. You’ve got to keep on playing the role, like it or not. (Lord Acton’s axiom: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men." Note: Italics mine.) America did try to keep aloof in the Great War till Germany used U-boats thus forcing President Woodrow Wilson’s hand in early 1917. America’s entry on the Allied side in World War II too was belated: it only entered the theatre after the Japanese Navy attacked Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941. (By the way, by a strange twist of Fate, Captain America had become Marvel Comics’ top selling title at around this time clocking a monthly sale of as many as one million copies. Point to ponder: Why is a majority of comicbook superheroes born in the USA?)
What has always surprised me, though, is how Uncle Sam never got his fingers entangled into the Great Game – the on-going strategic rivalry for supremacy in Central Asia between the British Empire and the Russian Empire (and, after 1918, Soviet Union) – during its heyday. The American intervention in the Afghan Civil War was in fact as late as in 1979 as a Cold-War related retaliation to the Soviet initiative in the region and later directly when the Russian withdrawal left a power vacuum there. After the World War II victory, there have been many more episodes in the overseas adventures of Uncle Sam in his Captain America avatar: Korea, Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Gulf War, Iraq, and now maybe Syria – apart from his several covert interventions on the side of Banana Republic chief honchos. When you have the world’s biggest stake in armaments, covet the world’s oil reserves most avidly and have always fancied yourself in the role of World Supremo, you don’t have much of a chance. Or, choice, for that matter. You’ve got to carry your burden, trudge with it and like it or lump it. Unless you decide to emulate Sinbad’s “carved in stone” example… 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The rise and rise of rape in India.

There has been an alarming rise in the incidence of rape of late. This is causing much bewilderment and trepidation in so far as the crime is keeping pace with the measures taken to arrest or lessen its occurrence as well as the widespread publicity generated by the epidemic. 
I discern at least two equally powerful triggers for this intriguing phenomenon.
First among equals is the galloping pace of pro-feminist reforms and the accompanying fanfare they receive in media and word of mouth. This raises the anti-feminist’s heckles. They yearn to strike back. And what better way to do it than to go rape, molest, insult, humiliate “those pesky bitches”? Rape is a crime of power, not passion. In the present instance, it is the rapist’s response to the women’s increasing empowerment.
The second trigger is the nationwide – nay, worldwide – media coverage that each succeeding gang rape in India has been receiving of late. In the rapist’s sick mind, committing this horrendous crime of power in the company of like-thinking comrades seems to be an easy way of getting and basking in his fifteen seconds of fame. Labyrinthine and convoluted though this logic may seem, that’s the way the cookie crumbles in the rapist’s twilight zone, I’m afraid.
If both these triggers are currently at work, what is the way to slow down the occurrence of rape in India? Should the pace of pro-feminist reforms be slowed down? Should the fanfare that is their due be somewhat subdued? My off-the-cuff response is No to the first course of action and Yes to the second. My Yes response may be owing to my antipathy towards the way Indians and Indian media respond to anything: way over the top – so much so that for the potential rapist, rape has virtually become a cult!

Is there a way to nip a potential rapist in the bud? Caution and vigilance on the part of women stepping out of the safety of home and workplace as well as the law and order functionaries seems to be the partial – though not totally satisfactory – solution. Is there a way to identify and tag potential rapists before they crawl out of the crack and go on a rampage? Truth to tell, I don’t know.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Unfinished but not imperfect. Not by a long shot.

Go figure. For the life of me, I have not so far been able to understand why unfinished novels fascinate me. Could it be because they were works-in-progress that got interrupted by the author’s death, thus doomed to never get finished? Or, is it because, in Italo Calvino’s words, “A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.”?
Here are the three unfinished works-in-progress that enthralled me, listed here in the order of their appearance in my life as a reader:  Truman Capote’s Answered Prayers; Kurt Vonnegut’s If God Were Alive Today; and, last though by no means the least, F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Curiously, all three were by writers who were besieged by alcoholism and/or substance abuse and all three are about celebrity and, in varying degrees, celebrity-bashing.
A distinguishing characteristic of Capote’s book (he called it his “posthumous novel” on the Dick Cavell show in May 1971, thirteen years prior to his death), peopled by Unspoiled (and Spoiled) Monsters, is a cavalcade of NHRN characters flitting across its terrain. NHRN ( = Not His/Her Real Name) because in Answered Prayers, Capote put into practice his belief expressed in his Playboy December 1976 interview, viz., “All literature is gossip.” He bravely – almost stoically – endured the wrath of − and ostracization by − his high-society friends for letting the skeletons tumble out of their celebrity closets by the advanced publication of excerpts from his work-in-progress. I was bemused by his trashing of celebrity and enjoyed the writing that no doubt is simply dishy. I have a feeling that being outrageous in all he did and said had by the end of his life become his chief oeuvre. This is what Capote said about himself: “I don’t know anybody who gets as much publicity as I do for doing nothing.” And, this is how he dismissed Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “It is not writing. It is only typing.” Dorothy Parker agreed with his pronouncement. James Michener who by his own admission knew Capote “tangentially” wrote that he knew “four of the people T.C. lacerates” in Answered Prayers – which he thought was “[a] proctologist’s view of American society” but nonetheless capable of becoming “the roman à clef of my decade” – in the Proustian vein – if only Capote managed to complete it.

In If God Were Alive Today, Vonnegut too is engaged in a similar pursuit – celebrity mauling − although the characters don’t seem to be inspired by real people. The chief protagonist is a standup comic clearly off his rocker. He has been to the loony bin twice. Vonnegut’s take on politics and American values is often devastatingly cynical, occasionally hilarious and at times over-the-top bonkers especially because of Gil Berman’s overlong rants. Chances are, Vonnegut might have trimmed and polished the spiel had Death stayed its hand a little longer. In her interview in the Rumpus magazine Vonnegut’s youngest daughter, Nanette, mentions her son’s opinion that Gil Berman would never have made it to the stage. It’s view worth keeping in mind as the said son is a practicing standup comic, no less. Well, well, well, summing up the world’s status in Vonnegut’s own words: “If God were alive today, he would have to be an atheist, because the excrement has hit the air-conditioning big time, big time.”

I read The Last Tycoon recently in its Penguin Modern Classic avatar. Fitzgerald’s close friend, Edmund Wilson, was the editor. He also wrote a brief introduction. In this incarnation, it includes the first six chapters followed by the author’s notes on the cast of characters and alternative plot development pathways. Publisher’s Weekly’s review of Matthew J Bruccoli’s critical edition of the novel hints at it too being a roman à clef about Hollywood in the nineteen-thirties. The power struggle between MGM producer Irving Thalberg (Monroe Stahr, the chief protagonist) and MGM chief honcho Louis B Mayer (Pat Brady) presumably based on Fitzgerald’s personal observations of life in Hollywood during his sojourn there as a scriptwriter for MGM, Twentieth-Century Fox, United Artists and other studios from 1937 to 1940, was to form the core of the novel. The first six chapters in the Wilson-edited version in which the story seems to be about halfway developed barely suggests this, though. It is only when you go through the supplementary material that you begin to get a vague idea of what a rousingly powerful story it could have been had the author been able to complete it. Even in its truncated form, it is quite an absorbing read. Fitzgerald’s notes give the reader an opportunity to observe at close quarters how a master storyteller shapes his material and steers his narrative. In a review of The Last Tycoon (New York Times, 9 November 1941) J Donald Adams, apparently a regular contributor, expressed his view that Fitzgerald was particularly suited to write about Hollywood “inside out” because he was a “romantic realist”. By this phrase, he implied that Fitzgerald possessed in abundance “a lively sense of the fantastic” combined with “intuitive perceptions”, in addition to an insider’s knowledge of how the system worked owing to a fairly long stay there. He also cites this observation of Peter Monro Jack, Professor and Chair of Rhetoric, University of Michigan (1927-1930): "Had his extraordinary gifts met with an early astringent criticism and a decisive set of values, he might very well have been the Proust of his generation instead of the desperate sort of Punch that he is." That, indeed, is high praise.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

One picture is worth a thousand words. A proverb made in China, no less?

Reading about Sergey Brin’s “epiphany” concerning a new language of digital communication took me to my early days in advertising. There used to be an ongoing argument between writers and art directors about the relative prominence for copy vis-à-vis the pictorial elements in print ads. “One picture is worth a thousand” used to be the favourite last word on the subject uttered by the commercial artists some of whom fancied themselves to be Gauguins, van Goghs, Cézannes and Warhols of the ad world. I must confess, at the cost of sounding like a condescending snob, that not even two or three out of a score of them had even heard the names. The writers, on the other hand, were comparatively better informed. They would at least have taken the trouble to browse through the horrendously expensive, large-format, hard-bound tomes on occidental art direction strewn about in the studio space while waiting patiently for the nose-in-the-air art directors to give them a few moments of their precious time. This apparently was also the often uttered battle cry of marketers against competitors wielding catalogues as their marketing weapon and in similar skirmishes in the US marketplace in the early 20th century.  This reminds me of what Ivan Turgenev wrote in Fathers and Sons (1862): “The drawing shows me at a glance what would be spread over ten pages in a book.” Turgenev, in case you missed it, was the “father” of the term “nihilism”. And, the just cited remark by Bazarov, the chief protagonist of Fathers and Sons who was a nihilist and a medical student, was made in connection with the geological formation of Saxon mountains – a conversation ploy he employed with his friends while feigning no interest in art. This is the right moment, folks, to hark back to Brin’s epiphany. It suddenly dawned on him that, in a digital milieu where Twitter posts are “hyper-abbreviated”, a single photograph clicked on one’s mobile phone was eloquent enough to answer a textual query – without a textual or verbal addendum.  Pictures have become text-substitutes, in short. Talk of word pictures? It’s happening here and now. So, photography is no more only for keeping a record of the past. Instead it is used to record this moment. A mobile photo messaging app for Android called Snapchat lets a cellphone user shoot a picture or a video, send it to a friend and control how long it will be visible (up to 10 seconds) after which it vanishes forever as if it never existed in the first place.  Twitter’s Vine is happy with a 6-second lifespan for the visual while Facebook’s Instagram stretches it to 15 seconds. Finally, to place the matter in the larger perspective, think about what Guy-Ernest Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle, supposedly the blueprint for the Parisian student revolt of 1968: "The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images." This was one whole year before the uprising. In the same book, he also wrote: "In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all life presents as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation." Technology has finally made sense of his vision. Or, so it seems. 

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Spare me this day self-promotion by celebrities, Beelzebub.

Yesterday must have been my bad scare day. No, the Lord of the Flies did not intrude in my early-morning dream. I woke up much later than usual, though. Thirty past six, to be exact. Like me, the newsboy too arrived late. But that’s hardly unusual for him. As I was doing some stuff on my PC, I did not get my hands on Bombay Times, my habitual entrée to daily news read via its comic strips till well past nine forty-five or thereabouts. As (bad) luck would have it, on turning the faux front page my eyes were ambushed by a headline that said: “I apologized to Milkhaji’s wife for not having written a love song for her”. Without a thought for the consequences and breaking my habit of reading nothing except the comic strips and the SMS Joke in Bombay Times, I plunged headlong into one of the most skillfully plotted pieces of celebrity self-promotion I have come across in my whole life. Were you to accept all that you read in it, you will no doubt arrive at the following conclusions:
1. Unlike other mere mortals, Prasoon Joshi was born with a silver pen – not spoon − in his mouth.
2. Despite PJ’s parents’ assiduous efforts at gathering kafal – a berry specie nearing extinction – to feed him and despite PJ’s own ability to hear the faintly murmured message from Mother Nature about the coming extinction, poor kafal went the way of all flesh. Alas, in spite of his super hearing abilities beyond the ken of mere mortals, PJ could not save his beloved Uttarakhand in its hour of direst need when Mother Nature was shrieking at the top of her voice. I guess even super heroes have their bad hear days. What a sad PJ, sirji!
3. In the best of Bollywood and telly tradition, our hero had a widowed, white sari-wearing nani who educated herself against all odds, became first a teacher and later the school’s head honcho. With a Grade-A singer cum book author in Pahadi for a mom and a Director of Education for a dad, our hero with his exclusive nighttime access to a library in Meerut was well set to become a Grade-A jingle writer.
4. Our hero is far superior, in his own reckoning, to his erstwhile boss who he says is a patriarch. (Oh, oh! We know where this is leading to with violence against women hogging the daily headlines, don’t we?) Our hero also says that he has “no ego when it comes to accepting women as equals. Of course, our hero has magnanimously accepted his former boss’s difficulty in treating him as his equal. Needless to say, our hero confesses to being more into music and poetry than his ex-boss as also to needing his space and silence as compared to his ex-boss’s preference for being "always" surrounded by “more and more people”. So who is the better and more sensitive human being, boys and girls? Tell me, tell me.
5. In his infinite compassion for the female of the species, PJ actually said sorry to Mrs. Milkha Singh for not excluding her from a film on her husband.
6. The only reason our hero tolerates Mumbai: his idol Gulzar also lives there. He is not there for the money, folks – the filthy lucre that he gets for writing ad jingles and film songs, and, now film scripts.  
One could go on and on like this until one puked all over the page at the sheer gall of it all. Running down others is no way to prove one’s superiority as a human being. Equally, no amount of fudging with facts or playing with words no matter how poetically you do it can achieve it, either.

But celebrity can turn one’s head, I guess. Your sense of entitlement gets grossly and unhealthily enhanced. You want the world to acknowledge your greatness, your superiority every waking moment. You deserve it, damn it! If worse comes to worse, there is always the pay-as-you-go route. I’m told many publications don’t mind bending the rules these days. News mimicking ads, you see. 

Monday, April 22, 2013

How to “read” a book before buying.

Zounds! Truth to tell, I’ve been waiting all my life to use this expletive in the right context. I remember it being an often-used favourite of Porthos in the Classic Comics/Classic Illustrated (the series died a long time back, I gather) rendition of The Three Musketeers (1941). It caught my eye – and my fancy – there rather than while reading the Cassel’s yellow-jacketed edition of the Dumas classic. My use of “Zounds!” in the present case is more than justified in my shrewd estimation. It expresses my feeling of delight at having resisted resolutely the temptation of using a clichéd heading for this post, e.g., “Never judge a book by its cover.” (Frankly, though, I’ve followed that advice profitably on several book buying expeditions.) This “Zounds” also gleefully acknowledges my having finally stumbled upon the opportunity to fearlessly write “Zounds!” As you can see, the brief and to-the-point title I chose has just the right tinge of intrigue added to it by the read in quotes. As it must have dawned on all my intelligent and perceptive readers  by now, I am about to deliver, in my capacity as a veteran book reader and bibliophile of long standing, a how-to-do-it-yourself sermon on picking really worthwhile books in a bookshop or a book sale. Skip it at your own peril, boys and girls, especially if you don’t want to live the rest of your life buying and reading trash.

Here, now then, in brief, is my modus operandi of book buying. Once I enter a book shop or a book sale and start browsing, I allow an attractive book cover or an alluring book title to catch my eye. If the book seems to be within the ambit of my varied and catholic interests – and limited budget (yes, I tend to be a somewhat price-conscious book shopper which explains my preference for Strand Book Stall and book sales which the late and lamented Arun Kolhatkar too used to frequent probably for the same reasons), I pick it up and read the blurb on the back cover and elsewhere. (Glancing furtively over my shoulder to make sure nobody’s looking; I also take a hurried whiff of its new-book “fresh from the press” fragrance. Fungal hallucinogens alert for those of you who crave the “old book aroma”: Research suggests that sniffing old books infested with fungi may give the unsuspecting sniffer a “high”.

I’m rather partial to relevantly catchy book titles, I must sheepishly confess. Maybe the copywriter in me is to blame for this blemish. Let me also add that, in most cases, I have not regretted falling for the alluring charms of such a come-hither. A recent example is my purchase of Martin Lindstrom’s Buy.ology (Random House, New York, 2009). The copywriter in me found the book utterly delightful and extremely enlightening – worth much more than the Rs.425/- less 20% price I shelled out for it in Strand Book Stall. Another rewarding purchase going merely by the front-cover names-dropping is Laurie Rozakis’ Comma Sutra (Adam Media Avon, Massachusetts, 2005), also from Strand. A third example is Patrick Scrivenor’s I Used to Know That ENGLISH (Michael O’Mara Books, London, 2010), bought in an Ashish Book Centre sale not so long ago.

I would be lying through my teeth were I to claim that I have never been laid astray by a tempting title. A glaring example is Stephen Markley’s Publish This Book (Sourcebooks, Illinois, 2010) that was tagged by the publisher promisingly as “Humour/Memoir” but turned out a dud and a drag and a waste of money and time. It is not badly written, mind you. It has its moments of genuine humour but is so stretched out that it tests the reader’s patience to the fullest extent without rewarding him commensurately in return. As the Good Bard would have likely said, “Much Ado about Nothing”, or rather nothing much! Could I, as an unpublished author, have wanted to share the agony of an about-to-be-published author’s rites of passage through purgatory?

If the blurb has whetted my appetite for further enlightenment, I go to the publication details which include the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) and copyright information (in other words, the publishing history of the book in my hands). This is printed behind the title page also known as “verso”. I’m always interested in knowing when the book was first published and which edition of it I’m holding in my hands. I do possess quite a few first editions although I’m not a first-edition collector in the real sense. The price permitting, I prefer hardbound books to paperbacks; likewise, new to second-hand; likewise, genuine to contraband, i.e., pirated. (Recently, however, New York Times told me that a hardcover book’s spine could be an ideal hideaway for bedbugs and their eggs. The University of Washington Library was among the first few to discover this menace. Question: Could the bedbug menace be used to promote ebooks?)

What I usually do after reading the publication details is to turn to the back of the book looking for an index. Show me a book with an index in its tail and I will show you a book that’s brimming with its own importance as a future reference source. Jokes aside, I adore simply books with indexes. They’re mostly non-fiction, though. An index makes it easy for me to quickly locate those parts of a book that I enjoyed most when I first read it and which I now want to reread. An index, in other words, is akin to a Jurassic Park imitation of a website’s own internal search engine, after all. Other telling backend clues to the writer’s presentation skills and dedication to his subject are an appendix (or appendices), a compendium of footnotes, glossary and a further readings list.

For me, a cast-of-characters listing is a useful indicator of the likely quality of content. When there is a huge galaxy of characters populating a novel, it is a real help to have a reference point to which you can keep returning to reorient yourself if and when you have kind of lost your way in the narrative. Most reading – and, of course, performing – editions of plays have a cast-of-characters page by definition as it were. I fondly remember – and sorely miss – the early Ellery Queen mystery novels with their long cast of characters, a cast-of-characters listing to match and, last but not least, the challenge to the reader to name the murderer (or “the perp” in contemporary lingo) before the Master revealed all. Some of the early Agatha Christie novels had the c-o-c listings too. I used to own all those wonderful Ellery Queen and Agatha Christie mysteries mostly paperbacks. I can almost see those scrumptious Ellery Queens in their signature Penguin paperbacks in a green-with-a-white-centre-band jacket. Alas, I lost all that precious caché out of sheer carelessness. 

Before I say adieu, take a look at this:

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Please, sir. May I have a kilo of books?

I kid you not, boys and girls. Here’s what the ad with a black borderline in the Mumbai Mirror of Wednesday, 13 March 2013 (page 3, top left hand corner), said. And, I quote verbatim:

New & Pre-owned Books

Buy Books by the Kilo.

Rs.200/- per Kilo for Children’s Books & Mills & Boon, Rs.100/- per Kilo for all other Books.
Minimum Purchase of ½ Kilo and In Multiples of 100 Grams there-of [sic]
All subjects included

One million books will be displayed during the course of this exhibition.

Shri Sunderbai Hall
Nathibai Thakersey Marg, Opp. Churchgate Station
Behind Income Tax Office, Mumbai 400002
Tel: 95942 21040

Date: from Wed. 6th to Sun. 24th March 20013.
Time: 10 am to 8 pm
Sundays Open



*We do not provide plastic bags please bring your own carry bags.

My guess? A lawyer (if not full-fledged, then an intern) – not a copywriter – wrote the text. (S)he lacked finesse, forgot to proofread (“there-of”). Also, please mark the euphemistic legalese (“pre-owned” for “second hand”, a usage borrowed from car trade). At least, they told a fair amount of truth if not the whole truth. I noticed that some of the books on display had on the front fly page a borrower’s record sheet, a familiar presence in library books. Also the pages of a lot of books were on the verge of yellowing.

The exhibition space was fairly well packed, a rare occurrence on a weekday afternoon. The shoppers were mostly young, enthusiastically lugging their shopping baskets behind them, jostling, pushing, jamming the aisles as most Indians are wont to do. A majority were buying mass market fiction, children’s books and computer-related books. In the former category, the best of the chaotically scattered lot seemed to be Grisham and Crichton.

As for me, after two hours of plowing through the tumult, I settle for three books, two hard-bound and one paperback. The first one, Molly Weir’s Spinning Like A Peerie (Lomond Books, Edinburgh, 1999), is the paperback sequel to Trilogy of Scottish Childhood.">>.  

The second book to catch my eye and fancy was Joseph Roth’s The White Cities: Reports From France 1925-39 (Granta Books, London, 2044). Roth was a hotshot German newspaperman who quit the Weimar Republic and relocated in France. His collection of essays (or, belles lettres, in deference to their vintage) would be worth reading, I thought.

My third purchase was a quirky collection of misprints, typos and other howlers: Martin Toseland’s A Steroid Hit The Earth (Portico Books, London, 2008). None of my esteemed fellow shoppers would have spared a glance for my eclectic and weird choices, I’m sure. Well, well, well. C’est la vie.

My rich haul did not cost much. Tipping the weighing scale at 1.2 kg, it left my wallet lighter by Rs.120/-. The other shoppers in the cashier’s queue had much heavier loads to carry and pay for. This masterstroke of exhibition marketing was the brainwave of Butterfly Books. Only someone who deals in books by the container loads could have thought of selling them by weight. Other booksellers ought to follow suit with suitably modified baits.