Sunday, December 24, 2006

Review : The Alchemy of Desire

"Love is not the greatest glue between two people. Sex is," says the sardonic, unnamed narrator of "The Alchemy of Desire," as he hurls us into a cautionary tale of sexual desire and time. This is the debut novel of Indian journalist Tarun Tejpal, who is best known for his exposés in Tehelka, a newsweekly he founded and edits in New Delhi.

The crassness of the opening line leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, but delve deeper and the real reasons behind the narrator's erratic behavior begin to emerge. Tejpal uses this beginning to contrast with what he ultimately wants to say.

Much of the first third of the novel describes the narrator's relationship with his spouse, Fizz. The pair leave New Delhi for a remote village in the Himalayas, where the narrator tries to write the Great Indian Novel. Here, an unrealized memory of a long-dead woman, Catherine, stalks him and deprives him of all comfort but one: the slaking of desire.

The protagonist chances upon a trove of 64 notebooks in their new house in the Himalayas. The notebooks elaborate, in raunchy detail, the sexcapades of Catherine and her lover Gaj Singh, who had lived in the same house decades ago. Not only do the words begin to take over the narrator's life, but he is also haunted by Catherine's apparition in dreams. Gradually, Tejpal's hero is taken away from the real world into the nether depths of extreme passion. As he plumbs the illegible writings with feverish intensity, he is forced to stake everything, including ultimately his marital life, at the altar of sexually charged prose.

The next segment, Kama (Desire) shifts the focus to America and Catherine's life story. This is the point where the reader begins to make sense of the novel. Kama tracks Catherine's disgust with her prim American life, her impatience with her mother's Catholic religiosity and the pity she feels for her father's declining years. The distaste that she harbors for her state fuels her journeys through the cities of Europe, her travels interspersed with epistolary exchanges with her parents. Her Paris sojourn is the first turn in the novel's tide. Alluding to Catherine's antipathy for emotionless hedonism, Tejpal reverses the opening assertion of his novel: Desire is a wonderfully promiscuous thing, but when it is trapped in monogamy it cannot survive without love.

Interestingly, these passages mark the guest appearances of Somerset Maugham and Pablo Picasso in the narrative. Also, it is in Paris that Catherine meets her future husband, Mustafa Syed. She is beguiled by the charms of the Jagdevpur prince who "spoke English gently and with a fine sense for its sound." The novel takes her to India where she becomes Syed's wife and melds into a culture she has known all her life but never experienced. Catherine's bewilderment is dissipated by her husband's good advice: Be inscrutable.

After this, however, the novel momentarily slips into a mishmash of desire gone berserk. It is a wonder that it didn't occur to Tejpal, who purportedly knows so much about desire, that too much concupiscence, even in literary form, can move from edgy to bland to downright repulsive. By the time this roar dies down, one has had so much of Catherine's experimentation that one is almost relieved to see her dead.

The novel is again rescued toward the end by the narrator's haunting account of what passions possess us and which of those we cling to for reasons that are never fully known. There's also an exploration of how intense desire survives death to linger, imbuing everything it had once touched with a long-ago glow.

Despite warts, "Alchemy" is engaging because Tejpal binds the reader into a sordid tale of murderous intrigue, which concludes aptly.

The novel is, to use a clichéd phrase, thriller-like in its breathless pace. Tejpal's narrator is the portrait of an artist as the solitary reaper. Reaper of grim destinies and difficult emotions. That alone ensures that readers will connect with him at a deeply personal level.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Master of style

John Banville, on being awarded the Booker Prize for The Sea, had remarked, "It is nice to see a work of art win the Prize." If it had not been Banville, I would have dubbed the speaker an irritatingly arrogant man, but with him, these words, despite landing from the horse's mouth, do not lose sheen since they are the truth. Banville is master of self-reflective fiction.

First, it was The Sea that bowled me over, and now, The Untouchable. Banville's narrators in both are articulate English males pondering the emptiness in their lives. But why are these people racked by self doubt? Subconscious strands run through Banville's work, pointing to childhood traumas and missed opportunities. Max Morden and Victor Maskell (such snobbish, unreal names) owe a vote of thanks to their creator for making them masters of simile and the precise phrase. So much so that the reader is left gasping as he conjures each simile or metaphor, risen from unthinkable depths of the imagination, apt and striking at the same time. Is Banville a sorcerer or is he just supremely gifted? A party group becomes a flock of languorous pigeons; "swift, bug-eyed glances" are exchanged; a dining scene assumes Olympian proportions. And all these have been produced from a slender sheaf within The Untouchable.

He leads a deeply tormented inner life, does Maskell. Yet, he never loses the larger picture, always looking at and analysing events around him with an avuncular regard for the reader. None of this, mind you, is done for effect. Maskell's wisdom is closely tied up with his eccentricities and one wishes one knew such a man in life to understand more legibly the strands of concern that run through and ruin his life. This is not to suggest that Banville doesn't paint as broad a canvas for his narrator's character as allowed for within the confines of a novel. It is a mark of Banville's talent that Maskell becomes so real as to leap off the constraining environs - spying rings; the Blitz; private, encompassing grief - that the pages afford him.

Banville's writing reminds one of Alan Hollinghurst - words joined together with a blindingly posh simplicity; evolved imagery; deep sense of time and place. You open their books not to learn a story; you approach them with expectant trepidation at what amazing sights and sounds lurk in the folds of the next page.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Reviewer's Life

Came across this piece in Sunday's Boston Globe. Sven Birkerts will publish "Reading Life: Books for the Ages" early next year. He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and is lecturer in creative writing at Harvard. He is due to review Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games, out in the US on Jan 9. Here he speaks about his reservations about the new age of blitzkrieg publicity, the exotic element in writing by authors of Indian origin, and his first impressions after "the recent thump at the front door followed by the receding grind and rattle of the morning UPS truck". Deja vu! Do all reviewers get butterflies in the tummy when the ringing of the doorbell may herald an expectant galley?

When I saw the thickness of the padded packet I knew it had to be a biography of a Civil War general or a new volume from the Library of America. But no, from the mailer I extracted an "advance reader's edition," weighing in at 900-plus pages, of "Sacred Games," by Indian novelist Vikram Chandra, a name only vaguely familiar to me, which is due out from HarperCollins in January.

..."Sacred Games" surely gave the talent in the room something to work with. For starters, there's the India factor. If Chandra's name, his obvious foreignness, might on the face of it be a liability -- "world literature" is a notorious kiss-of-death category -- that can turn around smartly if there is a larger trend or momentum. India is such a trend, no question. It all began with l'affaire and le succès Rushdie, the buzz around "The Satanic Verses" and the fatwa. Jhumpa Lahiri's 2000 Pulitzer Prize for "Interpreter of Maladies" helped, as have conspicuous literary and crossover successes by writers like Rohinton Mistry (his "A Fine Balance," itself substantial, was an Oprah pick), Amit Chaudhuri, Akhil Sharma, Pankaj Mishra, Arundhati Roy, and the aforementioned Vikram Seth, to name just a few. What savvy editor doesn't recall the Latin American boom in the 1970s, when talents like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortazar, and Isabel Allende captured the public imagination?

...But at this point I became aware of a growing unease, a purloined letter feeling -- as if I'd all along been looking past the most obvious thing. I mean, what if Chandra has in fact written an irresistibly great book or even just a respectably good one? Why was I so keen on thinking angles? So that I could stay safe in my cynical marketplace analysis, my reflex assumption that people don't read much or ambitiously -- or that anything packaged this way could be taken seriously?

Am glad that Birkerts allowed for a certain uncertainty to creep into his judgment about the "exotic" angle in Indian fiction. There was this movie - Kamasutra made by Indian American filmmaker Mira Nair, which could be accused of selling exotica to the West. Her next movie - Monsoon Wedding was much closer to reality, showcasing a very real slice of Punjabi gaiety. Chandra's book, which I am reviewing for Philadelphia Inquirer, is seriously close to events concerning the Bombay underworld as we in India come across. So it's a mixed bag, a lot of new fiction and cinema capturing India without bothering with the snake charmers and Taj Mahal, which this country has quite moved beyond.

I'd agree on the length though; Chandra could have easily chopped 150 pages.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Teasing the velvet

What strikes most about Sarah Waters's work is the subject matter. She inverts the gaze and brings sauciness to her writing. The reader is constantly surprised at the way Sarah pushes the boundary further and further as one delves deeper into Tipping the Velvet. Nancy, or Nan, is the most innocuous narrator, if there was one, and it is this innocence that becomes edgy when she speaks about tarts, toms, and rent boys. Nan approaches the world with eager eyes and always finds herself in the thick of lusty settings. Sarah cleverly upturns Victorian notions of propriety while giving her viscously imagined plot details a Dickensian verbosity.

In an interview on her website, she calls Walter's My Secret Life, an all-time favourite. A nineteenth-century erotic memoir, My Secret Life, according to this website, has over 4000 references to the F-word. Sarah is more controlled on that account, certainly, but Walter is clearly an influence. (Was he the inspiration behind Maud's evil uncle in Fingersmith?)

She is very comfortable with the language, understands its twists and turns and italicised stresses perfectly, and employs them to good effect. One jumps from one page to the next, hungering for the stuff of Nan's life. Always honest, even brutally so, Nan's innate goodness comes across when she decides to start dressing as a boy to escape men's stares. When she starts roaming London streets at nights as a boy, she realizes she still catches the attention of men, only this time, those like that, like her. This is both fascinating and troublesome for Nan. This new gaze, she says, doesn't pester her, rather, it seems like she has been revenged - for minding it in the first instance. She decides to turn into a rent boy.

This other-ended sense of morality informs all of Sarah's work. Her characters are not conventionally nice, yet are capable of life-affirming empathy when one least hopes for it. And therein lies redemption for emotional outcasts who so densely populate her novels.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Still an atheist? Thank God!

Emboldened by the debate on atheism, I hunted down this piece on Einstein that speaks about his views on God:

Refining his views as he went along, he called his religion a ‘cosmic religious sense’. In The World As I See It he wrote: “You will hardly find one among the profounder sort of scientific minds without a peculiar religious feeling of his own. But it is different from the religion of the naive man. For the latter, God is a being from whose care one hopes to benefit and whose punishment one fears; a sublimation of a feeling similar to that of a child for its father, a being to whom one stands to some extent in a personal relation, however deeply it may be tinged with awe.”

“But,” he said, “the scientist is possessed by the sense of universal causation. The future, to him, is every whit as necessary and determined as the past. There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair. His religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection.”

I agree. As a student of physics, I often wondered how gravitational force everywhere could be given by a simple formula. How every falling body went down at an acceleration of 9.8 m/s/s. How water flowing though a pipe ensures that the product of pressure and volume remains constant. Clearly, all this need not have been so. The world could have several thousand other permutations and still survive, but it doesn't, and one must ask, WHY? Why does the world run on simple equations that can be readily assimilated by the human mind, and exploited to make conditions of living better?

Surely, there is more to it than meets the eye. It can't all be co-incidence, can it now?

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Moving, beyond words

I went to a unique place today. The other day, my sister was taken to the residence of a Delhi industrialist by her workplace staff to select books! My sis works in the field of education and her office needs to build a library. It so happens that this industrialist's wife collects books from friends and acquaintances which she then sells at throwaway prices to raise money for charity. My sister was so taken with the range displayed that she immediately called me to visit asap.

So today I went. I was ushered to the back of the house where a dismantled sort of storehouse had packs and packs of books stacked one above the other. It boggled the mind to even imagine going through each one of them. My problem was how to locate that stack which belonged to a reader of literary books rather than pulp fiction. Thankfully, the caretaker understood my dilemma and brought out the more recently availed stocks in which I hoped to find books other than the sea of pulp that I encountered in my vicinity.

One such box turned out to be my savior. It had a lot of recently written contemporary literature, so my final list comprised these. It's not all fiction and some of it may not be literature, but we'll let that pass, won't we?

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Lady Oracle by Margaret Atwood
Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton
Elizabeth Costello by JM Coetzee
The Shorter Strachey (I am most looking forward to this)
Falling Off The Map by Pico Iyer
Moving Beyond Words by Gloria Steinem
Collected Short Stories of Kingsley Amis

Quite a collection, you'd agree! I sure hoped for more, and had sneaked in a few extra notes in my wallet, just in case! But the deal was truly a steal, such were the price tags. Overall, like always, a great experience, replete with that very tangible nervous sensation of being in the company of something exquisitely fantastic.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Tonio Kroger

These days, I am reading a collection of short stories by Thomas Mann that includes his classic novella, Death in Venice. I liked Death in Venice but I liked another story, Tonio Kroger, even more. Kroger, in the words of his painter friend Lisaveta Ivanovna, is a "bourgeois manque". There is an interesting piece of dialogue between the two which reveals Mann's views on the tragic position of an artist in bourgeois society, or rather, more appropriately, the tragic position of an artist with bourgeois sensibilities. Kroger, the artist, longs to be commonplace. He craves the simplicity that an unexamined life bestows. In a letter to Lisaveta, he writes:

"I stand between two worlds. I am at home in neither and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me ..."

He likens the bourgeois way of living to a "love for the human and the living and the ordinary". He is caught between the charms of narrating others' experiences as a writer on the one hand, and the tragically vicarious living that such a profession entails, on the other.

There is another, magical passage which takes place during Kroger's stopover at Aalsgaard. He is staying at a seaside hotel and on the day described, there is a party in the evening. At the party, he comes across Hans Hansen and Ingeborg Holm arriving hand in hand. Kroger had loved them both at one time. Hans was his schoolmate and Inge the daughter of a local doctor. Looking at Inge dance at the ball and recollecting his humiliation at being unable to dance quadrille, Kroger thinks to himself:

"Did you laugh at me on that occasion, when I danced the moulinet and made such a miserable fool of myself? And would you still laugh today, even now when I have become, in my own way, a famous man? Yes, you would - and you would be a thousand times right to do so, and even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right...

Mark the line: "even if I, single-handed, had composed the Nine Symphonies and written The World as Will and Idea and painted The Last Judgment - you would still be right to laugh, eternally right." Kroger laments that the two people he has deeply loved, Hans and Inge, were given a chance, the space to have 'that'- that love. Mann introduces an undercurrent of envy via this passage. How can Kroger not be envious when it is the lack of that happiness that he tries to cover up with his fascination for language? It's a lower love clearly, his regard for the literary life; hence the jealousy.

What Mann seems to be saying is that despite its charms and enticements, language cannot replace that sentiment, one which involves the human element. Kroger is all literary, but he looks upon it as a shortcoming, a malady in the blood that he has inherited from his flamboyant mother. He wishes to dispel a sense of being left out, to be accepted into bourgeois society. As people make merry at the ball, laughing, dancing, Kroger feels left out of the loop of back-slapping and "mundane" everyday stuff. He has closed himself from the first step that transforms a personal interaction into love.

Kroger's love for things bookish may have given him reason to somehow overlook this love as a smaller sentiment, which it clearly isn't. Kroger's tragedy is that he realizes this but feels condemned to lead the artist's life. He is at the receiving end of a flagstaff whose pride owners, in spite of their rough, unlettered ways, Hans and Inge are.

It's like being told surreptitiously, insidiously - that the edifice on which he had studiously built his life is so weak it laughs at him for the seriousness and privacy in which he has caged his loneliness.

In the pic, Thomas Mann.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Went to Gurgaon the other day and decided to check out the newly opened Landmark bookstore in the also newly opened Grand mall. What can I say? Landmark is simply excellent with its large and diverse collection and leisurely ambience. I had selected 7 books to buy initially, but budgetary restraints made me settle for three. So, my bookcase now boasts David Mitchell's Number9dream, John Banville's The Untouchable and Sarah Waters's Tipping the Velvet. I'm still swooning over the experience, and can hardly wait for the World Book Fair that should come calling around Feb.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

An Indian victory?

Why are we lauding Kiran Desai's Booker win as an Indian victory, a friend of mine asked the other day? "She is not even an Indian citizen," he added, as a wry smirk of disapproval settled on his face. First things first. Desai is very much an Indian citizen. She continues to hold her Indian passport, but that's beside the point. I must say I agree with my friend on his basic premise.

Writing, such is the profession, cannot be straitjacketed by defining its wizards in nationalistic terms. Can Sai's sense of loss in Inheritance be termed Indian? Isn't all writing meant to bridge the gap between nations and boundaries to connect the writer and reader in a bond of shared experience? Do I, in any way, lose out on the niggling pathos of Disgrace because its writer is South African?

I can understand the relevance of place in defining the milieu that the writer sets his novel in, but beyond that, it's immaterial. Experience is universal; we might be surprised by the similaity of reactions evoked by a murder in Boston and a robbery in Delhi; by grief in Slovakia and solitude in China. Joy and desperation know not the colour of the skin they seep out of.

So, please withhold calling this year's Booker and Nobel recepients as Oriental winners. They are Oriental, sure, but they are not oriental writers.

Brinkmanship spilleth over

North Korea shocked the international community when it claimed to have detonated a nuclear device in what could be a possible precursor to a fully developed nuclear weapons program. The tests came within months of the dramatic test-launching of seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong, over the Sea of Japan.

Poverty and the ill-gotten gains of long years of communism finally got to the regime which disregarded all notes of caution emanating from the Western world, South Korea and Japan. Such was the measure of disbelief at N Korea's action that even China, otherwise a vocal supporter, termed the nuke test a "brazen act".

One wonders what could have been the immediate provocation of the North's action, which has been threatening with a test for quite some time now? Was it the imminent announcement of South Korea's Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon as the Secretary General of the UN?

Unlikely. While the post carries tremendous weight in the international arena, claiming that its occupying by the opposing camp would provoke the North to "cross the Rubicon", as it were, would be stretching logic too far.

Likely cause

Another, more likely explanation is doing the rounds of international diplomacy these days. To rein in the North's brinkmanship, the US had looked the other way even as the North involved itself with money laundering and other illegal financial transactions. That seemed to be changing in recent days.

The Bush administration was increasingly bringing pressure to bear upon US banks to stop illegal transfer of money. There were reports that the US government might impose sanctions against banks that transact with N Korean firms and thus, unwittingly perhaps, aid in the floating of fake US banknotes, known as super dollars.

This is widely held to be the immediate provocation for the tests. Behind closed doors, US officials admit that Kim Jong-il's reclusive regime would not have upped the ante had it not been for the shrill voices emanating out of Washington.

President Bush, on his part, shot down the military route for the time being. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice made all the right noises about approaching the UN, where non-military sanctions against the North have been imposed.

At best, the US attitude appears like the perfect dress rehearsal for the military option ultimately. Till then, it won't be a bad idea to buy time by humouring the UN.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Just wanted to butt in to say that am in the middle of Arthur & George. The novel discusses the Great Wyrley Outrages (that involved mutilations of farm animals), which resulted in the conviction of half-Indian George Edalji who was innocent of the crimes. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle took personal interst in his case and ensured the clearing of Edalji's name.

Two things: Julian Barnes, the author, has a great sense of dialogue and Arthur's voice is saturated with Sherlock Holmes's, Doyle's creation. The chemistry between Doyle and Wood, his assistant is reminiscent of Holmes and Dr. Watson's. This makes the investigative bits a great pleasure to devour.

What I find appealing about such dialogue is that it is tempered despite being thick with content and a great mind working behind it. It is almost technical in its precision, so damned clinical, yet suffused with just the right bits of emotion and empathy. Restraint – that's the word – restraint is what it evokes, which is impressive considering intellect is so often drowned out in the boastful depths of bombast.

Also, the novel fictionalizes Arthur's relationship with Jean Leckie and its effect on his marital life with Touie. Did you know that Touie knew of Arthur's liasions and had indicated so to her daughter on her death bed? Tragic, since Arthur tried all those ten years that she was unwell, to protect her of this knowledge.

Read an interview that Barnes gave to the Telegraph about the book.

PS: On the night that the Booker is to be announced, it's instructive to note that Arthur & George was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker but lost out to The Sea.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


Puritanical linguists have been deriding the growing SMS culture for killing the grammar and syntax that are the essential ingredients of a conversation. They watch in horror as scores of youngsters message each other in text that would make a grammarian squirm. "C U TOM 4 LNCH," is supposedly meant to say, "See you tomorrow for lunch." So pervasive has this culture of instant messaging become that we were recently witness to an SMS-ized version of one of Shakespeare's most well-known lines: "2 B OR NOT 2 B." Need one translate that?

So, what is happening to language as we know it? Is the mass media, which has insidiously taken over every sphere of our waking lives (and sleeping too, if you consider technicolor dreams in surround sound), sounding the death knell of written and spoken communication? How seriously should we take assertions of language losing its importance in the 21st century?

Relax, it's not that bad. Every new technological innovation is shot down by luddites who bemoan the changing rules of the game. This is not to suggest that every linguistic alarmist is a dinosaur from the ancient past, but we need to understand that equating changing mores with the death of language would be, to say the least, extreme.

When the internet first came around, it was feared that the penetrating tentacles of the World Wide Web would finish off the publishing industry. Who would want to buy books, cynics pointed out, when one could simply log on and read off the Net? But twenty years after its genesis, the Web has proved these fears were unfounded.

For one, copyright laws ensure that very few books are actually available online. Sure, you can catch a Woolf or a Lawrence on the Web, but you don’t stand a chance with Rushdie or Coetzee. Secondly, how many people do you know who actually like to read online? I, for one, hate it; simple detest it. There is no greater pleasure than reading a hard-bound Alan Hollinghurst, its pages wafting that rich aroma that only freshly published books give, a cup of coffee nestled on the study. Who in the world wants to read off an unromantic screen blinking databytes at your increasingly sprained neck? Count me out, for sure.

If anything, new technologies have engendered a revival in the book trade. The success of Amazon attests to the growing demand for books worldwide. The new age tool of blogging has further ensured that bibliophiles stay connected in a community which is vocally exhibiting its passion for literature. Interest in subaltern and postmodernist studies has guaranteed that a worldwide network is coming into place, nudged by the rise in new technologies.

That said, it is important to not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Standards of language have been declining over the past decade, not just in India, but across the English speaking world. If America is exporting nuclear power and free trade abroad, its influence is also assuring that one is as likely to hear, "Wassup, dude?" on the streets of Delhi as one will in the alleys of Boston. Changing times call for a less didactical approach to teaching English in classrooms. Instructors need to keep their ear to the ground and devise innovative techniques to instill a love of the language among students. They need to plug the richness of classical texts and the contemporaneity of modern ones to enable young adults to look at language not just as a conversational tool, but as a template to reach a deeper understanding of life. Only then can they contribute their bit to the survival of language.

The new century calls for looking at language differently. The global preponderance of English has invoked an unfortunate decline in the relevance of regional languages. While this may be an irreversible phenomenon, publishing houses need to gird up their loins and ensure that more translations make it to the market. India boasts a rich tradition of regional literature that is waiting to be tapped. Publishing house Katha is already doing yeoman's work in this field. Others need to follow suit. Not only will it bring about more writing in regional languages, it will also introduce English readers to a whole new world of wonder and joy.

So apocalypse hunters, chill out! Language is a unique gift to humans. A civilizational necessity, it might be tweaked, altered, juggled, thrown around, played with, mutilated, but those very acts also ensure that it can never go out of fashion. And if you are still brooding the prostituting of the Bard's famous lines, don't! It might just get some lazy teenagers to pick up Hamlet.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Pakistan's rape laws: A blot on "enlightened moderation"

Pakistan's government recently delayed presenting a bill to Parliament to reform Islamic laws covering rape and adultery after vociferous objections from the Islamic parties. The government gave in to the hardline Islamist alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), the largest opposition bloc in the chamber, after the latter threatened to quit Parliament if the laws, commonly known as the Hudood Ordinances, were changed.

The atrocious laws caught international attention after the tragic story of Mukhtaran Mai came to light. Mai was 30 when she was ordered to be gang raped by a tribal jirga in Meerwala Jatoi in southern Punjab. She was made to pay for the clannish disputes between her tribe, the Tatla, and the Mastois.

The details of the incident chill one to the bone. On 22 June 2002, Mai, despite her cries for help, was taken by four men into a room and was raped consecutively by each of them. She screamed for help but not a single villager came forth. After being subjected to ninety minutes of rape, she was thrown outside with little clothing left on her body and was made to walk home.

After the incident received wide-ranging media coverage, the Hudood Ordinances came to be much debated. A set of laws intended to make the criminal justice system conform with Islamic law, they were enshrined in Pakistani law in 1979 by General Zia ul-Haq in an attempt to assuage the country's powerful religious elite following his military coup.

These laws cover offences including Zina crimes (unlawful sexual intercourse including adultery and rape) and Qazf (wrongful accusation of Zina crimes). The maximum punishment for Zina crimes is death by stoning. Many Pakistani women are imprisoned for years, convicted or awaiting trial for Zina crimes.

According to Amnesty International, if they report a rape to the police they are often charged with Zina crimes because they have in effect admitted to sexual intercourse outside of marriage and been unable to prove absence of consent. In such cases, the victims are more likely to be convicted than the perpetrators. The victim's own testimony is not admissible as evidence. Rape must be proved either by the perpetrator's confession or by the testimony of four men.

Bewildering perversity

The very letter of the law is bewildering in its perversity. How can the victim be expected to produce four witnesses to her rape? How does one "prove" absence of consent? The law puts the onus of proving the rape on the victim and her family. It discourages families from reporting rape to the police since if the rape is not proved, the family is charged with misreporting and detained under Qazf laws. In all of this, it is the rapist who gets away scot-free.

This is why, despite the Pakistan Human Rights Commission's shocking figures (as per one report, every two hours a woman is raped in Pakistan and every eight hours a woman is subjected to gang rape), the actual frequency of rape is thought to be still higher because many rapes remain unreported due to glaring chinks in Pakistan's laws.

General Pervez Musharraf's claims of furthering "enlightened moderation" have begun to sound a lot like hot air. At first sight, his government seemed to be moving forward on the issue. Law Minister Mohammad Wasi Zafar asked for rape to be tried in secular courts and not Islamic ones. That would be a step forward in rescuing not just rape laws but others, most notably those directed against women and other kinds of minorities (religious, sexual et al), from the influence of sharia. But all this may come to naught if the government does not resist pressure from the Islamic alliance to retain regressive laws in the statute book.

The government may derive relief from the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), a major ally of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League, that has said it doesn't want to "cave in to conservative people who want to take the country back to mediaeval times".

But that is small comfort for Musharraf who is fighting hard to portray the image of a benevolent reformer to the outside world. Unless he does more to bring Pakistan's laws in tune with notions of a civilized society, Pakistan's claims of being a reformist Islamic nation, following the footsteps of Kemal Ataturk's Turkey, will continue to ring hollow.

Monday, September 04, 2006

On the multicultural fallacy

Michael Barone, one of America's leading political commentators, lays the grounds for the central argument of his book The New Americans when, in its revised preface, he attacks the current crop of America's liberal elite for its moral relativism:

[In the America of today,] there are the highly educated moral-relativist elite, who regard our civilization as a virus and hostile immigrants and multiculturalism as the cure.

Barone's argument is in favor of Americanization, the assimilated experience of the melting pot that makes each and every person residing in the United States quintessentially American. He attacks the liberal elite for equating Americanization with subverting the native instincts of foreign-born people.

To Barone, this latter position is fundamentally flawed, since, as he convincingly argues, allowing immigrant communities to retain their native habits ultimately harms the American ideal of equal opportunity for all. He points to the race riots in France and the killing of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh as pointers to why multiculturalism has backfired in Europe. He attacks this system for failing to inculcate in immigrants a love for their host countries. Multiculturalism, he says, by encouraging immigrants to stay in separate communities, "fosters hostile attitudes" toward host countries. They reside in distinctive ghettos that are mired in poverty and filth. Since there isn't a tendency toward assimilation, they lack basic skills and have no job opportunities. There is a silent rage that festers in these communities only waiting to explode.

What lends robustness to Barone's argument is his deep knowledge of the immigrant communities he writes about. The book is a first-rate primer on the histories and varied experiences of immigrants of different hues. For instance, did you know that the first sport at which Jews excelled was boxing? Or that Chinese and Korean credit associations, known as the hui and keh, respectively, and which are founded on strong social ties, have been the backbone of several successful businesses run by them in America?

The book is packed with many such interesting nuggets and melds them into the larger tale of the immigrant community. Barone looks at immigrants by discussing two groups at a time. He draws parallels between the experiences of Latinos and Italians, blacks and Irish, and Asians and Jews. By comparing and contrasting these subcategories on a number of parameters such as literacy levels, crime rates, family structure, motives to migrate, etc., Barone asserts that there are striking resemblances between them. The study yields notable observations, among them, that neither Italian nor Latino immigrants placed much value on education, and that both the Irish and blacks created and dominated their own churches.

Barone culls his material from diverse sources. Making references to the likes of Octavio Paz and Francis Fukuyama, the book is that rare combination: a scholarly journal whose text is approachable for its smooth narrative flow.

The writer falters, however, in placing all Asian immigrants under one umbrella. His definition of Asian encompasses only China, Japan, South Korea and the countries of Indo-China, barring Myanmar. Which is why he makes faulty assumptions like, "For most Asians, the guiding tradition has been Confucianism." None of the countries comprising the Indian subcontinent have followed a tradition of Confucianism. Yet, large numbers of people from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka have migrated to America.

The arguments raised by Barone remind me of what the political right has been demanding in India. The main opposition party, the BJP, has attacked the ruling Congress-led UPA for following a policy of minority appeasement, which the former calls pseudo-secularism. The BJP contends that pseudo-secularism ensures that minorities stay just that - minorities. Barone similarly attacks the left-liberal agenda, which asks for bilingual education, or religious preachers being given a free hand to preach what they like, for harming the long-term well-being of the immigrants.

He discards any misgivings one may harbor regarding the future of immigration in America. Just as the Irish and Jews were considered separate races in the early years of the 20th century (yes!) but are an essential part of American life today, so will Asians and Latinos be accepted into the American mainstream over time. In fact, Barone looks forward to such an eventuality. What he advocates as Americanization is not a blanket disavowal of all things non-American, but a blending of different cultures into a heterogeneous whole, much like how pizza is as much an American snack today as Italian.

Instead of only mentioning it in passing, had Barone tackled the scourge of terrorism in relation to the experience of a certain segment of immigrants, their motives, their influences, The New Americans would have been a complete compendium on one of the most pertinent questions America faces today. In any case, grab the book for an engaging account of the collective histories of a single nation state.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Divinity's tryst with fatalism

We were witness to two very baffling instances of mass hysteria recently. Residents of Mumbai claimed that the water at Mahim Creek, one of the most polluted creeks in India, had suddenly turned sweet. Barely had this event died down that reports appeared that hundreds of thousands of devotees were thronging temples across the country in the belief that statues of Hindu gods were drinking milk.

In a similar case a couple of years ago, a mysterious "monkey man" reportedly attacked people viciously and then disappeared into the dark of the night, never to be sighted by the police. Several people died on the outskirts of Delhi when they jumped off high buildings thinking that the monkey man was after them. The story eventually faded away.

Scientists went hoarse explaining there were no miracles involved in either the Mahim creek or the idols-drinking-milk incidents. They claimed that the dilution of salt can occur when there is heavy, continuous rainfall. Incessant rainfall in Mumbai had led to the Vihar Lake overflowing into Mahim Creek, causing a lower percentage of salty water from the sea. This resulted in a drop in saline levels, hence the sweet water.

With regard to idols drinking milk, scientists offered capillary action as an explanation. They postulate that the surface tension of the milk pulls the liquid up and out of the spoon, before gravity causes it to run down the front of the statue.

Divine episodes?

These explanations, however, did nothing to reduce the numbers of faithful rushing to Mahim beach/ temples. What was befuddling was the urban spread of these so-called extraordinary events. What is it that fuels this mass hysteria, making otherwise perfectly sane individuals to throw reason to the winds?

To say that this is a manifestation of the rampant illiteracy in our country is to oversimplify the point. True, a large number of devotees might not have held a scientific temper, but the fact remains that the idols-drinking-milk incident spread to all major metropolitan centres and significant numbers of the educated middle class were among those who allowed themselves to get carried away.

Could it be that these so-called divine episodes, akin to what can best be termed a hallucinogenic state (remember, Karl Marx called religion the opium of the masses), are a delirious reaction to the mundaneness of life? The common Indian, in the course of his/her daily life, has to juggle nepotism, corruption, poverty, crime, poor housing, lack of potable water and myriad other problems.

In this stressful scenario, society's normal control mechanisms, the space that binds us together in a bond of shared experience, gets neutralised. Which is why, every once in a while, a divine miracle comes along and dissolves our inhibitions against believing in it. We clutch to it with steadfastness, certain in our belief that we are being looked upon. That we are, ultimately, not children of a lesser God, and things will get better one day.

Having a "responsive" God gives us a lever with which to suppress our frustration, our aggression at an apathetic state and a media culture that, at best, skirts grave issues at the altar of fluff. Is it any wonder then that the majority of news channels reported on these incidents by playing along with what the devotees believed, rather than exploring the moral and social vacuum that perpetuated the hysteria in the first place?

Mahim/idols is not a pointer to our superstitious or ignorant outlook. It is a mark of our deeply rooted fatalism.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

KANKing on empty

So, let me not repeat what the entire world's already told you. That Karan Johar has deviated from his usual candyfloss style and given us a movie that explores infidelity in marital relationships. That the movie tries dealing with an issue that Johar is inept, at best, to handle with maturity. That the characters are poorly written and one often wonders what the raison d'etre of their anguish is. That Abhishek is the best performer, and Amitabh's silly flirtations don't do him justice.

Phew! So what could one still say about the movie? Lots, as it turns out. Johar should be lauded for breaking tradition and keeping his promise of never again creating maudlin characters upholding "Indian" values. That said, he fails to truly radicalize his script. What is being touted as landmark is only a slight shift in Bollywood mores, in the aftermath of the success of movies like Murder. It's in no way a tectonic shift in how cinema is perceived and influenced by the society at large.

Where KANK is different is in its climax. The separated stay separated. Not just that, the characters seem to have reconciled to their situation and are looking ahead on a life with new directions. Shah Rukh Khan revealed in a television discussion recently that he would have liked the movie to end with a voiceover that would have taken a bit from the "happily-ever-after" aura of the ending. For one, there is no such aura. Johar introduces a pivotal dialogue in which Dev is shown cribbing about Maya's sari in what is a pointer to a return to the mundaneness of relationships in the aftermath of the dramatic meeting. This was reminiscent of the hospital scene in Johar's earlier Kal Ho Na Ho, in which Shah Rukh is shown mocking Saif for assuming he was dead.

Johar's film is a visual reaffirmation of his own doubts about the institution of marriage. He clearly wished to say more, or at least, in a better fashion, but box office success has forced him to sweeten things a bit. What I would have liked to see in KANK is more anguish, shame at taboo desires, conflict and an overall sadness, the absence of which, given his opulent sets and unnecessarily brought in humor, ensures that the movie fails to really connect with the viewer.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Bushwhacking his way to an intellect

So, George Bush picked up The Outsider for his holiday reading. Big deal! The entire world is going gaga over the American President picking up the Bible of absurdist fare. John Mullan is so taken with Bush's choice that he's decided to dedicate an eulogy to the President:

And the president's supporters on the Christian Right will surely be worried to hear of him dabbling in one of the most anti-religious of novels. After he is sentenced, Meursault is visited in his cell by a priest whose consolation he furiously rejects. Camus makes sure we admire his narrator's indignation at the illusions the chaplain peddles.

All this is disturbing proof that George W is not the weird being that we had all liked to suppose. A few months ago, Camus' novel came top in a poll conducted for G2 among male Guardian-reading types, who were asked what book had most influenced them. The Outsider beat off JD Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye and Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five to claim the distinction of the book most likely to have changed their lives. Oh dear. Perhaps, chaps, George is one of us.

Well, well, Bush is, after all, one of us.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Gatecrashing Speed

The Lake House marks the return of the hit Speed pair of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock after a gap of 12 years, and boy, is the chemistry intact! The movie could not have been more different than the 1994 thriller, not just in the plot structure but also in the extent to which the reader is open to suspending his disbelief.

The Lake House takes too many liberties with the plot, meandering between the past and present, since they are occupied by different people in different time zones. Kind of a rogue scientist's fantasy come true, but this one does not even touch science.

It looks at how love develops between Alex and Kate when the two can never meet in real time, since the latter lives two years ahead of the former. Yes, the plot is crazy and also, towards the end, marked by holes so gaping a non-footballer like me can easily score a goal through them.

Having said that, The Lake House scores on account of the simmering intensity of its lead cast. Both Keanu and Sandra breathe life into the anguish of two lovers who cannot meet due to a curious twist in their destinies. A recurrent theme in the movie is Jane Austen's Persuasion, which also deals with love lost and discovered again; of course, without the time warp sci-fi element involved. Thank goodness!

Of the two, Keanu has a definite edge in portraying a boyish emotional vulnerability. Watch the movie only for the scene in which he breaks down after his father's death. Move on, Heath Ledger, your final scene in Brokeback Mountain has been washed clean!

So, do go watch this movie, for its surreal plot, slow narrative pace and a quiet sadness that lingers in the eyes of Alex and Kate. And yes, also for the track This Never Happened Before, which comes along several times during the movie and takes you to another sublime realm.

On the book front, am reading The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which, when people used to say is a great read, would baffle me. How could a book that had pictures of fairies and spoke about math hypotheses from the point of view of a child suffering from Asperger's aspire to interest an adult?

But I was wrong. It is a great read; the narrator wins your heart by writing about a hard-to-decipher world with a special-needs child's innocence. The most beautiful bits are those that capture Christopher's relationship with his dad, who is trying his best to raise him given the circumstances (his wife's left him, Christopher isn't an easy child, and to top it all, he's killed a dog!).

Friday, July 21, 2006

'A perfectible world'

Carrie Tiffany's Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living is a poignant tale of one man's passion for science and how that passion fails him. Robert Petergree travels through the wheat fields and small towns of America in the 'Better Farming Train' to dispel scientific notions of increasing farm productivity. On this train, he meets and falls in love with Jean Finnegan, a seamstress, and together, they decide to settle in impoverished Mallee to transform its land and economy.

But like all ill-considered attempts, the experiment fails and a crushed Robert is forced to enlist for the Second World War to tide over the humiliation of his failure.

This ordinary tale becomes extraordinary in its clinical telling. Tiffany's narration is raw, and sprinkled with scientific jargon. Jean assists Robert in his experiments with soil, and a number of chapters finish with their details. What takes the book to another level, however, is the merging of scientific data with the emotional undercurrent running through the protagonists' lives. When Jean is finally departing for Mallee with Robert, her friend Mary, boarding the train, shouts to her, "Write to me with all of your results." The reader does not miss that the "results" Mary is talking of are not only the results of the scientific experiments Robert conducts, but also the outcome of Jean's marital life.

Everyman's Rules is a long tale that crisscrosses the barren landscape of countryside Australia and inter-relates it with the gradually seeping barrenness in Jean's life. The final straw comes in the form of an attack on Robert that pushes him to forsake his beloved experiment and join the Army, leaving Jean behind.

Finally, Jean decides to not leave Mallee, somewhat like Lucy in Disgrace, rather stays back in this place which (a) reeks of nothing but her husband's failed attempts (b) is the only place she can call home.

This is where the matter of her life was created, despite successes/ failures.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A tale of contrasts

Israel has upped the offensive against the Hezbollah by destroying its leader's home in Beirut. The current conflict started after Lebanon abducted two of Israel's soldiers. Israel is also fighting Palestinian troops on the eastern front.

I mention this news piece because it contrasts starkly with India's response in the face of the terror attacks on the suburban rail network in Mumbai this past Tuesday, in which 179 people died. India has only announced that it would suspend talks with Pakistan next week.

Lashkar hand is suspected in the latest attacks, the same organisation whose name crops up with frightening regularity in the list of the suspects.

I have a bone to pick with a certain section of the media. The Hindu carried a piece today that rued the setback to the peace process. What peace process, Ma'am? How can one even conjure the notion of peace with a country that's sponsoring terror in our land? This is like crawling when asked to bend, and bent we have, several times in the past.
As intelligence reveals that more dastardly attacks are in the offing, Indians continue to wonder why the bloody hell is their state so soft on terror?

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Atrocious first lines

Culture Vulture is running a contest where you ought to write the first line of a prospective crappy novel. Seriously!

This is in dedication to the writing of Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, famed for the starting lines, It was a dark and stormy night, which have invited much ridicule since time immemorial. Read about an annual fiction contest dedicated to him here.

Meanwhile, yours truly put in a few lines as part of the Guardian contest. Here they go:

He said he jonesed for jumping off the balcony so he could fall to his death in a graveyard of unaccomplished dreams where the lights of the pains he had endured would lead him to a pleasant extinction glimmering in its redemptive power.

Deciding to buy the flowers herself, Emma wondered aloud, "Am I to witness love's depredations on my body and soul even as I try conjuring times when making love made love wholesome, or is this", she paused, arranging the rose in the center of the pot, "is this another grand design to take my life to a higher, divine plane, where lighthouses shine in reflected glory and castles harbour rewards of heroism?"

Now that his father was dead, Jones was free to smoke weed all night without worrying about the effects of passive smoking on that grand old man with pulmonary asthma, but no sooner he relaxed in the thought that his inner voice chided,"You idiot!".

My personal favorite is the second one, with apologies to Virginia Woolf.

Another one, and I quite like this one as well:

As the boys on the screen hissed, "Ah..oh...ah...oh..yeah!," Alan wondered how he derived a greater solace from watching porn than simple lust would allow, and it was this thought that launched The Line of Beauty.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Beckham retains metrosexual ardor

True, his standing in the ongoing World Cup has been marred by claims of non-performance. True also that he has been able to rescue his pride by ensuring England a berth in the last eight. But more than anything else, more than his "bending the ball" or his prowess on the field, what will go down as essential Beckhamania is the perfect grooming that David never ever backs out on. Consider this Ronaldo statement:

The Brazilian star Ronaldo put his finger on it after Brazil beat England in the last World Cup, in 2002, and he and Beckham exchanged shirts.

"Normally when you swap shirts, especially after a game in the heat like that, they absolutely stink and are soaked in sweat," Ronaldo said. "So it was a surprise, to say the least, that Beckham's shirt smelled only of perfume."

When I read this, I laughed out loud, for I had begun to genuinely feel sorry for the guy. I feared that all the criticism might get to him and he might shun his metrosexual ways for the rigors of Football-dom. But trust David to belie expectations!

p.s. Finished The Accidental this morning. Continuing in the vein of my earlier post, the book can ultimately be described as a mature work of self-realisation and life moving around in circles to return us to times and themes which we think we have escaped, but never really do. Let me not reveal the ending here, which is smart and sad at the same time, but I would like to add that books like Accidental remind you of the truth of what Philip Larkin said elsewhere: What will survive of us is love.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Accidentally launched

Well, it was Olive; yes, you could not have predicted that. I had placed my bets on Butterfly. But Olive it was who killed not just Elegant Effendi but Black's Enishte too. If you are clueless about what I am going on about, remember I have just emerged from the depths of Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, emerged only to dive deep into another fantastic book, The Accidental.

This is the first book of Ali Smith's I am reading, and I am bowled over. I am in the middle of it by now, and when I say middle, I mean Middle, because Ali divides her book into neat partitions: Beginning, Middle and End. Barely two days into it and I am on page 189 already.

Smith is very intelligent, for one. The depth of her perception grabs you by the ear. The book reminded me of the stream of consciousness style of Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse, in its interconnection of various strands that provide a binding narrative to the book. Events happen and they are linked by people's emotions invested in them, their misunderstandings, what they thought the others thought, and what actually transpired. The web of crossed connections is simply superb.

But for all that, Smith is very contemporary. She makes references of David Beckham and Yann Martel within the story. Her characters lead empty lives, but Smith imbues their emptiness with a questioning embrace, rescuing them from drabness. Her people cry against invisibility, most of all from themselves. There is a constant looking in, in the best tradition of the modernists.

True, the book is about Astrid's unannounced entry into the Smart household; yes, its about how this stranger reforms the screwed up family, but it's equally about why life, the stuff of it, is reason enough, is glorious all right.


Sunday, June 18, 2006

A book within

Sarah Waters discusses the path she took in penning Fingersmith. For those of you who haven't read the book, I suggest drop everything else and go grab a copy. It is a sprawling Victorian saga of murder, thievery and romance that boasts dizzying plot twists and a very proper (read Victorian) ending. I link to this piece because it shows how the final finished product that's handed to readers has its origins in not so perfect settings. Writers like Smith get their hands dirty with research (Sue, however, came to me from Victorian journalism: her voice was inspired by those worldly, plangent, poignant voices captured by social investigators such as Henry Mayhew, author of the mammoth London Labour and the London Poor.) and what might seem like a case of one-off genius is actually a product of painstaking hard work.

Which is what it is, you might say, but to me, the romantic notion of a "book within" that appears on the page in a flight of creative inspiration has struck a special chord ever since Arundhati said that GOST was written with no revision. One may say that a part-autobiographical novel like GOST may yet spring from one's inner self, which is mighty impossible for a booming Victorian saga, yet there's something utterly intelligent and also serendipitous about discovering a great work wthout really seeking it.

Sarah's piece here.
Comparison of Brokeback and GOST.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sexually charged

Been reading My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk. The writing is top-class and the book is very literary, in the mould of Umberto Eco's The Name Of The Rose. Only halfway through it yet, but already Pamuk has managed to weave a thrilling mystery. It's also very sensual, the writing. Every kind of sexual act, save incest and bestiality, are described with a profound lyricism. Tales of courtesans and gigolos (doesn’t fit here: a very American term, it fails to capture the eastern, Islamic feel of the book) fill the pages and an Istanbul rife with sexual energy and artistic passions comes alive. Why are those (bestiality, incest) left out, is a wonder Pamuk must answer himself, for he has a habit of imbuing even the most mundane with a magic touch, so that even rape and deviancy become acceptable. For in his book, everything, even cruelty, arises from a spring of essential humanity. More on this later.

More Orhan.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Abstaining from life

Now that Zadie has lapped the Orange, it's the perfect time to pull out one of her solid essays on EM Forster, the man she pays a tribute to in her prize-winning On Beauty. She applauds Forster for retaining that quality that Austen's characters lacked: empathy, a sort of love.

Forster, like Austen, abhors the vain, the self-important, the mannered, the blind and the foolish. But there are some fascinating differences. What one might call conscientious abstainers appear frequently in both authors: Cecil Vyse, Mr Beebe, Philip Herriton find their matches in many of the paternal figures in Austen, most noticeably Mr Bennet. By conscientious abstainer, a specific philosophic type is meant here: this is the man whose life-reading skills are as good as we might hope them to be, but who chooses only to read, to observe, but not to be involved. They are the novel's flaneurs. They invariably think of themselves as "students of human nature", and they are condemned by both authors as Aristotle properly condemns them, as people inured to the responsibilities of proper human involvement. But the nature of the condemnation is different for each author, and employs two different styles. Austen shows her laissez-faire fathers as irresponsible to their families, playing pointless intellectual games that neglect a practical, social necessity - in most cases, the inheritance or future marriages of their daughters. No attempt is made at their interior life; the pre-Freudian Austen does not care why they are so, only that they are so.

This can be said for Henry James's protagonists as well, why, for Henry himself. This is better explained by reading my Henry posts here.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Final Rites & Other Distractions

It was that very few were expected at Jenny Roger's funeral. So when the church was barged with people that sunny afternoon in November, the pastor did not know what had got into the locals.

She had been a mildly famous author, certainly well known in this quaint town not far from Brighton with gardens bright with flowers and birdsong. The inspiration, she had said once, had flowed smoothly.

The first to come in was Mr. Smith, he of the lush moustache and bawdy tongue. He had been a character in one of her novels about a drunkard named Malcolm. Mr. Smith had been his friend. He had drunk to death from cirrhosis. There was a collective gasp as men and women cringed at the sight of this unkempt specter. By and by they reconciled to his presence.

Along came Polly Norton. She was the brightest of the young kids at the school that was run by the National Endowment for Financial Education. She had earned straight As in all subjects except physical training, but one could always allow some leeway there. She had been an aggressive harridan in one of Jenny's novels, a hag who had outgrown her youthful charm to turn into a bitter old spinster. There was a murmur of discontent through the crowd, which the priest did well to order.

Now Mr. Connery made an appearance. He had been a harlequin in "Traveling Circus", who had fallen in love with Emma, an expert hatter who had gifted him a handsome hat made of solid wool felt. They had lived happily ever after in the book, but in the here and now, Emma had deserted Connery for Smith. Obviously, the usher guided Connery to a pew safely distant from Smith's.

By and by the star of the ceremony Ms. Roger arrived. The writer of such classics as "Two Timing" and "Traveling Circus" made a guest appearance at her funeral. Nobody had expected her, for she was infamous for her haughtiness, but it's not everyday that one gets to attend one's burial. Connery was cross with her for ruining his life, but for the sake of propriety, he kept silent.

Mrs. Delaware was asked to deliver the hagiography. She stood on the podium and read in a clear, detached tone from a note. "This ceremony has been organized in the dear memory of my beloved friend Jenny Roger. There isn't much to say about her, for she led an extremely private life, except that she wrote. She wrote books that spoke to one's soul, and one, 'Two Timing' based on the life of our common friend Emma, who I see is not present today, changed my views on marriage and commitment. Her voice was always tempered, which I assume must have been a daunting task, because the last thing one expects from Jennykins is restraint. As long as I live, I'll be proud to have been given the opportunity to read her books, which was, I must add, infinitely easier than my failed attempts at reading her. It is an indication of the uniqueness of this remarkable woman that despite herself, she has managed to honor us with her presence today. Ladies and gentlemen! Jenny Roger!"

The crowd burst into applause apparently inspired by Delaware's slow buildup towards something meaningful. "Ladies," Roger spoke with passion, "I can't waste my time with the odious details of this ceremony, and so I ask you simply to contribute towards recovering its costs by making donations in the blue box that is placed at the entrance. In return for your kindness, each of you would be provided with a printed copy of the Ceremony Text, that includes exclusive extracts from my next novel "Taking Lives" and also Rose Delaware's complete speech. I hope this would be appreciated not only as a record of an important occasion in Lewes's cultural calendar but also because it would provide a means of disseminating information to relatives or friends who have been unable to attend the funeral. I hope you all have a good time. I wish my husband was here too, but we have not been on good terms lately. Some people just cannot deal with a few moments of silence and some uplifting music. My novels are spare, you see. I could not have managed a pompous event for his service."

Just as the pastor decided it was time, he was handed a slip by the usher, which contained a request by some in the audience to allow them to pay obeisance to Jenny Roger. The pastor wasn't too keen on this, for there were other funerals to conduct, but one really can't be squeamish on such occasions. The first to grace the stage was old Mr. Wembley.

"My fellow Lewesians!" he crooned, "I stand before you to honor the life and death of our dear Jenny." He looked towards her, and she nodded like a top-notch intelligence officer instructing a young recruit to begin. "It’s the perfect day for a ceremony like this. When in the morning, the sun had shone mercilessly, I had quipped to Angelica that after all, the final chapter of "Brutal Hands" would not be played out like in the novel. But as the morning wore, the sky was suddenly overcast, and now, this hailstorm. Just as in the novel. My heartiest congratulations to Jenny! She was a master of the craft. I ask that you rest in peace, dear, that you watch over us, because we here have been, uhmm, the only ones to consistently appreciate your work."

Mr. Wembley alighted after asking Mr. Connery to speak a few words. Connery, ever mindful of his background in the army, stood very erect and droned in his ponderous baritone, "Dear all! It’s a pleasure to stand before you to appraise Jenny Roger's life and work. The last time I attended her funeral was as a kid of 9. In my gumboots and relaxed gait, I had no idea then where life would take me." He paused. Now that the subject of his past had come up, he expected a violent sympathy to rise in the hearts of those attending. "My father often gave me Jenny's books to learn what the future held for us. The first book that I read was incidentally based on my life."

Connery glanced at Smith crabwise, and found the sot squirming in his chair. "I took a shine to it because it was so engrossing in places I forgot that my father killed himself in it. 'Two Timing' was a brilliant saga of men who toiled for this country and returned victorious. The nation deserved us; you deserved us, the novel hollered. When I read it now, it is one of the books I am truly nostalgic about, because one, I relate to how I read it in childhood, and one’s childhood is always a wonderful time, and two, it ended on a happy note that I wished had played out in real life too. Emma I truly loved and I would never know what she saw in that drunken bastard fooling around on the third row here. My poor widow. Oh! My poor widow," Connery howled. He leaned over the dais and wept copiously.

"Was I invited here to witness this baloney?" shrieked Polly in her cracked accent.

"Oh, do shut up, Polly," pitched Mrs. Wembley, "what would you know of love?"

"Martha Wembley, would you please stand up?" Polly snapped bitingly. Martha Wembley did not know why she please stood up.

"I would have known love and I would have known marriage, and I would have known life, if pretty Ms. Delaware there, sitting cozily next to her very masculine hubby, had not abandoned me!"

The crowd raised a collective gasp, and faces turned and footwear screeched, and this hurt Smith, for inducing consternation had been his exclusive preserve. But the scandal was so delicious he let it pass.

"How dare you, Norton?" Rose rushed towards Polly, for there could not be a better time than this to use the pocket knife that Simon had brought for her from France. She grabbed hold of Polly’s hair, took a moment to rummage her purse for the weapon of choice and slit her neck wide open. A spurt of blood fell on Simon’s shirt, his very proper English shirt, which Rose rued. But she remembered the Tide commercial that she had seen on TV last night, and thank God for the New Tide, which assured cleanliness so white, they were marketing free sunglasses with every pack to prevent blindness from its brightness.

It was the placid Mrs. Wembley who gave a start and announced, "I told you! Missy’s book has landed plum reality before reaching the market. Taking lives, my ass!"

Monday, May 29, 2006

The Code decoded

The Da Vinci Code by Ron Howard is a page-by-page adaptation of the Dan Brown novel. After facing unprecedented protests in India, the movie finally released this week and has been garnering better reviews here than abroad, where it was unanimously panned.

Howard has retained the historical background to the events by chopping his scenes and pasting visions from the past, be it the bloody wars between Pagans and Catholics or the tale of Mary Magdalene. This gives the film a documentary feel and one cannot help thinking that Howard should have held tighter control on the narrative.

The sets are magnificent, part of which may be attributed to the film's shooting in scenic Paris. Yet despite the locale and the subject matter, Howard is not at home with the thriller genre. The sound effects are misplaced (which is unfortunate, considering the horrific effects church music can induce) and what could have been a spine-chilling movie is left being an experiment that tries to capture too many details at the cost of the film maker's craft. Howard would be well advised to stick to hero-against-the-world tales like A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man. Historical epics are just not his métier.

Ian McKellen who plays Leigh is his usual best; his delivery is pitch-perfect but the stunning volte-face his character pulls on the Langdon-Sophie team is lost on screen. But then again, that's more Howard's fault than his.

But the star of the movie is Paul Bettany who plays Silas. His faith unshakeable, Bettany breathes life into the anguish of a man who looks upon Jesus as a personal saviour out of a dishonourable past. Despite a villainous role, one feels a genuine sympathy for this man caught in the currents of church intrigue. A man willing to murder in the name of piety.

Another good performance from Tom Hanks, though a younger Robert Langdon might have added more punch to the character. Think Eric Bana or even the current James Bond, Daniel Craig. These are the people one hoped to see in the role. Hanks with his ageing visage and receding hairline does not really fit the bookishly sexy Langdon.

But Audrey Tautou shines as the halting, vulnerable Sophie, trying to grapple with the burden of a truth too much to bear. The lady still retains the innocent charm of an Amelie. The face, while belonging to an older person, instantly brings to mind that extremely lovable French girl looking for true love.

Overall, The Code might engage you only if you haven’t read the book already, as was the case with me. Otherwise, it's unlikely to contribute to a satisfying movie experience.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Coetzee's cry against philistinism

Finished Coetzee's Youth this morning. The book, though fictional, is a sort of memoir and part two in his looking back on his early years. John's disenchantment with his job at IBM closely mirrors Coetzee's own and mine too, which is why despite his sleeping with practically every woman he encountered (and then couching it in existential angst rather than plain old desire), I looked upon him with benevolence, because I could at least empathise with the technical versus life of the mind bit of it.

Some of the statements were extraordinary, and I am certain it is those that are pointers to Coetzee's coruscating intelligence, the aspect of his personality that has made this not very writerly person garner two Bookers and (one) Nobel.

But the book was also a relief for me. Because if a person racked by the extremities of self-doubt can end up being a successful (and how!!) writer, there is hope for me still. There are long passages in which Coetzee, through John, questions his credentials of even aspiring to be a wordsmith, and the spark of creative inspiration. To be fair, Coetzee is not a wordsmith. You don't read his books to get dazzled by the quality of the writing (which is fine, because that makes him more approachable in a way). What Coetzee offers you, rather, are insights so sharp that you are left singing in appreciation.

Next on to Graham Greene's End of the Affair, which I haven't read still. It begins with this saying by Leon Bloy:

Man has places in his heart which do not yet exist, and into them enters suffering in order that they may have existence.

Chilling, and if I may be allowed to become John myself for a bit, what does one need to do, what depths does one plumb, to come up with prose so exquiste, so exact, so damn hurting in its truth?

Why WI clinched the series

I am NOT a cricket fan, but Brian Lara's comment just could not be missed. He attributed the Windies' win to Indian coach Chappell's sly remark:

India coach Greg Chappell had said at the start of the series that West Indies could not be underestimated and were a team, who could quickly turn things around, but... “At the moment, they probably seem to have forgotten how to win.”

West Indies skipper Brian Lara took offence to the comment and after clinching the five-match series against India 3-1 yesterday, he chose to respond. “It was a sly remark. The guys took notice of his comments and turned the tables on India. He (Greg) may be right but he was not right in the last two weeks,” said Lara with the obvious intention to rub it in.

As is the Indian wont, now Ganguly would begin to be sorely missed. He, who was everyone's unanimously decided on villain would now be the blue-eyed boy, the only one who can rescue India against the evil combine of Greg-Dravid.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

How Lodge got Dislodged

David Lodge was one of the several writers attempting to bring the life of Henry James to the written word in a fictional format, but his book was edged out in the race by the likes of Alan Hollinghurst's and Colm Toibin's that went on to earn critical and popular praise. Now in a Guardian series, he recounts how the tragedy struck him. Coincidences can be brutal but funny!

On a summer afternoon, shortly before the completion of my novel, my agent and I made a pilgrimage to Lamb House, now a National Trust property. There we met Colm Tóibín, whose presence was the first ominous inkling either of us had of his intentions. The custodian of the house kindly allowed us upstairs, normally closed to the public. Both of us made surreptitious notes, Tóibín's, it seems, enabling him to write the passage in his book in which Henry James, in his bedroom, can hear his young guest and the object of his adulation, Hendrick Andersen, undress in the adjoining guest room.

Colm Toíbín told the same story, with more amusing details, in an article in the Daily Telegraph in March 2004, when The Master was published. He described going to visit Lamb House,
on a bright Saturday afternoon two years ago, when I was close to completing a draft of my novel about Henry James ...

Suddenly ... a voice called my name. It was a London literary agent whom I knew. She was with one of her clients. She asked me what I was doing in Lamb House. I said that I was writing a book about Henry James.

"So is my client," she said. She introduced me to her client, who was standing beside her.

"Are you writing about this house?" the agent asked.

I told her I was. As I spoke, I noticed a neatly dressed man whom I presumed was American listening to us carefully, moving closer. "Did you both say you are writing books on James?" he asked. "Because so am I." He shook our hands cheerfully.

By this time a small crowd had gathered, marvelling at three writers pursuing the same goal. We were very careful with each other, no one wishing to say exactly how close to finishing we were. We were also very polite to each other.

Tóibín does not identify the American writer, but one may safely assume from his cheerful demeanour that he was a scholar rather than a rival novelist. For me there are other intriguing features of the episode, and the two reports of it. If we put Tóibín's "two years ago" and Heyns's "a summer afternoon" together, it took place in the summer of 2002. I also visited Lamb House with my notebook and pencil that summer - on August 1, to be precise - privately, by appointment.

Skinned Alive

Been reading Edmund White's Skinned Alive. Interesting collection, with An Oracle the best so far (I am yet to read Reprise, Palace Days and Watermarked). His Biographer was developing nicely, until White decided to abruptly cut it short and make it a short story. Had he taken it along, it could have become a good book. Charles deciding on Tremble after all the contradictions was just the beginning of the fun, but White halted it there. Too bad!

Oracle was deeply touching. Ray's loneliness after George's death and his (futile) efforts to escape it. George kept telling Ray all through his illness: "You must look out for yourself". He chided him for not getting tested; irresponsible, that's what he said Ray was. After his death, Ray makes a trip to Greece on the invitation of Ralph, a friend. There, he starts on a binge of secretive sexual encounters with a gigolo, Marco, who cannot speak a word of English. Marco is the gruff jock, strictly heterosexual, who does it only for the money. But as time passes and Ray begins to develop feelings for him, Marco too grows tender with him. Ray, too happy with this development, decides to sell off his assets in the States and move to Xania (the Greek town) and open a guest house, possibly with Marco.

On the night before he is to leave, he invites Marco to the palace (Ralph's extravagant mansion) and hands him a note which he has got translated to Greek. In the note, Ray confesses to
his love for Marco. And that he would return to Xania in a month's time.

After reading the note, Marco bends his head for a minute and then speaking in perfect English tells Ray he loves him too but Xania is too small a place for him. Excited, Ray asks him if he would be willing to emigrate to the States. To which, Marco says, "Some day," and adds, "But you must look out for yourself", and saying that, walks out of the house.

The story ends with Ray crying and laughing to himself at the same time, wondering at the surreality of George speaking through this unlikely oracle. The ending, though sad, gleams in its redemptive quality, reminding Ray of the need to stop looking for dependencies.

Great work!!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Spoof spook

Well, the blog's going desi, people. Here for the first time ever, you are invited to a review of Ramu's latest horror flick: Darna Zaroori Hai.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Capitalism and its contents

When reading reports on the rehabilitation of Narmada oustees, have you ever paid attention to the terminology used? Medha Patkar, clearly the face of the agitation is always referred to as NBA activist, as though she was just like the others, one of the many agitators. The media, I think, derive some comfort from this blurring of hierarchies, even those that are too clear to be blurred. The entire world knows that Medha is the leader of the movement and not just another activist. What kind of democracy are media organisations perpetrating by calling her only an activist and not a leader or at the very least a superior? I would term this willful blinding by media organisations hypocrisy because these very hierarchies are very staunchly adhered to in any media setup. Why then do we still like to hold on to communist notions of equality when reporting news??

On a different note, did you know that the ITC Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi dishes out a bottle of mineral water for a cool 150 bucks?? When my sis shared this tiny nugget with me, I was, to say the least, flabbergasted. But then, I was reminded of the ITC's human initiative in Indian villages, the e-choupal, which is a network of kiosks meant to protect poor farmers from unscrupulous agents. The programme is driven from ITC's profits, and clearly, the cycle of profitability is inextricably linked to the 150 rupees ITC's hospitality department charges for a bottle of water from the cream of affluent Delhi society. Who says capitalism is discriminatory? Look beneath the surface and you might be pleasantly surprised.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The intruder

Five days after K lost his younger brother M to a speeding truck, he began seeing a tiny boy in his bathroom. The boy was around 4 or 5 years old and alternated between hip summery colours and sombre shades of grey.

At first, K thought it was an illusion. Perhaps the memory of his younger brother was making him "see things". But as the frequency of the sightings increased, he noted that the boy hardly looked like M. To begin with, M was much leaner than this apparition. He was also much shorter. If he was not M, K asked himself, who was this kid trawling his bathroom with abandon? What the hell did he want, K racked his brain?

Despite dying to tell Mother about the boy, K wasn't sure for the first few days. She had taken M's death very badly. She had lost her appetite and spent her time morosely looking out of the window. K and M's father's death in an air crash two years ago had left an indelible mark on S. If she had carried on, it was only for the sake of her children's well being. But M's death was the final straw. S could not reconcile the cruel dichotomy of being an overprotective mother, especially in the aftermath of her husband's death and fate dealing her such a raw turn on the one day she allowed M to walk to the school himself.

Like most days, K woke up early that morning and went down to prepare his tiffin. Later, after making his mother a cup of tea, he returned to his room to get ready for school. As he was taking out his uniform, he felt a cold hand brush his elbow. He turned in horror, and saw, near the window, about five feet for him, the same little fat boy dressed in a black t-shirt and off-white shorts. His hair were neatly parted at the side and he smelt of baby powder. He was the least scary ghost one could have fathomed but suddenly, after reining himself for several days, K felt an urgent need to scream.

He rushed out of the room, and leaning over the railing, shouted out, "Mother, mother, this is real. I have actually seen one in the bathroom."

Mother came to the base of the staircase and called out, "What? What are you saying?"
"There is a boy in my room, a ghost. He has been there several days."

"K, what are you saying? How can there be someone in your room?" S struggled. "Go back and get ready. You'll be late for school."

Having waited so long to tell her, K was not going to let this pass. "I am serious, ma, I have seen him many times over. But I am telling you only now."

S, unwilling to engage herself in an argument, began climbing the staircase. Resignation marked her crease as she pulled her way up each step. Seeing her approach, M was reminded of the expression on Mother's face when M's body had first arrived home. More than anything, K was struck by the glass in her eyes. He saw the same tiredness define her persona presently.

K felt a terrible fear of failing to prove himself. "What if the boy didn't appear this time?" he wondered. Mother's every step came like a giant slap on his fragile peace. His fear of mother's disappointment was greater than that of any ghost.

"No," he said to himself, "she must see him. He must come. He will."

He returned to the room, and stood near the bathroom door in the same position that he had done when he saw the little apparition a minute back.

"Please," he muttered under his breath, "please come back."

Mother had reached the end of the flight of stairs and was inching towards his room. He saw her frame move forward in slow motion as if the tape of life was being prevented from rotating at its natural pace. He could not quantify the terror he felt at the possibility of the wraith not appearing.

She came into his room with a look that asked "What? Where?" He shouted out to her to come nearer, unnecessary, he thought, considering the size of the room.

"There ma, there he stays," he pointed out the corner of the bathroom where the ghost normally plodded.

She peeked inside the bathroom. Presently, the space K pointed out smacked only of a white bucket and a phenolic smell.

"There is nothing, K. Now will you stop making stories and get ready for school?" Mother said, and turned around to go back.

But K had seen something, and retorted, "There it is, ma, just look."

She turned, and sure enough, a little boy in blue trousers and pink shirt passed through the bathroom door. He wore polished leather shoes and a striped tie. He looked at them with studied indifference, as though they were routine diversions on his stroll.

S let out a gasp of horror and they both stepped inside the bathroom to check out. But the boy had vanished in the nothingness that lay beyond the dimensions of the bathroom door.

Mother was nearly giddy with disbelief. K tried to grasp her in his arms when she mumbled, very softly, "He looks just like you!"

"What ma?" K asked, though he'd heard.

"When you stood first in Class V, those were the clothes you wore when you went up to the stage to collect your Cup."

"Really, ma? You aren't kidding, are you?"

"No, no," she spoke, almost to herself.

"I don't believe this. It just sounds crazy. Are you saying that boy is me?" K was incredulous, not only on account of what Mother had said, but also by her surprisingly relaxed demeanour.

"Don't worry about him, he won't trouble you," she said. "Sleep with me from tonight."

As she began descending the staircase, K was still eyeing Mother with suspicion. What had gotten into her, he wondered? Just as he was about to say something, she turned.

"And come down soon. I am making us both a cheese burger, and let's drop you to school today, all right?" she smiled.

K, scratching his head dumbfoundedly, returned to the wardrobe and began arranging his uniform.