Nov 30, 2008

Notes on Yuva

There are some films that u remember not quite liking when u first watch them but which take u completely by surprise on a diff occasion. Some films that come to mind are lagaan, badiwali & yuva, the last of which I watched today after a gap of nearly 4 yrs. While I can’t remb the exact reasons why yuva made no impression on me in the past, I can clearly discern the elements that worked for me today. Of course a big reason could be that I haven’t watched any hindi film in the past 2 yrs that left me absol speechless, with the possible exception of bheja fry. When u tie this with the prevailing mood in Mumbai today, it doesn’t take much to see that I’m pbably making too much out of an ordinary film. Whatever…

For starters I can’t recall another film that has captured the spirit of Calcutta so accurately & made it sing on the screen. Its heavy, sensual beauty captured through the lens of cinematographer --- leaves u so smitten that it almost gags u with a feel of the smog that rises from the ganges over the new vidyasagar setu. In fact, all the setu scenes are beautifully shot & communicate the contrasting languorousness & vibrant activity that is so much a part of the city. Contrast the way vivek woos kareena with desperate shyness against a backdrop of speeding trucks & bikes & u will know what I’m referring to. And the fact that there are no rosogolla gulping babumoshai’s is enough to grant this a three star rating. Instead we have a glimpse of Someplace Else, Victoria Memorial, the city's ubiquitous fuchka (paani puri) vendors & its firebrand idealist college leaders.

Liked I have never ajay devgan & I still maintain that he’s 1 of the most overrated actors but I feel that yuva is one of his finest films; at least he manages to largely control that irritating smirk (save in the scenes with om puri.) for once his age doesn’t work against him coz he isn’t a 40’ish aamir khan playing a DU graduate student in rang de basanti (RDB). In fact he reminded me so much of my own seniors in JU like bata da, swagata di & arnab who continued to be an integral part of campus politics long after they’d passed out or even started pursuing their professional interests. That is the thing about Calcutta, or it was when I lived there eons ago. There is a madness, an irreverence & a joie de vivre in the city that I have witnessed in only another, completely different place – las vegas. Also, if you’ve been shot in the chest & thrown in the river, chances are it’s only in Calcutta that a stranger will jump off the bridge to save u. notice the way vivek first tries to garner help & support from outside before realizing that if smthing has to be done, it has to be done NOW & that waiting for someone else, will result in just that – a long eternal wait. Note the way he utters an encouraging military marching chant kind of call before he finally plunges into the water. Probably that is what touched me deeply about yuva today, plus the obvious fact that it is targeted at a very clear audience, much like RDB. Even as I was watching it I was mulling how a national political party comprising solely of people in the 20-50 year old bracket with no political or criminal connections would work out in today’s india? Till date I don’t know of any political party that screens its members on the basis of educational qualifications or age or criminal history. It would also help if all members would be at least college graduates. Sounds elitist? Darn right. I am tired of the socialism crap & I don’t care if I don’t drag my billion plus garib brothers & sisters out of the ‘darkness’ as long as I know what I am doing today will inevitably lead to light for everyone tomorrow.

Anyway to return to yuva again, kareena & vivek deliver 1 of their best performances here & I wonder why they didn’t go on to become 1 of bollywood’s hottest pairs. Recall the scene where a lovely kareena clad in a maroon chiffon saree comes to bid goodbye to an injured vivek & holding her hand he beseeches, ‘mat jao’. As he begins, ‘mai tumse..’ she cuts him off with, ‘kuch mat kaho. Mai jaanti hu.’ With the orchestra playing a slow version of the ‘fanaa’ piece in the background & the expression on these two actors’ faces doing all the talking, this is definitely one of the best romantic moments in celluloid history. Somehow I was reminded of emma thompson in ‘Carrington’ holding jonathan price in her arms & soothing him to sleep even as she clearly understands that there are limits to the ways in which she can reach him because of his sexual preferences. That anguish, that utter despair will be forever etched in my memory.

Rani is her usual splendid self & to write anything about her performance would be facetious. After all who can combine that degree of absolute bliss & despair that every married woman must know in her life when she’s madly in love with a man who never really grew up. Also, I cannot recall another bollywood actress who plays a married woman with such sensuality. As I write this I remember she was exactly the same as kamal hassan’s wife in ‘hey ram’. That big red bindi, that oiled hair & that loosely draped cotton sari have surely set many hearts afire. ‘kabhi neem neem’ easily goes down as one of rehman’s finest compositions & I’m glad he didn’t use his usual band of favourite south Indian singers like chitra or minmini. To hear madhusree in this song is to be assured perfection exists.

That’s it I guess. I think I must revisit some of the hit films I didn’t like at all, like iqbal or chak de india, & see what I make of them a 2nd time. but that would also mean that I have to sit through laga chunri mein daag & u me aur hum’ again. Nahiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii …

Nov 18, 2008

Thoughts on A Reluctant Fundamentalist

The protagonist of Mohsin Hamid’s impressive Booker nominated second novel –- The Reluctant Fundamentalist -- reminded me of those women who upon finally deciding to ditch their childhood sweethearts for traditional grooms who’d been chosen by their families, suddenly find everything about the old boyfriends either wrong, offensive, duplicitous or morally reprehensible. Oh, not to forget, they’d been merely infatuated before. That is Changez’ story too, only it is his infatuation with America that he elaborates upon here.
Compared to his debut work Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems both artificial, as well as less absorbing. Perhaps the only positive thing I can say about Hamid’s work is that it is timely, especially since there is no doubt that America has no intention of curbing its annoying interventionist foreign policy, given its hawkish stand on Iran and Russia. Though he poses questions that are relevant in an increasingly intolerant world, Hamid does not possess the subtlety or the power to accomplish this in a way, say, a much superior writer like Nadine Gordimer does when she probes the whole issue of apartheid, another cursed phenomenon, which though much reviled operates at various levels of our shared experience and does not offer any easy resolutions.
The novel is set in an old café in Lahore where as dusk gives way to night, our Pakistani narrator Changez shares the story of his life in the U.S with an unnamed American businessman. Since, the listener is never allowed to speak we are left to form our own opinions about him from the way Changez responds to him – ‘A flower-seller approaches. I will summon him. You are not in the mood? Surely you cannot object to a single strand of jasmine buds.” We learn that Changez hails from an old Lahore family whose fortunes have since declined. The gradual erosion of his family’s wealth echoes those of his unfortunate nation and this in turn is contrasted with the wealth and well being of his Princeton classmates and the country they hail from. All of which is fine but inherently meaningless for Hamid never allows Changez to reflect on the diverse and complex causes that have brought about this contrast. Instead, Changez speaks in a steady mix of sarcasm, hostility and forced politeness and seems to take no account of the larger historical and social conditions that shape a nation’s destiny. At least, the protagonist of Moth Smoke was honest enough to acknowledge the corruption and indifference which crippled Pakistan.
After having finished his studies at Princeton, Changez joins the prestigious valuation firm of Underwood Samson where the mantra of success is to ‘Focus on the Fundamentals’, one which we gradually learn he has always been ‘reluctant’ to embrace. In America, Changez befriends other outsiders like Jim and Wainwright and even has a doomed affair with the beautiful Erica whose sanity gradually unravels as her affair with Changez progresses. Post 9/11 he starts to feel all the more resentful of America’s retaliatory attacks on Afghanistan and her single minded pursuit of her ‘fundamental’ interests at the cost of all else and he decides to return to his homeland and becomes an activist of sorts who dedicates his life to spreading awareness and raising questions regarding the imperialism of powerful western nations like America.
The question of identity and assimilation is at the heart of the book and as we plough on, it is not merely Changez’ identity that is probed and tested but also Erica’s, the silent businessman’s and the readers’. Early in the novel Changez tells us how “I attempted to act and speak, as much as my dignity would permit, more like an American. The Filipinos … seemed to look up to my American colleagues, accepting them almost instinctively as members of the officer class of global business and I wanted my share of that respect as well,” and when he is stopped by the concierge of Erica’s posh Manhattan apartment, he retorts in a “cold and rather imperious tone.” However, despite his best attempts at merging in, he does possess an outsiders’ perspective which finds his ‘upstart’ classmates’ wasteful spending and offensive manners most disturbing, “I ... found myself wondering by what quirk of human history my companions ….. were in a position to conduct themselves in the world as though they were its ruling class.” Though bothered by certain aspects of American life, Changez is still another cog in the nation’s great capitalistic machine and is in Manila on business when he watches the twin towers collapse on TV and smiles. This smile is the pivot of the novel for it at once tells us several things about Changez that he has only hinted at so far. Though it may not reveal anything as significant as a rabid fundamentalism, it does tell us about his desire for vengeance, a kind of smug satisfaction at the tables having been turned so abruptly. Nothing has happened till then to warrant that smile and yet it’s chillingly familiar to many of us if we allow a little honest introspection. And that’s one of the points of the book, that even when we think nothing has happened, there are things that have already taken place, the shared weight of history that shapes our perspectives and what we finally choose to be.
On his return to the U.S, he is viewed suspiciously as he’s waiting in line at Immigration and slowly it is not only his relationship with Erica which starts to decline but also that with America and its institutions of power. Unable to concentrate on work he is increasingly discomfited by the idea that by embracing America he is also embracing a certain world view. When a client slyly tells him the story of the janissaries -- Christian youths captured and brainwashed into fighting against their own people -- his transformation and self loathing are complete, “I resolved to exorcise the unwelcome sensibility by which I had become possessed.” As mentioned before, it is in areas like these that Hamid’s amateur skills are most obvious for he never allows Changez any of that inner debate or doubts that must surely have assailed this intelligent Ivy League graduate. I think this is a very dangerous way of looking at things and artistic license notwithstanding what does this say about the thousands of Afghani restaurateurs and Irani and Bangladeshi storekeepers who have escaped their repressive and poverty stricken homelands in hopes of a better future? Surely Changez cannot really imagine that working in a foreign nation implies you’re a henchman in its strong-arm tactics?
Where the novel does sing is in the depiction of the romance between Changez and Erica. Even though this like much else in the book can be explained as a pure allegory for his uncertain, shifting relationship with America, it is interesting to note how much Changez challenges Erica’s identity, thereby pushing her into her vortex of guilt and despair. When he visits her at the Clinic he’s told by the nurse, “…. right now you’re the hardest person for her to see. You’re the one who upsets her most. Because you’re the most real, and make her lose her balance.” He and the scope of what he represents threatens Erica’s ideal picture of the adolescent, selfless love that she shared with Chris, her ex-boyfriend. Similarly, immersion in America’s materialistic culture, threatens his identity and his selfhood. Both derive their selfhoods from the roles they see themselves as living up to; in Erica’s case that of Chris’ ever faithful girl friend, and in the case of Changez, the prodigal son who has to eventually return home.
Hamid is very good when he describes the language and mannerisms of characters like Wainwright or Erica. This is where he scores above many other authors writing about the diaspora. Hearing Erica discuss her novella, one is reminded of another young, budding writer, Heather in the film ‘Starting out in the Evening’.
He also powerfully taps into the immigrants’ guilt and doubt when wondering at the threat of war with neighboring India, Changez muses, “What sort of man abandons his people in such circumstances? And what was I abandoning them for? ……….. I grappled with these questions again and again.”
I think it would be safe to say that The Reluctant Fundamentalist raises interesting questions without always probing them adequately and perhaps a little less of the neat explanations that he offers would have made the novel more satisfactory. As the narrative ends we are left uncertain regarding Changez’ story and do not know whether he is an activist or a terrorist out to kidnap the nervous American businessman or whether all he wants is for the American to give him, a voice that has been suppressed for ages, a fair hearing. Nor are we told if the silent American is really as innocuous as he seems or if he is an undercover CIA operative with more sinister intentions. The answer is not so important but our preoccupation with neat answers is. The Reluctant Fundamentalist will work best if it is read as testament to the infallible truth that simply demonizing those who hold a different world view from our own is neither helpful, nor desirable and only breeds contempt and mistrust.

Nov 4, 2008

Thoughts on A Thousand Splendid Suns

There is little wonder that Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns stayed on the New York Times’ Bestsellers top spot for well over three months. Even though critics have been quick to scoff at his melodramatic set ups and starkly etched black and white characters, ultimately it is his gift of telling a story well, in a way that is meant to arouse powerful emotions in his readers and remind them of those things that they cherish and value above all else, that saves the day. As in his debut novel The Kite Runner, in this novel too he takes us on a journey to his unfortunate homeland Afghanistan, a nation that has been torn asunder not only by war, foreign invasions and internal factions, but also by a steep decline in its moral and cultural values. The Afghanistan of yore who’s surrounding mountains and green valleys nurtured poets, musicians, scholars and mystics gradually metamorphosed into a hostile nation where women were forced to wear the burqa and hide upstairs when their husband’s friends visited in the evening, where the quality of hospitals was so wretched that women were forced to undergo c-section deliveries without the necessary anesthesia and where a man could beat his wife to death for no apparent offence and get away with it. Spanning several decades, his story charts the history of two exceptionally resilient women as the nation reels under one assault after the other, first the Soviet invasion, then the nightmare regime under the Taliban and finally, the recovery of some measure of harmony under the leadership of Hamid Karzai.
A Thousand Splendid Sun shares several features with his first novel -- the almost invincible villain who goes about doing evil with impunity, an odd friendship between two people who have almost nothing in common and belong to different social strata, the sacrifice that one of them makes for the other and the final hope of redemption that allows a glimmer of hope to pierce these heartbreaking sagas of lives destroyed, loves lost, hopes dashed and aspirations betrayed. It tells the story of two women, Mariam and Laila and their life-affirming love for each other. Having told the story of brothers in The Kite Runner, he pays tribute to the strange rituals of empathy and sacrifice that is the domain of these oppressed women.
We meet Mariam at the novel’s opening, the illegitimate child of a rich Herat merchant who lives somewhere on the outskirts of the city with her neurotic, bitter mother whose generalizations regarding ‘our lot in life’ would seem straight out of a B grade film were it not for the fact that she has indeed paid a high price for being born with a double disadvantage, that of being poor and a woman in a world where the only identity that affords any measure of security and respect to a woman is that of the legally wedded wife. Mariam’s joyless existence is punctuated with weekly visits from her weak and insincere father Jalil and the Koran lessons that she receives from Mullah Faizullah who dotes on her. Circumstances conspire in the teenaged Mariam’s being married off to the middle-aged Rasheed, a cruel, vicious and petty monster who’s behavior plumbs new depths of depravity as Mariam suffers one miscarriage after another and is unable to bear him the mandatory male heir. Few passages in the novel are as moving as those describing the newly wedded Mariam’s eager thoughts that despite the difference in their ages, for the first time in years, she hopes that together they can build a contented life and share a home that she could call her own. She silently accedes to Rasheed’s order to wear a burqa, though the “padded headpiece felt tight and heavy on her skull and it was strange seeing the world through a mesh screen.” It is this loss of clear vision, the lack of choice and clear alternatives that is the curse that women like Mariam and Laila have to bear when they are thrown at the mercy of misogynists like Rasheed who derives his boundless power from a social order that does not allow women do go outdoors without male presence, where women were denied any education beyond the rote learning of Koranic verses and where a woman’s sole preserve in life was the appeasement of the different masculine relationships she had acquired over a lifetime, at the cost of an almost deathlike annihilation of her individuality. Not surprisingly when Mariam fails to provide Rasheed with a son, he starts treating her with cruel disdain and beating her savagely without the slightest provocation. Hosseini paints a dark portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are completely helpless and the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status and recognition.
As the years pass, so do Mariam’s hopes for any love or understanding and she loses a lot more than her teeth in the daily bouts of physical violence that chiefly comprise her life – “his shifting moods, his volatile temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks..”
Many years younger to Mariam, it is not only Laila’s rare beauty that contrasts with Mariam’s plain, coarse looks. Laila is the daughter of a university professor and his educated wife who not only holds strong political convictions but has never been asked to not speak her mind. In fact it is in the details of Laila’s early life that we glimpse the complex nature of Afghan society. Laila’s parents and lover Tariq are a foil against the other boorish, insensitive and hypocritical male counterparts who populate the novel. It is most notably in the portrait of her disjointed yet happy family life that Hosseini shows how it is individual families who made the choice, not society, to follow a particular path of liberty and emancipation or suppression and tyranny. This is an issue which those writing about the Arab or Muslim world must address repeatedly as many Islamic nations come under the sway of fundamentalists and narrow minded religious fanatics.
As fate, once again, conspires to deprive another young woman of her dreams and Laila is forced to accept Rasheed’s offer of marriage, the novel begins its journey of healing and recovery, of course not before much has been laid waste forever. What is interesting is to note Hosseini’s depiction of Mariam’s initial anger as she forced to accept the presence of the younger, more beautiful Laila as her husband’s second wife. It is not jealousy that Mariam feels for her marriage has long become a miserable drudgery of neglect and abuse. Western readers are unlikely to understand her reaction and may argue that given the fact that Laila’s presence actually mellows Rasheed, why is Mariam so hostile toward her? It is difficult for many to comprehend Mariam’s jealousy as its deeply rooted in a social system where only a man’s wife is accorded respect, status and security, much of which will be compromised if she has to share it with another. Mariam is especially aware of how important it is to be rightfully attached to a man because of the murky circumstances surrounding her own birth. Illegitimate and a female to boot, it’s only natural that she will do anything in her power to prevent another from usurping her rights as Rasheed’s wife, despite being treated worse than a stray dog. Similarly, it is but natural that it’s Mariam who becomes a second mother to Aziza, Laila’s illegitimate first born, for who better than Mariam can intuit her vulnerability as a girl child bereft of the protection of a father.
As the novel proceeds, a tentative bonding develops between the two wives. It is through Laila that Mariam derives some measure of validation and affection. It is through Laila’s eyes that we see what the young girl whom we’d first met at the novel’s beginning has become and “For the first time, it was not an adversary's face Laila saw but a face of grievances unspoken, burdens gone unprotested, a destiny submitted to and endured…”
It may seem that the novel is without any light moments or redeeming male characters. It is not so. Hosseini’s descriptions of the ‘Titanic’ film malady that afflicted the people is hilarious when one imagines them hiding their television sets underground for fear of the Taliban fatwa which forbade such licentious pleasures as films or music. It recalls to the mind another story of oppressive regimes and the extraordinary resilience of people who survive and fight them – Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.
Laila’s fiancé Tariq and her father Hakim, Aziza’s teacher at the orphanage where she is later sent are all portraits of men who are truly the upholders of others’ dignity and honour. For these men the pashtun code does not consist of beating one’s woman into submission but of behaving honorably towards those whom they had pledged to protect and love.
A Thousand Splendid Suns occasionally suffers from the kind of excesses that we have witnessed in Hossseini’s debut novel too. The scene where Laila visits Mariam’s childhood home in Heart is imbued with all the trappings of Bollywood sentimentalism and could have been avoided. After all there is no doubt in our mind about the great and enduring love these two women shared; milking it for all its worth certainly does not earn any extra brownie points. Also sentences like, “Once again Mariam did, what she was asked” as she is about to be executed seem overdone and gratuitous.
One of the chief reasons for Hosseini’s success stems from his choice of subjects who though victims of circumstances far removed from anything we have ever known, share the same hopes, values and dreams that do the rest of us. In fact Mariam’s and Laila’s lives of abuse and horror find echoes in the lives of petrified American wives married to drunk and abusive rednecks whose only hope of salvation comes from a system that recognizes a woman as an individual and offers her the same rights as a man; it is this alone that separates them from the two women of the novel. What is truly poignant about Mariam and Laila’s lives is not the violence or indignity they suffer but the complete lack of hope that the outside world affords them. Hopefully as more and more readers become aware of this magnificent book, this too will someday change.
I havent had time to blog for a while. Am gonna add a few articles & book reviews that i'd done earlier in the year for a diff site but which i have been permitted to reproduce here only now. This was one of them.

Oct 8, 2008

The Presidential 2nd debate: US Elections

Last night we watched the 2nd presidential debate b/w Obama & McCain - the same shot & volley of charges, insinuations & counter attacks. Very boring. I don't like either of them & if McCain hadn't chosen Palin & somewhat curbed his hawkish stand of Iran & Russia, I may well have supported him. For me, Obama's abstaining from voting on various senate bills is symptomatic of a larger malaise. I don't like diplomacy & constant shift in positions. It's sad that McCain is now doing the same thing on questions of deregulation & the health of the economy.

Since ydays debate was in a Nashville townhall where both candidates answered the audience directly, the questions were more wide ranging & interesting than the one's they'd faced in the earlier debates. when asked, "What sacrifices would you ask the American ppl to make to tide over he current conomic crisis", not one of them said that the most important thing was that the people had to learn to live within their means. This is revealatory of the kind of bull shit our politicians dole out in the name of straight talk. Not one of them has EVER addressed the question of individual households overspending; all they harp on & on like a broken record is overspending in the govt, budget cuts, etc. Bastards, all of them!

Sep 19, 2008

Warhol was Right

One of the things that I find shocking about America is the nature of its many reality shows. While a part of me is thrilled & grateful for the sheer variety that I find here, most of the shows are appalling. One of the reality shows that I've watched often is the Jon & Kate Plus Eight show that tells the story of a family where there are a set of twins & a set of sextuplets. Needless to say, their hassles, travails & triumphs make me feel better about the 3-yr old I deal with. There is a kind of sadistic pleasure mixed with a sense of humility & awe that two adults can actually do a pretty decent job raising 8 kids, six of which are of the same age. Also, my daughter is a huge fan of the family & insists almost daily that I drop her there; so much for family ties. Though A is critical about the family making money by exhibiting their kids, I don't mind it too much & so far haven't witnessed anything that I’d label as offensive on that show (if u discount Kate’s irritating habit of trying to push the idea of the all American germ-free-pancake-eating-outdoorsy-family down our throats perpetually).
However, most of the other shows will tell u more succintly than Barack Obama does, why this nation desperately needs a change. They paint an unhealthy & sad picture of people who peddle their deepest anxieties & fears, every harrowing experience they've overcome, the most personal demons they fought with & often lost, in front of millions via reality shows like Maury, Intervention, What Not to Wear, Nanny 911, Trading Spouses, Judge Alex, Judge Mathis.

While the Maury Show is one of the worst I know of, there is something quite morbid even about the relatively harmless Nanny 911 show where parents who are unable to discipline their children hire a stern, stiff upper-lipped Brit nanny who then proceeds to show them the error of their ways, in the process often revealing certain unsavoury bits about the couple's relationship or their lack of table manners. Participants in the Maury Show are subjected to polygraphs, DNA testing & much else & everything from the fatherhood of one's kids to the number of times a travelling salesman cheated on his wife is revealed in front of an obnoxious, simultaneously booing & cheering audience. I watched one of the episodes in dismay as this Mexican family just disintegrated before our eyes when DNA tests revealed that of their three adorable kids, the eldest Juanita, had been fathered by someone else. I dunno how much of the crying, shouting & ugly accusations that followed, was staged & how much of it was real.

It is just disturbing to watch people who will stop at nothing to enjoy their 15 minutes of fame & make a few quick bucks. This also takes away so much from those dozens of reality shows that are essentially about unearthing talent - be it musical, culinary, hair styling or simple home repair. Those are actually fun & sometimes even faintly educative.

This phenomenon of cheap exhibitionism can also be traced in the kind of 'memoirs' that one comes across these days. Princess Diana has p'bably been immortalised in some dozens of them by now, Monica Lewdinsky made millions clearing her name by talking about sex & cigars and innumerable versions of the tumultuous O.J Simpson-Nicole Smith marriage & subsequent tragedy grace book shops.

I know this gets slightly tangential but it is this cult of cheap, unsavoury, exhibitionism and craving for non-anonymity, of being recognized & congratulated, that drives so many bloggers that I know personally. Why is everybody in such a hurry to share their mundane musings about such weighty matters as a mediocre review of 'Rock On' or what they consider the best way to rein in wandering husbands! And god spare u, if u have dared to not read or even worse, read & not comment, on their posts. Not even a stint in the fourth circle of Purgatory will be enough to save u from their wrath.

Jul 28, 2008

Notes on The Road

Camus, beckett, orwell, burgess, atwood and sometimes even joseph conrad. Cormac mcarthy’s 2007 pulitzer prize winning ‘the road’ reminded me of the works of the above authors & then some more. Western authors have been preoccupied with the end of the world & I don’t think mcarthy’s novel is unique for the way he treats the same. No, he pretty much says what we’d have imagined from any able author. It is in the way he goes about describing the savage destruction that follows such end that the novel derives its power, “The mummied dead everywhere. Their flesh cloven along the bones, the ligaments dried to tug & taut as wires. …they were discalced to a man like pilgrims of some common order for their shoes were long since stolen.” Not only does a sense of ‘nothingness’ pervade the tale, it’s accompanied by a continuous sense of foreboding, threat & danger for this is a world where houses and supermarkets have been ransacked and abandoned by the remaining survivors; shriveled bodies lie, unburied, in aabndoned homes; packs of men in gas masks wielding pipes roam the countryside, cannibalizing and raping. It is a nightmare world in which the little boy’s sudden joy at discovering dungeon full of naked people quickly turns into the terrifying realisation that they are captives, fodder for cannibilsation. He asks anxiously, "We wouldn't ever eat anybody, would we?" His question shows the doubts that gnaw deep. He knows his father to be a fair & loving man & yet in the nightmare world they exhibit there is only that much he can take for granted, including his father's good nature. It’s as if the very foundations of piety & compassion have been uprooted for all times & the old order that celebrated & rewarded goodness has been cast aside.

An unknown holocaust, nuclear probably, has laid to waste all of humanity. So much so that when the man comes across an old newspaper, "the frailty of everything revealed at last. Old & troublng issues resolved into nothingness & night........ The curious news, the quaint concerns" are exposed for what they currently are. Nothing, in a sea of eternal nothingness.

The apocalypse itself is dismissed easily: “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of concussions.” This Orwellian reference is all we are offered. Why or how it happened is never revealed. Faced with such devastation, it’s cause is irrelevant. Another detail is cleverly inserted. This was when the boy was born & for all meaningful purposes, beauty, brotherhood & love are things he has never witnessed & ought to have no idea of. But it is not so. He is the strongest voice of reason & compassion in the novel & must clearly have imbibed these from the father & therein lies the magic of Mcarthy’s book. The boy has no early refernces of humanity to guide him save from what his father has taught.The man's tragedy is of a different order. He still struggles with the memory of a world that he once knew - “the names of things slowly following those things into oblivion. Colours. The names of birds. Things to eat. Finally the names of things one believed to be true. More fragile than he would have thought. The sacred idion shorn of its referneces & so of its reality."

While the macabre vision is unremmitting in its impact, it is balanced & soothed by the bond between the man & his son, who is the metaphorical carrier of the flame, “you have to carry the fire." If there is no hope in this new order, the man is unshakable in his faith that they have to carry on till they reach the coast. What is truly amazing is the way we wish him success despite our comprehension that nothing much may change even when they reach their destination. It’s no promised land for sure & no hope has been dangled before us. Yet, for the man it is imperative that they boy carry on, even when he knows his own end is near:

"Keep the gun with you at all times. You need to find the good guys but you cant take chances. have to carry the fire.
i dont know how to."
yes you do.
is it real? the fire?
yes it is.
where is it? i dont know where it is.
yes you do. it's inside you. it was always there. i can see it.”

The number of things he does for the boy, the sheer effort that goes into it - whether it is washing the dried blood frm his hair at the end of a long & tiring day, wrapping his feet in the blue tarp which is their only means of shelter, offering him the last bit of cocoa, or"kicking holes in the sand for the boys hip & shoulders where he would sleep & he sat holding him while he tousled his hair before the fire to dry it" - it is these moments that balance this harsh & biting narrative of endless starvation, hardships, death & devastation.

Early on in the novel when he fears they may be attacked & raped or cannibalized by the marauders, the man still cannot bring himself to shoot his son as he’d intended. Even here his first thought is always for the son. "No crying now. You know how to do it. You put it in your mouth & point it up. Do it quick & hard." This is where the levy is breached; that it has come to this, after all that they have been through. This abject hoplessness is what makes 'The Road' so unbearable & yet so uplifting. That a father has to say this to his son, this most perverted reversal of filial responsibility, is what lends a burning pain & rage to this novel. Yet there is hope for he says. "I was going to run. To try & lead them away. But i cant leave you." To kill the boy would be to accept defeat; to deny that even when the external markers of civilisation are long gone, there is a Being that justifies goodness and humanity & a moral code that prohibits stealing, that makes eating ones own kind a heinous act, no matter how compelling the circumstances. It is only right that he belives, “That the child was his only warrant. ..if he is not the word of God, God never spoke.” To witness such beauty in language is nothing short of a miracle.

As the man painstakingly carries on the Sisyphian struggle for existence & meaning in an irrational & Godless universe, he knows there are some ‘good guys’ left & to find them is the journey that comprises his life. He knows that danger & barbarity are never far behind & yet those are not the things he has schooled his son about. To leave the world a better place than you found it, to make even a grain of difference, marks the distance between the beginning & the end. When the boy plays his make shift flute, it’s left to us to decide whether it’s “a formless music for the age to come. Or perhaps the last music on earth called up from out of the ashes of its ruin.'' This extraordinary fable has shown us which one it is.

Jul 22, 2008

Money Woes

i am a semi-regular reader of their blog. for all those academics & investment bankers who ridiculed levitt & dubner's highly engagings freakonomics, the book found its own fan following amongst people like me who are interested in matters beyond salma hayek's latest heartbreak or amy winehouse' hubby's recent jail sentence. even as i freaked out on the book, i realised that much of the deductions reeked of over simplification but that mattered not an iota. the reason is simple. i'd not even have cast a cursory glance if it was the stuff of ricardo's 'essay on profits'. Books like 'Freakonomics' or 'The Undercover Economist' serve the purpose of educating readers who'd otherwise have never given a thought to the corruption prevalent in the chicago public school system, the interesting conundrum of adult drug dealers still living at home with their parents & much more that the book covers. in short, the close relationship between human behavior and incentive & how much of today's crime can be controlled by studying this close connection.

reading this today set me
thinking whether what dubner is proposing here is really the correct answer to all our economic woes. i like what he says, only am less than convinced of its efficacy. extending his logic, i can also argue that schools should also teach legal affairs, that civics or political science should be more than the poor cousin who's always lumped together with 'history' in school curriculum.

i think the problem abt poor financial literacy is not so much a matter of poor education than it is of poor methodology. even when students are taught abt the basics of compound interest, they are never encouraged to apply it in their lives. also, the essential dryness of the subject & its requirement of basic mathematical ability drives women away. since it is women who are largely responsible for managing the household budget, we all know its ramifications.

of all the female relatives & friends i possess, there is not one with whom i have discussed the recent stock market crash or the chances of bridging my home loan & investing in a new property. mind you, most of them are perched pretty high on the corporate ladder & definitely have a lot more moolah at their disposal than i currently do. many have most of their money languishing in checking accounts earning no interest at all. i think one of the reasons for my interest stems frm the fact that i was brought up by a man who'd explained abt assam's double freight policy, inflation, how the war in pakistan would hurt sugar prices much before i'd even started buying my own stocks. even today, i possess but lil more than a rudimentary knowledge of such matters but i strive to understand stuff beyond the chaucer or dickens i so enjoy. also the idea of there being 'topics' that are beyond the ken of women has always seemed grossly insulting to me.

though i got all three of lusardi's questions right, i am no wiz at great investing. i think the basics of money should appeal to anyone who wants to live a good life. if i ask myself why i cannot afford a house in bandra i will be forced to find ways & means of investing my money wisely so that it earns better. it's just a matter of being aware that investing in an MF pays bettter than letting the money sit in a savings account at 4%. with an MF u dont even have to strain ur eyes checking the prices of TCS & IPCL everytime they flash across the ticker on CNBC! so, more than knowledge, its just being smart.

lastly, financial literacy has no impact unless it is coupled with a fundamental shift in the way society things & functions. forget financial education, a majority of indians have never even been to school. yet, debt is a bigger prolem in the u.s than back home. even among the 20-something youngsters who comprise the BPO crowd in india, debt & credit card defaults are still alien concepts. indians primarily are a 'savings' oriented people. our burts of consumerism are balanced by a social system where one is forced to save for his/her own house or pay for their parents' treatment or sister's marriage. there is simply no choice. this puts the brakes on instant gratification. stricter penalties for corporations for misleading customers or overextending themsleves & more stringent bankruptcy laws might solve some of the problems america is witnessing today.

the recent american elections are also an eye opener abt the way people perceive the urgency of the economic crisis looming large. despite all our concerns abt money, we still choose our elected representatives based on the emotions they generate & not on sound economic principals. most american economists argue that ron paul should have been the presidential nominee. conversely, i am not sure that having candidates who are well versed in economic fundamentals is the answer to our financial woes. even manmohan singh, sound economist that he is said to be, didn't really make headlines for pushing the disinvestment process or cushioning the inflation that is now said to be accelerating higher than it has in 13 years.

Jul 18, 2008

Notes on Blue Umbrella

there is nothing extraordinary abt vishal bharadwaj's 'Blue Umbrella' save its awesome background music and mesmerizing cinematography & both stand out in the viewers' mind. in fact i'm pretty much sure it's not going to send the cash registers ringing, not least of all because it doesn't have much to say to today's audiences by way of a story.

unlike the west, indian audiences are way too immature to sit back & enjoy a film for other elements besides the story. narrative is all important in bollywood, never mind that it can be as asinine or as oft-repeated as u can imagine. it'll be ages before we'll begin to accept the likes of 'No Smoking'. mind you, BU is anything as self indulgent or bizarre as NS. no, thats not what i'm saying at all.

sure BU has a thin storyline, the likes of which will resonate in the mind of anyone who grew up on a staple diet of aesop's fables, tales from the panchatantra, the parables of sri ramkrishna or the hundreds of other tales that chiefly comprised kiddy literature before the advent of j.k.rowling. recurring themes in all these tales were that of good triumphing over evil, of forgiveness being greater than revenge or suffering being the true path to salvation. so there's not much by way of a storyline - no edge of the seat suspense, no witty punchlines and no great music.

yet the film worked for me & the other person i watched it with and that's not simply because the umbrella in the story is a metaphor for the unattainable, for power, or perfection, or something that is outside the realm of the mundane. methinks the film's power lies in its simplicity & the way it plays with itself. the repeated snapshots of first biniya & then nandkishore posing with the umbrella, or the wide-eyed villagers gazing at the umbrella with apt adoration & often lust are all scenes that are beyond the reality we are accustomed to. it is immaterial to argue that things are no longer this way in the villages of india, that its denizens no longer as innocent, as untouched by big-city fashion as depicted in the film.

the villagers' obsession with the umbrella, the unraveling of the plot behind the umbrella's sudden disappearance & the suffering that is visited upon nandkishore which leads to his ultimate redemption are all ploys to drive home the moral in this fable & while doing so they also arouse some powerful emotions. for me good cinema touches upon concerns that are universal and strokes my feelings. any film, no matter how intelligent (mullhollands drive), that leaves me cold & uninvolved is not a great film by my yardstick. even the most cliched film is good, if not great, if it has the power to move me even upon watching it for a second time (kal ho na ho.)

finally, pankaj kapur, the actor who one wishes never dies, never stops delivering such performances, too few & too far in b/w as they are, for they at least affirm that there remain actors who can move u to tears with the faintest trace of an embarrassed smile & a sideward glance (the scene where he is teased by the others at the barber's roadside stall post his fall from grace.) man, words fail to express the hollowness that he feels deep inside, the spiritual isolation that he choose when he decided to indulge in something that he knew to be utterly wrong.

it is also important to understand that in the scheme of things nandkishore's crime is but a mere travesty. in the world we know people get away with much more. again seriousness of the crime is not in question here. it is a man bartering his soul for something that's priceless to him. a story as old as paradise lost or faust or dorian grey. stealing in itself is not a very grave crime but in nandkishore's world it assumes gargantuan implications because he believes it is wrong; that it is wrong to covet that which is not yours is the first rule he learned at school, he admits.

time and again i am humbled & grateful by the power of art to soothe & comfort us in our darkest hours. despite the madness raging in the world outside, good art is the single beacon of hope that shines bright & affirms our faith in the power of human goodness like nothing else does.

Jul 7, 2008

Notes on In Bruges

watching Martin McDonagh's debut film 'in bruges' last night reminded me of johny gaddar, the best noir film to have emerged from bollywood. in both films we are presented with bad men who we end up rooting for, who we wish are alive & escape the consequences of their actions at the film's close. but it is here that the similarity ends. while in the hindi film the lead character is responsible for the ensuing tragedy & is given choices that could have averted the disaster, the tragedy in 'In Bruges' arises not so much out of the characters' actions as out of the circumstances they are thrown in the midst of. i think mention should be made here of that other superb film i saw this year, 'Before the Devil Knows You're Dead' which is also similar to johny gaddar & equally tragic. returning to 'in bruges', McDonagh brilliantly makes use of the medieval belgian town from which the film derives its title. also noteworthy is carter burwell's slow piano score.

Ken & Ray (brendan gleeson & colin farell) are guns for hire who are ordered to lie low in the quaint flemish town & enjoy the sights after a shooting goes awry & Ray ends up accidentally killing a small boy. the incident has changed both men more than they care to admit & the consequences of which we witness as the film unfolds. dogged by guilt & yet striving hard to function as if nothing has changed, both men react in different ways to the beauty of the canals, the gothic architecture & the dark paintings of heironymous bosch. while the artistically inclined, gentler & subtler Ken endlessly peruses guide books & exclaims enthusiastically, "this is the best preserved medieval town in belgium', the younger, restless & guilt wracked Ray rants, hurls profanities & insults, & in general behaves like one of the loud insensitive americans he so despises. his never ending twitches & relentless complaints about the 'shithole' they have been thrown in doesn't hide the fact that here is a man who talks & eats & walks simply to avoid facing the silence that is always nearby to engulf his soul. how can he find peace when everything he sees or does reminds him of the child whose life he snuffed out. respite comes in the form of the pretty chloe (Clémence Poésy), but here too complications abound in the form of a possessive ex-bf who nurses a grouse against Ray who blinds him during a scuffle.

what is brilliant about this film is the clever way the director uses bruges to exile his characters & develop them. both men are far removed from the life they usually lead & the things they would ordinarily do & this gives them an odd freedom; one which they aren't even aware of. cribbing about the single room they have to share, the endless wait for their mentor harry's (ralph fiennes) call, they don't know that they are changing in ways unbeknownst to them, that they will behave in a manner that contradicts the basic tenets of self interest, the only code a contract killer abides by. it is in bruges that they have the luxury to step back & reexamine what they are & what they have made of their lives, and if it is possible to be something else.

there is a lot of absurd humor in this film, the kind that cannot be easily labeled 'dark'. Ray's obsession with midgets & eventual friendship with one plays out in a climax that is oddly touching, a deserving untangling of the different skeins the film throws out. while we are quite accustomed to films like babel, 21 grams & eternal sunshine where disparate narrative threads & people are shown to be connected in unusual & tenuous ways, the action here is less random. it is only fitting that the same people cross each others paths in the central square of a small town; not much happenstance there.

eugene of neil, that great carrier of irish guilt which he communicated so achingly through his plays once said, "Man is born broken. He lives by mending. The grace of God is glue". here too the broken ready themselves for His grace by their final acts of righteousness & justice, no matter how damaged they are or how far they have strayed.

Jun 27, 2008

Stuff of Greatness: On AR Rehman

Disclaimer: Long self indulgent post that shouldn't be attempted unless you're besotted by either AR Rehman or me.

all of us have our own ways of de-stressing when the going gets beyond tough. over a period of time i have realised nothing calms me down & soothes me more than two pet activities - a good ol' sweaty round of cleaning & listening to an AR Rehman CD where i have compiled a coupla dozen favourite tracks that i believe leave no doubt that he is God. not all of these songs went on to become hits & only the most avid rehman fan will probably claim acquaintance with all of them. here are some of them (in no particular order) & what makes them so special:

1. sarfaroshi ki tamanna from the 'legend of bhagat singh'. it doesn't have the pulsating, thumping beat that you'd normally associate with a rousing patriotic song. in fact the lyrics are wistful, dreamy & the tone sensual. as the slow first part of the song paves the way for the quickened antara sonu nigam beautifully convey the martyrs' silent resolve that death indeed is not the end for them when he sings:
khuhboo banke mehka karenge hum, lehlahati in faslo mein,

saans banke dehka karenge, aanewali in naslo mein

2. des mere des mere from the same film. it's no coincidence that this is the guy who along with the brilliant bharatbala reintroduced every indian to the glorious vande mataram in a new avatar. i think there's this surreal, inspired quality to his work that AR knows is rare which is why he respects it & reserves it for only a few pet genres, i.e. his patriotic & devotional numbers. one needs only to cast an eye on his incredible repertoire of such songs - piya haji ali, khwaja mere khwaja, bharat humko jaan se pyara hai and ye jo des hai tera to know what i'm talking about. what's incredible about this no. is the manner in which he again overturns the traditional rules of nationalist songs. yeah, even when he employs full thumping beats. nowhere else have i heard that note of infinite tenderness that sukhwinder infuses into his voice as he croons des mere, des mere, meri jaan hai tu. with that it isn't difficult to visualise the nation in terms of a frail mother or beloved, anyone deserving of protection & love. however, if he expresses such longing & respect for the country, unshakable resolve & anger are not far behind & thats when he hardens his tone & sings, watan ke naam pe, hum sar katane se nahi darte. it's almost like he begins on an angry note & then has to remind himself of some benign presence to calm himself so stark is the contrast between the military style & lyrics of the song & the des mere part. also, the des as opposed to desh sound so moving & real.

3. lukka chuppi from rang de basanti - i have never much cared for lata mangeshkar & am always puzzled about what most directors still see in her to use her in their films. then i heard this one & understood the magic of that quivering, age-ravaged, yet evocative voice. it makes perfect sense to use lata here as she is echoing the sentiments of a 70+ mother who has lost her son. once again thwarting conventional expectations, there is neither shehnai nor sarangi, those two grand dames of all dirge instruments. on the contrary AR begins the song with a peppy guitar arrangement & if you're not aware of the film you could well mistake this song as unfolding in the background while a mom & kid play hide n seek in some wide open space. so profound is the mother's sense of disbelief that she thinks her son is up to one of his old tricks & will reappear soon. hence, the note of entreaty & not lament:
lukka chuppi, bahut hui, saamne aaja na, kaha kaha dhoonda tujhe thak gayi hai teri ma...

the second part of the song which is sung by AR in his sandpaper voice evocatively conveys the absolute freedom that only death allows & also the pain of separation when you are lost to all those who are still alive, still mortal:
meri patang ho befikar ud rahi hai ma, dor koi kate nahi beech me ma.....
.....yaha naya naya hai sab kuch, phir bhi lage bin tere akele.
can anybody be dry eyed as he hears this?

4. nahi saamne from Taal - can't understand why all those rangeela songs could become bigger hits than this subtle, sensuous melody. note the extended priyasiiiiiiiii..... with which hariharan begins the song. damn, the man is hurting & nothing captures better the sense of desperate longing when your beloved is away/lost, than this no. As his longing turns to a frenzied desperation, so does the pace of the song shift from languorous to vibrant & thunderous. however, there is some sort of reconciliation between his maddening junoon and current reality of the situation as the agony of separation is tempered with consolation that he is not all bereft; after all, her love wasn't untrue:
bichad ke bhi mujh se juda to nahi, khafa hai magar bewafa to nahi

5. khamosh raat from thakshak - anybody who's familiar with the song knows they have to strain the ears to catch the first few tentative guitar notes, groping as they seem to be for a foothold. And why not? doubt, a sense of mystery & elusiveness run riot in the hero's mind as he sings this lonely no. he has seen a chehra and he knows next to nothing about her, even whether she is real or imagined! so he sings:
ye sach hai, ya sapna ...dream vs. reality.

this is a song you must listen to when you've drowned a few too many, the weather's holding up and you're still reeling under the effect of something unexpectedly nice that happened, doesn't have to be a gal or boy kinda thing.

6. dheemi dheemi, bhini bhini from earth, 1947 a love story - ever tried imagining what would be that one song you'd want to make love to your beloved to. no? try this one & be prepared to be swept away by the raw sensuality hariharan unleashes as he confesses amidst the sound of bird calls:
tu jo paas hai, mujhe pyas hai, tere jism ka ehsaas hai, tu jo paas hai ....

there are so many more i could go on & on about...neem neem from yuva, kehna hi kya from bombay, ori chhori from lagaan, the list is endless for me as the maestro keeps reworking his magic in melody after melody.

Jun 3, 2008

End of Season: On American Idol 2008

so, the IPL also came to an end. no cause for excitement anymore as american idol also packed up a few weeks ago. apart from the fact that i just wasn't motivated enough to write anything about the idol big night, i must also admit that i was a bit peeved at the results. considering the no. of times i've drooled abt captain cook on this blog, why should that be, u may ask? two reasons actually.

first, david archuleda definitely performed far better on the final night than cook. it's one thing for cook to say that 'i didn't want to do something i'd already done' & then screw it up by presenting a poor excuse of a song. the cookie even crumbled for simon ( an unabashed cook fan) that night when he ruled all three rounds in lil archie's favour. so, it's really a question of merit, of who performed better on that fateful day & it irks me that having done better, archie lost. :-((

second, the blogosphere & comments were crawling with profanities against archie a few minutes after the show ended & lines were opened for smsing. most cook fans had a problem with utterly inconsequential things like archie's father's behavior, his 'supposed' gay demeanour & lack of charisma. while i concede that the third point matters, especially in a reality singing competition, i am really uncomfortable with the amount of emphasis we adduce to the right kind of 'packaging'. is coming across as cocky or macho or witty or amusing a fair substitute for talent? not that cook was lacking in talent. that's not the point. and how does being a 'faggot' take away anything from archie's superb rendering of 'imagine' for god's sake? aaaargh!

before i forget, that old hottie georgie still manages to bring on unabashed tears with his 'praying for time'. it sounded especially good with the subdued arrangement where every enunciation, every despair, was so clear.

coming to IPL, nothing much to say. for starters, the final was the only match i had the privilege of watching, thanks to some kind friends who took pity on us poor cousins. also, i really don't understand enough about the game to form any original opinions. strike rates, batting & bowling averages pretty much sum up the game for me. of course, i will argue & google & cross check if i ever hear anyone questioning Dada's right to remain in the game or his captaincy. though i was supporting dhoni's men & screamed bloody murder every time yousuf pathan appeared, i have to concede the better team won. for me, the most noticeable difference was the way in which the rajasthan royals fielded. far superior than dhoni & co.

an interesting moment in the match yday was when pathan & watson were batting in partnership & the latter yells 'nahi nahi' waving his arms maniacally when he sees pathan readying to take a run. we actually rewound to make doubly sure that it was indeed watson. since pathan doesn't speak a word of english. think warne advised watson & others that they'd better learn the hindi equivalent of 'yes, no, very good' if they wanted to survive the series.

it hasn't been long since we read the aussie media bashing bhajji & then the media back home making a big deal out of it with accusations & counter accusations flying faster than rockets on a diwali night. yet, as i was saw warne patting pathan on the back & watson guiding his batting partner, i felt oddly hopeful in that moment. not for nothing do i keep saying, the free market is our greatest friend & will bring gifts that will far outweigh the obvious economic benefits we perceive. could anyone have foreseen warne command the same respect from a bunch of indian & paki players that he did as the captain of the rajasthan royals? naaah!

p.s. this post was written a while back & was discovered only today as i was sweeping the cobwebs from my drafts folder.

Apr 29, 2008

Look Back in Anger

its been a heady mix of stories at CNN today ; the report covering how rescue operations are helping those injured in the tornado that hit SE Virginia today is interesting in terms of the speed with which such operations are carried out in these parts. contrast this with the manner in which the indian government responded to the terrible floods that devastated orissa in 1999.

anyway, jeremiah wright's latest antics could finally drive the nail in obama's coffin. mixed feelings here. have never been too convinced of the obama magic but cannot help but feel sorry for the man. seems he's paying for not doing what most others would have done in his place - denounce wright & disassociate himself from him unequivocally. while i'm pretty sure he will now go all out to condemn & cut himself off from wright fully, the question haunting people's minds is why did he continue to support & admire wright or be a part of his church when he knew wright was as racist as the whites he condemns. sadly, it all boils down to 'need'. despite his obvious theatrics & rabble rousing techniques, jeremiah wright is a renowned presence in the chicago black community & his contacts definitely helped obama's transition into Christianity. in fact, it won't be a stretch to suggest that the tables have turned now & wright needs obama to make his presence felt, to be heard, to be applauded or denounced, as the case may be. my only grouse with him is that he is trying his best to wreck obama's chances at the oval office when the man is really close. true, the nomination hasn't been wrapped but this latest controversy has already muddied the waters further.

& lou dobbs, as expected, is on a roll. with his usual eye-rolling & tsk tsking he tried to convey his acute outrage that wright had dared to compare u.s. marines with the jews responsible for the death of christ. can't wait to see the man fall off his chair someday while he practices those endless facial contortions.

i am always appalled at the stories of abuse perpetrated by parents on little children which abound on TruTV, but this one is a wholly diff nightmare - one which is endless (24 yrs) & doesn't end in death as it usually does. really, death is much simpler & nicer. just can't get this piece out of my mind. does it make sense to have babies in a world where such things happen? i have always been haunted by this questn whenever i see unbridled evil & the usual answers that we will raise good children & help mitigate the undesirables of life, the bad & the poisonous, all that seems like the platitude some idiot spun when he was too helpless to do anything else.

yes, this monster is the reason i am unashamedly pro-capital punishment & anti-parole. i know death row isn't much deterrent to such hyenas but imagine the 9-10 yrs he'd have to spend writing appeal after appeal, knowing that the end was near & nothing could stop it. most importantly, ppl like him have nothing to contribute to society, except irreparable damage. why should tax payers money be spent to sustain the likes of him?

Apr 19, 2008

Thoughts on Kite Runner: Homeward Bound Kites

i watched the film adaption of khaled hosseini's famous debut novel 'the kite runner' yday & contrary to expectations actually liked the film, a surprise considering the sense of outrage & disappointment that are still alive in my mind whenever i recall reading the book. that a piece of unabashed melodrama that employs every conceivable cliche could become such a bestseller really had me at my wit's end. not that i don't enjoy the occasional light reading, but my chief grouse with TKR was that its success evidenced a host of unpleasant revelations about our society, current literary tastes, its future & the way we like to use hyperboles & confer high praise simply on account of the difficulty an author may have faced in his childhood or the disease he may have been battling while penning a particular saga. even that's discrimination!

anyway, i think one of the greatest reasons the book worked so well is due to the current geopolitical climate where every conflict seems destined to play out in terms of man's eternal search for 'home'. i know none of this is new or has the profundity of the Ten Commandments but that's not how i'd initially read the heartbreaking tale of the upper class pashtun amir's friendship, betrayal & eventual reconciliation (of sorts) with his hazara servant hassan. there is that infinite tenderness & endless longing in the exiled amir's words whenever he evokes pictures of the kebab stalls with their aroma of woodsmoke & burnt lamb that overwhelmed the streets of kabul in the evenings, the first snow fall of the season that embraced the city in its cold yet welcome grasp, & the anxiety, excitement & thrill that one experienced the night before the annual kite flying competition.

reminiscent of an old fashioned morality tale, hassan's betrayal & death mirrors the destruction of the afghan nation. the heartbreak is greater because not only is amir's past an endless series of wrong choices & may-have-been's, but also because the fate is shared by his beloved country too. for the first time i wondered what it would feel like if i were ever to know that i no longer had a home to return to, a country & culture i could call my own, a way of life where i was assured of being understood without the need for endless annotations. shattering doesn't quite cover it.

is this fear what inspires men to challenge the might of nations even at the risk of death? is it this fundamental desire for a home, a place to stake claim to, that lead the tibetan student to end his life in flames as a protest against china's complete disregard for tibet's claims of autonomy? is the desire to claim as rightfully theirs what was forcefully taken from them, at the root of the Palestinian suicide bomber's enormous courage & stoicism?

in a world that gets flatter by the day, we need to seriously address this issue of 'home' for it concerns 'us' as much as 'them'. globalisation & knowledge sharing have brought enormous benefits, especially addressing the problem of higher costs for goods & services, but it hasn't left discontent far behind. thomas friedman in 'the world is flat' offers useful advice to nations & societies to adjust & adapt better in this brave new world where the 'lions' & 'gazelles' play together. the blurring of boundaries is inevitable & has already started. all those who cry for protectionism - be it the jobless voter in america's mid-west or raj thackeray - know they are arguing a lost cause. economic prosperity will outweigh all arguments. however, its time we stopped & took a look at the larger social fragmentation that globalisation has led to, the discontent it breeds amongst those who have had to share their homes & jobswith others. perhaps what we need more urgently is simple text book kindness to make way in our hearts for those different from us, to open the doors gladly to those who have had doors shut upon them & to raise the torch for those who have long suffered alone.

Apr 1, 2008

Wright Choice

barack obama's recent speech in response to his ex-pastor jeremiah wright's scathing attacks on the nation, its exploitative & purely callous foreign policy & racism, among other things, reads like one of the best essays i have come across on a subject which is explosive & has the power even today to ignite & incite like few things can. most columnists, editors have lauded obama for his nuanced perception, the sincerity of his vision of unity that forms the cornerstone of much the man does & says, and the neatness with which he dissects the fundamental truth that there is no one living in the united states today who is completely untouched by racism - black or white, hispanic or muslim, bangalore coder or Filipino nurse.

in fact, as he was preparing to run for prez, obama must surely have known that wright's inflammatory sermons & his close ties with the senator would return to haunt him. no way could he have avoided wright & all that his name is associated with, when he decided to adopt the name of one of the pastor's sermons 'the audacity of hope' as the title of his book. therefore, to praise obama now because he hasn't publicly denounced wright is a little silly. the time to do so is long past. the Illinois senator has to walk a tight rope between portraying himself as 'not merely black' & 'not black enough'. denounce wright & he'd lose any hope of favor from the latter group. that wouldn't be the right choice. remember how the black policeman (don cheadle) who made it the world despite being from the projects & having an alcoholic mother in paul haggis' 'crash' is never forgiven by his own precisely because he made it, because he didn't turn towards crack like the others, because he joined the police who'd routinely harass & live off the black gangs in bronx. to be segregated must be intolerable, more so when it is amongst one's own & surely obama would never want to risk that.

finally, despite tomasky's
brilliant & incisive piece on the ramifications of obama's speech, i'd like to differ with him. at a time when its image in the outside world is in shambles, its economy in ruins over the mortgage crisis & iraq a perpetual albatross around its neck, every u.s. citizen is eager for some scope for redemption or personal grace. as obama's speech reminds them of the sins of their fathers, the founding fathers even (he actually calls the declaration of independence 'incomplete'), his candidacy offers them a chance to right centuries of wrong, to salve the conscience by finally embracing one who isn't their own, to show the world that america is capable of nurturing the 'other' & not just the 'self'. if anything, the whole wright controversy has given obama a platform to poke white voters in the ribs & jolt them out of their indecision.

Mar 5, 2008

American Idol 2008: Idols of Worship

david cook, the 25-yr old american idol aspirant frm blue springs sang his heart out tonight in a completely novel, audacious & brilliant rock-with-guitar-twang interpretation of the classic lionel richie pop number 'hello'. if the the accompanying applause was anything to go by, cook is a contender for one of the top spots in the competition. what makes this interesting is the fact that he isn't really one of the guys with the best vocals, or the best screen presence, or electrifying moves. not a michael john or carly smithson or danny noriega in short. what he exhibited tonight was the daring to take risks, which often don't pay off (as they didn't in the case of david archuleta whose ultra soulful version of phil collins' 'another day in paradise' sounded insipid, immature & unmelodious); that important mix of guts & talent which alone delivers a sucker punch.

as i was watching cook, i tried to cast my mind back to any episode of
sa re ga ma pa or indian idol where a contestant had dared to interpret a popular song in his unique fashion. i don't even know that it is within the prescribed rules of the contest & herein lies the biggest difference b/w the american & indian way of life. out here, the right to differ, to question, to be irreverent, are considered as sacred as the right to breathe. often i'm stunned by the way i hear students address their tutors or at the way contestants often cock an eyebrow at a particularly obnoxious judge & i still haven't decided whether i like/comfortable with it or not. i guess i am the sort who thinks irreverence is best reserved for 'serious' causes but maybe i have got it all wrong.

p'haps this
is what we need, urgently. to train our children to think differently & take the onus of their choice for that alone is the path to true liberation. i shudder to imagine the apoplexy that'd be sure to assail the eminent javed akhtar would a contestant on indian idol even presume to try to sing 'sandeshey aatey hai' to the sound of fast, drum beats. by the time akhtar is finished with him, every indian blogger worth his salt would accuse the poor contestant of being unpatriotic! despite every kind of criticism that is levelled against the u.s., i still believe that it is the most democratic nation i know of & we have light years to travel & several jodha akbar bans to revoke before we can even hope to come close. now more than ever before it is imperative that we teach/encourage our children to accept nothing at face value, to relentlessly pursue unimaginable goals & applaud their efforts to do so. this has to start at the school level.

desi worth his salt who has lived in the u.s for a while echoes that familiar claim that has taken on the worth of gospel truth thru endless repetition that 'our education system is superior & indian kids are smarter than their u.s counterparts.' of course, it is another matter that they are largely comparing indian graduates & post graduates with u.s college drop-outs on the same scale. all my 3-yr old does at school is play, scrape her knees, tear her clothes, identify marine, wild & domestic animals, colour endless pictures of barney & his pals & learn to eat everything from celery to cereals. in contrast, my nephew who attends one of mumbai's best icse schools is already struggling with writing, colouring & counting the lower case a, b, c's & numbers. there is a kind of manic desperation i detect in my SIL's voice every time we speak that is eerily reminiscent of bush in the aftermath of ahmednejad's iraq visit. well, for all this nonsense that i'm writing, when it actually comes to the crunch, will i be any different with my kid? i don't know for sure. what i do know is among the 6 indian kids who attend school with d, she is the only one who still hasn't any idea how to hold a pencil & whenever anxiety grips me at her poor state of advancement, i comfort myself with the thought that the early vedic scholars made excellent use of the the oral tradition to pass knowledge from one generation to another.

Feb 28, 2008


so, the IPL auction was quite a surprise for everyone, huh? for once we wielded the power & the whole circus has been fun. who'd have imagined a day when newbie ishant sharma would command 9,50,000 while mcgrath would have to wait till the end of the bidding & only recover his base price. never before have i witnessed a more flagrant disregard for merit & its sacrifice in the interests of commercial gain. not that i'm complaining. merely bemused. i've heard enough number of people express every conceivable emotion one witnesses in the daily balaji serials. it's especially bugging that we are so wont to drag 'patriotism' into every debate that our society is faced with. i mean, there has to be a greater yardstick than that, considering the fact that india ranks alarmingly high on the corruption index, the only thought that assails & obsesses us when we travel to the u.k, u.s is the fastest way to gain citizenship& most of us spend our lifetime plotting ways to shirk the tax burden. hell, we even make it sound as if we're doing a favor by paying them!

however, given the high premium that is attached to patriotism here, i'm so glad that players like dada, sachin & dravid have been granted 'iconic' status whereby they are exempted from bidding & can only play for their home states/teams. i shudder to imagine cheering for the kolkata team led by dravid, playing against the chennai tigers led under the aegis of our very own maharaj. actually, its a disconcerting choice & i'm still not sure what i'd do.

Jan 11, 2008

Notes on Walk The Line

just back from watching the oscar nominated 'walk the line', a movie both a & i enjoyed immensely. me, more so for the fact that though it traces johnny cash's career as one of the greatest country singers of all time, it's at heart the unblemished story of a man's love for a woman that governed more than three fourths of his life - something that you'd be hard put to find in the dizzying lives of celebrities. i think thats the reason 'walk the line' appealed to me more than 'ray'. ok, so i'm a sucker for romance, but trust me, these guys are worth it.

joaquin phoenix is most definitely my current hollywood crush. there's something about those eyes, the intense while not exactly besotted look he has, that's sure to set the mushometer rocketing. most of the time i sat looking at him & there was this very palpable sense of a man who is dying of thirst & will give up anything for a glass of water. no wonder, he is able to give up his cursed addiction because of his greater addiction & need for singer june carter (reese witherspoon). in his universe, it is not the house that matters, the adulation or even the security that fame guarantees, if june is not a part of his life. he disregards embarrassment, rejection & even family to gain june's presence in his life, if only as a friend. cliched though it may sound, he is indeed a rudderless boat without her.

what is beautiful is the way others around him gradually come to understand & even empathise with his need for her. there's this oddly touching moment where johnny & his band are travelling at night in a trailer on their way from one concert to another & he suddenly wakes up disoriented & looks around & without a word his accompanist says, "she's in the back." june's parents understand this too & prompt her to be his friend when it seems he has nothing more to lose - he is penny less, helpless from addiction, estranged from his wife & daughters & unable to stand his fathers unrelenting & remorseless criticism.

i couldn't help thinking of how aamir khan would play the role as i was watching phoenix portray the crazy genius of cash, complete with slight head rolls & barely perceptible twitches when the drugs hit him or when he arrives at june's door walking a great distance from nashville after he has lost his car to mortgage. there is not an iota of exaggeration in his walk, no slurring & no manic eye movement to make us connect to his losing grip on sanity. in fact, cash is poignant & u want june to accept him & give him a chance because phoenix is so restrained, so bloody noble. yeah, despite the ignominy of sneaking pills or falling on his face.

its been ages since i've been so completely awed by a love story & 'walk the line' effortlessly reinforces the idea of soul mates, that detestable word reminiscent of our unfulfilled adolescent dreams of a grand romance. as cash's eager eye devours june's face as they stand singing on stage after the 1st time he tries unsuccessfully to kiss her, you do believe that this aint about the making love mostly. this man would be contended to just make music with her. it's as if he knew from the first moment he set eyes on her (he's been listening to her songs much before) that if he couldn't have her, he'd have to go through life without anything or anybody really touching him. for all his big talk to her of being afraid of being in his shadow when he proposes to her for the umpteenth time & is rejected, he knows that the bigger star is not the braver. he loses all if he loses her & it is ultimately june's unflinching love & support that weans him away from drugs. may be a lot of this is pure drama & cash never really recovered from his addiction. point is, it doesn't matter. what does matter is that cash & carter did marry, loved & sang together for 35 years & he died within four months of her death. if that isn't something.... and yes, when he finally got tired of her rejections, he did propose to her during a concert, in front of a thousand fans.