Dec 28, 2010

Random Flash Fiction

I was exploring flash fiction and came across this. The year is nearing its end and i've read many books, watched some memorable films and the one thing that has stayed in mind is the miraculous, transforming power of love. of course, a very special book about the story of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz cemented the idea in my mind; it set the stage, you may say. But events unfolding around me and other stuff i read or watched, seemed to affirm this idea that the measure of any love is gauged by its powers of transformation. The transformation is never in question, but what we should question is the nature of the change. I remember telling this to L many years ago, p'haps before i could fully comprehend it myself. I loved this little tale for it speaks of such a transformation. Do let me know if it doesn't leave you with a smile on your face.

Inside Out

They had known each other a few years.
She was nice. He knew she liked him.
But she was just average-looking. He couldn’t settle for that.
One weekend, she asked him to the movies. She was intelligent, funny, easy to
be with.
After four months of dating, she became a stunning beauty.

Erica Schalow
Atlanta, GA

Dec 24, 2010

Pink Floyd & Lost Souls in Fish Bowls

A has this obsession with high-end electronic items which I don’t much care for. We have this huge dissonance on definitions of beauty and power. I like my objects small and he likes them monstrous. So, if we were to be at a BestBuy or Sony Mony store, I’d gravitate towards the Bose satellite speakers while he’d moon over the Yamo tower(ing) speakers. Usually he prevails and occasionally when I do, I have to put up with incessant cribbing about how if a man cant even buy the music equipment of his choice, then where has 60 yrs of independence gotten us. Such tripe, I tell you.

Did I say I don’t much care for his monstrous and convoluted home theatre apparatus? Till about 6 hrs ago I didn’t. Now I do and the reason is David Gilmour. Watched Gilmour’s 2001 Meldtown concert on DVD and I can easily say it was one of the best evenings I’ve had this year. Packed the maid and D off to bed, poured a nice stiff Blue Label, and soaked myself in so many of the songs I’ve been hearing for the past decade but felt like I was hearing them for the first time ever.

Anyway, to come back to why all the tracks on the Meltdown Concert DVD sound so spectacular: I think one of the reasons is because they are softer, slower, unplugged versions of the famous PF songs. I always like unplugged versions more than the originals. However, the real beauty of this album is the slow, throaty, haunting sound of Caroline Dale’s cello (I didn’t know her name but was so mesmerised that I googled her at 2 am!!). Nothing much beyond Roger Waters’ or Gilmour’s vocals and the latter’s stupendous guitaring had made an impression before, but as I listened to the moody accompanying notes of Dale’s cello, I was awestruck that she could give the old guy more than ample competition. This collaboration is made more evident & memorable in numbers like ‘wish you were here’, ‘high hopes’, ‘shine on you crazy diamond’, ‘comfortably numb’ and ‘coming back to life’.

Last evening reassured me. 

I first heard ‘Wish you were here’ nearly 9 years ago when A played it for me on his guitar in a shabby 1-BHK we shared in those days. He’d play this song along with Clapton’s ‘Wonderful Tonight’ and I think that was the beginning of a lifelong love. Last night as Gilmour started to strum the first notes of ‘Wish you were here’, I did something I usually never do. Called him at work & asked him to come home fast. He returned at 10.30 pm, lil over an hour later, and we sat watching the concert on dvd till the early hours of the morning. For once, we dismissed thoughts of waking up early next morning, workplace deliverables, EMI calculations and just soaked ourselves in the music with ours arms around each other. And the doubts at rest.

Life is often a bummer, but occasionally the good things happen. A good job offer, a winning streak at the stock market, a chance meeting with someone who completes you, and you wonder:

Where were you when I was burned and broken
While the days slipped by from my window watching
And where were you when I was hurt and I was helpless
Because the things you say and the things you do surround me
While you were hanging yourself on someone else's words
Dying to believe in what you heard
I was staring straight into the shining sun


I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life

Dec 17, 2010

Notes on the Wrestler

When you live hard and you play hard and burn the candle at both ends... in this life, you can lose everything you love, everything that loves you. A lot of people told me that I'd never wrestle again, they said "he's washed up", "he's finished" , "he's a loser", "he's all through". You know what? The only ones gonna tell me when I'm through doing my thing, is you people here. You people here... you people here. You're my family.”

We were talking about films and a friend asked me why I liked Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’ so much. The question set me thinking. I feel he is my own.

Randy the Ram, as he’s called in the film, is a washed out, has-been WWF champion, who has the social skills of an African ape and the fragile sensitivity of a touch-me-not plant. He is a loser and continuously losing. Does he mind? Sure, we all do. What probably bothers him more is a child’s puzzlement that he has been singled out for such loss again and again. He knows he bears some responsibility for them and he never shirks the blame. Yet, the child-like befuddlement is never far behind. He is child-like not because he doesn’t accept the tags and rules that seem so natural to others. It is because he doesn’t understand them. They are beyond his comprehension. You can’t teach calculus to an 8-yr old and then be angry when it doesn’t do well. Randy is that child in a universe governed by the laws of calculus. He knows there is something wrong with him, he knows he has done some things wrong, he strives to make amends, but as with life – it is too late.

Another child-like characteristic in him is his inability to accept change. He is the neanderthal who didn’t walk fast enough when the world was rushing by and is clueless how to get back on track. All he knows, all he wants is to be a part of the world that left him behind but he doesn’t know how to. He reaches out to people but he has failed his part of the bargain and no one really wants him. All he really wants is for someone to own him and miss him when he’s gone. I think that’s the crux of what he seeks. Watch him in the scenes with his daughter or with Marisa Tomei and you can see the aching loneliness he carries inside his battered body.

Does Randy change or transform during the course of the film? No. But something interesting happens. He exorcises his need for an ideal ‘other’ – be it in the form of his daughter or his lover. He comes to understand that it is indeed too late for him and there is no affection or encouragement for him beyond the impersonal cheering of the ring-side audience. Rather than learn calculus, he turns his back upon the world and jumps into the boxing ring with great heroism as ‘Sweet child of mine’ breaks out into the background . It is the heroism of a one-legged dog, it is the heroism of a scarecrow filled with nothing but dust and wheat, but it is heroism nevertheless.

If you're interested, you'll find the one-legged dog and the scarecrow here. Turn on the volume, feel his voice course through your nerves. That's the only way to do justice to such beauty.

Dec 2, 2010

Pens For Hire & the Radia Tapes controversy

I spent some time reading the transcripts of some of the Radia tapes. Lot of mudslinging, lot of biggies offering their two cents and lot of experts bemoaning the state of Indian journalism. Now I wonder, didn’t people know before this story broke out that most of Indian journalism is peopled by liberal arts graduates, who in the absence of any talent and viable career opportunities, join a newspaper after graduation and climb the ranks slowly. Having started my career with the one of the prestigious newspapers in Kolkata and then having moved to Mumbai, I was appalled when I started work at the Express in 2001. To say that the editorial quality sucked, would be an understatement. What was more disgusting was the lack of political awareness and any thought-building endeavour which every individual (not just journos) should possess. Reporters covering the hospital or education or BMC beat would saunter in around 4 pm in the evening, file a routine story which lacked any element of journalistic enterprise and demand bylines. Those were early days and I recall the almost daily arguments I’d have with two senior correspondents who used to cover the Dabhol power scam and the Ketan Parekh story. I gradually discovered a world beyond the mediocre environs I was ensconced in. I discovered Joann Hari & Stephen Fry from the Independent, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman , Stanley Fish from the NYT, Henry Porter from the Observer and several others. I also loved Bhanu Pratap Mehta, Sudheendra Kulkarni, Tavleen Singh, Swapan Dasgupta and MJ Akbar from mainstream Indian media. Oh, Vir Sanghvi too.

And now, Mr Sanghvi has let down fans like me so badly. I don’t have anything original to say beyond what the worthies are talking about, save this – something precious has been irreversibly muddied wrt these columnists whose articles I so looked forward to every week. I followed their views, usually nodding my head vigorously and occasionally even disputing them in the comments section. The disputes never mattered for this was an exercise in learning, in forming opinions and views where an expert perspective was available at hand to guide me. To be told later, ‘Babe, whatever you read was merely a transcript of the views that were fed to him/her from a partisan industry insider solely interested in pushing his/her agenda’ is worse than adulterated liquour in my book. Sounds melodramatic, but true. So pardon me if I sound mad or outraged as Arundhuti Ray usually sounds.

What is also interesting are the clarifications offered by Sanghvi and Barkha Dutt in the face of the controversy. While Barkha claims she didn’t feel the story was important enough (a Sr. NDTV journalist now needs tutoring on what comprises an imp story!), Sanghvi says he has to speak to various sources to gather opinion in his capacity as a columnist. Of course, poor child didn’t know that gathering opinion and then arriving at independent, unbiased conclusions is what a columnist ought to do – not parrot lines fed to him by industry lobbyists.

What is hilarious is the way people are baying for Barkha Dutt’s blood, turning their personal dislike for her into a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to get back at her for all those time she mouthed homilies for the cause of the Naxals or the minority community displaced in Gujarat. I am no fan of Barkha Dutt but I think it’s important that we take note of one small detail here: she is a cog in the wheel of a much bigger cart. Why aren’t we questioning the PMO, or the finance minister who promises probe after probe after much damage has been done or the CBI who has held on to the tapes since 2008. If Radia was under the Income Tax department’s scanner, why weren’t these disclosures investigated before?

And no, I don’t want to end on the desultory note that ‘nothing will come of this’. I still believe in Ratan Tata & I didn’t find anything particularly objectionable in his conversation. He is a paying client and it is only right that he appoint as his PR consultant one of the most well-connected people in the industry. I see no conflict here – a capitalist hiring the services of someone he believes can deliver what he wants at a fair price. The conflict of interest is for journos like Sanghvi and Dutt whose pens are for hire; and the conflict of interest is for those politicians and bureaucrats like Ranjan Bhattacharya who gleefully claims, ‘Ab toh Congress apni dukaan hai.’

Nov 30, 2010

Role Playing

There is a scene in the film ‘Revolutionary Road’ where Kate Winslett & Leonardo Di Caprio are arguing over her wish to abort their third child. This is an unwanted pregnancy they are discussing and the decision to go ahead with the child will severely hamper their future plans of relocating to Europe. The story and their marriage hinge on this move, but that’s unimportant here. In a desperate bid to make her husband understand the reasons behind her decision, she bursts out, “But I have had two children. Doesn’t that count in my favour?” You are filled with an immediate distaste when you hear a mother thinking thus; as expected her husband looks at her in disbelief. Then the accusations follow.

You follow the trajectory of this neurotic woman’s character, you sense the tragedy ready to implode within her and you fine-tune your senses to hear what she is really trying to say beyond the ‘doesn’t-that-count-in-my-favour’ question.

What this woman is actually trying to do is something very simple – she is beseeching, even begging, for understanding, for empathy, from a world which has cast her in a role she is not fully willing or happy to play. She is ok with that role, she has played it for several years, but there are other roles she wants to explore. What is notable about this scene is the look of sheer despair she wears because not even the person she loves and connects with most is able to understand or accept her as she is. If that isn’t defeating, I dunno what is.

This isn’t really a feminist rant about a woman’s need to determine her own selfhood. Much has been written about all this and my writing a few feeble lines will not change anyone’s perspective. What is perhaps more imp is how intolerant, how unforgiving, we are of those who don’t confirm to the stereotypes we bear in mind. Time and time again, we exact a price for their non-conformity even when we think we don’t.

A lot of the times I write a post, I wonder how D would react were she to ever read it. I don’t know if she ever will. What I do know is, I’d like her to know and love her mother as she was. After all she is my flesh and blood, not one of the 250 friends people have on their FB lists.

I have some strict notions about motherhood, as opposed to parenthood. Parenting is a dual function, mothering is not. For me, motherhood is about putting your child ahead of your needs. Period. How many times you do this in a lifetime is immaterial. It is about taking a backseat, giving up things, so that your child can run. Once or twice, you follow your dreams; mostly you give them up. So, you say no to outstation deputations because your child is young, you refuse prestigious offers of heading departments because it will entail 13-hr workdays, you shake your head to opportunities to work with the best minds in the industry because the father is travelling and you're required at home. Thus the years fly by.

But if such giving up implies doing it with a grin and a sunny demeanour, I’ll be damned. You cannot sit back and watch opportunities fly by and turn around to admire how wonderful your child is doing at swimming. No, you can’t. And the truth is, there is nothing wrong or bloody criminal about occasionally feeling sad or disappointed. What is galling is when the world expects you to give up things and accept it with equanimity simply because you were born with a uterus. Is motherhood or womanhood a Phd course where you are tutored to annihilate your ego and selfhood to the extent that you function in society solely as the roles you can play as a mother or wife? If so, what of those women who flunk the Phd programme? What becomes of these perennial outsiders? Is there any hope of redemption or empathy for them?

Nov 27, 2010

Valentine: Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Nov 22, 2010

Notes on Guzaarish

Guzarish is like good red meat which has been cooked by someone like my maid whose idea of culinary variety consists of flavouring almost everything with mustard and cumin seeds, adding coconut, ginger, garlic and onion paste, and tomatoes. In the early days, I'd anticipate that she'd prepare something spectacular with the mutton shank I'd lugged all the way from manish market but no such luck. Guzarish is similar.

Guzarish tells the story of a quadriplegic Ethan Mascarenhas who lives in a dilapidated (though that adjective implies something totally different in a Bhansali film) mansion in  Goa which sometimes looks like Ooty, and sometimes Capri. Ethan was a world-famous magician who has been rendered helpless after a spine accident during one of his performances. Why Bhansali felt the need to invest a sinister angle to this accident towards the film’s close when we are already a little weary of Ethan’s endless nodding and grinning, I don’t know. If the idea is to ratchet up the drama, it fails miserably; if the idea is to strengthen the Christ-Ethan analogy (from his hairdo, to the way his body is placed on the wheel chair and innumerable shots of his torso, he is framed as Christ) and show how forgiving Ethan is, even that is pretty needless. It is revealed that Omar Siddiqui (Aditya Roy Kapur), a young apprentice who wants to perfect his skills under Ethan, is actually the son of the rival magician who caused Ethan’s accident. By the way, all this explanation and conversation between the 2 friends-turned-rivals takes place over a call-in radio program which Ethan DJs.

For a film which wastes no time in getting to the crux of the story within a few minutes of its beginning – Ethan wants his best friend Devyani (an over-zealous Shernaz Patel) to file a petition in court for euthanasia since he’s been quadriplegic for 14 years and his organs are progressively deteriorating – it just meanders and seems to flit from one idea to another till the end. So much so that you wonder if it is about something as facile as euthanasia, or is Bhansali attempting to question the limits of individual power of the mind versus God’s glory, or the fate of a love that survives only on the basis of the knowledge that its fulfillment will be deferred forever. All of these are beautiful themes in themselves, but Bhansali never seems to be sure which one he wants  to explore.

What is sad is that Bhansali has gifted actors and a theme which is really difficult to screw up. I mean, the story of anyone living in a vegetative state for 14 years is moving, but when it happens to someone who is a great artist, of whose genius the world has been deprived of untimely, the story becomes even more touching. Add to that the fact that Hrithik Roshan is that actor who has such a nice, kind personality that you don’t want anything bad to ever befall upon him. But none of these pluses can build the kind of mood you experience when you watch films like ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’ or ‘My Left Foot’.  What is truly puzzling is that even the laughs fall flat. Jean Bamby’s smart-ass, sassy thoughts (Diving Bell) which he can’t articulate because his speech is also gone after the stroke, serve to lighten the mood in the midst of the sterile hospital atmosphere the film is set in. Ethan’s deprecatory remarks about his condition, his sexual innuendoes and flirting with his nurse Sophia (a splendid Aishwariya Rai), appear oddly contrived, as if he is striving for affect.

Most critics have praised Hrithik’s performance. The fact that he’s one of the most talented actors we have today is never in doubt – one needs only watch him slowly seep into a spiritual state of oneness with Him in the Khwaja mere khwaja song from 'Jodha Akbar' to know the stuff this hunk is made of. But I suspect he is also a director’s actor; not like an Aamir Khan who will put his foot down when asked to turn on the histrionics in full force. This is a film where a good actor has tremendous opportunity to convey much through his facial expressions alone because the rest of his body is gone but Hrithik throws away this chance. It is like he has a select list of stock responses to situations which he randomly picks from – grinning in maniacal glee, breaking into sudden sobs, weeping silently, striving for an expression of calm acceptance (the fly on the nose scene) and anger when others refuse to see his POV. But isn’t the human mind, especially a mind as evolved as his, capable of feeling thousands of other things as well? Do we live out our individual tragedies and stultified lives in such overtly simple experiences?

Which brings me to the second best thing abt the film – Aishwariya. Looking more radiant and picturesque than ever before, Ash adds the one thing which is missing in this film – a soul. You feel the pain of Ethan’s condition because you see the pain in Sophia’s eyes, you weep for the hopelessness of his condition because you recognize in it the equally hopeless love Sophia bears for him, you are struck by her ruby lips and alluring cleavage but instantly realize they will never know a man's touch; your heart breaks as you see her trying to contain her grief and carry on about her duties with a sometimes surly, mostly grim-faced demeanour. If there are moments which stand out in the film, they all have Ash in them. Like the scene in the car where she sees a tear silently sliding from the corner of Ethan’s eye and wipes it slowly, and then proceeds to light a cigarette for him and put it in his lips. All this is done with remarkable economy and an internalization that I’ve rarely come across in hindi films. You know her heart is breaking at that moment because she has seen the man she loves in tears and yet she wont allow anyone to witness its breaking. You realize that it is this resilience which must be behind her mulish insistence on taking on the entire responsibility of looking after Ethan alone. It is ironical that it has taken Ash this long to make use of eyes that anyone would die for. In another scene where Omar assures her that he’s perfectly capable of taking care of Ethan and exhorts her to take the day off, she responds with a slow painful smile of awareness of her own paralysis, the sterility that defines her existence. She is nothing without Ethan and once his wish of euthanasia is granted, her heart will stop breathing as well. The story of a love as opposed to a 'romance' between these two damaged, wounded and incomplete individuals has the potential of a great tragedy and it is to Bhansali’s credit that he manages to at least hint at it. There is enough pain in her already but again Bhansali wants to ratchet up the drama and he throws in an abusive husband abruptly. 

As i watched Guzarish, i couldn't help wonder how the film would have played out with an Aamir-Rani Mukherjee or even a young AB-Rekha pairing.Rani is not the most beautiful actor around but what she can offer through sheer expertise, none other can.

Of the other actors, almost all of them are disappointing and seem to have been instructed to render their roles in the most melodramatic manner possible. Hence Shernaz Patel is shrill and too earnest, Rajat Kapoor loud, Suhel Seth trying too hard to be simultaneously cool and sad, and Aditya Roy Kapur eminently annoying. The only scene where he seems to get his footing right is when he calls up Ethan on the radio program, and fumbling for words, says that he cannot vote for Ethan’s right to euthanasia. 

Another setback is the film's unusualmusic. Recall the music from Bhansali's earlier film 'Khamoshi' and you know what is missing. The lyrics are haunting but most of you wont revisit them after the film is over. The idea is to first get used to the songs while watching them and then listening to them as an audio piece. There are two songs i played immediately after i returned at 2 am - 'It's a wonderful life' which the film employs well, and 'Keh na Sakun'. The latter evokes memories of someone who has lost everything in love and lives to tell the story to an uncaring world. 

The best thing is the cinematography – lush, opulent, gorgeous, haunting. Kudos to Sudeep Chaterjee, the film’s cinematographer who does more than capture it on lens. He lends it a mood, he evokes thoughts from the way he frames the scenes, and he makes them come alive and sing. I have known Sudeep closely for nearly 12 years now and he deserves every inch of the success Bollywood showers upon him today. Not only a gifted lensman, he is perhaps an even better son, husband, brother, and friend.  

Last, the film’s basic premise – who has the ultimate right over an individual’s life? Is it him or is it those that make his life memorable? This too is a part which is dealt with too pedantically in a contrived court room scenario and a cringing monologue by Ethan’s mother (an irritating Nafisa Ali.) We all know the answer to this question and it’s a no brainer. What the film should have posited via Ash is – when is it the right time to let go off someone without whom your life will cease to have any meaning? All questions of human integrity and autonomy stem from this simple question and it is truly a tragedy that Bhansali lets go of such a splendid opportunity to delve deeper into it.

Nov 17, 2010


The other day I was talking of 'perfection' with a friend. To me El Greco's 'Christ on the way to Cavalry', Beethoven's Ode to Joy, Graham Greene's 'The Power & the Glory', fall landscape in Vermont, the matte orange hues of the Grand Canyon, and the river bank at Pahalgaon in J&K are all examples of perfection. Yet, none of these are within our grasp. There is another kind of perfection that lies within our reach. This picture tells the story of that perfection.

Joy Unltd

Nov 15, 2010

Was it only yesterday that I was cursing everything from friendship to Facebook to successful men? Ah! That wasn’t right.

Reached office early, started speaking to Vivek who’s buying his first house, things unraveled and now I realise you don’t choose your friends or do things for them because of how long you’ve known them or what they will do for you some day. No, you don’t.  You do them for 2 simple reasons: you think it’s the right thing to do and we all like being right :) & you are also convinced your actions will add some value, do some good, to your friend. That’s all there is to it.

I have known Vivek for about 3 months now and we hit off really well from early on. I was smoking alone & thumbing through my phone when he first started talking to me. It was his thirs day at work and within minutes he’d confided that his wife had suffered a miscarriage the previous Saturday. I could sense the sadness in his voice, as also the acute loneliness that’d lead a guy to confide to a perfect stranger. We spoke, smoked and somehow a bond was forged. Another time, we were talking about life in small towns and he spoke about his plans for his widowed mother. I am much older than him and he often teases me mercilessly. In an odd way, Vivek is the kid bro I’d loved to have had.

This dude has finally decided to buy a house. It’s gonna cost him Rs 40,00,000 and he is scrambling around for cash as he’s not eligible for a home loan of more than Rs 20,00,000. We were discussing the cash arrangements he had made, home loan applications, floating versus fixed rate of interest when he revealed that the builder had asked for 50% of the money to be paid in black. Even this wouldn’t be so bad had it not transpired that our man had already paid Rs 4,00,000 without receiving any documentary evidence/receipt that he has made such payment. According to him, the bulder had claimed that no receipt is issued in cases of black money. I was aghast.

Now a bit of diversion here. My entire family are pros at this game of buying and selling homes and stocks. Dad, my uncles and my brother – they are not so much interested in the actual flaunting of the money as the means of making it. I admire that. A and I are too lazy and too stupid to do the same, but admire them nonetheless. So I do have some working knowledge of how loans are disbursed,  what penalty pre-payment invokes, how black component money has to be paid, etc. Alarm bells started ringing and I did the only thing I do in such cases – called up Dad. He was livid and started calling Vivek names. Calm down I said; the kid’s green, is fatherless and is naïve. Being naïve is not a crime, is it?

Anyway, dad spoke to vivek and explained the things he needed to do immediately. Vivek spoke to the builder who is now saying that he will issue a receipt only after Rs 13,00,000 have been paid in cash. Asshole. I don’t know how things will unfold and I am scared.

You know, spread over a lifetime Rs 4,00,000 is not a very big sum and I’m sure Vivek will do well in life and buy more homes. However, if things go wrong, there is a part of this simple, honest kid from small-town Ranchi that’d be lost forever. I hope that doesn’t happen.

Nov 14, 2010

Notes on The Social Network

I have been staring at the screen for a full 7 mins wondering where to start. i want to write about The Social Network (TSN) but I realize its gonna be less about the actual movie and more about the phenomenon of success and the assholes who find it, about human relationships and a social order where getting into the right clubs is an all-consuming passion for many. TSN is about all this and much more. And yes, it is about a stupid fallacy we lay too much premium on – friendship.

David Fincher’s film based on the novel ‘The Accidental Billionaires" by Ben Mezrich is fast paced, deploys scintillating wordplay, and is gripping. Considering that it after all tells the story of a computer geek who is at his best writing 800-lines of code during a 36-hour stretch, one would expect us to sit stumped and disinterested. But that doesn’t happen because even as the first scene unravels, you sense you are going to be watching a movie whose hero is a thoroughly unpleasant character and who does not deserve an iota of the success he finally gained. This knowledge dawns on you in the film’s first 10 mins and it leaves a vague acidic feeling; it’s a realization that you probably possessed when you heard ‘good guys finish last’ but the Facebook phenomenon and this film about its founder Marc Zuckerman provide the moot evidence how true it is.

Of course this is a wildly fictionalized account of how the idea behind FB was born and the film is unabashed in its attempts to paint Marc as some kind of poor lost kid who though a lil narcissistic is also pretty misunderstood and lonely because he lacks social skills. Which is all crap of course.  What Marc or people like him really are is that they are children who never grew up. There is no one more self-centred than a child for it cannot see anything beyond its needs, beyond its ego; try explaining to a 5-yr old that its mother has a splitting headache due to which she’ll skip the nighttime story reading session. Ending the war in Iraq is probably easier. That is Marc for you. And we are all a part of the age that made him a  success.

Racy and gripping as the conversation between Marc and his gf Erica is in the first scene, you gradually figure out that it involves a man who has such set notions about the rightness of his views that no real conversation is ever possible with someone like him. He’d be best left talking to a stone wall instead – one which would never dispute his narrow, single-toned vision of what is it that really defines success. This is also the moment when you realize you are one of those billions of people who make folks like Marc a success. The conversation ends with his gf telling him: “You are probably going to be a very successful computer person. But you're going to go through life thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd. And I want you to know, from the bottom of my heart, that that won't be true. It'll be because you're an asshole.” Marc is stunned and what does he do? He rushes to his room and calls Erica a bitch on his blog, reveals nasty details about the size of her bust or rather the lack of it, and starts a site called Facemash where he uploads face shots of all Harvard women in pairs who can be graded on the basis of their hotness quotient. Forget feminists, any human being would be disgusted. But no, that doesn't happen. Facemash is a success; there are so many hits in a single night that the Harvard servers crash. Of course legal issues arise but this single momentous prank or incident sparks off the idea behind FB. It's altogether another matter that the film doesn’t dwell too much on what Erica has to endure as a result of Marc’s  disclosures or the fact that the trend which Marc started flourishes today and FB (and much of the internet) today is indeed a weapon which angry couples use with impunity. And we are all a part of the age that made FB a success.

Lest it seem that Marc is painted only in shades of grey, let me assure you that is not quite the case. Indeed there is a scene where we see him in the middle of a deposition looking out of the window pensively as it begins to rain. There is such acute sadness on his face that at that moment you realize how removed he is from the rest of us. You don’t even blame him when he says: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try - but there's no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention - you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing.But the Eduardo episode is yet to unravel.

The narrative switches between the present, where Marc is involved in double law suits with his best friend Eduardo and the Winklevoss twins - fellow students at Harvard with him. While the latter are suing him for stealing their idea, Eduardo is suing him for swindling him out of money that rightfully belongs to him. It is to Fincher’s credit that he conveys all of this with a moral ambivalence that we are never sure that there is no basis behind the three litigants’ claims. Of course the Eduardo episode is dealt with in much greater detail later on and he forms the moral cornerstone of the film. Indeed one does not expect to shed tears in a film like TSN and yet they flowed, they flowed freely in that one penultimate scene between Eduardo and Marc. It is not so much that what Marc does is wrong as the fact that the wrong is perpetrated on the ONLY real friend he has; that it tells us that there is indeed something wrong with a universe where the founder of one of the world’s most successful friendship sites doesn’t hesitate to betray his only friend; where a man doesn’t hesitate to befriend new friends at wild parties but shoos away those who offer him unconditional support.  And we are all a part of the age that made FB a success.

The film would be incomplete without a mention about Sean Parker, millionaire, coke snorting playboy and founder of Napster, played with amazing aplomb by Justin Timberlake. He is the kind of guy who makes you go ‘eeeks’ and then you wonder, ‘ Really’? Another world, another time, wouldn’t we all be like him or at least die for a chance to snort coke with the likes of him? I dunno. I am not sure of anything anymore.

This is by no means a ‘review’ of Fincher’s latest work; my perception about TSN is far too subjective. It shook me deeply; it made me angry. It made me angry to see on screen what I already knew - that there are people like Marc, who are not really bad, or evil. They are simply people who spend their lives treating others as towels. You face a  moment of minor irritation if you cant find it but nothing is really lost if its missing. Sure, he misses Erica occasionally and even goes to apologize once, but that is not out of any real feeling of affection or regret. I don’t think he shines the torch inwardly even once. He thinks about Erica when it suits him, not because he bothers to imagine how she must be without him. This towel ring syndrome is what makes him successful. And we are all a part of the age that showers success on him. 

Nov 12, 2010

This Rocks

"I look back on life – it’s funny how things turn out. You, the creator of beeping sirens and honking cars, yearn for the solitude of the mountains. You, a connoisseur of fast food, now gaze at water that took years to gather natural minerals as it trickled down from the Himalayas to within your reach. And I, some of the purest water in the world, stand here, trapped in a bottle. Come, enjoy the irony."

This is the copy that appears on the bottle. I have rarely come across a better example of copy in recent times. Himalayan has a convert in me. 


Oct 26, 2010

Freedom to Choose

For as long as I can remember, I have always hated those sleek black phone covers people protect their expensive BlackBerrys, Iphones and Nokias with. I have never used one of those and enough people have commented on my decision. You use a phone, it will gradually wear away; to try and protect against the inevitable seems futile. Somehow, it reeks of a lack of courage, the inability to color outside the lines, to explore the moon. Very few people can do these things and they change life forever for ordinary mortals like us. Galileo did it, Thomas Cromwell did it, Ayan Ali Hirsi is doing it now. Therefore, it is imperative that we allow artists and free thinkers all the freedom that there is. Sure, there will be those with hidden agendas, there will be those in the pay of political parties who will sell their art to push forward their narrow, vested interests. But in due course, people will learn to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

What saddens me is the rise of the Hindu extreme right, as a kind of reaction to Islamic fundamentalism. I adore Rohinton Mistry & see no reason why his books should be banned from the Bombay Univ curriculum simply because they carry insulting notes about Balasaheb and the Shiv Sena. This is like saying a mother will stop loving her child if others say bad things about him/her. Followers of the Shiv Sena and fans of Balasaheb will stay committed no matter what an author writes. I know this, for despite everything, I still possess a certain degree of respect in my heart for the late Bengal CM Jyoti Basu. In matters of liking or rejecting someone, the intellect often falls short.

So, no, the book shouldn’t be banned. Nor should Ms Roy be stopped from dropping her two cents (if she's arrested, she'll claim martyrdom for life). Let people be. As it is, there are too many rules to follow and too less space to navigate our lost ways. 

The Bill of Lading

It serves as a badge of inclusion,
Endower of titles,
In a world full of labels,
It helps avoid confusion.

We got it when we were young,
You and I both were taught to use it with care.
You settled here, never crossed the mighty ocean,
I voyaged to Tahoe and Hana and set in motion.

Ancient curses and cursed passions.
I’d heard of those from her,
Seen her wither and die,
Didn’t heed her warning cry.

Travelling to foreign shores,
Without a bill of lading?
I was called to settle the scores,
And pay the dues of mating.

I met the captain, just a while back
A kindly man, but not one to go slack.
He read the penalty, imposed the fine,
It was unreasonable, I gasped,
It was payment in blood, for a glass of wine.

I couldn’t protest, you were not around,
I paid in full, head hung in shame,
What once seemed pristine,
Is now steeped in blame.

You smiled smugly, in silk robes replete
The impostor had been ousted,
The ancient curses calmed,
The rites of passage are now complete.

Oct 25, 2010

Magical: On Gulzar Saab & Vishaal Bharadwaj

Disclaimer: Long boring post on Gulzar, Vishal Bharadwaj, eroticism in Hindi film lyrics & such like.

To say I don’t watch much television would be an understatement. I don’t watch it at all. The reason primarily being two-fold: between my daughter & my maid, the household average TV watching duration is fairly high, and all programmes include too many ads in between.

But this Friday night, I sat glued in front of the TV for a full hour watching the latest episode of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa on Zee TV. The celebrity judge for this week was Vishaal Bharadwaj and even Johnny Depp would have been kept waiting had he come calling for me that evening. He didn’t. Lucky Johnny.
Anyway, everyone who I discuss Hindi music with knows I am loony about VB, RD, Rafi, Madan Mohan and Rehman in the Hindi film music pantheon of deities. I remember my first brush with VB's music – Mai – from the children’s film ‘Makdi’. That would be about 7 years ago. A little girl I knew had just lost her mother and we were watching the film together at Jo’s place and the song came on. As the song ended, there we sat like statues, tears streaming down our faces, furtively wiping them, embarrassed beyond words. I’d not heard of VB before and I was hooked for life. It also mattered that after Satyajit Ray, this was the first guy I knew of who’d script & direct his films, compose the music and even sing in them!

The thing about music is that it works best in partnership. The union between two artists is more perfect than any earthly relationship the mind can imagine. I think VB has found that union with Gulzaar. Gulzar writes, VB imparts the melody; one imagines, the other conveys. How else are you going to explain the magic of:

“Khwab ke bojh se, kapkaati hui,
Halki palkey teri, yaad aata hai sab,
Tujhe gudgudana, satana, yu hi sotey hue,
Gaal pe teepna, meechna, bewajah besbab.”

Can anything beat the sheer romance of fluttering eyelids (palkey) heavy with the weight of dreams (khwab ke bojh se)? If you’ve read the poetry of John Donne you’ll note the same fusion there of the erotic with the innocent as in the above lines. Two lovers and the strange intimacy that allows a man to tickle (gudgudana) and trouble (satana) the woman and pull her cheeks (gaal pe teepna.) This is beyond sex, this is comfort.

Speaking of eroticism, Bryan Adams and his ilk need to take a few lessons from Gulzaar. Though catchy and fine, there isn’t really any imagination in ‘The only thing that looks good on me is you.’ Frankly, I’d feel like a muffler or something if my hubby ever claimed that. Eeeks. But listen to a super sad song like ‘Mera kuch samaan, tumhare paas pada hai’ and you will notice how deftly he mixes eroticism with the poignancy of loss. Everybody knows ‘Mera kuch’, so there isn’t much sense in talking about it. The couple have separated; the man has moved on; he has shipped the stuff she left behind to her current address. The song is her letter reminding him of those things that he has missed. It even begins with the actual reading of the letter. What got left behind is something you will figure out as the song proceeds. There is no sadder song, I have heard, nor one sung more achingly. Of the many things she refers to in the course of the letter, she makes special mention of:

'Eksou solah, chand ki raatey,
Ek tumhare kandhey ka til.’

One has to have loved a man with moles on his shoulder to fully realise the languorous pleasure of the 116 long moonlit nights, and the hollow emptiness in the heart at their ending.

Gulzar is also the guy who wrote in ‘O sathi re’:
’Tere kohre badan se, sil jaungi re,
Jab karvat lega, chil jaungi re.’

This is also one of those countless gems he worked together with VB. This is again a love song, interspersed with beautiful rhyming between ‘sil’ (stitch) and ‘chil’ (scrape). When you have merged yourself so seamlessly with another, what hope remains of escaping unscathed? Delightful.

But not all of Gulzar is sad. He also writes lines like:
‘Aisa koi saga nahi, jisko thaga nahi’ and ‘Teri baato mein kimaam ki khushbu hai, tera aana bhi garmiyon mein loo hai.’ These lines are funny, effervescent, tongue in cheek and bring a smile.

Finally, a word about ‘Kaminey’– the song, not the film. This is my anthem, something which sustains me when I fret and fume. It takes something beyond talent to deploy an abusive word like Kaminey, subvert it and invest it with so much poetry, so much dignity. The dignity lies in the realization that all our desires are self-defeating, illegitimate, and endless. We pass all our time cribbing about life (Iski jaan kha gaye, raat din ke giley) and don’t even realize the futility of such desires,

’Meri aarzoo kaminey,
Mere khwab bhi kaminey.
Ek dil se dosti thi,
Woh huzur bhi kaminey’.

When you haven’t managed to overcome your desires, you will seek antidotes for fulfillment. Most of them are delusions, fake, and imitations of the thing you craved. Thus, you start of with wanting the moon in the sky, and in the end, console yourself with a lantern hung high above:

Kabhi zindagi se maanga,
Pinjere me chand la do,
Kabhi lalten (lantern) deke,
Kaha aasman pe taango.’

I could go on and on. Genius leaves behind such impressions that often you don't even realise how incomplete our lives would be without its gifts. Such moments help us recollect that.

Oct 20, 2010

An Obituary

When Maureen Dowd does sarcasm, it's enough to make even a Saifina shrivel in embarrassment. I suspect not too many men like her writing. She is scathing, bitter, understandably angry and cursed with a keen mind. Uhuh, we don't want those qualities in our women, thank you.

I follow her columns and she cracks the whip at the obstructionist right-wing loonies like Sarah Palin, Glen Beck & Rush Limbaugh quite regularly. It usually makes for funny reading. Today's piece is poignant. It is not simply about Palin and her cronies. It mourns, rightly so, the passing away of a way of life, of a set of values, of a breed of people. What i especially liked about it is that she has chosen a controversial and much mocked at figure like Marlyn Monroe to make her point. It takes a special kind of empathy to discover the woman Monroe was beneath the layers of make-up and dolled up poses she struck, and it surely takes a special kind of interest to try to unravel the truth about people before you write them off. Read this piece. I'm sure you'll love it as much as I did.

Oct 15, 2010


Describing his cousin Lucy Partington’s memorial service in the summer of 1994, Martin Amis writes, “I had never experienced misery and inspiration so purely combined. My body consisted only of my heart.” One must read this line again and again to fully ‘feel’ as opposed to ‘understand’ what Amis is saying. Most of our moments of supreme grief and joy affect the heart and accelerate its beating. However, there are those rare moments or incidents when it is only the heart that exists – taste, smell, vision and intellect disappear. We  tend to casually dismiss such states as ‘has taken leave of his senses’, but I think these are the moments of pure inspiration, moments when you are completely removed from the earthly and very close to the Him. I define Him as all that is good within me, all the potential for good that resides in me & all the good that I will do before I depart from here. If that is the definition of Him, such moments definitely act as a bridge between Him and us. Wordworth in his Tintern Abbey and Ode to Immortality refers to something similar. 

Coming from Amis, whose work has always been subject to the most vicious attacks on account of its cold callousness, narcissism, and a lack of emotional depth, these words sound strange. Perhaps that is why critics panned his 2000 memoir ‘Experience’ in which the above line appears. It would seem Amis Jr’s colourful past and his proclivity for hasty brawls, casual flings and peculiar brand of masculine humour has endowed upon him the status of a perennial rake: one who cannot feel deeply, one whose life cannot be changed forever by specific events, one whose restless flitting from one interest to another must remain a lifelong yoke. An alternative seems unacceptable. Yet the above line speaks of exactly the reverse.

It is also interesting to note that Amis’ midlife crisis which was partly triggered by the discovery that his beloved cousin Lucy was one of the victims of the sadistic killer Fred West, the discovery of his daughter Delilah Seale, and his father’s death sowed the seed of a great upheaval and change in his life. His attitude to life and more particularly women changed. It put it succinctly – he discovered the healing power of love, the purity of love without ego, which constituted the ‘transfiguring experience’ at Lucy’s memorial service. Women who once served as badges of achievement, now became his healers and redeemers. 

In an odd way the life of Rumi and Shams of Tabriz speaks of a similar transformation. Rumi and Shams stayed together for only 2 years, but the impact of their meeting left an everlasting impression on Rumi and resulted in nearly 70,000 verses of his best poetry which are collected in the  Shams-e Tabrizi and Massnavi (Mathnawi). In a universe ruled by randomness, it would look unlikely, if not almost impossible, that two such contrasting characters (a wealthy nobleman and a wandering, mystic) could come together and find joy. I find this oddly humbling too. It reminds us that it is impossible to know where your next inspiration may come from or who will become the conduit for your transformation.

Oct 7, 2010


Yesterday I died for the last time,
I'd been dying for ages, 
The burial was complete.

Did you know, unfinished burials are the cause,
Of restless spirits and incomplete dreams,
Of resurgent desires & desperate claims?

He who came before, did the deed,
You were kinder, you wove the shroud,
With loving care and great heed.

Cleansed my soul, purified my lust,
Taught me to rest, and scraped the rust,
You held my hand in those precious last moments, 
You held my gaze, but it still rained in torrents.

You taught me to love the soil,
You told me, it needn't be the end.
Peace and calm would end the strife,
As you led me to the afterlife.

Sep 16, 2010

Protestant Ethics and Whole Lotta Bunkum

China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, ……..”

Every time I watch a film like PL or Aakaler sandhaney, I turn to that great upholder-of-all things-Indian-&-Chinese - Tom Friedman. It’s like soaking in the honeyed praise of an insincere, callous boyfriend where you know everything he says is insincere and yet you find comfort in it.

The entire problem with Friendman, and I suspect this is true of all Americans, is his/their habit of reading/determining/understanding complex & evolving situations in very simple and clichéd terms of good vs evil, outsourcing vs patriotism, rich vs poor, tax reform vs irresponsible spend, and so on. But matters are never that simple.

Friedman has no idea of how much India has changed with the infusion of easy cash from the BPO sector. He is bang on about the great Indian proclivity towards savings and delayed gratification but he is wholly unaware that like all things, this too is slowly changing here. Second, these comparisons are infantile since you cannot compare spending trends and consumer data for two nations as diverse as the U.S & India. Software services is pegged as one of our greatest sources of revenue and yet it accounts for a measly 0.2% of the GDP!

There are 2 kinds of kids in India today and Friedman seems to be aware of only one. The former is the
23-yr old K.C College graduate who joins the Wipro BPO in Powai and blows all of the Rs 10,000 he makes partying at Lush Lounge, buying CDs for his play Station (which obviously has been gifted by daddy dear) and gifting expensive phones to his gf. Then there is the 23-yr old hailing from a small town near Shimla, who joins an LG call centre at Noida, makes Rs 10,000 a month out of which he is forced to pay for his rent & food and also send money home regularly. Sacrifice and the habit of saving have been drilled into him by his circumstances. It is inane to compare him with the 23-yr old student at Rutgers whose father has lost his job in the recession and is struggling under the weight of a huge mortgage. What is he supposed to do? Flip hamburgers at Denny’s? Sure, he’s already doing that and most probably making plans to backpack across Europe. To expect him to lift boulders and contribute to the mortgage is like asking Salman Khan to develop grey cells.

The divide is not so much between the countries as between types of people & the upbringing they have had. I doubt if any of our children will ever have the drive or tenacity to achieve what our fathers did (at least mine & A’s.) They have too much going for them and there is nothing inherently wrong in this. This is what conditioning is all about. To speak of this as an Indian vs American personality issue is to reduce it to stereotypes.


I don’t think anyone living in India can be untouched by poverty: it is too much in your face & a constant reminder of how much, when compelled, we can lower the threshold of basic sustenance. I’m currently reading ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ by Madhusree Mukerjee. It’s a slim book, not more than some 350 odd pages, but I’m finding it difficult to traverse those 350 pages. It recounts the gruesome Bengal famine of 1943 and alleges that the famine could have been avoided had it not been for then Brit PM Churchill’s almost rabid hatred for Indians that made him stop the flow of relief food supplies to India. While the ostensible reason was scarcity of shipping vessels, Mukerjee’s painstaking research (7 yrs) shows that on the contrary Britian had such a surplus of carrier fleet that it did not have enough cargo to load all of them! I don’t think anyone can read this book and remain calm when you realize the extent of Churchill’s culpability in not averting the disaster, or when you read about mothers leaving their infants at strangers’ doorsteps in the hope that they would be taken in and thus avoid certain death. What fuels the rage is that nothing has really changed: while Brit imperialism has been dismantled, the poor are still at the mercy of others who decide their fate. So whether it is employment under a Jawahar Rozgaar Yojana or grants under the NREGA, the bureaucrats sitting in air conditioned cabins dole these out in accordance with their whims. If you make the cut, good for you; if you don’t, better luck next time, mate. 

Sep 7, 2010

PEX & Poetry

I’ve always been curious about stuff like Process Excellence (PEX), Kaizen, Six Sigma, Black Belt/Green 
Belt, etc. Keep hearing of them and how they drive organizational efficiency. However, I’ve always been a lil skeptical how much of it was hogwash and how much really effective. Anyway, the current organization has these PEX modules on their intranet which you can subscribe to and complete a basic course. Since new things excite me and I didn’t have much on my hands, I decided to subscribe to the online learning course. It’s fairly detailed and gets tedious after a while and leaves folks like me in much the same condition as Columbus when he started on his ocean voyage, full of hope and spirit but badly ill-informed. Anyway, the problem solving parts are good and I now know what a rusty hinge must feel like. i dunno about process excellence but PEX is definitely an excellent tool for gaining some much-needed self insight.

I have always considered myself extremely fast at doing/executing things. This is not so much a virtue as a direct consequence of my chronic impatience.  I talk  fast, walk fast, climb stairs two at a time, cook fast, and looking back, I recall that I was the first one to always submit the answer sheet at every effing examination I ever took in my school years. Alas, no more. Those damn PEX modules have taught me what it feels like to proceed at snail’s, ok make that the Nano’s pace. So far I have only managed to rope in Vivek & the dude has beaten me every time. bah!

When the PEX gets too much, I take a small break; feel I have earned it. I delve into some delicious poetry. If delicious strikes you as a strange adjective, wait till you read her yourself. She evokes the kinesthetic effects of keats, marquez, and lorca. You will simultaneously feel and smell and taste every word as her poetry strums something within you. This is sensual poetry at its best and very few people can do true justice to eroticism. Most Indians anyway have no understanding that eroticism and pornography are totally divorced from each other.

Coming back to Sharanya Manivannan, hers is the voice of your mother and my grandmother and as you read along you get a sense of time repeating itself; there is both a sense of history and the whiff of freshness in her poems. Frankly, I didn’t think too much of her prose, though she’s a regular columnist, but her poetry is something that explodes within you and leaves you, err..umm… shaken and stirred.

As you proceed along her substantial body of work (she’s only 25!) you can identify the pet themes – desire, confident sexuality, death, separation, obsession, death of grandmother. As with the themes, the images and metaphors are often repetitive – blood, violence, animal & food imagery – without being mundane or forced. There is pride in an almost suffocating/obsessive love and the indefatigable passion that accompanies it and the awareness that such closeness must give way to separation (even death is separation.) I especially loved How to Eat a Wolf, Inventories of the Heart, The Mapmaker’s Wife, Banishing, Dream of Burying my grandmother, Rituals for Closure, and First Language. As i read and re-read 1,2 & 3, i felt an old anguish well up from somewhere deep within. This is the pain you feel as you read Eliot, George Herbert, and Emily Dickinson. That is no mean feat. 

As much as I loved her poetry I have two reservations: first, will her readership be restricted (largely) to women? I am not sure how men will respond to her authorship. The reigning deities of lit crit may applaud her but many men will judge her poems in terms of labels – raunchy, audacious, sexy. Her poems are all this and more, much more. It doesn’t help that the little lady is smoking hot and knows it & flaunts it unabashedly!

Second, I wonder how she will mature and will she explore other themes and images and paint diverse canvasses or restrict herself to what she’s doing now. Don’t get me wrong – there is nothing ordinary or mundane about her accomplishment, only greedy glut that I am I’d love to see her soar higher and arrange the colors of the rainbow differently. Believe me, with her words, she can.

It is befitting that i take down my old volume of keats tonite. Wasn't he the dude who wrote, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever?" Read SM's poems and you will know how wrong he was. Love between a man and a woman is one of the most beautiful things He could compel and yet its beauty pales like the waxing moon. Such love is fragile, afraid, tentative and we do everything in our power to render it meaningless.