Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction

Whatever I do, I must not miss this pulp anthology of Tamil short stories. From Mukul Kesavan's Outlook India essay:
I don’t know Tamil so I can’t tell what’s been lost in translation, but the magical thing about this anthology is that I never once thought of the stories as Tamil stories. In Pritham Chakravarthy’s translations, the characters in these stories live and breathe an English that smells like a neutral ether: neither elaborately English nor annoyingly vernacular.And it’s hard to convey the delight I felt in reading time-pass fiction where the starlets, the hard-boiled detectives and the vengeful goddesses came from the world I inhabited, were mine.

There are two reasons to buy this book. One, it’s a wonderful read and, two, it’s the best-produced paperback in the history of Indian publishing. From the luridly brilliant cover (complete with gun-toting, full-breasted Tamil rose) to the colour plates, the line drawings, the perfectly judged author introductions and the high-quality paper inside, this book is an object lesson in how publishing is done.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Loiuse Erdrich's The Plague of Doves

There’s a scene about ninety odd pages into Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves that is illustrative, in a tangential way, of what her book is about. Two of the novel’s single and middle-aged characters, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts and Geraldine, and are just beginning to know each other. They are out a boat, fishing, when something heavy tugs Geraldine’s line. They find it is a large turtle and lug it up. For some strange reason that is puzzling to Coutts, Geraldine becomes glum. Why? Because engraved on the shell of the turtle are the letters “G and R”. They stand for Geraldine and her former boyfriend Roman. Roman had caught the same turtle when he and Geraldine had been fishing a long time ago. The turtle was small then. Roman had etched the letters and set it free. He is no longer alive, but his memory has unexpectedly cropped up in the form of these engraved letters now, at beginning of a different romance in Geraldine’s life.

The theme of Erdrich’s novel is how the past perpetually influences the present in subtle and unexpected ways. Except that the past isn’t restricted the painful memory of one’s first love. In The Plague of Doves it spans three generations, and straddles the histories of two communities in North Dakota: the community of American Indians, who steadily lost their lands in the late nineteenth century and were shepherded into reservations, and the community of white immigrants who went through their own travails as they expanded westward. But the story isn’t the conflict between the two. Rather it is how their shared history – of suspicion and mistrust but also of help and interaction – has evolved and intertwined in complex ways and influenced the succeeding two generations. As Evelina Harp, who is part Ojibwe and part white and the youngest of the first person narrators in the novel, says:
“Now that some of us have mixed in the spring of our existence both guilt and victim, there is no unraveling the rope.”

The Plague of Doves
centers on the brutal killing in 1911 of a white farm family in Pluto, North Dakota. Only a seventeen-month-old baby survives. Evidence is unclear as to who is responsible, but in the rage that grips the town, three Indians are lynched by a vigilante mob. The murders and the lynching hover like a dark shadow in the decades after. The people involved in the lynching, the Indians who are lynched, the baby that is left to survive: everyone becomes part of a complex puzzle that Erdrich slowly unveils in her jagged narrative which jumps in time and perspective. Judge Coutts, whose tone is the most direct and calming of all – reflective of his character and his vocation – makes this pithy remark:
“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.”
Consider this: Evelina Harp is the granddaughter of Mooshum, a full-blood Ojibwe, one of the four Indians who discovered the murdered farm family. Evelina has a crush on Corwin Peace whose great-grandfather, Cuthbert Peace, was one of the Indians lynched. Cuthbert’s brothers Henri and Lafayette Peace, both excellent fiddle players, helped guide Judge Coutts’s grandfather in the nineteenth century while he was prospecting on the frontier (the theme of music and how it is passed on is one of the beautiful parts of the novel). Judge Coutts, a mixed-blood himself, is interested, as I have already pointed out, in Evelina’s aunt, Geraldine. And so it goes on and on – I have revealed only the basic details. In fact, these links are so complicated and wondrous, that I often stopped to write them out and draw the genealogy myself. That is what Evelina does too in the novel:
“I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw our elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles. I drew in pencil. There were a few people, one of them being Corwin Peace, whose chart was so complicated that I erased parts of it until I wore right through the paper. Still I could not erase the questions underneath…”
While Erdrich’s many narrators meander abstractly – sometimes too abstractly for my liking – this vast all-encompassing web of connections and the unsolved case of the farm murders sustain and are the heart of the narrative. In fact, Erdrich’s plotting is so intricate that the full details become known only in the last few pages. There is no gimmickry here; everything is revealed in a matter of fact way.

Certain characterizations and moments in the novel stand out: Mooshum, the shriveled old Indian, who brings much needed humor by way of his discursions with the Catholic priest; Shamengwa, Mooshum’s brother, and a passionate fiddle player, whose story about how he began playing and found his fiddle is the most poignant in the book; and Billy Peace, whose unsettling transformation from a shy, frail young man to a monstrous, insatiable leader of a religious sect, is depicted brilliantly through the perspective of his wife, Marn Wolde.

By peopling her novel with such diverse voices and by setting it across three generations, Erdrich has written a compelling, imaginative history. It is not the sort of dreary history one finds in books by overly serious historians. Erdrich's is a beautiful, melancholy history, held together by subtle familial interconnections that lend an uncanny symmetry to it.


Other notes:

1. If you are curious about the title of the novel, read the first chapter in The New Yorker.

2. Erdrich runs the independent bookstore Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Sarkar-Raj, and unforgettable dialogues

I drove an hour and forty minutes last Saturday to watch Sarkar-Raj. The gently swaying Minnesota prairie, fed by recent rains, was lush and beautiful, and it was just as well that I enjoyed the drive. For the movie, while it had some drama and a decent plot, was disappointing. I have to agree with Namrata Joshi’s stinging critique in Outlook India:
The support cast is nothing more than a gallery of caricatures complete with a gloved hand killer straight from the Hollywood slasher films. What was the need to have him there? It’s such gimmickry that irritates. Specially in Verma’s stylistic and technical flourishes. Extreme close-ups, angular shots, monochromatic palette, loud background score, deliberately smart lines, wordplay, the constant confrontations and tension—he goes on an overkill with it all. A lovely Mumbai slang that aptly describes the film—thakeli. It’s deadbeat, dull and dreary.
The villains are pretty hackneyed in the movie. They contort their faces, smirk, act idiosyncratically, and generally try very hard to convince us they are very, very bad people. One of them – and this might well be the funniest bit of the movie, though unintentional – says something along these lines:

Omlette banane ke liye anda phodna padta hai.” (To make an omlette one has to first break the egg.)

This profound, cryptic and richly metaphorical remark refers to Abhishek Bachchan (in the movie the son of the powerful Mumbai politician, Sarkar). Abhishek is apparently is the egg. Later the same villain makes a further remark that that bad guys will become the masala (spices) in the omlette.

What are we to make of this?

But dialogues like this are a delight too – they are so ridiculous they become the very reason one watches certain Bollywood movies. I have to confess that I regret – because of the excessive travel I’ve been doing this year – not seeing Race, which had this gem:

Zindagi ki race me insaan ko ek saathi ki zaroorat hai.” (In the race that is life, one needs a companion.)

Oh, I’d give anything to hear this uttered on the big screen!

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Mohammed Hanif's A Case of Exploding Mangoes

There’s been plenty of positive publicity for Mohammed Hanif’s new novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. One of the novel’s main draws appears to be a delightful satirical portrait of General Zia. (Quick aside: with a moustache as funny as his, how can a despot like him not be satirized?) Some links: New York Times review here; first chapter here; and Outlook India article here where Dalrymple heralds the emergence of new Pakistani writing - what with Mohammad Aslam, Kamila Shamsie, Mohsin Hamid among others coming up with excellent books.

A Case of Exploding Mangoes also finds mention in The Middle Stage with regard to a character called OBL. Who is OBL? This excerpt from the Nytimes review tells us:
The most darkly funny scene in “A Case of Exploding Mangoes” imagines a Fourth of July party in Islamabad in 1988, hosted by Arnold Raphel. The American guests dress up in flowing turbans, tribal gowns and shalwar kameez suits, by way of ridiculous homage to the Afghan fighters. Among the invited guests is a young bearded Saudi known as “OBL,” who works for “Laden and Co. Constructions.” As OBL moves through the throng, various people stop to greet him and chat. Among them is the local C.I.A. chief who, after swapping a few words, bids him farewell: “Nice meeting you, OBL. Good work, keep it up.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Bhartihari's solemn dilemma

Ancient India, we are endlessly told, was very open to sexuality and its representations – the Kamasutra and this orgy from the temples of Khajuraho are oft cited. Given that Indians are more conservative now (I know, it's a broad generalization), I’ve always wondered what happened in the intermediate historical period that changed attitudes. William Dalrymple’s recent essay in NYRB gives a few insights, but it principally discusses expressions of sexuality in south India – in the Pallava and Chola eras – and in the Tantric tradition.

There are some serious thoughts in the essay and I encourage you to read it. But if you want something in the lighter vein, don't by any means miss this bit that pertains to a dilemma that a 3rd century poet, Bhartihari, faced: Should one adopt a life of austerity and asceticism, or give in to the temptations of unabashed physical lust? Bhartihari seems to have pondered the question very seriously as Dalrymple illustrates:
Classical India developed a refined and tutored sophistication about the finer points of sexuality, famously so in the Kamasutra, the principal work on love in Sanskrit literature. It has never been equaled; yet there has always been a strong tension in Hinduism between the ascetic and the sensual. The poet Bhartrihari, who probably lived in the third century AD, around the time of the composition of the Kamasutra, oscillated no less than seven times between the rigors of the monastic life and the abandon of the sensualist. "There are two paths," he wrote. "The sages' religious-devotion, which is lovely because it overflows with the nectarous waters of the knowledge of truth," and "the lusty undertaking of touching with one's palm that hidden part in the firm laps of lovely-limbed women, loving women with great expanses of breasts and thighs."

"Tell us decisively which we ought to attend upon," he asks in the Shringarashataka. "The sloping sides of wilderness mountains? Or the buttocks of women abounding in passion?"
Any answers?

Sunday, June 08, 2008

A scene from Om Shanti Om

I found Om Shanti Om immensely entertaining. The movie was needlessly long and wallowed in precisely the sort of mushy, sentimental stuff it was trying to parody, but despite all its obvious drawbacks, it was a joy to watch – the songs and the comedy bits were wonderful.

There’s one particular scene I’ll remember and cherish for long. I’ve watched it a couple of times since, but the effect when I saw it on the big screen here in Rochester last November (yes, even this small, unheard-of Minnesota town screens Bollywood films) remains unsurpassed.

Some background: Om (Sharukh Khan) is a junior artiste in the 70s, hoping to make it big in Bollywood. He has an overpowering infatuation for Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone), the most popular actress of the time. Despite being only a chota-mota artiste Om believes, true filmi style, that they are made for each other. His mother – the quintessential, melodramatic, weepy Bollywood mom – gives him a sacred red thread with a metal band, blessed by the Sai Baba at Shirdi. Om wears this on his wrist, and, as he discovers later, these blessings do indeed help twine him with Shantipriya.

Now to the actual scene. It's the premiere of Dreamy Girl, Shantipriya’s latest film. Crowds throng at the theater where a red carpet will be rolled for the entire cast. Om is in the crowd, straining to get a glimpse of the arriving stars. He’s wearing a tacky red and black checked suit, while the others in the crowd sport more identifiable 70s style clothing: colorful bell-bottomed pants and shirt collars as large as whale fins.

Then it happens. A large limousine stops in front of the theater, and Shantipriya steps out in a pink dress. She is strikingly beautiful. Her hair is done the way Asha Parekh used to have hers done – neatly bunched around the head, adorned with sparkling jewels. Also at this point, the camera shifts to slow motion, and the melodious Aankhon me teri begins. Om is astounded by Shantipriya’s beauty, and, like dozens of others in the crowd, tentatively raises his hand to wave at her. Shantipriya waves to the crowd, acknowledging their cheers, a radiant, disarming smile on her face.

As she passes Om, the red thread (or the metal band: doesn’t really matter) on Om’s wrist somehow gets entangled in Shantipriya’s pink pallu. He is propelled forward, his hand outstretched as it trails the pallu. A few steps later, Shantipriya, oblivious up to then, feels a tug, and looks back. Her expression is one of bewilderment, before she realizes what has happened. She then smiles a knowing, killer smile, disentangles the pallu from the thread. As the security guards drag Om away, his face is one of contentment – so happy is he at having met her in this fortuitous fashion that he closes his eyes in bliss and has one hand over his heart.

What’s so special about this? What makes it wonderful? Two things: First the song, Aankhon me teri, couldn’t have been more appropriate: it matches superbly with how the scene unfolds in slow motion, and Deepika Padukone’s beauty and expressions accentuate the effect (she is impressive in the movie, especially the first half).

The second reason pertains to why Bollywood movies are a treat to watch: we indulge in a suspension of disbelief, and can completely immerse ourselves in the sentiments and the romance. As I sat in the movie hall watching the scene, I felt this strongly. I could feel too a twitter of yearning in my own heart, and I realized that the cynicism and weariness that one gathers from life could not overwhelm that thrilling, romantic moment in the movie. And I thought: aren’t feelings like this the essence of entertainment?

Other related posts: some extracts of a long Bollywood-like story I wrote a few years ago; and a post on Nigerian cinema, probably the most vibrant movie industry in the world after Bollywood and Hollywood, and which, not unsurprisingly, is called Nollywood.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


Changed the blog template, as you will have noticed. I was away on a trip, and came back to find that all my settings in the old template had been altered. Not sure how that happened. But luckily, this new template seems to work well, so I'll stick to it.

Things have been exceptionally busy the last couple of weeks. It's been a stressful period, with changes coming up in the next couple of months. Looks at this point that I'll be moving places in the fall - east of the Mississippi for the first time. More on that later.

For now, I need to buckle down and put in some extra hours writing.