Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Offline for a few days

Which is just as it should be. See you all!

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Mieville's Christmas

Entirely in keeping with the chimerical quality of the assurances one makes to oneself and others as the year ends, I am putting off Police Story for one more time.

Instead, I shall leave y'all for a couple of days with a story, as befits the season, about gifts, children, and doing everything one can as a parent to make the day a memorable one for those one loves.

From China Mieville's book of short stories, Looking For Jake and Other Stories, the story, 'Tis The Season:

Call me childish, but I love all the nonsense - the snow, the trees, the tinsel, the turkey. I love presents. I love carols and cheesy songs. I just love Christmas™.

That's why I was so excited. And not just for me, but for Annie. Aylsa, her mum, said she didn't see the big deal and why was I a sentimentalist, but I knew Annie couldn't wait. She might have been 14, but when it came to this I was sure she was still a little girl, dreaming of stockings by the chimney. Whenever it's my turn to take Annie - me and Aylsa have alternated since the divorce - I do my best on the 25th.

I admit Aylsa made me feel bad. I was dreading Annie's disappointment. So I can hardly tell you how delighted I was when I found out that for the first time ever I was going to be able to make a proper celebration of it.

Don't get me wrong. I haven't got shares in YuleCo, and I can't afford a one-day end-user licence, so I couldn't have a legal party. I'd briefly considered buying from one of the budget competitors like XmasTym, or a spinoff from a non-specialist like Coca-Crissmas, but the idea of doing it on the cheap was just depressing. I wouldn't have been able to use much of the traditional stuff, and if you can't have all of it, why have any? (XmasTym had the rights to Egg Nog. But Egg Nog's disgusting.) Those other firms keep trying to create their own alternatives to proprietary classics like reindeer and snowmen, but they never take off. I'll never forget Annie's underwhelmed response to the JingleMas Holiday Gecko.

No, like most people, I was going to have a little MidWinter Event, just Annie and me. So long as I was careful to steer clear of licenced products we'd be fine.

First published in the Socialist Review in 2004. Read the rest of it here.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Deathly Hallows

Prepare for a community of ageing teens going into orgasms, conniptions and a lather, depending on their relative position on the age scale: the title of the last Harry Potter book has been revealed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows it is.

Other places where you can expect much good cheer befitting the season (what a clever girl JKR is!):


JKR's own site

Police story coming up, promise. Since I'm at large, we can safely assume the story has a happy ending (which, given the people concerned, might have been in doubt).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A Catalogue of Disasters: Prologue

Does anyone else get the feeling that as the year draws to a close, every day is compressed with more activity, more stress, and weighs much more than usual?

I do.

So to celebrate, I am going to let everyone in on my disasters as they occur, so that if all of you lead normal lives, you can take vicarious pleasure in my series of unfortunate events.

To start with, I switched my blog to what I’ve been assured was no longer Blogger Beta. That means I can now sign in with my Google Account. Everyone has to switch eventually, I’m told. So I thought, what the heck, let’s get it over with.

Turns out that the normal sign in page has moved. After many futile attempts at trying to post yesterday, I figured that one out I think). Now it appears that people who want to leave comments might not able to, because of several reasons.

Those of you who’d switched to blogger beta some time ago – please to share your woes.

In the meanwhile, just as soon as I’ve had something to steady my nerves, I shall report on my Encounter with the Police.

About translating The Second Sex

In my previous post I quoted Simone de Beauvoir. I remember the quote incorrectly; I thought it was "One is not born, one becomes a woman". Being unsure, I googled it, and found that what she said was "one is not born a woman, but becomes one."

Alas, a blog has two posts from last year (this day that year!) on the subject of translations:

You see, the real Simone de Beauvoir isn’t available in English - only in
the original French. The English version I and many other English-reading
feminists have read, is translated so badly that at times it says the exact
opposite of what de Beauvoir intended. From a New
York Times op-ed by Sarah Glazer

Alfred Knopf, who thought the book ‘’capable of making a very wide
appeal indeed'’ among ‘’young ladies in places like Smith,'’ sought out Howard
Madison Parshley, a retired professor of zoology who had written a book on human
reproduction and regularly reviewed books on sex for The New York Herald
Tribune, to translate Beauvoir’s book. Parshley knew French only from his years
as a student at Boston Latin School and Harvard, and had no training in
philosophy — certainly not in the new movement known as existentialism, of which
Beauvoir was an adherent. ‘Parshley didn’t read anything about existentialism
until he’d finished translating the whole book and thought he should find out
something about it to write his introduction,’ says Margaret A. Simons,
professor of philosophy at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, and
author of ‘Beauvoir and ‘The Second Sex’ ’ (1999).

Apparently the publisher of the English translation, Knopf, has "the exclusive English-language rights locked up until The Second Sex goes into the public domain - in 2056. Knopf refuses to do an updated transation themselves, and they refuse to allow anyone else to publish one, either."


Wednesday, December 20, 2006

‘One is not born a woman, but becomes one’

With a giant feeling of unease sitting on my shoulder for the last week or so, I’ve finally managed to drum up whatever I needed to post. In the way that these things usually happen, this feeling has been constructed brick by brick. It started with the ridiculous Christopher Hitchens article in Vanity Fair, accusing women of not having a sense of humour. Poor sap, I thought, as I veered wilding between tolerant amusement and mild indignation. Men like him have to sustain themselves on some poorly constructed stereotypes.

Then, on Batul’s blog, I read about a curious math problem. The illustrious writers of our textbooks see no problem in perpetuating such stereotypes as the Hitchens of the world are proud to create. What, after all, are they doing wrong? Women do earn less than men for at least an equal amount of work done. So what could be wrong in letting children who are learning algebra, also learn these facts of life that surely cannot be harder than the sums they are set?

My son at three, used to love having his nails painted. Then someone – male or female – in his kindergarten must have sniggered. The painting of nails stopped. One day, recently, he said, ‘girls can’t do that.’ I’ve forgotten what it was he thought girls couldn’t do, but I speedily disillusioned him.

More than fifty years after Simone de Beauvoir said, “One is not born a woman, but becomes one,” parents, teachers, writers of both textbooks and the more enjoyable ones that we hope children will read, are full of precisely the kind of constructions of gender identities that the women’s movement has worked so hard to avoid or eliminate.

Take Ian McEwan’s The Daydreamer for instance. Peter Fortune is a daydreamer who inhabits the minds of such diverse creatures as cats, little babies and ‘grown-ups’. All well and good. But is it too much to ask that McEwan write about a family where the wife does not necessarily take on her husband’s name after marriage? (Unless she was already a Fortune before she married her husband, and that throws up some nicely gruesome possibilities). Or that everyone, even the minor characters, not all be white, middle class families with not a whisper of other skin colours or communities?

I wonder what people who write for children think they are doing. Do they assume that if they do not talk about some things, they will go away? Or do they unconsciously hope to create a picture of a world they hope their children will inhabit: one of easily resolved conflicts, uniform in its assumptions and peopled by characters just like themselves?

This is not a digression. It has everything to do with the way children grow up to become the kind of men and women they do become.

Years ago, when I was in school, I met a young teacher with some books in her hand. I turned my head to read the titles, and saw some book that said Feminism and… something or the other. I was twelve then, so I try hard to forgive myself the sneer with which I said, “So you’re a feminist.”

I said it with a little pause before the F word, to emphasise the horror of all that the word implied.

And I can never be grateful enough for the way she said, quite mildly, “Of course. I think any woman in her right mind would be a feminist.”


On Monday, 16-year-old Tapasi Malik was raped and burnt alive in Singur.(link via Blogbharti) It’s hard to draw a clear line from our childhoods to the day when, as adults, we can commit such crimes against women. I don’t know if anyone else has this hanging up on their walls, but this might be the time to reproduce it here:

Because woman's work is never done and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or repetitious and we're the first to get fired and what we look like is more important than what we do and if we get raped it's our fault and if we get beaten we must have provoked it and if we raise our voices we're nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we're nymphos and if we don't we're frigid and if we love women it's because we can't get a "real" man and if we ask our doctor too many questions we're neurotic and/or pushy and if we expect childcare we're selfish and if we stand up for our rights we're aggressive and "unfeminine" and if we don't we're typical weak females and if we want to get married we're out to trap a man and if we don't we're unnatural and because we still can't get an adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk on the moon and if we can't cope or don't want a pregnancy we're made to feel guilty about abortion and...for lots and lots of other reasons we are part of the women's liberation movement.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Auntie Laura Reads A Book

Yesterday was 14 years on from the Babri Masjid demolition. In another couple of months we will mark the fifth year of the Gujarat riots. We remind ourselves again and again of what we're capable of as human beings. Not that we're in any danger of forgetting -- who can, when there's a Khairlanji taking place every once in a while?

I have always felt that these events are hard to fictionalise, or turn into anything other than what they are. At least, if it is at all possible, it cannot happen for some years yet. Adorno famously said, "after the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible."

Of course, even such definite pronouncements have a best-before date; Adorno later retracted his statement, many films have been made on the Holocaust (though we have to decide for ourselves which is more truthful: Resnais' Night and Fog or Spielberg's Schindler's List. Yes, yes, the comparison is entirely unfair, I admit. But it indicates, if nothing else, a range of artistic responses within which we could try to understand a horrible event.); we learn, with time, to calibrate our responses and make out of events something that can be remembered without being expoitative or egregious.

The war in Iraq is, depending on how you look at it, either a few years old, or at least a decade-and-a-half old. Such sustained warfare might even inure us and those suffering it, to many things. Another airstrike, another pile of bodies. More dead. Yeah, yeah, yeah, we're in danger of saying. So what are you doing for New Year's, we might even ask, though we will be careful to space that question out carefully so as not to appear callous.

Tony Kushner's play, Only We Who Guard The Mystery Shall Be Unhappy is one possible response to such events as we are in danger of getting used to. It is angry and absurd. And most importantly, it does not uselessly wring its hands while torturing itself about What Is Happening In Iraq.

In it, Laura Bush is meeting Iraqi children for the first itme in her life, and she is very excited. She is going to read to them; so what if they are dead? She can read Dostoievsky to them instead of The Hungry Catepillar, because "I figured, being dead, you all command a broader view, and I hope you’re going to like it. I think you will!"

There's an ANGEL, moderating the interaction between LAURA BUSH and THE DEAD CHILDREN who only make noises like bird music. LAURA BUSH asks the ANGEL how many children have died.

ANGEL: Hundreds of children. Thousands of children. 150,000 children.
400,000 children. Who's counting? No one is counting. A lot. From diseases
related to the sanctions and the power outages and the depleted uranium dust
shed from the casings of American missiles? Perhaps related? Probably related?
Nearly 600,000 children have died. Many, many children have died.

LAURA BUSH: Oh gosh. And on the bright side, all those dead children
and yet look, you have maintained such a low student-teacher ratio.

ANGEL: We believe a low student-to-teacher ratio is necessary for

LAURA BUSH: I agree!

ANGEL: And yet in the United States it's so high, on the average.

LAURA BUSH: On the average, thirty-to-one, forty-to-one! Way, way too
high! I was a teacher once. Before I married Bushie. Or, as I sometimes call
him, The Chimp. You know, those ears. It would be nice if there was government
money to make schools smaller. For living children. But you see, honey, sweetie,
precious--do they have names?

ANGEL: They do, but I'm not allowed to tell you.

LAURA BUSH: Why not?

ANGEL: I'm not allowed to tell you that, either. Sorry.

(Little pause.)

LAURA BUSH: Oh. All right. Well anyway, children, free educations with
three-to-one student-teacher ratios or even twenty-to-one student-teacher ratios
or even enough classrooms with enough desks to sit in would be swell, wouldn't
it, but...one of the lessons from the wonderful book I'm going to read to you
today is that if you accept free bread, or free whatever, education, daycare,
whatnot, if you accept that free stuff you will have to give up freedom in
exchange, and that isn't right. Freedom is what matters, not things of the
earth. Like food. And I know you died starving, honey, but look at your nice
pajamas! Do you see what I mean?

ANGEL: Children, do you see what Mrs. Bush means? (They stand and
answer, talking happily, but again the only sound is Messiaen's

Link via Amitava Kumar.

Here's Adrienne Rich in the Guardian, arguing for more poetry in our dark times.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

'What The Eye Sees': A Cinematographer's Account of Frozen

I admit my bias, but Shanker Raman is one of the best cinematographers to come out of the FTII. Many years ago, while we were shooting our diploma film, a young friend asked him how to shoot some particularly difficult thing. Shanker said, very simply, "Just remember, if your eyes can see it, it can be shot."

Shanker's been shooting in Ladakh for the last year. Here is his account of shooting for the feature film, Frozen. (no links available yet.)

The first character to be cast was the location. Ladakh is a high-altitude desert, known for its stark, barren landscape that is at its extreme during winter. For the most part of their routine, our characters are cut off, almost quarantined from the pervasive influence of modernization. We were convinced after the first recce that Ladakh had the ideal landscape to depict this physical isolation.

While examining the first set of images shot in October and November 2005, we felt, in order to do justice to the title Frozen it was necessary to find the appropriate visual palette. We debated over many colour tones and colour reduction theories, recorded many images on a Nikon D100
digital SLR 6 megapixel camera, to explore the options for manipulation. Eventually, on looking at some lovely black and white pictures from the book ‘Ladakh’ shot by the photographer Prabir C Purkayastha, we began to seriously consider black and white as an option.

The landscape of Ladakh at that time of the year is predominantly barren, stark, in tones of red and brown that appear saturated against a deep blue sky. Even though it was at times minus 15 Celsius outside in the middle of the day, when photographed in colour it appeared like it was summer. The film is set in extreme winter, and the drama played out by our characters is totally devoid of any warmth, reassurance or cheer. Black and white images seemed to illustrate this iciness authentically.
The texture and tonality of black and white, we felt, would make the images associative without the burden of having to create unnecessary elaborate detail. Black and white helped us in visualizing with economy.
The rest of his article here.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Crustimony Proseedcake

“Well,” said Owl, “the customary procedure in such cases is as follows...”
“What does Crustimony Proseedcake mean?” said Pooh. “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me.
“It means The Thing To Do.”
“As long as it means that, I don’t mind,” said Pooh humbly.

“Centenary Hall?” I asked the watchman.
He pointed towards what could have been the driveway, or the volleyball field beyond, or a derelict car park.
Aap meeting ke liye aaye?” he asked. “Hau,” I replied feeling as pleased as I had the first time I said the word when I came back to Hyderabad. Each time I say it, I feel like I’m truly home.
“Meeting Shahjehan Hall mein hai, saab.”


The meeting was indeed in Shahjehan Hall, but the name was much grander than the place. Chairs were jostling with tables, which were placed in neat intervals through the not very large hall. Nothing else in the place was as neat; the dias, a good deal higher than the floor of the hall, was filled with broken chairs thrown anyhow. Tattered and faded blue curtains hung limp by the wings; along the walls were portraits of principals past, all of them scratched, peeling or hung askew.

We were in Nizam’s College, in the Assembly Hall. The students had been writing their exams here, but now two people were industriously disarranging the chairs and pushing the tables to the side. Someone else was setting up a mike next to a long table and another flunkey had in his hands a tablecloth of a shade of green rarely seen outside hospitals.

I waited for someone to notice me. One of the two men shifting chairs turned and beamed.

“I hope I’m not too early,” I said.

“My dear young lady, you can never be too early! Have a seat.”

The Poetry Society of Hyderabad was meeting for the six hundredth and something time. Started some time in the thirties, it is one of the oldest poetry societies in the country, one that has met with no break since its inception. It has hosted at various time, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and god knows who else.

People started to trickle in. In a very little time, I began to realise that my mere presence brought the average age of the gathering down to about 55. The eagerness of the Secretary’s greeting seemed less sinister. I had handed in my form and offered to pay up then and there, but he seemed reluctant to take the money just then.

“You see, we have to put the application up to the Committee, and after they approve you can pay.”

The customary procedure is that one attends three meetings before even asking for an application form. I suppose they need to check if you dribble the tea or sneak a biscuit for later, when the reading gets too much. I thought I was exempt. I had attended Brian Mendonca’s reading in August, and I read in September, for heaven’s sake! But rules are rules, etc, and I submitted happily. I had only a hundred bucks in my purse anyway.


I was looking forward to this meeting. Brian’s reading had gone very well. People really seemed to enjoy his stuff. My reading – with two other poets – went off even better. I noticed someone having to stand at the back because there weren’t enough chairs. People clapped after some poems, and I was very gratified by this show of good taste. This evening one Dr. K was going to give a lecture on Modernism. It all seemed very intellectual and I wondered what I’d been doing for three years.

The Irani samosas kept us occupied until Dr. K arrived. He began his lecture with the Romantics. Now, I’ve no wish to diss a man who must have spent a fair amount of time putting the lecture together, but this was incoherent stuff. I thought the talk was supposed to be on Modernism, but he spent more than half his allotted time on Keats and Wordsworth, with no real explanation for why he thought it was important to talk about the Romantics in the context of Modernism.

Also, he seemed to think that we needed to be entertained. While this is not an unreasonable assumption to make when you’re standing in front of a class of undergrads who have to listen to what you are saying, it is insulting to assume that people who turn up voluntarily for your talk have to be tricked into absorbing something of value.

Maybe he thought we were Bears Of Very Little Brain.

So while he waved his hands around like windmills to explain how the daffodils might have looked to Wordsworth, I watched the Secretary trying hard to separate xeroxed copies of poems to distribute.

This caused a bit of a stir. While Dr. K talked, people handed around poems to each other, compared pages to see what was missing from their set, and noisily passed around duplicates to those who didn’t have that particular page.

The inevitable phone rang, of course. This hardly needs to be said anymore. If there is anything that requires a degree of silence, you can be sure that someone will have (a) set their phone to Loud (b) put it in the deepest recesses of their most complicated purse/cargo pants (c) been gifted a phone that very morning, and not know how to turn it off without the help and advice of at least three other people. (3a)This is once they begin to realise that it is their phone that is ringing, and not some unnamed antisocial in the gathering.


I have to say, though, that he chose some very good poems.

The Panther – Rilke (he didn't mention who the translator was)

A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass – Gertrude Stein

The Red Wheel Barrow -- William Carlos Williams

The Steeple Jack – Marianne Moore

Paradoxes and Oxymorons – John Ashbery

And one of my most favourite poems,

The Snow Man – Wallace Stevens.

This is not counting the annoying Daffodils; and To The Skylark, which he tried to quote from memory and at which he failed spectacularly (he said, and I couldn’t believe my ears, “unpremeditated strains”!!!).

But if you left out his closed readings, which were very undergrad, and looked at the poems, you could lose yourself in the poetry. Which was fine by me.

So the next meeting I attend, we will sing rousing Christmas carols as a change from all this high-brow stuff. All this modernism and no rhymes and deliberate confusion. We’ll show ’em all that much joy can had by rhyming ‘holly’ with ‘jolly’ and ‘way’ with ‘sleigh’.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In mourning…

…for my VHS tapes.

Nearly twenty years ago, when my favourite video rental place was packing it in to do Satellite TV instead, they sold off their tapes to their favourite customers. Because I was averaging at least two films a day, I was kind of top of their list. And what films they had! For thirty bucks a tape, I staggered out with several Woody Allens, Howard Hawks, Ford, Marx Brothers, Wilder…and the Hitchcocks! I had Rope when the Film Institute didn’t! And Under Capricorn? No? Well, I had that one as well.

But having a VCR is like owning a vintage car: you want it pat it fondly and look at it and croon over it, but you know you can’t really use it in case the whole thing falls apart and then where will you go for spares? The other biggie is keeping VHS tapes free of fungus for over 20 years (the tapes had been rented out for at least a few years before I bought them). So the tape gets fungus, you put it in the VCR and play it, the head gets screwed, you clean the head, watch the film for a few minutes, the head gets screwed, etc. Your life goes into a loop and you begin to feel like Sisyphus.

So last month I went to my friendly neighbourhood and magnanimously offered to sell him my VCR at an absurd price, concealing the while my breaking heart. "Madam, find someone who wants a VCR and give it away to them," he said. He seemed to imply that I might even need to pay someone to take it off my hands. Humph!What did he know. Because I found someone who’d take it, and I didn’t need to pay them to do it.

Yesterday, this person turned up to take the VCR away. In a characteristic burst of generosity, I offered to give him all the tapes as well. I mean, where is he going to get VHS tapes now, what will he do without tapes and how will I watch my tapes without a player?

So I cleared out my shelves. Reap The Wild Wind. I hadn’t seen that since the day I bought it. Or Calamity Jane. And I wish I had known even ten years earlier that this would happen; I’d have converted into VCDs Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon, Red River, Hatari, Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic And Old Lace (I almost kept this one back just so I could look at the title every now and then), A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, Sunset Boulevard, Casablanca (at least the last two are replaceable). Hannah And Her Sisters, Play It Again Sam, Manhattan, Bananas, Take The Money And Run.

And where on earth am I going to find again, The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud, or To Chase A Crooked Shadow? Or I Confess (hell, even Under Capricorn). Or To Kill A Mocking Bird.


I have five tapes left on my shelf, even though I know I’m not going to be able to watch them: The Decalogue, Chinatown, Through A Glass Darkly, Last Year At Marienbad and my diploma film. Except for the last, the others are all originals, nearly brand new and I just didn’t have the heart to part with them.

More than the acute sense of loss, I’m overwhelmed by how we all think our present world seems unchangeable or that our technologies will last forever. The VCR has had a good run, but the LD came and went in the blink of an eye. How long do we imagine DVDs will last? Sure, the image itself might be less corruptible than magnetic tape, but something else will come along that will make one’s collection obsolete and unwatchable.

Maybe one day, some derelict old man will shuffle along an empty playground, stop anyone unwise enough to meet his eye and start reciting screenplays while they look at him slightly pityingly and start edging off to wherever they were going.

“No, wait!” he’ll say, desperately trying to catch them up. “This is really funny. Cary Grant says, ‘Men don’t just get into window seats and die!’ and the aunt says… aren’t you going to stay and listen? This is really funny! She says, ‘Of course not dear. He died first.’ Hey! Wait!”

Or, like a pathetic flasher, he’ll show people a few clips of Gentlemen’s Agreement on Youtube or something. And people will walk away, shocked and shaken, wondering if they ought to report him or just have a stiff drink instead.

Sigh. I want to watch Gentlemen’s Agreement. Or To Have And Have Not. Or Key Largo. Or Philadelphia Story.

More. I want to own all of them. Again.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

RIP Altman

Robert Altman died yesterday.

Earlier this year Altman was presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar at
the annual Academy Awards. Accepting the statue, he admitted that he had
received a heart transplant from a female donor who was in her late-30s. "By
that calculation you may have given me this award too early," he told the
audience. "Because I think I've probably got another 40 years left."

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Feeling dreadfully ill and too exhausted to give anyone a catalogue of my disasters (also too polite). So will be back in a couple of days.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rangzen (Freedom)

The Government’s gag order on Tenzin Tsundue (link via Desipundit ) should come as no surprise. Over the last several years, we’ve seen the ease with which institutions bend over backwards to avoid displeasing those whose sentiments are easily hurt. Think of the censor certificate row that led to Vikalp.

Of course, while it is not clear that the Chinese Government is similarly stuffed with fragile sentiments, our Government probably feels it is right to err on the side of caution.

But deportation? And to Tibet? What does that mean – to deport a Tibetan with a Resident Certificate, to a country that doesn’t exist as an independent entity? In effect, does it not mean handing over Tenzin Tundue to the Chinese Government? It seems a disproportionately severe threat to hold over someone who is only going to say, Free Tibet.

Here’s a poem of Tsundue’s:

When I was born
my mother said you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.

On your forehead
between your eyebrows
there is an R embossed
my teacher said.

I scratched and scrubbed,
on my forehead I found
a brash of red pain.

I have three tongues
the one that sings
is my mother tongue.

The R on my forehead
between my English and Hindi
the Tibetan tongue reads:


More poems here.

But lest anyone think that Tsundue is another woolly-headed Tibetan who believes that something will happen some day that will magically solve all the problems of Tibetan refugees, this article should dispel those illusions. He says:

A general apathy over Tibet and this non-action "non-violent freedom struggle' is
slowly killing the movement. Though exotic Tibet sells in the West, there are
hardly any takers when it comes to tackling the real issue. The issue is

and later:

The very nature of the Tibetan problem is political, and it has to have a
political solution. We are grateful to India for whatever help and support she
extended to us, but if the Tibetan problem has to be solved she should support
the freedom struggle.

This might help to explain India's gag order. A call to actively support the Tibetan freedom struggle, over some well-meaning arrangements they might make to facilitate a Kalachakra ceremony? Oh, no. That would be way too risky. Who knows who else might follow with calls to support their freedom struggles?

Other links: Amardeep’s post at Sepia Mutiny

Friends Of Tibet

Pankaj Mishra’s article in NYT

Friday, November 10, 2006

Do Not Press

You hear me?

Do Not Press.

(Link via Swar, who posted it here.)


Poetry From 'The Axis Of Evil'

Alwan for the Arts & Action Wednesdays Against the War



THU, November 16th, 2006 @ 7pm
Alwan for the Arts16 Beaver Street, Lower Manhattan
$10 suggested sliding-scale, no one turned away.
Cash BarDirections: http://www.alwanforthearts.org/directions.html

This is the season of despair, this the season of longing. This is the season of the cage and the season of the noose. But this too the season of passion, the season of compassion, the season of resistance. In an age of war, let poetry and music give voice to hope, peace, justice and love.

Come out and listen to musicians and singers, and to performers reciting iconic, classical, contemporary, and radical poetry from the Axis (and near-Axis) of Evil in the original Arabic, Persian, Korean, and Urdu along with English translations.



Dalia Basiouny is an Egyptian Theatre director and academic who is writing a Ph.D. on Arab American Women theatre at CUNY Grad Center and currently works for the UN Radio.

Hossam Fahr is an Egyptian writer and interpreter. He has published three collections of short stories and a novel in Egypt. His fifth book is due to come out in Cairo this month. He lives in New York with his family.

Ali Mir is the co-author of "Anthems of Resistance," a book about the Urdu poetry of the Progressive Writers' Movement.

Iraj Anvar, is the translator and editor of the ground-breaking book of the poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi, "Divani-i Shams-i Tabriz: Forty Eight Ghazals of Rumi." A leading member of the theater community in Iran until his departure in 1978, Dr. Anvar has taught for many years at NYU and has led the New York Ava Ensemble, dedicated to performing classical Persian poetry.

Sok-Min Seo was raised in Seoul, and has studied film and communications in London and New York. He is a film maker and has several short and documentary films to his credit. He is currently working at the UN department of public information.


Tareq Abboushi (Buzuq)
Taoufiq Ben Amor (Vocals, Oud, Daf)
Hedayat Shafei (Tar)

If you're in the area, do try and attend. And pass the word!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Get rid of the black holes...

...of internet censorship. We've been at the receiving end only recently. Today, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) organises a 24 hour online demo against internet censorship. More about it here.

You get click on a map of the world where the worst examples of censorship take place.

And if such push-button activism seems ridiculous, do check out the rest of the site.

Link via The Griff.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Of books, released or destroyed

Nothing about the Dalrymple reading was as amusing as the report of it that appears in today's Metro Plus (The Hindu's city supplement)

Here are some gems from Serish Nanisetti's report:

William Dalrymple is that rare yarn writer of history who doesn't let
people yawn while he is positing his latest hypothesis after digging up tonnes of documents

he begins, and then about Bahadur Shah Zafar:

...what Dalrymple suggests is that he was a symbol of a culture clasp that
almost (breathed) out the British Empire before it was born.

Dalrymple may have done a TV series about Sufis, but it also seems to have induced in him hitherto unsuspected powers:

Beginning his talk with levitating comments about the American worldview
and how it proximates to worldview during the time of uprising, Dalrymple moved on to his subject.

My favourite section, however, is when Dalrymple, like a wrestler (read the whole report), plunges into the story:

narrating the tragic story of the last Mughal from the time his cask is
lowered into the grave in Rangoon in November 1862 to the stirring times when the figurehead became a centrepiece of liberation.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, The Ghost Who Walks. And we never knew.

Who says only the TOI does purplocity (to filch a phrase from Amit)? Read the whole thing here.


For as long as I can remember, the Book Bazar at Koti has been around. My father says it's been there since he came to the city in the early 70's. Sundays meant a heavy brunch and then off to Abids, where secondhand books were neatly laid out on the pavement. As the road curved around the Head Post Office, the type of person browsing would change. If Abids had all those looking for magazines and fiction, Koti had all the earnest students who came hunting for textbooks they would not otherwise be able to afford.

Yesterday, the MCH razed all the shops at Koti. A percentage of the booksellers have been accomodated at Sultan Bazaar, but this is just another instance of the total insensitivity with which Govt. bodies operate. A couple of years ago, they nearly destroyed a heritage building

It's going to be strange to see the place without its bookshops.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Spaniard Buses It

One way of getting to know a city well is to take its public transport. More specifically, when you take a bus, you find out things about a city that you thought you knew well. When I was in Bombay recently, I took a bus from Worli to Regal. Now, a bus taking the usual route would have gone via Haji Ali, Pedder Road and so on, taking the logical, well-established way of getting from point A to point B. but this bus – Route No. forgotten-the-number – turned left at some point when I wasn’t noticing, and the rest of the journey was an adventure the high-point of which was a sign that read: “Today is Prevent Car Theft Day. Spread the word.” What were they thinking? Did they hope that designating a day and putting up a sign would shame the car thief into slinking off hopelessly into the dark?

And what are the odds that you would have spotted such a sign outside Phoenix Mall? This sign I saw was outside a slum where carefully constructed ‘first floors’ housed sleepy people just waking up or watching TV two feet away from their eyeballs. No doubt the people who dreamed up the line thought these guys absorbed English by osmosis from their TV sets. Because the sign wasn’t even bilingual. That’s targeted advertising for you.

There’s something comforting about being on a bus whose you route you know so well, you can fall asleep and wake up in time to get off at your stop. The 91 from Haji Ali to Kalina used to be the perfect bus for me when I was at Sophia. I staggered out at half past six in the morning, and got an empty seat near the window. Slightly more than an hour later, I woke up just in time to jump off and walk briskly to college.

This only happens after a long time, though. The first time in a city, on a route, on a bus is always an anxious time. (The first time I ever took a bus was in college; having studied in boarding school, I never needed to take a bus ever. This incident has scarred me for life, but I will not recount it here. It would make me blush.) You wonder if you’re standing on the right side of the road; if you have enough change in your bag; if you ought to ask how much the ticket is, or look cool and take whatever change the conductor gives you, always thinking the while that he could be gypping you and you’d never know it; or worse – you could look really silly by handing over less money than you need to give. Hell -- you're not even sure you'll know when it is your stop. It's enough to make you never want to go anywhere.

In Bombay, my peculiar problem was getting used to reading bus routes in Hindi. Never having had to use numbers in Hindi, I could barely recognise one number from the other. Of course, in time you get used to it. It’s better than listening to people rattle off numbers in Hindi, as happens all too often in Delhi: “Hanhji, yeh painsath pandrah paanch sau nabbe?” Huh? I always hung up or said, “Wrong number.”

I’m not even getting into the anxieties of standing while taking a bus, especially in Delhi. Suffice it to say that we were never unarmed; an open safety pin was sometimes protection enough.

Sometimes, you’d get on from the front of the bus, because the queues were too long at the back, and you couldn’t face the thought of being felt up by dozens of men as you made your way to the front. So you got up at the front and passed on your change to the conductor and hoped that no ticket inspector would turn up. Of course, they invariably turned up on the days you thought you could get away with a two-stop ride with no ticket. Others routinely got away with never buying a ticket just by the simple expedient of hissing out ‘ishtaff’ from the corners of their mouths. Even if they were callow second years from Dayal Singh (that has to be an oxymoron, I just realised.)

But this business of getting on at the front – it is a peculiar characteristic of buses in the south, that the women have to get on at the front and stay at the front of the bus. At least, in Bangalore and Hyderabad, you get on in the front; don’t think that happens in Madras, but they certainly do seem to all sit in the front (nothing about Madras stays in my head. I’ve taken buses there but it’s all a thankfully blurred memory).

In Bangalore, while editing a film, we travelled every day from Seshadripuram to Jaya Nagar. Until then, Bangalore, for me, was M.G.Road and Brigade Road. It was Koshys and Permier Book Store and Select; and that film guy whose place I always forget – just down the road from Koshys.

Taking a bus changed all that. Sure, you passed the Vidhana Soudha and all the palces you’d expect. But the bus also took you through Chamrajpet, where the houses look like they’re from another century. When jobs are ‘Bangalored’ it’s not because of places like Chamrajpet and Gandhi Nagar.

Do you notice an omission? I do. I’ve never, yet, taken a bus in Hyderabad. It sounds awfully snooty to say thing, but I’ve never needed to. Yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green, a bus pulled up next to my car. It occurred to me that if someone was visiting and asked me what bus they should take to go somewhere, I wouldn’t have the shadow of a clue. I know 127J (in Hyderabad, there’s a letter alongside the route number, to indicate area. So J is Jubilee Hills, K is Kondapur and so on.) but that’s the extent of my meagre knowledge.

So that’s on my list of Things To Do Before You Hit Irreversible Old Age.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All style, but who says no substance?

I liked Don. Not because my expectations were lowered by too much advance carping. Not even because I’ve forgotten the original – I haven’t. I liked Don because though there are many commonalities in plot, it is the departures that are most interesting and significant.

Farhan Akhtar’s Don inhabits a more morally ambiguous universe than Chandra Barot’s Don. Barot has said in an interview, that in his Don, the fight was between good and evil and that he couldn’t see the value in a fight between evil and evil.

Akhtar situates his story very clearly in a post-Cold War (though not explicitly in a post 9/11) international context. Early on we are told that after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a Russian criminal, Boris, has set up a drug cartel operating out of South-East Asia. Singhania is the inheritor of his empire; Vardhaman, who was also a part of Boris’s inner circle, has disappeared. Don is Singhania’s man, and the most dangerous of the lot.

The subtext of this early scene is that if the world had been viewed thus far through the lens of Capitalism = Good and Communism = Bad, the only ism of any value in a post-Soviet Union world is Opportunism. Where is the post-9/11 dominant world-view of Islamic Fundamentalism, you may ask? Where are the clear divisions of the “if you are not with us, you are against us” rhetoric? If there is an international context at all, how is it that the latest demons are entirely absent from the film?

I think that this omission cannot but be deliberate. We know that the story takes place post-9/11, because Arjun Rampal’s character, Jasjit, mentions the year 2002 to his friend when he comes out of prison. I would interpret this as a deliberate refusal to be drawn into easy and absolute definitions of good and evil; if these people are criminals, they are criminals regardless of religion or nationality.

The only scene in the film where religion is overtly displayed is the Ganpati visarjan scene. Even here, the departure is significant. In the earlier version – I hesitate to use the use the word ‘original’ too often – Vijay was an itinerant circus-type performer, a character very much on the margins of society, as was Pran. In this version, to place the character in the institutionalised, and highly politicised context of a Ganpati visarjan is, I think, to make a statement about the largely cynical way in which religion is used (or misused) in public life.

There are only a few scenes set in India. Even the Paan Banaraswala song is set in Malaysia, amongst a fortuitously found Indian community celebrating Mahashivratri. The architecture of globalism is everywhere – the Petronas Towers (the scene where Arjun Rampal takes his son across the bridge between the towers was a great variation of Pran's tightrope walk, I thought), the flyovers, the ropeway at the end of the film, the cars, the gadgets and the cast.

It is as if Akhtar wants to tap into the much-imitated coolth of Asian cinema, and he pulls it off. But he does this not as tribute or homage, in the way that Kill Bill is a homage and a continuous quotation of yakuza and martial arts cinema; he does this by using the earlier version as a palimpsest upon which he writes an entirely different story, but through which you occasionally see glimpses of the old one.

And this is why I think the film is good: because though you are reminded often of the old Don, you don’t spend your time making futile comparisons. Instead you watch this one for its own sake and recall the earlier version only once in a while and that with no regret.

Make no mistake: the film is all style but it is not without substance; a substance that we have not been used to seeing in Hindi cinema – where criminals are criminals with no redeeming features attached; where revenge is ugly and unsweetened by True Love, whatever that is; and where identity is no sheet anchor mooring us to the world as we know it, because everyone is also someone else.

PS -- I especially liked Priyanka Chopra’s Roma in this and thought it was better than Zeenat Aman’s Roma, not least because in this film, the character is unapologetically feminine. (Of course, this might not be as progressive an impulse as it appears, because the audience demands eye candy and perhaps androgynous sulkiness is no longer a turn on.)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Self/Images: Girish Karnad’s Bikhre Bimb

I have to confess that the theatre does nothing for me. The last time a play sent a frisson of excitement down my spine was when I was in college and we read, assigned parts and rehearsed Hellman’s Children’s Hour overnight for some theatre festival at Stephens.

I fail to understand what theatre does today that cannot be done better and in a more sophisticated manner by cinema. Admittedly, I am biased; all the great innovations in art in the last century have come from cinema. In animation, montage, art direction, lensing, sound – cinema has done more to dramatise the human condition than theatre can ever hope to.

A dedicated theatre person cannot but respond to the challenges that technology-in-art presents. How would proscenium theatre respond? Not having attended a play in ages, I’m astonishingly ignorant, so I have no idea of the range of possible engagements that theatre may have made with technology. Which is why Girish Karnad’s new play, Bikhre Bimb, came as a pleasant surprise.

Set in a TV studio, where Manjula Nayak is presenting her very successful new novel in English, the play plunges into contentious waters, with the now-familiar debate between vernacular writing and Indian writing in English. Nayak is in the studio to rebut the Kannada intellectuals’ dismissal of her new novel as one written to pander to western tastes.

But this is a red herring, as we soon find out. The interview over, Nayak is about to leave the studio, when her own image from the screen stops her and begins a conversation with her. Getting over the shock of finding herself apparently as a separate entity on screen, Nayak soon enters into a conversation with her image, and many secrets spill out over the rest of the play.

It is an interesting device. Using a screen – the word itself being a loaded one – to separate one’s self and make it ‘other’ is a useful interpretation and one that is done with a certain a amount of self-consciousness in the play. In one entire conversation, Nayak stops talking in a fit of pique and her image speculates on the nature of this creature in (I use the word advisedly) the screen: am I like Narcissus, she asks in love with one's own reflection; or, like the Romantics imagined it, am I a doppelganger, a double; a Dorian Gray; or an ‘objective correlative’ for your anxieties; Lacan would have embraced me, she says; or, since this is about the global and native, I could be like the voice of conscience in Hindi cinema, exhorting you think about your poor father whose money he has kept aside for medicines, that you are about to steal.

This is done with a tongue-in-cheek playfulness that does not detract from the very fundamental question it raises: the nature of the self, especially since it is raised by what would appear to be a figment of the imagination or a feverish hallucination. It is not Manjula's indentity the image is questioning, though that unasked question hovers over the whole play, but her own: as a mere image, who is she?

Nayak breaks her silence, after all, and more secrets emerge, none of which are particularly startling or earth-shattering. The play ends in a rather disappointing manner, but I won’t reveal how, in the event that anyone actually watches the play and is likely to be impressed terribly by it.

The play was interesting to watch for several reasons: apart from the portion that I’ve described above, the most interesting use of or interaction with technology was a response that was very analogous to cinema: the play only has one actor, Arundhati Nag. She is both writer and image. This means that an hour long take of the image speaking was shot and projected on screen, and Nag as actor on stage responds to the image. This self speaking to self is done in much the way that one would shoot dialogue in cinema. One actor, off screen, speaks her lines and the actor on screen responds.

In other words, a good half of the play happened much earlier, while it was being filmed. Someone moved around and spoke lines, and Nag-as-image responded, looked in different directions as the other character moved about and spoke. On stage, this process was reversed; Nag-as-writer spoke and moved about to be in the places where the image would be looking, to maintain the illusion that this was a ‘real’ conversation between self and image.

The other most interesting thing that happened during this particular performance was multiple technical failures. For the actor and the crew this must have been distressing; for me, in the audience, the process of resuming the performance from the point at which it had been interrupted by technical failure, was very, very informative. For a start, this had never happened in any other performance. Those performances must have been an exercise in a perfectly-created illusion, a state of experience analogous to the watching of cinema. Here, the performance being disrupted, it reminded me of nothing so much as a film shoot, where many things can go wrong in the coordination of several technical aspects, and where performances are repeated and meaning accrues to a performance only incrementally. For me, these technical hitches, instead of taking away from the performance, added an unexpected element to it.

I suppose what I am saying is that this play was interesting to watch because it intersected with cinema in many ways. I'm not sure how I'd have responded had it been otherwise.

Bikhre Bimb has been performed over 50 times in the last few months. I’m not sure where the next performance is, but do watch it if you can. I can’t say it’s a great play, but it is certainly an interesting one and worth watching.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006


Everyone knows, or at least I hope everyone knows, that neither Bogey nor Ingrid Bergman ever said "Play it again, Sam." in Casablanca. Sometimes, the misquote becomes more iconic and memorable than the no doubt less-than-perfect original.

"Elementary, my dear Watson." is one of 'em. Sir Arthur's etheric remains must be twirling in a tizzy, wishing it'd thought of it first.

Picture Plum sitting at his typewriter, joining up one sheet of paper to the other so that he need not interrupt his own genius. Psmith takes shape on the page. And at Plum's shoulder, something else takes shape -- Sir Arthur Ectoplasm, tinged green with envy, watches Plum as he types the immortal words and puts them in Psmith's mouth.

The Oxford Dictionary Of Quotations, edited by Elizabeth Knowles, now has a section on misquotations.

Ms Knowles said: "The last thing we want is to be seen as clever clogs,
saying that these quotes are wrong. The fascination lies in how and why they
were altered. Misquotations are much more interesting than mistakes."

Sherlock Holmes's trademark phrase is a key example in the collection,
entitled They Never Said That, which Oxford University Press publishes this
week. The nearest the fictional detective got to "elementary" was a single use
of the word in one short story, The Crooked Man, published in 1894. The full
phrase was coined 21 years later by PG Wodehouse, in Psmith, Journalist, whose
hero tacks on the remainder of the phrase.

Ms Knowles said: "It's an example of a misquotation which sounds much
more in keeping than the original."

Anyone who has read Nigel Rees will have a store of quotes, unquotes and misquotes. Like he says, there are some things that, "once heard are never remembered accurately."

Feel free to misquote him on that.. Link to the Guardian article here.

More from Quote...Unquote here.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Bilkiz Alladin

It is an odd coincidence that the release of William Dalrymple's The Last Mughal should have taken place in the same month that Bilkiz Alladin passed away.

Some time in 2000, Bilkiz had organised a reading at her place. Dalrymple was there, reading from At The Court Of The Fish-Eyed Goddess. Whatever else followed is not very clear, but a few years later, Dalrymple came out with the hugely successful White Mughals. Bilkiz always maintained that her help was not acknowledged enough, and that Dalrymple essentially based his entire book on her play, For The Love Of a Begum.

I've read a play she showed me, based on the Khairunnisa story. The whole incident reminded me of Throw Mamma From The Train. In the film, after Billy Crystal and Danny De Vito are both free from the nuisances of their ex-wife and mother respectively, they each settle down to write their book. In what seems like a horrible deja vu, Billy Crystal is about to announce the completion of his book only to find he's been upstaged by De Vito, who has already published the story of their adventures.

Crystal is in a deep, murderous rage, ready for any act he might later regret, when De Vito shows him the book--it is a pop-up children's book, nothing at all like the the no doubt dark and hard-boiled book Crystal has written. He is relieved.

I wish Bilkiz could have seen the For The Love Of A Begum/White Mughals incident like that. The two were so completely different. The play she showed me was a light-hearted romp, part musical, part old-fashioned romance. I don't even begin to see the comparison with White Mughals. Perhaps what rankled was that Dalrymple was not seen to be grateful enough. (He acknowledged her help in the book, but she is one of the many people he thanked.)

Bilkiz passed away on the 16th of this month. The very last time I met her was at another reading. It was drizzling and she was walking from her house to the place where the reading was to take place -- a less than two-minute walk. I offered her a lift, but she insisted that she wanted to walk. Later, she said she'd been doing the rounds of some publishing houses, that she had a manuscript ready.

That will probably never see the light of day now. One could feel some regret, if it wasn't for Bilkiz's enthusiasm that did not allow for such presumption.

Odd that this article written so many years ago, should sound so like an obituary.

Friday, October 20, 2006

In which the adolescents write the darndest things

These are 14 year olds?! Deschool society NOW!

Here's a good one one:

"The greatest writer of the Renaissance was Shakespeare. He was born in 1564, supposedly on his birthday. He never made much money and is famous only because of his plays.

"He wrote tragedies, comedies and hysterectomies - all in Islamic pentameter."

But my favourite:

...wrote that Caesar had been murdered by the Ides of March and that his
dying words were "same to you, Brutus".

The Independent link via Crooked Timber.

More GCSE howlers here.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

The futility of it all

I'm trying to think of a good reason why I'd want to continue blogging.

Over the last three days, I've been under immense work pressure, and what with the electricity acting up, I'm in a lousy mood.

And I've discarded several attempts at a post. Every time I start, I feel especially snarly, and sneery.

I feel, in fact, like one of those tall, dark, handsome, moody heroes who drop their heads into their hands in Wodehouse books and groan piteously, their souls wracked by the weight of the world's sorrows.

But I'm no hero; hell -- I'm even the wrong gender for herodom -- and my soul ain't wracked by anything more earth-shaking than a very bad mood.

All of which is to say, unless I snap out of it, expect a looooooooong. silence. The thought that someone somewhere is waiting anxiously for me to deliver another gem for them to marvel at is stressing me out too much.

And, just as an objective correlative for all of the above, here is Escher's Drawing Hands.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The Judge, The Cook, The Orphan and Her Lover

And before you think it is Peter Greenaway redux, it's not.

John Crace digests this year's Booker Short List and that's the Digested, digested for Kiran Desai's The Inheritance Of Loss.

Why am I so troubled? thought Sai. Why does every chapter start with a few
words in italics? Why has every sentence become a question? Is it because there are so few answers in such a chaotic world?

A brief flash of rebel violence
interrupted the introspection, but all the characters were left unscathed.

Nasty, nasty. Go read.

Update: Kiran Desai has won the Booker.

The Guardian says,

"And at her first attempt Desai, 37, not only became the youngest woman to win but achieved a victory which repeatedly eluded her mother. The esteemed Indian novelist Anita Desai - to whom The Inheritance of Loss is dedicated - has been shortlisted for the prize three times."

Monday, October 09, 2006


I've always been insanely jealous of those who have exciting google searches to report. I mean, who wouldn't get a thrill down their spine if someone landed up on their blog after typing in 'Paris Hilton sex toys' (evil strategy at work here) or 'suhaag raat experience' or some weird random combination of words that makes you wonder what they're on, the guys who do these searches.

I usually get people who land up here after typing in the word 'spaniard' or in combination with 'in the works'. So exciting. Sometimes it is preceded by either the definite or the indefinite article. Sometime the Ghost of John Lennon lingers behind the words. Mostly, it is yawn-inducingly predictable. This is when I begin to think that everyone is faffing their heads off about the searches they get, only to make their life seem more interesting than it is.

Today, dear reader, I am pleased to report that finally, finally, someone came here after looking for some information with the following combination of words: 'nt error space bunnies'.

'nt error' is very ordinary. but space bunnies?! (It appears to be the Miroslav Holub poem); but what I want to know is, what would induce anybody to search for these two items together?

I'm working on some theories, she said darkly.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A thousand truths: Caché

In an interview that is an extra on the DVD of Caché, Michael Haneke says, “There are a thousand truths. Truth is a matter of perspective.” Nothing establishes this more clearly than the opening shot of the film: a camera that is placed in some side street shows a road in a residential area.

Some cars are parked; there are apartments in the front and on the left of the frame; an occasional cyclist passes by, or a car hisses past from left to right. If there are murmurs or any ambient sound, you don’t really hear them because the titles are coming up across the screen and they are almost too tiny to read. The titles eventually disappear but nothing else changes – a static shot of a street, and some movement in the frame and perhaps a little more sound than there was a minute ago.

Suddenly the image flickers, twists and there are a couple of large dropouts. Then, the steady horizontal lines across the frame that you get when you’re rewinding a VHS tape. With a shock you realise that this is exactly what is happening: the shot that you’ve been watching is being wound back and replayed.

In cinema, one of the ‘truths’ that has been handed down is that the camera itself is a mere recording instrument. That what you see is a ‘truth’, an event that has as its basis a measure of verifiability, because it cannot be broken down. It is to montage, or construction, that we look for the distortion of the simplicity of a shot. We have come to expect from montage the 2+2=5 formula that implies that the whole is more than the sum of its parts.

This opening shot of Caché overturns those expectations so effectively, that you are already unsettled by the time you understand what you have just seen. Immediately after, you see a couple standing in front of a TV screen, watching a tape. Someone has been sending them videotapes of their house and their movements, as if to say, “Look out. You’re being watched.” Sometimes, these tapes come wrapped in a paper that has disturbing drawings that are meant to look as if they were drawn by a child. Very briefly, the film is about the couple trying to find out who made and sent those tapes, and the effects that this event has upon the family.

In the course of the film, many things that have been hidden (the English title of the film is Hidden) are revealed either reluctantly or in such a manner that you are forced to doubt not only the intentions of the person who makes such revelations, but the truth of the statement itself. There are indeed a thousand truths, and everyone has their own version of it.

To return to the import of the opening shot: when the film opens, as a viewer, you are ready to take what is presented to you at face value. A street, with some occasional movement on it. When the image is rewound, another ‘truth’ laminates itself on to the earlier one, until you are forced to view the first in the light of the second. What this emphasises, cinematically, is that if truth is a matter of perspective, then what you see in the film is not just a story of people who have kept many disturbing things in their lives buried and unexamined; it is also the story of how you, as a viewer, begin to realise the ways in which the truth is concealed.

In an interview with Sight and Sound, Godard says, “Certain ministers of culture in France are saying young people should be taught how to read images and films. No. They need to learn how to see them. Learning to read is different.”

Indeed it is. You don’t ‘read’ a film; you see it. This cannot be emphasised enough. There is no other way of understanding the opening of Caché except in visual terms. Just as there would have been no way of writing the slight alteration of meaning that takes place within the single opening shot. If a shot is one unified package of meaning, the only way of questioning the veracity of the shot is to call into question the way you see it. In other words, the only way to challenge a truth is to put it in a different perspective. In Caché, Haneke does this visually.

That this method is not accidental becomes clear at several points in the film. One tape that the couple gets, shows roads, a building, and finally, a corridor that leads to a blue door. Later, when the man traces the particular locality and is walking down the same corridor leading to the same door, the shot shows exactly what the tape did. You are meant to think that this is the same as that. Then you realise that where the tape was utterly silent, here you hear footsteps. And that the camera shows the same things, but not in exactly the same way – on the tape, the movement was smooth; here, there is a clear left-right sway to the camera. As these details register in increments, feet appear on the floor, and a point-of-view shot becomes a more neutral one. The man outpaces the camera and strides on to the door that you are already familiar with. But because so many things have become different visually, you no longer know what to expect.

Again, Haneke alters the truth of something within the shot itself, rather than through montage. Nothing is reliable, he seems to say. Not even what I say, because see how I say it?

NB: The final shot of the film, another lengthy shot of the outside of the son’s school, has been the subject of much debate because of its deliberate ambiguity. Haneke said, in the same interview, that he had originally written dialogues for two of the people in the shot, but later decided against using it. What is even more interesting is that a large number of people who watched the film missed out on a crucial element of the end because it was in long shot and they simply did not notice something important. For these viewers, the film must have meant something entirely different simply because of what they did not see. This is very cryptic, I know, but I’m really not going to say more. You’ll have to watch the film for yourself.

Monday, October 02, 2006

MS Error Messages in Japan

From a few years ago, but just in case some of you haven't seen 'em.

They're haikus, by the way.

Your file was so big.
It might be very useful.
But now it is gone.

The Website you seek
Cannot be located,
but Countless more exist.

Chaos reigns within.
Reflect, repent, and reboot.
Order shall return.

Program aborting:
Close all that you have worked on.
You ask far too much.

Windows NT crashed.
I am the Blue Screen of Death.
No one hears your screams.

Yesterday it worked.
Today it is not working.
Windows is like that.

First snow, then silence.
This thousand dollar screen dies
So beautifully.

With searching comes loss
And the presence of absence:
"My Novel" not found.

The Tao that is seen
Is not the true Tao
until You bring fresh toner.

Stay the patient course.
Of little worth is your ire.
The network is down.

A crash reduces
Your expensive computer
To a simple stone.

Three things are certain:
Death, taxes and lost data.
Guess which has occurred.

You step in the stream,
But the water has moved on.
This page is not here.

Out of memory.
We wish to hold the whole sky,
But we never will.

Having been erased,
The document you're seeking
Must now be retyped.

Serious error.
All shortcuts have disappeared.
Screen, mind, both are blank.


4th October: Update, Update, Update!!!!

I read from India Uncut that Pete Grey points him to where these haikus originally appeared. These were the results of a competition that the Salon held in 1998. Thanks, Amit!

That's one mystery solved. What a relief. Now, if only people who forward stuff like this via email also had the sense to provide a link, I might get more sleep than I do. Someone owes me for eight years' lost sleep!

Saturday, September 30, 2006

“The horror! The horror!”

The GRAFTII recently paid tribute to the film editor Renu Saluja, whose untimely death in 2000 deprived the Hindi film industry of one its best editors. The book, Invisible: The Art Of Renu Saluja, was released at Crossword a few months ago, but somehow, all of seemed very far away to me. It wasn’t until Praba Mahajan mailed me a few days ago that I started to remember my own (very brief) association with Renu.

In the years that I studied at the FTII, the editing students of the FTII had about thirteen exercises to complete, in addition to all the work that they did as a team – the song sequence, the documentary and the diploma film. One of the exercises that was given us much later in the year, more or less at the time we were also editing our diplomas, was a scene from Khamosh. This was, in effect, a workshop exercise, because every year, Renu Saluja, who edited the original film, would come down and supervise out edits.

Now, Khamosh was shot using film like toilet paper (to borrow, I think, Ketan Mehta’s slightly unusual way of putting it). Which meant that every shot had numerous takes and the whole scene was shot from every conceivable angle. In the scene we had to edit, a shoot out is happening on a road, and six (five? I’ve forgotten!) bullets are fired. Several things happen almost simultaneously, and our job was to bring all of this together.

The thing that Renu was most celebrated for was her ability to construct scenes radical ways and interpret them so that something that even the director had not conceived of was realised on the editing table. This is a unique gift, not given to even the most competent editor. In this exercise that she had set, our job was one of not only construction, but also interpretation.

We had several fragments of action, and there were an infinite number of ways in which they could be ordered, so that a story was told. The crucial question, “And then what happened?” had several answers, all of them potentially the right one. Of course, this was possible only because we were editing this out of the context of the entire film.

So we were to have already assembled the scene before Renu arrived. She usually stayed for a few days, looked at one rough edit, made suggestions and stayed until she had seen all ten editors’ final versions of the scene.

The day she was to arrive, we were all nervous. Here was this famous editor who had worked with every single major director of the previous decade, and she was going to be sitting next to us when the lights were off and the Steenbeck flickered to life. What could we construct that would compare with that experience?

It would be facile to say that Renu was gentle and genuinely appreciative of every unusual or new way of ordering the scene. She was all of that, but there was, in our minds, a gap between her enormous skill and this pleasant person that was not entirely bridgeable in the space of a few days. When she stopped the Steenbeck to go back and look at something again, my heart stopped. When she said, “Ah, you’ve chosen that take, have you?” I searched my memory frantically to try and remember which other take I ought to have chosen. Was this the wrong one?

But the point of the exercise, as we learnt, was that there was no right or wrong; no one way to do anything while editing. It was the equivalent of a sentence that can be punctuated in a number of different ways to produce different meanings. And it was the single most liberating piece of knowledge I acquired at the Institute.

But I digress.

The horror that I alluded to in the title is about to make its appearance right about now.

Did I say we used to edit in the dinosaur years? This meant that we had to mark on the Steenbeck the shots that were ok and separate them from the ones we didn’t want to use; we had to use the synchrometer to match the relevant sound takes with the shots we’d chosen; go back to the Steenbeck to mark where the cuts would be; come back to the synchrometer to make the cuts and splice the film (ok—editing lesson over).

Next to our editing tables where the synchrometers were, were bins on which we hung the strips of film that were not actually in the scene. The bins were essentially a huge bag hung on a steel frame, to hold the film so it would not trail all over the floor and get scratched. At the top, like an old four-poster bed, was a piece of wood with nails in it, so that we could hook out film easily on it. From here we suspended all the bits of film where the claps are, the flashframes, the portions before and after the fragments that went to construct the sense of the scene. With Khamosh, we discovered, this amounted to a lot of film hanging in the bin! When the entire exercise was over, we had to neatly roll up the film and put it away in cans.

The last evening that Renu was there, everybody was feverishly working late into the night to finish up so that she could see everyone’s edit before she left. I had finished showing her my exercise and she had no problems with it, so I only had to pack up and leave. But I was infected with everyone’s urgency. I could have left the clearing of the bin until the next day, but I wanted to finish it up right then.

So under Renu’s watchful eyes, I started to unhook pieces of film and roll it up. But there was so much of it! Everything tangled up, curling, twisting and impossible to separate unless I heaved the whole thing on the floor. I had a growing roll of film in my hand, almost reel length, and that meant I was in effect using only one hand.

Renu silently watched me struggle, and occasionally went across to someone else’s table to talk to them about something. I was almost in tears. I should have thrown the whole thing back in and left it for another time when I was less tired. Instead, when Renu was at a Steenbeck, I found a giant pair of scissors and started to hack at the film at the point where the tangles were most intransigent. I didn’t care if I was cutting the film mid-frame! I just used the scissors until there were deep red marks between my thumb and index finger.

Just then, Renu emerged from the editing room and stood transfixed at the door. Totally absorbed in my mutilation, I was unaware that she had returned. I paused to take a break. And I realised that Renu was looking at me in utter horror. Her eyes were enormous behind her spectacles and she was speechless.

I had no idea what to do. Should I drop everything and flee and hope that she wouldn’t recognise me the next time she saw me? Should I apologise? After such a massacre, what forgiveness? What could I say?

After a few seconds, Renu recovered. She sat on a stool next to my table and calmly continued to watch me. Having started, I had to finish. And I did, trembling all the while. At the end, Renu said, quite mildly, under the circumstances, “If you ever come to assist me, you can’t do this, you know.”

I’m not sure what I said in reply. The only thing I knew was that I would never. Ever. Ever. Ever go and ask to assist her on a film. So many of the editors today who are doing great work -- Sanjib Dutta, Hemanti Sarkar, Jabeen Merchant – assisted Renu. But I never did. The memory of what I did still haunts me.

That was the last time I saw Renu, unfortunately. There was so much more to learn from her. And she could have edited so many more films had she not been snatched away. But all those regrets are best consigned, like discarded pieces of film, into the bins that we no longer see in editing rooms.


Lovely film, but I don't feel like writing about it at length.

In fact, I only have one burning question: Just how did Ayesha Takia sign the maafinama at the end? I didn't see a pen anywhere. (If it comes to that, how did one forlorn piece of paper, said maafinama, survive a night in the desert without moving more than a couple of feet away from where it fell, so that it was easily found the next day?)

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Swashbucklin’ Spaniard

There’s a particular summer vacation I remember more than any other, not least because it was the big one after my class ten exams. It was too early to start worrying about the results and too late (much too late!) to do anything about sundry eff-ups one made in the exams.

In the meanwhile, there were a delicious two and a half months, and I was home, in Hyderabad, after some years in other god-forsaken towns. I was doing French, falling in and out of love, and had just met the most wonderful person: a neighbour down the road, Bernadette Kao. She had two young kids and a large collection of books. The first was not a recommendation, but the second—oh, but the second!

There is something special about borrowing books from friends; libraries are very worthy places, but unless it is a school or a college library, chances are you will find a limited choice of books chosen to represent either a country or some special interest.

So when Bernadette told me I was welcome to borrow as many books as I liked, my joy, to coin a phrase, knew no bounds.

(Be warned: this is a long, long post)

Every three days, I’d land up at her place and take back enormous piles of books to read. what I especially enjoyed reading were Bernadette’s Recommendations (-: why does that sound familiar :-)

In one lot I had The Monkey King by Wu Ch'eng-en, Paul Zindell’s The Effect Of Gamma Rays On Man In The Moon Marigolds (yes, I chose it for the title, but the guy won a Pulitzer for it!), and among many, many other books, Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche.

For those who haven’t read it, Scaramouche is the story of Andre-Louis Moreau, a lawyer who, in the process of avenging his friend’s murder, becomes many things on the sidelines and in the anonymous centre of the French Revolution. This is how the book begins:

"He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony."

A few paragraphs later, “you perceive him at the age of four and twenty, stuffed with learning enough to produce intellectual indigestion in an ordinary mind.”

(All quotations off the top off my head; please forgive any missing words here and there)

Very soon, Andre-Louis is witness to the foul murder of his friend, Philippe, in a one-sided duel. The murderer being the very powerful Marquis de le Tour d’Azyr, it is impossible to get anyone in a position of authority to see that this is murder. Remember, this is on the eve of the French Revolution; Andre-Louis goes off to tilt against the windmills of the legislature. Finding the windmill intransigent, he vows to see what he can do with the wind, having taken an oath on the body of his dead friend to pursue the evil Marquis whenever he can with Phillippe’s ‘dangerous gift of eloquence’.

In short order, Andre-Louis raises the wind, flees to escape the consequences and joins a touring company of actors whose tawdry productions they claim are descended from nothing less than the commedia delle arta. Here, he becomes what he sees is the role he is destined to play all his life: that of Scaramouche – artful, sly provocateur, always ready to stir things up, always ironic, detached and always playing a part.

Since that long-ago summer when I first read Scaramouche, I’ve re-read the book several times. Oddly enough, no school or college library had a copy of the book. In college, one friend dug it up from an aunt’s bookshelf. I annexed the book, got the whole thing xeroxed and held on to my friend’s copy for a good, long while.

In at least one exam paper every year, a line from Scaramouche, suitably modified, would make an appearance (Shoma, ‘fess up! You mugged up ‘the vision that pierces all husks and shams and claims the core of reality for its own’!); and no, we didn’t exercise ourselves too much about whether this constituted plagiarism.

The first copy of Scaramouche I owned was given me by an ex-boyfriend. We were wandering around Daryagunj, when I found what I had come to think of as my edition; the one I first borrowed from Bernadette. It had a white cover, with a man dressed all in white, pointing a sword at some person unseen (I knew who the person was!). It was a Pan edition, yellowed with age. That day, the book acquired this triumphant and ungrammatical inscription: ‘remember it was me who gave you this book.’ Sigh.

Years later, another friend in another city, gave me what amounted to a farewell gift, since I haven’t seen him since then. It was a first edition, which he most fortuitously found at Select Book Store (off Brigade Road, Bangalore). It used to belong to one Charlie Shipp, back then in December 1921. For what must be a well-thumbed romance, it is remarkably well preserved, 85 years after it first saw light of day.

Then, in 2003, I decided to return to Hyderabad permanently. There were some unpleasant threads to tie up (what was that Vikram Seth poem? ‘Uncomprehending day, I tie my loss to leaves and watch them drift away’) and that took some time. By the time I came back home, I was exhausted and depressed. My mother had a gift for me: the new House of Strauss edition of not just Scaramouche, but also Scaramouche The Kingmaker and Captain Blood. The inscription on this edition of Scaramouche says, “The one book to lift your spirits and make you smile again.”

This way of unembarrassed writing is clearly catching!

And why would I apologise? I love the book and I’ve read it hundreds of times; I know large parts of it extremely well. It is melodramatic, romantic, ironic, passionate and swashbuckling by turns. And what rousing speeches there are! Sometimes, I feel that someone only has to put a sword in my hand and I will acquit myself fairly well purely on the strength of what I’ve read in the book!

Rafael Sabatini was Italian by birth, but chose to live in England and write in English because he thought that ‘all the best stories are written in English’. He wrote other books that were not as well-received as Scaramouche was when it was published in 1921. These were the years between the wars. Much had changed, but much was yet to change.

If it was ironic that Sabatini’s reputation was made by a story that was clearly revolutionary in intent, but written in a language whose speakers were the inheritors of an Empire on which the sun never set, it is an irony that no one would appreciate more than Andre-Louis Moreau – Scaramouche himself.

As for me, I am eternally grateful to the man who gave us this amazing book.

For other books by Rafael Sabatini, go to Project Gutenberg. Personally, I think the best things he wrote were the ones I’ve mentioned above, though I feel fond of King In Prussia and Anthony Wilding – the last because the edition I have is a WWII Armed Forces Edition with a print that’s almost too small to read.