Thursday, July 27, 2006

Idle Spaniard

The lava lamp I got as a birthday gift is a stubborn thing. It takes at least a couple of hours to get started. For two hours, the purple wax moves imperceptibly like the hour hand on a grandfather clock. It stretches out stiff, arthritic and unsteady. I watch the rain instead. I sit at the window, waiting to be hypnotised. But what’s lashing at the trees out there is an angry thing.

The lava has to be better.

Something appears to be happening. The first bubble. But its skin is thin and it bursts before it can float upward. Now the wax is a long, ropy bridge between the top and the bottom. It is never going to get soft enough to become the lava I was promised.


The puddles are everywhere. It ought to be fun to wear an old pair of sandals and wade through what the night has left behind, but it isn’t. These puddles are reproaches; men on cycles hesitate at the lip of the big one that occupies the entire corner of the road. One turns back and I think he’s going to take another road, but no. He’s gone to take a run-up. He cycles furiously and just as the wheel’s about to touch water, he draws his legs up to the handlebar. It’s a wonder he manages to keep his balance all the way through. Wouldn’t it be ironic if, after all the care he’s taken not to get wet, he tips over smack into the centre of the puddle?


There’s a letter I’m trying to save up. It came in the post a couple of days ago. Letters are rare birds these days, and this was a real-life, postage-stamped, not-on-official-letter-paper letter from a friend. The adhesive on the flap was a good one: strong but not the kind you have to take a pair of scissors to. It lifted easily and inside, one sheet of closely written paper. In the way one does, I skimmed over the page, trying to take in everything at once. What is it about letters? You can warm your hands on them on a cold day. I’ve put that letter away, but one day soon, just before I sit down to reply, I’ll take it out again and read it slowly.


I hate pigeons. They make gross noises in their throat and are constantly screwing. And they imagine they can build a reasonably comfortable nest out of three wisps of straw. They lay their eggs in the most unlikely places, like the edge of window ledges, or on the top of the electricity meter, and don’t seem to care one way or the other when, inevitably, the eggs get smashed. Once, a pigeon was irresistibly attracted to the narrow space – not even half a palm wide – between the AC and the wall. It managed to burrow into that space, but couldn’t get out. It flapped and screeched and got more deeply wedged. The window of the third floor flat this happened in opened out on to the other side of the AC. You could hear the pigeon flutter and flap but you couldn’t see it or reach it in any way. After some time, it gave up and just sat until a kite came and took it away.


Work. Got to go.

Monday, July 24, 2006


A friend told me about Osama almost two years ago. She didn’t tell me about it, she described the film in vivid detail to me, shivering at the memory of the horrors the film described.

No one can doubt that a film that tells the story of a girl in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will be horrifying. The girl’s mother, a doctor who is no longer allowed to practise, makes her daughter dress as a boy so that someone in the house can continue to earn money. In the new dispensation, if being a woman is a curse, becoming a man is fraught with unexpected danger. The Taliban take the girl away to a training camp where all the boys are made to undergo religious and military instruction. Inevitably, the deception is discovered and Osama – a name bestowed on the girl by a boy she knows – is taken away to prison. There is a reprieve, but it is a blessing so mixed, one could make a case for a honourable death over such a fate.

The interesting thing about the film is precisely this: the way in which it sucks the viewer into such judgements that would be otherwise unthinkable. Living as we do, who would say ‘death over dishonour’ without being ironic? But as you watch Osama’s deception discovered in the most traumatic way (She is tied up over an open well as a punishment. She screams for hours, and when she is finally brought down, there’s blood coursing down her legs, leaving no one in the military camp with any lingering doubts about her gender) you do think precisely that. Because Osama’s benefactor is an old mullah with many wives, who wants to marry Osama. Earlier, this same mullah gives the young boys instructions in how to wash themselves and it becomes clear that whatever Osama’s gender, he has his eye on her.

Would marriage have been a more tolerable solution had the mullah not been fat, bald and old? The film does not answer this in any satisfactory way. In fact, though the bleak piling up of miseries is effective, the narrative scope of the film is so narrow that the only way to view it is to accept the paradigm it offers us and allow oneself to be horrified at the lives so many people must lead.

Not that this is a bad thing, but it leads to the kind of hobbled choices that fall firmly within the same patriarchal set-up this film is attempting to critique. Perhaps those are the only choices available to the women in Afghanistan; but surely a filmmaker can have a different perspective? Through the film, the women passively accept the changes in their life. Sure, Osama’s mother attempts to continue to work. But it takes a male patient to rescue her from arrest; it is the beggar boy who sets himself up as Osama’s protector at the training camp; the only rebellion the wives of the mullah seem to be capable of is to hide Osama and be silent when the mullah comes looking for her the first night.

Perhaps it will take a few more films before Siddiq Barmak can find his feet. As first films go, Osama is miles ahead of the short film I had the misfortune to see that same evening.

But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

“not silence but more speech”

Today’s Metro Plus (The Hindu’s supplement) has an article by Anand Shankar, in which he quotes Laurence Liang, who works with the Alternate Law Forum. Liang is quoted as saying, “You must realise that the answer to problematic speech is not silence, but more speech.”

He says this in the context of Nehru’s Amendment to Article 19 (1) (A) of the Constitution, which deals with the freedom of speech and expression; and Article 19 (2), which imposes ‘reasonable restrictions’ on free speech. He says that Nehru made this amendment to Article 19 (1) (A) to ‘deal with extreme right and left opinion’.

The reason why I’ve quoted him is not to argue the Amendment, about which I know nothing. I’ve quoted him because I agree with his statement that ‘the answer to problematic speech is not silence, but more speech.’

But if only all our problems were solved so easily, with a simple agreement. This whole brouhaha about the DoT blocking websites is, in my opinion, just another minor quake in our consciousness and soon we will all settle into our very democratic apathy and be moved by nothing more than the latest cricket scores.

We are rarely moved to defend free speech except where it affects us personally. So if you’re a blogger and your access to blogspot or whatever you use is blocked, you become indignant and are exercised enough to mount a protest. If you’re a filmmaker whose film has been denied a censor certificate, you gather all those who are, or might be, similarly affected and take some action.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m all for protest. I’m all for standing up for one’s right to speak in whichever medium one chooses. I support and have supported filmmakers and bloggers alike. I would, wouldn’t I? I have been a filmmaker and now I blog.

People support causes only when they see it directly affects them. We might all be in favour of free speech in the abstract, but how many of us will get off our seats to add our voices wherever and whenever a violation of our freedoms occurs? For the most part, we react, locally, in the short term.

Not that reacting is bad. But it has to be recognised for what it is: something that loses its energy very quickly. Tomorrow the govt. will unblock its ban and this noise will subside.

When people are brought together for a very limited reason, and a short-term goal is achieved, a movement loses its momentum. Nobody wants this to happen, naturally enough. With the best of intentions, the fora that were set up to communicate with people all over the world united by a common cause, become babels of differing opinions.

This also is to be expected. If we are to function in a democratic manner, everyone has to have their say and most people have a lot to say. Every decision has to be presented, debated and a consensus arrived at before any action can be taken. Often this takes months and is a very, very boring process. Mostly it involves people dashing off lengthy letters to person or persons concerned, to which a large percentage of the collective will be happy to merely append their signatures. If you are on a list, most of your mails will consist of people saying, ‘please add my name to the list’.

I am being slightly facetious here, but there is more than a grain of truth in my account of processes. This does happen.

The larger point I am making here is that immediate action is energising and romantic. Sustained protest is nothing if not tedious. There is nothing exciting about sending faxes. (I’m reminded of that Calvin and Hobbes one where Calvin’s hopes of being a superhero in our times is dashed by Hobbes, who says, “Quick! To the batfax!”)

Most people are unable to look beyond their noses; which of us acts with total conviction about what the outcome of our actions will be?

Ben Sandilands’ article in The Guardian talks about Antarctica being the last frontier that fuel-hungry nations are waiting to claim and exploit. Do we care enough about this to act on it in whichever way we think best? We probably do in a well-meaning, woolly-headed way. But do we really believe that raising our voices against the governments involved will result in anything meaningful?

And how many issues will we protest? About how many things will we act so that we create a groundswell of opinion? It takes way to much effort to read enough about issues to really understand them, much less talk about them.

So, though I’m with Laurence Liang when he says ‘not silence but more speech’, I’m afraid I’m also rather sceptical about it happening any time soon.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Blog Block

So the reason why I couldn’t access blogspot was not because of a bad connection but because blogs were being blocked. This is exactly the kind of aftermath I was afraid of. The Hindustan Times reports officials as asking, "We would like those people to come forward who access these (the 12) radical websites and please explain to us what are they missing from their lives in the absence of these sites." (link via Falstaff).

Now we’re supposed to live our lives according to what we can do without? Because, I suppose, we have to give some things up to be safe? And what happens once we’ve agreed to stay quiet though films are banned, though theatres give in to pressure and agree not to screen films? What happens to the plays we agree are to incendiary to watch, the books that we must not read just in case we’re contaminated by the ideas they present?

What do we get in exchange for our docility?

About the whole blogspot thing, others have said it better, so go read:

Neha Vishwanathan

Bloggers Against Censorship (this will lead you to a whole lot of other relevant pages)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hecht and Horace

Stumbled upon this sonnet by Anthony Hecht.

An Old Malediction
(freely from Horace)

What well-heeled knuckle-head, straight from the unisex
Hairstylist and bathed in Russian Leather
Dallies with you these late summer days, Pyrrha,
In your expensive sublet? For whom do you
Slip into something simple by, say, Gucci?
The more fool he who has mapped out for himself
The saline latitudes of incontinent grief.
Dazzled though he be, poor dope, by the golden looks
Your locks fetched up out of a bottle of Clairol,
He will know that the wind changes, the smooth sailing
Is done for, when the breakers wallop him broadside,
When he’s rudderless, dismasted, thoroughly swamped
In that mindless rip-tide that got the best of me
Once, when I ventured on your deeps, Piranha.

And naturally I had to figure out which part of Horace it reminded me of. I think it’s this. What do you think?

Odes I.25

Less and less often the roaring boys
toss their pebbles against your closed shutters,
they don’t rob you of sleep anymore, and the
door hugs its threshold

That once turned gladly all night on its
hinges. You hear fewer wailing:
“While I spend the long night dying for you, Lydia,
can you stay sleeping?”

your turn is coming: a crone alone in the street,
you will cry that your lovers all hate you,
as the North wind howls like a bacchante
and the moon is dark,

and the fire of love and longing is in you
the itch that drives a mare mad for the stallion,
you will rage with the lust that gnaws your belly
and you will complain

that the good time boys now find their fun
with the green ivy and the dark green myrtle,
and the withered leaves are tossed away
to the winter wind.

There’s the same sense of scahdenfreude…(not sure who the translator is.) I think I need to console myself.

‘I, being born a woman and distressed’

I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, – let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.

Ha! Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Good Night and Good Luck

It’s been a while since I’ve seen a film that was as spare and shorn of theatrics as Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck. When the subject of a film is overtly political, you expect that the filmmaker will take sides. And Clooney does. But it is the way in which he does this that takes your breath away.

For a start, the film is just about 90 minutes long. Book-ended by Ed Murrow’s speech at the Radio and Television News Directors’ Association, the film follows Murrow’s telecasts on See It Now in 1953-54, taking on Senator Joseph McCarthy. What interested me most about the film was the ways in which Clooney constantly undercuts the potentially inflammatory nature of the subject.

It is clear that Clooney intends for the film to speak directly to audiences today about events that affect them: The Bush administration’s war in Iraq; its Wild West posturing in the aftermath of 9/11; the Patriot Act and the other everyday compromises that Americans must make in the name of ridding themselves of acts of terror. Given such a fraught subject, and given that Clooney is not on the side of those who would give both sides of the debate equal airtime, this film is remarkably understated.

It becomes clear from the very beginning how this is going to play out: Ed Murrow says, “If what I say is responsible, I alone am responsible for the saying of it. Our history will be what we make of it.” Though he is addressing the RTNDA, he is in close up, so he speaks to us directly, today, cutting across the decades and making the issues of the McCarthy era our own.

In bracketing the film with this crucial speech, Clooney has constructed it in the way great speeches are constructed: he tells us what he’s going to tell us. He tells us. And he tells us that he’s told us. Ed Murrow starts with the premise that ‘history is what we make of it’. In the main body of the film, we see how it is that he intends to take responsibility and shape history in the only way he knows how: by not being neutral and by speaking out against institutionalised acts of terror wherever he sees them.

In a crucial scene when Murrow makes his first broadcast about McCarthy, the broadcast is over and everyone waits for the calls to come through, as they must after such a controversial programme. The phones don’t ring. The silence stretches and everyone wonders what this means, when someone discovers that the phones have been off the hook for the duration of the broadcast. Later that night, everyone celebrates at a bar and when it’s almost morning, they send for the newspapers, to see what the reviews say. Once again, there is total silence – such a gentle slide into it that that you understand the anxiety of the moment without being distanced from it by a technique that draws attention to itself.

And this is what characterises the whole film. Its soundtrack is spare and clean; the editing is so crisp and seamless it makes most Hollywood films seems bloated in the extreme. And most importantly, its script is so well-constructed, that when I was watching the film, a heard a few people saying, ‘wah!’ We often forget what pleasure there is in listening to good dialogue well delivered. Nobody knew how to do it better than directors like Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks and so many of Hollywood’s directors in the 50’s. And now Clooney shows that he (and Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the screenplay) can not only write good dialogue, but can also shoot it well. So many brilliant lines can be wasted by stodgy shot-taking.

Much has been said about the use of documentary footage of McCarthy, so I won’t go into it. I thought the film made its case for a vigilant media with understated passion. At the end, Murrow – once again talking directly to us in close up, unmediated by the presence of the audience at the dinner – says about television, “This instrument can teach. It can illuminate and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box. Good night, and good luck.”

Of course, in our times, news is the new circus. Our problem is not that entertainment is drowning the still, sane voice of the committed journalist; our problem is that we no longer know who is the journalist and who is the entertainer and where the presentation of fact ends and the mesmerising horror of breaking news begins.

But that is another story and, as in the best traditions, shall be told another time.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Mumbai, Mon Amour

Every time something happens to Mumbai the city, I get double vision. A feeling that all of this has happened before and will happen again and again, time out of mind. And when this happens, I can’t hep but think of Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour.

It’s an unusual film for the way in which so much of it is in voice over. Nowhere else does the interior monologue (in a screenplay by novelist and filmmaker Marguerite Duras) emphasise the way in which the inner life is separated from the outer, and the dangers of such a separation. If memory is fundamental to the way in which the mind functions – and an interior monologue is nothing but a door opened into the workings of the mind – then the deliberate rejection of memory is the way in which the external life is lived.

In Hiroshima, Mon Amour, Emmanuele Riva is in Hiroshima years after the war is over, to make a film and has an affair with Eiji Okada during the course of which memories of her dead German lover during the war, in Nevers, are evoked.

But Hiroshima is much more than a love story; at the heart of the film is the paradox of necessary memory and the dangers of forgetting. We need to remember the past and keep its horrors before us so that we do not repeat our mistakes. But to remember such horrors paralyses us. We have to forget to be able to live and thus we condemn ourselves to repeat our mistakes.

And why this film is on my mind is, of course, because of the serial blasts in Mumbai. Every few years, some crisis, some act of terror draws to our attention this necessary forgetting that made living possible after the last time. How else would the city function, if it was frozen in fear? How would anyone climb on another train, take a bus or sit in another theatre? We forget because we have to. And so we relive these horrors every once in a while. So it goes.

PS: When I first saw the film, I made extensive notes because the voice over was poetic and true and I wanted to remember everything. I knew if I didn't write it down, I would forget. It is exquisitely ironic, therefore, that 13 years later, when I want to quote from those notes, I can't find the book in which I wrote down practically the entire monologue word for word.

PPS: Ranjit Hoskote’s op-ed, Resilience is good, but amnesia is fatal in The Hindu yesterday suggests that we ought to, instead of dusting ourselves off and carrying on, memorialise or archive our past so that we do not forget.

“Mumbai ought to take the important symbolic step of enshrining the collective spirit that shines through in times of crisis, by holding an architecture competition for a monument to those who have died in the weave of riots, pogroms and terrorist strikes since the early 1990s. it would also help to establish a city museum that renders tribute to those moments of collective suffering when Mumbai’s spirit has been tested and its best people have shown themselves at their best.”

Now, I don’t know about architecture competitions and I’m inclined to lean towards the general mood of ‘if I hear another word about the Mumbaikar’s spirit I will scream’ that is prevalent in a number of places. But I do think that we need to have a place that will help us remember.

Crossposted on Writers Against Terrorism.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


I really have to apologise. Bad net connection, a phone that died, apathy--all the usual reasons.

And, of course, inevitably, some general issues with why I'd continue to blog at all when there seem to be at least twenty thousand other things to do.

But will post something in a day or two. I hope!

Meanwhile, though Bombay seems to have bounced back, if you're there and can help, here's a good place to see how.

More later.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

They also write the darndest things, don't they?

Kids, I tell you. An eternal source of joy. This from a ten year old's essay on a cow, that appears in Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, by Sir Ernest Gowers, published by His Majesty's Stationery Office (HMSO), London,in 1948.

I do not know much about the Owl, so I will go on to the beast which I am going to choose. It is the Cow. The Cow is a mammal. It has six sides – right, left, an upper and below. At the back it has a tail on which hangs a brush. With this it sends the flies away so that they do not fall into the milk.

Read the rest of it here.