Saturday, December 25, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Year We Talked Privacy

The year 2010 will be best remembered for the questions it threw up about privacy. On the one hand, governments and figures of authority everywhere have stepped up their scrutiny of people: in the US, debates rage over the invasion of privacy caused by full-body scanners at airports; Indians are going to have to get used to having their biometric data collected; some schools this past year have installed CCTVs in school. Let me bite my tongue before it says Orwell!

On the other hand, we have those who belong to the Great Scrutinised trying to return the favour. Wikileaks, on twitter, links to a poster that says “Intelligence Needs Counter-Intelligence”. With the word redefined to no longer mean ‘disinformation’, the ‘counter-intelligence’ camp has people such as Wikileaks, RTI activists and a few remaining members of what we like to call ‘the free press’, who do more than accept the word of authority figures, that all that is done is for the greater good.

If the right to privacy is the right of an individual to ‘seclude information about themselves and reveal themselves selectively’ (wikipedia) then we are seeing more breaches of privacy than before in the name of safety. We need to not only redefine privacy in light of new technologies, but also ask whose privacy we are talking about. The privacy of an individual differs greatly from that of corporations (which are, nevertheless, granted personhood in law) and governments.

Privacy is also not the same as secrecy, though it’s a distinction governments and corporations are at pains to blur. When the heads of corporate houses invoke the right to privacy, what they really want is for their own excursions in information-gathering and in influencing policy to remain secret. When governments are red-faced over diplomatic cables being made public, what they object to is having already-held suspicions confirmed.

Let’s be honest: we’re all in the business of information gathering. It’s the reason why we hang out at coffee shops, over the neighbour’s wall, at the water cooler and on Facebook (whose position on privacy is, if you have nothing to hide, you should have nothing to fear from having your data in the public domain). We are all public creatures by virtue of being human and perfect privacy is possible only with perfect isolation.

Governments and activists operate on the belief that transparency leads to accountability.

Despite the not-very-stringent provisions we have in India to shield the data of individual and larger entities, it has always been possible (though not always legal) to unearth information, even if it’s carefully hidden.

In effect, what we’ve always had is not privacy but an illusion of it. This is one of the arguments that people in favour of the UID offer: that the perceived loss of privacy in having a unified identification number does not outweigh the benefits that many disadvantaged people will gain just by having their individual self recognised. After all, if privacy is inseparable from personhood, it has no meaning for those whose existence is not even recognised by the state. In other words, privacy is a concern only for those who have legal existence.

But as we’ve seen with the Radia tapes becoming public, the intention behind the gathering of data and the effects of its unintended use are two completely different things. Making some data public might have consequences we see as good; but what if, for instance, data is mined to persecute minorities – whether religious, caste-based, or gendered?

One way of achieving privacy is to hide behind a firewall of excess information, like Hasan Elahi did. When he found himself on the US government’s watch-list as a suspected terrorist, and was detained in 2002 and questioned by the FBI, Elahi began to make public every minute of his life as photographic material. He put up massive amounts of material online and called it The Orwell Project. Anybody watching him seriously would have to deal with a tsunami of information – at first with incomprehension and finally with disinterest.

As a blogger said, ‘Everybody is in favour of other people’s openness.’ I’m sure those in the privacy storms will agree – even if only secretly.

This appeared in today's edition of the New Indian Express.


Am awa on vacation, so the links in this piece are pretty sketchy; but for anything Assange related, please go to Zunguzungu. For the rest, all responses only in the new year.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Serendip [No. 1460 of 2000]

The greatest find of the Hyd Lit Fest: a remaindered copy of Dom Moraes' Serendip at the OUCIP. Made even more special because it was owned by Issac Sequeira.

 The image below - which for some reason I am unable to rotate, though I'd done the rotating before uploading, and if someone can tell me how to fix this, I'll be most grateful - is DM's signature, with a line that says "This special edition is limited to 2000 signed, numbered copies of which this copy is number 1460."

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Two Minutes Older: Walking and Talking

A day that begins under the setting moon is a good day. These days, I wake up early and stand outside in the garden long before the sun has hinted at its arrival, and watch everything around me still asleep. The dogs have finished their chorus against the cold some time around 2am; the neighbours are asleep, the streetlights are still on.

For someone who used to enjoy spending time outdoors, I have recently found myself chained to my laptop. While my mother and son plant things, I retreat to my room and complain that the mosquitoes have a contract out especially for me. I cite allergies and the smoke from burning leaves as reasons for my voluntary incarceration. I memorise the appearance of new flowers from my window as if I had to pass a test on them. I baffle myself.

It wasn’t always like this. Where I live, it was easy to walk and I used to do a lot of that. In recent years, though, the narrow roads in our area have become congested with building materials and all the machinery associated with construction. With more people moving in, there’s more trash that doesn’t get lifted, and the municipal workers elect to burn the garbage in the collection bins instead of moving it. My excuses for not stepping out are valid: the air is noxious around here.

But the experience of early morning has recently inspired me, and on a weekend when my son asked to go cycling, I agreed to walk along with him. A few roads away, there is one sheltered square that, for some reason, is free from the urbanisation the rest of us have to endure. The roads are assiduously swept, and there isn’t much traffic. It’s safe for children cycling at reckless speeds, and perfect for adults who daydream while they walk.

It occurred to me that this was my natural environment: this place that successfully muffled the city but was within shouting distance of it; this carefully constructed parkland. It shames me somewhat to realise that what I call my natural environment is really a high-maintenance hothouse, preserving exotic species that are otherwise incapable of surviving the prevalent conditions outside.

But what can I say? I love cities in theory and in small doses. I don’t much like having to negotiate them on a daily basis. Give me my trees and the early morning and I’m happy.


As you read this, Hyderabad is hosting its first Literary Festival. Jaipur, Kovalam, Chennai and Delhi are all on India’s literary map and have been for some time now; but Hyderabad, stranded somewhere in the Deccan and close to no other place, has always suffered a literary drought. I spend a lot of my time cribbing to writer friends that they leave my city out of their itinerary when they embark on a reading tour.

Muse India, an online literary journal, has (with the support of several partner organisations), I hope, changed all that with this first festival. This year, most of the invitees are poets, and the emphasis is not only on Anglophone writers. I see this as an encouraging sign, and an opportunity for everyone to interact with writers writing in different languages.

The last time an event like this took place in this city was at the ACLALS conference in 2004. At that time, the buzz was palpable, with hotels and universities teeming with conversations and readings. It’s a measure of how little happens in Hyderabad that an event from six years ago should still be memorable.

Many places do their bit toward making the city a more culturally active place: Lamakaan, the Goethe Zentrum, the Alliance Française and the US Consulate all bring different events to the people. And yet, there’s a general feeling of discontent, as if all this wasn’t enough.

I think the reason is that the city itself doesn’t throw up enough of its own writers, dancers, playwrights, singers and artists. This is not to say they don’t exist; merely that they’re probably shyer than most, and they’re not in conversation with each other. Perhaps the Hyderabad Literary Festival will do its bit to change that.


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sonia Faleiro's Beautiful Thing

Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars. Sonia Faleiro. Hamish Hamilton. Pp 216. Rs. 450.

The precise point at which Sonia Faleiro hooked me was a couple of pages into the first chapter, when she describes her protagonist Leela’s evident disinterest in the author’s life: ‘Leela wanted only to be heard. And the best way to accomplish that, she knew, was not to change the subject if the subject was her. So our often one-sided relationship may be characterized thus: I called Leela. She ‘missed-called’ me.’

The relationship between Leela and Faleiro may be one-sided but it is far from being an exploitative one; in fact, it comes across as a genuine friendship that manages to bridge the uncountable barriers of class, experience and expectation. This must have something to do with Faleiro being a woman and one, furthermore, whose primary interest in Leela is not transactional. Just as a counterpoint, I am reminded of the documentary film I Am the Very Beautiful by Shyamal Karmakar, where the filmmaker’s more personal relationship with Ranu Das, the bar singer protagonist, is more troubling and the filmmaker’s position more invidious.

Faleiro’s position as friend and observer whose intentions are never suspect, opens out the narrative in directions other than the nature of relationships between writers of non-fiction and their subjects, with extraordinary results. The book ranges far to provide background while being tethered to the personal narratives of its subject and her friends.

In one chapter, Faleiro sketches a brief history of Kamatipura while recounting a visit to the place to celebrate the birthday of Gazala, a brothel madam. While there, the cops come to demand bribes of the hijras and a fight ensues. Priya, Leela’s closest friend, who tolerates Faleiro for Leela’s sake, and whose interactions with the author are frequently prickly, watches the author and this is how Faleiro reports it: ‘“You wanted to know us better, Sonia,” she said, sardonically. “Come, come. Have your fun. Take foto,” she taunted.’

This willingness to put herself in the path of a subject’s scorn gives Faleiro herself a vulnerability that enriches her narrative: it is difficult to know someone else while keeping oneself safe from being understood in turn.

With a novelist’s skill, Faleiro shows Leela and her friends in their several moods – comic, feisty, despairing and indomitable – while never letting it be forgotten that it’s a brutal world she describes. Girls are raped, sold and abused in every way imaginable. They escape into a world that appears to offer them some measure of control over their own lives, some semblance of independence. But they’re aware that this independence and control is chimerical and temporary, depending as it does on their youth and beauty, on the favours of the men who surround them – the bar owners, the police, the landlordss and the gangsters – and they make the best of it.

If the ‘best of it’ is a determination to take every customer for what she can get from him, it’s an attitude that does not shock either the author or the reader. Because the reverse of this apparent manipulativeness is the desperation and insecurity that shadows the lives of these women; the marks of self-mutilation they leave on their bodies a testament to the difficulty of enduring their lives day after day.

Divided into two parts, Faleiro’s book begins in January 2005 and comes to an end nine months later, in September of that year, when the Maharashtra government’s decision to ban bar dancers on the grounds of morality, changed everything for these women, who thus far had considered themselves a cut above sex-workers, masseuses and others in ‘the line’ (a portmanteau word that suggests not just ‘profession’ but also gives a flavour of the adaptive properties of the English language).

In this second section, things become much darker for Leela and her friends. The spectre of HIV looms as many of them are forced to become sex-workers to make a living. Dubai is the promised land that could make things better for Leela and Priya, but the reader, just like the author, is skeptical –we recognise it for the mirage it is likely to be. Yet, Leela’s courage compels from the reader the same admiration, empathy and respect the author gives her.

If there is one thing this book could have done without, it is the unnecessarily eye-catching blurb on the front cover. Once you open the book, though, you’re in safe hands.

This review appeared in today's New Indian Express.

Friday, December 03, 2010

P. Sainath on the Banana Peel Republic

P. Sainath in this morning's Hindu:

Whether it is gas, spectrum, or mining, luxury private townships or other dubious land deals, the last 20 years have seen the consolidation of corporate power on a scale unknown in independent India. It would be wrong to disconnect the Radia tapes from this background. From pitching for licences, mines and spectrum using money and media power to pitching for ministerial candidates and portfolios by the same methods is not a huge leap. The same period has also seen the emergence of media themselves as major corporate entities. Today, we often have seamless movement between the personnel of some economic or financial newspapers and non-media corporations. An assistant editor goes off to Company ‘A' as a PRO, returns in a more senior post to the same newspaper. Next, goes on as chief PRO, or maybe even as chief analyst or a business manager to a bigger corporate. But the newspaper's door is open for his or her return, perhaps as resident editor.

The dominant media are not pro-corporate or pro-big business. They are corporates. They are big business. Some have margins of profit that non-media outfits might envy. Media corporations are into hundreds of businesses beyond their own realm. From real estate, hotels, mining, steel, chemicals, rubber and banks to power and sugar. Even into private treaties with other corporations in whom they acquire a stake. On the boards of India's biggest media companies are also top corporate leaders. Some who find places on the Governor's Forums of the World Economic Forum. Others heading private banks. And then there are top political leaders who directly own vast media empires. Who can hold ministerial portfolios (affecting these domains) while running their media fiefdoms. The dominant media are not pro-establishment. They are the establishment.
 Indeed. It's the perspective we needed after a week when everyone seemed to decide collectively that the Radia tapes were about a few individual journalists.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

The Hyderabad Literary Festival: Programme Schedule

Just a reminder that the Festival begins 10th December. Registration and other details on their website.

HLF Programme

Also, first time using this docstoc thing. Not sure I like it. Any alt recos?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Hybridity: A Card Game

Pick a card. Any card.

Ok, maybe not that one.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

'That's journalism: Tomorrow's news yesterday'

If you spend any time at all on the net, and read about the media in India, you will be aware of the Radia tapes story that Open magazine broke, that Outlook ran with and - barring a few honourable exceptions - other MSM blacked out.

It's all of a piece with everything that's been happening recently, including the spiking of Mitali Saran's piece of Arun Poorie's plagiarism. But I don't have anything to say about the Radia tapes that others haven't already said. Instead, let me point you to Kai Friese's very enjoyable piece in Outlook that Mitali (who has been linking to nearly everything worth reading on the issue on FB) pointed to:

Back in ’03, the leading newspaper in this land threw many worthy journalists into a spin with a shining line called Medianet. Today it’s prosaically called ‘paid content’ and ‘edvertorials’. Their reasoning was silky: “The role we envision for Medianet is that of a conscience-keeper, auditor and watchdog, regulating the media’s burgeoning interaction with the PR sector.” It sounds like the devil himself. But they were onto something. And they knew you’d object: “Those who are apoplectic about the perceived invasion of the ‘message’ into the domain of ‘content’ may want to consider that the two have long since ceased to be strangers, and are sharing an increasingly symbiotic relationship. Marshall McLuhan famously declared that the medium was the message. In all humility, we’d like to say, Medianet is the messenger—heralding a brave new world of innovation.”
Isn’t that brilliant? Especially the bit where they gloss McLuhan, Huxley’s dystopia and ‘innovation’—a term of art for advertising in editorial places. The old lady of Boribunder is an oracle too. That’s journalism: Tomorrow’s news, yesterday. So when some has-been journalists whine that the leading newspapers and TV channels have been silent on the Radia tapes, just tell them. Of course they’re silent. Have you offered to pay them? I didn’t think so!
Unfortunately, there are alternatives to the dignified, business-like silence of real journalism. There are greedy magazines like this one, and hungry ones like Open. Worst of all there’s the internet, which as you know hasn’t even been properly monetised yet. That’s not journalism!

Mm hmm. And special points for Friese's slipping in the terms 'Twitterlicking' and 'Facebukkake'.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Sound, John Cage loves you just the way you are


(this sat in drafts for a few days. not sure why.)

Two Minutes Older: Medical Illiteracy

For the last few weeks, I’ve been having several tangential and direct conversations about illness and treatment. It must be the result of belonging to a generation whose parents are growing old and ailing, or just coming through its own experiences with bearing and raising children. These illnesses range from the seasonal to the severe but what all my conversations had in common was the strange carelessness and ignorance that people displayed about anything remotely medical.

One person had been suffering from severe backaches for some time. She thought the origin was gynaecological. After several tests and consultations, no clear reasons were discovered but her doctor prescribed some medicine that she took without question. I asked her, “Is it a painkiller or a hormonal treatment kind of thing?” She didn’t know and astonishingly, didn’t think to ask her doctor. She also took those medicines only when she happened to remember and often skipped doses through having forgotten.

An older relation, in his eighties, treated his phlegmy cough with bottles of cough syrup without visiting a doctor. Though he was finally taken to one and given antibiotics, after two days of fever, and severe breathlessness, he had to be put on a ventilator. In this particular case, it was not just his own diffidence about asking for medical attention, it was also a case of being in a place where the people around him didn’t know or have access to his medical history.

One friend recounted how a torn ligament in his knee went undiagnosed by the doctors at a boarding school a couple of decades ago; another person suggested I take (without a prescription) some dietary supplement for my migraines. I have spent a fair amount of my time being appalled by both doctors and patients.

Don’t get me wrong. I sympathise deeply with the ostriches of the world – those who avoid all thought of illness in the hope that if they do, it will not afflict them. I understand why people would choose to ignore the complaints of their body, or pop a painkiller or paracetemol without bothering to find out if that’s the right line of treatment. Anything to avoid being told it could be something serious.

Anyone who has been to hospital with any degree of regularity knows that danger lurks everywhere: once you go to consult a doctor, you more or less unquestioningly acquiesce in her line of diagnosis and treatment, even if it includes a battery of obscure (and expensive) tests and medicines. Disease is as much about fear as recovery is about trust.

The writer and surgeon Kavery Nambisan recently said, while talking about a non-fiction book she is writing on healthcare, that she wasn’t against doctors prescribing tests, because sometimes they were necessary and useful but what was really scary was the disappearance of the local General Practitioner who knew one’s family, medical history and knew how to diagnose many things by observation and conversation. A GP ought to be the first line of defence against disease.

For the non-medical person, however, a successful career as an ostrich involves, oddly enough, a near-constant state of awareness. You’d think this would happen almost by osmosis, given how much the media goes on about health and that unbearable new-age word, ‘wellness’; but you’d be wrong.

I’ve discovered that apart from a small circle of confirmed hypochondriacs, most people tend to pay more attention to the beneficial effects of fruit facials than they do to tips on ways to avoid getting malaria. The hypochondriacs, on the other hand, set themselves up as resident doctors, prescribe themselves anything from antibiotics to painkillers with airy confidence and wonder why they suffer when they suffer the inevitable consequences.

There must be a happy middle ground we can occupy between total medical illiteracy and half-baked knowledge. There are community health drives that inform people about basic health issues. Some places still have their friendly neighbourhood GP – may their tribe increase - who have the time and patience to answer questions. But all this information amounts to nothing in the face of determined resistance to knowledge. Without that barricade, what else can ostriches expect but to be bitten in the fleshier parts of their anatomy?


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

'as I am told I remember'

Rules of the House, Tsering Wangmo Dhompa, Apogee Press, 2002.


This is not a review.


Tibetan writers who have lived all their lives in India or Nepal, and whose idea of a homeland becomes more tenuous and dream-like every year, write in ways that readers of diasporic literature have become familiar with: the sense of loss and in-betweenness, the strong sense of place and nostalgia, the vein of anger that accompanies exile and a permanent hankering for 'home'.

None of this is apparent in Tsering Wangmo Dhompa's first collection of poems, Rules of the House (2002), which was a finalist for the Asian American Literary Awards in 2003. There is the uneasy implication of regulation in the title - whose rules are these? who is to abide by them? what happens if they don't? - that is reinforced by the seven poems scattered through the collection that are 'lessons' someone gives. But whatever conclusions one might be tempted to draw from the title or the poems have to be provisional ones, because once you begin reading you are untethered from your preconceptions about poets writing about exile, loss, country and identity.


TWD refuses to name her main characters. They make frequent appearances as M, F and S and could correspond to Mother, Father and Son but though their relationship with each other is often clear, even this much is never named. Other characters are named - Pema, Doma, Thupten, Tashi, Jetsun, Samten - but not these three. It is a resistance that seems futile, until one considers the powerful charge that familial ties can conjure in a community living circumscribed lives in a country not their own.

This resistance is everywhere, but frequently unrecognisable because it is disguised as elusiveness and difficulty. In her opening poem that is, in some sense, a Preface, or even a manifesto for the poems that will follow Dhompa says:

When I am with them, I cannot say I remember. I say, as I am told I remember.

In itself, it's not an easy to read construction. Does memory function differently in the absence of community? How? Should there be a comma after told? Or can someone be instructed, not only in the art of remembering but also in what it is they remember? Is forgetting so constant that one's memory must be refreshed by others, from other stores of common remembering?

Dutiful memorising must be a part of every person in exile. The exhortation to never forget! as if all that is perishable can be held at bay through the agency of memory and the passing on of it through story.


Rules is a story. It is a coherent collection, sectioned and carefully constructed but it tells not one story but many; or many versions of many stories. The tension between the strong frame and the elusiveness of the individual poems is, in a word, exhilirating.

In pieces we think, goes the first line of the poem 'Cutting Cloth'. This is the whole of it:

In pieces we think. Wording eyes.
How we see when sun splinters enter.
Her laugh. When the river ran full,
we lapped it up. Her laugh; when she did
that gurgling of tea on coal.
How should I explain. We lived
by a water tank. It was easy to speak.
Restless in light-scorched air
(her words for heat).
Restless ears we pressed against cold
steel, and bartered tales.

Dhompa's poetry is in the widening of the gap between conrete, whole sentences; the recognition that consciousness and even identity is a collection of discerete and often unrelated thoughts. This must owe much to a Buddhist view of the world, as the ideas of impermanence that seed the collection indicate. And yet, her writing is nothing like, say, Thich Nhat Hanh's. There is no deceptive simplicity here. There are no apologies made for the work she demands the reader do.


In a poem titled 'The Third Lesson', Dhompa uses the words 'Later he remembered' in an incantatory manner. 'He' is Samten, who was dancing to Nepali rap when 'the elder died in her sleep'. The dead demand remembrance: what they did, how they spoke, ate, behaved. Samten remembers, not just to reverence the one who died, but to confirm his own continuing presence ('Later he remembered the largest pieces of meat were given to him').

But in between [S]amten's narrative is the doctor who answers laconically, 'Impermanence', when asked for the fourth time, what caused the elder's death; and the lama:

Now she is dead, the lama said. Do not speak her name out loud. She is now your mother who is no more.

What is one to make of that sentence? Is it: only now, after her death, does this person become a mother; or, are there invisible hyphens between 'mother who is no more', making of it a title, a new identity.


This is not a connection I should make, but I will. When I read the poetry of those writing from India in English (please don't groan. I won't make this long, and I hope I won't make it familar), I expect some things because I have grown used to seeing them all the time.

I expect to see a heavy reliance on images; on an equation - I think specious - with a description of quiet violence on one side and the implication of truth on the other; a narrative uncomplicated by anything that disrupts its clear path down the page; and imitation and homage.

None of that is visible in the poetry of Tsering Wangmo Dhompa. Instead, there is a vital awareness of 'this alley of slippery language.' Under the long lines and paragraphs of prose that form the recognisable style of Dhompa's poetry, are the echoes of other tongues.

The loss of a language can be as harrowing as the loss of a cuisine; it is more personal and disenfranchising than even the loss of a place one calls one's country; but Dhompa, thankfully, never wallows. Instead, there's a subtle humour to her words. Perhaps what her language has is not loss but residue.

In ‘Carried from here’, the speaker says, ‘Raindrops, I say in English. They want to learn functional words: immediately, enlightenment, conversion. 

'Fourth lesson' begins thus:

Entrusted in your care, the equivalent of speech. The harbour in sea mist if ships come that way.

The oddness of the word "pomade" in a room overlooking a church steeple.

Speech measured by what is within definition.


I love the mystery of it. I love having to read something, and know I want to read it again immediately.  I love that I cannot paraphrase Dhompa's poetry, explain what it's 'about', (as if poems were a form of introduction to a blogger). More than anything, I love reading it and not saying in my head, 'I've heard this somewhere before.'

(Whether this is a function of it being a poet from the subcontinent, and therefore an unexpected departure, I don't yet know. Of late, I confess to a paralysing boredom with most poetry I read, no matter where it's from.)


Tsering was in college with me. A year ahead, in the same department, and the same hostel. Yet, I don't think I bumped into her too often. I knew her as a member of the Tibetan community; in a year when the Dalai Lama visited our college, I remember she was invited to read her poetry to him; I remember her best for a poem (perhaps the same one she read out the the Dalai Lama?) that appeared in the college magazine, called 'The Lost World - A Broken Dream'.

A little hunting later, I've unearthed the poem (which I won't reproduce here). It's a beautiful, heartfelt poem but unexceptional. Until this second, I didn't quite realise the leaps that Tsering has taken in her writing, the years of effort and polish that makes the poems in this book - already eight years old, and followed by another book, two chapbooks and a forthcoming, new collection - the diamonds they are.

I found her work again last year, through a link on Silliman's blog and I'm most grateful for that. If there's one book I'm very happy I read this year, it is this one.


From an interview with Tsering:

14 Hills: What is success for you as a poet?

TWD: I haven’t thought of my writing in terms of success. I’m just grateful I can write. I’m very pleased when a book comes out. I feel happy. I don’t necessarily feel happy about the poems, very often I look back and think, Oh that line could have gone, or I could have read this more carefully. But at the same time I’m also okay. I don’t trouble myself with it too much. Just having the poems out makes me happy. I don’t think I’m going to sell a million copies, I mean, I don’t even desire it really. I don’t know what that would mean. I don’t know. [laughs] I’m used to people not reading! Last time I went home and my cousin says to me—because I don’t even bother to tell them that I write; half the people don’t know I write; even the Tibetan community here, most of them don’t know I write. So when I went this year [to Nepal] I gave a copy to one of my cousin brothers. I gave him Rules of the House because I thought maybe it would be easier for him to read because they are more like stories. I met him a few days later and he says to me, “Tsering, you know, sorry, I read your book, I tried really hard, I just don’t understand it.” So I said, “Well, did you like any lines or did any lines sort of make sense?” And he said, “No no no, just in general I don’t get it,” he says, “Anyway, I think your English is incorrect. [laughs] I think you had some grammatical mistakes around, you know; your use of English is a little bit wrong. Did you do that deliberately?” [laughs again] I was laughing, I said, “Oh I don’t think my English is incorrect, but you know, maybe I should go back and read it.” 


Tuesday, November 23, 2010

this is just to say

nothing. this is to say, i saw the moon at five, a bright star in the east that i don't have a name for, felt the dew on my skin and watched the sky change. this is just to say that though my mother may have said i wish you would write happy poems, and at the time it was inconceivable that i could, it is possible that the world may have realigned while i was looking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

the sub-prime method of quotation

Via Ruchir Joshi on Facebook, this apparent 'controversy' over Godard's alleged anti-semitism and giving him an honorary Oscar (which of course, he didn't go to collect).

Following links from that piece, I found Bill Krohn's review of a recent biography of JLG written by Richard Brody*, in which he picks apart Brody's charges of anti-semitism (and other things).

The main threads of Brody’s approach are laid out in his discussion of Godard’s first two critical pieces. Citing an article about Joseph Mankiewicz that appeared in La Gazette du cinema for June 1950, he skips over Godard’s relatively in-depth discussions of two films, A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and House of Strangers (1949), to cherry-pick the idea that the article on Letter “is devoted less to his films than to Mankiewicz himself,” as shown by a single sentence: “This letter to three married women is also three letters to the same woman, one whom the director probably loved.” That way lies biographical reductivism.

The second selection of quotes comes from a more difficult piece, “Towards a Political Cinema,” which takes as its starting point newsreel images of young German Communists marching in a May Day celebration: “By the sole force of propaganda that was animating them, these young people were beautiful.” Brody again skips over the gist of this densely argued article to get to what interests him: “We could not forget Hitler Youth Quex, certain passages of films by Leni Riefenstahl, several shocking newsreels from the Occupation, the maleficent ugliness of The Eternal Jew. It is not the first time art is born of constraint.” And he concludes that Godard “took all fanaticisms to be alike and to be equally beautiful. Without equating the far left and the far right politically, Godard equated them aesthetically.”

Sliced and diced like a package of subprime mortgages, Godard’s questing thought becomes what Brody needs it to be, and in the process we may not even notice that the person who’s equating communism and fascism politically, by calling them both “fanaticisms,” is Brody. That’s ideological simplification with a vengeance. Cultural journalism is now in the driver’s seat.
 But hey - don't sit around watching me quote selectively. Go read!.


*All this is, like, last year. Not so recent, but whatever.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Hyderabad Literary Festival December 10-12

Muse India, in association with the Sahitya Akademi, the Goethe Zentrum, the Alliance Française, theU.S. Consulate General, Hyderabadand others, is organising the Hyderabad Literary Festival.

Details here.

I am told Keki Daruwalla will deliver the keynote address and participants include Shiv K. Kumar, K Satchidanandan, Mamang Dai, Udaya Narayana Singh, Shanta Acharya, Sukrita Paul Kumar, Dileep Jhaveri, Hemant Divate and TP Rajeevan.

Registration is required for delegates. Details on Rumjhum's blog linked to above, or on the Muse India site.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Pattanaika Uvaca

Jaya, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin India: 2010, pp 350, Rs. 499.

A slightly shorter version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express this morning.


The Sanskrit scholar and Indologist, Wendy Doniger, called the Mahabharata a sort of ‘ancient Wikipedia, to which anyone … could add a bit here, a bit there’.* Though no single text exists that can be called definitive, the epic is generally believed to be about seven times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey put together; in fact, it also contains the Ramayana, as told by the sage Markandeya. The Mahabharata itself narrates the origins of the epic: how it was thought of by Vyasa, to whom he told it, under what circumstances and how they in turn narrated it to someone else, thus confirming the multiple validities of the recitation and their individual contingencies.

In this sense, Devdutt Pattanaik’s retelling is another tributary joining the river – though by calling it Jaya – the name given to the earliest version of the Mahabharata – he appears to be attempting to touch the source.

Pattanaik begins with a prefatory chapter that outlines the circumstances under which Vyasa began to compose the epic. The story of the Kuru clan and its decimation is bracketed by the story of Parikshit’s death; Janamejaya’s snake sacrifice; its interruption by Astika; and Janamejaya coming to his senses, stopping the sacrifice and pronouncing peace upon the world. The Mahabharata is a tale told to offer succour to dying kings or to teach their offspring their duty. Its function is moral and corrective.

Though six of the eighteen Parvas, or books, of the Mahabharata are about the Kurukshetra war, here it occupies only two ‘books’. The first two Parvas – Adi and Sabha – make up the first half of Jaya. The game of dice that ends Sabha Parva is at the centre of this text.

This is a curious but revealing choice: in making it, Pattanaik makes clear his preference for origins and back-stories. Like a psychoanalyst who attempts to delve into the subconscious by unravelling the past, Pattanaik goes as far back as he can – beyond even the story of Ganga and Santanu, where most popular versions such as Rajaji’s, begin. Pattanaik goes back to the conception and birth of Budh. From here, in easy chapters, he narrates the story of every character that might conceivably have a role to play in the epic. By the time the story of the Pandavas occupies centre-stage, the reader can take on any digression without becoming confused.

Pattanaik’s version is lucid without sacrificing complexity. He pulls off this difficult task by separating commentary from narrative. Each chapter has a box at the end, somewhat in the manner of management books that provide a précis of what has gone before. Here, however, Pattanaik uses this space to talk about versions of the same story, provides facts and asides that are illuminating, useful and sometimes just funny.

More than 250 illustrations, drawn by Pattanaik himself, accompany the text. The drawings are lovely and remind one of the illustrations to be found in popular Tamil magazines.

Inevitably, much has to be sacrificed to achieve a fast-flowing story. The Mahabharata contains poetry, philosophical argument, treatises on statecraft, description of places, ritual and so on. Above all, it talks at length about the elusive concept of Dharma. While Jaya attempts to retain the complexity of the word, it sometimes falters because of excessive compression.

One such episode where something is lost is the Yaksha Prashna, where Yudishtira answers several questions posed to him by a Yaksha (who is really his father, Dharma, in disguise) before he is allowed to drink water from a lake. A series of rapid-fire questions and answers explicate the concept of dharma and its place in the lives of kings and other men, but in this version the episode ends up sounding rather trite.

All of the key explications of Dharma – asked by Dharma/Yama himself of his son; both personifications of the central concept of the epic – are made trivial or are at times just inaccurate. When the Yaksha asks, ‘What is the true path’, Pattanaik has Yudhishtira say, ‘Not through arguments – they never reach a conclusion; not from teachers – they can only give their opinions; to know the true path, one must, in silence and solitude, reflect on one’s own life.[emphasis mine]’ I checked this against the Kisari Mohan Ganguli’s translation, and found the relevant lines thus: ‘Argument leads to no certain conclusion, the Srutis are different from one another; there is not even one Rishi whose opinion can be accepted by all; the truth about religion and duty is hid in caves: therefore, that alone is the path along which the great have trod [emphasis mine]’.

Pattanaik has said, in a prefatory note, that he has placed his retelling squarely in the Puranic world, but this is, strictly speaking, not true. Though he has elided over much of the discourse to be found in the Mahabharata – the most notable compressions being in the Shanti and Anushasana Parvas – he compensates in his commentary-boxes by critiquing the troublesome concept of dharma that purports to be universal but was born of a very specific – though fluid – historical and social context.

Pattanaik does this by indicating the existence of Dalit, feminist and other marginalised perspectives. Thus, the Draupadi Amman festivals of Tamil Nadu, the Aravanis, the story of Barbareek and other such get more than a passing mention in this book. Jaya also incorporates stories from the Jaimini version, and the lesser-known Oriya Sarala Das version.

For a book that is only 350 pages long, what Pattanaik aims for, rightly, is rasa – the flavour of the variety and depth of the narrative; sometimes epic similes occupy half a page or more, sometimes – such as with the Gita – there is discourse and, sometimes the story-within-story structure of the epic. All things considered, it’s a miracle that Pattanaik has managed so much with clarity and brevity.

*My thanks to Feanor for providing me with the whole text of that article.

I loved doing this review: I got to read all kinds of fantastic, interesting essays on the Mahabharata, not excluding The Book of Yudhistir by Buddhadev Bose and Reflections and Variations on The Mahabharata ed. TRS Sharma.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Two Minutes Older: A Hair-Raising Tale

My face in the mirror was a flashback to a more shudder-inducing time – a time of padded shoulders and acid-washed, pegged jeans. My eyes ought to have been decorated with glittery, bright eye-shadow, because god knows, everything else about my face screamed ‘Eighties!’

And I was even grateful. I had thought that nothing would induce me to revisit the eighties with the gusto that everyone around me these days has the bad taste to display, but I was wrong. It was either this look or a buzz-cut.

Blame it on my cellphone. I was brushing my hair with a curling brush when my phone rang. At first I continued to brush my hair and talk. Then I tucked the phone under my chin and got on with the other stuff. This is when disaster struck: the phone slipped from under my chin, and to save it, I let go the brush, which also slipped, tangled in my hair and stuck faster than fevicol ka jod.

I don’t really know why people say it’s the happy times that whizz by before you know they happened. It must be disasters they were thinking of because all this happened before I could get a blink in. For the next half an hour, I did what I’m told some hairdressers do with hair (I with less success than they) – I teased, cajoled and finally issued threats. I tried water (bad idea) and conditioner (even worse). I asked my mother for help, shed a few futile tears and then called my local beauty parlour.

They were champions. They asked me to come immediately, and promised to sort it out.

Picture me driving through the streets of Hyderabad with a brush dangling from my hair. If people laughed, though, I didn’t notice. It’s more likely that they were stunned, as if they’d been gifted a lifetime supply of happiness and didn’t know what to do with it.

At any rate, the people in the parlour were very polite. They greeted me with their usual delight and ushered me upstairs, where a very calm young man waited to deliver me from the clutches of my brush. It took an hour and a half, two strong people, a lot of commiseration, gratuitous advice for the future and many, many questions. And I went through it with no anaesthesia. I assure you, not even childbirth was so traumatic.

At the end of that time, I was like putty in the hands of my saviours. The young man suggested an oil massage to soothe my scalp and I agreed. He said he’d give me a haircut that would mask the sad depletion of hair at the top and I was speechless with gratitude.

“Luckily, you have naturally wavy hair. I’ll just give you a cut that’ll add volume,” he said. I felt flattered, as if my wavy hair was the result of natural talent and hard work.

The massage helped. It lulled me, if you really want to know. By the end of the shampoo and conditioning I was in a state of bliss that made nonsense of my recently concluded ordeal. When I was sat down in the chair, I didn’t so much as look at my face in the mirror. In fact, I forgot to notice anything until it was much too late. A few minutes later, I had bangs.

Bangs. You know? Like those women in Dallas or Dynasty. Or those photos from back in school, the ones you prefer to hide away so your children can never see them and thus have nothing to hold over you when the time comes to bargain with them.

At the time, it didn’t look bad. Not as bad, at least, as my shorn, battered and discarded hairbrush. I took a deep breath, thanked my hairdresser effusively and left. It wasn’t until after the first wash when I witnessed each particular hair stand on end like that fretful porcupine in Hamlet that I felt I should just pack my mirror away, put ‘Karma Chameleon’ on loop and wallow in my misery properly. If I can blink and miss this, I’ll know everything they say about happiness is true.


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Marmalade Sky

The multitudinous skies intangerine

Monday, November 08, 2010

poems in nether

nether is a new quarterly published out of Bombay. They put up stuff every fortnight on their blog and bring out a print journal every quarter, that may or may not include what in the fortnightly but certainly has other writing, such as interviews and artwork.

I have two poems up on their blog this fortnight. It also brings home the trouble of posting things up here that later turn into poems. Ah, never mind. Go read.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

weekend reading

Mid-week was for goofing off but now that the weekend is upon is - and a gorgeously crisp and sunny Saturday it is too - here's some reading I've been doing.

1. Aaron Bady on Granta's Pakistan issue: 'The Language of Developmental Literature'. The beginning of that essay provides links to the original essays that set this post off. Each of those links is worth checking out. Indian writers should be paying close attention to those posts.

2. Zadie Smith on The Social Network and You Are Not a Gadget.

3. J.H. Prynne on the difficulties in translating 'difficult' poetry. [pdf].


Friday, November 05, 2010


What do you dream of when you fall asleep reading poetry?

(this is a serious question).

not the King Doof Gang

Yesterday, as I was getting extra milk, I saw the road outside the All New! Cop Shop! in Jubilee Hills swarming with OB vans. Grocery stores are hotbeds of gossip, so of course I asked what the fuss was about. I expected nothing less than some breaking news Telangana development or the busting of some pre-Diwali terror plot (as a friend said on Twitter, how can anyone tell there's a blast when so many crackers are being burst?)

Turns out it was a bunch of kids with no driving license and plenty of time and eggs. "VIP children," is how the guy handing me the milk put it.

One neighbour is delighted. Someone threw a rock at his car the other night and the cops refused to register a compliant because he had parked his car on the road. But hey - the King Doofs are still on the loose. Expect more excitement in the days to come.

(Sigh. Yes, quiet festival time, this. Happy Deepavali to you guys too.)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Clearing House, Lal

First of all, RIP P.Lal. He died yesterday.

Whether you liked the kind of poetry he published or not, Indian Poetry in English would be a smaller world than it already is without the encouragement he gave poets in their early years.


Anjum Hasan has an essay in Caravan, on the years when Clearing House produced some of the best known books of poetry in English. There's been some discussion on Facebook, but I don't think I will reproduce that here (you had to be there).

Neither will I extract; I think the piece needs to be read in entirety. But some observations:

The idea of classifying poets by their location rather than their poetics is, I'm sure, not unique to IPE; if the poets published by independent, cooperative ventures - among them Clearing House - were 'The Bombay Poets', there were also the Kerala poets - Ayyappa Panikker and K. Satchidananda, who were writing poetry and criticism as well as translating not just Malayalam poetry into English, but other poetries into Malayalam. There has to be other collectives elsewhere, in other parts of the country, but none of them have got as much press as the 'Bombay Poets'.

What, then, of poet-publishers such as P.Lal and Jayanta Mahapatra? Mahapatra* was published by Clearing House, though of course he wasn't a 'Bombay Poet' (which leads me to think that - unlike the 'Kerala moderns', to use Hasan's phrase -  the appellation was an accident rather than by design). Mahapatra was published by University presses abroad and by the Chandrabhaga Trust and has always been on the edges of any 'collective' or group of poets.

P.Lal's contributions, on the other hand, have always been elided over as being not worthy enough of attention. The primary schism having occurred between Lal and Ezekiel way back in the dawn of post-Independence, modern IPE (I will write more about this soon), the charge of publishing poetry indiscriminately stuck. 

Hasan mentions Lal thus in her essay: "Saleem Peeradina’s anthology of Indian English poetry first appeared as a special edition of Quest in 1972 and was considered a critical response to P Lal’s massive and apparently less discerning Modern Indian Poetry in English which had been published three years previously."

If there is a difference between a bunch of poets publishing their own work and the work of their friends, and one man publishing any poet who had gone to the trouble of putting a manuscript together, surely it isn't one of superior discernment? Lal, after all, published many of the poets we consider major today: A.K.Ramanujam, Jayanta Mahapatra, Keki Daruwalla, Gieve Patel, Agha Shahid Ali, Meena Alexander and many, many others. On the other hand, other small presses have published poets who have disappeared without a trace, or are just plain unreadable.

Whatever the stated or unstated reasons are for sidelining P.Lal, I think a history of IPE would be incomplete if we did not examine his contribution to it. RIP.

*I thought it odd (and telling) how Hasan, throughout her essay, referred to poets by their first names. I might do it on my blog, while referring to poets who are, often, also friends; but I wouldn't do it in an essay being published in a less informal space. Thoughts about this? (After all, so many definitions about publications, criticism and accessibility are changing in this discussion, so - perhaps - why not this as well?)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Stet: The sound of ranks closing

It's been a few weeks since Aroon Purie's Rajinikanth plagiarism*. In that time, to my knowledge, no other mainstream media house - barring only Aditya Sinha in the New Indian Express - has touched the issue with a bargepole. Bloggers have, others have, but not another mainstream newspaper or news magazine, however principled and noise-making they claim to be.

Mitali Saran has been writing a column in the Business Standard called Stet for the last last several years. On 30 October, her column did not appear in the Business Standard, and no reason was given. Mitali put up the column on her blog and stated that she wasn't clear why the column was not carried (they printed an NYT article about wingtips instead).

In the last two days, the updates on her blog about why the column went missing, kept changing. Today, this is what it says:
Update November 2, 2010: Business Standard's view that the post below was too dated to run is utterly unpersuasive, and I'm afraid I don't believe it. They also say that since this post was put up on the blog, along with comments about BS, the question of carrying it in the paper does not arise. We shall have to agree to disagree on this whole thing, and I will write a post about that in a few days; but meanwhile, I have terminated my arrangement with them with immediate effect. As of this week, Stet will no longer appear in Business Standard.
This is immensely sad. Not just because Business Standard has demonstrated superior levels of short-sightedness, but also because their reasons for not printing the column in the coming week's paper is notable for its lack of imagination and brazenness.

Stet, I suspect, will be missed only in the Business Standard. I look forward to seeing it back in some other paper or magazine, or even just on Mitali's blog.


*Yes. Shorthand. Key words. I know Purie did not plagiarise Rajini (as if that would even be possible).

Monday, November 01, 2010

Quiz by Linh Dinh

From  Quiz by Linh Dinh

Pushed to the ground and kicked by a gang of soldiers, about to be shot, you can save your life by brandishing:

a) an uzi
b) a crucifix
c) the Constitution
d) a poem

A poem can:

a) start a war
b) stanch a wound
c) titillate the masses
d) shame a nation

Poets are:

a) clowns
b) parasites
c) legislators
d) terrorists

[The whole poem at Poetry Foundation]


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Two Minutes Older: The Coming of the Barbarians

On the same day, in different parts of the world, Angela Merkel and Aravinda Adiga unburdened themselves of a similar world-view. In Potsdam, the German Chancellor claimed that the multi-culturalism “concept has failed, failed utterly”. What she really meant was that the Turkish immigrants, having spent one generation in rebuilding post-war Germany, had now outstayed their welcome.

In Karnataka, Adiga bemoaned the filthy lucre coming in from the North (he meant Andhra) that has eroded Karnataka’s culture. He said, “Our sense of who we are has unraveled. There is money, but there is no pride in Karnataka any longer.” Pride, for Adiga, expresses itself by replying in Kannada when people address him in any other language.

‘Seldom differ,” I muttered and allowed my mind to fill in the blanks. (Self-censorship is alive and well even in places that are not Thackeray Territory). To my credit, I also had the grace to blush quietly to myself. This is why:

A couple of weeks ago, a neighbour let her house for a film shoot. It was clearly a large production with big stars, and early one morning, the area buzzed with unusual activity. First, the generator van staked its claim on a large part of the road. Then, an empty plot of land next door became the parking lot (and public urinal). The air-conditioned van for the star of the production had a dish antenna placed outside, though I have no idea what the reception was like. A tailor set up his machine on the pavement and began to make alterations in costumes. Someone else ironed clothes frantically. A prop van disgorged sand bags and the police van further up the road was there purely for decoration.

For the next week, all kinds of people bustled and worked. And I was dismayed. “Why can’t they find some other place to shoot?” I thought. It was clear to me that their arrival signalled the ruin of the neighbourhood. I bristled when I walked past the spot boys, and glared at the pile of paper cups outside my gate.

This is especially ironic considering that not long ago, I was a part of this world where people made temporary homes everywhere and pulled them up when the time came to leave – a nomadic world that accommodated any kind of person from anywhere and in which people from all professions had a place: tailors, carpenters, painters, electricians, accountants and cooks in addition to all the headline-hogging glamour components.

Having left that world, though, I felt resentful and threatened by the cheerful confidence with which the people of the film industry made themselves at home on my street. Somewhere, in some reptilian part of my brain, I wanted to dispense permission and demonstrate tolerance; in exchange, I wanted gratitude or at least some mouse-like behaviour which was not forthcoming.

At the end of a week, when the unit left, I felt enormous relief and welcomed the pristine, original silence as I would a prodigal daughter.

So I ought to sympathise with Merkel and Adiga, right? I ought to find merit in their argument that ‘their’ culture’ is under threat and needs to be reinforced or protected; that this is to be achieved either by compelling ‘integration’ – whatever that means – or ejecting those who do not align themselves with certain cultural identifiers.

But of course I don’t, because, as I said, I have the grace to be ashamed by my temporary knee-jerk reaction to having my little pond stirred.

As countries in the West attempt to put up barriers against immigration, and as areas within India make their case for redrawing state boundaries citing reasons that include cultural ones, we’re going to see much more of this nostalgic yearning for a time when things were better before the coming of the barbarians, whoever they may currently be.

I wonder what Merkel, Adiga, Thackeray and others of their stripe will do if everyone went back to where they once belonged, and if all cultures and languages were stable and border-bound. Will they think to ask, as the speaker does in the closing lines of C.P.Cavafy’s poem, Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?/ Those people were a kind of solution?


An edited version of this appeared in today's The New Indian Express.

(I won't be putting up a link to the column in the epaper because I've noticed that it's no longer active after a week.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Daayen Ya Baayen Show Timings for Bombay and Delhi

Update on the earlier post on Bela Negi's first indie film, Daayen Ya Baayen: I did say the distribution was unorthodox, so here are specific show timings for different theatres across Bombay and the one show timing in Delhi.

If you're in either of these cities, do, do go and watch the film. Not just because it's an indie effort that everyone in and out of the unit fought tooth and nail to bring out into the theatres; not just because there's no publicity budget, no promotion for it beyond what everyone is doing on blogs and on Facebook; but because it's a good film and because you can make me jealous by going and watching it.

Here's where:

In Bombay:

PVR Lower Parel 1:30, 8:25 pm

Juhu 1:15, 8:35 pm

Goregaon (E) 10:50 pm

BIG CINEMAS IMax-Wadala 3:45 pm

Mulund 3:15 pm

R City Mall Ghatkopar 12:30 pm

Vashi 2:15 pm

INOX Nariman Point 1:00 pm

CINEMAX Versova 1:45 pm

FAME Malad 1:00, 5:00 pm

MOVIETIME Goregaon 12:00, 8:15 pm

BROADWAY Bhandup 3:00 pm

In Delhi:

PVR Select Citywalk (Saket): 4.55 pm. (Yes, this is not good news but if the first-day-only-show is full up, it might encourage the theatre to keep it running through the week.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

vanilla and honey

Khadi's Vanilla and Honey Hair Conditioner. Avoid.

Once, I begged and borrowed a Mills & Boon* from an acquaintance. When I brought it back home to read, I noticed its pages were wavy, as they sometimes get when they've been read in the bath. I opened the book and at the time it smelled like what we used to call 'scent rubbers' (it's not what you think): strong, sickly sweet and stale with having been all over the pages for god knows how long.

The conditioner I used this morning smells like that book. I am feeling ill. Feel free to say 'there there'.  Just so long as you don't pour sympathy like honey or vanilla, I'm good.


*The book was by Charlotte Lamb, about some painter dude and some dewy-eyed free spirit, whose heart the man breaks, and who proceeds to fall in love with his son somewhere in the big bad city, and it's all very incestuous and complicated.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Please go watch Daayen Ya Baayen!

My batch-mate (well, a year my junior) and friend, Bela Negi's debut feature film, Daayen Ya Baayen is releasing on the 29th in Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata and a new other places (but not *sob* Hyderabad. Not yet, at least).

I haven't seen the film , but not for trying, I promise you. When I was in Bombay, there was only one impossible chance to see it and I couldn't make it.

But you can read all about it in the posts of all these other friends of mine: Batul, Paromita and Charu.

When friends make good, when they work their butts off to make their films or write their books, it gives me immense joy.

Congratulations, Bela, Shubho, Amlan, Vivek, Gissy and everyone else now who's helping to publicise this film I wish more than anything to watch when it releases.

Watch this space for where it's being screened and when. It's being distributed in a rather unorthodox fashion, I think, so details as I learn of them.

Oh, and here's a vid:

Three poems in InterLitQ

Issue 12 of InterLitQ is up. I have three poems in it.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Aditya Sinha on India Today's plagiarism

As far as I know, Aditya Sinha, editor-in-chief, The New Indian Express, is the only editor of a major publication to write about Aroon Purie's plagiarism in India Today recently.

An embarrassing silence has recently enveloped the Indian media regarding an act of plagiarism, probably because it’s not been committed by another journalist but by one of our most powerful media moguls, Aroon Purie. In his letter that opens the magazine India Today (but only for the Southern editions), he wrote about Rajnikanth a fortnight ago. One of the memorable lines went: “If a tiger had sex with a tornado and then their tiger-nado baby got married to an earthquake, their offspring would be Rajinikanth (sic)”. Unfortunately, this line had already been written by Grady Hendrix and published on the American website Slate. Going by the blogs, what has irritated readers more was his “apology” in the subsequent issue which seemed more like a slap in the face, and in which he blamed the plagiarism on jet-lag. Friends who have worked for Purie say he is one of the sharpest media proprietors in India; if he forsakes humility in his attempt to put the matter behind him, then that’s his business. The real issue is that of rampant plagiarism in India and how it continues to erode the already low credibility of Indian journalism in the public eye.

I think Sinha is wrong to exonerate Purie somewhat, on the grounds that someone else committed the actual plagiarism. If Purie signed under the 'letter', he is responsible.

At any rate, other bloggers, including Niranjana - whose work has also been plagiarised by IT - have blogged about this, and in this case they've been noticed by India Today's Corporate Communications, whose generic comment has been reproduced on every website that noticed the plagiarism.

Grady Hendrix, whose article was plagiarised, has been pretty gracious about Purie's 'apology'. Some people's comments, on the other hand, have mostly taken exception to his understanding of Indian English. As if that was the point. Bah.

But it's good to see a mainstream newspaper take on the issue and contextualise it. Aditya Sinha FTW!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Book, its Writer, the Goon and Our Response

Everyone knows by now about the ban on Rohinton Mistry's book, Such A Long Journey and its removal from the syllabus of the second year course in Bombay University. Below is the PEN's Statement, in full, and a link to The Hindu's report this morning, of Mistry's own statement.

1.The PEN All-India Centre's statement:

Theosophy Hall
40 New Marine Lines
Mumbai 400 020

20 October 2010

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

The PEN All-India Centre strongly condemns the removal of Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such A Long Journey, from the SYBA syllabus of the University of Mumbai’s Literature course. We also express our great disappointment at the manner in which politicians belonging to the supposedly centrist and liberal parties, including the Indian National Congress, have consented to this ban, demanded by the scion of a right-wing political party, the Shiv Sena.

India has lapsed into the worst kind of competitive populism, with political forces seeking to outdo one another in destroying and banning works of literature, art, theatre and cinema, in the name of an aggrieved religious, ethnic or regional sensibility. Not only does this constitute a betrayal of the liberal Enlightenment ideology that ushered India into postcolonial freedom, but it also makes nonsense of our claim to being a 21st-century society, marked by openness, tolerance of diversity, and respect for the creative imagination.

There is only one name for a society that bans and burns books, tears down paintings, attacks cinema halls, and disrupts theatre performances under the sign of an aggressive chauvinism. ‘Fascist’ is too gentle a description. The exact name is ‘Nazi’. It is a matter of extreme sorrow that Mumbai in 2010 is exactly what Munich and Berlin were in 1935. It is for civil society in our city to decide whether we want to plunge deeper into the abyss of Nazi-style obscurantism, dictatorial oppression and a savage destructiveness towards every impulse that is open, receptive, creative and compassionate -- or whether we shall resist it.

Ranjit Hoskote
Naresh Fernandes
Jerry Pinto
For The Executive Committee

“The Shiv Sena's student wing complains to the Vice-Chancellor of Mumbai University that it is offended by the novel ‘Such a Long Journey.' Copies are burnt at the University gates. Needless to say, no one has actually read the book. The mob leader, speaking in Hindi to a television camera, says: The author is lucky he lives in Canada — if he were here, we would burn him as well. The mob demands the book's removal, within twenty-four hours, from the syllabus. The good Vice-Chancellor obliges the mob. 


“As for the grandson of the Shiv Sena leader, the young man who takes credit for the whole pathetic business, who admits to not having read the book, just the few lines that offend him and his bibliophobic brethren, he has now been inducted into the family enterprise of parochial politics, anointed leader of its newly minted “youth wing.” What can — what should — one feel about him? Pity, disappointment, compassion? Twenty years old, in the final year of a B.A. in history, at my own Alma Mater, the beneficiary of a good education, he is about to embark down the Sena's well-trodden path, to appeal, like those before him, to all that is worst in human nature.
“Does he have to? No. He is clearly equipped to choose for himself. He could lead, instead of following, the old regime. He could say something radical — that burning and banning books will not feed one hungry soul, will not house one homeless person nor will it provide gainful employment to anyone [unless one counts those hired to light bonfires], not in Mumbai, not in Maharashtra, not anywhere, not ever.
“He can think independently, and he can choose. And since he is drawn to books, he might want to read, carefully this time, from cover to cover, a couple that would help him make his choice. Come to think of it, the Vice-Chancellor, too, may find them beneficial. First, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, in order to consider the options: step back from the abyss, or go over the edge. Next, the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore's Gitanjali. And I would urge particular attention to this verse: ‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high; Where knowledge is free; Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;...Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake'.”

Yes. Well. 

Depressingly familiar, certainly. No question there. But I want to ask if civil society's response - that Mistry so touchingly appreciates and puts faith in to change something - isn't equally depressing in its familiarity.

It should be clear by now that organisations like the Sena burn and ban not because they're really outraged by the representations of artists; they behave the way they do because it pushes our buttons and polarises people.They do it because they can.Offense has very little to do with any of this.

It helps very little to appeal to their better conscience, because they have none. It helps even less to compare them to the Nazis, or Germany before WWII, because presumably civil society reacted with precisely this mixture of futile outrage and fear, with equally abysmal results.

Which is not to say that civil society must not respond. The question is, to what part of the phenomenon is one to respond to? Here is a 20 year old pimply youth in his final year at college. There is the middle generation of the Sena, divided, with no one very clear what the difference is in their agendas, but perfectly certain that it's a question of inheritance. What is the young man - absurdly called the scion of the Thackeray clan - to do to establish his credentials as a goon worthy of inheriting the mantle of his grandfather? 

Why, find some poor sod whose book or painting to ban, of course. 

So should we be outraged that this Aditya person has not read Mistry's book or should we figure out why it's so easy these days to cynically manipulate people and events so that such a thing is even possible?

For instance, how did a rule unused for a 150 years get invoked without any oversight from any other person in the University? What routine action is taken against those who are entrusted to uphold whatever law there is, when they fail to do so?

I'm sure there'll be reams written about how outrageous this whole thing is. And don't get me wrong, it is outrageous. But let's also acknowledge that we being jerked around quite deliberately.

I don't know what the answer is, of course, or how to respond adequately but I want to know what the misdirection is concealing. I only know that to respond by buying more copies of Mistry's book, or recommending that Aditya Thackeray read it, or some such is to offer a band-aid to someone having a stroke.

Oh, and previously on bans. (I was so much older then...).

Update: I've just read Supriya Nair's excellent piece, 'Protesting the Protesters', in Mint. She says:

Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”

Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimizes nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. This is not the time to keel over rasping “The horror, the horror”.
 To the Batfax, comrades!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

poetry has direct designs on us

Don Paterson, talking about Shakespeare's sonnets and the commentaries he's recently written on them:

In the end, putting together a guide to the sonnets, I decided I'd write it in the form of a diary. That's to say I read the sonnets as you would any other book, fitting them round my work routine and domestic obligations. So rather than lock myself in the library for six months, I wrote my commentaries on the poems while awake, bored, half-asleep, full of cold, drunk, exhausted, serene, smart, befuddled and stupid. I wrote on the train, in bed, in the bath and in my lunch-break; I wrote them while I was fed up marking papers, or stuck on Bioshock on the Playstation, while I was watching the bairns, Family Guy or the view out of the window.

The idea was to find a way of giving the sonnets more of a direct and personal reading than they usually receive. This requires making a firm distinction between two kinds of reading. Most literary criticism, whether academic or journalistic, is ideally geared up for "secondary reading" – by which I mean all that stuff that requires us to generate some kind of secondary text – a commentary, an exegesis, a review and so on. By contrast, a primary reading doesn't have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse – which doesn't sound too revolutionary, but the truth is that many readers don't feel like that about poetry any more, and often start with: "But what does it all mean?" on the assumption that "that's how you read poetry".

But that isn't the kind of the first reading most poems hoped they were going to get. The poem has much more direct designs on us. Its plan was to make us weep or change our opinion of something forever. The sonnets are no different, but currently give the appearance of being approachable only via a scholarly commentary. 

I've long been fascinated by Paterson's inclination toward the idea of the poem as mystical and sentient, with its own subjective designs on the reader, and the poet as shaman or medium. I'm fairly certain I don't agree with that view, but I acknowledge its attraction. [See his TS Eliot Lecture that I've linked to in this post.]

Two Minutes Older: Stranger Friends

Some fifteen years ago, my mother called me at my hostel to give me some news. “I met a young German on the train. He didn’t have a place to stay, so I brought him home.” I was shocked. Who was this young German man? Apparently my mum and he were travelling on the same train and my mother got talking to him. She found out that he was visiting India for a while before returning home to begin his PhD.

I tried to tell her that she couldn’t just bring some stranger home, but I knew from experience that she could (and did). She’s been known to strike up conversations with people at cricket matches, bring them home for lunch and send them off with gifts.

Once, in 1989, during the break-up of the Soviet Union, when all Eastern Europe had caught the spirit of glasnost and perestroika, a Polish family left their home in Warsaw for Australia. In Chennai, our respective flights – their connecting one and ours back home – were delayed and we happened to sit at adjacent tables at the cafeteria. Naturally, my mother struck up a conversation that lasted a full five hours. At the end of it, my mother gave that family the address of another friend of hers in Australia upon whom they could impose when they landed. We’ve never met them again, but that was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship.

It still amazes me that in the era before Facebook (BFE) and Google – because of which tools we have recently reconnected to these old friends – it was possible to seek and find friendships without thought of introductions or references.

In the last two decades, the phrase ‘six degrees of separation’ has become common currency, based not only on the play and the film of the play, but also on the germ of a theory of social networks first mentioned in the work of Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy.

A passage in Karinthy’s short story, ‘Chains’, published in 1929, goes thus: “One of us suggested performing the following experiment to prove that the population of the Earth is closer together now than they have ever been before. We should select any person from the 1.5 billion inhabitants of the Earth—anyone, anywhere at all. He bet us that, using no more than five individuals, one of whom is a personal acquaintance, he could contact the selected individual using nothing except the network of personal acquaintances.” [from wikipedia].

Mark Zuckerberg has reduced the odds somewhat, but I don’t know about the six degrees. I can think back to the Polish family and the German and say with certainty that there was no way to find a connection between us, even up to a dozen steps away. We were strangers until we became friends.

It seems less possible now, not just because we really are more connected globally but also because we have a trust deficit when it comes to true strangers. Even in the virtual world, it’s more likely that one’s friends are people already familiar from commonly occupied territories such as blogs or other forums.

What this seems to suggest is, that in the Facebook Era (FE) one is somehow always-already connected to everybody else. Put another way, you can only be friends with someone you already know and a stranger is someone in whose presence you will very likely take out your phone and pretend to check messages.

I can’t help thinking of my reckless mother on that train. I wonder what my father thought when she returned from the station with a travelling student, and what the student thought when my mother conveyed to him my misgivings about her bringing unknown people home.

Actually, that part I do know. She told him what I’d said and he apparently agreed, saying I was right to be worried. She said later that she’d spent a sleepless night then.

I have to admit, I’m strangely proud of her. It takes some courage and faith to meet another human being on equal ground, with no preconceptions or expectations and no references or social rewards. My mother has that kind of courage. I know, to my eternal regret, that I don’t.

An edited version of this in Zeitgeist, the Saturday edition of The New Indian Express.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

today's light

Lost an earring that belonged to my father.
Dreamt of a creature that vomited pale worms while moaning, "my heart, my heart". The worms are films that the creature distributes on request.
Yelled at the kid for spilling milk all over a new tablecloth.
Discussed Tarr with a friend.*
Read passages from The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying.
Scared five lizards off.
Learnt about orthopedic socks.
The rest of the day will go in the study of my now two month old unbitten fingers.
I have so much Potential.

*I find it's enough to state the desire/intention of watching a film to be considered well-informed and/or worth talking to on important matters. Why bother watching any films? Apropos of which, plans to watch Enthiran have been consistently postponed, the latest attempt and its dismissal being right now. Last Tamil show on at 3.10 this afternoon. Alas, Rajni.