Category Archives: India

Dangal by Aamir Khan

To do things differently requires guts. There’s the risk of becoming an outcast, among friends, family, neighbors, strangers. But the greatest enrichments are open only to those who muster the courage to do things differently. Those, despite risk of failure and ostracism, who willingly tread the road less traveled open themselves up also to the possibility of unprecedented rewards. In Dangal, Aamir Khan portrays such a risk taker.

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                Sports biopics, of late, have stuck a chord in Bollywood, with the singular successes of gifted athletes who overcome tremendous obstacles – both systemic and infrastructural – to achieve international fame and success, in a country indifferent to its sporting heroes (barring cricket). After athletics and boxing, wresting’s emergence into limelight is natural. The choice of theme as such is not extraordinary.  Aamir Khan’s ability to package it as a blockbuster without severely limiting the story’s honesty is. Director Nitesh Tiwari achieves that by taking some of the edge off, through humor, catchy music, high emotional content, never losing sight however of its actual intent – to narrate the tale of a father’s sincerity and passion to pursue a dream, and his daughter’s toil in response, and their eventual success to unprecedented rewards, which shine through in the nearly three hours of storytelling. This, despite some preachy moments and one enforced nationalistic gesture thrown in.

Subduing his star appeal, Khan turns in a performance apt to play the aged protagonist. His co-actors deliver in cohesion to ultimately create an inspiring cinematic experience. It should please those who want a bit more out of big budget Bollywood fare, but has enough spice in the pot for the masala crowd as well. It certainly is a happy mix for the producers, if initial box office response is any indicator.

#Dangal

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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

MarriageBureauforRichPeople

I read Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy over two years ago. Yet many of the characters, even lesser ones – like Mahesh Kapoor, remain vivid in my memory. I can almost see the man when I close my eyes and try to imagine a scene from the story. One could argue that it’s unfair to compare with “A Suitable Boy”, where Seth left no stone unturned in developing the characters, where even lesser ones are given meticulous attention and volume to help the reader eke out in their minds, the flesh and blood aliases. The point I’m trying to make is this: without interesting characters, or even apparently ordinary characters cast extraordinarily by the author, a book – a work of fiction that is – will not leave a mark in the reader’s imagination. Mr.Zama’s debut novel is such a book.

There’s no need to brace yourself – I am not going to flay the author. Even today, with the plethora of publishers and writers, it remains quite hard to get one’s work published (and I don’t mean on the Internet). That, in itself, is quite an achievement. One needs persistence (let’s forsake talent for while, we’ll get to that in a bit), and some luck. Sometimes luck alone works. Zama probably has both. At least, this book is not as cheesy as Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (source of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire). What it is is a mixture of excoticism (with an overdose of spices), avuncular wisdom, a paean to secularism, a jumble of none too memorable characters (except perhaps Aruna) all afloat in a drama devoid of any significant conflict, a probable cause being Mr. Zama’s over inclination to resolve all problems, and resolve them fairly easily. There, I’ve violated my promise, but it was unavoidable.

At times, the book reads like a manual for Indian cooking:

“Aruna’s mother lit the second ring of the gas burner and put an aluminum pan on it. She poured a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil was hot enough, she took out an old round wooden container. She slid the lid open on its hinge. Inside, there were eight compartments, each holding a different spice. She took a pinch of mustard seeds and put them in the oil. When they started popping, Aruna’s mother dropped cloves, cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick into the hot oil. She added a small plate of chopped onions to the pan. The lovely smell of frying onions filtered through the kitchen and into the rest of the house”

…and this goes on for another paragraph. I mean, come on! Almost any major city of any consequence has an Indian restaurant, and with YouTube and the zillions of recipe websites, one no longer is in awe of popping mustard seeds and the smell of fried onions in spices. These so called tactile mechanisms are a bane and detract the reader, but perhaps there’s a selling point that I’m missing. Through such deviations, mediocre writing, and failing to latch on to the potential latent in the Aruna character, Zama’s work never really picks up, stuttering on through its three hundred odd pages, letting in too many inconsequential people walk in through Marriage Bureau’s doors. Mr. Ali, Mrs. Ali – why not just use their names? And their son, Irshad – I was hoping to see some real conflict when he was arrested in a protest against farmland acquisition. But Zama fritters away that chance too, and with the bloody battle of Singur still fresh in many a mind, what a miss it is.

Now, talking of talent, one doesn’t expect every Indian author to bear the promise of a Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh. We have become, are becoming, a more and more egalitarian society, with most of us finding it easier to accomplish one’s heart’s desire – be it launching a startup company, scuba diving or writing. This is a good thing. Seriously, I mean no irony or cynicism even if there’s a whiff from my take on the book. There’s a playing field for everyone, and that’s how things should be. Now as far a reading goes, it is fair to say that one needs to be choosy in this avalanche of media, and finding a good book to read (and that of course, as many might quickly point out, is purely subjective) remains difficult, for talent, unlike opportunity, is less common. Read the jackets carefully, sometimes they help. The “About the Auhor” section at the end of this one says –

“…He works for an investment bank and writes on his commute and sitting in front of the TV after dinner.”

I wish I had read it prior to my venture. Now that I have, I am not surprised of the outcome. Quite an achievement, Mr. Zama! (See, I didn’t use his first name at all in the essay, barring the title. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?)

Rating: 2/5

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

Behind the words

I have just begun reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s “Unaccustomed Earth”. The back cover caught my eye. It is not that I haven’t seen her picture before, and was caught unaware by the fact that she is good looking (quite photogenic too). But the way photograph has been rendered, she could pass for a model, or a film star. While only a fool would buy a book based on an author’s looks, there is no denying the fact it has become increasingly common to flaunt it if you’ve got it, and perhaps even if you haven’t. So what if JL was a buck toothed hag with a De Niro mole on her nose and about as photogenic as a crow? I am sure that the photograph would be either missing or much subdued. What I am not so sure of is whether this is a phenomenon chiefly pertaining to women writers. Perhaps.

Nonetheless, one must learn not to take blurbs on book jackets seriously. The photograph merely makes up for the missing ones, and enhances the rest. One shouldn’t unduly bother with correlations between their fulsome promise and the quality of the actual writing, which, in this case, is surprisingly high.

 

jhumpalahiri

 

A writer of the caliber of JL needs such accoutrements only for those who have not experienced her earlier works, most notably “Interpreter of Maladies” – a gem of a collection. I admire her unornamented style, very much contrary to the glitzy marketing snapshot, but equally, if not more, arresting. She’s a shining example of what talent and a good writing school degree can do to someone with luck. The luck factor is of course required for winning fame and recognition, awards. And her good looks are only a part of her good fortunes.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

seaofpoppiesTo read an Amitav Ghosh novel is not merely to get a glimpse of the best of contemporary Indian writing, but also a snapshot of an oft-ignored episode of history. The “Sea of Poppies” is no exception. After a somewhat lukewarm tryst with Sunderbans and the Gangetic Dolphin (Hungry Tide), the first novel of the Ibis trilogy is a tour de force.

 

Ghosh has a talent for suspense. The ghost anecdote from Calcutta Chromosome is still vivid in my memory, and certain parts of Shadow Lines gave me goose bumps. The climax of this work sees ample use of this prowess, and leaves one breathless. But the best sections of the novel, in my opinion, are the ones dealing with the transformation of Neel – from the squeamish Raja Neel Rattan Halder to the denounced convict resuscitating an opium addict, as if in redemption. The abjectness of Neel’s incarceraton hits one with a retching effect, such is the power of his prose.

 

To read the novel is also to get a glimpse also of the beaten-to-death issue of caste system. So many people have written about it in so many different ways that it has become a cliché. So is the Kalua character and his escapade with Deeti. Ghosh however adds a linguistic tribute to Bhojpuri, the language spoken by the shipload of girmitiyas (indentured laborers) being transported to Mauritius:

 

“… of all the tongues spoken between the Ganges and the Indus, there was none that was its equal in the expression of the nuances of love, longing and separation – of the plight of those who leave and those who stay at home.”

 

This is immediately followed by what I think are the best lines of the book:

 

“How had it happened that while choosing the men and women who were to be torn from this subjugated plain, the hand of destiny had strayed so far inland, away from the busy coastlines, to alight on the people who were, of all, the most stubbornly rooted in the silt of the Ganga, in a soil that had to be sown with suffering to yield its crop of story and song? It was as if fate had thrust its fist through the living flesh of the land in order to tear away a piece of its stricken heart.”

 

What an awesome metaphor!

 

Another beaten-to-death theme of many post colonialists, the ills of colonization itself, is given a poignancy that blatantly stares us in the face and raises unanswerable questions for the guardians of so called modern civilization. The British in the eighteenth century attempted to freely sell opium in China. In today’s context, it is tantamount to allowing the drug lords of Columbia a free rein in the streets of LA. Yet, in the name of the free market and God, the British fought two wars with China over opium trade. Here is how the Mr. Burnham character, a businessman of the East India Company, justifies it when Neel questions him on the moral implications of opium trade:

“…the antidote for addiction lies not in bans enacted by Parliaments and emperors, but in the individual conscience – in every man’s awareness of his personal responsibility and his fear of God. As a Christian nations this is the single most important lesson we can offer to China – and I have no doubt that the message would be welcomed by the people of that unfortunate country, were they not prevented from hearing it by the cruel despot who holds sway over them. It is tyranny alone that is to blame for China’s degeneracy, sir. Merchants like myself are but the servants of Free Trade, which is as immutable as God’s commandments.”

 

Swap poppies with petroleum and the Emperor of China with Saddam Hussein and it sounds very much like George Bush and the Iraq war.

 

Noam Chomsky in his arguments often states that the standards set by developed Western nations are not the same when it comes to judging their own actions, that somehow they are above the very principles by which they hold others. When Neel is sentenced and every bit of his property seized, he has similar thoughts on the virtues of English law.

 

“There was something about this that seemed so absurd to Neel that he had to drop his head for fear of betraying a smile: for if his presence in the dock proved anything at all, it was surely the opposite of the principle of equality so forcefully enunciated by the judge? In the course of this trial, it had become almost laughably obvious to Neel that in this system of justice it was the English themselves – Mr. Burnham and his ilk – who were exempt from the law as it applied to others: it was they who had become the world’s new Brahmins.”

 

The hypocrisy is further elucidated with Captain Chillingworth’s candid admission:

 

“…We are no different from the Pharaohs or the Mongols: the difference is only that when we kill people we feel compelled to pretend that it is for some higher cause. It is this pretense of virtue, I promise you, that will never be forgiven by history.”

 

 

In many ways, Sea of Poppies is a departure from his earlier works. It has a new publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, no doubt, but also a substantial chrestomathy in the appendix, as a reference to the eighteenth century British India lingo (sea faring and otherwise) used extensively throughout the book. While one can understand why bawarchi became bobachee and Pollock Saug the anglicized name of the popular dish, the ubiquity of such terms appear needless to me. I do not think that the novel would fall short, in the veraciousness of its context, with a lesser profusion of such nuances. Such background is really part of an author’s research and flouting it to the reader serves little purpose in a work of fiction. Perhaps it is a marketing ploy or an effort to optimize content for audiences with only a dithering knowledge of India or those inquisitive of the arcane. Is it also a marketing ploy to not publish the entire trilogy at once? My argument is, if Suitable Boy was suitable for it, why not this? The counter side is of course that Ghosh might be at work on the rest and was unwilling to wait as long. The sale of three volumes is certainly more enticing than one while appearing less onerous to the reader as well.

Another departure is a hint of magic realism. Deeti’s vision of the Ibis and her future does not appear to have an equivalent precursor, except perhaps in Calcutta Chromosome, which again is a different genre altogether.

Also, the generousness of humor is a markedly different approach. Nob Kissin Pander and Doughty doubtless attenuate the grim events, but their deliberateness seems quite intended. The Glass Palace, whose scope this work emulates, has a far darker tone.

 

At the end of the novel, one sees a chapter in the lives of the characters coming to an end, but there is a distinct undertone throughout the book (references to Deeti’s shrine) which does not see fruition. There is also a general inconclusiveness — of Neel in his new avatar, of the fate of Zachary and Paulette’s love, of Deeti in isolation, of Kalua and the band of mutineers fleeing Ibis. This is the buildup to part two, which I fervently await.

 

*Shortlisted for the 2008 Booker*

From Heaven Lake by Vikram Seth

When Vikram Seth traveled through China almost twenty five years ago, the country was much less fashionable in popular parlance than it is today. Sinkiang and Tibet are likely to be far more accessible to the tourist today, possibly even to the hitch hiker, which is what was Seth’s choice incarnate – an interesting albeit woeful one, but without which the travelogue would likely have remained unattractive or half done.

 

Seth was a Stanford exchange student in Nanjing University when he wrote this book (1983) and the origins of his unconventional journey back to his home in Delhi for the summer vacation was a rather impromptu one – when he, tired of the limiting insights through a conducted tour, broke away from the school party to undertake this extraordinary detour on his own.

 

It is an engrossing read, not merely to discover the ethereal beauty of the harsh high desert landscapes of Western China and Tibet, but also for the human interactions – his bonhomie with Sui, the erratic but good natured truck driver with whom he spends the longest part of his trip, his travails on the way, the family he befriends in Tibet and their unenviable legacy in the gruesomeness of the Chinese occupation, and so on. It is probably well known that Seth, a polyglot, was quick to pick up Chinese during his stay in China (he has published a translation of Chinese poets for that matter) . This helped him immensely on the way, to talk to the people in remote places with little knowledge of the outside world, much less English.

He is observant of the hospitable nature of the Chinese people, despite the secrecy of its Government:

“Time and again, with no thought other than kindness, people have helped me along in this journey. And this experience is merely a continuation of what I have felt throughout my travels in China: a remarkable warmth to the outsider from a people into whom a suspicion of foreigners has so long been instilled.”

 

It is interesting to note that Seth compares the communist autocracy of China and India’s fledging democracy, a theme at the heart of Aravind Adiga’s successful novel The White Tiger. This was when Adiga was nine years old. Yet the similarity of their observations, although via quite different vehicles, is striking, and only helps crystallize the viability of such comparisons.

“I think about what the two countries have done for their people in the course of the last thirty years. One overwhelming fact is that the Chinese have a better system of social care and of distribution than we do. Their aged do not starve. Their children are basically healthy. By and large, the people are well clothed, very occasionally in rags. Most children in the eastern provinces go to school for at least five years; this is in practice, not just(as in India) on paper. Tibet will take a long time to achieve the standard of living of other parts of China; however, in this comparatively prosperous part of Tibet I have not, for instance, seen signs of malnutrition.

….

“I am often asked about the relative success of our two large overpopulated countries in satisfying the most basic needs of their people. What is sometimes forgotten when making this comparison is that, except for the greater mineral wealth of China (a result of its far greater land area), all the a priori advantages lie on India’s side. India’s needs are fewer, and its agricultural production possibilities are greater. First, less clothing and heating are required for the average Indian than the average Chinese: everyone in the north of China needs both a heavy overcoat and heating fuel in winter. Secondly, India has more arable land per capita, more sunshine for double and triple cropping, and a better potential for irrigation. Yet despite all this, the average Chinese is better clothed, better fed and better sheltered that the average Indian.”

 

Yet Seth is not unsympathetic to India’s achievements, its democracy.

“But the Indian achievement of the last thirty years has been in a different, more nebulous, and in a sense more difficult direction. The country has not fragmented: a whole generation of Indians has grown up accepting that an independent and united India is the normal state of affairs. In the first few years of a nation, that is already a great deal: one cannot expect patriotism.”

 

I wonder what Seth’s views would be today, with all the separatist movements in Kashmir and the North East. But while critical of censorship and infringement on personal freedoms following Chinese dictatorship, Seth lauds, and rightly so, the democratic framework in India, however fragile. We do hope to see it pay off in the future, though this appears a distant prospect till this day.

 

Finally, he concludes, rather abstemiously:

“I now see that China’s achievements are solid but have serious drawbacks; and that is about all that that can be said about India’s, too.”

 

Quite diplomatic. But undeniably true.

 

 

I seem to have gone off in a tangent while writing about a travelogue. But these were too relevant and inescapable in my perspective to ignore. Coming back to the travel aspect, Heaven Lake, from which the book derives its title, is actually a pristine lake in the North western province of Sinkiang. It is from here that Seth, deserting his school troop, retraces his path all the way back to Nanjing and then to Beijing in eastern China in order to obtain his passport, money, and a Nepalese Visa (which he didn’t eventually need, being an Indian citizen), thus completing a circuitous loop all the way back to Liuyuan, from where he continues further south to Lasha, then Kathmandu and home to Delhi.

 

I have an interest in Tibet, and have written earlier about an older, marginal turn of the twentieth century book by an European traveler (Amaury de Riencourt), who visits Lasha, virtually unknown then to Westerners, via Sikkim. Since then, Tibet has been far more exposed to the rest of the world. While the political aspect is almost unnoticeable in Seth’s book, it is delightful to read about Lasha once again, the city and its grand monasteries, their resilience and decay. In Potala, the seat of Tibetan Buddhism and once the residence of the Dalai Lama, Seth is overwhelmed by the inspiring experience of the mystical rituals.

 

One thing that distinguishes Seth’s book from the run-of-the-mill travelogue is the occasional doggerel. Besides their literary value, they are filled with quaint observations which are simply charming. Here’s a bit from a longer piece, which he had written while in the truck after a particularly difficult stretch:

 

Here we three, cooped, alone,

Tibetan, Indian, Han,

Against a common dawn

Catch what poor sleep we can,

And sleeping drag the same

Sparse air into our lungs,

And dreaming each of home

Sleeptalk in different tongues.

 

There’s one particular piece, of prose however, which struck a chord in me, perhaps due to the fact that I too, Mystic Wanderer, have been drifting away from my homeland, in this course of life. Seth is in Nanjing, before setting out for Beijing, and enjoys a valedictory meal with a friend, which includes some California wine. This makes him nostalgic, for California, and he observes:

“…I recall drinking sherry in California and dreaming of England, where I ate dalmoth and dreamed of Delhi. What is the purpose, I wonder, of all this restlessness? I sometimes seem to myself to wander around the world merely accumulating material for future nostalgias.”

 

How eloquent!

Adiga wins the Booker

It is probably news no longer, but I am happy with the choice, though it might sound strange when I haven’t read the other books in contention. On reading The White Tiger, I did get the feeling that it might actually win, no matter the competition. Congratulations to Aravind Adiga!

Link to BBC Interview.