29 November 2009

The Big Little Bookshop

I must confess. I like the idea of a big climate-controlled bookstore with its tantalising coffees and wafting smell of brownies. But I hate who I turn into when I enter one. Somehow, the big bad bookstore (and now I know I sound like Meg Ryan from 'You've got mail') takes you towards the idea of purchase rather than the idea of reading. Sure they have comfy armchairs where presumably you can sink in and read. But do you actually read? Do you rather flip the pages and hope you look intellectual enough or do you sit there reading a magazine while you wait for a mate to turn up so you can head towards the cafe section? Be honest.

Returning to the idea of the small bookshop, it is telling indeed that they have survived. It's indicative of the way the global economy has gone belly-up, hasn't it? Borders has gone into receivership and please do allow me a sadistic smile here (they sucked at the book business) and Amazon is like a prostitute- you check in, you click, you do the deed and button down and exit immediately- so that leaves us with what? Us refers to real book lovers, real readers and real connoisseurs of the fine but slightly lost art of real reading. I mean, the real smell of old leather bindings, the climactic crackle of a virginal book spine, the soft, sexy rustle of a thumb turning a page, the rhythmic tapping of a nail against a hardcover while pondering the meaning of the title, the real satisfaction of peeling away money in the pursuit of real knowledge. I mean that kind of real. Not the kind that buys the latest Salman Rushdie because one ought to or the latest A.S. Byatt because 'Good lord she's won something and I need to have a glance at it' or worse, the type that trawls through best-seller lists and then decides where to slap down twenty-five quid.

When I read stories of the small bookshop making a reappearance, whether in Bombay, London or Madrid or even Tehran, I feel a warm, molten, chocolatey feeling inside. As I see people hunched in tiny spaces between bookshelves, really reading, smiling a little to themselves, I feel relieved. We are not extinct!! Huzzah!

Lutyens and Rubenstein, a new little gem in Notting Hill. Simply Shakespeare, an almost undiscovered little shop in Calcutta. This is where you find real books, creatively displayed with minimal fuss but maximum impact. Most likely here you will also find an owner or manager who doesn't blink stupidly when you ask if he has the unedited version of Wasteland or C.S. Lewis' non-fiction work. He or she will wisely not only guide you to the correct shelf but will also recommend companion books or ask if you agree with the premise of the work, thereby generating a stimulating discussion and your quota of intellectual exercise for the day.

No, I do not mourn the demise of ugly superstores. I am Meg Ryan with my cause for the little bookshop around the corner except that I won't end up marrying the idiot who owns the big bookstore just because he's cute.

I doff my hat to the people who have the unmitigated courage to open a little bookshop in this troubled climate and do not pander by selling accompanying cartoon stickers of Spiderman as an incentive for children to read. I salute the parent who drags his child into the less glamorous arena of the little bookshop and trusts that the Mad Hatter's Tea Party will be sufficient to intrigue his child. And I definitely salute every writer who chooses to read at a small, real bookshop where the listening audience asks intelligent questions because they've actually read the book they're holding.

10 October 2009

Peace, Fuzziness and Love

Now isn't this just terribly ironic? The Nobel Peace Prize has actually started a fight. Peace? Fight? Get it? I'm sure you do. Now I know that it seems quite the odd thing to award this apparently highly prestigious prize to a man who has just about started his job and frankly hasn't had enough time to produce any real results yet. Other than showing us he's a nice bloke really, with a slightly scary wife with a fondness for granny cardis. And showing us his pelvic moves on the Ellen DeGeneres Show and his wit and repartee on the Dave Letterman (vomit) Show.

Apparently, initiating a conciliatory move towards the Muslim world sent the Nobel committee suits in Scandinavian regions into a complete tizzy and they couldn't wait to hail-all the man who explicitly said that Muslims must not be seen as the Axis of Evil. Oh my! Fancy that? Can you believe it? Muslims are not to be shot deader than ducks at a royal weekend hunt just because a few guys crashed a few planes into a few buildings! Dear me, whatever would we have done had Obama not told us this?

Now I'm not a big follower or fan or loyalist of any prize that doesn't directly aid the arts (well, for obvious reasons) but like the rest of the world I've been slightly predisposed towards the grandness of the Nobel Peace Prize and while I think it's a tad incredulous to award this to a man whose efforts have yet to produce any tangible and long-lasting effect, I do think it's silly to start a war of words over something that's got the exact opposite intent.

My question is, whose world is going to tumble down if Obama takes the prize away? Better him than Henry Kissinger. Better him than Gaddafi. Better him than Berlusconi. And definitely better him than any monarch in any part of the world.

You might argue that it's politicised. Well what isn't? The very concept of peace talks and peace initiatives arises out of the need to clean up the messy politics and let ordinary folk live.

You might argue that he's not completely deserving of the honour yet. Well who would be, who would also be in a real position to make that 'yes we can' change if not the most powerful man in the world ? (And let's face it; as much as we hate the idea of one omnipotent man, we all know it's true so roll with it)

Let me give you a list of the Nobel Peace Laureates since just the 80s. Tell me if you remember any major achievement that changed the world as you know it from this list and no, you can't Google. (I make exceptions for the UNHCR, Medecins sans Frontieres and Mandela.)

Esquivel, IPKF, Myrdal and Robles, Desmond Tutu, Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, Elie Wiesel, Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres, Yitzhak Rabin, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gorbachev, Menchu Tum, De Klerk, Mandela, Oscar Arias Sanchez, Joseph Rotblat, Ximenes Belo, Jose Ramos-Horta, Jody Williams, John Hume, David Trimble, Wangari Maathai, Jimmy Carter, Kofi Annan, Kim Dae-Jung, Shirin Ebadi, Mohammed El-Baradei, Mohammed Yunus, Al Gore, Martti Ahtisaari,
UN Peacekeeping Force

How many names do you recognise? How many concrete achievements do you see?

14 August 2009

Welcome to Dystopia

With the headlines in India raging about the swine flu and the machinations of a certain woman in the opposition there seems to be precious little coverage about something that's going to hit India like a tonne of flaming bricks in the coming year. Apart from three to four minute sporadic snippets each day about the situation, no one is addressing the elephant in the room. Drought. No rain. No food. Dying farmers. Dying animals. Yes the PM addressed the situation in a scant outline about what needs to be done. Are the farmers buying it? Afraid not. Have they received the benefits yet? Afraid not. Is this situation getting enough indepth coverage? Afraid not.

Why? Because blackmarketing pharmacists, panic over a pandemic that's claimed less than thirty lives nation-wide and mud-slinging political antics hold juicier value for an audience. Who cares about boring old farmers and their uncoiffed, unsophisticated opinions and their ugly sagging bulls and cows, right? So who cares if I don't get rice next year. I'll eat pasta. Imported. I'll buy a burger. Imported. Seriously, it's not a big deal. We have this shitty problem with the rain every year. Heard it all before.

No one is showing the abandonment. No one is showing the pictures of women shrieking and fleeing across desert lands to find one drop of water for their dying babies. No one is showing the slow collapse and eventual death of a hardy animal like a camel. Because it's not juicy. It's not interesting and it's not happening at your doorstep.

Here are some interesting statistics:

Swine flu in India- affected cities- 12
Drought affected districts in India- 161
Expected swine flu death toll- less than 100
Certain drought death toll- over 300,000

And who gets more coverage? Paranoid people with masks.

Welcome to dystopia. And you don't even know it.

And oh yeah, Happy Independence Day. Let me know if you find something worthy to crow about.

13 August 2009

Let's face it; we like wars.

Now I know you're going to put on your pacifist poncho and hurl tomatoes at me for saying that. Well, thanks for the free fruit, people; it'll save me a penny.

But seriously, I will demonstrate that this is true. Some of us just like outright war. You know, the sort that's happening all over the world- rebel conflicts in African countries, unspeakable atrocities in Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan bearing the brunt of a few bad men, the Middle-Eastern conflict and the Indo-Pak tensions. You can hardly prove me wrong here.

But what about me, pipes up your thin reedy voice- yes you, the nature-loving, tree-hugging fruitarian, almost anorexic because you can't eat anything that can be murdered, waving your stick insect arms in protest. I'm not for war, you say. Ah but you are, you see. You're raging against non-vegetarians. You're raging against the fur coat industry. You're campaigning for the rights of spinach but you don't care about the lives of dairy farmers who lose their livelihood because nobody buys their milk anymore. So you're at war with someone in your own reedy little stick-insecty way.

And you, you purveyor of justice- the one who campaigns for clemency, for human rights, for fair treatment to prisoners, for the upholding of the Habeas Corpus writ. Now don't scowl and raise your Magna Carta at me, you thick-robed bespectacled geek. Your dash for Lady Justice is squashing my rights as a taxpayer not to hand over my money for the maintenance of unspeakable criminals who shake their babies to death, who plant bombs in my city, who swindle thousands like me of our hard-earned wages. And you're campaigning for that vermin's rights? You're warring against the ordinary citizens' rights with your clever words and your indecent spin on the law.

And what about you- you finely attired keepers of the faith? You claim you want peace, not war. You shake hands with rabbis and mullahs and bishops and pray for the serenity and wisdom of the world and yet you live in shameless luxury and determine if a raped girl should be forced to have a baby at risk to her own life, you disallow a devout woman to cover her head with a scarf if she so chooses, you call followers of other faiths kafirs and non-believing sinners, you weild your mighty money to subjugate and occupy the homes of a harrassed nation- all in the name of God. What a clever little bunch you are.

And what about you and me- we are so taken in with the everyday wars that we encounter when we spill onto the streets, in order to earn our living. We are wooed towards something and cautioned against another- phones, schools, medicines, clothes, entertainment, political views, nations, rights, duties and moralities. And we choose. We choose one over another, starting off little wars that will all come home to roost one day if they haven't already.

You're not a pacifist. You're as Machiavellian as I am. You love wars just as much as every other person on this planet. You just don't have the balls to admit you enjoy it. Comfort yourself, dear coward; neither do they.

13 July 2009

A case of the fedups.

I've got a case of the fedups. I've been trying to stay all positive, even reading silly books like Eat, Pray, Love (excellent substitute for inducing vomit in my very personal, absolutely minority opinion) and wondering what's happening all around. Friends tell me I'm just crabby because I don't like the monsoon. Some say I am sadder about Michael Jackson's death than I realise. And some think I'm generally disgusted with the shambles of the world we are living in. Now this is all true. I mean seriously, between Facebooking each other, writing random rants like this one, following macrobiotic diets to no avail, wasting money on really bad books, watching inane drivel in a movie theatre, reading trumped-up news with terrible grammatical errors and generally naffing off, what's the real deal these days?

When I was in London, I heard the same rants from friends. When I was in Geneva, even the Swiss jumped about like a large red tropical ant had eaten its way through their skisuit and was chomping on a wealthy bum. While I am in Bombay, I realise that the most exciting thing that people were talking about was a shoddy bridge connecting two parts of the city, with the worst emergency provisions I've ever seen in a so-called developed city. And I mean just lighting. Forget about accidents. Better to jump into the water and pray to an unhearing god.

All we seem to do is hear, talk, see, listen, explain, bitch and verify the same old shit. Politicians are crooked from the House of Commons in England to every house in India. Celebrities are dying of cancer or drug abuse and their funerals are nothing but hammy, showy, badly directed cheap television where even children aren't spared. Corruption ranges from charging a battery for 88p to government contracts handed out to unworthy sons-in-law. Google and Microsoft are at war again, as if there aren't enough wars to keep us busy and in danger until 2050 at least. Recession tales have become competitive- who's more screwed, you or I? The news channel are still worried about who is dating whom and is that his long-lost daughter? Oh no, wait, that's just Woody Allen again.

In the middle of this white noise, I am wondering, are books the last refuge? Are they really? Or are they becoming the same monster? Publishers will only publish already published famous authors because in this scary economic situation, new authors aren't a safe bet? Or will a new author bring down the aristocracy by writing a 'popular' book with very little literary life to it and yet win an astonishing prize? Shall we just stick with the classics? And yet, I walk into bookstores untiringly, only to find that people are really just there for the coffee and brownies. They are only there to 'pick up a gift for my friend's kid's birthday party' or only there because a popular socialite is 'doing a reading' of a book they haven't even read.

As I said, a case of the fedups. Where nothing seems to be worth writing about or doing or listening to. And if you are going to come up with some homily about life is beautiful or some such similar crap, spare me. As I said before, self-help writers make me vomit. And since when has it been politically incorrect to correctly identify the absence of genuine inspiration as just that?

Whatever happened to a good old-fashioned rant about the mediocrity of mankind and the accuracy of Thoreau?

16 May 2009

The voice of India

The voice of India has announced that the Congress has won. The UPA government led by Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh is to continue for another 5 years. More importantly, the vicious beast of communalism upon whose back the losing BJP was riding has been mercilessly crushed by the very people whom they tried to incite against the minorities.

India, whether rich or poor, educated or illiterate, has realised that the reins of power cannot be handed over to someone who wishes to take India back to the dark ages. Who wishes to murder in the name of God and then like a child point a finger and say - but he started it first.

There are no saints here. All the parties, winners and losers alike, have all been tarnished with the brush of corruption and greed. All we are able to do is choose between the lesser of the two evils. And hope that the good work continues and the bad work lessens. Either way, the government has a lot of promises to fulfil and a lot of begging bowls to fill.

My only hope is that our hope isn't snuffed out by the overconfidence and the arrogance of victory. My hope is that this government raises the bar of expectation and then supersedes it. My cynical, experienced side says I'm asking for too much. My hopeful side, the one that dragged its behind in a blistering sun to vote for them, says maybe, just maybe....

Interesting sidebar.... Every major TV channel that broadcasts in India constantly covered the last 24 hours of the election. Except CNN international. They gave it as much importance as a namby pamby interview of Musharraf by Fareed Zakaria. Is this the American approach to 'bonding with the world's largest democracy?' Or do they think that the American elections are the only ones worth covering? Shame on CNN International. The BBC on the other hand, did a smart thing. They made the coverage so scintillating and well-positioned that most Indian viewers were hard pressed to choose between popular Indian channels and the BBC.

Well, the drama is almost over. It'll be back to murky business come Monday morning. Lord help us all.

11 May 2009

M for Music. M for Manooghi Hi.

I am not, repeat NOT, a big believer in 'fusion' music or 'fusion' anything. I am hopelessly old-fashioned with my music and I don't like adulteration in any form. Don't mistake this for me not knowing my music. I'm happy to say I know music and it knows me and we have a deep and meaningful relationship that has not been interrupted for 36 years. And then a few months ago, along came this upstart called Manooghi Hi, who challenged my ideas about global music and wagged a mongrel finger and said: Hey, listen here and suspend your prejudices. Or you're not worth the paper you write on. My first instinct was to ask the upstart to leave and go back to my Chet Baker but like an obstinate child, it pulled out its bag of tricks, undeterred and played.

I am not, repeat NOT, easily impressed. In fact, trying to impress me will have the opposite effect and I was about to warn the upstart about this when I heard something.

And I saw Buddha here
And I met Jesus there
And I heard Hendrix there
And I felt Shiva there
And I touched Gandhi there
And Andy Warhol there
He just didn't care
He was in his underwear

I am not, repeat NOT, immune to clever poetry. Especially if it smacks of Miss Dorothy Parker and offends the general ignorant populace. As the cheeky little offender continued to play unbidden, I found my tongue clapped to the roof of my mouth while the lead singer twisted the sinews of urban poesie to curl around the belly of a raga and throw itself shamelessly naked upon the flat back of the tabla before being delicately stomped on by the piano and finally disappearing into the mist of a final rising violin's note.

I'm an elevator
Where everyone pretends to be alone
I'm a hotel
Where everyone pretends to be at home

I am not, repeat NOT, easily fooled by ideas stolen from T.S. Eliot but I am astounded when they are strung like offerings around the Hindu goddess Kali's neck and hang there in perfect harmony like pearls embedded in skulls.

I am not, repeat NOT, immune to the beauty of various pure languages. When I heard English, Hindi, Bengali, Persian and Tamil slide in and out of songs without losing the shimmering thread and balance between lyric and melody, even though metre was unconventionally seduced, I was an espresso short of being completely mesmerised.

I am not, repeat NOT, interested in namby pamby praise or advertising. Probably why I'm unemployable. So in the spirit of full disclosure, Mehnaz, the lead singer, is a friend. If you call being overly critical of every last full stop and comma of her work, friendship. She will attest to this with a painful smile. The rest of the Seattle-based band are strangers to me.

I am not, repeat NOT, going to tell you how great Manooghi Hi is. I would rather credit you with a brain and ears. If you're certain that you are strong enough and open enough to deal with the volcanic inner core of their lyricism, then log on to their site and listen. www.manooghihi.com.

I am not, repeat NOT, going to admit I'm a shameless groupie.

01 May 2009

When pigs fly

Between worrying about washing our hands a million times till they begin to resemble a butcher's hands and trying to procure the latest vaccine against the H1N1 virus (swine flu to you philistines) we have once again succeeded in absolving our collective conscience about the world's real problems. I don't mean to disparage the latest news of the day. If the WHO says it's going to be a pandemic, let us immediately stop worrying about anything but clean handkerchiefs. However, what about the real pandemics? Injustice, the Taliban's gun-toting versions of the law, the world gone mad in Sri Lanka, the children in the soup kitchens in the richest country in the world and daily rape and massacre in several nations in Africa? Surely that's equally important and should have gone up to a level 6 way before a few people and a few pigs started to die?

Even more hilarious, there are websites and news channels warning Europe, particularly the UK, that this summer could see more deaths, when temperatures climb into the unbearable range of 32 degrees Centigrade. Are we for real? Do we all exist on the same planet or has the EU decided that it's going to blindly follow Mr. Berlusconi's philosophy of I-don't-give-a-rat's-ass about anything?

And then there's poor Obama. Trying to balance his speeches between the economy, money to a rogue 'India-obsessed' Pakistan and the swine flu. While Joe Biden tells everyone that he wouldn't let his family get on a plane. (Nice job, Joe. Whenever you start talking, we either fall asleep or gag.) In the meanwhile, every major news network is sending out journalists and interns and sons of the Vice-President of the network to hunt down anybody that either has a cold, shakes hands with someone who has a cold, looks like a pig, eats a pig, kills a pig or does things with a pig that are illegal in most countries. Because of course that takes precedence over the nine-year old child that's been beheaded in the Congo for trying to rescue his mother from being gangraped.

Not to mention a half-hour telecast of Britain's withdrawal from Iraq. No disrespect to the boys in the forces, they've been nothing but great for the most part- but where was Tony Blair? Did he not want to supervise the last of his handiwork? Or was he chuckling in some backroom of some mansion with his buddy George, while trying to shoot pheasants down with microwave popcorn? How about the other side of that telecast? Where Iraqis lay dying? With no idea of how to run their lives and their country now? With the question uppermost in their minds; you made this giant mess and now you're leaving us with the pieces? Is this going to be Britain's legacy to Iraq? Like the mess they made with the mandate in Palestine all those years ago? Well done, indeed. Oh sorry, no time to probe into that because we're back with the lovely honeymooners who've returned with duty free Taliskers and the swine flu.

Even the elections in India, technically the most populous democracy in the world, were overshadowed in part by the swine flu. Because of course, that's what is killing India. Not the ineffectual politicians, apathy and communalism.

At least now we know- Pigs can fly.

18 March 2009

Deliver us from Evil. Amen.

Certain people should come with a warning label like food products or chemicals- Warning: Totally and utterly dangerous, do not let within a 100 miles of you. The Pope is one of them. I was following the story of his current run through Africa when he landed at Cameroon and made the most ridiculous statement imaginable- Condoms could make the African AIDS crisis worse.

Yes, you heard right. He said that. I saw it. I heard it. I read it. I'm not going to bore you with the statistics on HIV and AIDS in the world. There are over a billion sites on the Internet if you are interested. What I'm concerned about is this: There are approximately 1.2 billion Catholics around the world, give or take a few hundred thousand. And they think it is okay to accept this man, no wait- this IDIOT, as their spiritual leader and guide? This blundering fool who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to deepen a very serious, downright critical crisis by talking through his arse?

Sexual abstinence and fidelity- this is his counsel. What planet is the man from? The Vatican has long been criticised across the world for its positively archaic and utterly unrealistic, thoroughly stupid views on this matter and here he comes along, traipsing into a continent that is crumbling under the weight of this crisis and tells them without a single moment's hesitation that "The traditional teaching of the church has proven to be the only failsafe way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS."

Failsafe? Traditional teachings? Is he barking mad or does he have an agenda? Either way, it makes him a sinner and a criminal. What about that, pontiff? You think disseminating information that could directly lead to an action that causes death by AIDS is permissible? Why isn't this man being tried in a court of law? Does idiocy fall under crimes punishable by law?

In places like Africa and India where the AIDS crisis festers on a minute-by-minute basis, where the number of deaths are increasing instead of decreasing and where the majority of the population is illiterate and are driven by religious leaders and religious practice, there can be no greater damage than the damage caused by these so-called moral guardians of faith. Whether it is the Pope or the Hindu religious leaders or the Islamic fundamentalists, when a common man relies on them to steer his life towards salvation, the only thing that's going to happen is that he's going to find himself up shitcreek without a paddle.

If there is a god, may he strike all of these holier-than-thou wankers dead and save the rest of us from them.

10 March 2009

UFO- Unmarried Freaky Object.

2009 has been a wonderfully quirky year so far. I decided intentionally that I would develop a quirk. Apparently it makes you more lovable/admired in an Emma Thompson kind of way. So I decided that I would randomly volunteer one piece of information to acquaintances/friends/relatives in the course of a conversation, which I would normally consider myself well-mannered enough not to. In early January, I'd been vaguely toying with the idea of a proper exercise schedule and began running outdoors for a couple of weeks. People who ran past me or alongside me or around me in circles, decided to stop for a friendly chat. Now in India, this can be a many-headed dragon. It can be as innocuous as 'hi, haven't seen you before/seen you here a couple of times now, are you new?' or it can be 'hey I know you from x's party and I was wondering if you're interested in meeting my newly single brother who has no hair but makes a lot of money?' or 'hello young lady, are you back in India and why haven't you called us?' or 'ooh, look, that's the bitch who broke my best friend's brother-in-law's heart.' You get the picture.

In trying to put my new quirk to the test, I answered a few of these queries with 'I don't usually run but apparently my ovaries will shrink if I don't get enough exercise' or 'You know, I'm sorry I only date women over 40 who run the bank your brother makes lots of money in' or my favourite, 'I didn't want to call you because I have a secret crush on you and I didn't want our families to fall out because of it' or 'Yes I am the bitch who gave your brother syphillis, is he dead now?' But of course the problem was that people didn't see my Charlie Brooker side of it and I got strange looks and my family got concerned phone calls. In the end, everyone put it down to- oh well, she's 35 and isn't married, doesn't have a boyfriend and so this must be how the poor thing must amuse herself. After all, writers are a little crazy. Tsk Tsk.

Were we? Crazed because we wrote? Or crazed because we weren't married? Or crazed because we were living in a society obsessed with marriage and relationships? Right around this time, a very very dear friend of mine from California got engaged and I congratulated her and we talked about the ring and the wine in Napa and the recession on Wall Street. Following this, another friend in India got engaged and I congratulated her and she started telling me about how many single friends her fiance had and could she set me up with all of them? I was suddenly, her poor Bridget Jones-friend who needed help in this department.

Soon after that, I had friends visiting from London, then Sydney and now New York. In the course of all those conversations, I brought up this topic. Was it a real concern that I was still single? They looked at me, blinked a little bit and hesitatingly asked me if I thought it was a problem. I said no. They said okay, then, should we order another red or a white? But wait, I cried. What's wrong with me? I'm smart, I'm reasonably sexy, I speak six languages and I can ride a horse. Isn't it strange that I haven't been snapped up? Some jokes were made about turtles and the Venus flytrap and they all went back to the wine. Sydney said: Don't do it. See the world instead. London said: Oh date, sure. I don't know about this whole settling down thing. I mean how long does love really last? NY said: I'm in love. It's a blast. But you have a pretty good life even without it. Don't you think so?

Cut to a family gathering a week ago. Question: Oh why isn't she married? Answers: These globetrotting independent girls don't make good wives and men know that. She's too loud and opinionated. She's put on a little weight, hasn't she? She had a boyfriend abroad who broke her heart and now she's sworn off men. Maybe she doesn't like the men here. Maybe she doesn't like men. Oh I'm sure she has a different man in every city; she's just that type. She's an atheist. Except one relative who cheerfully answered: Yes, isn't it amazing! No wonder she's got such a fab life. (Thanks darling, you know who you are.)

It's March 2009. I exercise at home. I am going to be 36 in May. And I've just discovered that my single status gives a lot of people as much entertainment as it gives me. Hurrah! I knew it was going to be a good year!

23 February 2009

Danny's Day

If you've read my previous post, then you'll understand this one better. I just saw Danny Boyle's interviews on various channels. Not once, not a single time, in any of those interviews, did he say or even allude to the fact that he was proud that this film came out of Britain or even to the fact that he was the visionary behind it and how he made the whole thing come together.

He talked about the wonderful screenplay, the words that mesmerised him, the people who helped him and kept him going and acknowledged that timing had a lot to do with the success of the film as well.

He honestly said he loved filming it here but wouldn't be able to live in Bombay. He expressed just enough gratitude to be sincere and stopped short of mindless sycophancy to the powers that be.

When will India have a Danny Boyle with the kind of quality, uncompromising work that he's done, the deep intelligence and the humility that stayed in the face of innumerable accolades? A. R. Rahman is probably the closest we have to that.

Take a leaf, all you overblown narcissistic directors of the Indian film industry who find it more important to polish your egos to shiny perfection rather than your movies.

Take a bow, Danny.

Not your Slumdog.

Yes well, it's official. Slumdog Millionaire rocks, it rules and does pretty much anything you want it to, including winning 8 Oscars. Yes, Eight. Of which the much beloved A. R. Rahman won for Best Music and Best Song. And his speech said it all: All my life I've had the choice between love and hate. I choose love. For me, personally, that line deserved its own Oscar. Especially when it comes from the talent-heavy, publicity-shy and reticent Mr. Rahman. I didn't mind standing up and applauding for him.

Then I started switching news channels. 'Our' very own Slumdog Millionaire won. 'Our' Anil Kapoor. 'Our' Frieda Pinto. Even 'our' Dev Patel (why should the Gujjus not suddenly embrace one of their own, even if he does celebrate Valentine's Day and kiss in public?) Suddenly, India is 'ours' and its slums and dogs and millionaires are 'ours' and in the face of a very red, very international carpet, everything about that movie and everyone in it and around it are all 'ours' and we're all smiling and cheering for 'our' movie. What a warm, cosy, almost Christmassy feeling, it is, isn't it? As Rahman said, we are choosing love.

I find it hard though to get sucked in. India is a country which abounds in such hypocrisy. When we need it or want it, it is ours. When we don't, we literally burn it to the ground, or even worse, alive. We don't really understand the meaning of ours. We do understand the concept of laying false claim, though. Perhaps we did learn something from the East India Company after all. What right do we have to say Slumdog's victory is ours? Is it? Did we rush off to get the rights to make this film? Do we bother to anticipate genius and recognise a book for its true worth? What was the last great internationally-acclaimed film made by the Indian film industry that won anything?

Let me remind the overexcited, hypocritical menaces out there- Slumdog is NOT ours. It is theirs. The British people own this film. The Americans who distributed it, own this film. Danny Boyle owns it for his genius vision. Yes, it had Indian actors in it. So what? With the kind of population we have, we can't swing a dead cat anywhere in the world without hitting one! Now don't choose to misunderstand me. I am happy that they won. I am glad their efforts were justified and I'm even happier that the Underdog triumphed. It was a hard enough film to make and to get it to succeed; someone's soul definitely showed through. What I find ridiculously hypocritical is the way every Indian wants a piece of the glory. Why? With what right? Did you contribute to the film in any way, except perhaps to perpetuate the injustice in the slums that the film explored? When 'Salaam Bombay' did the same thing years ago, did anyone care? Does anyone care even now? Don't talk to me of NGOs. This is about recognising talent, not a political discussion. My objection is simply to the blind-sheep, utterly two-faced, so-called 'morality' that Indians have and what's worse is, that they're not even aware of it. We are so quick to hitch our wagon to someone else's success that we have no trouble heralding them as one of our own, close to the national bosom and part of our very fabric. And yet, come tomorrow, come trouble and come the opportunity to really help, this will just be yesterday's news lining someone's kitchen shelf.

Ironic isn't it. A country that carries deep within it a plethora of talent, even gives birth to an international imagination, still needs someone else's Oscar to validate it.

10 February 2009

A revisitation

Ever felt like you wanted to go back and do it all over again? Surely you cannot call yourself human if you haven't. I've been off the radar for a bit as I've been travelling. Strange places like a Mafia-ridden Moscow. And then suddenly, Hyderabad. I've been to Hyderabad before. About two decades ago when I didn't have political opinions. Or social opinions. Or too many opinions. At least that's what I'd like to think. All I remember from then is the Charminar and how frighteningly ugly the surroundings were. I'm in a different Hyderabad as I write this. A dichotomous one, as most large urban areas in India tend to be. But something happened here that made me want to go back and do it differently. I taught. I guest-lectured at a friend's educational institute. I'd never before been confronted by the rising hopes and aspirations of small town India, well-heeled India and confused India all inside one classroom. All looking at me as if I was the box that contained the three wishes. It was daunting for a minute. About ninety minutes later, I disconnected from my body and floated upwards. Probably in reality towards the window because of the heat. And I saw this one woman throwing out questions and giving out answers and this group of young students whose suddenly translucent skulls showed their rapidly expanding brains. It was like peeking into the elixir of youth, knowledge, hope and vitality, all rolled into one. I couldn't for the life of me believe that no cosmetic company had tried to harness the very air they breathed. At the end of three hours and three sweet vended coffees later, I paused. I had just knocked off ten years of tiredness and revisited realms of knowledge and half-lives and reworked my entire understanding of what students outside the cocoon of South Bombay are. And it was so very disconcerting that I didn't know if I should do it all over again to confirm that I hadn't been in a dream or if I should hop on to the next flight to Bombay. I did it again. I wasn't disconcerted this time. I was present. I was with them. I was inside their heads and they were knocking down the doors to mine. I thought for a moment, if I could go back to being a student, I would be this. This energy, this thirst, this humour, this challenge. I would abandon the armour of knowing, the gothic net of false perception, the non-chalance towards life and the taking it for granted.
As I returned to my disconnected, falsely calm gated community, I wondered. Does inspiration need hope? Or does hope need inspiration?

17 January 2009

Sharing isn't always caring

In the Land of Sharing, through Facebook and the horrid button Reply All, we seem to have forgotten our basic manners and netiquette (if that's even a word) and think it's perfectly okay to bombard every single person with our cute little witticisms and our opinions which may or may not be worth fishwrap.

After many months of resistance, I conceded to use Facebook. I cautiously sent out mass emails. And a few months later, I remembered why I had resisted. Facebook and Reply All- the tools of the Devil, sometimes. I have reasons.

I use Facebook. I use email. I have a 'Reply All' button too. And I gauge. I try to decipher. I think about whether some poor sod whom I've never met and who doesn't know me, would be interested in knowing if I'm going to accept x's invitation to a party and what I think of the inclusion of wood-oven roasted chicken in the menu.

Now sometimes, it can be a very interesting political discussion, like an article you've sent your friends in order to generate debate. Perfectly acceptable and indeed exciting to hit 'Reply All' in order to continue that debate. Or create a shared link on Facebook for all to see. But to post a comment on Facebook like, hey, did you get rid of that herpes problem? Umm, think. Do the rest of that poor person's friends have to know that he had herpes? That's not sharing, my dears, that's past caring.

On the one hand, we are leading such busy lives that we make excuses to everyone that we don't have the time for phone calls and personal emails. On the other hand, we're only too keen to let everyone and their uncle know something they would never ever, need to or want to know.

Balance people, balance. A little dose of good manners. A little less laziness. And you'll find that sharing will indeed, once again, be caring.

16 January 2009

A 'Q and A' session

If I were Vikas Swarup, the author who wrote Q&A, on whose book the movie Slumdog Millionaire was based, I'd be slightly confused about whether I should be ecstatic about the Golden Globes or have mixed feelings about my countrymen. The GGs of course are great and all the fanfare that comes with a lovely movie which I am yet to see but I'm more concerned about the book. Sure it had won plenty of critical acclaim and awards but how many of the author's countrymen had actually read it before the movie came along?

Today the Indian media is carrying all these articles about how various directors from the Indian film fraternity had long ago realised and recognised the potential of the book and had gone a-begging for the film rights only to find that the author had already quietly sold them to someone who had beat them all to it. Then there were a hundred opinion polls about which Indian film director would have been the right person to direct the film and given the book the full justice of its potential. Then there are the inevitable lists of top best-sellers in the country. Remember Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger? That made it to maximum bookshelves after the Booker? Even Jhumpa Lahiri's book Namesake found great fame after Tabu and Irfan romanced their way onto international screens.

And now it's Vikas Swarup's turn. Q&A is suddenly appearing on people's bookshelves. Over the last week, I've had several friends and relatives call to ask me: hey you read a lot, right? Umm, yes I try to. Then you must know the name of the book that Slumdog Millionaire was based on? Yes I do. What is it and where can I get it? Have you read it? Yes, a couple of years ago, actually. So, is it still available everywhere? Is it good? Is it the same story? Well yes, but with a few changes. But the boy's in it, right?

Now, if I were Vikas Swarup, I'd be in tears. When did it become so, that a movie reminded people to read? That a film brought an author's work to life? Gave a good book the respect it deserved well before the movie? Danny Boyle's superb film has certainly worked wonders for what must be freshly minted editions of the 2005 book suddenly gracing the glitter-pack's bookshelves.

That day isn't far when kids stop doing book reports and do DVD reports on the book. I certainly hope I'm dead before that.

10 January 2009

The wily fox

I recently read Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger' which won the Man Booker Prize. And I confess that I enjoyed it more than I expected to because I am not partial to books set in Delhi. It should have really been called The Wily Fox, is my humble submission but Mr. Adiga has every right to name his own book. However, I am left with a very important question that won't go away. Did it deserve the Man Booker? To honour the format of Adiga's book- a letter to the Premier of China- I'll do the same.

Dear Booker Prize Selector,
This is not a letter stemming from envy, jealousy, peevishness or the sour-grapes syndrome. But one of perplexity. I read The White Tiger only because it had won your esteemed prize and if most of Bombay's readers are honest, they'll admit to not seeing it on the city's premium bookshelves before the honour. The book is interesting, comical, tragic and highlights issues of great importance. But nowhere in the book did I feel that it stayed with me for a long while. In any great book, some form of extreme reaction or repsponse is provoked. Whether you contain it or exhibit it, depends on who you are. This book did neither. What I do understand and appreciate, is that it boldly threw open the doors of the ugly Delhi and its even uglier people (which we Bombayites love to read about) to the world. Since India is 'hot' and everyone wants a piece of it, to chew, screw or brew, I applaud that the 'shocking' tale of Balram Halwai went against the tide of the newly popular India and instead made people look at how shameful it can be. I praise the author's courage and his cleverness in doing it through his unique letter-writing protagonist.

But I am left to wonder, dear selector, was this book judged for its timely subject, its contrariness and at some point, was its literary worthiness and indeed linguistic beauty (or lack thereof) considered at all? Or is it the trend to give Indian authors the credit that's been due for a while now and this seems a rather good way of settling debts?

I once received some feedback from a lovely young editor at a big publishing company about a story I sent her, saying that at this time the publishers were looking for stories more relevant to India and not written for a Western audience. Fair enough. After all, it's the book Business. So what then is this Booker winner? If not pandering to a Western audience? It's certainly of very little interest or eye-opening significance to an Indian audience. My dear selector, we live here. We already know. We also learned long ago how to ignore. We let our politicians pretend to care. We let our socialites ooh and aah. We, the real Indian audience, trod on, sometimes becoming Balram Halwai ourselves!

Mr. Adiga has done a fine job in exposing and dashing the myth of 'India Shining/Rising/Climbing' and all other fairly undeserved praise that India has gained in the Western media. But ceteris paribus, what was the final nail in the coffins of the competing authors? Most of their books read beautifully, with sentences that stayed in one's mind for months to come. The White Tiger may be many things but to a voracious and versatile reader, it does not bear the hallmark of a 'fine book' or even the kind of 'literary elitism' the Man Booker has often been accused of in the past!

Or has irony prevailed? That in the felling of the giant 'India Shining' myth, Adiga's book has actually won because Indian authors are the new 'it' things.

A confused reader/writer.

Australia- Bollywood style

Mainstream Bollywood hasn't come of age. It's become an infection.

A couple of days ago, two friends M & S and I went to see the movie 'Australia' directed by Baz Luhrmann. We'd heard that the movie wasn't well-received but M and I usually judge a movie for ourselves, frankly because we're addicted to huge tubs of popcorn and partly because in India, movies aren't reviewed, they're merely synopsised.

The start of the flick was conventional Luhrmann- a grand scale introduction, followed by a lone character against the sweeping panorama of Australian ranch land. Beautiful, cinematically perfect, breathtaking and all that jazz. The little Aboriginal boy called Nullah, in the film, elicited the appropriate cooing, although in India, he could be mistaken for a street kid and no genteel sari-clad woman would ever waste her time complimenting him. Not because there's anything wrong with the kid but because India is a country deeply stricken with racism, classism and all other undesirable isms that you can think of. Some of us, avid movie-goers who focus on the talent and not the looks, did appreciate that this young boy had chutzpah and eyes that could express a thousand emotions all at once.

What Gone with the Wind did for Southern hospitality and Rhett Butler spin-offs, what Out of Africa did for safari tourism, Australia could not do for tourism or cattle ranching or Nicole Kidman's plastic surgeon. The only winners were Hugh Jackman's personal trainer and Nullah. The Aboriginal culture was sadly portrayed as mystical without any real comprehension, over-the-top mumbo jumbo and caricatured presentations of a people who are clearly more intelligent and practical than they are portrayed to be. I realise that it was a period flick but the depth just wasn't there. The story was so unbelievable in parts, with inopportune and terrible singing, that one wondered if Baz had been talking to a couple of Hindi film directors with a penchant for insulting an audience's intelligence. As for Miss Kidman, she really needs to extricate the rod that holds her spine up. Her portrayal of Lady Ashley was a sad botched-up attempt to have the bearing of Katherine Hepburn, the hairstyle of Lauren Bacall, the spunk of Meryl Streep and the feminine wiles of Scarlett O'Hara. She could achieve none of it. What she did achieve was amateurish gasping and rounding of her collagen lips and choreographed hand gestures. Sad, because she's shown some real talent in her past films. Hugh Jackman was perfect. He had nothing much to do except scowl, ride beautiful horses, take his clothes off and enthrall us all with his gorgeous eye-candy body. Mission accomplished. Bryan Brown was wasted in his role as King Carney. He deserves a better script and a meatier role in the film. Nullah played wonderfully by Brandon Walters was worth watching. Although it was clear in some scenes that he had been 'coached' to give out more conventional speech rhythms and expressions. I hope the boy doesn't turn into one of Hollywood's factory-churned child artists.

What possessed Baz to do this to a film that had great potential? Who butchered the script? Who lost control of the editing? Who decided to make an Australian film in true kitschy Bollywood style?

M, S and I were uncontrollably laughing at some of the antics, not out of enjoyment but with great helpings of scorn. I'm glad I've seen Australia the country, before Australia the movie. I'd like to remember my version of it.

09 January 2009

Paging Mr. God

In the last few days, it's been a bit alarming regarding the God debate. First of all, in a country like India, God dominates everything. He is more of a general consultant than anything else. Before people eat, they let god decide what they should eat. After all, surely he must know everything about correct nutritional value. Before they buy, sell, lease, cheat, steal, justify cheating and stealing, they consult god. It's only polite after all to check with the man who apparently created you.

Then you read alarming articles about thieves, dressed as corporate leaders who run scams worth billions. And immediately follow it up with statements like- only god can bail him out. Meaning, god is a participant in fraud and obstruction of justice. Excellent.

I read a Times of India story about an artist who displayed his paintings at an art gallery in Bombay, depicting the Hindu deity Shiva, in a nudist form and had the wrath of the communalists on his head. They wrecked his offensive paintings and scared him to death. Didn't that same god send us into the world stark naked for everyone to see and touch? You know of any prophet who was born in Gucci jeans and a turtleneck?

Then when a brave woman in London called Ariane Sherine runs clever adverts on buses which say- there's probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life- people are shocked. They start making accusations and saying nasty things about her and her opinions. There are a few enlightened creatures (my friend Tracey and me) who see the humour and acknowledge the possibility of an underlying truth in her statement. But we are far outnumbered by the idiots who are crashing themselves into brick walls, demanding that her offensive words be removed. If god is so forgiving, why don't they trust that he'll forgive her? Or is it because she's hit too close to the truth? Next thing you know, she'll be in the venerated category of Mr. Rushdie and the Fatwa brigade! And the fanatic Zoroastrians going apeshit over it.

It's amazing that at least half the world calls itself literate, scientific, logical, analytical, communicative and rational, when in truth they're so bloody afraid of the so-called wrath of god, that they do everything in their power to actually invite it.

05 January 2009

Butterfly on a wheel

Tzipi Livni is Israel's foreign minister and Acting Prime Minister. I wonder what will be written on her tombstone. Just that, perhaps. Watching her on television the last few days, I can oddly enough understand why a man could be driven to violence. She says Israel is going to retaliate when her citizens are attacked. The current toll shows over 500 dead Palestinians and over 2000 injured. And Israel? 5 dead so far. Five. Do the words disproportionate response mean anything to her? She goes on about the long battle against terror. With Israel's well-funded military power, do they expect us to believe that they really can't root out the dishevelled Hamas' militant arm? She talks about how Israel tries to avoid civilian casualties. Yes, of course that's evident. And about how Hamas is responsible for everything that's befallen the Palestinians. True, Hamas is no saint as organisations go. So strike at their militant arm. Not the part that set up hospitals and parks and libraries. Why were they chosen in a thumping victory by the Palestinian people? Maybe, foolishly so, since they have invited the wrath of the militarily-far-superior Israel.

The European Union is gathered along with the UN to try and sort out the crisis. While sipping on expensive French mineral water, in their gold-leaf luxury suites. (I've seen this, believe me, when I used to work as a journalist in Prague. Excess in the name of problem-solving.) Bernard Kouchner, one of the founding members of Medecins sans Frontieres and France's current Foreign Affairs minister said it quite clearly: We cannot sit around giving lip service to the Middle East. Don't give us history lessons. We already know what the issues are. We need action. And we need to be human.

While opinions fly back and forth, there are dead bodies everywhere. An insistent Israel won't back down. Hamas has nowhere to go. Palestinians are caught between two sides whose eyelids are being held up by toothpicks.

I'm no expert on the Middle East. But I've interviewed politicians and diplomats and I'm hearing the same tired old tune. And I've seen how the American government plays flip-flop where Israel is concerned. And I know that unless world leaders get off their bullshit carousel, there will be another Lebanon-like disaster. And the blood will be on all our hands.

Here's a sensible voice that emerged from Rabbi Lerner in the Times.

Tzipi Livni, try reading that while you choke on your French mineral water.

03 January 2009

Que sera sera?

So the new year is here. 2009. What are we supposed to feel? Relief that 2008, an Annus Horribilis is ended? Hope that 2009 is an Annus Mirabilis? Guilt over things left undone in 2008? Cynicism that 2009 won't be any different, considering how it's started out? Worry that 2009 will be spent clearing the debris of 2008? Expectation that an African-American man will bring succour to millions and restore faith in democracy?

These must be the questions passing through every thinking mind; whether vocalised or not, I don't pretend to know. I am trying to figure out which question needs to be answered first. I am trying to ascertain which question is the wrong one. I am trying to decipher which approach is the right one. Should I be a pessimist this year? Or should I be an optimist? Or that dreaded option, a realist, which to me, signifies a person who cannot make up his mind which way to be. Should I count my blessings first and then worry about what's wrong? Or should I first acknowledge everything that's wrong and realise that the blessings don't seem so great or so many after all? The glass half-empty or the glass half-full? Does it depend on which newspaper I read and which TV channel I tune into?

I wonder if political leaders across the world have the luxury of time and the clarity of thought to actually ask themselves these questions. And if they do, does it make any difference to how they act? Is it important that they, more than anyone, need the answers to these questions?

Or are we back to crouching under the platitudes and the non-committal phrases- I don't know, play it by ear, let's see what the year brings, I hope it's a better year this year, we must try our best and my favourite one, hope for the best and prepare for the worst?

I'm still pondering as the world is abuzz with activity. And Shakespeare is whispering in my ear: My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts, never to heaven go.