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.