Thursday, April 28, 2011

Patrick French's India

Pic sourced from the internet

At best, I am very unusually skeptical of books that promise to unravel why India and Indians are the way they are. I am wary of their authors and tend to, however mistakenly, dismiss them as ‘intellectuals’ (not a very favourable word to be described in these days) who set out to write over-priced books to show off that they have read many other similar books by similar authors. If the writer is Western, I wonder whether there are too many Western stereotypes in those pages, instantly berating them for the slightest criticism.
There are books that you are supposed to have read if what you say is to be heard at a party. But honestly, I found Friedman’s The World is Flat terribly boring and haven’t yet finished it. It is not likely I ever will, no matter how fashionable it is to say you have. The attempts to box India into a thick book has never ceased to be a tad too boring for me, though I am willing to accept that such sentiments could well be totally unfounded.
So it was with a little trepidation that I asked the library-wala to bring me Patrick French’s new book India: A Portrait. The jacket claims the book to be an intimate biography of 1.2 billion people; I almost said uh-ho. I have now read through the introduction and the first chapter and I am bloody impressed! I am willing to take all that I said about such books back, at least as far as French is concerned, who I knew till now only as one of the better looking writers.
India, the book, is divided into sections on the nation, on the wealth/economy and into society. It is about India after independence and deals with questions on why a staunch socialist country turned aggressively capitalist, and such like. The years after 1947 were long droning chapters in my history textbooks and I vaguely remember all the names and a rough outline of how everything happened.
But reading India has been like a fresh breath of air. There are no boring passages, no long sentences written to show how well-read he is or how many tall words he knows. French has talked to celeb historians, politicians, scions of political families and also the man on the street and written history from the latter’s point of view. There is a story of one Sikh man who was witness to the beheading of each of his female relatives during Partition,by his own father, to prevent them from being caught, raped and dishonoured when the family tried escaping to India from the newly created Pakistan. I always assumed that India was meant to have been a democracy. But French talks of how there were few precedents for the newly independent country to follow and the Constitution makers had considered other models of government as well.
I liked the fact that French doesn’t judge the country, its people or its progress. That would be something I would have hated, even coming from an Indian writer. French loads the chapters with interesting trivia and there were pages where I couldn’t shake off a sense of wonderment at my country and its early struggles. For instance, after highlighting how the way Indians have lived hasn’t fundamentally changed over millennia, he writes of how the recipe for kulfi used by the wife of the emperor Jahangir, Noor Jehan, is the same as the recipe used today. “The mricchakatika, or little clay cart, is a common child’s toy, but Mricchakatika is also the title of a Sanskrit play dating back to 200 BCE, a play with Nehru was reading when he flew above the carnage of Punjab in 1947.” These are things which did not shape the story of India and if you didn’t know what Nehru was reading, you wouldn’t be any less the wiser. But such interesting lines make the book an almost racy read. If you can term a book on history and politics racy, I think that author has his job nailed.
Needless to say, I am turning a fan of French. I highly recommend the book.

Reading up on the book, I found this review by Pankaj Mishra in Outlook. It would be wrong to call it a review instead of more of a personal attack on French. I yawned and stopped reading three quarters of the way. French responded brilliantly here. Like one reader said in the comments section, Patrick French’s demolition of Pankaj Mishra’s bombastic rhetoric was brilliant, delivered in that most English of ways (though French is not an Englishman), hitting hard where it hurts but leaving no tell-tale sign of injury.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Radio Plays all these Songs About Rain

Here comes the sun, fighting for himself, for his very presence there. Like in a street fight that does not include the prima donna, he isn't welcome today. He has a right to, I suppose. But come another day, not this glorious, sepia morning that has decided to be beautiful without you adorned brightly on its wet cheek. Today is not your turn.

Today, the ground is waiting to get a chance to breath. To breath and sing of perfumed earthy aromas and green leaves and summer springs. The earth chooses to be grey. Up above, it spreads, that grey, trying to turn black, hoping to look menacing. Tall trees would bend and stretch, hoping to hasten the process.

The old man with a umbrella clutched in one hand and a grandchild clinging to the other hurries a step. But he can go only so fast with that bad leg. In a glass-walled office somewhere, a smart woman, who might have been a prima donna (with the attitude at least) would be stuffing her phone(s) and folders into a boring black leather work bag and hurrying to the basement to retrieve her car before it, the basement, floods. Many people in many situations would be doing many things to hurry home.

Maybe, hopefully, someone would also be looking up at the blackening greys above and smiling, hoping to catch first the first few drops and then the lashing downpour onto their upturned, happy faces.

For a short while, a few silent minutes, there is a stillness. The streets are empty and forgotten is the sun. Nothing moves, not even the trees. You imagine even the streams running over smooth round pebbles in that distant forest to be awaiting with bated breathe. That maverick, waiting somewhere with an upturned face, would slowly spread both arms out in a wide hug.

It is the welcome that crashes the stillness. There used to be the sun. But now, with a crack of thunder announcing the royalty in the house, it starts to rain.

The newspapers call up the Met office to hear of the heavy downpour and that it is likely to continue the next few days. And the radio plays the song of the Avril showers today.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

My Earliest Surviving "Work" !!!

For as long as I can remember, I have been telling stories, either writing them or dancing them out (yeah, don't ask!) or narrating them. Going through an old file (like in the old days, an actual paper/cloth file), I found a story I had written when I was a little over nine years old. There are other older poems and couplets somewhere back home but this, if I could claim so, is my earliest surviving "work"! It is too short to be a story really. But I imagine these kind of narratives to have been the sorts that scared us poor innocent children in that era. Kids today would probably laugh on my face reading it.
Did I show any promise back then, I wonder! (Wink!)
Note: Not a word has been changed except for breaking up the story into paragraphs.
(Emphatically titled...!)

It was midnight. Maria was not yet asleep. Her parents had gone to visit a sick relative and would not be back until the next morning. Her mother had not wanted to leave her behind but Maria had insisted that she would be perfectly ok. Though Maria was a young girl of eleven, she had a lot of courage.
As Maria could not sleep, she decided to walk around the big estate which her father owned. Walking on and on, she came to a small, neglected hut in the middle of the estate. Although her mother had told her not to enter the hut as it was haunted (or thought it was), she became curious and pushed the strong locked door with great force. It didn’t budge. But after pushing a couple of times, the door gave away.
There were two rooms. One, the living room and the other, the kitchen. There was only a small jar in the kitchen and nothing else. The other room too was empty. Maria wanted to see what was in the jar and opened the lid. Suddenly, a deep, loud voice came. Maria guessed it came from inside the jar. “Maria, you are a brave young girl whom I always wanted to have! But your braveness has taken you too far! Ha…ha….ha…You will never return. Pay for your braveness,” it said with an ugly laugh. And before Maria could open her mouth, a sudden fire occurred in the kitchen.
After sometime everything ended. The hut was also as it had been before with everything inside intact. There was not a sound in the silent night!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

When it Rained

“What do you do when the ache is but obvious? What do you do when the entire fabric of the life you have created carefully over the years lies today sprawled around you, like a fragile empire in your mind? What is the measure of pain when another reality is within a short arm’s reach, yet you are not to be allowed to grasp your fingers around it? That remains a dream instead. How to you reconcile to a reality turning into a dream instead of the other obvious way around? When it accumulates as dust, do you let the rain wash it away down the ravines?”
That glorious, heavenly-smelling rain.
“You shield your eyes and mask your words with the delicate, thinning veil that you had woven on similar evenings and called it your life. When it rains like it does tonight, when there is no more dust to wash away, when the wind blows the veil from your face, what will you do?” He asked her.
In answer, it rained.
The storm that raged would pass. For now, it rained.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Scared, scarred by Lady Gaga!

Even as I begin think up these lines, I feel older, like the way ma must have felt when she saw life size posters of Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio come up in my room many years ago. I suppose you know you are old-er than the crowd that the media most targets when the flavour of the month is a little kid who was not even born when you were going through your own teen angst.

A few weeks ago, I heard Lady Gaga on Radio Indigo and thought she sounded ok, too Pop for my tastes, but I was reminded of Britney Spears in her Baby One More Time days. I used the function on my swanky Mp3 player and even recorded a bit of Lady Gaga's Born This Way; the bit is somewhere in my Sony's many folders now. A lazy Sunday today was spent watching some videos on YouTube when, ever helpful, it suggested that I watch Gaga's video. I am scarred I think. With her artificial horns or whatever she likes to call them, psychedelic 'things' and something gooey, she is positively hideous! The video is disgusting at best.

I am all for creativity and artistic license. But I don't see what is appealing about her videos, or her 'look-at-me' attitude in her meat dress and the rest of her grotesque attires. The lyrics are only marginally alright. Shear of her weird make-up, and she is rather plain looking, not too pretty, but not bad either; I read something that had her old pictures. What worries me is the kind of thoughts that might be going through the minds of children when they watch this. That is what is scary, if they are to grow up thinking it is how things are.

I am not even venturing into Rihanna and her S&M videos. Or Katy Perry. Or Cheryl Cole (pretty girl, but should be banned from singing). When the hell did being risqué become this fashionable!? I am so glad I don't watch television; YouTube's most popular videos are troubling enough.

After a struggle to get over a coffee addiction a few years ago, I have been on the look out for a new 'vice' (it feels better to call it that). I tried coffee again, but I can no longer match up to my much younger self. I mentally struck off other possibilities: smoking, drinking, junk food, chocolate...none have the pick-me-up factor for me. Green tea is a possibility, but I wonder if a music addiction sounds better.

Thanks to a couple of extremely nice people who gave me their stash of fantastic music, I have more albums than I can ever completely soak in for the next several months. Fueled by strange names making mind blowing music, I have been trying to make discoveries of my own.

I am head over heels in love all over again with Indian Ocean, Swarathma and The Raghu Dixit Project. Contemporary folk rock is something that refuses to lose its charm for me. Add to the list some old era Kannada film music. The last time I was in Sittilingi, the new junior doctor there introduced me to Avenged Sevenfold and Cake, both quite nice, though I am likely to take them in small, short doses. Cat's Eyes, a new collaboration between opera soprano Rachael Zeffira and The Horrors singer Faris Badwan are a duo I am quite loving right now. Try their Not a Friend for starters.

Country remains what I turn to at 2am in the morning. Gary Allan, Carrie Underwood, the super yummy Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert, Zac Brown Band....

Last night's find was Anoushka Shankar. I know squat about classical music but her rendition of Raag Charukeshi, I thought, was fantastic. I especially loved her fusion work with Karsh Kale in the album Breathing Under Water.

Hindustan Times' supplement Brunch has a great page called Download Central where the writer (I forget the name) introduces some great eclectic music from across the world. Upon his recommendation, I tried Siljeh Nes, a Norwegian singer and quite liked her Drown.

Do share with me your favourite discoveries. Meanwhile, I will try to recover from having watched Lady Gaga.

On an afterthought, maybe music in the background while I read Neruda or some pop novel or attempt to write could be the addiction I seek. Until I find a cooler 'vice'.

On an after-afterthought, I realize that dreaded March went by and nothing earth shattering or life changing happened to me this year. Every year, it would, something devastating; that's why I dread March. 2011 would have been the fourth year in a row.
I think I will heave a sigh of relief.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Another Magazine, Another Story

Prayas is a new emagazine that aims to focus on social protection issues and the development sector in India. It is a Sattva Media publication. Their inaugural issue has a story on Tribal Health Initiative that I wrote. It is a general story on THI, focusing on the health model adopted there. Read it here.

Some corrections: In the author profile, my surname has been spelled wrong :( Plus I have been working with THI for a year now, not two years as is mentioned on the page. Also, the pictures of the hospital and the ward are by my friend Manjunath Kiran, not mine, as is mentioned.

I quite liked the magazine, some nice features there. The entire mag in the pdf format is here. Take a look, and let the team know what you think.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011


I quite like this picture for some reason, taken one rainy afternoon from inside the car. The effect was not deliberate.

Makes me think, life is rather fluid, isn't it? It flows from one phase to the next, from one moment to the other, without clear demarcating lines to mark where one begins and where one ends. Life is many things....and I am at the moment not sure what I want to describe mine as.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Why Cage Art into a Convention?

I am no artiste, not in the strict sense. But I like to think the thoughts that I string together into words and then line them up as sentences is a kind of an art that is in-born. In that respect, letting myself into the illusion that I am an artiste, I was asking myself a lot of questions this afternoon. Thanks to Puttanna Kanagal, one of the best directors this country has seen.

Kanagal is iconic in the Kannada film industry and made some of the best women-centric films in the country. I wish I had chosen his films as my dissertation subject in college. Anyways, he chose sensitive issues like incest, like post-natal depression and made his amazing films. (On an aside, if anyone has a collection of his films, please let me know, I have been looking for his films for ages).

I was watching the Aarthi-starrer Ranganayaki this afternoon, with the curtains closed, nursing a very painful back. Ranganayaki is a popular theatre artiste in a travelling theatre company. A rich man sees her acting and falls in love with her. She marries him and tries to be happy. Suddenly the husband begins to hate the very thing about her that he fell in love with, her association with the theatre, her words which he believes must be just some rehearsed dialogue from some play. She is forbidden to mention her old life. The story goes on. But there is one scene just before he abandons her where she talks to him about her art. Her kale, her art is something that she considers a gift from God, something she was born into, born with. All she wants is a little freedom (intellectual) to pay homage to her art.

My head buzzed just then. Isn't art something you can relate to? I related to her. What is art? Let me explore that first. To me, my art, wherein I talk of my ability to write, is something that keeps me sane. It is the one place I escape to when reality looks, as it often does, scary. In that place, I can give a voice to the voices in my head; it is where I feel safe. To me, writing has always flown through; I can’t force it to either stop or to begin when I want it to. I am not sure that is a good thing. Art to me, be it in any form, is a method of expressing your observations of beauty, the other abstracts around you. I don’t think there can be any art that can somehow not be tracked back to some part of real life, be it yours or others. Except for fantasy perhaps, there would be a lot less of reality in that than in others.

Isn't art about being inspired? Isn’t it to be inspired by someone or something and channelize those ideas into something new, something that may resemble the original, but is improvised upon, changed and molded as per the artiste’s fancy? I love a quote by Margaret Atwood about real life inspiring art; “There’s got to be a bit of blood in the ginger-bread man for him to come alive.”

Art is not elite or complicated, no sir! Anyone can be an artiste, anyone who uses a creative thought, veers off the rule book and overlooks the exact measure in a recipe book to create something that has not been seen, read, heard or felt before. Almost always, depending on your perspective, that new something is beautiful. Why then is being unconventional such a crime, I wonder.

In another application to the Manufacturing Consent theory, you have that imprinted image of the tortured poet in a dark room, drunk, perhaps hungry, filling pages with words of anguish, to die a day penniless and with no one to love. Art, poetry, is art’s, poetry’s reward. I am not old school enough to equate selling a creation to selling your soul (hell, I wouldn't mind getting paid for what I write!), the tortured poet needs an afternoon meal; but I am old school enough to think the artiste should be the first consumer of the art. What value an art if not created out of a bright red spark of passion?

As an afterthought, I do understand the tortured image of the poet. No, I do not get drunk, but the perils of free expression have not left me without a scar. As a kid, I once fell off the gate and a stone close by scrapped off my skin and flesh till you could see the white of my bone (sorry, that sounded gross!) I couldn't walk for a long time. There is a scar there, faded a little, but I can still see it. I am actually proud of it; it is like a war wound from a time when I was left to amuse myself and didn't have very many opportunities to acquire cuts and bruises. Likewise, the scars acquired because I ‘dared’ to express myself by writing will fade one day. One day, I think I shall let myself be proud of them and treat them as bruises acquired for my right to write. For the sake of art.

“If you think you can live without writing, don’t write.” Ranganayaki, the actress, could not stay away from her natural state of being, from her art.