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Monday, June 30, 2008

The Quick Ones

(That's me!)

There is no such thing as a fixed reading speed, I believe. Some books just rush past more quickly than others. This does not mean that a particular book is more interesting more than others, it's just that it demands less in the way of attention from the readers. Yesterday I started and finished "The Colour Purple" by Alice Walker, which was admittedly a not-so-long novel, but still it is longer than Amit Chaudhuri's "Afternoon Raag" , which barely qualifies as a novella. Still, the serpentine nature of Chaudhuri's elaborate prose, his loving detailed descriptions of his subjects and their surroundings and, his penchant for atmospherics meant that I had to devote 2 days of intense reading to get through it.Alice Walker, on the other hand uses the informal, Afro-American working-class dialect and slangs so well that one tends to get the net import of scenes so much faster. Moreover, the whole novel is written in an epistolary format, which is much easier on the reader anyway.

Then of course, there is the factor of anticipation. I remember when I first read "Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows", I did so in one marathon session, from six in the morning to five in the evening. I couldn't remember many of the side-plots afterwards, so recently I have given it another go. Now this sort of feverish reading, I think is familiar, not only to Pottermaniacs but devoted fans of other writers as well. "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" was the first Rushdie novel I had got my hands on after I was enthralled by his groundbreaking "Midnight's Children". I absolutely devoured it in less than a day.

But this can sometmes work the other way,as well. For instance, when you are aware of a certain writer's reputation for being dense or "difficult" , you might give him or her a wider berth than usual.This was in play when I read Thomas Pynchon's "The Crying of Lot 49" recently. Aware of his massive, labyrinthine post-modern antics, his wide-ranging cultural allusions, frequent references to esoteric topics in both science and arts, I was on my guard constantly. Actually, the novel turned out to be a great deal more accessible than what many friends say about his work, Gravity's Rainbow in particular. Anyway, a relatively slim volume took rather more time than it should have.

So it's really up to the reader to decide what a "quick" read is. In this respect, my suggestions for a "quick" yet satisfying read would be(these are pretty random- off the top of my head)

1. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (my post about it here)

2. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

3. Animal Farm by George Orwell

4. Everything ever written by P.G.Wodehouse

5. Foundation series by Isaac Asimov

6. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

7. Our Gang by Philip Roth

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay"

Michael Chabon,45, is every bit the modern writer. He started early(his first novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh was sent to a publisher, unknown to him, by his English professor , to whom he had submitted his manuscript as his graduation thesis.), has had his brush with cinema(he has written part of the screenplay for the Spiderman sequel, and an X-Men screenplay which was turned down by the Hollywood moguls), and has a fan-following consisting of youngsters(he wrote a fantasy novel Summerland aimed at teenagers and young adults) and barmy old critics alike. Chabon was once even due to appear in People magazine's list of the Most Beautiful People in the world, a la Arundhati Roy, but turned it down , retorting, "It was like, we want to give you a prize because the weather is so nice where you live!"

But what really matters is that Chabon is a consummate storyteller, a supreme prose stylist, and a writer with a finely nuanced sense of irony and compassion. And all these qualities are in abundant display in his 2001 Pulitzer-winning masterpiece "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay", a huge, sprawling epic which deals with a host of issues like Nazi atrocities, the rise of the American comic-book industry, McCarthyism, the relationship between art and real-life, and above all the nature of love and loss......

The story begins in 1939, when fleeing the horrors of Nazi aggression, Josef Kavalier , artist and apprentice magician, flees his native Prague, to New York, where his American cousin Sam Clay lives.His daring escape as well as his training as an escape artist inspires him and his cousin Sam to create a Nazi-busting superhero The Escapist, a Superman-like character modelled upon the Jewish myth of the Golem, a mythical clay figure designated to protect Jewish ghettos all around the world. The rise of the cousins coincides with the boom in the comic-book industry of America with its increasing cultural and economic influence. Reading the novel,it is apparent that this is the product of extensive research and study, as is indicated by Chabon at the end(there is an extensive bibliography in addition to the usual acknowledgemens). Chabon talked to many greats of the American comic-book industry like Stan Lee, Will Eisner(whose quote provides the epigraph to the novel), Gil Kane as well as other writers, illustrators and everyone associated in churning out comic-books.

But as it so often happens, the cousins only get a small share of the wealth they create, the majority of it going to the smart and ruthless head honchos of the comic-book companies. But Kavalier is not overly worried about this- his real worries lie in getting his family out of Prague and in the USA to join him. So he carries on a shadow war with Hitler through the pages of The Escapist.

Escapism is a recurring motif in this novel- whether it is Josef's escape to New York, or the innately "escapist" nature of the comic-book stories, or later on in the novel( SPOILER ALERT) when Josef leaves his pregnant girlfriend Rosa, grieving over his dead younger brother. Sam Clay too has several things to escape from-his polio-ravaged body, his poverty , his repressed homosexuality.......... In a particularly moving passage , Josef reflects upon the futilty of his efforts to bring his family to the USA, and thinks "Escapism, they call it. Why wouldn't he be escaping? When you are confronted with all of this, with the crushing certainty that you would never again see your family again, what could one do but escape from it all?" In this respect, Harry Houdini is repeatedly referred to, as Josef's childhood hero, the ultimate escape artist(in the opening line of the novel, Sam too invokes Houdini.)

Sam Clay's story, too, is alternately funny and sad. Brought up by a nagging, neurotic mother and a vagabond, absentee father, he suffered polio as a child, an experience which he later writes into the Escapist character(the Escapist's alter-ego Tom Mayflower uses a crutch). He proves to be the perfect foil for his austere, solemn immigrant cousin, with his careless humour and his reckless bravado. His story takes a decisive twist when he has an affair with a radio actor Tracy Bacon, at a time when homosexuals where ruthlessly persecuted. This can only end badly and Clay is prepared for the consequences.

The novel is choc-a-bloc with superbly funny set-pieces, remarkable minor characters in addition to the formidable main cast, and some unforgettably touching passages whether it is Josef yearning for his family, Sam reflecting on his doomed affair, or Rosa's guilt about inadvertently causing the death of Josef's beloved younger brother, Chabon effortlessly takes the reader under the skin of the characters.This is thoughtful, well-written and yes, literary fiction, but with all the pace and vitality of a comic-book caper not unlike the ones Kavalier and Clay devise.(By the way, Chabon hates pigeon-holing fiction in genres, he said so in an interview).Chabon's incredible ability to depict a place in a particular time-frame is right up there with some of the most memorable works of modern times, whether it is the Bombay of Midnight's Children, the "Jewish" America of Philip Roth's books, or the Kerala of "The God of Small Things".The immense research also culminates in delightful cameos by comic-book gurus Will Eisner, Bob Kane, Stan Lee and other legendary figures like Salvador Dali and Orson Welles(Citizen Kane is in fact used as a significant plot device)

Prior to this, the only Chabon book I had read was a novella The Final Solution, also set in the 1940's ,also with Nazi Europe as its back-story, but with a twist- it resurrected(in brilliant fashion, I may add)probably the most remarkable characters ever created- Sherlock Holmes, albeit a crumbling, 89-year old Holmes, who is still in possession of his most important faculties. In a charming, slim special editionit also featured extensive interviews with Chabon himself and lists of his favourite books. The Final Solution was a minor classic, but with Kavalier and Clay, Chabon had already announced his arrival as one of the foremost writers of fiction in the world.

You can check out the NY Times Page on Michael Chabon here.
P.S. Michael Chabon went on to launch his own comic-book strip which included some of the plot-lines featuring the Escapist discussed in Kavalier and Clay.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Going once....going twice......

You gotta be kidding me. Foot-in-mouth disease in Americans was something I was starting to take for granted, what with their commander-in-chief , a long-time patient, leading the way, but something I read in the newspaper today takes the cake.

It has been 24 years since a leaked container of methyl isocyanate scarred an entire generation in Bhopal, but Dow Chemical, the group that now owns Union Carbide, the offending company has mulishly refused to see the light. Sample this shocker from Kathy Hunt, the public affairs specialist from Dow Chemical.(This quote is from 2002)

"$500 compensation is plenty good for an Indian."

Even if you overlook the obvious bigotry, condescension, and Third-World antipathy on display here, this statement has further damage to do when you consider the history associated with this company.In 2000, Dursban, an insecticide manufactured by Dow Chemicals was banned by the US after it caused brain damage in a child. In this case, Dow Chemicals were happy to cough up $10 million in compensation. What is even more shocking is that Dursban, the same pesticide is still "aggresively marketed" in India! A high-level official of Dow even boasted about bribing government officers to allow the pesticide to be sold in India.

Activist and author Indra Sinha is one of about 300 people worldwide who are on a hunger strike to protest the government's dilly-dallying over the issue of victim compensation.His novel Animal's People which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, has the Bhopal Gas Tragedy as its focus.According to him, there is more to this than meets the eye. The government has for years now allowed this rogue company to flourish in our country, putting at risk the health of our own people, all the while turning a blind eye towards the plight of survivors and victims, most of whom do not have access to even rudimentary medical services, let alone compensation.

When Sinha brought the issue to the attention of the British media in 1993 via a massive two-page ad in The Guardian, there was much posturing and righteous outrage, but the bottomline is that the status quo was maintained.And now that some of the victims who were born after the tragedy have joined themovement, the question they are asking the government is "What have we done to deserve this ?"But I doubt that the government is listening. Botched nuclear deals and blood-thirsty hypocritical allies merit more attention than the simple matter of thousands of human lives, most of them mutilated for ever.

There you have it then, good people. All that remains is the auction itself.The first item up for grabs is the average deplorable Indian life. What bids shall I have, then? $500.....come now, surely.......Oh all right then.Going once , going twice.....SOLD! To the lady in the red,white and blue for $500!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Classics 2: "Yojimbo" and "12 Angry Men"

Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo

Akira Kurosawa was one of the acknowledged masters of world cinema, making movies watched and admired the world over like Seven Samurai, Ikiru, Throne of Blood and many others. Last week I had the opportunity of watching one of his classics via a Kurosawa festival all this month on Zee Studio.Yojimbo is a homage to the great cowboy westerns of the 40's and 50's. Perhaps fittingly, it was remade in Hollywood as the Dollars trilogy, featuring Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name" in the role which was, ironically, to make him a household name.

Yojimbo stars Kurosawa favourite Toshiro Mifune(who also starred in Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood) as a wandering ronin, or masterless samurai warrior. Mifune lights up the screen with his imposing presence, wry laconic wit, and an unmistakeable swagger. Watch out for the scene in the beginning where he decides to go in the direction offered by a falling twig. He lands up in a small town ravaged by two warring ganglords, battling it out for stakes in the local gambling racket. He takes refuge with an elderly coffin-maker, whose business is booming because of the ongoing gangwars.But things change when the battle gets too hot ,as he puts it "When the battle goes too far, neither side bother with cofffins anyway...."

Yojimbo is a gripping story exceptionally well-told with stellar performances toplined with the awesome Mifune, in a performance which launched the template for a thousand imitators in Hollywood and Bollywood alike.Kurosawa raises the simplest of scenes to an altogether different level with devices like overly theatric, even comical music.In a particularly memorable scene,the samurai, calling himself Sanjiro(meaning thirtysomething) causes battle between the two rival dons. He then pulls out of the battle, selects a vantage point high above the battlefield, and sits there watching the cowardly troops in action.There is much posturing, a lot of battle-cries and and sword-swishing, but neither side is willing or daring enough to actually charge forward and fight. They go one step forwards and two steps back.Sanjuro watches all this, amused at the spineless behaviour of the "hardened" gangsters.

It is moments like these that make Yojimbo an enduring classic and a must-watch for all lovers of cinema.

Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men"
What would you say to a movie that is shot almost entirely indoors(the only outdoor shot is the last one which shows two of the characters talking outside the courtroom),has no major plot twists and all that ever happens is 12 middle-aged to old men talking, seated around a table? You couldn't be blamed for dismissing this as just another futile attempt at being "avant-garde" which falls flat on its face, right?

Instead, Sidney Lumet's 1957 film "12 Angry Men" is an engrossing film, tense and taut in its suspense helped along the way by superb performances by an ensemble cast headed by Henry Fonda and featuring some of the prominent actors of the time like Joseph Sweeney, Lee Cobb and Ed Begley. The 12 men as implied in the title are jurors in a murder trial where the accused is an 18 year old who has supposedly stabbed his father to death following an argument between them earlier in the evening.

Initially, only Fonda even considers the boy's innocence, because of the overwhelming circumstantial evidence against the kid, and inconsistencies in his own testimony to the police.Because this is a murder trial, nothing short of a unanimous verdict will do.Much to the anger of some of the other jurors,this means that they have to sit at the table longer(Jack Warden, playing a working class average Joe, wants to get this over and done with as he has tickets for that night's baseball game).It is then that the deep-rooted prejudices of many of the jurors spill over.

Whether it's Lee J. Cobb playing a man whose son has ran away from home or Ed Begley as the bigoted loudmouth who hates slum-dwellers and minorities, the performances in this film speak for themselves.

Talk about intensity.....

Henry Fonda is superbly economical as the thoughtful juror who coaxes the others to look beyond the bare bones of the case. But this proves to be a tricky job as some of the men are shockingly blood-thirsty towards the boy owing to their own rigid predispositions and biases. The underlying air of tension and unease is masterfully sustained by the director throughout the 90-minute duration of thefilm.The enduring popularity of the film can be ascertained by the fact that it remains #11 on the IMDB all-time ratings chart, with a rating of 8.8/10

This is a taut and terrific film, cinema stripped down to its basics and rigorously put through its paces.Go watch it to rediscover the meaning of the word "drama".

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Classics 1:Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal"

The Seventh Seal (1957) is one of the most celebrated films made by the legendary Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman.It deals with the pangs of existential angst while working on the template of the "Black Death" or the plague epidemic which wiped out one-third of Europe in the 14th century.There are several memorable scenes in the film, but none more than its famous opening scene where a battle-weary knight Antonius Block(played by Bergman favourite Max Von Sydow) plays chess with a ghostly pale, black-cloaked personification of Death.Block is white while Death, naturally, gets black, and smugly remarks," It becomes me." (SPOILER ALERT)

Throughout the film, this deadly game of chess continues, in which Death and Antonius try to outwit each other.At one point,Block confesses to a priest that he wants to believe in God, but cannot."Why must God be invisible,unspeaking? What hope is there for those who want to believe but cannot?And those who don't want to believe?" , Antonius laments. He also reveals his strategy for defeating Death to this priest, who reveals himself as Death(who else?). Meanwhile we also encounter a family troupe of actors who travel from one plague-infested village to another.Another interesting character is Block's squire, who is an atheist, and constantly appears as the cynical counterpoint to Block's spiritual concerns.

Throughout the film, I thought to myself , seeing the typically theatric proceedings, as also some macabre scenes(mutual flagellation, witch-burning and other references to medieval Europe are rampant),about how this could be adapted into an awesome play. It was only after watching the film that I found out that Bergman had made this film by adapting his own play "Wood Paintings" !

One can't help but notice that throughout the film, the mode and tone of storytelling is closer to literary fiction than to the language of cinema.Bergman himself considered the novel to be a superior art-form than the film,and in fact nursed literary ambitions. He had published a collection of some of his film screenplays but it was his life-long regret that he didn't write a novel of his own. Well, literature's loss is cinema's gain. Because "The Seventh Seal" is cinema at its most engaging, with impressive performances, a knock-'em-dead script and imaginative usage of both light and sound.

This was my third Bergman, and by far the most impressive. In the next few posts I'll talk about some more great movies like Akira Kurosawa's "Yojimbo" and Sidney Lumet's "12 Angry Men".

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Fear and loathing in Bombay: Vikram Chandra's "Sacred Games"

Hold on to your horses people: This is it. The Big One, The Big Book, call it what you will.......Vikram Chandra, hidden for seven years from the public eye, has come up with his magnum opus.For Sacred Games is every bit the Great Indian Novel. When you have stopped gasping over the much-hyped but strangely bland Bombay of "Shantaram", come see the real McCoy through the eyes and ears of Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde, two amazing and unforgettable characters who are at the helm of this sprawling, wildly ambitious novel packaged as a cops-and-robbers romp.

From the hilariously grotesque opening sequence through the length of its 900 pages, Chandra guides us with the assurance and sweeping style of a master.In Sartaj Singh, he has created one of the most complex and intriguing characters I have seen.As the weather-beaten, been-there-seen that, yet often strangely empathetic cop, he captures the imagination(and attention) instantly. And what do you say about Ganesh Gaitonde? As the rags-to-riches underworld Don, who chops limbs with a sword , and then quietly goes to sleep after "having a little sabudana khichdi" ; as the terrible acts of brutality are mixed with strange spiritual leanings, he will shock you, enthrall you and display above all, his frightening humanity.Through Sartaj Singh's pursuit of Gaitonde, the most wanted gangster in India, and his subsequent trail on Gaitonde's life and exploits, an unforgettable portrait of Bombay unfolds.....

The book is structured as a (SPOILER ALERT) howdunit in parts, the main narrative interspersed with portions titled "Inset" which showcase the oblique connections of cause and effect, and the consequences of some of the main characters' actions. It also gives us a background into Sartaj's family where Chandra masterfully captures the horrors of Partition. In a pretty candid interview, Chandra admitted that he would lose a few readers because of the "Inset" portions, but he chose to go ahead with them anyway. I think I know why- the inset portions added depth to the main narrative and were a fitting metaphor to the infinite threads of action and consequence in our lives, most of which pass us by.The end result is a delightfully polyphonic achievement.

There are some darkly funny vignettes along the way: An air-hostess being blackmailed about her adultery, a film-critic punished for blasting Ganesh Gaitonde's film, Sartaj conducting "raids" on a bar whose owner is a regular contributor to the "police fund". One of the many remarkable achievements of this novel is that it is just as sympathetic to Gaitonde as it is to Sartaj, we are almost led to believe that they both are but two sides of the same, sprawling melting-pot of a city.This is further accentuated by the somewhat gaudy cover of the book, which has the faces of Sartaj and Gaitonde sharing an eye.

Vikram Chandra has set the bar very high indeed for the Indian novel.It can be favourably compared to the atmospheric works of Don DeLillo or , to hark back to Victorian times, Dickens. Go grab your copy: beg , borrow or steal your 900 pages of fun! It will be well worth your effort and time.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Just finished a stash of books, most of them bought months earlier,but discarded uptil now due to the rigours of life on campus,exams or just plain old lethargy.Easily the most accomplished among them was German Nobel Laureate Gunter Grass's 1962 classic "The Tin Drum".(The others are Vikram Chandra's 900-page tome "Sacred Games" , Koji Suzuki's cult thriller "Ring", and Ian McEwan's disturbingly dark short story collection "First Love,Last Rites" expect some posts on these in the days to come.)

"The Tin Drum", along with "One Hundred Years Of Solitude" by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and "Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie completes the Holy Trinity of magic realism in contemporary literature.(Interestingly,I have read them in reverse chronological order of publication, i.e. first Rushdie,then Marquez and now Grass!).After reading this masterly work,I can appreciate how Grass has inspired the other two writers, especially Rushdie.

Where does one begin about a magnum opus like "The Tin Drum" ? First, I suppose, the bare bones: The novel chronicles the German nation during the tumultuous years of 1925-1955 , as seen by Oskar Matzerath, a dwarf by his own accord, who has willed himself to stop growing after age three,in an attempt to escape the world of adults, a world which is repugnant and dense to his sensibilities. In his own words, he is "one of those auditory clairvoyant babies whose spiritual development is complete at birth, it just needs to affirm itself".He is also blessed with a piercing shriek with which he can shatter glass at will.

Oskar is writing his memoirs in a mental hospital, where he is an inmate,via his tin drum,the like of which he has carried with him since he was three years old.Beating frantically on his drum, he remembers his entire life, right from his birth and beyond.Oskar is a complex,ambiguous and unforgettable character.The music he makes with his drum once disrupts a Nazi Party parade, causing the marchers to go at different speeds.This is an attempt by Grass to show the uplifting power of art over war,and also an anguished cry over the loss of individuality imposed by the monstrous Nazis.

At the same time Oskar is also frequently cruel and barbaric, under the guise of his apparent child-like nature (which is backed up by his stunted appearance),he commits several heinous crimes,and causing the death of Jan, his mother's Polish lover and Oskar's presumptive father. Oskar's glass-shattering voice is an obvious nod to Kristallnacht(German for crystal night),the night which marked the start of a full-blown genocide of the Jews under the Nazi regime.On a single night,9th November 1938, about a 100 Jews were slaughtered, about 30,000 were deported to concentration camps and thousands of synagogues were destroyed.

The monumental achievment of Grass is to avoid being judgmental about the perpetrators of these and other Nazi crimes.Instead the members of the Nazi Party are shown to be bakers, carpenters, cooks(like Matzerath, Oskar's father).......everyday people who commit unspeakable crimes due to the choices they make.Oskar is half -Polish, physically imperfect, and on the face of things, a babbling imbecile.......thus he is the antithesis of everything Hitler asserted about the "racial superiority of the Aryans".However, he also represents the worst of those times,the way he causes the death,one by one,of everyone he loves.

The book is filled with first-rate imagery, delightful vignettes and some memorable episodes.Some of my favourites are Anna Bronski(Oskar's maternal grandmother)and her wide,four-layered skirt, Herbert Truczinski's scarred back which told stories with each scar,the Polish Post office massacre,and how Oskar unwittingly caused the death of a group of nuns who were crossing a tense area.The line between comedy and tragedy is blurred by Grass.

This is best exemplified when a Nazi party official is sacked from the party for "cruelty towards animals".Only in a book as amazing as this can you swallow this, a party which has no qualms about massacring millions of innocent Jews, including women and children, and then sack one of its own for being cruel towards an animal.

I could go on and on about this magical work of art, about how this is undoubtedly one of the most important pieces of 20th century literature, how it inspired the undisputed literary superstar of today,namely Salman Rushdie, I could point out a dozen or so examples,offhand, in various Rushdie novels which all point towards the unmistakeable spirit of Grass hovering in the horizon........but I guess that's for another day,and another post.

Monday, June 9, 2008


All mortals, bow down and beg for mercy at the feet of Maryada Purushottam Ram(u),who blesses us(making classics like Aag) and looks after us all("I'll probably remake some of my old titles...",the Lord assures us ).For his benevolence knows no bounds and the divine fruits of his orchard have manifested themselves once again in the form of Sarkar Raj.

Going into the film,we have been properly bombarded with slogans like "Power cannot be given,it can only be taken" coupled with giant ochre-shaded blow-ups of the Bachchan family which prays together(to Lord Ramuji,of course),and hence stays together,despite the giggles.Abhishek Bachchan, the energetic young devotee,apparently wants something real bad from the Lord,because all he does is stare moodily at the screen ,at his dad,or at the heavens above,searching for the answer to Life,the Universe and Everything Else To Be Ignored In A Ram Gopal Verma Film.

Amitabh Bachchan,the head priest of the Temple of Lord Ram(u),is somewhat content singing praises of the Lord.But one day the Lord Ram(u) himself comes to him in a dream and speaks to him saying,"You have to sacrifice your son at my altar,to prove yourself my worthy devotee." Amitabh rolls out the rudraksh,cleans his specs once or twice, and gets on with the game. And so the prodigal son dies, but not before Amitabh has a quick word with him in the ICU "Don't worry son,the Lord works in mysterious might still come back in the next film.''

And then he proceeds to punish the disbelievers and the kafirs with the Lord's fury.These include a weird words magician Govind Namdeo and a deranged unwashed type who keeps saying his name over and over again("Vohra, V-o-o-o-h-r-a-a-a-)when he is not singing "Gapuchi Gapuchi gam gam" ,that is.

Oh,and did I mention the temple Devdasi Aishwarya?? Silly me! She is the staunchest of all the devotees of the Lord Ram(u).She is convinced that she is in this film to act, despite all the warning signs (minimal lines, reduced to a spare part in most of the scenes) and she just refuses to see reason. ("Impossible is a word I don't like" , she says.) Apparently,in the cult of the Lord Ram(u),earthly desire is also forbidden for young Abhishek, because the moment he grasps Aishwarya's hand, he gets shot down by the Lord's thunderbolt(six sniper bullets usually do the trick).Satisfied with the chain of events she herself started(she believes that our Lord is indeed a loving shepherd, and so she heads a company called Sheppard), at the end she settles down into the slain devotee's chair,and lazily proclaims," Ek chaai laana."

The moral of the story is- if by now you have witnessed the miracles of the Lord Ram(u) with your own eyes, then feel free to become a devotee yourself in this wonderful,magical religion. I suggest starting with some of the essential viewing (Aag, James, Shiva et al).Go grab your DVD's and start praying.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


At the outset,let me make a confession of sorts.I have never been much of a graphic novel guy,or indeed a comic-book enthusiast.
It is only very recently that I have been initiated in this strange and wonderful world,(courtesy a comic-book nerd friend at college)where I read and enjoyed books like 300,V for Vendetta,Maus and more of their ilk.

I had read about Kari,a graphic novel by upcoming writer-illustrator Amruta Patil.(Yes,she dons both hats)But what are the odds of finding a graphic novel in dear old sleepy Ranchi(that's where I live when I'm not in college,that is),where even relatively commonplace writers are sometimes infuriatingly difficult to find?

Or so I thought.There it was,in all its slim red-and-black glory,at a new bookstore I had been patronizing of late.Anyway,enough about how I got my hands on the book.
The novel itself is an intense, retrospective, often troublingly honest work.There are many striking metaphors used to bring out the seedy,lonely side of that huge,sweating, panting entity called Mumbai.

The narrative follows Kari, a young woman working as a small-time copywriter, her troubled relationship with her lover Ruth, and her struggle with the loneliness at the heart of this heartless city.

I particularly liked the constant referral 'smog city', especially after Kari falls into a sewer, literally in the bowels of the city,acquiring "A black Trinity-like PVC outfit".She then makes it a nightly ritual,as a "boatman", rowing through the black waters,doing her bit to purge the city of its filth,perhaps to cleanse herself of the loneliness and despair that is the city's gift to her.

In a poignant yet funny moment, Kari's roommate exclaims during a TV ad, "That's my ad! I'm Aishwarya's feet!"

The vignette mode of storytelling works well for Patil, and she uses colour very intellligently, in a book which is dominated by black-and white frames.Her pictures often do speak louder than a thousand words.
I suppose an argument could be made against the loose ends, a bit of over-sentimentalization at times , and the somewhat ambiguous ending of the novel.But judged in its entirety,it is a deeply engrossing work,even more so if you consider that it is a debut novel.

The very first frame of the book where Ruth and Kari sit together, an umbilical cord between them, told me that I just had to take this book home.(Umbilical is also the name of a chapter in the book,and the name of Amruta's blog.)And I was right.

Currently,she is working on another graphic novel called Parva-the Epic which has the Mahabharata at its core, and 1999 a novel.If this debut is anything to go by, great things are to be expected from this clearly talented young author.

P.S. I was delighted to find Kari reading Toole's "A Confederacy of Dunces" in a frame......a book which I enjoyed immensely!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


One of the best movies I have watched this summer is the Coen brothers' 1996 classic Fargo.It is at once a crime/noir thriller as well as a dark comedy.The brothers Ethan and Joel Coen,collectively known as the "two-headed director" have made films ranging from screwball comedy to dark,intense,often bizarrely violent thrillers.

Fargo is an actual American town in North Dakota.It is here that the central character of the film Jerry Lundegaard(played brilliantly by William H.Macy) meets and hires Carl Showalter(Steve Buscemi) and Gaear Grimsrud(Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife.This way he plans to end his financial troubles by making his rich father-in-law pay up the ransom.But things go awry when the sociopathic Grimsrud kills three people,including a cop,on the highway,after the kidnapping had been done.

The real knockout performance of the film comes from Frances McDormand who plays Marge Gunderson,the seven-month pregnant local police chief handling the investigation.She seems to be comically naive at first(her scenes with her husband are the epitome of small-town humour,which is juxtaposed nicely with the increasing violence and bloodshed pervading the other characters' lives),but she comes up with some kickass detective work on the crime scene and during the following investigation

The film uses some interesting comic set-pieces,like the way everyone who comes across Showalter describes him as "kinda funny-looking" , and the rather distinctive accent of many of the actors,coupled with similar mannerisms and turns of phrase.These are dovetailed nicely with the increasingly violent exploits of Showalter and especially the spooky Grimsrud who seems like an early sign of things to come from the Coen brothers,what with the unforgettable Anton Chigurh in last year's Oscar-sweeping No Country For Old Men.

Fargo is a thoroughly entertaining and exceptionally well-made film.It went on two win two Oscars,one for Frances McDormand for Best Actress,and one for the Coen Brothers themselves,for the best original screenplay. These were richly deserved and for those who thought No Country For Old Men was too dull, too slow or too grim,I will say two things-
1)You are wrong.

2)Go watch Fargo,anyway.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Case for the Graphic Novel

They have long been derided and ridiculed(by self-appointed guardians of "literary" fiction) as "fat expensive comic-books" and criticised for an apparent lack of depth.But make no mistake,graphic novels are quietly making their their presence felt in the literary world over the past few years.

The modern graphic novel received a shot in the arm towards the late 70's and the 80's with the advent of people like Will Eisner(A Contract With God and Other Tenement stories),Don McGregor(Sabre) ,Alan Moore(Watchmen,V for Vendetta,The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) and others, like the legendary Stan Lee. Perhaps the most influential among them was the hugely popular Frank Miller,creator of the Daredevil comic strip of Marvel Comics.

Their success was to prove a huge inspiration for new artists experimenting with the genre.A defining moment came when in 1992, the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer Special Prize Award.The autobiographic novel,depicting the struggle of a Polish family during the Holocaust years,went on to be declared a masterpiece,and is still widely regarded as perhaps the greatest graphic novel of all time.

Meanwhile Frank Miller continued to rule the 90's with best selling titles like 300 and Sin City.Film adaptations of these two films, the film 300 being a smash hit,only helped popularize the genre.And with the success of Blankets by Craig Thompson and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi in the past few years,graphic novels seem to have hit the right chord.

The medium itself is,in my opinion,immensely powerful.With a few bold strokes,graphic novels can achieve the lucidity and scope of much longer prose works.Evocative and touching art like that found in say,300,can provide for an exhilarating and immensely satisfying reading experience.I would rather read and enjoy the growth of a character like Leonidas through the pen (and pencil)of Frank Miller rather than see some half-baked Marlboro-Man shrieking "This is Spartaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!!!!!" on screen.

I would even go on to argue that the graphic novel,far from lacking depth,is actually a more layered and nuanced art form than the conventional novel.The relaionship between images and text is certainly explored to the hilt here.And what with the increasing number of aficionados all around the world,one feels that it's time the doubting thomases were put to rest.