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Saturday, December 27, 2008

"Ghajini": Aamir Khan and joie de vivre

(Originally published here on
I'm part of a theatre troupe in my college. I remember, about 18 months ago, it was my first day in the group, and the very first thing I was told was "exaggerate"...... A.R. Murugadoss sure seems to guy who knows the meaning of that word! For "Ghajini" is exaggerated with a capital E.....and this is likely to be the bone of contention among those who love it and those who trash it. It is a throwback to the "good old times", where Bollywood films were very much the sum of their parts, comedy, action, romance, tragedy; each emotion drawn out with a measuring cylinder, and doled out in the requisite amounts....(I understand many Tamil and Telugu films still rigourously follow this regime)

First, the obvious questions and the banal stuff out of the way.....Ghajini is NOT, repeat NOT, Memento, nor does it aspire to be. Ghajini is your more conventional revenge saga, with the anteriograde amnesia angle only adding the sting in the tale. Aamir Khan plays Sanjay Singhania, a telecom tycoon who falls for a bubbly, vivacious girl-next-door(who just happens to channelize the spirit of Mother Teresa every now and then),Kalpana, played by Asin. After the usual comedy of errors and rollercoaster-like romantic sequences, they are set to be married, when Kalpana rescues a bunch of girls who were being trafficked as part of an organ racket(if you can believe it), gets into trouble with the big bad wolf, gets whacked and Sanjay gets hit on the head.....voila amnesia!

So far so good. The screenplay is cliched, there are head-scratcher moments liberally strewn and the lingering, gratuitious close-ups and flashing pan shots are, I'm sure, cringe-worthy for many. But the bottom-line is: In spite of all this(or as I'm about to elaborate, because of all this :) ) Ghajini works........over the three hours, you cannot take your eyes off the screen. Here's why:
1. Aamir Khan: There's a considerable slice of the media which is enamoured by Khan because of what they perceive is the "different" cinema he pursues....he has long been painted as the "thinking actor". What they don't realize is that while Khan's versatility was never in doubt, his films have always strived to excel while staying very much within the general purview of "commercial" cinema. Take a good long look at Dil Chahta Hai, Rangeela, Lagaan, Sarfarosh, Mangal Pandey......of his mega-successful trio of DCH, Lagaan and RDB, RDB is perhaps the furthest off the line. Aamir simply imbues his films with his searing honesty and intensity, never, NEVER pulls his punches and has an effortless skill for getting under the skin of his characters. These qualities are on ample display here in this time......there is an unmistakeable sense of...I suppose the right word is joy; about him.

He excels in the romantic portions, bringing to mind the chocolate boy of yore, as well as the loveable imp of Rangeela, especially in the song Behka Behka, (check out the half-a-dozen Aamirs dancing in step!). And, my God, when he gets all bald and brutal, the angry, adrenaline-pumped, yes with all eight packs in place(and how!).....Aamir is mesmerizing. Again, there are no half-measures with Aamir. When he screams, he screams till his veins are about to pop, when he howls with pain, he sounds like a staked animal. Just can't take your eyes off that guy........

2. Joie de Vivre- If I had to describe the film in one catchphrase, this would be it. Ghajini is a film which steers clear of any pretentions about its artistic status......, I'm just too much in love with Gunda (Mithun-da's cult classic....if you've yet to see this one, your cinematic education is incomplete, trust me....) to call this one Aamir's Gunda......but yes, the spirit is very much there. When the baddie swings away with his bolted iron rod, he cackles in delight. Khan himself despatches scores of goons with a Rajni-like flourish and I swear, once or twice, I thought I even saw a shadow of a chuckle beneath Khan's gnashed teeth! Sometimes this leads one to laugh out loud even during the gory portions, but it's all part of the show, rest assured.

No one embodies the spirit of joie de vivre better than Asin. You will find it incredibly difficult not to like her....... She matches Khan shot for shot when they share screen space, and is effortlessly ebullient throughout. All this and minus the annoying accent inflicted upon us by the likes of Genelia D'Souza. The director gives her plenty of scenes to show off her acting chops, and for the most part, she's upto scratch.

3. Rahman- Rahman follows up the magnificent score of "Yuvvraaj" with another good soundtrack. "Guzarish" is incredibly easy on the ears, and its opening strains are used pretty frequently. "Behka Behka" is Rahman at his experimental best, with quirky and unusual rhythms. It helps that the cinematography of the songs, especially, is brilliant. "Kaise mujhe" is superbly sung by Benny Dayal who has already made waves with his spirited rendition of "Tu Hi To Meri Dost Hai" from "Yuvvraaj". "Aye Bacchu" is a snazzy, upbeat number which captures the cheerful spirit of Asin's character to a T. Ghajini's score might not be among Rahman's more memorable ones, but it is very much in sync with the film.1

There you have it, then. Aamir, joie de vivre, and Rahman is the recipe for success as far as Ghajini is concerned. A word about the director. I watched an interview recently in which Aamir described the "pocket rocket" A.R. Murugadoss. Aamir described how diminutive in stature Murugadoss was, before going on to describe the unbelievable energy levels of the man. That frisky, restless energy which pervades the film, I believe has its sources here.You can feel it in the way he approaches even the most trivial of scenes. The simple act of drinking water from a plastic bottle has never been rendered with such outrageous urgency, for one! The hero as well as the villain crunch and gnash their teeth with gusto, the bad guy is complete with gold chain and faux-comical's all there! For me, this is the masala film of the year.....a film which doesn't fight its lack of erudition, but embraces it.

In an year in which we've watched some brilliant and intelligent Bollywood films like A Wednesday, Mumbai Meri Jaan, Dasvidaniya, Welcome To Sajjanpur, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye et al, let's celebrate the new year with the ultimate no-brainer of them all....Ghajini!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Kafkaesque turns one

Here's something which escaped my notice......a week ago this blog turned one! An year ago, in December 2007, I was on vacation after my first semester in college. That was when I finally broke through my hitherto undefeated laziness and started to bang away at the keyboard....... and an year later, I'm happy to note that I'm still at it! Who knows what lies ahead.......


Thursday, December 25, 2008

Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns"

When Frank Miller's "The Dark Knight Returns" was published in 1986, the Batman franchise, owned by DC Comics was not in good shape. Ratings were steady but never competitive with those of the rivals, Marvel Comics. Miller was a young superstar whose work on the Daredevil comic strip had already drawn rave reviews. The onus was on him to resuscitate the dying series.

So what does he do? He begins by making the Batman an old, bleeding, fading man grappling with his own inner demons. We are told that the second Robin, Jason Todd, died in combat, which caused, among other things, the caped crusader to call it a day. Where lesser men would have brought fresh villains for Batman to bash up, maybe even exaggerated the Batman's skills, Miller opted to tone them down. And then trained his eye on Gotham.

Miller's Gotham city is eerily disturbing and fascinating in equal measure.It is a city which doesn't have huge arch-villains, it has 15-year olds committing acts of unthinkable violence. Where the cost of a human life is shockingly low. It is a city where anarchy is always waiting in the wings, just in case..... Above all, it is a place ridden with paranoia and ignorance.During a news broadcast, it is actually suggested that "the heat wave in the city has led to the recent spate of violent crimes"

Batman's old foes Harvey "Two-Face" Dent and the Joker have both been locked up in Arkham Asylum for years. Harvey's half-burnt visage and his twisted alter-ego have both been apparently put to rest by a duo of doctors who seem curiously keen to let him loose among society again. At the same time, a gang of nihilist young goons calling themselves the Mutants are growing in power and influence on the streets of Gotham. Meanwhile, veteran cop Jim Gordon(Batman's old ally, one who apparently knows his identity has Bruce Wayne) is nearing retirement and contemplates the fate of Gotham in the days to come.

Clearly the stage is set for a comeback. For me, here's where the novel transcends the genre. Bruce Wayne's monologue about the bat, whom he describes as "the ancient one, the purest warrior, the ultimate survivor..." is chilling. Here's what he has to say about the revival of the bat within "You are are are a rusty trap which cannot hold me......feel me within your soul......for I am your soul....smouldering, I burn you....burning you, I flare, hot and bright and fierce and beautiful." All this is set accompanied with images from Bruce Wayne's past.....with a series of stunningly vivid black-and-blue ink sketches, the incident of a young Bruce falling down a bat-infested cave; as well as that of the brutal murder of his parents, is reconstructed in breathtaking fashion. On an unrelated note, I couldn't help but notice how faithfully Christopher Nolan has followed Miller's sketches while filming the aforementioned scenes in the stunning "Batman Begins" !

Batman does manage to quell Dent, who though cured of his scars, has found out that some scars are too deep to heal..... In fact, in the scene where Batman finally confronts Dent, he says "At least, now both sides are even ...." and the frame shows Dent with both sides of his face scarred. Batman, realising this is how Harvey Dent sees himself, thinks....."Not fooled by vision, I see him as he is..." and then "A reflection....." as we are shown two adjacent frames, one of the Batman, and one of the fierce-as-ever bat.... this intelligent juxtaposition of words and art is sometimes hard to follow, as the visual tricks keep getting more and more subtler.

The next issue of the four-part novel deals mostly with how Batman takes down the Mutant gang and also the emergence of a new Robin, thirteen-year old Carrie Kelly. Frank Miller, in the tenth-anniversary special edition, says in the preface, "One of the first things we decided was that Robin has to be a girl." However, the underlying problem addressed is not about the mutants; it is "escalation" , the idea that Batman's presence might actually increase crime and attract criminal sociopaths from all directions. We are shown a visibly aged and watered-down Joker quietly watching television at Arkham asylum. When there is news of the Batman's return on the news, something seems to wake the Joker up from his lull........the gleam in his eyes his back, and he slowly breaks into the same old ear-to-ear grin......A pompous psychiatrist, Dr. Wolper, who is treating both the Joker and Harvey "Two-Face" Dent, comes on television to go on a long-winded rant against the Batman.

"Every anti-social act can be traced to irresponsible media input. Given this(the Batman), the presence of such an aberrant, violent force in the media can only lead to anti-social programming. Just as Harvey Dent, who is recovering fine,thank you, assumed the role of ideological doppelganger to the Batman, a whole new generation, confused and angry will be bent to the matrix of the Batman's pathological self-delusion. Batman is, in this context, a social disease....." In the climax of "Batman Begins", Commissioner Jim Gordon explains the problem of escalation to the Batman, introducing the character of the Joker which was portrayed memorably by the late Heath Ledger in the sequel "The Dark Knight"Gordon says "This guy, for instance......he has a penchant for theatricality not unlike your own..... leaves a calling card..."
The weakness of the media and the blinkers-on attitiude of the government are also key themes Miller addresses here. The government, in Miller's universe, is openly and notoriously cares only about "public perception". The newsreader on the TV says, "The Political Performance Commission has just awarded the President an unprecedented five credibility points for his handling of public perception during the recent economic crisis..." Here, Miller dons the hat of an unlikely prophet as he introduces the President, a pandering, bumbling guy who speaks almost entirely using cowboy metaphors. The President explains to Clark Kent/Superman (who has now become a government agent) why Batman must be reined in.

"Son, I like to think I learnt everything about running this country on my's corny, I know, but I like to think it. And well, it's all well on a ranch, I mean, for the horses to be of different colurs and sizes.....long as they stay inside the's even okay to have a crazy bronco now and then.... does the hands good to break him in.....but when that bronco kicks out the fence and drives the other horses crazy....well it's bad for business...."

Clark Kent(yes, nowhere has the word "Superman" been used....apparently the Government has kept the existence of the Superman under wraps. Bruce Wayne refers to him simply as "Clark" ) then is kept in the shadows for a while as the Mutant leader is captured and put in a jail cell, where the mayor goes to see him " for negotiations, with all the ceremony befitting a military procedure..." as Jim Gordon puts it.The weakness of the authorities is sensed by the Mutant leader, who brutally murders the mayor in his cell. The seething outrage of Gordon is captured beautifully in the next scene where he is restrained "by some idiot, who stops me from doing the obvious thing..." Very soon, there is a broadcast by the local authorities who literally plead the Mutants to reconsider negotiations.

Eventually, Batman manages to overpower the Mutant leader.....seeing their leader maimed, the Mutants disband into different splinter groups, among them the "Nixons" who wear Richard Nixon masks! Ironically, one such group becomes the "Sons of Batman" who resort to extreme violence against even petty crime(like breaking up an illegal card game with napalm). By now, the Joker is gearing up for his first public appearance in years, and something big, blue and fast is flying towardsGotham City....

The action hots up when the Joker announces his arrival in style, killing hundreds of people in the television studio at one go, with his killing gas(including the insufferable Dr.Wolper). The Batman shows a twinge of regret at not killing the Joker, "I'll count the dead, one by one. I'll add them to the list..... of all the people I've murdered by letting you live...." Meanwhile, Clark Kent(yes, if Miller doesn't use "Superman" neither will I!) comes to warn his old ally Bruce that sooner or later, he will be forced to take the Batman down. This encounter between the Man of Steel and Bruce Wayne is a treat.....there is the gratuitious page-length sketch of the Adonis-like Clark Kent, albeit minus the costume.Watching him, Bruce thinks to himself , "There he is...there's the sun and the sky and him. Then he ruins everything by talking..."
Clark Kent saves America from a Soviet nuclear missile, harmlessly exploding it in a desert, weakening himself considerably in the process. He is rueful of how Bruce was "ruining it all" with his obesessive ways.....I thought this was Miller's way of cocking a snook at other, more "conventional" heroes like Superman himself.

"The rest of us learned to cope.The rest of us recognised the danger-- of the envy of those not blessed.....Diana went back to her people.....Hal went to the stars..and I have walked the razor's edge for so long now. But you Bruce......with your wild obesession.....". (For the uninitiated, Diana and Hal refer to Diana Prince and Hal Jordan, alter-egos for Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, respectively. They were both part of the Justice League, which also featured Superman and the Batman.)
Later on, even as Superman is finally unveiled in all his red-and-blue glory, he says " We must not remind them that giants walk the earth...." It is hinted that superheroes have been all but stamped out due to public outrage against the growing vigilante justice,and that Batman was one of the major culprits in this. Clark says,

"You were the one they used against us, Bruce. The one who played it rough....when the noise started from the parents' groups and the subcommittee called us in for were the one who laughed....that scary laugh of yours... "Sure we're criminals" , you said... "We've always been criminals....we have to be criminals..."

Make no mistake, the operative word in the title of the novel here is "dark" , not "knight". Bruce Wayne is darker, more violent and even cold-blooded at times. He has no qualms about his methods and is a powerful allegory for rule of anarchy.
The Batman finally subdues the resurgent Joker, but not before he has killed dozens of children at a fair. Oh, yes, the bloodtrail is ever so thick right throughout the novel. The final action sequences between the two arch-enemies are superbly scripted and drawn. Reading those pages made me realize some of the madness comic-book aficionados are associated was just so thrilling and sheer fun! Being a recent convert at the comic-book-cum-graphic-novel cult, perhaps the effect was more pronounced for me. And finally, it all boils down to Armageddon, the final battle, the last showdown between the two titans: Batman and Superman.

The settings are spectacular: Gotham has descended into anarchy as the disbanded splinter groups of the Mutants are wreaking havoc on the streets. Meanwhile the entire police force of Gotham, led by a new commissioner, is after the Batman. When a 747 crashes into a skyscraper(again, eerily prophetic) it's the last straw: ordinary people are at each other's throats, clawing, fighting for food..... Bruce Wayne must rally around the people of Gotham to sanity, and gear up to face the Man of Steel.....
Without giving up the ending, I'll say this: in a novel which steers clear of the cliches of the genre while embracing its strengths, the ending is true to form. Who prevails in this clash of titans? Grab your copy to find out! For "The Dark Knight Returns" is undoubtedly one of the landmarks of its genre and paved the way for a grittier, smarter and denser brand of comic-books and graphic novels, as the same year, Alan Moore released a brand new series called "Watchmen" .....and there has been no looking back since.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Millar and Miller: Graphic Novels rule!

I have been reading three books simultaneously for the past few days....... Orhan Pamuk's "My Name Is Red", along with two graphic novels, Mark Millar's "Wanted" and Frank Miller's iconic 1986 graphic novel "The Dark Knight Returns". Will soon post reviews of the latter two(Pamuk's book is about 500 pages.......and I'm reading this one at a leisurely pace).While "Wanted" was very loosely adapted into the Angelina Jolie starrer recently, Miller's unforgettable work was one of the key inspirations for Christopher Nolan's " The Dark Knight" , which was undoubtedly the film of the year for me.

Graphic novels, as a rule, are more difficult to review than regular novels, because there is just so much to take in with every page.....and when you have someone like Frank Miller, Neil Gaiman or the inimitable Alan Moore at the of luck! Visual tricks, cultural allusions, mythological overtones and modern-day allegories fly thick and fast. I still can't bring myself to review Moore's "Watchmen" which I have read thrice....maybe someday I'll split the thing into a series of posts. So far, I've reviewed Amruta Patil's "Kari"(here) and Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis"(though that was a kind of a clubbed review along with that of the film). But given the amount of graphic novels I've been reading of late....something's gotta give!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Italo Calvino's "If On A Winter's Night A Traveller"

"You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino's new novel If On a Winter's Night a Traveller. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade......"

With a beginning like that, you kind of know you are in for an intriguing read.
Italo Calvino has always been difficult to categorize for readers and critics alike. He was a raconteur one moment, a poet the other. He could write about anything, and he could write about nothing in particular. With a Calvino novel, you never quite know what you're gonna get. But this one was easily one of the best reads I've had for some time.

"If On a Winter's Night a Traveller" is a remarkable novel on many counts, the very first of which you will notice is that the unnamed protagonist is "you", that is the reader. For the purpose of this review, I will henceforth refer to "you" as "he" lest my grammar goes for a toss. The protagonist buys a new novel by a writer called Italo Calvino, but the novel turns out to be something else entirely, a little-known work by another author. His search for the unfinished novel leads him to another book, and then another, in what becomes a pattern of sorts. The novel is structured in that way, like a Chinese puzzle-box:alternate chapters are devoted to the book-within-the-book.

While the main action is engaging enough, it is in the books-within-the-book that Calvino showcases his full repertoire. They are atmosperic, shadowy narratives all of which contribute something to the overall impact on the reader.They are thrillers, adventure stories, psychological ruminations, erotica.... you name it. During the course of his quest for the real novel, the protagonist meets a fellow reader, Ludmilla, her overbearing scholarly sister Lotaria and finally realises he has become unwittingly involved in an international intrigue dealing with apocrypha, the concept of authorship and the impact of the written word.

Calvino uses these stray narratives to propagate some of his own pet peeves- Who is the author? What reallly is a story? The intimate and edgy relationship between the written word and the images formed by the reader's mind is a key and recurring motif as well. He satirizes the notion that a story is a discreet identity where everything has to be pristine and particular. At one point Ludmilla says, "I prefer reading novels that bring me immediately into a world where everything is precise, concrete, specific. I feel a certain satisfaction in knowing that things are made in that fashion and not otherwise....."

Right towards the beginning, there is such a hilarious description of the process of buying books, that I kept returning to it, before even finishing the novel. "But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn't Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category of Books Read Before Being Written..."This is one of many potshots Calvino takes on the pitfalls of genre fiction. This aspect takes full flight later on in the book, with the introduction of the character of Silas Flannery, a reclusive writer of assembly-line thrillers.

Flannery is a composite of many popular genre writers, among them Ian Fleming. There is a stirring passage where Flannery watches a young woman through a telescope, reading a book. He is in the process of writing another novel at that time, and he becomes obesessed with the idea that the woman is reading his novel, the work in progress, even as he types it out......this plot device is used to great effect to suggest that the book is made as much by the author as by the reader; that as we read a book, we change....subtly, imperceptibly, but we do. And funnily enough,in Calvino's case,so does the book!

These Borgesian flights of fancy notwithstanding, Flannery was the most fascinating character in the novel for me. He is a vehicle for Calvino to air his existential angst as a writer, to question the very roles of the reader and the writer. Sample this:

"What does the name of the author on the jacket matter? Let us move forward in thought to three thousand years from now. Who knows which books from our period will be saved and who knows which author's names will be remembered......perhaps all the surviving books will be attributed to a single, mysterious author, like Homer."

The themes of duplication and the author as creator gather steam when Flannery finds that all around the world, fresh translations of his novels are appearing.....but they seem to be novels he never wrote in the first place. Ermes Marana, a mysterious man working for the ridiculously named OEPHLW(Organisation for the Electronic Production of Homogenized Literary Works) seems to be behind this. He claims to have "cracked" the Flannery novel, and is now churning them out with the help of his organisation.

"A team of ghost writers, experts in imitating the master's style in all its nuances and mannerisms is ready and waiting to step in and plug the gaps, polish and complete the half-written texts so that no reader could distinguish the parts written by one hand from those by another......It seems that their contribution has already played a considerable part in our man's most recent production"

Calvino is not interested in winding things up: he intends to make things more complicated with each passing chapter.He has managed to create the literary equivalent of an anti-particle: this books is at once a homage to and a negation of the conventional novel and its norms, as we know them. While this might put off a few readers, my own take on the issue is: just go with the flow, and you won't regret it! The book is full of hilarious moments and painfully accurate satire set-pieces. The character of Lotaria is a gross caricature of "academic" critics. Following a public reading of one of the unfinished texts that the protagonist reads, Lotaria and her cronies immediately burst forth

"The polymorphic-perverse sexuality......"

"The laws of a market economy....."

"The homologies of the signifying structures"

"Deviation and institutions......"

Moreover, when Lotaria goes to see Silas Flannery, she reveals she has speed-read all of his novels in a rather unique fashion: programming a computer to sift through the words used in order of their frequency!(19-blood, cartridge, belt,commander,life,teeth,shots) She then proceeds to see those frequently used words to surmise what the novel is about. Flannery is flabbergasted and rightly confused.. "Now every time I write a word, I see it spun around by the electronic brain, ranked according to its frequency."
The overall air about the novel is "one of constant climax" (this phrase was used by David Denby of the New Yorker to describe The Dark Knight). Calvino, like Borges, is obesesed with the mystical power of books and they play a key role in this novel. As Silas Flannery says in the book,

"The romantic fascination produced in the pure state by the first sentences of the first chapter of many novels is soon lost in the continuation of the story:it is the promise of a time of reading that extends before us and can comromise all possible developments. I would like to be able to write a book that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectation still not focused on an object."

This is a highly accomplished work by an acknowledged master(Random House certainly agrees... the edition I read was a "Vintage Classics" edition!).... post-modern, metafiction, call it what you will.....but beg, borrow or steal this one fast....I mean it! I'll cap it off with another one of my favourites from the book

"Your mind has interior walls that allow you to partition different times in which to stop or flow, to concentrate alternately on parallel channes. Is this enough to say you would like to live several lives simultaneously? Or that you actually do live them? That you separate your life with one person or in one environment from your life with others, elsewhere? That in every experience you take for granted a dissatisfaction that can be redeemed only in the sum of all dissatisfactions?"

Genius....pure genius.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Kafkaesque goes places(again)

After my foray into culminated in a full-time authorship at that totally cool forum, "Kafkaesque" found a mention , and the last post "Blessed are the Geek" was reproduced here, at which is an off-beat news site bringing us the latest in news and gossip from the Indian techie scene......blessed are the geek, indeed!

Monday, December 15, 2008

Blessed are the Geek

(Just back from my field trip.....this is an article based on an idea by my friend Onyeka Nwelue, about "IITians doing crazy stuff with the pen", as he put it!)
The name IIT(Indian Institute of Technology) throws up a lot of reactions when asked for a word association, but most of them overwhelmingly focus on the banal stuff: words like "technocrat", "cutting-edge" , "elitist", "Silicon Valley" "creme-de-la-creme" keep whirling round and round until they are entirely devoid of meaning or purpose...... yes, IIT is perceived as a land peopled mostly by alpha-geeks, a notion that has certainly been nurtured as much by its illustrious alumni as by the Dilberts of the corporate world(remember Asok the intern?). But as a student of IIT myself, when I look at the people around me, do I see people who will take over the biz-tech domains of the world.......?

Hmmmm...tough one.

The answer is, of course I do. There are people here who have the means to do exactly that, for their talent ensures that they are not bound by many of the things you and I might be(yes, at the outset, I might as well confess, I have tech skills which are negligible, to say the least!) But that's not all there is to them. They are artists, singers, actors and yes, writers.... it's just that these aspects of IITians have only been in the public eye relatively recently.

The beginning of our story is in the late 80's when a young man with unbelievably thick glasses, an unruly mop of hair and a degree in Mechanical Engineering from IIT Kharagpur(where I study currently) had an epiphany: he took a leap of faith and decided that the world of engineering and technology was just not meant to be for him..... and he enrolled in a journalism course in the University of Southern California. He went on to work at The Statesman, a highly respected Indian daily, and later at The Indian Express, where he's currently the managing editor.

Raj Kamal Jha had announced his arrival in style. In 2000, his first novel, "The Blue Bedspread" was published by Random House and it immediately garnered rave reviews from the high priests of the literary criticism arena. Sample this little nugget from Richard Bernstein of the New York Times:

" ''The Blue Bedspread'' is a brilliant beginning for a writer whose voice already shows a maturity well beyond his years."

By that time Jha was already an editor at The Indian Express where his haunting, razor-sharp editorial pieces were already becoming the talk of the town. When I read the novel about an year ago, I was intrigued and enthralled in equal measure..... the novel chronicles the story of a night in Calcutta, where an unnamed narrator(as Jha puts it himself, "In a city of 12 million names, it doesn't matter") is narrating to his dead sister's child, the stories of his is in this seemingly random vignettes that he stitches together a narrative so original and so atmospheric that it seems as if the writer is right beside you, whispering in your ear urgently.... Jha has a unique talent for precise and delicate portrayals which engage all the senses, when he talks about Calcutta's odours and colours, one is moved enough to actually feel the rancid stench of the by-lanes, the sensation of the first monsoon showers caressing your bare skin. He is also a master at thought-process narratives which tend to focus more on the emotional rather than the material aspects of the story, a kind of post-modernist take on the much-abused stream-of-consciousness technique of Joyce.

His craft is based neither on the theatricality and over-the top exuberance of a Rushdie nor on the quiet minimalism of a Raymond Carver, to whom he has been compared in the past; but rather on a middle path. His work is deep-rooted in the realities of Indian life and the nitty-gritty of daily existence(that's the obvious influence of his day job as journalist) but his prose is evocative, layered and often deeply disturbing. The device of multiple narratives and dreamlike, lyrical narratives took on a whole new level with his second novel "If You Are Afraid Of Heights" where he even had "mirror characters" who tended to complement the other's narrative(they even had "mirror" names, Amir and Mira, Mala and Alam!).His third and most recent novel is "Fireproof" , a brilliant and unusual take on the 2002 Gujarat riots which Jha had covered extensively as a journalist at The Indian Express. As an aside, I strongly recommend an article Jha wrote on the riots , titled "John Brown and a dog named Chum" which can be read on the Indian Express website. This short piece will tell you more about the riots than volumes and volumes of yellow, dog-eared newspaper reports.

Around the same time Jha had his leap of faith, an IIT Kharagpur graduate with a management degree from IIM Calcutta to boot, started work at India Today, one of the country's leading magazines. Writing about absolutely anything under the sun, banging away at the keyboard, rushing to meet deadlines, Sandipan Deb felt truly at home. He went on to work in Outlook, a magazine started in 1995 with veteran journo Vinod Mehta as editor. Deb, along with Mehta, Tarun Tejpal(who went on to found Tehelka, the pioneer of "sting operations" in India) and others, shaped Outlook into a sassy new rival to India Today. Over the years, as an avid reader of Outlook myself, I enjoyed Deb's pieces on politics, business, celebrity, films, sports.....the list goes on and on.

In 2004, Penguin published Deb's non-fiction book "The IITians" which sought to explain the reason how India managed to create a world-class system of engineering and scientific education. The book explored the lives of several illustrious IIT alumni and some who had made their mark, albeit in fields light years away from engineering. It also looked at the madly overblown craze IIT has in India, especially small-town India.

What I liked about the book(and ironically enough, when I read the book, I was preparing for the IIT entrance test) was that Deb looked as much to his own experiences as to the experiences of an Arun Sarin(ex-CEO, Vodafone) or a Nandan Nilekani(Co-Chairman of Infosys, the IT giant). I remember the first lines of the book very well: "This first chapter has been incredibly difficult for me to write, absurdly so, because I make my living working for a weekly magazine, crunching out a thousand words on whatever the editor wants me to....". He then goes down to his old college with a friend, another alumnus, and starts to catch up.

He describes himself as "The Black Sheep" among IITians. It is this self-effacing humour which is one of the hallmarks of the book. Even when superlatives are flying thick and fast, you never get the feeling that Deb is getting over-the-top in his praise of either IIT or IITians. Indeed, there is a whole section on the problems the IITs are facing today, some of them involving draconian laws imposed on students.(Believe me, I know all about them!) "The IITians" is required reading for anyone wishing to know about IIT's or IITians,warts and all.

But both Jha and Deb are very much into quote-unquote serious literature/journalism. Of late, there has been the emergence of IITian writers at the other end of the literary spectrum. In 2004, the same year Deb's "The IITians" was published, an IIT Delhi graduate(and IIM Ahmedabad PGDM) Chetan Bhagat released his first novel "Five Point Someone-What Not To Do At IIT" . A hilarious take on the bildungsroman format, involving the misadventures of three friends at IIT Delhi, the book became an instant bestseller. Bhagat's underdog characters, humour which ranged from the wry to the slapstick, and snappy narrative won him a whole generation of fans, many of whom were not in the habit of reading fiction in English. The novel was the kind of book which is very difficult not to like. In effect, Chetan Bhagat did for Indian young adults what Rowling did for kids the world over: he got them to read. In India, if an English language book sells 5000-10000 copies, it's considered a bestseller....."Five Point Someone" sold lakhs and lakhs of copies.

Since then, Bhagat has published two more novels, one of whom "One Night@ Call Centre" was adapted into a Bollywood film "Hello" ,(whose screenplay Bhagat wrote). He has become a publishing phenomenon and also a bone of contention between critics who trash his work, saying that his work is basically "Bollywood on paper" and lacks any plausible logic or coherence; and those who laud Bhagat the entertainer.

Snobbery and inverse-snobbery flying back and forth, sometimes it is hard to separate Bhagat the writer from Bhagat the defiant celeb who declares he writes "for the common man" . I will say, however, that while it is a futile exercise to critically analyze Bhagat's later two novels, the overall quality of his work has taken a severe beating, ever-escalating sales figures notwithstanding. His latest book "The Three Mistakes of My Life" (following which The New York Times, no less ,did a profile feature on him) is riddled with shockingly juvenile bits of prose, highly cliched flights of fancy, and as was later found out, embarrasing factual inconsistencies. But the magic figure for Bhagat and his publishers, Rupa and co. :500,000 copies sold .......

The latest to jump onto this IITian-as-writer bandwagon is young Tushar Raheja, a 2006 IIT Delhi graduate, whose debut novel "Anything For You Ma'am" subtitled "An IITian's Love Story" was published while he was still in his final year of college. The novel, with its simple, uncomplicated storyline, became popular through word-of-mouth publicity. The 5000 copies of the first print were sold out within a month of its release, and there has been no looking back for the 24-year old who candidly admits “I have never been a writer. I find it difficult to form flowing sentences. I don’t have a disciplined approach to writing”. Now people might find this an easy buffer against criticism(“I knew I couldn’t do very literary stuff”) but clearly this is a brash new batch of authors who are unapologetic about their erudition, or lack thereof.

The novel itself is a study in over-simplification and hatchet jobs from cringe-inducing early 90's mushy Bollywood movies, with more than a dash of IIT thrown in. Having said that, Raheja is genuinely funny at times,and a natural raconteur. But the publishers went well and truly overboard with the blurbs when they dropped names like Wodehouse . Just because Raheja uses the word "bally" liberally does not warrant comparing him to perhaps the greatest humourist of all time.... Especially when the author himself distances himself from the purported norms of "literature".

So from the dark landscapes of Jha's dream-worlds to the cotton candy realities of Bhagat and co. , who is the IITian writer? Is he someone who has a unique and illuminating perspective on the world around him, or does he choose to escape into his own flights of fancy? I suppose the answers aren't so simple. From my own experience, I can say that there are plenty of people here, who are among the most culturally aware people you'll ever meet.....I have a friend who says his dream job is "pop-culture historian" ! The thing about this place is, and this is one of my favourite things about my college, no matter how weird or outlandish your tastes are, you'll always find kindred souls. Bookworms and movie-maniacs have a plentiful haven here. With the massive file-sharing network on campus, you have terrabytes of stuff at your disposal all day, everyday.

But there's also the other side. People often fight so hard to get here, they lose sight of what they really want from life in the long-term. Moreover, there's a sense of having reached a plateau sometimes. When you finally arrive here, sometimes after years of single-minded preparation, there seems to be a general disinclination to strain the grey cells, and opt instead for entertainment of the goofy, mindless variety. I, for one, am not prepared to take sides here. For all their supposed shallowness, Bhagat and Raheja are getting young people to read, and that is easier said than done. While I certainly wait for Raj Kamal Jha to dazzle us all with his inimitable prose again, I permit myself a smile when I see the likes of Bhagat and Raheja stacking the bookshelves.

And I most certainly smile when I see my name among the contributors for the annual magazine and think, "Hmmm...once upon a time, a guy named Raj Kamal Jha used to write in these pages...."