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Friday, January 30, 2009

'Twas a Saturday...

(Meant to write this a lot earlier, but fest time is always lean for blogging.... anyway, had a whale of a time at the Spring Fest at my college....but the higlight was undoubtedly my creative writing workshop with Jadavpur University professor and author Rimi B. Chatterjee.(see pic above.... Check out her blog here.)

Much of what I've written over the past year and a half has been divided into roughly two parts: this blog here and the stuff I write for the campus mag. Even so, the overwhelming majority of these has been non-fiction, that is if you discount the odd play or two I've written as part of a theatre troupe in college. Therefore, as someone whose first love is, and has always been fiction, I was really looking forward to this session, at the end of which I would, hopefully, gain a new insight into the ebbs and flows of spinning a yarn.....

In the spirit of things, I'll narrate this like an old-fashioned Chandamama story. On the day itself, I reached the huge lecture hall, which, unfortunately, was the appointed venue for our day. I say unfortunately because that hall used to be my one-size-fits-all classroom in my freshman year....and it suffices to say, that room and I have a history.

Apart from about half a dozen people, most not from my college, I saw a bespectacled lady, not quite middle-aged, with cheerfully streaked waves of hair, and a general air of joie de vivre about her. Bingo. Later, during the course of the day, as I would find out, she had an infectious(and very mischievous!) smile..... Our session began with a round of introductions while Ma'am would talk to us about our individual stories, respectively.(Here's mine) I remember Ma'am talking about my story which she said was "Pretty delicately done......especially by someone who's not a practiced writer.. " (If that seems a tad too self-congratulatory, remember....a blog is the ultimate ego exercise!)

At this point, a few shady-looking guys sauntered into the room and sat in one of the back rows. Ma'am requested them to sit at the front as she had apparently caught the Kharagpur cold. At this point, they got up, as if in sync, and said they would be back. That would be the last of them we would see that day. My guess is that they were just plain curious, or plain dumb. Anyway, soon enough, we were all assigned a colour each and asked to write a page about how that colour made us feel. ("Emotional temperature" was how Ma'am put it.) Now, the thing about assigning colours to 20-odd people is, after a point of time, you have to get real inventive real soon. My friend Tiyasa, who's quite a character at the best of times, was assigned "tangerine".
This exercise was simple, yet surprisingly stimulating. (My piece, on "Moss-green" will be put up on this blog real soon.....and I hope to expand it into something more substantial...) I realized that there has to be some method to the madness, when it comes to writing fiction; indeed, seasoned pros, thousand-words-a-day guys like Roth or Coetzee will tell you, the discipline is all in the head. At this point, Ma'am decided she'd had enough of the depressing lecture hall, and in true Tagorean fashion, suggested that we take the session outdoors, on the rather splendid lawn at the Vikramshila complex. We must have been quite a sight to the people who were in the thick of things at the fest, busy with their cheerful revelries, slightly bemused to see such a passive group in an otherwise ebullient atmosphere.....

By lunchtime, we had gone over nearly all the stories.......some were abstract, some were nostalgic, a few had silver donkeys from other galaxies..... the good times were well and truly rollin'!

At this point, I should mention that I'm an avid quizzer, (as can be seen from the previous post) and we, that is me and my teammates have got quite a decent racket going, travelling around the country and winning quizzes. The day before the workshop, we had won both Biz and Cyber Quizzes, events which were our weak spots, traditionally(Entertainment, movies....that's much more down our lane!). Naturally, we were cock-a-hoop about the next quiz, the big one, The Mary Bucknell Trophy, which was the general quiz held at Spring Fest every year. The event had a lot of history behind it, and has been the stage for some legendary battles.

The catch was, it was the same day as my workshop.....

From here on, the serendipitous part of my story begins. My teammates had cleared the prelims without me, albeit not very convincingly. Just as the quiz was about to begin, Ma'am decided it was time for a lunch break! In the distance, I saw Ankit, one of my teammates gesturing wildly towards me, and shouting something unintelligible. I broke into a sprint towards the auditorium where the quiz was about to begin. I think I narrowly escaped knocking down about three people, at least one of whom called me something unprintable. I entered the auditorium, much to the surprise of some of my friends, and skipping three stairs at a time, hopped onto the stage, and into an empty chair.

The rest of the quiz went according to script.......staving off a ferocious challenge from the IIM-C team, we got our hands on the Mary Bucknell trophy at last.... ( the next day, we won the Movie Quiz as well, making it four quizzes out of four at SF-2009, a rare Grand Slam of sorts)
The adrenaline still pumping, I returned to the lawn, where Ma'am and the rest of the people were settling down after their lunch.Ma'am had apparently refused the SF guys' offer of lunch at Kharagpur's best restaraunt, preferring to eat at the hut-like canteen near the lawn, with its quaint fried offerings and its too-sweet tea. Even this, the smallest of gestures seemed to me incredibly charming and down-to-earth.

Next, we were each given a picture which had one or more than one person in it, and we had to pick our person and create a back-story about that particular person. This exercise reminded me of the premise for an anthology published last year, selected by Zadie Smith, called "The Book Of Other People". Anyway, this again proved to be a lot of fun, and not just creating stories, but listening to characters made by the other participants. I got a rather elegant-looking lady in a typical red Bengali sari.....again, who knows, someday she might pop up in one of my stories....
Ma'am said she was in the process of writing the story for a graphic novel called "Kalpa". At this point I told her about my fascination for the genre(see this, this and this) and my admiration for writers like Alan Moore and our very own Sarnath Bannerjee(my starry-eyed expression grew wider when she said she'd met the man himself!), author of the magnificent Corridor and The Barn-Owl's Wondrous Capers. It was amazing to discuss literary or cinematic stuff with her, like Moore's magnum opus From Hell, the noir style of filmmaking...... and loads of other stuff.
The round of build-a-story yielded some pretty wacky tales, with the Chinese whispers style format ensuring that there was never a dull moment.....we would jump from romanticism to science fiction to detective thriller to high fantasy in the blink of an eye!We rounded off the workshop with a unique exercise. We first named six characters/personas, places, props, emotions and locations. Then, Ma'am would roll this huge cardboard die and decide who gets which set of people, locations etc. So while I got something pretty feasible(A tragic a pub, with a lighter!), people did get all sorts of crazy combinations(like a hopeful dog, in a jungle with a handbag!!!). We then wrote a plot or a full-fledged short story based on our respective sets. This one was the most intellectually challenging of them all....I did okay, I guess. (Ma'am said it was "very noir" :) )

When people talk about "a day to remember" and "experience of a lifetime" , it sounds and feels pretty banal and cliched, but I guess spending an entire day at the workshop, with Ma'am, falls firmly into that category. In a place where the average lecture is clinically drained of anything remotely resembling fun......I felt truly rejuvenated last Saturday.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Back from quizzer's paradise...

Just back from a 4-day trip to Allahabd, at the Motilal Nehru National Institute of Technology, where Gnosiomania 2009, the quiz-fest was being held. Well-known in quizzing circles around the country, Gnosiomania had a total of seven quizzes spread over three days this time around. Had a blast for the most part, winning a couple of quizzes and runner-up in a couple of others....the only irritating bit being an insanely arduous return trip, courtesy a six-hour train delay.

The quizzes themselves were a lot of fun, conducted by Mr. Avinash Mudaliar, who is a pretty popular and respected figure at quizzes around the country. I could have listed some of the more interesting questions on this post.....but I guess that would be a bit of a bore.(Reminder to self: MUST set up a quiz blog this summer....) So here's the deal: I'll just give you some intriguing team names I came across(My team was called "Mostly Harmless" after the Douglas Adams madcap SF book of the same name)

1. Pamela and her Sons (I kid you not!!!!!)
2. Tum Ek Kaam Karo, Tum Kal Aao..... (my personal fave)
3. Brokeback Mountaineers
4. Gecko Geeks
5. Name at the back(Mudaliar thought this was their actual name till the helpful fellows pointed out that their team name was actually at the back of the paper.....but the damage had been done...)

The only bright spot about the long train delays was I caught up with some of my reading....finished two books I'd started some days earlier: J.M.Coetzee's masterpiece "Disgrace" and Philip Pullman's "Northern Lights" which is the first part of the reknowned "His Dark Materials Trilogy"....more on that later.

P.S. I got into the creative writing workshop!!! (see previous post)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Juvenilia, with apologies.....

(Later this month, it's carnival time at my college IIT Kharagpur , as the Spring Fest gets underway. Rimi B. Chatterjee, an Oxford alumnus is conducting a creative writing workshop in the fest. She has done so in the past with people like Amitav Ghosh, which upcoming writer Anjum Hasan I'm pretty excited about it. The catch is, there are only 25 seats, hence I was obliged to send in a 1500-word story, on the basis of which one gets selected for the's my entry for the same. I'm afraid it's a rather hurriedly put together, amateurish and embarrassingly juvenile piece.....I'll keep my fingers crossed!)

"Cancers and clockwork"

He woke up to find that the world was still suffocating him. All its noises, smells and flavours assimilated their way into a big bolus which snuck up his throat till he felt like throwing up. It was the persistent yet circumspect knock on his door which finally roused him. Good morning, Sir. Would you like breakfast in your room? A voice, with the practised and polished saccharine dripping off the edges, like milk which has been boiled a little too much. On other days, he would have even shut the door to her face, but today, in a display of politeness which surprised him, he gently refused, even thanking the girl, in her ridiculously starched white-and-red uniform.

On days like these, his usual recourse was three-pronged: Beethoven, cigarettes and his trusty old Parker pen. As of yesterday, the latter two options had been taken from him. His manuscript had been just been trashed by his editors, and his fiance had given him an ultimatum to quit the "cancer sticks" as she called them. He permitted himself a smile over her choice of words, recalling how he, as a college geek had been enamoured by Anthony Burgess's "The Clockwork Orange" ; the book which had its own lingo, "nadsat" .....(the word for "cigarette" was "cancer" !!). She had met him for the first time when he was sitting under a tree, engrossed in what had to be his seventh shot at the book. They had hit it off rather well, considering his propensity to lapse into long reveries and stubborn silences.

"Come on, say it...what's your favourite nadsat word? ", she insisted with an impishness that was already starting to grow on him.
"You mean apart from cancer?", he slyly asked, a nearly worn-out Marlboro still hanging lazily from his fingertips. "Yes, apart from cancer, and for Christ's sake will you chuck it away already!", she said in faux-anger, pretending to hit him playfully. "Okay, okay,'s gone...." , he said, tossing the cigarette in an exaggerated flourish. "All right, let's see... I'm rather partial to "ultraviolence" ....and then there's "chai", (the word for tea) and "tolchock"..... but I think I'll go for "Charlie".. you know, the word Alex used for his prison chaplain... I think that one really tickled me...Get it? "Charlie Chaplain" ...ha!" ....and they had chuckled about it for ages, as if it had been the joke of the century. Passing each other by in the corridors, they would mouth "Charlie" at one another, much to the bemusement of their friends, who had by then suspected that there was something in the air about these two.....

The sound of the telephone, an annoying tinny monotone, snapped him from his trance. He picked it up, warily. It was his publisher, Joseph K, a man who was barely tolerable when one was in the best of spirits, and quite insufferable at all other times. He was rambling on something about “ young readership” and “catering to all tastes” ….
”Gregory….are you with me? Hello? “, his publisher asked, his nasal twang piercing his ears like needles.
“Yes, I…uh, I’m with you ..uh, Joe.”
“As I was saying, times are changing since you wrote “The Lotus”..…. attention spans are at an all-time low.. and your subsequent book was … a disappointment, as you are aware… . you know the old saying, don’t you? People aren’t reading nowadays. And if they’re reading at all, they’re not reading fiction. And if they’re reading fiction…”
“They’re not reading literary fiction…yeah, yeah I get it . Would you do me the courtesy of cutting to the punchline, Joe, please?” , he asked, gritting his teeth.
“Yeah, well.. let me say, Greg…. I’ve always liked you… but we’ve got a business to run here.. you know how it is, my friend…..”
“Right, right ….well, I’m not feeling the love here, friend! So would you please cut the crap? “
“I’m not sure I appreciate the tenor, there, Greg…. We’ve decided not to publish your manuscript. Our people here said, and I must say, I agree…… it’s not exactly what people would call a page-turner…. The readership is increasingly rejecting overly “intellectual” stuff….and we just can’t ignore that…”

By now, the words were getting lost on him… was as if they were bouncing right off him, entirely devoid of rhyme or reason… for the second time in the conversation, Joseph had to rouse him.
“You there, Greg….hello? “
“Yes, Joe…I’m still here” , grinding out each word, the effort clearly proving to be difficult for him.
“Yeah…….as I was saying… Wordsmith House has decided not to renew your three-book contract, which as you know, expired with your last book….”
“So…who are you selling me out for, Joe? “ , he asked, no longer caring to keep the sarcasm out of his voice.
“Yeah, well……I thought that’d interest you. It’s Trevor Hardwood…..”

Two words. That was all it took for Greg to slam the receiver down with a resounding bang without further ado. Trevor Hardwood………of course, that cheap peddler of two-bit “penny dreadfuls” about psychotic college kids and slick, oiled-up super sleuths. Greg had written a scathing review of Hardwood’s body of work(which already consisted of twelve novels in the space of six years) , calling them “B-Grade Hollywood on paper” and “lurid in every way imaginable” , upon which Hardwood had politely declined to comment(oh, the slimy silver-tongued bastard!) , saying that everyone was entitled to an opinion.

His mind wandered to two weeks earlier, when he was having a fight with Simona(his fiancĂ©) …..or rather, she was screaming her lungs off, and he was staring morosely in the distance, taking in monstrous puffs of his umpteenth fag of the day.
“……it’s like living with a stranger, Greg! Don’t you get it…I can’t take it anymore…..For Chrissake, when was the last time we had an actual conversation?? Everytime I try to talk to you……you just hide behind your books, or your notes……or your freaking cigarettes! “
Her voice now had a dangerous edge to it.

“I’m serious, Greg. You have to prove that you still give a rat’s arse about how I feel… that I’m not just another whackjob character in your psycho-babbling, mumbo-jumbo stories……I give you a fortnight… the end of that period, you’ll have to choose between your precious “cancers” and me! “

And that was that. Tell you what, honey, Greg thought. At this moment you’re the whackjob, not me. Anyway, today marked the end of the aforementioned fortnight. He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water over his stubbled, weary face. His eyes looked shot and distant, as if they were looking for something that couldn’t possibly be there.

He would go and try to talk some sense into her. This wasn’t precipitated by love so much as…….habit. He was a creature of habit, and she, slowly, imperceptibly, had become a part of his minutae, like a favourite doodle one likes to make on the edges of notebook pages, or a particularly catchy piece of nonsense verse. And right now, what with this jerk-off of an editor humiliating him…any further disruption in his environs would be too much for him to take in.
He figured she would be there, by Reno’s on Park Street. Everytime the two of them had a tiff during the early days of their relationship, she went and sulked there, which would be his cue to beg and plead.

And there she was………right by the window sill, at her usual table. But hang on…could it be….yes, she definitely had company, Greg thought as he hurried forward across the street to get a good side-on view. He froze. The street and all its cacophony seemed to replay itself in slow-motion for his benefit. For their, in all his glorious idiocy, was Joseph K. himself. No trial for you this time, Joe…Greg smirked to himself.

A gush of memories, suddenly unbound.
“ ….that a creature who can perform only good or evil is a “clockwork orange” –meaning that he has the appearance of an organism lovely with colour and juice…”

The two of them…together…suddenly everything is lucid and fluent in his mind.
“…but is in fact only a clockwork toy to be wound up by God or the Devil..”
In a single, languid move, he went forward, wished the clearly flabbergasted couple a good day, and sat down on an adjoining chair.
He then brought his right fist down in an exquisite whiplash motion, making good contact with Joseph K.’s nose, upon which said Joseph went from “screamed like no tomorrow” to “babbled like a baby” pretty soon.
“How’re you doing, honey….” , he asked, giving her his grandest smile he could summon. He took out a Marlboro, lit it with elan, and blew a ring of smoke close to her face.
And, from that moment on, he knew everything was falling into place….

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

"Revolutionary Road" : Bleak, Bold and Brilliant

(Originally published here on

Once you are done with your board exams, and the laundry-list of competitive exams which follow, there is a lull-period of almost three months before you actually join college. People do all kinds of stuff during that time: some learn how to drive(and then proceed to channelize messrs Schumacher, Hamilton and Raikkonen), some take to uselessly useful stuff like the odd fag or the infrequent tipple. A few smart alecks actually manage, God forbid, to get laid(assuming they haven’t already). Some foolishly starving autodidact losers like me bummed around the house, nose buried among yellowed pages, vacant expression in place.

It was during this time that I read Richard Yates’s cruel gift to mankind…. “Revolutionary Road” was bleak, bold and brilliant. I remember my first reaction at finishing the book was “Thank God it’s over….” , and I mean that in the best possible way. Seldom does one come across such a clinical negation of everything a man hopes to live for. All the reviews said how it was meant to be a rebuttal of The American Dream, how the institution of marriage was the palette through which Yates took his potshots at the vagaries of the human existence; how the author attacked the human need for conformity…..oh, how they rambled. But all I could feel was how alone the man must be, how utterly and profoundly alone….it was much later that I read Yates’s interview on an archive somewhere, where he said

If my work has a theme, I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

It took me three Mithun-da films and two Harry Potter readings to get over my gloom after reading this pessimistic masterpiece. And I thought I’d seen the last of it. Only that idiot Sam Mendes had to come up with a masterpiece of his own……

For “Revolutionary Road” is a masterpiece, a work by a major auteur whose artistry is evident in nearly every frame. For the uninitiated(here’s the part where your reviewer gives a bald, perfunctory plot summary, giving just enough to keep you on tenterhooks, taking care not to give away too much), the film is about a young and ambitious suburban couple, Frank and April Wheeler(played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) They have half-baked, romantic notions about “living life as it’s meant to be”. April manages to convince Frank that he should quit his boring behind-the-desk, same-as-everyone-else’s job, and that they should move to Paris, where he “could be all that he is”. She herself studied to be an actor, but found out, embarrassingly enough, that she’s not especially gifted. Frank, too, desperately wants to break free from his suburban shackles(and the memory of a mediocre father), but does he want it bad enough?

After World War II, where America faced the threat of Hitler, who had the means to take down their nation, there was a sudden rush for conformity and a cosy, coccooned existence among the American middle-class. The Wheelers are representative of that middle-class, only this
time, they want out.

Clearly, the road to redemption is paved with thorns, and it’s as if everything the Wheelers do to escape their nondescript existence comes back to hanut them. The token All-American neighbours Milly and Shep Campbell are played to modest perfection by Kathryn Hahn and David Harbour(whom you might have caught in a bit role in Quantum of Solace earlier last year). I remember, in an earlier post about Road To Perdition, I mentioned that Mendes had brought back the Titanic troika of DiCaprio, Winslet and Kathy Bates for this film. And I meant the last part….sure enough, veteran Bates is pitch-perfect as Helen Givings, the realtor next door who sells them the house at the ironically named Revolutionary Road.

The wafer-thin veneer of domestic bliss that the Wheelers maintain on the outside is shattered when the Givings’s son, John comes for dinner. A former mathematician who is now institutionalized, he rips their charade apart with his merciless, and cruelly accurate observations about the Wheeler’s pathetic attempts to find a semblance of meaning in their existence. Michael Shannon, who plays John Givings, turns in a simply outstanding performance as he outshines his more illustrious colleagues in the brief time he is on-screen. His character is perhaps the best example of Sam Mendes’s thetrical sensibilities coming to the fore. Shannon’s carefully cunning half-smiles, his sudden and alarming fits of energy, his rants are all classic bits of theatre histrionics. On the writing level, his character is the perfect “enforcer” used in plays….one might even go as far as to describe him as the Chekhov’s Gun here( a Chekhov’s gun is a character or an object introduced earlier on in the play, but whose significance is revealed only towards the end.)

The lead pair are in fine form themselves. Kate Winslet, whose character is the pivot around which the story revolves, gets full marks for her performance as April Wheeler, a tormented, complex character who seeks romance in her life elsewhere once her dreams of becoming an actor are all but shattered. She seldom puts a foot wrong, especially in the flat-out high voltage showdown scenes. Is there anything she can’t do? Nominated but ignored for the Big O a staggering five times, will this be the performance that gets her the pot this time… certainly hopes so. And where do I begin about Leonardo Di Caprio? There is little one can say which will add to or change his status as perhaps the defining actor of his generation. In 2006, he did two unbelievable roles in The Departed and Blood Diamond. Most actors would be happy to pull off one of those in an entire career, let alone in the space of an year. His collaborations with Scorsese have already prompted people to call him the next De Niro…..and with good reason. Be it Gangs of New York, The Aviator or The Departed, Di Caprio has stamped his class all over the films, and has proven that he belongs among the big boys. His performance as Frank Wheeler will be tough to ignore once the Oscar season hots up, and while for me, Sean Penn ought to scoop up the big ones this year for Milk; it is another feather in Leo’s cap.

Where does Sam Mendes go from here? A theatre director, who dabbles in cinema every now and then, he has given us three absolute gems in Road To Perdition, American Beauty and now Revolutionary Road(Jarhead, while a decent effort, isn’t in the same league for me) He seems to know just the right mood every scene requires. The biting satire of American Beauty is tempered here by a sombre gravity…….One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is his distinctive visual style……the grim black-and-white trench coat Depression era palette of Road To Perdition, even the dusty, sandy , khaki-peppered bleakness of Iraq in Jarhead. Here, we have heavy interior decors and suffocating indoor shots which bring out the themes of suburban claustrophobia brilliantly.

Perhaps the only things which I can say against it are these: both the Wheeler’s infidelities seem a trifle contrived, and the film doesn’t quite bring out the zeitgeist of 50’s America that well(we just have some vague dialogues from Leo about his joining the war in a fit of adrenaline)But then again, I thought that the novel focusses more on the internal conflicts of the central characters than anything else, so I guess that’s excusable.

Revolutionary Road is a haunting piece of art, one for the collection, really. In a week where I had some very diverse cinematic experiences (starting from Slumdog Millionaire, then The Wrestler, Gran Torino and now this…), I cannot recommend it highly enough….