Monday, September 26, 2005

One year of blogging, etc.

Of late I have not been blogging as frequently as I would like to. The reasons are many. However, I am glad that I could complete my blogging spree for at least one full year. Yes, I have been blogging for a year now):

And I thank all of you who have cared to come here and share a few words with me from time to time, though I never expected to make so many acquaintances through my blog. I have also enjoyed visiting other blogs though I have been very parsimonious about my comments. What you say about what others think about a particular thing is a tricky business, and to avoid misunderstandings, I have often withheld my frank opinion on many occasions. But generally, I have often benefited by the discussions and descriptions of experiences by my fellow bloggers.

Over the past twelve months many things have transpired. Many of my friends who were blogging at the time when I started have bowed out of blogosphere. I started blogging in great earnest, treating it almost as an act of penance, as I was one of the late comers to this exciting world of blogging. And I was shocked when many shut down their blogs. Without going into the intricate details, now I know why they have done so. Blogging can become a tedious exercise especially when you have to blog just because you are supposed to. And if you didn't, when you saw many active bloggers around you going full steam ahead with their blogs, a kind of guilt begins to engulf you.

In this perspective, I have now decided to go a bit slow on blogging. I will blog only when I feel like it. That is the only principle I am going follow now.

Now a little about this past week. Had been very hectic, had some writing assignments to finish, and I have nearly done that. Saw this interesting brief interview of novelist Amitav Ghosh on Channel News Asia. He gave (to the viewers) his perspective on how fiction can be created in a location like Singapore. He mostly talked about his novels and the stories behind their creation.

Watched some movies: Tom Tykwer's Heaven (very good; stylishly shot) and the Hollywood classic, Stagecoach. It is said that Orson Welles, before making Citizen Kane, watched this classic nearly forty times! Also watched Lawrence of Arabia for the second time. I was again blown away by this epic movie.

Spent my Sunday in Pulao Ubin, a beautiful little island of Singapore. Cycling, food, and a view of the sea. A memorable experience!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Gao Xingjian in Singapore

No, the Chinese Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian will not come to Singapore but an exhibition of his paintings will be held here between Nov 17 to Feb 7 (Singapore Art Museum).

The Straits Times (Clara Chow, Life!, Sept. 17, 2005) has published an interview with this recluse who, like Milan Kundera, has been living in Paris pursuing his creativity for about two decades now. He says, "Your experiences are constantly shaped by the choices you make. My choice was freedom and creation, for which I chose Paris. And I have no regrets."

Gao has been very unwell since 2002 when he was diagnosed with a major disease causing hardening of his arteries. He has undergone two operations to survive this life-threatening condition. Ever since, he does not travel greatly. He even avoids giving interviews.

Gao has this interesting perspective on living this dual life of a painter and a writer. In the ST interview, he says: "Painting is structure and image, whereas writing is mainly language. I don't use paintings to explain my literary notions. Painting begins only when language fails."

The only other Nobel laureate, as far as I know, adept at both writing and painting was India's Rabindranath Tagore. He was even a great musician.

A little peek into Gao's life so far is instructive.

Gao was born in 1940 in China and was influenced by his parents' liberal ethos. At 10, he wrote his first novel, something on the lines of Robinson Crusoe's adventures. In 1951, he began training in oil painting under a renowned master. But on his mother's insistence, he began to learn French at the Beijing School of Foreign Languages in 1957 instead of going to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. His mother had feared that if Gao became a painter he would end up doing the propaganda posters for the government.

A la Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, he was sent to a re-education camp during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). There he had to burn a suitcase full of his manuscripts. What a great loss to the world literature!

In the 1980s, his plays were branded anti-social and he fled to the Chinese countryside to escape political oppression. During this time, he travelled through the length and breadth of China and the result was his novel, Soul Mountain.

In 1987, he migrated to France and is now settled there as a citizen. He lives with Chinese writer Xi Ling, his partner of 15 years. During the day, he paints in his studio at home. He sleeps at least 11 hours every day. As his illness has affected his eyesight, he can't read for more than an hour at a strech, and hence, he is not able to write novels any more.

However, he has completed a verse-drama (Night's New Song) in French and a film (Silhuettes and Profiles) which he is editing now. The film has been in the making for the last 3 years.

Is he optimistic about life? No, he says. But he also beautifully sums up his approach towards life: "Intellect lies in the ability of a person to calculate how he makes the most of his limited life. And making art is the best way to survive." I love that!

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

A scene from The Bicycle Thief: A desperate Antonio is tempted to steal the unwatched for bicycle.  Posted by Picasa

The Bicycle Thief and Pather Panchali

Over the weekend, I watched Vittorio De Sica's The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955) back to back. It was an experience that I had been waiting for for most part of my life. Both the films are landmark films. In fact, Ray's Pather Panchali is said to have started the so-called art cinema movement in India. It was the first of the Apu Trilogy. The other two films of the trilogy are Aparajito (1956; The Unvanquished ) and Apur Sansar (1959; The World of Apu ). This trilogy tells the story of Apu, the poor son of a Brahman priest, as he grows from childhood to manhood in a setting that shifts from a small village to the city of Calcutta. The conflict between tradition and modernity is the interconnecting theme spanning all three films, which can be construed as portraying the awakening of India in the first half of the 20th century.

Ray has written in his My Years with Apu that he was deeply impacted by The Bicycle Thief. When he was in London, he saw this film many times over. This neorealistic film, with its downbeat story and its economy of means -- location shooting with nonprofessional actors --, convinced Ray that he should attempt to film his favorite novel, Pather Panchali . Ray had illustrated this novel by Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, and had been contemplating its cinematic possibilities after seeing De Sica's work.

Though I am not going to analyze these two masterpieces (they anyway have been done to death), what I was trying to discover through this experience was the possible influence of De Sica's work on Ray's vision. The two films do share their spirit of humanism in an atmosphere of poignancy and depict the tortures that poor people have to undergo in order to survive (the aspects of social commentary). De Sica's work is matter of fact; Ray's is poetic. I cannot forget the scene where the trembling lotus leaves herald the arrival of monsoon as well the scene where Apu and Durga discover the train. Both the films have struggling parents and innocent but astute and understanding children. Both the films end on the road, without a resolution. While Apu and his parents escape (from crushing poverty, and sadness due to Durga's death) to Benaras, Antonio and his son Bruno keep walking on the road towards an uncertain future.

The story of The Bicycle Thief develops like a chase and the audience is kept in suspense throughout. Will Antonio find his stolen bicycle? Will he get his job back? In Pather Panchali, the story develops like life itself, Harihar's family and its relationship with the neighbourhood being revealed slowly. Ray uses a lot of close ups and extreme close ups and the camera often lingers on faces to depict the moods. The music is brilliant and rooted in the culture of Bengal.

I found the last part of Pather Panchali especially relevant as it deals with the issue of migration. When the poor Brahmin family is all set to migrate to Benaras, a neighbour visits them and says: "Staying in a place for a long time makes people mean. We will also see if we can migrate."

Apu's father Harihar is a priest and writer but he finds no takers for his art. Apu's migration from poor Bengal to the literary Benaras reminds me of Naipaul's (also a Brahmin's son) escape from Trinidad to London.

De Sica's film also reminded me of Bimal Roy's classic Hindi Film Do Bigha Zameen. In its vision and philosophy, it is much more closer to The Bicycle Thief.

Rushdie's Storytelling

I thought it odd that storytelling and literature seemed to have come to a parting of the ways. It seemed unnecessary for the separation to have taken place. A story doesn’t have to be simple, it doesn’t have to be one-dimensional but, especially if it’s multidimensional, you need to find the clearest, most engaging way of telling it.

Rushdie talks about his art of writing fiction in an interesting interview in The Paris Review. He also discusses his recent novel Shalimar The Clown along the way and makes interesting points, which, I guess, many of the reviewers have missed so far:

In Shalimar, the character Max Ophuls is a resistance hero during World War II. The resistance, which we think of as heroic, was what we would now call an insurgency in a time of occupation. Now we live in a time when there are other insurgencies that we don’t call heroic—that we call terrorist. I didn’t want to make moral judgments. I wanted to say: That happened then, this is happening now, this story includes both those things, just look how they sit together. I don’t think it’s for the novelist to say, it means this.

And this is what he says about inventing and charting the destiny of the characters in Shalimar:

Something strange happened with this book. I felt completely possessed by these people, to the extent that I found myself crying over my own characters. There’s a moment in the book where Boonyi’s father, the pandit Pyarelal, dies in his fruit orchard. I couldn’t bear it. I found myself sitting at my desk weeping. I thought, What am I doing? This is somebody I’ve made up.

Go read the whole thing or better still get a copy of the magazine (as a bonus, you get a cute cover picture of Salman Rushdie as a boy in Bombay!). The online interview is incomplete.

Two Sides of Journalism

Today I came across two interesting, almost contrasting, news items in the NYT. While one talks about the loss of media consumers and advertisers in New Orleans (due to massive exodus of its residents after the Hurricane Katrina's devastation), the other talks about Yahoo setting up an exclusive multi-media website to report on wars around the world.

In the first case, an entire population has been displaced by a natural disaster, leaving the New Orleans media companies (7 TV stations!) high and dry without any audience or advertisers. In the second case, Yahoo is creating a new audience selling the powerful images of devastation brought on by war!

An Uncertain Future for Media in New Orleans

Newspapers and television stations, as many people know, have been losing readers and viewers for years. But in New Orleans over the last two weeks, when news was precious, the local media's customer base - and its advertisers - literally vanished, exiled from home in a vast diaspora beyond the reach of telemarketers and ad salesmen.

New Orleans media outlets, including The Times-Picayune and seven television stations making up the nation's 43rd-largest media market, have been left to contemplate a surreal future of unknown duration in a city devoid of functioning businesses, with no goods to advertise and almost no people to buy them. As a plaintive Times-Picayune headline put it Friday, "Few Souls Remain in Shell of a City."

And yet the owners of The Times-Picayune, which had a circulation around 270,000 before Hurricane Katrina struck, and the seven television stations, which served about 670,000 households, were unflinching in their commitment to the deluged city - making plain the difference between the manufacturers of widgets and the gatherers of news.

Yahoo Hires Journalist to Report on Wars

SANTA MONICA, Calif. - Yahoo, in its first big move into original online video programming, is betting that war and conflict will lure new viewers.

Lloyd Braun, the former chairman of ABC's entertainment group who now oversees Yahoo's expanded media group in Santa Monica, has hired Kevin Sites, a veteran television correspondent, to produce a multimedia Web site that will report on wars around the world.
Mr. Sites, who has worked as a producer and correspondent for NBC and CNN, is probably most notable for a videotape he shot for NBC of a marine shooting and killing, in a mosque in Falluja last year, an Iraqi prisoner who appeared to be unarmed. That video generated a storm of outrage in the Arab world, and spawned both a military investigation into the incident and controversy about Mr. Sites.

The Web site, called "Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone" ( will focus entirely on Mr. Sites's travels as a war correspondent and will use nearly every kind of format the Internet allows. His reports will begin Sept. 26.

Speaking of Yahoo, there is a fierce competition going on among Microsoft, Google and Yahoo to dominate the cyberspace as much as possible. The results will not only be interesting but will decisively shape the future.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Writers and Literary Success

Came across this interesting opinion piece "Coetzee and Costello" by Nilanjan S Roy. In her piece, she ponders over the question of defining success for a writer, and if one found success, how to deal with it. She says:

“Success” is an increasingly contentious term in literary circles. Should you judge a writer’s work by the size of her audience, the number of prizes she’s won, the number of column inches she commands?

Of course not, and yet to ignore the demands of success is to ignore the fact that publishing itself has changed irrevocably in this century. Can authors be manufactured?

Look around you; from the kings of self-help sagas to celeb-lit all the way up to the buffed products of creative writing courses, programmed to turn out smooth, perfect, short stories and novels at the touch of a button, the assembly line is working at speed.

Through the example of Coetzee, she shows that "the only proper response an author can offer in the age of the soundbyte and the seminar circuit is to put forward his fictions instead of himself, and let them do the talking."

"Beauty" before age: The Man Booker shortlist

By now everyone knows that Rushdie, McEwan, and Coetzee are out of the Booker shortlist. Those who've made the cut are John Banville, Julian Barnes, Sebastian Barry, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ali Smith, and Zadie Smith.

The Guardian has published a comment ruing McEwan's non-selection:

Saturday, McEwan's tale of an extraordinary day in the life of brain surgeon Henry Perowne, has widely been seen as a shoo-in for the shortlist from the date of its publication. And he was joint favourite with Julian Barnes at the longlist stage to take home the gong for the second time. Instead, he has become the shortlist's most high-profile casualty - although with previous winners Salman Rushdie and JM Coetzee also failing to make the cut, he is in very good company.

The Independent has focused on Zadie Smith in its report on the Booker shortlist:

'Beauty' before age: Zadie Smith beats veteran authors to a place on the Man Booker shortlist

The high-flying young novelist Zadie Smith made it through to the final round of the £50,000 Man Booker Prize for fiction while heavyweight rivals including previous winners - Salman Rushdie, J M Coetzee and Ian McEwan - were felled yesterday.

"...Zadie Smith was the final name on the list with her third novel, On Beauty. At 29, she is the youngest of the six by some margin. She has been living and working in America and, in an interview with the latest New Yorker magazine, condemns British culture and its "general stupidity, madness, vulgarity" as "disgusting".

Though most are betting on Barnes, I'm not sure about anything now. As Naipaul had said maybe the weirdest book will win. Zadie Smith, with her debut novel White Teeth, had been hailed as the new Rushdie. Now, it seems she has really become one.

The Guardian comment further talks about Zadie's grand entry: Unpublished at the time of the longlist announcement, it came out last week and has so far received mixed reviews; while the Observer called it "exceptionally accomplished", Peter Kemp, the Sunday Times' chief fiction reviewer instead described it as "inconsequential" and "self-indulgent".

The Independent has also published a Salman Rushdie interview with Boyd Tonkin. Apart from discussing the characters and the setting of the novel, the interview also looks at some interesting side issues such as this one:

Although Rushdie does not consider himself "part of the Muslim community", Shalimar the Clown pays a warmly eloquent tribute to the tolerant, eclectic Islam of Kashmir, the land and the faith of his grandparents. They came from that now poisoned Eden of snow-shrouded summits and flower-filled orchards, where veil-free Muslims worshipped saints (a virtual "polytheism" that shocked incoming jihadis) and Hindu Brahmins eagerly scoffed meat ("and lots of it"). As a child in Bombay, Rushdie adored his Kashmiri grandfather, who was "a devout Muslim. He had performed the Haj to Mecca. He said his prayers five times a day every day of his life. I was very close to him and he was for me a kind of model of tolerance and open-mindedness and civil discourse" - even to such a wrangling, irreverent kid. "My relationship to him was one in which everything was up for discussion, from the existence of God downwards. And that Muslim culture, of which he was a product and a very fine example, is the Muslim culture I grew up in."

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Rushdie bashing is the flavour of the season

After the great Indian literary spat (William D. vs Pankaj Mishra & Others), it's time for Rushdie bashing. Many of his fans have found his recently released Shalimar The Clown to be a disappointing fare. Just like his previous novel Fury and Ground Beneath Her Feet.

When I argued that the guy has been writing under tremendous pressure (couched in a different language), so give him a break, someone retorted: "Just becuase Rushdie was fatwad, had lived in exile, had married four or five times or takes four years to write a novel, doesn't mean that we have to give him grace marks as far as evaluating the literary merit of his work is concerned. With every novel, a novelist is a first time writer: s/he would be subjected to as much scrutiny and enthusiam as a debutant. And with every passing novel, the stakes actually rise. If Ian McEwan, Philp Roth, Don Delillo and Thomas Pynchon can not just live up, but actually stun us with each new work, then why not Rushdie?"

(He was reacting to my comment: "It is very easy to take potshots on a writer. Rushdie takes a couple of years to write a novel and some people dismiss it as a clownish work within days of the novel's publication. The guy is a fabulist and his work should be approached in that manner. ")

I don't have an exact answer but I recall Rushdie's words: A writer will write what's within him (or something to that effect). So, there he is.

The latest in the line of critiquing Shalimar The Clown and its author is NYT's MICHIKO KAKUTANI. She says:

Mr. Rushdie's latest book, "Shalimar the Clown," aspires to turn the story of a toxic love triangle into a fable about the fate of Kashmir and the worldwide proliferation of terrorism. But this time, the author's allegory-making machinery clanks and wheezes. Although the novel is considerably more substantial than his perfunctory 2001 book, "Fury," it lacks the fecund narrative magic, ebullient language and intimate historical emotion found in "Midnight's Children" and "The Moor's Last Sigh."

Worse, "Shalimar the Clown" is hobbled by Mr. Rushdie's determination to graft huge political and cultural issues onto a flimsy soap opera plot - a narrative strategy that not only overwhelms his characters' stories but also trivializes the larger issues the author is trying to address.

However, Rushdie's star power is still intact. My friend Susan had a brush with this piece of literary history at the Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly. She beautifully describes her experience here.

Ubud Writers Festival

Now that the Singapore Writers Festival is over, the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival has been announced. Check out more details at under What's Hot.

Two high profile writers to grace the Bali-based festival are Michael Ondaatjee and Amitav Ghosh. Dina Zaman from Malaysia has also been invited as a guest writer.

One good thing about this festival is that it also organizes several writing related workshops. Great opportunity for aspiring writers to learn the craft!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Singapore Writers Festival, Graphic Novels, and Colleen Doran

One of the biggest draws of the Singapore Writers Festival was the American cartoonist and illustrator, Colleen Doran. She has been working with all the big names in the comic and graphics novel industry in the US.

Colleen spoke on "Graphic novels and the future of literature" at the Library@Orchard on Sep 1. A good number of youngsters attended the session of this Britney Spears of graphic novels. The charming and voluble lady established an instant rapport with the audience.

In Singapore, graphic novels are most popular among the "most reluctant readers". About half a million Singaporeans read graphic novels on a regular basis. Personally, I hadn't read a graphic novel before Sin City. Thanks to my friend Vinod, a self-taught CG whiz kid, I was introduced to this world of graphic novels and I began to respect this genre too. Later, I found out that movies such as Road to Perdition and From Hell were based on graphic novels. When I saw the movie Sin City and I was impressed.

Is graphics novel literature? Wasn't the rising popularity of graphic novels an indicator of the dumbing down of people's reading taste? I was wondering about these questions at the gathering when one member of the audience, let's call him the devil's advocate, asked Colleen this question right in the beginning of the session and it helped put things in perspective.

"Comics have their own visual syntax and they are more interactive than films or text-based literature," she said. " I think to dismiss an entire medium (graphic novels) is close minded and silly."

According to Colleen, graphic novels have been in existence for at least 100 years but it was only during the 1990s that it began to get acceptance in libraries and bookshops. The Sandman series played a large part in bringing about this change. Now almost all major bookstores and libraries in the world stock graphic novels.

Why do people read graphic novels? I had often seen young men and women reading graphic novels in the underground trains in Singapore and Hong Kong. And I used to think, what the heck? These guys should have been reading the latest Murakami or Ishiguro. Why were they wasting their time in reading childish junk?

"Comics and graphic novels are not junk," said Colleen. "You will see more and more young people reading graphic novels as reading such works needs a particular ability--the ability to make the closure, to take the cognitive leap between one frame and another. This ability might lead to generation gap as the generation before ours did not develop this ability."

Colleen said that graphic novels were more interactive for a reader in comparision to films. "In films, somebody has done all the thinking for you, all that was to be visually imagined in the story, someone has already done that for you in the film. But in a graphic novel, it is you who has to make that cognitive leap and that gives you control over the medium, and the story."

That was an interesting perspective. "I listen to films," she confessed. I never looked at film from that angle.

No wonder the graphic novels are doing very well commercially. Last year the industry saw a 30% increase in sales.

However, all comics and graphic novels don't make money, she said. What makes money for this industry/writers is licensing (T-shirts, toys, etc.) and "film rights" or what's called the work getting "optioned" by Hollywood studios. Colleen's Orbiter has been optioned by Warner Brothers.

I learnt a lot about graphic novels in that one hour and came back home with happy anticipations about Sin City. Colleen said that two more episodes of the film are being made. That is great news indeed!

This was also the last session of the Singapore Writers Festival that I could attend. Hope I am still around to attend the next Singapore Writers Festival!