Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Hong Kong steps onto the international literary stage

While Singaporeans/Malaysians keep sqabbling over Singlish/Minglish vs Queen's English, Hong Kong has been taking great strides in the literary arena.

The IHT reports: "...Hong Kong becomes home to a new international literary prize and to the relaunched Asia Literary Review. Major overseas publishers and agents, meanwhile, have been making regular visits or setting up operations in this area.

"The fear that Hong Kong would lose its English-language heritage after the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule now seems misplaced...

"At the same time, greater China is playing an increasingly important role on the international literary scene. More Asians are learning English and buying more foreign books. Meanwhile, American and British publishers are becoming more interested in Asian writers, particularly young Chinese ones, whose works have the potential to sell well in the West.

Hong Kong is working hard to position itself in the middle of this potentially booming book trade. Last week Man Investments announced it would sponsor a new Hong Kong-based literary prize starting in the autumn of 2007 - its only literary prize aside from the two prestigious Booker awards. According to a news release, judges will read unpublished English-language works looking for "new Asian literature to be brought to the attention of English-reading audiences around the world."

Singapore is also trying its best to promote the reading/writing culture through lietarary festivals, etc. However, there seems to be shortage of talent, which is strange. Singapore's libraries are so well stocked and all kinds of books and writing opportunities are available. Sadly, for example, this year no writer could be found worthy of the annual NUS-FASS and TOPH Writing Fellowship.

The writing fellowship had made a brilliant start in its inaugural fellow, playwright Huzir Sulaiman, and the award-giving authorities feel that his accomplishments both accurately reflect the aims and spirit of this fellowship, as well as stand to benefit the literary scene in Singapore as a whole. This year, despite an encouraging number of submissions, the judges did not feel that there was an applicant who could fulfill the aims of the fellowship.

Citizen Coetzee

J M Coetzee is one of my favourite writers. I have recently finished reading two of his novels, Youth, and Disgrace, and have fallen in love with his sparse yet powerful writing style. Though I had read his The Life and Times of Michael K years ago, I can still recall the intensity of the experience of reading that novel and the kind of impact it had on me.

His superb novel, Disgrace ends at a situation where the disgraced protagonist, David, a former professor, is at a loss in a socio-politically changed South Africa, and as you read on the novel, you feel such pain, lonliness and purposelessness in life along with the main characters. But then, as he suggests to his daughter somewhere in the story, why doesn't she migrate to the Netherlands (?); he is ready to pay for all her expenses, and all that. And you think that why doesn't David act on his own advice--why doesn't he migrate to somewhere else if his life has so hopelessly fallen apart in SA?

Well, that's how the story ends. Now, interestingly, news is that the South African writer of Disgrace has shifted his base to Australia. He has become an Australian citizen.

He says in a report: "I did not leave South Africa because I had to," he said. "In fact I didn't so much leave South Africa — a country with which I retain strong emotional ties — as come to Australia."

Coetzee, an honorary research fellow in the English department at the University of Adelaide and the first author to twice win the Booker Prize, first visited Australia in 1991 and fell in love with Adelaide.

"I was attracted by the free and generous spirit of the people, by the beauty of the land itself and — when I first saw Adelaide — by the grace of the city," he said.

A few interesting articles

Here I am just bunching together some of the interesting articles/news items that I have read recently:

Shalimar the Clown wins Hutch Crossword Book Award

Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown had a reason to smile when it won the Hutch Crossword Book Award 2005 for English Fiction. On March 21, Krishna Sobti, who wrote The Heart Has Its Reasons, and translators Reema Anand and Meenakshi Swami won the award in the Indian Language Fiction Translation category. Suketu Mehta's Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found won in a newly introduced category for English Non-Fiction.

Literary Novels Going Straight to Paperback

Even critically acclaimed literary novels often have a short shelf life in hardcover, with one-half to three-quarters of the books shipped to stores often being returned to the publisher, unsold.

That has a growing number of publishing companies, from smaller houses like Grove/Atlantic to giants like Random House, adopting a different business model, offering books by lesser-known authors only as "paperback originals," forgoing the higher profits afforded by publishing a book in hardcover for a chance at attracting more buyers and a more sustained shelf life.

Translation Of Books Into Malay Still Scant

Translation of books in foreign languages into Malay is still scant in the country compared to other countries, Deputy Education Minister Datuk Noh Omar said Wednesday.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

V for Vendetta

Wachowky Brothers' V for Vendetta turned out to be a gripping fare. Though I am often wary of comic books making a meaningful transition to the screen (at least for me), this one scores well on this count. The film's message is so relevant, and comes loud and clear by the end of the movie. The blowing up of the British Parliament by the revolutionary (tagged 'terrorist' by the government and the media) V and his protege, Evey (Natalie Portman with a shaved head) clearly hints at the failure of parliamentary democracy in our age and how this form of governance has come to be hijacked by the wrongdoers. V says: "People should not be afraid of their governments, governments should be afraid of their people."

The hero is an idea, can be any face behind the mask--a creation of the monstrosity of the wrongdoers. V says: "Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. There is an idea, Mr. Creedy, and ideas are bulletproof." I like that.

The best part of the film is V, played by Hugo Weaving (remember Agent Smith of Matrix?). James Purefoy was originally cast as V but left the project. Hugo Weaving was then brought in to take his place, after four weeks into the shooting. Apparently, he had a great time rubbing Portman's shaved head.

Portman and Stephen Fry are also good in the film. There is an interesting sequence in the film wherein Stephen Fry, the host of a TV talk show, shows how the terrorist and the Chancellor are the one and the same. The hints are very strong if seen in terms of contemporary politics. Vull varks to the Vachowsky vrothers vor this very valuable vork of celluloid viction.

Aamir Khan speaks out against the media

The courageous Aamir Khan, one of the finest Indian actors of our generation, has lashed out at the Indian media for their ever stooping standards of journalism. The recent issue of Tehelka runs a long interview with the actor (‘Mainstream media has become like film media 15 years ago,’April 1, 2006). It was time someone pointed these things out. However, it is sad that it had to come from an actor.

He points out issues like these: "Things that are headline news now used to be tidbits or half a page meant to be entertaining. Now that’s the main story while farmers dying are being pushed to small, unimportant sections".

"The media coverage of the Gujarat riots or Jessica Lall murder are definitely
positive examples. These are the issues they should be dealing with. Issues that deal with survival and life".

"'I watch Doordarshan for news now. You have background scores now in news channels to emphasise or create the mood or emotion behind a flood or earthquake. They have
background music for Chrissakes! It’s shocking. Next you’ll have dialogue writers and sfx!"

Read the full interview here.

Only last night I watched Aamir's latest release, Rang De Basanti. It is an impressive film: technically sound, with contemporary feel, and quite rooted. Only the ending was a little melodramatic, though the director has tried to excercise some restraint (I mean it could have been worse in somebody else's hands).

Monday, March 13, 2006

Brokeback Mountain

So, why did Brokeback Mountain finally lose out to Crash in the best picture category?

The writer of Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx (a) has a reason to offer:

"And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver."

In the same essay, she makes an interesting point about acting and how good acting is perceived by Hollywood:

"The prize, as expected, went to Philip Seymour Hoff-man for his brilliant portrayal of Capote, but in the months preceding the awards thing, there has been little discussion of acting styles and various approaches to character development by this year's nominees. Hollywood loves mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin' image of a once-living celeb. But which takes more skill, acting a person who strolled the boulevard a few decades ago and who left behind tapes, film, photographs, voice recordings and friends with strong memories, or the construction of characters from imagination and a few cold words on the page? I don't know. The subject never comes up. Cheers to David Strathairn, Joaquin Phoenix and Hoffman, but what about actors who start in the dark?"

Sunday, March 12, 2006


I had missed George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" but luckily I was able to catch Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" for which Clooney won the Best Supporting Actor Award at this year's Oscars, and proclaimed from the stage, "Thank God, we are so out of touch."

Thank God there are still Hollywood actors and filmmakers like Clooney who stay out of touch with the times and make films like Syriana.

Of course, I had seen the movie before the Oscars. Brokeback Mountain had to wait. Syriana was serios business.

Stephen Gaghan (winner of the Best Screenplay Academy Award for Traffic) presents a tightly woven political thriller, weaving together many personal stories into a jigsaw-puzzle sort of narrative structure, that unfolds against the intrigue of the global oil industry. There are four basic stories here. CIA operative (George Clooney) faces his own people turned against him, young oil broker (Matt Damon) falls prey to a family tragedy and becomes advisor to an idealistic Gulf prince (Prince Nair Al-Subaani played by Alexander Siddig). Corporate lawyer Jeffrey Wright "faces a moral dilemma as he finesses the questionable merger of two powerful U.S. oil companies," while in Persian Gulf, a disenfranchised Pakistani teenager (Mazhar Munir) gets brainwashed and becomes a suicide bomber. All the four stories come together to a powerful and literally explosive climax.

I especially liked the Prince Nair Al-Subaani's character who represents the forward-looking face of the Arab world but is decimated by the powerful Oil lobby. The question that comes to the viewer's mind is: Is oil wealth and democracy incompatible and if yes, then why? I guess the answer lies more in Washington than in the Gulf region. The film is highly recommended.

But is Clooney trying to scare the public by making such films? Christopher Dickey writing in The Newsweek thinks so. His essay "Age of Anxiety" on this theme is quite interesting. On Syriana he has this to say:

""Syriana," so self-consciously obscure that even I had trouble following it, is entirely a work of fiction. Never mind the titles that say it's based on the 2002 memoir, "See No Evil" (Crown), by former CIA agent Robert Baer. The intrigues surrounding Clooney's character take place in a fictional emirate that might be Saudi Arabia, but has a history a little like Qatar and a landscape that is, quite literally, Dubai, where much of it was filmed. Yet it's not about any of those places, in fact. It's about the United States, and it's the style that's important, not the substance. "Syriana" feels like many a spy film from the 1970s, when Watergate and Senate investigations into the American intelligence establishment created a pervasive sense that government was out to defend itself regardless of the cost to American civil liberties, human rights and common sense."

Some quotable quotes from Syriana:

"In this town, you're innocent until you're investigated."

On the Arab world: "You want to know what the business world thinks of you? We think a hundred years ago you were living out here in tents in the desert chopping each others heads off, and that's exactly where you're gonna be in another hundred. So yes, on behalf of my firm, I accept your money."

On Corruption: "Corruption ain't nothing more than government intrusion into market efficiencies in the form of regulation. That's Milton Friedman. He got a goddamn Nobel Prize. We have laws against it precisely so we can get away with it. Corruption is our protection. Corruption is what keeps us safe and warm. Corruption is why you and I are prancing around here instead of fighting each other for scraps of meat out in the streets. Corruption is why we win."

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


A few weeks ago when I ventured into a local cineplex, I was not sure which film to watch. What I had in mind was Jim Carrey's Fun with Dick and Jane but when I saw the poster of Jarhead with the 'Directed by Sam Mendes' tag, I knew where I was headed for. I knew it was not going to be a fun film but I was ready for some thought-provoking fare.

I was rewarded. I was watching a war movie with hardly any war happening (yeah, there were some bombing shots and the hero, a trained sniper scout, yearns for some action but gets nary a chance). There is a moment when the action-hungry protagonists almost break down when they don't get an opportunity to 'kill' their enemies. That is as satirical as one could get.

Jake Gyllenhaal, playing Anthony Swofford, is brilliant. I was watching this guy for the first time, and was not even aware that he was playing the (co) lead in the much-admired Brokeback Mountain. Others such as Jamie Foxx and Peter Sargaasard have turned in admirable performances.

I loved Jake when he mouthed lines like these (off screen):

"Suggestive techniques for the marine to use in the avoidance of boredom and loneliness. Masturbation. Re-reading of letters from unfaithful wives and girlfriends. Cleaning your rifle. Further masturbation. Re-wiring Walkman. Arguing about religion and meaning of life. Discussing in detail, every women the marine has ever fucked. Debating differences, such as Cupban VS Mexican, Harleys VS Hondas, left VS right-handed masturbation. Further cleaning of rifle. Studying the mail order bride catalogue. Further masturbation. Planning a marine's first meal on return home. Imagining what a marine's girlfriend and her man Joey are doing in the alley or in a hotel bed."

More quotable quotes are here.

'Jarhead' is based on former Marine Anthony Swofford's best-selling 2003 book about his pre-Desert Storm experiences in Saudi Arabia and about his experiences fighting in Kuwait. Filmed in the Imperial Valley in Southern California, which features conditions very similar to Iraq. Marines did use one of the local towns, Brawley, for training purposes due to similarities to Iraq. Interestingly, some desert scenes were also shot on a Universal sound stage with lights doubling as burning oil wells. The lights were later replaced with burning wells courtesy of ILM.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Why I love Woody Allen?

Call me whatever you want, but I can't stop loving Woody Allen. Why? His brand of humour (middlebrow?), full of people from the literary world, is hard to find anywhere else. That's why.

I loved this piece by PRADEEP SEBASTIAN in The Hindu Literary Supplement. He says on Allen:

Some critics now see Allen as a middlebrow sensibility masquerading as highbrow. But that's exactly why we like Allen, that's why we relate to him more than any other intellectual comic. This middlebrow sensibility is the strongest connection we have with him. It's baffling why critics valorise the lowbrow and the highbrow while mocking the middlebrow."

"Many of us intellectual, sensitive, arty types are middlebrow in our tastes and middlebrow in our sensibility. Like Allen, we too regard high culture with awe. If we can't drink deeply from it, we want to at least partake of it, want it to rub off on us."

"But often the closest we come to it is a peek at it: surrounding ourselves with Penguin classics we've never read and will probably never get to read — at least not all of them. What we possess is a smattering, a sampling of culture: we seem to know what Kafkaesque means without having read too much of Kafka, and we catch up with the great classics via movie versions of Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Henry James. This, of course, is a caricature of the cultural aspirations of a middlebrow but that's what Woody Allen is all about. Allen won't be funny if this tension between the middlebrow and highbrow didn't exist."

Read the entire piece here to enjoy the discussion on "The Whore of Mensa" and "The Kugelmas Episode." Not to miss.

How do you write?

So how do you write? Standing up, sitting down, in the bathtub, on the back of your lover...

Here is an interesting article by diplomat-cum-novelist Navtej Sarna on the several odd ways of writing that famous writers have adopted from time to time. Some examples:

"Honore de Balzac would try and write 24 hours at a stretch and then take a five-hour break before starting over again. He consumed huge quantities of black coffee to beat fatigue and actually became a victim of caffeine poisoning at age 51. Alexander Dumas suffered from indigestion and the pain would wake him up in the small hours. He would then work on his writing desk till breakfast that usually consisted of a solitary apple under the Arc de Triomphe. His poetry would be written on yellow paper, fiction on blue and non-fiction on rose-coloured. Victor Hugo would give away all his clothes to his servant with instructions that he should not return until Hugo had completed his day's work. Ben Franklin and the author of Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmund Rostand, preferred to work in their bathtubs. Mark Twain and R. L. Stevenson could only write when lying down and Virginia Woolf, Thomas Wolfe and Lewis Carroll had to stand up to deliver. Thomas Wolfe, at least, who confessed to finding it easier to add 75,000 words than cut down 50,000 must have been very tired on finishing Look Homeward, Angel. D. H. Lawrence found stimulation in climbing mulberry trees in the nude. Voltaire used his lover's back as a writing desk."

"The poets, of course, had favourites of their own: Coleridge is said to have dreamt up the scene for "Kubla Khan" under the influence of opium; Eliott would revel in writing if he had a head cold; Poe liked to have his Siamese cat on his shoulder and Schiller liked sniffing at rotten apples every once in a while."

May I add one more from my side? Urdu poet Firaq Gorakhpuri used to write all naked in a room after getting drunk. Interesting, isn't it?

I do it like any normal pen pusher. What about you?