Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Tribute to Arthur C Clarke

I read this beautiful tribute to late Arthur C Clarke, and the way the writer has shown his love and devotion to Arthur has moved much so that I want to read some of his sci fi books now. I usually don't read science fiction, and I have only seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. But now I guess I'll dig out one of Arthur's novels or stories to read.

Here is DENNIS OVERBYE on Arthur:

In his short story “The Nine Billion Names of God,” published in 1953, Clarke wrote of a pair of computer programmers sent to a remote monastery in Tibet to help the monks there use a computer to compile a list of all the names of God. Once the list was complete, the monks believed, human and cosmic destiny would be fulfilled and the world would end.

The programmers are fleeing the mountain, hoping to escape the monks’ wrath when the program finishes and the world is still there, when one of them looks up.

“Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out.”

That was a typical Clarke ending, and it seemed only natural upon his death that nature might want to reciprocate.


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Be a star blogger

Want to be a star blogger? Here are some tips and spoilers from the NYT:

1. Don't expect to get rich
2. Write about what you want to write about, in your own voice.
3. Fit blogging into the holes in your schedule.
4. Just post it already!
5. Keep a regular rhythm.
6. Join the community, such as it is.
7. Plug yourself!


To me, the bottomline is: Don't go into blogging to make a living, as Mark Cuban says. Do it for fun, and keep the sense of fun going.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

I killed my first wife: Naipaul

This is what has jumped out of Patrick French's biography of V S Naipaul, and its shock value has appealed to the newspapers to carry as a news item:

He is regarded as one of the most sublime novelists of the age and has won both the Booker and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

But in private, Sir Vidia Naipaul, 75, better known as VS Naipaul, tormented his first wife for four decades, visited prostitutes and kept a mistress for 24 years before he suddenly abandoned her to marry yet another woman.

Sir Vidia's shocking treatment of those closest to him is laid bare in a new biography that suggests he is emotionally immature, selfish and self-pitying. It also contains the author's own admission that his mental cruelty towards his wife may have killed her.

The disclosures, in the biography by Patrick French and serialised in The Daily Telegraph from tomorrow, are likely to do further harm to a novelist who already has a reputation for arrogance and rudeness that has lost him many friends in the literary world.


Thursday, March 20, 2008

Breaking, Entering, Exiting

Bad news has not stopped coming. First Arthur C Clarke, and now the news of Anthony Minghella's death. He was only 54. The Oscar-winning film director and until recently chairman of the British Film Institute, died on Tuesday, after suffering a brain haemorrhage.

I loved Minghella's films. In fact, among the contemporary British filmmakers (working in Hollywood, the ones that I know of) Minghella and Sam Mendes have been my favourites. I thought very highly of some of his works, especially The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley, and Breaking and Entering. The last one remains vivid in my memory as I had seen it only a few months ago. There are very few filmmakers who make 'that' kind of films. He was still young. Did he deserve to go so soon? Reminded me of the sudden death of director Mukul Anand in India--he too was young and much was expected of him (mind you, I am talking about two different kind of filmmakers in totally different settings).

Here's a tribute by Ken Russell, film director:

I grew up on Minghella's dad's ice-cream in Ryde, Isle of Wight, a scoop each of chocolate and strawberry. A writer himself, he was great at adapting bestsellers. Minghella was keen to the poetry in a story. He wove spells by referencing Herodotus, Neruda, cello-playing, extravagant winds that one fought with knives and swords - as hopeless as fighting passion with social rules. “The palace of winds,” the hollow at the base of a woman's neck (The English Patient); the moments like “a bag of diamonds in a black heart” (Cold Mountain) - all of these evoked mystery, desperate longing and romance, of which he was the undisputed master.

He was the best at showing exotic locations, romantic times, glamorous lovers separated and frustrated by unavailability, guilt, war, long distance or death. He let us into a world of deep shadows and powerful passions overcoming refinement and education, an artist's world where the dialogue and location were turn-ons: Rome, Greece, Venice, the Sahara. He was the king of poetic lust...


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How free is Indian media?

I was shocked when I recently read in the Outlook magazine that veteran Indian journalist M J Akbar had been dramatically removed from the editorship of his own paper (he was the founder editor of The Asian Age). I might be commenting a little late on it as it happened sometime in early March but the fault is not mine. I did not come across this news anywhere but in this piece by Khushwant Singh in Outlook, who has written very strongly about the state of Indian media:

The hard truth about Indian journalism is that proprietors matter, editors do not; money counts, talent does not. The latest instance of money trashing ability and experience is the unceremonious sacking of M.J. Akbar, founder-editor of the Asian Age. He is perhaps the most distinguished living member of his tribe. He started the weekly Sunday and the Telegraph for the Ananda Bazaar group of papers based in Calcutta. He has been elected member of the Lok Sabha and is the author of half-a-dozen books, all of which have gone into several editions. Fifteen years ago, he, with a set of friends, launched the Asian Age. It was a bold venture as the Asian Age came out of all the metropolitan cities of India as well as London. It had little advertising but had a lot more readable material taken from leading British and American journals than any other Indian daily. It was as close to being a complete newspaper as any could be. Besides these unique qualities it also published articles by writers critical of the government and the ruling party. It was probably this aspect of the journal that irked Akbar's latest partner in the venture; he had political ambitions of his own and wished to stay on the right side of the government. So without a word of warning, on the morning of March 1 while he was on his way to office, Akbar learned that his name was no longer on the Asian Age masthead as its editor-in-chief. It was an unpardonable act of discourtesy committed by someone with less breeding and more money.

Earlier, Khushwant Singh's son, Rahul Singh, had commented on this subject equally vociferously in The Dawn but I discovered it only later when I googled about it:

THE Indian media takes great pride in being independent and fearless, among the freest in the developing world. Indeed, the press is held up as one of the mainstays of Indian democracy. But is this really so? Take the abrupt and recent sacking of one of the country’s most distinguished editors, Mubashar Jawed Akbar.

On March 2, the erstwhile editor-in-chief of The Asian Age was on his way to his office in New Delhi when he got an SMS on his cellphone from one of his staff members, asking him to look at the masthead of his paper. To his astonishment and dismay, he found his name was missing! When he arrived at his office he was met by an editorial staff in mourning, some of whom broke down.

Word had clearly reached them of their boss’s unceremonious ouster. MJ, as he was known to his friends and colleagues, quickly emptied his drawers, said farewell to his staff and departed.

What has happenend is sad and shameful. Akbar is perhaps one of the last of a generation of mediapersons who represent a certain kind of scholarship and journalistic values.

I have been reading Akbar since his The Telegraph days. That was the first newspaper I ever read in life. Then I was in high school and could barely understand all that was discussed and reported in the paper. Later on, I saw him from close quarters when he fought for the MP seat from Kishanganj, my native town. He was an inspiration to me.

I am sure Akbar will not sit back and will rise again and do something remarkable in the field of journalism.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Agha Shahid Ali prize in poetry

"The world is full of paper. Write to me."
--Agha Shahid Ali, "Stationery"

If you are a poet, go for this:

Honoring the memory of a celebrated poet and a beloved teacher, the Agha Shahid Ali Prize in Poetry is awarded annually and is sponsored by the University of Utah Press and the University of Utah Department of English.

$1000 Cash Prize and Publication; Reading in the University of Utah's Guest Writers Series.

Last date: 31 March 2008


Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Music and Lyrics

‘Prose is for lazy people, poetry for the imaginative,’ says ad man and film lyricist Prasoon Joshi (Rang de Basanti, Taare Zameen Par, etc.; recent recipient of a Filmfare Best Lyricist Award)in this interetsing interview by Nasreen Munni Kabir:

Why do you think prose is more loved? Because prose is for lazy people. Poetry is for people with a fertile imagination. It’s like a buffet. You must serve yourself because the meal will not be served at your table. It’s a pity we have mostly lost the passion for poetry.

I also like this one on music and lyrics:

Music is like a container but the content is poetry. I tell musicians, Sharab pahaunchhaa te aap hain, lekin sharab banaa te hum hain. (You deliver the wine, but we are the ones who make it.)


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Death and Taxis: Chris Mooney-Singh

You might have heard of death and taxes in one breath. But did you ever hear of death and taxis? If not, be prepared to hear a lot about it because Australia-born and Singapore-based poet Chris Mooney Singh has poignantly yet beautifully combined the two in his latest collection of poems, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. Zafar Anjum takes a ride on a cab from that company to meet author and literary activist, Chris Mooney Singh.

Hop in please, wouldn't you? But first a warning.

When you see Chris Mooney Singh, it would be hard for you to slot him the way we are used to slot people in the hierarchy of identities. Perhaps you also wouldn't know how best to describe the man.

But not to worry on this count. Chris himself has done this job brilliantly in one of his poems, A Council Flat in Leicester. So, listen on.

In that poem, Chris talks about his appearance of being a 'turbaned, bearded--yet a white-skinned sahib' which startles an 'earth-brown skinned Punjabi fellow.

"A beard, a turban, and a white skin brings some kind of a novelty value for some," Chris says self-mockingly. Truth be told, I too was startled to see him first but that was a in a literary reading. For this interview, we meet Chris in Earshot cafe in the Arts House. "Once I walked into a crowded market in Adelaide and I was surprised how people parted ways for me," he tells us over the din of screeching chairs and clinking china.

He then goes into the history of turbans--how turbans have always stood to indicate rank and class and commanded respect, how in the Mughal times, wearing a turban was a sign of class and how Guru Gobind Singh threw a challenge to the powers that be by making it mandatory for all Sikhs to wear turbans, proclaiming that people with low caste or no caste could also wear turbans.

So, you see, this is how Chris speaks. You scratch him and gushes forth the knowledge, passionate observations and articulations of an erudite mind, affording you moments of epiphany as you move deeper into the discussion with him.

Eastern Promises

Of Australian-Irish descent, Chris was born in 1956. He had a typical middle class childhood. His parents were not religious at all. But he had been reading books on mysticism from an early age and that had some influence on him. That love for mysticism led him to the Sikh faith when he went to Indian as a young man to indulge in arts journalism.

Chris was practicing meditation in Australia for almost 15 years. But he was not satisfied. There were questions, a quest, and a thirst to quench. “I wanted to have some deeper experience, with people of some spiritual stature,” he says. Off he went to India. He stayed in Delhi, in a Punjabi neighbourhood.

Once in India, a Western-educated Chris found poetry as an art form in the Eastern traditions. In the Sikh faith, he saw poetry, music and spiritualism all coming together and that resonated well with him. "I connected with the eastern traditions from an artistic point of view, not from a religious point of view," he says.

But this spiritual change muscled into his poetic sensibilities. "Embracing a new faith brought in an inward sort of a change in me," he says reflectively.

Mysticism and poetry engaged Chris’ mind from early on. He got interested in poetry while he was still in primary school. During the composition classes, he says, he was more interested in the language, in the atmospherics, in the micro-moments of the story than in the story itself. "One thing that poetry does is it looks at the mirco-moments and so, I was inwardly always poetry driven," he says. The early interest in poetry sprouted into a deeper passion. Later on, he got to understand more about writing, about narratives, as he formally studied journalism.

But his poetry quintessentially contains a specific flavour—the flavour of narrative. "Even when I write poems, if you look at my collection, I have a narrative element in it,” he says. “I think I have a cross over, sort of a poet inside a storyteller and a storyteller inside a poet."

In search of the rubab

Kirtans, a form of poetry, fascinated Chris. As he delved deeper into Sikhism and its art form, he realized that there were instruments of the Sikh faith that had been lost. "I call the harmonium the magarmach (crocodile) of Indian music or the African killer bee of Indian music,” he says, referring to how it has killed off ancient musical instruments like the rubab and Saranda.

“In Guru Nanak’s time, his companion played the rubab,” he says. “I went looking for that instrument and it took me a decade to uncover it.”

From Himachal Pradesh, he started to make rubab and saranda and took the craft to some villages in Punjab where the youth were trained to make such instruments.

Who would have imagined that it would take an Australian young man to revive the community’s interest in the ancient musical instruments of the Sikh faith?

Turning point

It was only in India where he tragically lost his first wife. His wife literally died in a taxi in India. He puts that experience, from his wife’s last breath to the rites of her funeral, in the initial part of his anthology, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. The second section of the book is about taxis in Singapore. “Both signified to me as vehicles of transportation, from place to place, a journey of life,” he says.

After his first wife’s death, Chris came to Singapore and settled here. After spending more than a decade in India, Singapore offered him a different experience, and posed a challenge to his muse.

“India was an immediate connection with me,” he says. “Coming from a meditation background, I was inwardly attuned to that culture. I stayed in all kind of dwellings in India, the experience was very wide. I saw tragedy. I experienced life in all its nakedness. In Singapore, though it is comfortable and everything works--lights, buses, taxis—the electricity is always there, the buses are not very far and taxis are frequent and available but somehow it also insulates you from that naked raw reality of life.”

Singapore’s urban jungle, in his eyes, also affects a writer’s sensibilities. “Poets and writers here audit their thoughts for public so I though I had to develop a different sort of skin here,” he says. “I like the Asian society but I needed to find another way to look at it. I realized that I took a lot of cabs and that sort of provided me with a way to look at life in Singapore.”

That’s how he began to think of writing poems on cabs, and The Laughing Buddha Cab Company came into being. This is not Chris’ first collection though. “I have a few collections earlier--one was a collection published in Australia in 1989, then I put out a chapbook in Singapore in 2003 but it was really a privately distributed thing,” he says. “This is my long overdue collection.” In addition, Chris co-edited a poetry anthology, The Penguin Book of Christmas Poems, and has three spoken word CDs to his credit, the latest being ‘Living in the Land of the Durian Eaters’.

Singapore soirees

Meanwhile, Chris became restless with the prevalent literary culture in Singapore. “After settling back from India in 2002, I saw events where poets were there for poets,” he says. He wanted to bring literature and poetry out of the closed doors to public venues.

“I went to America in 2003 to a writers' festival and saw the poetry slam and took it as a model for Singapore,” Chris says. “In Singapore, we have this kopitiam culture and I tried to marry poetry with that culture,” he says on his idea of the poetry slams. “Poets should meet with a non-poet audience and hold their interest. That's the challenge of poetry slam.”

Since 2003, he has been a full-time organizer of literary events, writing groups and, of course, the Poetry Slam in Singapore. All these activities, including the Writers’ Connect programme for emerging and established writers, are held under the aegis of Word Forward.

Word Forward has turned a publisher with The Laughing Buddha Cab Company, and two other poetry books by Marc Daniel Nair and Pooja Nansi. “Publishing and performance go together; I first needed to develop a sense of community,” he says. “Before publishing, we ran other programmes--poetry slam, writers connect, festivals, lots of creative programs in schools, we developed a national youth poetry slam league--we have been doing for the last two three years.”

And what has all these activities achieved? “I can't speak for others but from our points of view, I think we have added a necessary injection of energy into the scene,” he says. “Earlier, much of the literary activities were mystically invisible.”

Chris, with his life partner Savinder, have proved that a life committed to arts and literature can be built around here in Singapore. Now they are going beyond Singapore, exploring new horizons. They are soon starting a poetry slam in Malaysia, on the lines of the Singapore one. “As we have developed here, we have unconsciously become a model for others,” he says, with a grin of satisfaction.

An edited version of this story appeared in India Se, March 2008.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Gandhigiri in the Netherlands

"Immunizing a country against the pandemic of xenophobia and outright dehumanization is serious business," says Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the chairman of the Cordoba Initiative, in his discussion on the Dutch's preparations to preempt a Geert Wilders-inflicted pandemic of 2008 in The Washington Post's On Faith forum (Wilders, photo above, leader of the right-wing, anti-Muslim Freedom Party, of which there are only nine members in the 150-seat Dutch lower house, had long threatened to release a film exhibiting, in his words, "the violent and fascist elements of the Muslim faith").

He says, "at the highest levels of government, the preemptive media response was palpable and powerful. The Dutch Foreign Minister stood by the right to free speech while putting reasonable parameters on the proviso, saying "freedom of expression doesn't mean the right to offend". The Dutch Interior Minister warned media companies against broadcast, noting the repercussions globally, saying "a broadcast on a public channel could imply that the government supported the project". Even the Dutch Embassy in Washington D.C. categorically condemned the content. But most impressive, was the showing by Amsterdam's mayor Job Cohen, who is Jewish, saying flatly that Wilders was 'dehumanizing Muslims'."

But at the ground level, at the people to people level, a lot of Gandhigiri was applied to achieve great results (so far so good):

Mindful of the buzz building in the Arab press and keen to concoct a global media strategy to counteract a crisis, the Dutch appealed to international organizations like ours [Cordoba Initiative] to proactively engage Muslims in prevention-oriented activities. Mobilizing Dutch Muslim civil society, in close consultation and coordination with our Dutch Muslim legal liaisons on the ground, the response was overwhelmingly positive. Locally, Muslims showered Wilders with kindness, sending flowers and emailing virtual hugs. This coincided with a coordinated campaign involving educational radio and TV programs, talks, flyers, T-shirts, and peace-promoting online petitions – all with the purpose to prevent political furore. Internationally, young Muslim leaders, from Europe to the United States to the United Nations, rallied to support local Dutch efforts and while focusing on similar inoculation efforts in their own countries. In sum, grassroots engagement was rigorous, respectful and well-regimented – exactly the kind of early warning system that is needed at a local level to immunize a population from a threat.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Never scared to be petrified

Actor Rahul Bose poses some tough questions to the people of Bombay (Mumbai) ( specially to the mythicised, so-called ‘resilience of the proud Mumbaikar’) on the recent anti-northerner attacks that brought a bad name to the cosmopolis:

Which one of our citizens, our high-octane celebrities, our media-savvy politicians spoke out with indignance, defiance, patriotism? Not one, with the exception of Kumar Ketkar who tersely called the disturbances — and I paraphrase — a transparent stunt to get political mileage. Why didn’t we speak out? Welcome to the psychology of the coward who loudly abuses the bully only once he has disappeared around the corner of the street.

Never will a Bombayite stand up to an enemy who will remember your name and your face. We cowered in the confines of our houses when Muslims were being eliminated by a conspiracy between right-wing Hindu political forces and saffronised members of the Bombay Police in 1993. We turned our backs and ran home when Dalits and right-wing Hindus clashed last year (another example of gleeful, misrepresentative television reporting), and have done so again. Because we are scared of any enemy that is known, that is local.

But why blame only us when our politicians have let us down time and again? When they displayed such cowardice that night after night on television we winced to see the embarrassment and shame on the faces of senior police officials who were left with the blame of inaction last month?


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Living vs writing

I am currently reading Hanif Kureishi's The Buddha of Suburbia. What a beautifully narrated novel, what voice and flow! It's an intoxicating read, and I am going to include this novel in my most favourites ever.

Here's a passage from a piece on Kurieshi who has just penned a new novel, Something to Tell You:

We live in a society that's committed to pleasure, to what we describe as self-fulfilment. If you lived in a Muslim country you'd be committed to the ideal of the family and to your responsibility as a member of that unit. Those are two quite different ideals. There aren't many people in Muslim families who talk about the importance of their being happy, because the whole unit of the family is where your pleasure would have to be subsumed. In the west, the commitment to happiness is stressed. There's much more anxiety about whether people are happy or not, or whether they're thin enough, or fulfilled enough, or if they're having the right kind of relationships with the right kind of people. In a Muslim society, you have much less choice. And certainly there's less anxiety about whether you're doing OK.

I'm committed to my family, to my art and to myself." He reads less - has less time, gets less out of it. "Reading On the Road, or Flaubert, or Balzac - it's like a memory for me now. It probably won't happen again. You grow out of certain happinesses." But "I still have the hots for [writing]. I still want to do it, but in a way I don't care if I don't. It's not as important to me as living.

Read the last para carefully. Hanif says something that echoes my own inner thoughts: I still want to do it, but in a way I don't care if I don't. It's not as important to me as living.

I also think that living is more important, family obligations are more significant than seeking fame and fortune through arts (for me, however, it comes a close second). Many youngsters might disagree with me but I am too old now to be excited about fame and all that that follows it (especially in an age where everyone is some sort of a celebrity). It seems to me that trying to be ordinary (and humble) is the new extraordinary in our new age.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Success devastated my life: Arundhati Roy

Roy spoke to Tehelka, baring her heart and mind in one of her most personal interviews ever:

On winning the Booker

India, of course, has bec– ome such a success-oriented and prize-thirsty culture, in all the ads and in everyone’s dreams everyone’s always winning a prize, and so, it mattered here to the middle class. But I feel vaguely humiliated in having to discuss a prize in more depth than my own book.

On the commercial success of her book

But I always used to say, I wish I could’ve been paid back in meals or something because the thing that complicated my life very deeply — far more than the Booker prize — was the commercial success of the book. That made me have to deal with something I never anticipa– ted or sought, and being as political as I am, it was very difficult.

On success changing the equations in her life

No, it devastated my life in many ways which was not nice. I am somebody who doesn’t — I don’t come from the bosom of some stable family, I didn’t have any stability. All I had were relationships I have forged myself, in many of which I was the waif, the most vulnerable person. And suddenly, I was loaded with all of this and it just changes your equation.

But I like this part the most:

By most standards, I probably qualify for being anti-national. I don’t have a nationalistic bone in my body. It’s just not my instinct. Yet it’s incon ceivable for me to not be here, because it’s everything that I love. And it’s not to do with flags or constitutions or any of that. But if I go away for one week and I come back and see some ZEE TV in the immigration lounge and the mouldering ceiling, I just feel so happy. It’s just so many things —even the quality of light, the rag g e dness of things around, the environment, the food, the colour, ever ything — it’s not even external. I’m just a full desi — full-time desi in that way. I just feel, where else can you be? Where else can you interpret the darkness and all its layers? There’s all the coded jokes and the whole sense of history... It’s not like one is looking for a new life in a supermarket.

Those italics are mine. Something that I have been wondering about too.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Enter the new superhero

MOVE over, Superman. Here's Hanuman from India, the "original" and potentially the next blockbuster superhero.

Last December, when Toonz Animation India's The Return of Hanuman hit the theatres, Indian kids and their parents, at home and abroad, lapped it up. And the world took notice, too.