Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Michael Jackson: Autopsy of fame

After the brouhaha over the Iran elections, the world media has been focused on the sudden death of Michael Jackson at the age of 50. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad must be thanking Jackson for shifting the spotlight!

The whole world plunged into sadness mourning the untimely death of this pop icon, especially when he was about to make his comeback. His planned concerts in London were sold out.

The global reaction to Jackson’s death reminded me of the accidental death of Lady Diana not long ago. Her death also had spawned a similar global reaction. Strangers were crying for her. I found it bizarre because, just like Diana, for as long as I can remember, ever since Jackson became Whako Jacko, nobody (in the media) had a good word to say about Jackson. He was weird. He had lost his genius. He was tried for child molestation. An icon of black music, he was bleaching his skin. He was in financial dire streets. His marriages fell apart. He dangled a child from his hotel window in Germany (the country of defenestration!). He was a bad boy. And when he died, suddenly he was back in business, with the halo: a hero, a genius, a pop icon. His songs were topping the charts.

What is this phenomenon? Does the shock of an untimely death wash away all the dirt from a celebrity’s life? The dirt that media was too keen to heap on him? Let me see why. Because it sold copies, because it was hot?

I had seen the same thing happening in Lady Diana’s case. She was reviled by the media for her various romantic associations. When she died, suddenly the light was gone from the world.

Is this all real or a media creation?

Celeb news helps media (many sites had crashed after Jackson’s death was announced) sell more copies, get more eye balls. So create a frenzy?

Now that Jackson’s autopsy report is out, everybody knows to what frailty the man had been reduced to. Where is the dignity for this iconic figure? No dignity even in death? Now that his autopsy report has become a commodity for the ever hungry media monster, wait to read more on the autopsy of the autopsy!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pratidwandi/The Iran Situation

In Satyajit Ray's brilliant film, Pratidwandi (The Adversary), Siddartha (Dhritiman Chatterjee), a young man who idolizes Che Guevara, is desperate to find a job. Jobs are scarce in the 1960s and 70s India but this is also the age of rising feminism in the country. His glamorous younger sister has got a job (and is involved with her boss) but all his attempts at finding a job come to a naught. His mother asks him to find a job soon so that his sister could leave her scandalous job.

Siddartha's anger at the system accumulates as he is heaped with humiliation after humiliation in the process of finding a job. One day, after an unsavoury meeting with his sister's boss, he walks down a road in the city. He sees a scene of accident. A rich man's car, a Mercedes, has run over a poor girl. A mob pulls the driver out of the car and gives him a good thrashing. Siddartha looks at the car and the Mercedes car's logo leaps out at him as a symbol of wealth and injustice. He joins the mob to vent out his frustration against a system that has been built to serve the rich and the powerful.

When I read about the post-election Iran protests and saw images of young people shouting and burning stuff in the streets of Teheran, I remembered the Siddartha of Pratidwandi. Are the youth in Iran any different from him? The time and circumstances might be different, but isn't it the expression of the same internal rage against a system that has failed them, that has smothered their dreams?

Consider these words from an editorial:

... But after thirty years of the revolution, younger, educated and religiously-moderate generations can't be deluded anymore. These generations are seeking explanations for why they are culturally, religiously and politically suppressed. They want to know where their great Islamic republic is. Why unemployment and inflation rates are high and where did all the oil revenues go. That's why the current dissent is coming from inside Iran rather than anywhere else.

(Italics mine)


I didn't see it until now but Swapan Dasgupta adds a twist to the tale (by introducing a class angle to the situation):

It is possible the angry young men and well-dressed women in Victoria Beckham sunglasses in Tehran - the only place where Mousavi outpolled Ahmadinejad - have different ideas. While Ahmadinejad supporters tend to be poor and socially conservative - more black chadors are seen at his rallies - Mousavi becomes a rallying point for all those who feel weighed down by the social illiberalism of the Ayatollahs. There is an emerging Facebook and Twitter generation in Iran which rues the curtailment of personal freedoms and yearns for the relatively more exciting lives enjoyed by their non-resident cousins. The fierce allergy of the theologians to the intermingling of the sexes is a particular irritation and there is exasperation that fun has been driven underground.


Monday, June 22, 2009

The Iran protests

From my MIS Asia blog:

If the Iraq war was about blogging (remember the Baghdad blogger?), the ongoing post-election protests in Iran are about Twitter.

If this is the moment of democracy, then this is also the moment of Twitter.

In the Teheran demonstrations against the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Twitter has emerged as the tool to voice civil unrest. Iranian youth have been relaying their anguish through this popular micro-blogging site.

Twitter has become the opposition’s (led by Mir Hussein Moussavi, the moderate reform candidate who contends that the 12 June election was stolen from him) major tool for organising and sharing information with Iranians and the outside world.

“Some ask if the impact of technology (on the Iranian situation) is exaggerated,” writes Peggy Noonan in The Wall Street Journal (22 June 2009). “No. Twittering and Youtubing made the story take hold and take off. But did the technology create the rebellion? No, it encouraged what was there…”

So, there you are.


Unverified video

NYT today notes: A video posted on several Web sites that showed a young woman, called Neda, her face covered in blood. Text posted with the video said she had been shot. It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video.

Reminds me of many earlier unverified but viral videos. Remember the video featuring flogging of a woman in Swat Valley in Pakistan? The woman in question later denied it. Or before the Iraq attack, remember the fake video of a diplomat's daughter in Kuwait who alleged about the atrocities committed by Iraqi soldiers? Why should we accept everything blindly?

BBC Caught In Mass Public Deception With Iran Propaganda

(Also here)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Tribute to the Bard of Bhopal

Shama Zaidi pays her tribute to late Habib Tanvir:

Like many of his generation of students of AMU, Habib was influenced by leftist politics and this marked his political stance from then onwards, though he threw away his party card very soon after he acquired it. Just before Habib arrived in Bombay, the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) had just been founded. He immediately began to take part in its activities. They rehearsed in a hall near Opera House and Habib acted in plays directed by Balraj Sahni and Dina Pathak. I remember him telling us how they used to stage street plays by pretending to be a pickpocket and a policeman quarrelling. The crowd which collected had no idea that this was just a play and by the time they found out and the real police arrived, the actors melted away. When the Communist Party of India was banned many IPTA members were jailed or went underground. From 1948-50, Habib was left with the responsibility of running the organization. After which the doctrinaire Ranadive line made it impossible to do anything worthwhile in theatre and the group became almost defunct.


SUDHANVA DESHPANDE's tribute to the the Bard of Bhopal:

In September-October 2003, on the eve of the State Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, Habib sa’ab toured these two states extensively with his plays. The Chhattisgarh shows, a majority of them in villages, went off without a hitch. But when the troupe started performing in Madhya Pradesh, they came under attack from the Hindu Right. The play that evoked their ire was that little jewel of the Nacha tradition, a play neither written nor directed by Habib sa’ab, but simply inherited by him via his actors, Ponga Pandit, a rip roaring farce against untouchability.

It was all meticulously planned. In town after town, gangs of saffron activists would land up at the performance venue, and make enough noise to make the district administration jittery about law and order. But Habib sa’ab was considerably more crafty than his imbecile attackers. At Bhopal, they performed his classic Charandas Chor. After the performance, the organisers asked him to introduce his actors. He said, “We are kalakars (artistes); our introduction is our art. Would you like to listen to some songs?” “Yes,” chorused the audience. The actors started singing, and, without anyone realising, seamlessly segued into a performance of Ponga Pandit. By the time the Hindutva zealots realised what was happening, the play was over.


Friday, June 12, 2009

The tale of a story-teller

Imagine for a moment.

You are a hotshot editor of India’s biggest news magazine. You write fabulous journalistic stories. Captains of industry know you. You blueprint and organize global conferences, inviting the world’s most powerful and the most glamorous.

At work, your colleagues, accomplished journalists in their own right, envy you. You have a corner office. A chauffer drives you to your office everyday and a retinue of assistants, secretaries and peons is always at your disposal.

Then you become the consulting editor to one of India’s topmost dailies. You keep hobnobbing with the rich and the powerful. You keep organizing big brand conferences and conclaves.

Can you chuck all that to live a life of literary “sanyasi”, in far off Goa?

But journalist and writer Sudeep Chakravarti did.

This is how it happened (based on what he told us at the Indian Writers’ Festival in Singapore on June 6)

Tin Drum, Tin Fish

One day Sudeep had a tiff in the office. In anger, he wrote a piece. A piece of heartfelt fiction--5,000 words, dripping with humour and insight but wrapped in darkness. Then he sent it across to the most powerful publisher in the country—David Davidar of Penguin India.

“Do you like it? If you do, I will go on. Else, I will forget about it.”

David said he liked it. Sudeep got drunk that night.

Then a writing frenzy overtook him. For six weeks, he wrote and wrote, whenever and wherever he could—in the car, at the airport, in the toilet, during lunch break, morning, day, night. For six weeks. A novel was born. It was called Tin Fish. He was hailed as India’s J D Salinger! That was in 2005.

Delhi-Goa-New World

How could Sudeep do it? What is so special about him?

“We are all story-tellers,” he emphasizes. “I am very fond of saying this. We are all story-tellers. Don’t hold writers in too much esteem. We (writers) are not much different from you (readers). Only some of us get lucky to get published.”

But to get there, Sudeep left everything behind, all big brands—Mayo, St. Stephens, Asian Wall Street Journal, India Today, The Hindustan Times. To be a writer. To see his name on the spine of a pink paperback. To fill his soul with joy. And it took him 42 years to get there. 42 years of life.

How does he feel post-transplantation, in his new home in Goa? He wrote in a piece in The Outlook magazine:

Work is good these days. I’ve had friends tell me I’m nuts to walk from a job and profile in Delhi and traipse to Goa and lessness. Then I’ve had them say they would kill to do it. Funny, I’ve felt similar ambivalence.

After 25 years in the NCR, 14 months ago I put my family on a plane and drove from our condominium in Gurgaon to a hillside place in Panjim overlooking the Mandovi River. We had checked out for the foreseeable future: A decade, I figured. Visits? Once a year, kicking and screaming.

If I can do it at the age of 42, so can you, he sort of hinted to all participants. There were many—probably more than fifty. Most of them were young—in their 20s and 30s. Some parents had brought their precocious boys and girls (school kids) to get them coached to be the next Arundhati Roys and Aravind Adigas.

For some time, he dwelled on the question why do we write. He narrated an incident about O V Vijyan. Vijyan said that we write because writing refines us. That’s a great line, I agree.

Sudeep is fond of reading the opening sentences of novels. I also read the first paragraph of a novel to decide whether it interests me. Great technique! He read the opening lines from authors such Ray Bradbury, Amitav Ghosh, J G Ballard, Hemigway, and Jung Chang, among others. Personally, I did not like them all. I love how Naipaul opens his books. Sudeep was very critical of Amitav’s opening lines in the novel, A Glass Palace.

Mr. Naipaul’s Cat

Many participants had anguished stories to share during the workshop. One journalist complained that she could not write—‘I keep worrying about my sentences’, she said. Another complained that she got stuck while writing her stories, didn’t know how to move on, where to end, etc. Sudeep handled them with his trade mark humour.

During the workshop, Sudeep avoided talking about the basics of literature. This workshop is not Literature 101, he warned us all. We will try to deconstruct the process of writing, he promised us.

And he kept the promise. By the end of the workshop, many had their own version of a story titled Mr. Naipaul’s Cat. At the end of the workshop, Sudeep proposed to bring out a souvenir of contributions by workshop participants. It might sound insensitive, but by the way people imagined Mr Naipaul’s Cat, it would seem the souvenir would not be a sexy read. Sorry to say that but that's just my personal opinion.

Name dropping, agents and advice

Sudeep has a great talent for name dropping but he does it with a self-deprecating humour. What can you say to that?

He also said that his agent, from a boutique UK agency, has been affected by the recession. So, this talented writer is looking for an agent now. Any agents reading this?

Here’s Sudeep’s advice for wannabe writers, in distilled brevity:

• We are all story-tellers
• A story won’t happen unless you are full of the story
• Be absolutely brutal about your work
• Respect good editing counsel
• Know the mechanics of publishing
• Write, write and write

‘The East India Writing Company’

Here’s more on Sudeep’s past and upcoming work:

Penguin published his best-selling first novel, Tin Fish, in 2005, which was described by some critics as India’s Catcher in the Rye. In late 2008 Penguin published his second novel, Once Upon a Time in Aparanta, a darkly satirical work that questions assumptions of a self-professed paradise. The work is set in Goa.

In January 2008 Penguin/Viking published his Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country, a best-selling, critically fêted work of narrative non-fiction about India’s proliferating but little-understood Maoist rebellion. It was published in the US by Viking in December 2008, and was selected by amazon.com as a Top-10 pick in Politics & History. The updated paperback edition was issued in April 2009.

His works have been published in anthologies (The Fiction Collection, Penguin, 2007; Recess, Penguin 2008) and literary magazines such as Wespennest.

Sudeep is at present researching two works of non-fiction. One continues to explore the world of leftwing extremism in India. The other, Highway 39, is set in Northeastern India, a volatile region. As with Red Sun, both works will explore issues of alienation and resentment in the churn of an aspiring India, a range that extends from conflict arising out of issues of identity, to social and economic displacement.

Alongside, Sudeep is engaged in completing a novel, The Avenue of Kings, the second in the Tin Fish trilogy; a collection of short stories; and a travelogue.

A former career journalist, Sudeep has worked at major global and Indian publication houses, including The Asian Wall Street Journal; the India Today Group, where he was Executive Editor, and Director of the India Today Conclave; and Hindustan Times, as Consultant Editor. He was most recently Editor-at-large for Rolling Stone, and helped to launch the magazine’s India edition. He continues to write for major print and online publications, and think-tanks.

He has edited numerous special volumes (among them, a 3-volume India Today Millennium Series); a book, The Other India (Books Today, 2000); and co-edited The Peace Dividend: Progress for India and South Asia (Lotus Roli, 2004).

Sudeep is a professional member of the World Future Society, Washington D.C., and alumnus of the BMW-Herbert Quandt Foundation’s Indo-German Leaders’ Forum. He is a trustee of ‘Save Our Seas—Goa’, a not-for-profit he helped co-found with fellow scuba diving enthusiasts. Sudeep also plans to support literary work and literary engagement in India and South Asia through a recently-formed initiative, ‘The East India Writing Company’.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Want to be a Bollywood script writer?

Everyone wants to write that ‘hit’ Hindi film. But do you have it in you? And what is required of you to make it in Bollywood as a scriptwriter?

To find out, I attended a workshop on scriptwriting for Bollywood on Saturday (6 June)—organized as part of the Indian Writers’ Festival. The workshop was conducted by Venita Coehlo and Loveleen Tandon (co-director of the Oscar winning film, Slumdog Millionaire). I have already written about Loveleen Tandon in one of my previous posts, so I will focus on Venita here.

Venita has been writing scripts for film and television for many years. She has worked with Cinevistaas and Sony Entertainment Television (VP, New Product development) in the past. Now she lives in Goa and writes scripts full time. She also paints and writes columns for newspapers.

I went to the workshop with a few questions in mind—and came out with more than I had expected. Are small films working for Bollywood? Do producers ask you to write scripts based on Hollywood DVDs? What remains of your script in the transition from the page to the screen, from what you wrote to what you saw on the big silver screen? And do you get paid on time? And how much?

My friend has written a script and wants to sell it for Rupees one crore. Is he daydreaming? Or it is very much possible in a “new” rich Bollywood?

As I said, I returned from the workshop with much more information and insight. I even learnt why there are item numbers in Hindi films. Of course, we discussed script structures, plot points, Syd Field’s narrative techniques, the concept of a hero’s journey and so on, but far more interesting were Venita’s personal experiences.

Venita’s story itself is so Bollywood-like.

The Influence of Sholay

“I grew up in Calcutta,” she said. “My house was above a cinema hall—Jyoti cinema. “Sholay” ran for five years in that theatre. Songs and dialogues of Sholay would vibrate through the walls and floors of the building and reach up to our house. I grew up with that movie.”

When the film stars of Sholay came to the theatre to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the film, Venita saw the whole street jampacked with people. “That’s when I realized the power of the medium of cinema,” she said. “I wanted to be a part of it.”

In Bollywood

Venita’s journey in Bollywood so far has not been smooth. Out of 17 scripts that she has written, only two got produced and saw theatrical release, including Sanjay Gupta’s Musafir. When she saw the other one in a theatre (she does not want to name the film) she was horrified to see that only one scene written by her was retained in the film. But the film’s credits had her name as the screenplay writer! “I wanted to go and hide somewhere,” she confessed.

According to Venita, Bollywood still follows the 1970s rates and laws for scriptwriters. Once you sell your script for a promised amount (you get payment in parts and full payment is hardly ever made), you part with all rights to your script. Even if the film is shelved, your script does not belong to you anymore. Payments range from Rupees 3 lacs (near S$12K) to Rs10 lacs, and you will be lucky to see any money after getting the signing amount.

“To work in Bollywood, you must supplement your income by other means,” she said, “unless you become a writer who has written hit movies.” She means Jaideep Sahni.

Writing for television is more strenuous but money is good in TV, she said. One month of income from TV can equal 2 years worth of toiling in Bollywood (as a writer).

Copying is rampant in Bollywood and ideas are stolen shamelessly. One has to learn to live with it. If you fight the powerful filmmakers, she said, you can kiss your future goodbye.

Things are changing

But despair not, she adds. Things are changing in Bollywood. A new breed of writers has taken charge of the writers’ association. New rates for scripts are being fixed and optioning of scripts (like Hollywood) will be legalized.

She acknowledged that the quality of scripts in Bombay is poor. There are no training institutes for scriptwriters. She did not seem to be impressed with Subhash Ghai’s Whistling Woods school. She mentioned how even workshops like this one (the one I attended) were not common in Bombay.

Anurag Kashyap and Anjum Rajabali held a workshop in Bombay sometime back but the results were far from desirable. Kamal Hasan also held a workshop in the South recently. We need more training opportunities to groom new writing talent, she said.

Here are some guidelines if you want to break into Bollywood as a scriptwriter:

1. Go with a bound script. Every filmmaker/actor these days wants a bound script—though no one reads it.
2. Be a raconteur: You have to narrate your script in front of stars and so you better be a raconteur
3. Get a star: The best way to get your script produced is to find a star and get him interested in the project
4. If a star likes your script and is ready to back you by starring in it, everything will fall into place—and you might even get to direct the film, no matter what you background is (It's ok even if you were selling chickpeas on a cart!)

Got it? Still want to try your luck in Bollywood as a scriptwriter?

PS: After reading this post, novelist Samit Basu commented that it always does not work like this. He shared his views via Twitter: "It really doesn't work like that. It's actually easier to sell a script to a producer than even meet a star. I know Venita and really admire her. But this advice only works for people who are already IN the Bombay entertainment industry."

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Guerrillas vs Novelists

A thought:

"When everybody wants to fight
there's nothing to fight for.
Everybody wants to fight his own little war,
everybody is a guerrilla."

--James Ahmed

(From V S Naipaul's Guerrillas)

"When everybody wants to write
there's nothing to write for.
Everybody wants to write his own little novel,
everybody is a novelist."

Laugh. Don't take it seriously.

Monday, June 08, 2009

A few moments with Loveleen Tandon

Post-inauguration at the Indian Writers’ Festival on Friday evening, everybody wanted to have a few moments with Loveleen Tandon (the ‘lovely’ Lovleen Tandon, as the evening’s host put it).

People went — "The co-director of Slumdog Millionaire (SM) is 'so hot'"!

“She looks more beautiful than her picture!”

“She looks better than Freida Pinto!”

“Why didn’t you act as the heroine of Slumdog Millionaire?” someone said protesting.

“Why don’t you take yourself as the heroine in your next film, the one you are directing?” someone ventured with a suggestion.

“So that it bombs even before it is made,” said Loveleen jokingly.

When she smiles, she radiates a genuine warmth.

Lovleen was courteous throughout, making small talk with people, answering their questions on Slumdog, posing for their pictures. She was a picture of humility and confidence.

In a brief chit chat, she explained why Anil Kapoor was cast as the host of the KBC show in the film. She said that director Danny Boyle wanted someone for the part who had actually hosted the show. Shah Rukh Khan would not do it because he would look for the main part—not suitable at all. Amitabh is over 60—they wanted someone who could feel threatened by Dev’s character, and anyone above 60 would not feel that way. So Anil Kapoor.

Though Dev Patel was not cast by her, she also explained Dev’s ‘jarring’ accent in an otherwise believable ‘masala’ film. She was all praise for the Brit boy—sees in him great talent. He tape-recorded accents of various crew members (including Loveleen's) and each one turned out to be different. So there was no single Indian accent! “I advised Dev to be natural, without being fake,” she said. And that worked for the film. Only the Indian audiences could tell about the accent, otherwise it went down without much problem with the foreign viewers.

The money came from UK, so the film was primarily for UK (by extension, Western) audiences. I remembered reading an editorial in the UK film magazine, Sight & Sound, which described how the success of SM could save the Channel 4 (its funding was about to be cut down--revenue squeeze due to the downturn).

Casting for Slumdog Millionaire

Loveleen was casting for Mira Nair’s Shantaram (headlined by Johnny Depp) and the project was stalled due to some reason. Earlier, she had done casting for Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding and The Namesake. Then she got the job of casting for SM.

She went to numerous schools in various parts of the country looking for kids to play the roles of slum children. The middle class school kids could not act the parts of slum kids without looking and acting fake, she said—because they had never seen that kind of life. Finally, Loveleen suggested Danny that they should cast actual slum kids. She got hold of some and made a scratch tape for Danny. Danny and the producers liked the stuff and gave her the go ahead.

Language became another issue—the slum kids followed Hindi and Loveleen had established a great rapport with the kids. When Danny tried to direct them, said Loveleen, it didn’t work. So, Loveleen was asked to step in as a co-director. “It was a big stroke of luck,” she said.

Loveleen also revealed that in the original script, Jamal's (Dev's) interrogation was to be done by a police commissioner. She said that in India a police commissioner would not have the time to interrogate a quiz show freak. Danny and others finally saw her point and that's how Irfan Khan came in as the interrogating police officer (inspector).

These days she is working on the script of a film. She will direct the film when it is ready to be shot.

Noted playwright Habib Tanvir dead

Just a few days ago writer Kamala Suraiyya aka Kamala Das passed away. Today I read that theatre personality Habib Tanvir is dead. I have not seen his plays but I have seen him act in some films. I was always fascinated by his slim, pipe-smoking persona. Somehow, I placed him in a group of artists such as Kaifi Azmi and A K Hangal.

Veteran theatre personality Habib Tanvir died in Bhopal early on Monday after prolonged illness, family sources said. He was 85.

Tanvir died at about 0630 hrs IST at the National Hospital, where he had been admitted about 20 days ago after developing respiratory problems.

Hospital sources said Tanvir later suffered kidney failure and his condition worsened.

The playwright's funeral will be held in Bhopal on Tuesday, family sources said.

Tanvir was a popular Hindi playwright, theatre director, poet and actor. He had written plays like Agra Bazar (1954) and Charandas Chor (1975). In 1959, he founded a theatre company called the Naya Theatre here.


Mishra on Mishra

I had read this Pankaj Mishra interview sometime back. But I chanced upon it again today. Loved some of his observations, which seem more relevant than ever--especially after attending a workshop on novel writing.

The Life of a Writer

Initially, I saw the life of the writer as a life of reading, which for me was really an extension of the life of idleness that I’d been living as an undergraduate at university. Reading gave me so much pleasure that I felt that maybe I could continue that life indefinitely.

Writing on Terrorism

People who write about issues like poverty or terrorism are a part of the elite, and the distance between the elite and nonelite is growing very fast. You can move around the world but meet only people who speak your language, who share the same ideas, the same beliefs, and in doing so you can lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of the world does not think or believe in or speak the everyday discourse of the elite. Yet their lives are being shaped by these elites, by people like us. I don’t mean this in a pompous way, but we have a responsibility to articulate their sense of suffering.

Writing as vanity

But so much of writing is fed by vanity and the feeling that what you are doing is the most important thing in the world and it has not been done before and only you can do it. Without these feelings, many writers would not be able to write anything at all. If you think that what you’re doing is not all that important in the larger scheme of things and that you’re just an insignificant creature in the whole wide world, which is full of six billion people, and that people are born and die every day and it makes no difference to future generations what you write, and that writing and reading are increasingly irrelevant activities, you’d probably never get out of bed. You need to work yourself up into some kind of a state every morning and believe that you are doing something terribly important upon which the future of literature, if not the world, depends. Buddhism tells you that this is just a foolish fantasy. So, I try not to think too much about Buddhism early in the morning. From noon on, I think about it.

On literary communities

But I’ve never really felt that being part of a literary community is all that important. It can be extremely detrimental to a writer. It can damage successful writers by giving them an exalted sense of what they’ve done, and it can crush less successful writers by infecting them with envy and malice at an early stage in their careers.

Feeling inadequate

I wrote for many years without showing my writing to anyone, because I was constantly comparing it to what I was reading. You have to compare yourself to the best and feel totally inadequate.

On reading outside your experience

Some of my students seem to want to be able to write without actually reading, which seems utterly bizarre. When I assign certain readings, they often say, “I can’t relate to this,” which means whatever story we’re reading is so far outside of their experience—which tends to be limited—that they will not make the effort to understand what it is about. I find this a crippling attitude to have toward literature, toward history, toward all sorts of things.

The pampered writer

...The American writer right now is a very pampered figure—by foundations, by fellowships, by publishing advances. Even though I am not American, I have been pampered enough myself to know how it can make your life too frictionless.

On the culture of prizes

It’s a kind of madness. And the culture of prize-giving is so corrupt. To think of what someone like Flaubert would have made of it, what kind of utter disgust and scorn it would have aroused in figures like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. What would they say if they were told they all had to compete for these little trinkets that were given out? Yet the longing for a very garish kind of success seems as widespread among writers as among investment bankers.

Read the complete interview here.

Friday, June 05, 2009

First Indian Writers' Festival 2009 in Singapore‏ inaugurated

The first Indian Writers' Festival 2009 in Singapore‏ kicked off today at the Pod, National Library, Singapore. More than 50 people, invited by the organisers India Se magazine and India Club, attended the inaugural ceremony.

Dr. Balaji Sadasivan, Singapore's Senior Minister of State, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, declared the festival open. His opening remarks, so witty and smooth, made the audience laugh. At the rate at which India was giving birth to writers in English, English has become an Indian language, he said. Soon, a billion people in India will speak English--outnumbering the few million British in the UK, he said.

Dr. Balaji's favourite writer is Vikram Seth. In the characters of the novel A Suitable Boy, he said he could recognize many of his relatives. His favourite novel is V S Naipaul's The Suffrage of Elvira. He remembered an episode from the novel and admitted how he had learnt a few political lessons from that novel.

He made an interesting observation: women writers being more adept at expressing human emotions explains why there are more successful women writers (esp in the crime genre--Agatha Christie, P D James, Ruth Rendell). Male and female brains are wired differently, Dr. Sadasivan explained. There lies the difference! He gave the example of a journey. While the male brain thinks of a journey in the form of a grid, a woman's brain thinks of a journey in terms of points--from point A to B, and so on.

After the inaugural speech, all the participating writers were introduced. They were Shobha De, Loveleen Tandon (Slumdog Millionaire), Venita Coehlo (she has written for Karan Johar), Sudeep Charkravarti, Anita Jain (Marrying Anita: A Quest for Love in the New India') and Poonam Surie (author of China: A search for its soul).

Shobha De said that she was an obsessive compulsive writer--everyday she needs to write at least 2000 words or else she starts feeling withdrawal symptoms. I don't write drafts, she said. But I wonder, she admitted, if my quality of writing would be different if I wrote drafts.

Later, replying to her, novelist Sudeep Charkravarti said that he wrote in (multiple) drafts because he wanted to continue experiencing the material and the pleasure of the writing process. Sudeep also said something which I really liked--it also shows his humility. He said that there is no difference between you and me, between a reader and a writer. We all have stories to tell--as friends, as children, as parents, and so on. It's only that some are fortunate enough to get published. That is the only difference.

Shobha De and Poonam Surie held an interesting discussion on India and China. Poonam said that people in China are happy about their material progress and want to forget their past (including the Tienanmen Square tragedy). They see Indians through the prism of Bollywood (a nation of singers and dancers) and Information Technology (the country's prowess in IT). Answering to a question, she said that the Chinese consider themselves more practical and Indians as more spiritual. She said that Indians and Chinese have many commonalities and we need to know more about each other.

Anita Jain read from her book, Marrying Anita, which left the audiences in stitches. She is a sharp, intelligent and charming writer. I wrote my book as a memoir, a non-fiction, because I did not want to hide behind a novel (as most Indians do), she said. America has a strong tradition of memoir writing and I am following that, she said (India has vacuum in that space, as everyone tries to write novels only). Currently, she has taken a break from writing--until the cup runneth over again, she said. She is a writer to watch out for! Shobha De profusely praised her work (the passages she read from) and I agree.

More on Loveleen Tandon, Sudeep Chakravarti and others tomorrow

More details here: http://www.indiaseonline.com

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Tash Aw on the 'Map of the Invisible World'

Tash Aw was in Singapore to launch his second novel, Map of the Invisible World. The launch took place at the National Library Singapore on 1 June. Deepika Shetty of The Straits Times moderated a discussion with the Malaysian novelist. Here are audio excerpts from that discussion (sorry the audio quality is not that great as the recording happened in a big hall):

Monday, June 01, 2009

Film review: The International

News from Writer's Side

Kanishka Gupta of the Writer's Side, India's first manuscript assessment and book editing service, sends some good news from India:

In less than an year, Writer's Side has done wonders for some of its clients. Ravinder Pal Singh's autobiographical love story has already become a national bestseller. Husein Taherbhai's collection of short stories has been taken up by an independent US publisher. Bhavna Chauhan's debut novel has been accepted for publication by Penguin Books India while Sukant Ratnakar's book on innovation has just been accepted for publication by Hay House India.

Congrats to all the new writers!