Sunday, December 05, 2010

When conversations get leaked

What lessons can we draw from Radiagate in India and WikiLeaks’ Cablegate?

While I was away in rural India, disconnected from the Internet and television, two major stories broke that I believe would have far-reaching ramifications on an ancient art—the art of conversation.

As technology is driving changes in all aspects of our lives, it will affect the art of conversation too. The way people talk, especially those with power, pelf and influence, will have to change in the age of a protean and ever-agile media. You never know who is eyeing you with a camcorder. In the age of cheap electronic surveillance systems, every bloke is a potential Sherlock.

In India, the Niira Radia tapes (called Radiagate by Indian newsmagazine Outlook) involving India’s major corporate leaders, journalists, politicians (including the controversial D. Raja of the alleged 2G scam) and a lobbyist, Niira Radia, took the Indian media by storm last week. These are recordings of 104 phone calls by Niira Radia, founder of Vaishnavi Communications, to various Indian power brokers.

Among others, the conversations between Radia and key media people in India, recorded at the behest of the Income Tax Department, exposed the rot in the corridors of power which are equally pounded by babus, netas, journalists, and wheelers and dealers of all hues to subvert democratic institutions and processes in a shameless manner.

In this case, the allegations against some senior journalists are that they are too close to lobbyists and that they acted as go-betweens for fixing political deals. At least one of the journalists involved in the affair, Burkha Dutt of NDTV, has protested against the insinuations of her corruptibility. Gullibility and error of judgment, yes, she says in her defence, but nothing more should be read in her conversations with Radia.

Writing in the Outlook, senior Indian journalist S. Nihal Singh commented: “Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the tapes’ content is not merely the chumminess of senior journalists with members of the corporate world but their willingness to be of service to individual politicians by lobbying for them with persons able to swing jobs” (Past Isn’t Perfect. But.).

When senior journalists were caught on tape throwing into thin air their professional distance with a lobbyist (who works for Ratan Tata and Mukesh Ambani), India’s mainstream media hesitated to cover the story. Some suspected a closing of ranks against a common enemy: the wide-eyed public, sections of which refuse to be dumbed-down despite the media’s constant efforts. ‘A crow doesn’t eat another crow’s meat,’ commented a politician on the media’s collusion to suppress the story.

It was due to people’s pressure through the social media (Twitter and Facebook) that forced the mainstream media to highlight the Niira tapes in their coverage. Soon, a miffed Ratan Tata moved the Supreme Court to restrain the media companies from publishing the tapes’ content as it violated his privacy. Tata, chairman of the Tata Group, warned in his petition that India is on the path to becoming a “banana republic”.

But was it the right move by a much respected corporate leader? A commentator said that by moving the Supreme Court to have these tapes removed would make many people feel that the Tatas have something to hide. He has got a point there, hasn’t he?

As the Radiagate discussion rages on in India’s television studios and people’s drawing rooms, the debate is focused on media ethics and the rising power of the social media. Mainstream media have realised that even though they would want to downplay a story to protect their ilk, social media will not sit tight and will ultimately force their hand.

WikiLeaks’ Cablegate

The other story, the latest release of hundreds of thousands of secret diplomatic cables by Wikileaks (dubbed as Cablegate), caused waves around the world’s diplomatic circles. Washington’s diplomats were aghast as their leaders’ unpalatable remarks and agendas were brought into the public domain. There was outrage in Iran and Pakistan and some tattling in Singapore over Minister Mentor Lee Kwan Yew’s remarks over the “psychopathic” North Koreans.

This is outrageous, screamed the mighty of the world. Is nothing sacrosanct anymore? they asked.

In an editorial, The New York Times said the world works on certain principles and following those principles makes our world safe and well-ordered (and less chaotic). In its view, the WikiLeaks’ co-founder Julian Assange (picture), now wanted by the Interpol, is an anarchist with little respect for those who run the world. In other words, Assange’s revelations challenge the world order and scuttle the power of those who guard it. Naturally, they would want this whistleblower’s back.

Yet nothing dramatic will come out of either Radiagate or Cablegate (Maybe Radia will lose her business and Assange will be arrested or assassinated). But, by and large, this too shall be forgotten. The moral standards of the world’s movers and shakers have sunk so low (what did you expect? you might well ask) that they can lie with impunity and defend themselves with a polished and aggressive cool once their faces are painted with studio make-up.

In the long run, perhaps, the Niira tapes in India and Assange’s leaks will teach one lesson to those who deal with power. Be cautious. Mind what you talk, how you talk and who you talk with. The lesson applies to corporate leaders too.

While I was reading stories about Radiagate and Cablegate in the media, I remembered what Google’s CEO Eric Schmidt once said controversially: Don’t do anything that you shouldn’t be doing. Though he was talking in the context of youngsters and their frank no-holds-barred approach to social media, his avuncular advice might be handy for grown ups too. The tape and the camera can be used to frame and beat the powerless but in the hands of the zealous, it can turn its lens back on the powerful. That, for me, is the main lesson of Radiagate and Cablegate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The discreet charms of Berlin

As the KLM Airlines’ Boeing 737 descended through a bank of white cumulus approaching the Tegel airport in Berlin, the outskirts of a sprawling city began to reveal its green expanse. Windmills, gardens, beautifully manicured parcels of land, houses with colorful rooftops, welcomed my sight. It was a bright sunny day and I was ready to be captivated by the charms of Berlin.

After the plane landed at Tegel, it was a smooth check out. Tegel, compared to the airports in Singapore or Hong Kong, seemed like an airport from the past. The building is not very imposing and with its square-shaped glass windows with curved edges, it looks like a double-decker train necklacing an airfield. Berlin has two more airports but one of them has now been converted into a park. The other one is being modernized by the government.

I had already cleared immigration at Amsterdam, my first stop in a Schengen country in the European Union. In twenty minutes, I collected my checked-in luggage and I was out of the airport. I was in Berlin to attend a conference, so the conference organizers had sent me a limousine for pick up. The driver of the spacious VW limo was an English speaking Croat. We chatted throughout the half hour drive to my hotel in the Eastern part of Berlin.

I mentioned to the driver how green Berlin was. He perked up and said Berlin is one of the greenest cities in Europe, and is dotted with many parks (later, I was to learn that every tree in Berlin is counted and numbered). He mentioned the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park, a great place to relax. It was established as the Prussian Royal Family’s private hunting ground.

I soon learnt that Berlin abounds in tree and Turks. It is the world’s fifth largest Turkish city—my guide jokingly told me.

The views on either side of the autobahn reminded me of Delhi—I was looking at an old city that had been bombed out during the Second World War, and did not have many skyscrapers (except in some sexier parts of the city), and was not as squeaky clean as modern cities such as Singapore. But in its own way, Berlin seemed to have used steel and bricks and mortar to patch itself up, without thinking much about the postmodern city aesthetics. Berlin’s every corner smelled of its rich history.

Berlin was in mid-autumn and pavements were littered with yellow leaves. Temperatures were around 12 degrees C. One hardly felt cold inside the buildings but once you stepped outside, you could feel the chill in the air.

Travelling in the city was easy—the city boasts of a great bus and train network, apart from taxis and bicycles that are so common on the streets. I could buy my S Bahn tickets from the hotel’s concierge. At the station, I didn’t find any gantries. All I had to do was to stamp my ticket at a machine and board the train. It’s that simple.

I had half a day to visit the historical sites of the city, so I decided to book an Insider Tours’ Famous Walk—a four hour walk through the main sites of Berlin. Just for 12 Euros (a decent meal at MacDonald’s costs you about 5 to 6 Euros). One has many different kinds of tours to choose from: Bike tours, Cruise and Walk Tours and I even saw an ad for motorized Segway tours.

My tour Guide David spoke excellent English. A thin and tall young man, David is a Swede. “I came to Germany six years ago and fell in love with this city,” he told us, a bunch of American and Australian tourists.

We started our tour from Hackescher Markt, just next to Alexanderplatz. The tour started with the Altes Museum and Berliner Dome and then we marched on to the Unter den Linden and Postdamer Platz—the most widely known boulevards in Germany. The city’s great historical sites are spread around this central artery of Berlin, this avenue “under the Linden trees”: The Royal Cathedral, Lustgarden, Museum Island, the Berlin War, Checkpoint Charlie, Hitler’s Bunker, the ruins of the SS and Gestapo Headquarters, Location of East Germany’s people’s uprising (June 17th, 1953), Babelplatz, Reichstag, Branderburg Gate and Pariser Platz.

The Branderburg Tor looks magnificent, a proud monument that had seen so many victors pass through it. Personally, I was fascinated by Babelplatz and the Memorial for the Murdered Jews. Babelplatz, right opposite the Humbildt University, was where the Nazis had burnt the books (On May 10, 1934, the Nazis burnt books by authors considered perverted or dangerous to the party). Now a stunning memorial lies underground beneath the spot where the book-burning (Bucherverbrennung) took place—a see-through square-shaped sealed white room with empty book shelves.

The other impressive spot is the Denkmal fur die ermordeten Juden Europas (Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe). At a stone’s throw from the Reichstag and Brandenburg Tor, this controversial memorial was designed by New York architect Peter Eisenmen. It is a field of 2,711 concrete pillars, all of different heights, slightly leaning off centre—all built on an undulating field of concrete slabs. Walking through this claustrophobia-evoking petrified field, I felt lost in a labyrinth—like a rat in a maze, sad and hopeless. But I could also see children playing over the slabs and young lovers patting each other in this gray stone field.

You come to a city with your own expectations; like unexplained dreams, you carry some of its images plucked off media you have been exposed to. When I was strolling around the streets of Berlin, I was looking for visuals from Jason Bourne movies or The Reader (a 2008 Berlin-based film adapted from the 1995 German novel of the same name by Bernhard Schlink). I found bits and parts of it here and there—the S-Bahn rides, walls with graffiti and 20th century housing blocks with interlocking internal courtyards. But to do justice to Berlin’s history, it is a city that, for its full revelation, demands time (there are over 160 museums in Berlin, including one dedicated to erotica). Unfortunately, I didn’t have that much time. So, I returned from Berlin promising myself a detailed tour in future with my family.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Indian media in the crosshairs of Bollywood

Though corruption in media is as old as media itself, several new Bollywood films are hauling the media over coals for their fast disappearing lack of ethics and dipping journalistic standards
--Zafar Anjum

Three recent Bollywood films, Rann, Knock Out and Peepli Live, have had Indian media in the crosshairs of their narratives. The picture that emerges out of this depiction is unflattering and underlines the erosion of ethics in the Indian media.

In the Ramgopal Varma-directed Rann, a principled media tycoon played by Amitabh Bachchan, represents the old values – the owner-editor who puts ethics above everything else. His young son represents the new values of the market where sensationalism and partisanship at any cost chases advertising rupees. The film's conflict is the father's fight with his own son to expose the truth.

Knock Out, directed by Mani Shankar, is a thriller about the black money stashed away by Indian politicians in secret Swiss bank accounts. The protagonist of the film, played by Sanjay Dutt, wants to bring back the billions of rupees to India. In a plot structure similar to Hollywood films such as Phone Booth (2002) and Liberty Stands Still (2002), the protagonist takes a media person (played by Kangna Ranaut) on the scene into confidence. He appeals to her patriotism, asking her to choose her duty to her country over her career.

There is a scene in the film where the director shows how politicians have a stronghold over media companies. Fearing public backlash in the face of an election, the politician villain, played by Gulshan Grover, tries to get the TV channels bury the news of the emerging scandal that involves his Swiss accounts.

Anusha Rizvi's Peepli Live is a blisteringly brave film. It holds no bars in exposing the lack of ethics in the Indian media. This film, which is India's official entry to the Oscars this year, takes a realistic dig at the media scene in India today.

After India's economic liberalisation, the country's media industry, especially the electronic media, took off and over the years, dozens of news channels have bloomed. But being a market economy, the bottomline-driven and ratings-led media companies have exchanged ethics for profit. Rizvi knows this world very well as she herself comes from a television news background.

On balance, along with the focus on media, Peepli Live also takes a sarcastic look at India's politicians and bureaucracy and shows how the country's grassroot democracy has been turned into a caricature. When Natha (Omkar Das Manikpuri), a poor farmer, decides to commit suicide because of his indebtedness, it becomes a major media story. The country's media pounces upon Natha mercilessly and twists and turns his story into a bizarre drama – all for the sake of ratings. The story gets to its lowest point when a Hindi TV newsman turns even the farmer's turd into a big story.

Maybe there is some exaggeration for the sake of drama in these films but the reality of Indian media is not very far from what these Bollywood films have shown. In his commentary, Cut-Rate Democracy (Outlook, November 1, 2010) veteran journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta writes: “In recent times corruption in the Indian media has gone way beyond individuals and specific media organisations – from 'planting' information and spinning views in lieu of favours received in cash or kind – to institutionalised and organised forms of corruption wherein newspapers and TV channels receive funds for publishing or broadcasting information that is sought to be disguised as 'news' – but are actually designed to favour particular individuals, corporate entities, representatives of political parties or cash-rich candidates contesting elections.”

Agrees former journalist Sumir Lal, who writes in his essay, “Why I quit the media” ((Outlook, November 1, 2010): “India's media barons are no longer in the news business, but news is unavoidable: after all, you do need something to fill the space between the ads, and must dupe enough consumers into picking up your 'newspaper' (or tuning in to your 'news' channel), else your real customers – advertisers – will not be interested. So 'news' today is sleight of hand: paid news by politicians, private treaties with advertisers, celebrity coverage for a fee, PR feeds masquerading as reportage, the business story slanted to serve the stockmarket, the deserving story not done.”

Lal's reading is frightening for anyone who wants to join the profession in India today. “With proprietors not interested in selling what good journalists produce, the crisis in India is not one of the media industry, but of the profession of journalism,” he says.

Unfortunately, this rot in the ethics of journalism is not limited to India alone. Recently, commenting on the American media, Singapore's Law and Home Affairs minister K Shanmugam said that while liberal theory holds that a fair and independent media checks the Government, keeping it honest - in reality, journalists are biased, media companies are profit-driven, ethics can be compromised by advertising dollars, and the media itself is not subject to any checks and balances (Today, November 6-7, 2010).

The minister makes some valid points. For example, in the US, only 32 percent of people have confidence in the quality and integrity of the media (according to a Gallop poll).

Another recent example of the media's irresponsibility was seen in the Manila Bus Hijacking of August 23. Like the Mumbai terror attacks, this hostage drama by a former police officer involving a tourist bus in the streets of Manila, sent the Philippine's media into a tizzy and chasing ratings over ethics, they seemingly jeopardized the entire police operation. Now broadcast networks in the Philippines are assessing their coverage of the hostage crisis in Manila amid criticism and there are proposals to curb media's freedom in similar incidents.

The loss of media's credibility, as highlighted by Bollywood, can be seen in two ways: either it is a lapse on the media's part that will be corrected over time, or cynically, this erosion of values is a natural corollary of marketisation.

But if media is to survive with its best traditions, it is time media companies do some soul-searching before it is too late and this fourth pillar of democracy crumbles for ever.

The article was published in The Daily Star, Dhaka, on Nov 12, 2010.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Crime and Erotica anthologies out

Two new athologies, Crime Scene: Singapore - The best of Singapore crime fiction, and Best of Southeast Asian Erotica, both lovingly edited by Richard Lord and published by Monsoon Books, Singapore, are now out in the market.

I recently collected my copies from Phil Tatham, the immensely likebale publisher of Monsoon Books, who himself was manning the stall at a Christmas Bazaar at Goodwood Park Hotel. Though the books can be bought at bookstores such as Kinokuniya and Times Book Shop, if you happen to go to a Christmas Bazaar in the city state, chances are Monsoon Books would be there and you can buy the books at a discount. They are great gift ideas but obviously not for kids.

Books will soon also be available through You can also buy them online at Monsoon Book's website.

About the anthologies

I have contributed to both the volumes--a big reason why I am writing about these two anthologies here.

But that is not the only reason.

Crime Scene: Singapore is unique because it is the first such anthology of crime fiction in Singapore. The book's blurb says: "As the Singapore police frequently remind us, low crime does not mean no crime. But the writers in this book remind us that low crime can definitely mean exciting, imaginative crime."

The collection has stories by Dawn Farnham, Pranav Joshi, Chris Mooney-Singh, Ng Yi-Sheng, Richard Lord and Carolyn Camoens, among others. So far I have only read Inspector Zhang Gets His Wish by Stephen Leather and I must tell you it is a great read, suspenseful and fun. By the way, Leather writes out of Bangkok and has apparently sold over 20 million books.

The erotica anthology, Best of Southeast Asian Erotica, has an enticing cover and the stories in it are, well, steamy. I have a story in the anthology called Closely Watched Dreams. It's about the impact of pornography on a marriage.

According to the book's blurb, many superstar writers/celebrities (obviously not me) have contributed to this volume. From Malaysia, there are Amir Muhammad, Lee Ee Leen, Amirul B Ruslan and Yusuf Martin, and from Singapore you have Christopher Taylor, Dawn Farnham, and Chris Mooney-Singh. Of course, there are others in the volume such as Stephen Leather, who has written his first erotica piece for this collection.

The editor of the anthologies, Richard Lord, is a veteran editor and writer. He is the author or co-author of 18 published books of fiction and non-fiction. Ten of his stories have been anthologised and he has edited more than a dozen books.

According to Richard, the anthologies will be launched and readings will be arranged in the next few weeks and months. I will keep you updated through my blog here.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Love and Lust in Singapore reviewed

In her review of the anthology, Love and Lust in Singapore, in the Her World magazine, Niki Bruce observes:

The overall quality of the stories reflects the authors various backgrounds and cultural mores; you can tell who are the ex-journos and who are the poets from their differing writing styles.

As a collection, however, Love and Lust in Singapore is a little uneven. There are some quality pieces of writing but others are, at best, self-indulgent and at worst, puerile.

A topic like love and lust is something that unfortunately lends itself to excess. What is most off-putting is a rather colonialist thread running through a number of the stories written by the non-natives or ‘expats’.

Niki has this to say about my story in the anthology:

Zafar Anjum’s A Fraction of a Whore looks at the other end of the spectrum; an Indian import lies beside a whore worrying about how his parents would react if they knew how ruined his ‘golden future’ had become. But it’s the actions of the ‘whore’, showing simple humanity, that drag him from the edge of suicide.

That is a nice summary of my story but I am not sure if Niki likes it. I hope she does not consider it self-indulgent or puerile. Have you read it? What do you think about it?

My favourite stories in the collection are Dad Jeans and It's a Wonderful Like. Other stories in the anthology are quite enjoyable too.

Still the place for tourists

This travel story of mine appeared in the China Daily recently:

Thailand's troubled politics may have put a damper on tourism, but the beach resort of Phuket stays committed to making visitors happy. Zafar Anjum samples its pleasures.

Read more

Monday, November 01, 2010

Kafka in Ayodhya (Part II)

Read here the concluding part of my short story, Kafka in Ayodhya. (Published in The Star magazine, dated 29 October 2010)

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Kafka in Ayodhya (a short story)

Ever since the Ayodhya verdict of Sept 30 was announced, I wanted to respond to it in my own way. Then I thought: what would Kafka make of it? This case is 60 years old.

Over three nights, I wrote this first draft. The descriptions of Kafka, his life, his likes and dislikes are all authentic. But yes, he is long dead. Gregor in the story is Gregor Samsa, the dung-beetle protagonist of Kafka's most famous story, The Metamorphosis.

Read the first part here and tell me what you think of it: Kafka in Ayodhya
(Pls ignore the typos)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Love and Lust Live!

I should have written this post at least two weeks ago but due to my preparations for Germany, I could not find the time to write about an excellent event that took place on Sept 30 at the Substation.

First of all it was my first visit to the Substation, an impressive arts venue on the Armenian Road. The second special reason was that the event was about the anthology, Love and Lust in Singapore, to which I too had contributed a story. Fellow writer Marc Checkley organised the event and it was fabulous to see some of the stories performed live in a cosy, laidback atmosphere, with wine glasses in hand.

Marc came up with this idea for a "steamy literary event" when he read some of the other stories in the anthology. And instead of organising a run of the mill "book store reading" event, he wanted to strike a different note. High Commissions of New Zealand and Australia chipped in with their support and the event was ready to go.

A total of six stories were performed: Dawn Farnham's I Got You Babe by Sharul Channa and Filial Piety by the show business veteran Koh Chieng Mun; Linda Collin's Dad Jeans by Lora Wilkinson; Felix Cheong's It's A Wonderful Lie by Paul Falzon; and Damyanti Ghosh's Peeping Toe by Rishi Budhrani. Marc performed his own story, Nasri.

All the performances were fantastic and enjoyable, with excellent audio-visual backdrops. The event was so successful that all tickets were sold out in advance. After the event, I don't think anyone went home without feeling a bit in love and a bit lusty. Full marks to Marc and his team for organising such a beautiful event.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the future of books

I was in Germany when Mario Vargas Llosa was announced as this year's winner of Nobel Prize for Literature. Among the Latin American writers, after Marquez and Borges, he is my third favourite writer. I had loved his "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter", inspired by his own experience of marrying his aunt. I bought his The Feast of the Goat and The War of the End of the World long ago but am yet to read them.

I came across this piece on Mario Vargas Llosa where he talks about the future of books. Those who worry about the future of books should read Jonathan Franzen's How to be Alone (the book). He shares his doubts on this theme but his reading is optimistic. Here, in this interview, Mario Vargas Llosa makes some very important points that go into the heart of literature and why we should value it:

"I think there is a danger that the technology will impoverish the contents of the book," he said.

"But this also depends on us: if we want literature to keep being what it has been, it is in our hands."

Vargas Llosa, who is teaching his philosophy of literature at Princeton University in New Jersey this semester, gave a vibrant defense of its continuing relevance.

"Reading has to be encouraged in the new generations, and young people especially have to be convinced that literature is not just knowledge, that literature is not just a way to acquire certain concepts or ideas, but is an extraordinary pleasure."

Good literature is "fundamental if we want to live in freedom in the future" because it creates citizens who are less easily manipulated by those in power.

"Nothing awakens the critical spirit in a society as much as good literature. That is why the first thing all dictatorial regimes do, not matter what their stripe, is impose censorship.

"They try to control what is the literary life because they see in the literary life the seeds of danger to power.

"And it's true: good literature, by awakening the critical spirit, creates citizens who are more difficult to manipulate than in a society without literature and without good books."

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Are Asians congenitally dishonest?

After the recent revelation of “spot-fixing” in the Pakistani cricket team, the question that was being debated on Indian TV channels was this: are we congenitally corrupt?

This is a question that ought to be asked by all Asians. Corruption sweeps across Asia like a disease. Just look at the cases of corruption in India and Pakistan. There are plenty of recent examples: Match-fixing scandals in Indian and Pakistani cricket teams, alleged tax evasion in the lucrative Indian Premier League (IPL) cricket tournament, bungling in this year’s Delhi Commonwealth Games, alleged corruption in the allocation of 2G spectrums by India’s telecom ministry. Across the border, Pakistan’s Asif Zardari has been known as Mr. Ten Percent. This percentage might have gone up now that he is the President, according to his niece Fatima Bhutto .

With the exception of Singapore, all Asian countries are by and large corrupt. From the top level politicians to low level officials, dishonesty runs deep in our blood. From China to Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines, no country escapes the taint of corruption. Of course, this is borne out by the figures of Transparency International, the global anti-graft body. To get a sense of the spread of corruption, just look at the world map at the Transparency International’s website : as you move from East to West, the deep blue color fades to light blue, indicating less and less perception of corruption in the Western world.

Let us consider some specific figures: Transparency International puts India 84th on its corruption perception index with a 3.4-point rating, out of a best possible score of 10. For a contrast, look at New Zealand. It ranks first with 9.4 points. Singapore is 3rd with 9.2 points. Somalia is last on 1.1 points, which is more or less mirrored by Myanmar (1.4) in Asia. The index for China is 3.6, Malaysia 4.5, Thailand 3.4, Indonesia 2.8 and Philippines and Bangladesh are is 2.4 each.

If the water is too clean, there are no fish

Given their size, the incidence of corruption is more prominent in the case of the two Asian giants, India and China. Almost one-third of Indians are "utterly corrupt" and half are "borderline", said Pratyush Sinha, the former chief of India’s corruption watchdog, Central Vigilance Commission . India’s former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan recently told the Supreme Court that at least eight of the 16 chief justices of India (CJIs) were "definitely corrupt". It might sound ludicrous but one of the anecdotal explanations behind India’s ability to survive the 2009 global financial meltdown was that India had plenty of black money. According to one estimate, the Indian black money stashed away in Swiss banks and other accounts may be of the order of US$1.4 trillion.

The news from China is not good either. Corruption is consistently rated the number one concern by Chinese, ahead of pirated goods and pollution . Unlike India, because of its system of governance, there is often no report of corruption at the top of China’s political hierarchy. However, media reports abound in corruption scandals involving China’s government officials and businessmen. China's anti-corruption watchdog has said 106,000 officials were found guilty of corruption in 2009, an increase of 2.5 percent on the year before.

Not just officialdom, corruption also touches the business world of China. A moderate tolerance of corruption is a fact of doing business in China . People who do business there live by the proverb, “If the water is too clean, there are no fish.”

Interestingly, China at least has the image of cracking down on its corrupt businessmen and officials. A BBC report said that the number of government officials caught embezzling more than one million yuan ($146,000) in 2009 jumped by 19 per cent over the year. The government says the increase is due to better supervision of the problem. In September, China has ordered death penalty for food safety crimes (Today, Sep 17, 2010)—a much reported crime that caused deaths of infants and children in the last few years in the country.

In India, corruption is seen as part of ‘bad governance’, or accepted with a creative spin called the jugaad culture. Upright Indians who are against the culture of corruption give examples of China when it comes to dealing with corrupt officials. For instance, the former head of oil giant Sinopec, Chen Tonghai, was sentenced to death last year for taking nearly $30m in bribes. Many Indian commentators on TV demand China-style executions of corrupt Indian leaders and bureaucrats.

Why are we so corrupt?

All this is background. The main question that often gets lost in the discussion is why are we so corrupt whereas we blame the West to be materialistic?

India and China are two of the oldest civilizations in the world. Corruption would have existed in these cultures in one form or another but the levels it has reached now, when these countries are once again part of a historical boom, is alarming. This is a great comedown for a country like India whose official slogan is Satyamev Jayate—truth prevails.

Is it that the sudden economic boom has warped our minds? This can’t be entirely true as there has been a history of corruption and scandals in India, for example, even before the era of economic liberalization. So what explains this explosion of corruption?

“When we were growing up I remember if somebody was corrupt, they were generally looked down upon,” Sinha said about corruption in India. “There was at least some social stigma attached to it. That is gone. So there is greater social acceptance.”

In India today, it is agreed that the love of materialism has ripped apart the moral fibre of the country. Sinha said that in modern India “if somebody has a lot of money, he is respectable. Nobody questions by what means he has got the money.” What Sinha says is it in a way an expression of the Hindu attitude of fatalism, and acceptance of the fact that we are living in Kaliyug, the era of vice?

Similarly, in the older generation of Chinese, there is widespread anger at the ostentatious lifestyle enjoyed by some Communist Party officials, police chiefs and bosses of state-owned companies, according to the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville. Canadian journalist Jan Wong, who studied in China in the 1970s, reports in her book, Chinese Whispers (2009), about the attitude of the present day’s Chinese youth: “Now young people are different. They don’t want to enter the party. They just care about money. In the old days, we had a zhandou mubiao (a battle objective): ‘Serve the people’, ‘Everything for the revolution’. Now there is a spiritual crisis. People have no goal except to get rich.’

No goal except to get rich—that sounds true for the youth of all Asian countries today that have opened their doors to marketisation. But that still does not explain the high incidence of corruption.

The problem can’t be just materialism that has been parachuted in through the forces of globalisation. If it were so, the perception of corruption in the West would be higher too because we have always accused the West to be more materialistic than us.

The explanation, in my opinion, lies in the governance structure and the application of the rule of law. That’s why Singapore, despite being part of Asia, is a shining beacon, an exemplary corruption-free state where a police officer can be jailed for as petty a crime as stealing 70 dollar from a lost wallet (this is not even a case of bribery!) . Singapore is corruption-free and Singaporeans don’t accept corruption because the government is honest and rule of law is applied without discrimination. Also the fact that Singapore’s ministers and civil servants are well paid helps to check their corruptibility.

In the final analysis, I don’t think that Asians are congenitally corrupt. But when they see their top leaders, their civil servants and their society’s rich and famous getting away with loot and murder, they too learn to accept and practice dishonesty in life and business. In Asia, corruption is more of a survival tactic than an ingrained human trait, though if it remains unchecked, it will not only dampen a country’s economic prospects but will also lead to its spiritual suicide.

An edited version of this article appeared in The Daily Star, Dhaka (24 Sep, 2010).

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Reading Orwell in Singapore

Started this new blog today: Reading Orwell in Singapore.

Reading Orwell in Singapore is where I will keep posting my thoughts that will be triggered by reading and re-reading Orwell. A tribute to Orwell, it can also serve to like-minded writers as a manifesto, as a guiding post, as a lighthouse, and remind us how to live and ‘write without hope and without despair’ (that is from Isak Dinesen), and how to write ‘from within the whale’ (Orwell). This is not a political blog (that itself is a political attitude, Orwell will tell you that). If you have any thoughts on it or on Orwell or his works, you are welcome to broadcast them through this blog.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Sonya Chung on where she finds her characters

Where do you find your characters? What inspires you to write?

People are so darn interesting and complex and strange; everyone has a story that is layered and mysterious and to some degree incomprehensible. Everyone is damaged and gifted. Everyone is ambivalent about everything. Everyone. So the work for me is not coming up with characters, but paring down and choosing from the crowd in my head. It’s the mystery and complexity that inspire me most -- what does this person’s life or situation mean? How do we make sense of all this weirdness in life? Chekhov is a touchstone for me, in that he didn’t worry too much about plot points; his primary goal was to show/render/reveal a life, a character, a moment -- as honestly as possible. Story, I think, is born from there.


Sunday, September 19, 2010

'Love and Lust in Singapore' launched

The steamy short stories anthology 'Love and Lust in Singapore' was launched yesterday @Earshot Cafe at the Arts House. Out of the three editors, Joseph Hoye could not attend. Caz Goodwin flew down from Australia for the event. So, Caz and Femke Tewari launched the book. More than fifty supporters of the project showed up.

In their intro, the editors said they were extremely happy with the project and the way it turned out from an idea to a book. The proceeds from the sale of the book will go to a local charity.

Dawn Farnham (with Marc Checkley) and Jacyntha England read parts of their stories to great applause.

Not all contributors to the anthology were in town. Damanyanti Ghosh came down from Malaysia. Apart from Dawn and Jacyntha, other writers who participated in the book launch were: Mary Byrns, Linda Collins, Marc Checkley, and myself. Writers were signing autographs on each other's copy of the book--and I found it to be the funniest part of the evening. I am not saying this in a snarky way, seriously.

Next up is a live event--Love and Lust Live!--on September 30, 7.30pm, Substation Theatre. The event will feature live performances by Koh Chieng Mun, Felix Cheong, Marc Checkley and others. This is a ticketed event ($20) which includes a selection of tapas, wine and drinks. Please RSVP if you are keen to attend.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Dabangg in Singapore

Dabangg is an illustration of how Bollywood processes the filth, crime and corruption of India’s heartland into celluloid masti, and probably, into a blockbuster.

It is midnight and I am just back after watching Dabangg at Bombay Talkies on Beach Road. Thankfully I had bought my ticket one day in advance, so I did not have to stand in a long queue. The crowd reminded me of Om Shanti Om, and I am sure the movie is going to be as big a hit, if not bigger.

The threatre was houseful and people thoroughly enjoyed the movie: they clapped at Salman Khan’s entry in the film, and were making catcalls and whistling during the songs. I thought the days of Amitabh Bachchan’s magic were back—here was a mass hero in a mass entertainer.

What took Salman so long to recognize his niche? Comedy and action go together in Hindi films (and of course melodrama too, dollops of it) and if Salman had done films like this after Govinda’s exit from cinema to politics, Akshay Kumar wouldn’t have risen to the heights that he has. This is not to say that Akshay does not have his own goofy charisma.

Coming back to the movie, what people enjoyed above all were the dialogues. The dialogues work and even at serious moments they tickle you. However, I would have snipped off the fart jokes as they cheapen the character. Similarly, dancing on a mobile phone ring while fighting the goons looked like a bad idea to me.

Some critics, including Anupama Chopra, have said that the film hardly has a plot. That is a fair complaint but I guess the filmmakers were not bothered about plot. This is a character-driven film, and if people watch it (and there would be a sequel too, it seems), they would watch it for Chulbul Pandey (Salman). The film is out and out on Salman’s beefy shoulders and he has delivered it very well. There are a few moments where he seems a bit out of character but that does not make much of a difference. I am tempted to add one more thing: Salman, with his cockiness, moustache and Ray Bans, reminds me of Marcello Mastroianni (as Ferdinando Cefalù) in Divorce—Italian Style.

Sonakshi Sinha has made an impressive debut and she conveys a lot through her eyes and expressions. Mahie Gill has been underutilized and she remains a sidekick, not a second lead. Arbaz has tried his best—I could sense his sincerity in his role. But the problem is that his part has not been written well. His characterization is uneven (he can fight but he is dimwitted; he is strong but he cowers in front of his step-brother; he has a moral sense but he allows himself to be manipulated). Where is the depth in his character? He could have been like John Malkovich (as Lennie Small)in Of Mice and Men, but of course not that demented (I'm just giving you an idea). Malaika’s item number is so good it seems to come and go in a jiffy. So sad!

Sonu Sood is a good actor and he is in his Yuva avatar. But again his character falls short of the villainy that is required of him to match Salman's over the top herogiri. His character is not good enough a counterfoil to Salman’s—if that was done, the film’s level would have risen.

As for the plot, who cares about it in a masala movie? The public was lapping up Salman. I heard people clap when his body bulges in anger a la Hulk and his shirt flies off his body. The action is pure filmy, South India style. Some (girls/women) might find it a bit too much.

Dabangg is not Kaminey or Omkara but it could have been. For that layered telling you need a Vishal Bhardwaj and a touch of expertise from Hollywood’s script gurus. Dabang is pure UP-bred and has no intellectual pretensions about it. It is shamelessly, and I would say, even boldly, a single screen film. That’s why it works even with a shoddy plot.

A pat on the back of debutant director Abhinav Kashyap who has done a great job in his very first film (If you disagree, try to direct a film and you will know what I mean). The kind of desi stylization that he brings to this small-town movie (Bunti Aur Bubbly was also great fun) is original. Now that is something in Bollywood, isn’t it?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Love and Lust in Singapore book launch

Today I received copies of both Love and Lust in Singapore and Best of Southeast Asian Erotica (Monsoon Books)-- each volume has one of my short stories (A Fraction of a Whore in Love and Lust in Singapore, and Closely Watched Dreams in Best of Southeast Asian Erotica). Both volumes have stories by some well-known regional writers such as Dawn Farnham, Chris Moonis Singh and Felix Cheong. The book is already available at leading bookstores (such as Kinokuniya, as seen in the picture above; editor Femke Tewari at Kino, Orchard Road).

Love and Lust will be launched on Saturday 18 September at Earshot Cafe, The Arts House from 7.30pm. Please RSVP to if you want to attend.

There will be a live event too--Love and Lust Live!--on September 30, 7.30pm, Substation Theatre. The event will feature live performances by Koh Chieng Mun, Felix Cheong, Marc Checkley and others. This is a ticketed event ($20) which includes a selection of tapas, wine and drinks. Please RSVP if you are keen to attend.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Find your agent

Delhi-based writer Abdullah Khan has penned this interesting piece (advice actually), Such a long journey, on the importance of finding a literary agent. He has mentioned me in the piece among more worthy writers such as Anees Salim and Vikas Swarup:

For a beginner, it is very important to understand the basics of ‘How to approach an agent'. “You should know whether a particular agent is right for your kind of work. An agent specialising in young adult fiction or romance will never take on a writer of ‘high-brow' literary fiction, even though it is well written. Further, you should follow the submission guidelines of the agent you are submitting to. For example, if an agent wants a query only at the first instance, sending sample chapters to him or her will certainly not help,” says Zafar Anjum, an author and journalist based in Singapore. He further adds, “An author should submit to an agent only a fully polished work. If there is an iota of doubt in the mind about the readiness of manuscript, I would like to advise him to avail the services of a good manuscript assessment agency. They will not only point out the loopholes in the plot but also take care of structure, grammar and give the manuscript a professional look.”


Sunday, September 05, 2010

Twilight and the young adults

Here is an interesting interview on the impact of Twilight type lit on the brains of Young Adults (How 'Twilight,' other dark fiction affect teen brains):

The trend for darkness and dystopia in children’s literature reflects concerns in the wider, adult world, Nikolajeva said. A hundred years ago, books for kids were dominated with stories about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands; then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the themes were emerging sexuality and parental conflict.

Inside the teenage brain, synapses are breaking and reforming, and the chemistry keeps changing. Teenagers can’t make decisions in the same way adults can, Nikolajeva said, and she noted that authors, filmmakers and game developers have a moral obligation to make sure that their works contain some positive ethic.

The trend for darkness and dystopia in children’s literature reflects concerns in the wider, adult world, Nikolajeva said. A hundred years ago, books for kids were dominated with stories about boys having adventures and girls finding husbands; then, from the 1950s to the 1970s, the themes were emerging sexuality and parental conflict.

Inside the teenage brain, synapses are breaking and reforming, and the chemistry keeps changing. Teenagers can’t make decisions in the same way adults can, Nikolajeva said, and she noted that authors, filmmakers and game developers have a moral obligation to make sure that their works contain some positive ethic.


Saturday, September 04, 2010

Gandhi's experiments in chastity

From The Independent:

Eighteen-year-old Abha, the wife of Gandhi's grandnephew Kanu Gandhi, rejoined Gandhi's entourage in the run-up to independence in 1947 and by the end of August he was sleeping with both Manu and Abha at the same time.

When he was assassinated in January 1948, it was with Manu and Abha by his side. Despite her having been his constant companion in his last years, family members, tellingly, removed Manu from the scene. Gandhi had written to his son: "I have asked her to write about her sharing the bed with me," but the protectors of his image were eager to eliminate this element of the great leader's life. Devdas, Gandhi's son, accompanied Manu to Delhi station where he took the opportunity of instructing her to keep quiet.

Questioned in the 1970s, Sushila revealingly placed the elevation of this lifestyle to a brahmacharya experiment was a response to criticism of this behaviour. "Later on, when people started asking questions about his physical contact with women – with Manu, with Abha, with me – the idea of brahmacharya experiments was developed ... in the early days, there was no question of calling this a brahmacharya experiment." It seems that Gandhi lived as he wished, and only when challenged did he turn his own preferences into a cosmic system of rewards and benefits. Like many great men, Gandhi made up the rules as he went along.

While it was commonly discussed as damaging his reputation when he was alive, Gandhi's sexual behaviour was ignored for a long time after his death. It is only now that we can piece together information for a rounded picture of Gandhi's excessive self-belief in the power of his own sexuality. Tragically for him, he was already being sidelined by the politicians at the time of independence. The preservation of his vital fluid did not keep India intact, and it was the power-brokers of the Congress Party who negotiated the terms of India's freedom.


Friday, September 03, 2010

From Chandni Chowk to China

I recently met Julia, a young Chinese girl, at a dinner party in Singapore. Julia told me that she had an Indian boyfriend and that she had recently visited Mumbai along with him. She had come back impressed with India’s colors, culture, and cuisine. That was not surprising. But then she told me something that struck me strongly: “We Chinese know so little about India. We are so close to each other as neighbors but we know so little about each other’s culture.”

Quite true, I thought. India and China may be trading partners, but culturally we know next to nothing about each other. I wondered if this gap could be bridged through cinema.

The Days of Awara and Caravan

I asked this question to Pallavi Aiyar, who has spent more than six years in China writing for the Hindu and the Indian Express. She was, at a time, the only Chinese-speaking Indian foreign correspondent based in China. Now based in Belgium, Aiyar has also served as advisor to the Confederation of Indian Industry on China-related issues.

In her book, Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China, Aiyar provides an account of her life in China. Before going there, she knew that Raj Kapoor’s films, especially Awara (1951), were well-known in many parts of the world, from Russia to Peru. But she didn’t know that the Chinese too loved that film and people of an older generation still remembered it. When I met her at a literary soiree in Singapore in July, she told me that even now some Chinese people knew “Abala Hoon” (“Awara Hoon,” the film’s title song) by heart.

“Film imports have always been controlled in China,” Aiyar explained. “In those days, Awara was perhaps considered socialist enough to be allowed a release in China.” The film was seen widely from the late 1950s till the late 1970s.

Another film that has stayed fresh in the memory of the Chinese people is the Jeetendra-Asha Parekh starrer, Caravan (1971). According to Aiyar, Caravan was shown in China only in the 1980s, after the end of the Cultural Revolution. People still have VHS copies of the film, she said.

But after Caravan, no Hindi film was released in China in the last century. After a gap of nearly three decades, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan became the first Indian movie to be released in China in 2002. At its release, Joe Zhang, an official from the Columbia Tri Star Film Distributors International said, “Continuing with its international success and now reaching here, Lagaan brings us a great chance to break the wrong idea that ‘good movies are the American ones.’”

Despite these films, the Chinese don’t know much about Indians. According to Aiyar, the Chinese think that India is a very crowded country (which it is) and all Indian women can sing and dance like Bollywood heroines (which they surely can’t)! She told me how she often gets requests from ordinary Chinese people to perform similar dances for them.

Hunger for India’s culture

Clearly, there is a hunger for Indian culture, including its song and dance, among the Chinese people. Perhaps they find Indian classical dance and music closer to their own cultural traditions like Chinese music and opera. Indian yoga is already a big hit in China.

I had a first-hand experience of this hunger for Indian cultural traditions when I used to help out at the India China Trade Centre (ICTC) around 2003-2004. Many musical troupes wanted to go to China and perform there but from the Chinese side, the demand would always be for those groups that could perform Indian classical singing and dancing.

If you turn the equation around, what kind of perception do Indians have of China and the Chinese? The most common perceptions are that China is a socialist country with an authoritarian regime, that China is the factory of the world and that it is way ahead of India in terms of infrastructure. Even the Indian Prime Minister talks about turning a city like Mumbai, not into London or New York or Tokyo, but into Shanghai. “Chinese cities have become sort of benchmarks for us now,” said Aiyar.

To a great extent, the assumptions that Indians have about China are correct, perhaps because of India’s free media and the culture of debate and discussion that prevails in most parts of India. But how much do Indians know about the Chinese people and their culture?

Aiyar sees a difference between how Indians and Westerners see China. For example, when a Westerner arrives in a city like Shanghai or Beijing, he is appalled by the unruly traffic on the road or the behavior of the Chinese drivers. When an Indian arrives, he is all praise for the Chinese drivers and their respect for traffic rules. Obviously, Indians see Chinese citizens as better behaved than Western visitors do. Aiyar herself finds much to admire in China, like the fact that low level workers in China, unlike their Indian counterparts, at least get to wear gloves while carrying out menial tasks such as carrying refuse or cleaning toilets. “That glove, a barrier between the dirt and the worker’s body, provides him with a modicum of dignity,” she says.

In terms of cinema, perhaps a section of Indians might be familiar with Chinese stars such as Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-Fat because of their action thrillers such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but beyond that, Indians know very little either of Chinese cinema or its other arts. Clearly, there is a great wall of cultural ignorance between the two countries.

When a film like Chandni Chowk to China (2009), Warner Brothers’ first Bollywood film, tried to cross over this great wall, it fell flat at the box office. So what is the way forward?

Slumdog Millionaire replaces Awara

Unfortunately, the current generation of Chinese youth is not interested in Indian films unlike the older generations. According to Aiyar, the young dig international cinema (particularly Hollywood and Korean films) and they approach Bollywood as exotica, as most in the West would do. The current generation of Chinese youth knows India more by Slumdog Millionaire than by Awara. In a situation like this, there clearly is a case for the Indian and Chinese governments to encourage each other’s films in their respective markets in a mood of cooperation and friendship.
Take the example of Singapore and China. In July 2010, the two countries signed nine agreements paving the way for industry collaborations ranging from financing, pre-production, production to distribution and marketing.

When a small country like Singapore can take steps in this direction, why can’t India?

And it’s not just the governments that ought to do something, although Indian ministers do have a duty to do more than just tweet or appear on TV. Trade bodies like the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and the ICTC can also pitch in and bring the film companies together to co-produce or get TV channels to share some television content. For the two countries to come closer, the youth of both countries have to become aware of each other’s cultures. One way to do this is through the exchange of students and cultural groups between the two countries on a large scale, to facilitate more interaction.

China maybe the factory of the world but India has a vibrant cultural scene, and for once, at least, China can be a net importer rather than an exporter in this arena. Knowing about each other will help India and China in the long run. If familiarity breeds contempt, ignorance breeds suspicion. In the case of India and China, I think a healthy contempt is better than layers of dangerous suspicion and mistrust.

This article was published in September 2010 issue of Khabar, Atlanta.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Maintaining your confidence

Here is some great advice for writers (I guess for all types of writers) who have confidence issues (HOW SUCCESSFUL WRITERS KEEP UP THEIR CONFIDENCE):

Self-confidence is the single most essential ingredient an author needs to succeed, since good writing is never that quick or easy. To keep at it requires energy, discipline, and a sense of humor.

The most accomplished and productive writers I work with are able to sustain a level of assurance and optimism. And that's even when they're feeling blocked, burned out, and unappreciated.

It's admirable and a little amazing they're able to do this, since there's so much hard work and delayed gratification in writing a book.

I've worn two hats in my professional life - as an acquisitions and development editor and also as a licensed therapist specializing in crisis intervention. This has given me a useful perspective on what helps writers sustain their confidence during the often grueling marathon of producing a good book.

There are no universal cookie-cutter techniques writers can use to keep up their hopes and dreams. Each writer is unique, with an individual temperament, culture, and developmental process. But here are some general suggestions all writers can consider to help soldier through periods of doubt.

Stay connected

Withdrawal and isolation can be debilitating and reduce creative energy. Writers can work with other people doing research, brainstorming plot ideas, and building characters, but ultimately writing is a solitary occupation, with hours alone facing that blank screen or that big empty pad.

Consequently a conscious effort to reach out is the only way to prevent isolation and loneliness. Maintain contact with other people, loved ones, family, friends, and colleagues. You don't have to ask for help, just engage as much as possible in regular human relationships. Look for people who can make you laugh out loud. Get out of your head, get out of the house, go and talk to another person. You don't have to be alone. Repeat: you are not alone.


Thursday, August 12, 2010

Boeing Boeing: This comedy is still hot

Director Glen Goei’s Asian adaptation of French classical farce Boeing-Boeing (originally written by French playwright Marc Camoletti) has worn well. It was first performed in October 2002 at Jubilee Hall, Singapore and then reprised again in 2005 at Victoria Theatre.

In its third avatar, this Wild Rice Production lives up to its raunchy reputation, and going by the audience reaction, it is already a resounding success.

The original play’s English language adaptation, translated by Beverley Cross, was first staged in London in 1962. It had a dream run of a total of seven years. The play, when it moved across the Atlantic, became a Broadway success. In 1991, the play entered the Guinness Book of Records as the most performed French play throughout the world. Is this a play or a bottle of wine?

The theme of the play—a philandering young man’s well-planned shenanigans and trickery of being betrothed to three different air hostesses at the same time and the fun and complications that such a set up leads to—seems to be a bit old now, as social ethics around marriage and romantic love have loosened even in Asia. Still, the hilarity that such a comic plot ensures finds favour with the audiences even today. The situational comedy has been so popular that even Bollywood adapted it in 2005 as Garam Masala, and hit the box office jackpot.

There is no change in terms of characters in the play. Adrian Pang plays the heartthrob Bernard and his three leading ladies are Emma Yong, Wendy Kweh and Chermaine Ang who are air hostesses with JAL, SIA and Cathay Pacific. Adrian’s English friend Robert is Daniel York and his maid Minah is Siti Khalijah.

The play’s first act, as far as I am concerned, is rather dull, with all the introductions and setting up. But right from the second act, when Adrian’s plans start to come unstuck, the play changes gear and actors come alive with their performances. The audience was in splits. I don’t remember the members of audience having so much fun during a play.

In terms of choosing devices or adapting the play to an Asian setting, this is a job well done. Emotionally vulnerable Junko’s Japanese accent, the tigress-like Singaporean air-hostess with her eye on the billionaires, and the delicate heart and hot body of the Cathay girl—all add to the mix of a heady cocktail. Pang pulls off his role as a bragging bachelor, clever with ladies and is complemented by his pal, York. Equally important is the maid played by Khalijah who causes laughter whenever she opens her mouth. The new super jumbo and the volcanic ash in Europe update the narrative with twists that eviscerate Pang’s plans.

The downside, if any, is the play’s predictability for even a first time viewer like me. Except for a handful of social and political comments (there is a line on Singapore’s democracy and a few barbs at the inflow of foreign talent and how the fear of paying maintenance to divorced wives keeps the economy stable), there is not much to make you wonder here, and there is nothing to absorb beyond the obvious on the stage, which, as you can guess anyway, heads towards a predictable denouement. There are no thought-provoking or intellectually amusing Woody Allen type monologues. Every scene is an interaction and highly verbose. Still, it works and if you want to enjoy a pure and simple comedy, this is it for you.

Catch this play at the Drama Centre Theatre, NLB, 100 Victoria Street, from 4 August to 4 September.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Parenthood and writing

There is a pram in the hallway! That prospect might scare many writers. Naipaul wanted children but never had one. Once he said, for a writer, a child born is equal to a book killed.

I am glad, in this article (The parent trap), as an example, Tracy Chevalier has answered this question exactly how I would have liked to answer it..."maybe what's in the pram – breathing, vulnerable life, hope, a present responsibility – is actually more important than good art. It might make us produce less art, but maybe it would be art with the future at its heart." (Frank Cottrell Boyce's words)

A few years ago, I decided that for me family comes first. Writing is secondary. Family cannot be allowed to suffer on account of writing. Even if it means courting failure, so be it. After all, isn't success the greatest enemy of promise? A balance is required. A writer, with his family, needs to form a truce of cooperation to create art. A lot of books in our age are unreadable because writers religiously write at least a book a year (a business model?) and don't have the time or inclination to raise a family or go and buy turnips. What kind of art will come from that kind of life? Lifeless, manufactured, arid...make your list.

I enjoyed reading this piece by Frank Cottrell Boyce on writing and parenthood:

For centuries, writers have sung the virtues of staying connected to the routine and the mundane. Real creativity should feel like a game, not a career. Having to hang out the washing or get up and make breakfast helps you remember that your "work" is actually fun. And for it to stay fun, you have to be unafraid of failure. It's very powerful to be surrounded by people who love you for something other than your work, who are unaware of the daily, painful fluctations of your reputation. I discovered recently that my youngest child thought I spent my days typing out more and more copies of my book Millions, so that everyone could have one.

Writing is a peculiar balancing act between freedom and discipline. Writers are free to spend their days doing whatever they like; but if they don't write, then they are not writers. They are on their own and so vulnerable to every distraction, whether that's drink or the Antiques Roadshow. Jonathan Franzen has said that "it is doubtful that anyone with an internet connection in his workplace is writing good fiction". Family is, of course, the most potent distraction, and probably the only distraction that makes you feel virtuous when you surrender to it.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Curfewed nights in Bangkok

After landing in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, I remembered Bangkok’s old airport that I had once transited through. Compared to Suvarnabhumi, the old one had more character, a wicked charm. The new one was huge and awesome but it looked utilitarian.

We were received by my brother-in-law who works in a regional non-profit. His office was closed due to the political unrest.

Outside, Bangkok didn’t look like a curfewed city at all. Buses, cars and taxis plied on the road. Only the trains were out of service.

As we entered the city, I began to love it. Bangkok was sprawling and chaotic but it had a beauty about it. It was what I wished Delhi and Kolkata to be—clean and functional. Bangkok has a great road and expressway network and its river is, unlike Delhi’s Jumna, navigable. Later, from my sister’s 9th floor flat, I had a great view of the city. Unlike Singapore, Bangkok is not minutely designed and manicured but it exudes a spirit of independence, a sense of wild beauty.

By this time, I was told, the protestors had been flushed out of their protesting zone. The Red Shirts’ had set fire to Bangkok’s biggest mall, Siam Paragon. On the way from the airport, I had seen the charred skeleton of the mall. Only night curfew was imposed in the city. Bangkok’s other malls were open and it was business as usual, I was told.

Next day, we set out in the morning to see the floating market (Suaq Al nahr, said an Arabic sign) at Ratchaburi. We hired a taxi and it took us more than an hour to reach the place, over one hundred kilometers west of Bangkok. Taxi to and fro cost us 2000 bahts.

The floating market is spread over an area of several kilometers, crisscrossed with canals. We hired a boat with a driver for 2000 bahts and spent nearly an hour in the market, buying things from local fruit sellers on boats. According to my wife, the experience would have been better but for the stinking water of the canal. Perhaps Western tourists, coming from sanitized places, would like that organic stink, I thought mischievously.

Next day was Sunday and we wanted to see the Grand Palace. We reached the area (that reminded me of colonial Delhi) after lunch but we were stopped at the main gate by authorities in civilian clothes. “The Palace will open at 3pm,” a burly official informed us. Since we were one hour early, the man advised us to visit Wat Po first and then come back to the palace. “We can’t, we just let our taxi go,” we protested. He hailed a tuk tuk for us and at an unbelievable fare of 20 bahts, he sent us for a ride to Wat Po and back.

At Wat Po, we admired the Reclining Buddha and took some pictures. Then the tuk tuk driver took us to an emporium of art and craft. The place had a great collection of gems and jewelry but what was most impressive was the courteous behaviour of the staff. We did some shopping there.

Finally, we returned to the Grand Palace. It was mind-blowing— sprawling, beautiful and magnificent. It offers a colourful vista of gold and silver, of shining spires, mosaic-rich columns and intricate murals. The afternoon being hot, we took a quick tour of the palace but actually to do justice to it, one needs to spend hours in the complex. Within the complex, the Wat Phra Keao, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, Chakri-Mahaprasad Hall and Amarindra Vinchai Hall are a must see for tourists.

We spent three nights in Bangkok, each night under curfew. But in the condo where we stayed, we never felt anything amiss. The city looked peaceful and calm and there were no rising columns of smoke to be seen in the skyline nor were there any wailing police sirens renting the air. But when we switched on the telly, we saw news about the unrest in Bangkok. It seemed so surreal—beyond the patina of calm was news of troublemakers that the television brought to people’s drawing rooms.

The condo, in the heart of Bangkok, eerily seemed like a Green Zone, with its swimming pool and tennis court on the fourth floor and salons, restaurants and massage parlours on the ground floor. So self-sufficient.

The night before we returned to Singapore, we had our first foot massage of the trip. I and my wife, sitting beside each other were being fawned over by the masseuses. We didn’t know that the foot massage would extend up to the upper thigh. On the flight back, my wife said: “The massage was good but next time we go for it, we must tell the masseuse not to move beyond the knees.”

I nodded with a smile in reply. I didn’t know when that next time would be. As we moved away from Bangkok, we hoped that complete peace would soon return to the city. This magnificent city, the city of Emerald Buddha, deserved it. And I also told myself that Bangkok was not an ordinary city: there was something about it that needed more exploration.

Back in Singapore, I remembered Bangkok as a girl to whom I had said only hello. I knew I needed to converse more with her.

Read the first part of this travel piece, Postcard from Phuket here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception: Inside a Borgesian dream

Chris Nolan’s Inception could well have been written by Argentinean short story writer and poet Borges, with inputs from Freud and Jung. Formatted as an edge of the seat thriller, this film is a surrealist meditation on the nature of time, of guilt and redemption, of a father-son relationship and of the origins of our motivations and desires. The story of a heist inside the brain of an individual has been told like a philosophical riddle with a sophistication which is the hallmark of Nolan’s work, as seen before in his earlier ventures Memento and The Dark Knight.

The film starts within a labyrinthine dream, in which the main characters keep plumbing up and down the many layers of dreamworld reality. The protagonist, Dom Cobb (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), is a dream-catcher, a superb manipulator of dreams. He is the world’s best extractor of trade secrets from industrial czars. He invades their dreams and steals the secrets from their subconscious.

At the start of the film, we see Cobb washed up on a sea shore. For a moment, I thought, hey, are we back in Shutter Island? I pinched myself. No, we are in a Nolan film. After the opening sequence, the film goes into a flashback or travels to a different layer of reality, whichever way you want to see it, where the story is set up: Cobb is given a challenge by a tycoon (Ken Watanabe) to implant an idea in his business rival’s son’s mind—an act of “inception”. Due to his own past, a guilt-ravaged Cobb accepts the job to invade the subconscious of Robert Fischer junior (Cillian Murphy)—his only way of getting back to his real world, where his two children await his arrival. Hmm, shades of Audrey Neffengger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

From that point on, begins Cobb’s hero’s journey along with a set of dream manipulators, assembled from various parts of the world. The film’s third act is the final sequence, the actual act of ‘inception’, when Nolan goes completely blockbuster. The subconscious of Robert Fischer junior is a snow capped rugged landscape, that could well have been from a James Bond film, with gunfire to match.

The film’s strongest point, after the brilliant idea of ‘inception’ of course, is Cobb’s character. DiCaprio is so believable in his role, focused, determined and emotionally vulnerable. And so is Marion Cotillard who plays DiCaprio’s wife. If you could distill red wine into a female form, it would take the shape of Marion. Her sensuous vitality, her love, her idea of to-die for romance, is the emotional pivot of the movie, which defines the level of Cobb’s guilt. However, Ariadne (Ellen Page), who plays a brilliant architect of dream world landscapes, seems a bit jarring in the film—a teen among the adults. Perhaps the Juno girl was penciled in to appeal to the teen audience (you know how Hollywood hedges its bets).

The film appealingly deals with concepts of time and the nature of the subconscious, the way we dream, and so on. The film works on the premise that dream-world time and real-world time act in a different calculus. Ten hours in real life can be equivalent to a week in our dreams. There is a sequence in the final act of the movie in which a van falls off a bridge and between the van’s skidding and hitting the water, time in the dream world stretches on and a lot happens there in those few seconds.

Clever, isn’t it? But this is not entirely a novel idea. In Gabriel Garcia’s Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, as Colonel Aureliano Buendia faces the firing squad, the whole history of his family flashes before his eyes. I also could not resist remembering Prophet Mohammad’s night journey to the heavens, as described in the Quran: In the 7th century, Muhammad (PBUH) riding the mythological steed Buraq, was taken to the various heavens, to meet first the earlier prophets, including Moses and Jesus, and then God. The Buraq then transported Muhammad back to Mecca. This journey was completed at the speed of light, and between his flight to heavens and back, in our world, it took him only a few seconds—an example of real time and cosmic time calculus.

Though the film was riveting, near the end, I was looking at my watch. I had the feeling that I was playing a video game where there are characters with clear psychological profiles, there are rules of the game, and there are different levels of gaming. I won’t be surprised if the movie, after its success, is followed by video games.

Also, if I were Nolan, I would have got rid of the mysterious dream-inducing suitcase (which The Economist calls a psychic Rube Goldberg contraption) that wires the dreamers up. Did you not hear of nanotechnology and mind control Nolan? Instead of Dileep Rao (Yusuf) playing a potion maker, the alchemist, I would have made him a neuro-architect. But never mind the wires. The audiences already love this movie (even in India, Inception became the number one at the box office, beating three new Bollywood releases).

In the end, for all you know, this movie is a crime thriller. It’s all about corporate espionage, an Italian job, but at a brain level. This is a bit of a disappointment for me. Has Hollywood got bored with saving the humanity or the aliens (as we saw in Avatar)? After all that hype, Nolan, you disappointed me but I am glad you tried. This is way better than The Transformers for my ticket price.

I loved the last scene, though. When Cobb is back with his family in the real world, he spins his totem. When the spinning stops, the film is cut to the end credits. I thought that Nolan was having a joke at our expense: suckers, this was the real world and now you go back to your phony, dream world, waiting outside the theatre for you.

As I exited the multiplex, I was wondering if we and our physical world, the universe, are really parts of a maya jaal, the Hindu concept of a web of deception, a mere dream inside the head of God. What if we just don’t exist in real reality? What if we are just projections of God’s imagination? It’s an idea worth exploring, isn’t it?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Postcard from Phuket

[This is the first part of my Thailand travel notes]

A trip to Phuket and Bangkok was waiting to happen. I’ve been living in the South East Asian region for the last 5 years and yet I hadn’t travelled to these tourist clichés on the map of Thailand. Perhaps one main reason why I was not eager enough about visiting these places was their commonplaceness—everybody goes to Phuket and Thailand. From Singapore, going there is as clichéd as being a heterosexual.

I’ll give you an example. Just before I was to start for Phuket, one of my colleagues rubbed it in: “You are going to Phuket? Huh, I’ve been there twenty-five times!”

Got it?

Seriously, I guess one can’t beat the argument in the age of low cost airlines (just like you can’t beat tweeting and watching pirated DVDs—almost everybody is at it). As Naipaul has remarked, travel has become so plebian now. Tourism is so much part of our globalised lifestyle that anyone who saves a penny or two or owns the wondrous credit cards travels once or twice a year to arrogate to oneself the status of belonging to that global jet set that regularly rubs its bum on the leathery smallness of low cost short-haul flights.

So, when an opportunity (to attend a regional tech event which later on got cancelled) to visit Phuket and Bangkok arose in May this year, I said enough was enough. Even clichés needed to be struck out of my travel diary. Earnestly, tickets were booked one month in advance.

When the time to fly came, it suddenly didn’t seem like a good time to visit Thailand: The Red Shirts had been protesting against the present government in Bangkok for more than a week and one of their rogue generals had just been shot. Bangkok was under siege and the city was under partial curfew. To my chagrin, the tech event that I was supposed to attend shifted its venue from Phuket to Singapore. But I was in no mood to change my plans. Given this background, my colleagues were a bit suspicious of my sanity when they came to know that I was travelling to Thailand, and was not paying enough attention to the news.

And what was I thinking? Dude, what is the fun of travelling if it was not laced with a bit of danger? My philosophy is that travel mixed with a bit of a danger makes it an adventure. For me, the curfew and the protests did it. So, one sunny morning, off we went to Phuket on a Jet Star flight.

The Sea, The Sea

When the plane was about to land in Phuket International Airport, I looked down the window and the surface of the Andaman Sea that spread beneath us presented itself like an immobile expanse of boredom, a blue bedspread, rumpled as a grandmother’s creased cheeks.

At the immigration, the visa officer looked bored and stern. No swadika, no smile. Hello, is this Thailand, I wondered. Thankfully, visa was free (The Red Shirt’s troublemaking in Bangkok had hit tourist traffic throughout Thailand) and it straightaway meant a saving of 3000 bahts for me. I suddenly felt lucky and wallet-wise, marginally closer to Donald Trump (remember I am a journalist married to austerity, not a banker or a businessman). The queue at the immigration was small and it didn’t take much time to clear immigration and collect our luggage. I love the breeziness of small town airports!

Outside, it was a bit warm. A hotel taxi was waiting for us. The taxi driver was amiable. Once inside the air-conditioned cab, I asked him a few questions and he said a lot of yeses with smiling nods. It simply meant that the conversation was flowing in only one direction—mine. It took us forty-five minutes to reach our hotel which was near Patong Beach, fifteen kilometers west of Phuket town. The road to the town was in great condition which coursed through the hill-like greenery-filled landscape of the island. My wife felt a bit pukish but I and my daughter were okay. Sporadically, the road was flanked by single-storied houses, shops and business establishments. On the way, interestingly, I saw more mosques than temples.

We had reached the airport around nine in the morning and by the time we checked into the hotel, the first thing that demanded attention was our hunger pangs—a uniformly felt family experience. I changed into shorts and a T-shirt and came down from my hotel room to recce the area for food outlets. The whole place was infested with big and small inns and hotels and western style brasseries, coffee shops, restaurants, and hawker outlets. Given the heat and lack of choices, I settled for a pepperoni pizza and some fresh fruits and beat a hasty retreat to my hotel room. A little rest and then we ordered lunch. The lunch was standard Thai food from the hotel’s kitchen: the order was misunderstood, the chicken meat was harder than usual and the portions were, maybe, let’s put it this way, good enough for ladies but not sufficient for a grown up Indian male with a moderate to good appetite.

In the afternoon, we took a stroll on Ao Patong—a three kilometer stretch of sandy beach. Some Western tourists were relaxing on chaise lounges, barbecuing their bodies or sipping their drinks under colourful parasols, a book spread on their knees. Clichés I know but what do you expect on a beach? Young couples and surfers played with the waves in the shallow waters, their smiles and laughter adding mirth to the somber sea.

On the beach, my wife thought the Andaman Sea was a bit darkish and I quickly remembered its devastating tempestuousness during the Asian tsunami. Thousands had perished. I didn’t want to think about the tragedy, so I turned my attention to my four-year old daughter. She was the happiest: she loves the sea and the sand and she rolled about in it for a while. And I thought, children were usually happy because they had little memory. I bought a fresh coconut and we shared it “as a family,” the way my daughter loves to put it.

A thin and turbaned middle aged Muslim man, with a dark beard, sat on the sand behind me. He was with a young boy. They looked straight out of a madrasa. What were they doing on the beach, I wondered. Were they enjoying the dancing waves or were they there to soak in the pleasure of beach revelers, to be in commune with them, indulging in a vicarious pleasure? How would I know? “Where are you from?” he asked me. “From Singapore,” I said, adding a wan smile. Would he ask for money, I feared. The man did not talk much. He looked rather sad. I kept an eye on him. The man and the boy left in less than half an hour. I felt a sense of relief but I immediately questioned it: why did I feel relieved? The man had every right to be there (there was a Muslim cemetery bang opposite the beach); he was like everybody else except for his dress. He could even be one of the original inhabitants of the area (this being the South of Thailand), but now he looked more alien than others there. An oddity! The image burnished in my memory, headlined, an oddity.

A little later another man came. He was a Thai. “Where are you from?” The same question. I replied. He showed me a piece of paper. He was collecting funds for Tsunami victims. I had my doubts. He could be a fraud. I apologized and waved him off. It is easy to dismiss a request when you talk to a man from behind sunglasses.

In the evening, the lights came on and the streets magically came alive with people—in cars, in tuk tuks, on scooters, on foot. There were touts everywhere: men and women asking us to buy stuff, dine at sea food joints or get massages. Every few steps, a tuk tuk driver or his agent would offer us a ride. A mini truck passed by slowly, with young boys on board in shorts mocking a Muoy Thai sparring, advertising for a super championship match in town. There was music and noise everywhere, the sheer liveliness of a place that thrived with human interaction, energizing the participants and onlookers alike. And I thought, dude, where are the protesters? Where is the unrest? Later, I saw a story in the Phuket Post (30 April- 13 May): Phuket backs the PM. “More than a thousand Phuket people delivered a handwritten letter to Go Wichai at the Provincial Hall on 19 April (hoping)…that the letter will encourage PM Abhisit (Vejjajiva) and his party not to resign and dissolve parliament…” In short, the Phuketites were for business and for normalcy.

Taking in the festiveness, we walked up to Jung Ceylon, a modern shopping complex where all your StarBucks, MacDonalds and Carrefours are. I experienced an effusive sense of relief but at the same time was struck with a sense of smallness—what a little world of brands made my mental universe. “Daddy, I want to eat junk food,” my daughter whispered in my ears when she found herself magically transported into this mini Singapore. She craved for a Burger King meal and that’s what we bought her. Surely, a guilty pleasure. We did some shopping in Robinsons and Carrefour and grabbed our dinner in the Jung Ceylon’s food court, and that’s where I made my greatest discovery: an Indian food stall named Bismillah Kitchen.

Amid all kinds of Thai food represented there, I was glad to find Indian food represented too. Also, this was the only food joint that displayed a halal sign, indicating that their food was kosher. Coming from Singapore, we were spoiled as Singapore has hundreds of halal certified food stalls and eateries. The stall was being manned by a young Pakistani man, Hassan. We ordered our dishes in Urdu and felt quite at home. The microwave-heated food was miraculously delicious (rice, dal, potato with peas and a bowl of meat with gravy; the pudina chutney was amazing) and so inexpensive that I decided to come there for all our subsequent meals. A single Burger King meal cost us about 250 bahts--and here we were getting nearly home cooked food for the whole family for just about 200 bahts. It was unbelievable.

Over the next few meals, I got to know a little bit more about Hassan. He was from Punjab and instead of venturing to Dubai or London as most of his countrymen do, he moved to Thailand. “There are lots of opportunities here,” he said. He was happy to see someone from the subcontinent. “Saheb,” he said, “I hardly see any Pakistanis come here. They seldom get out of the country.” “True,” I said, “There are reasons for it”. Then we talked about politics. “What is sad is that in Pakistan, Muslims are killing each other because of politics,” he said. Hassan was not much educated but he knew what was going on in his country.

Changing the topic, I asked him, are there a lot of Muslims in Phuket? “Oh, yes,” he said, “and they are very strong.” How, I further pressed him. “They are strong in business and they have a lot of clout.” Perhaps that explained why I saw so many mosques in Phuket.

Then he complained about a neighbouring stall owner who sold Thai food: she sold both chicken and pork and yet had the temerity to brandish a halal sign on her stall to attract Muslim tourists. “How could she do it?” Hassan said. Are you going to complain to the authorities? “No,” he said, “But next time they come on inspection, they will take action against her.”

I promised Hassan that I would write about his food stall. He was thankful. On the last day, he gave a free treat to my daughter: Milkmaid poured over a hot parantha. “Yummy,” my daughter declared.

For our remaining days in Phuket, we avoided the tourist traps and did more of the same—walking around, shopping and more family bonding over food and siestas. We even gave the Phuket Fantasia, a nightly dinner buffet with a Las Vegas-style show, a miss. Each ticket costs around 1800 bahts.

The night before we moved over to Bangkok, I took a stroll down the Soi Bangla, Patong’s liveliest party zone. The road is flanked by drinking holes and was crowded with tourists and street performers. Amid pulsating music, I could see mostly Western tourists drinking beer in bars and young girls and ladyboys pole dancing for the patrons. Some touts tried to entice me to free sex shows that I refused with my polite nods. The market-like open air atmosphere on the Bangla Road gives one a totally different experience, unlike the closed door revelry of Singapore’s Duxton Hill or Hong Kong’s Wanchai district. Good for those who like this kind of stuff.

A shorter version of this travelogue was published in The Daily Star, Dhaka.