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 Amazon.com. 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)