Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Nabokov Interviews

"I think like a genius,I write like a distinguished author, and I speak like a child," thus begins Nabokov's Strong Opinions. It is a book of interviews collected by Nabokov himself--a selection made out of forty interviews in several languages.

Nabokov was very conscious of his speech, which is evident from the opening line. He says in an interview: "I have always been a wretched speaker. My vocabulary dwells deep in my mind and needs paper to wriggle out into the physical zone. Spontaneous eloquence seems to me a miracle. I have rewritten -- often several times -- every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasures."

Beautiful, isn't it? When I first read these statements, my spine tingled with joy.

Whether it was delivering a lecture, or having a telephonic conversation ("my hemmings or hawings") or chit-chatting with people in a party, Nabokov was never off guard or casual about anything. "At parties, if I attempt to entertain people with a good story," he explains, "I have to go back to every other sentence for oral erasures and inserts. Even the dream I describe to my wife across the breakfast table is only a first draft."

To interview such a man was never a straightforward affair (Imagine Nabokov's discomfort in today's world of letters -- hopping from studio to television studio to promote one of his books, or to speak in a literary festival! Actually, he did once appear in a TV interview in London but that too was rehearsed and Nabokov had his notes in front of him, so he could neither stare at the camera nor leer at the questioner--thus appearing squirming and avoiding the camera). Instead, Nabokov insisted on receiving questions in advance and always carefully composed his responses. Anyone who wanted to interview him had to agree to three conditions: The questions had to be sent in writing, answered by him in writing, and reproduced verbatim.

Come to think of this process in our age of email interviews. It works perfectly well, saving each party the disgrace and heartburn of suffering a misquote, or mixing authentic responses with the artificial colour of human interest.

It was not that Nabokov did not enjoy giving interviews. He rather did. "My fiction allows me so seldom the occasion to air my private views that I rather welcome, now and then, the questions put to me in sudden spates by charming, courteous, intelligent visitors," he says. Or see what he says on another occasion: "The luxury of speaking on one theme--oneself--is a sensation not to be despised. But the result is sometimes puzzling."

In his first interview, given at the time of Lolita's film premiere, Nabokov describes himself as a person without public appeal (that is, he was boring as a celebrity): "I have never been drunk in my life. I never use school boy words of four letters. I have never worked in an office or a coal mine. I have never belonged to any club or group. No creed or school has had any influence on me whatsoever. Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of the social intent."

Nabokov was never interested in literary fashions, movements or schools. He was interested only in the individual artist. So, while Robbe-Grillet was a great French writer to him, he considered the "anti-novel" a banal and phony commercial label.

To him, a work of art was for an individual, and was of no social importance at all. "What makes a work of fiction safe from larvae and rust is not social importance but its art, only its art," he says.

Nabokov could not type and wrote everything in longhand, on index cards. He refused to show an interviewer a sample of his rough drafts. "Only ambitious nonentities and hearty mediocrities exhibit their rough drafts," was his reply. "It is like passing around samples of one's sputum."

Nabokov, who lived in Europe as a Russian immigre and then moved over to America and spent his last days in Europe again, maintained that the nationality of a worthwhile writer is of secondary importance. "The writer's art is his real passport," he says.

Art is never simple

"A creative writer must study carefully the works of his rivals, including the Almighty," he says. "Imagination without knowledge leads no farther than the backyard of primitive art, the child's scrawl on the fence, and the crank's message in the marketplace. Art is never simple. Art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex."

Many of us suffer from the disease of forgetability. So did Nabokov. His other failings as a writer included, in his own words, "lack of spontaneity; the nuisance of parallel thoughts, second thoughts; inability to express myself properly in any language unless I compose every damned sentence in my bath, in my mind, at my desk."

Nabokov had a bleak and "changeless as an old gray oak" political creed, classical to the point of triteness: "Freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of art. The social or economic structure of the ideal state is of little concern to me. My desires are modest. Portraits of the head of the government should not exceed a postage stamp in size. No torture and no executions. No music, except coming through earphones or played in theatres." By the way, Nabokov had no ear for music, a shortcoming he deplored bitterly.

Aspects of good reading

To Nabokov, a good reading involved not the heart, but the mind and the spine--yours, not the book's. The heart is a stupid reader, he says. "Ladies and gentlemen, the tingle in the spine really tells you what the author felt and wished you to feel," he used to tell his students.

And he hated yarns spliced with social comments. "The middlebrow or the upper Philistine cannot get rid of the furtive feeling that a book, to be great, must deal in great ideas."

He detested the so-called "powerful novels"--full of commonplace obscenities and torrents of dialogue. When a publisher sent him a book to read, he would first check for the amount of dialogue in it. "If it looks too abundant or too sustained, I shut the book with a bang, and ban it from my bed."

On writers

Nabokov's favourite writers, he once told an interviewer, were Robbe-Grillet and Borges: "How freely and gratefully one breathes in their marvelous labyrinths!I love their lucidity of thought, the purity and poetry, the mirage in the mirror."

He once described Dostoevski as a cheap sensationalist, clumsy and vulgar. He said that Russians who loved Dostoevski venerate him as a mystic and not as an artist. He disliked intensely The Karamazov Brothers and the ghastly Crime and Punishment. "He was a prophet, a claptrap journalist and a slapdash comedian," he says. "...His sensitive murderers and soulful prostitutes are not to be endured for one moment --by this reader anyway."

This more or less mirrors my own attitude to Dostoevski whom I admire but find some of his books too dense to get through. I want a powerful story but it has to be well told, distilled and condensed. Where is the mot juste in his writing?

He considered Anna Karenin the supreme masterpiece of nineteenth-century literature, closely followed by The Death of Ivan Illyich. War and Peace, he says, was written for that amorphic and limp creature known as 'the general reader,' and more specifically for the young.

He considered Hemingway and Conrad 'writers of books for boys'. "Hemingway certainly is the better of the two," he says. He loved his "The Killers" and found the famous fish story superb. While I personally love Hemingway, I could never connect with Conrad's prose. "I cannot abide Conrad's souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist cliches," says Nabokov. "In mentality and emotion, both (Hem and Conrad) are hopelessly juvenile."

What he read between the ages of 10-15: Wells, Poe, Browning, Keats, Falubert, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Alexander Blok. "By the age of 14 or 15, I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English and all Flubert in French --besides hundreds of other books," he writes. But at another level, his heroes were Scarlet Pimpernel, Phileas Fogg, and Sherlock Holmes.

What he read between the ages of 20-40: Houseman, Rupert Brooke, Norman Douglas, Bergson, Joyce, Proust, and Pushkin. Of these top favs, several - Poe, Jules Verne, Orczy, Conan Doylem and Rupert Brooke - lost the glamour and thrill for him in later age.

He read some of his coevals such as "the not quite first rate Eliot" and "definitely second rate Pound" late in life--and remained completely indifferent to them. He could not understand why anybody should bother about them. He hated Freud and called him a charlatan. "Let the credulous and vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts," he says. "I really do not care."

Late in his life, he still loved Melville, and liked Hawthorne and Emerson. His feelings towards James were rather complicated.
However, many accepted authors simply did not exist for him: "Their names are engraved on empty graves, their books are dummies, they are complete nonentities insofar as my taste in reading is concerned. Brecht, Faulkner, Camus, many others mean absolutely nothing to me." Same dislike goes for Mann, Dreiser and D H Lawrence.

Nabokov complained against the general attitude in English to pass the word 'genius' around rather generously. In Russian, genius is applied to a very small number of writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, Pushkin and Tolstoy. Turgenev and Chekhov were mere talents. He felt appalled at seeing genius applied to any important storyteller, such as Maupassant or Maugham. "Genius still means to me ... a unique, dazzling gift, the genius of James Joyce, not the talent of Henry James," he says.

Writing for Nabokov was a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime--but he never expected it to be a source of income. Rather he dreamt of a career in lepidoptera.

"If I am told I am a bad poet, I smile; but if told I am a poor scholar, I reach for my heaviest dictionary," he says in an essay, Reply to my Critics. In these interviews, Nabokov is much more interesting than he claims he is not, and as the book's blurb says, in these interviews, letters and articles, Nabokov is as engaging, challenging and caustic as anything he ever wrote.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Faulkner and the purity of exactitude

In my last post, I wrote about my friend Fang Yih, and in that post I had mentioned him as Pynchonian. When he learned of this description of him on my blog, he said I should have marked him as Faulknerian. In fact, he adores both Pynchon and Faulkner (I am yet to start on Pynchon, as I am still reading works of his teacher, Nabokov) and of course, Naipaul, whom both of us admire. Only last night I was reading some passages from Naipaul's The Mystic Masseur to my daughter and I was loving the comedy of the whole thing: it is always a pleasure to read the early Naipaul.

The year is coming to end and I wanted to write something on Faulkner after having read some of his essays and lectures which are available in a beautiful volume titled William Faulkner: Essays, Speeches and Public Letters (edited by James Meriwether, The Modern Library, New York).

The volume opens with Faulkner's essay on Sherwood Anderson, which is in fact an appreciation of one master by another. It is a brilliant sketch and is so evocatively written. You just have to read it to know what I mean by it. I just loved it.

In his later life, Anderson disconnected himself from his family just to focus on his writing--which was sort of an anti-Kafkaesque move.

Faulkner says that Anderson worked so laboriously and tediously and indefatigably at everything he wrote as if he said to himself: This anyway will, shall, must be invulnerable. He writes: "It was as though he wrote not even out of the consuming unsleeping appeaseless thirst for glory for which any normal artist would destroy his aged mother, but for what to him was more important and urgent: not even for mere truth, but for purity, the exactitude of purity."

The exactitude of purity (is it the same is mot jouste?) or the purity of exactitude - I love this expression - it has a sentimental value for me. I first read this phrase in an essay by Carver and he was perhaps referring to this essay by Faulkner which I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon. It was this attempt for exactitude that sometimes made Anderson fumble (often, inviting ridicule). It became his defining style. The writing had to be first rate for him. Nothing else mattered.

One of the great things Faulkner learned from Anderson, besides the exactitude of purity, is that - to be a writer, one has first got to be what he is, what he was born. "You had only to remember what you were," he writes.

"You have to have somewhere to start from: then you begin to learn," Anderson told Faulkner. "It don't matter where it was, just so you remember it and aint ashamed of it."

"... Watch and listen and try to understand; and, even if you can't understand, believe."

That I think turned out to be a great advice for Faulkner as he brought his own country, his patch of land in the vast America, Mississippi, to life on the pages of his fiction. It is another matter that Nabokov dismisses Faulkner's works as corncobian.

Freedom and privacy

Among other things, Faulkner championed freedom and privacy. "Man's hope is in man's freedom," he said once addressing the youth of Japan. These two ideals--freedom for all and privacy for each individual--are still our ideals and seem in greater danger of disappearing today than ever before. He believed that liberty and freedom (which is necessary to exist for a writer to practice his craft) are not given to man as a free gift but as a right and a responsibility to be earned if he deserves it, is worthy of it, and is willing to work for it by means of courage and sacrifice , and to defend it always.

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Faulkner spoke against the malaise of fear--fear that can kill freedom, fear that can undeniably kill a writer. If a writer wants to write of the heart, not of the glands, he must teach himself "that the basest of all things is to be afraid, and teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed--love and hounor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labours under a curse."

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Moveable Feast

One of my favorite reads this year has been Hemingway's A Moveable Feast. This book has been on my work desk for several weeks now and every time my colleague and friend Fang Yih sees it, he throws it into the dustbin. He is one of those Hemingway haters. "If he had to write such condensed and pared down prose, why didn't he try poetry?" That's his main grouse against Hemingway. I understand the nature of his complaint and smile away while retrieving the copy from the dustbin. "Perhaps, this is the only good book he ever wrote," Fang Yih admits grudgingly. He is a Pynchonian.

I had read some of Hemingway's stories earlier in the year: I had liked his Nick Adam stories. I haven't paid any serious attention to his novels yet. I had loved The Old Man and the Sea when I had read it some years ago. Nabokov liked his story, The Killers, more than anything else he ever wrote.

Yet, there are many who don't like Hemingway. One of my editor friends, after reading some of my stories that I wrote this year, said one or two stories in my collection read like journalism. Hemingway, in this book, says the same about some of Chekov's stories. So, in hindsight, I take my friend's comment as a compliment. Every story one writes can't be great. Some stories do get shaped up like journalism, even though the attempt is to avoid that effect.

Hemingway in Paris

Hemingway had started writing this book in 1957 and the book was published posthumously in 1964. The book records Hemingway's years in Paris during the 1920s. Then, he was starting up as a young and struggling writer; to begin with, he was stationed in Paris as a correspondent for the Toronto Star. At that time, Braque, Picasso, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and Scott Fitzgerald were the shining stars in Paris. Hemingway got to meet and befriend some of these legendary figures. Some chapters in this book tell stories of these legends.

One of the funniest chapters in the book is about Hemingway's travel with Fitzgerald. It is an amazing story in itself, and reveals the character of both the personalities.

In the beginning of the book, when Hemingway meets Gertrude Stein, he comes back with the feeling that he had to be cured of two things: his youth and his love for his wife. He believed work could cure anything and he worked hard to cure himself of these two things. Stein also advised him to buy pictures instead of clothes (to put the money to better use).

Hemingway was poor but he and his wife never thought of themselves as poor. They never accepted it ("We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other). But he knew in his heart that "the one who is doing his work and getting satisfaction from it is not the one the poverty bothers."

During their meetings, Stein and Hemingway often discussed writers and writing. Stein advised him not to read Huxley. "Huxley is a dead man. Can't you see he is dead?" she told him. "You should only read what is truly good and what is frankly bad." Huxley wrote inflated trash, she said.

Hemingway said he liked D H Lawrence, especially his short story, The Prussian Officer. Stein said she couldn't read his novels. "He's impossible, pathetic, and preposterous"--that was her judgment. "He writes like a sick man." She admired Sherwood Andersen, never as a writer, but as a person--a warm and kind person.

Books, hunger, writing

In those days, Hemingway had no money to buy books. He borrowed books from Shakespeare and Company, the bookstore of Sylvia Beach. Some of the books he mentions borrowing from her are Turgenev's A Sportsman's Sketches, D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (perhaps), and Constance Garnett edition of War and Peace, and The Gambler and Other Stories by Dostoyevsky.

In "Hunger was good discipline", Hemingway says all the paintings (in a museum) were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry. "Hunger is good discipline and you learn from it," he writes.

When Hemingway quit journalism, getting money was a problem. "When I stopped doing newspaper work I was sure the stories were going to be published. But every one I sent out came back."

One day Hemingway tells his woes to Sylvia. He feels ashamed about talking over this matter. "Don't you know all writers ever talk about is their troubles?" Sylvia tells him to comfort him.

Hemingway talks about his stories, Up in Michigan (Stein thought it was inaccrochable), and Out of Season. The real end of the latter story was that the old man in it hangs himself. Hemingway had omitted that ending based on his new theory, that "you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and that the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood".

In a chapter on Ford Maddox Ford, Hemingway does not portray a rosy picture of the writer (he had been through very bad domestic troubles). The two are drinking and a poet named Belloc passes by. Ford cuts him. "Tell me why one cuts people," Hemingway asks. "A gentleman," Ford explained,"will always cut a cad."

Ezra Pound

"Ezra Pound was always a good friend and he was always doing things for people," Hemingway writes. He associated with Pound's movement called Bel Esprit to raise money to free T S Eliot from his bank job so that he could write poetry. Eliot got freed but the movement died soon after.

Pound and Hemingway naturally liked to discuss writers. Hemingway had read Gogol, Tungenev, Tolstoi and Chekov. He had been advised to read Katherine Mansfield in Toronto but after reading Chekov, he felt her writing to be artificial and near-beer. "It was better to drink water. But Chekov was not water except for the clarity." Hemingway was puzzled by Dostoyevsky who wrote so "unbelievably badly" and yet made you feel so deeply. Dostoyevsky seemed to be anti- mot juste. Ezra said he never read the "Rooshians". "Keep to the French," he advised. "You've plenty to learn there."

The next chapter that follows is how he broke up his friendship with Stein. The rift led him to conclude that "there is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is even less future with truly ambitious women writers." The break left him so shaken that he could not make friends again truly, neither in his heart nor in his head. "When you cannot make friends any more in your head is the worst," he says.

The last chapters are on Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. They are full of insight. But I would like to close this review with a quote from Hem's poet friend, Evan Shipman, who truly did not care if his poems were ever published--he felt that it should remain a mystery.

"We need more true mystery in our lives, Hem," he once told Hemingway. "The completely unambitious writer and the really good unpublished poem are the things we lack most at this time. There is, of course, the problem of sustenance."

It sounds so true even hundred years later--now in our time when we are living almost naked lives. If the multitude of talentless poets and writers heeded this advice, we would be spared the unbearable trash that is thrown at us each year. It forces us to look back and reach for the gems of the past to survive the brazen assaults. The only difference, between then and now, is not that of the problem of sustenance but of vanity.

Monday, December 05, 2011

And after that there is only travel...

(Warning: Content not suitable for minors)

Perhaps I had mentioned Roberto Bolano's book The Insufferable Gaucho in one of my previous posts. Apart from the story, Alvaro Rousselot's Journey, that I loved, there is an essay in this book that had many marvelous thoughts in it. The essay is called Literature + Illness = Illness. It is dedicated to Bolano's friend the hepatologist, Dr. Victor Vargas. The essay has many sub-topics such as Illness and public speaking, Illness and freedom, Illness and height and so on. The most facilitating sub-chapter is one entitled, Illness and French poetry.

He quotes one of Mallarme's poems from Brise marine:

The flesh is sad--and I've read every book.
O to esacpe--to get away. Birds look
as though they're drunk for unknown spray and skies.

Then Bolano goes on to analyse the poem. "What did Mallarme mean when he said that the flesh was sad and that he'd read all the books? That he'd had his fill of reading and of having sex? That beyond a certain point, every book we read and every act of carnal knowledge is a repetition? And after that there is only travel? That f...g and reading are boring in the end, and that travel is the only way out?"

Then he tries to answer the question posed by Mallarme: "I think Mallarme is taking about illness, about the battle between illness and health: two totalitarian states, or powers if you prefer. I think he is talking about illness tricked out in the rags of boredom."

Under Illness and travel, Bolano writes: "...But it all catches up with you. Children. Books. Illness. The voyage comes to an end."

He then goes over to Baudelaire and quotes some of his lines: Once we have burned our brains out, we can plunge/to Hell or Heaven--any abyss will do--/deep in the Unknown to find the new!

Bolano says: "Rimbaud clearly understood, since he plunged with equal ferver into reading, sex, and travel, only to discover and accept, with a diamond-like lucidity, that writing doesn't matter at all."

Reading, writing, sex, travel--Bolano understands--resemble each other, and all that, is a mirage: there is only the desert and from time to time the remote, degrading lights of oasis.

Even though we feel tired of all the above acts, we have no choice but to go on. Bolano says: "We have to go on exploring sex, books, and travel, although we know that they lead us to the abyss, which, as it happens, is the only place where the antidote (to the illness of boredom) can be found."

Dev Anand

I got the news of Dev Anand Saheb's passing away on Facebook yesterday. I saw a friend's status on FB and it contained that dreadful news. It was a grey afternoon and I had taken my daughter out for swimming. The pool was closed because of the rains and the static due to the thunders. We waited for close to two hours and then headed back home.

En route, we decided to stop by for coffee and that's when I told my wife about Dev Saheb's death. He lived a great and respectable life and passed away in peace, she said. How many people get to lead that kind of life? Indeed. Dev Saheb was a lucky man. He enjoyed a lifetime of stardom, being showered with love from lovers of Hindi cinema. He died in his sleep. He was in London for medical check up. He was 88.

I awoke late to the chrisma of Dev Saheb. As a kid, I grew up worshiping the angry young man persona of Amitabh Bachchan. Those were the pre-television days and even to get to watch a Bachchan movie standing up in a hot, jam-packed, and dilapidated cinema hall was a ticket to the heaven. In those days, names like those of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kumar sounded boring. For me, they were stars who had faded away. I had difficulty believing that young Indian women found them worthy of swooning over!

Once, one of my uncles took me to watch one of Dev Saheb's hit movies. It was Johny Mera Naam. Hmm, not bad, I thought. Later on, I watched Guide. I liked it, more so because it was based on R K Narayan's story. Narayan had many complaints against Dev Saheb but that is another story. I also liked Dev Saheb's work in Kala Bazaar and Taxi Driver. I saw many of these gems while researching for a documentary with my friend and mentor Amir Ullah Khan and Professor Bibek Debroy (Indian Economic Transition through Bollywood Eyes).

As I watched more of his movies, I realised what had happened with him. His performance in some of his earlier films were great because he had not developed his trade mark Dev Anand Style. Later on, he had become a caricature of himself. This happened to many other good actors of Hindi cinema--they got trapped in their trade mark styles: names like Raaj Kumar, Dharmendra, Shatrughan Sinha, even Bachchan Saheb, come to my mind.

Though I had great respect for him, Dev Saheb seemed to have wasted his talent on films unworthy of his attention. He could have been like Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, even at 81, directs excellent films (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Invictus, to name a few). In his later career, Dev Saheb produced and directed many films, but not a single one is memorable (such as Awwal Number, Main Solah Baras Ki, Love at Times Square). Someone should have stopped him.

However, this does not make him any less great. Long before, he had earned his place in people's heart. I love him for his energy, for his capacity to go on, no matter what. And I will always remember him for the song, Har fikr to dhuyen me udata chala gaya. This is one of my favorite songs, besides the one from Gurudutt Saheb's Pyaasa: Yeh Duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh kya hai.

Dev Saheb, whenever fikr and taraddud surround me, I reach out for that stick and take a drag and sing along with you: Maein Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya/Har Fikar Ko Dhuen Mein Udata Chala Gaya

Dev Saheb, wherever you are, rest in peace. We will always love you.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The terror of being a poor Muslim in India

Jimmy the terrorist by Omair Ahmad
Hamish Hamilton, 2010; Rs. 350

Reviewed by Zafar Anjum

Novelist Omair Ahmad has chosen a misleading title for his third work of fiction, Jimmy the Terrorist. Jimmy, a lovingly anglicized version of Jamaal, is not an Islamist terrorist, plotting revenge in a post 9/11 world. As such, Jimmy the Terrorist is not about Islamist terrorism. It is about the terror of being a Muslim in India.

Well, make that a ‘poor’ Muslim in India. Omair brings up the class issue in his narrative, so the main protagonist Jamaal’s being ‘poor’ is quite pertinent here and must be taken note of. And Jamaal’s poverty is not the typical kind of poverty associated with the majority of Muslims and low caste Indians. His father is a teacher, he has a roof over his head, he studies at Moazzamabad’s most venerable school, St. Jude’s—only he doesn’t have the kind of expensive shoes and shirts and pocket money that his other ‘Hindu’ classmates have. Jamaal is ‘that’ kind of poor. He is middle-class poor—that’s where young Indian Muslim terrorists purportedly come from. The category of lower class Muslims—the ones who live in slums—is the fount of gangsters in India, the type you see in Bollywood films.

When the novel begins with a geographical and historical map-making of Moazzamabad in Uttar Pradesh, a certain kind of expectation builds up. Maybe it is because of the kind of news we have been receiving in the last few years—the stories of Indian police branding innocent young Muslim boys as terrorists and killing them for awards and trophies. When Omair evokes Moazzamabad and Rasoolpur, we hope to read about a sample biography of one of the terrorist boys from Azamgarh. I thought Jimmy the Terrorist would do for fiction what Tehelka does for non-fiction in India. At the same time, I was worried that the novelist would do what he is not supposed to do—bringing the news.

I was wrong.

Omair exceeds my expectations. He goes into India’s heart of darkness (actually he comes from there) and returns with a tale that reflects the reality of Indian Muslims today. His tale is ordinary, even deceptively simple in its plotting and narration but in its bosom is the picture of India’s underbelly and how it perceives its existence in a climate of Hinduvta-based politics.

The story is so plain that if I were a neocon reviewer, drawing a fat salary from one of the American think-tanks, I would have dismissed the book in a few sentences. Why make a fuss over a dead Muslim boy in a god-forsaken small town in Uttar Pradesh? Look at the numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Muslims have died. And wait! The number of deaths would be even more spectacular after the folly of revolutions in the Middle East. So, why care about Jimmy—I would have said.

Yet, the story Omair wants to share with us is important. And he does it with a simplicity which is hard to achieve, especially in setting up a story in the backdrop of India’s communal politics. Omair pulls the challenge off with ease and dexterity. Through his two main characters, Rafiq and his son Jamaal, the novelist brings into sharp relief the Muslim alienation in India today that has developed over two generations since Independence. The older protagonist, Rafiq, becomes an angry demagogue; the younger one, Jimmy, does not speak; he stores his anger until it explodes in a violent climax. Unlike his father, he lacks the safety valve of hate speech.

Omair shows that his two characters haven’t chosen their attitudes. Their circumstances have turned them into who they are. The story is precisely about this transformation in their nature. And the understanding of that mechanism that Omair brings to his reader is his main achievement in this novel.

When Rafiq, who aspired to be a poet and wanted acceptance in a local poetry circle, loses everything he so painstakingly has built over the years, he is forced to take a job at an Islamic school. Formerly a geography lecturer in a college, he is not sure how to go about his job interview. One of his friends teaches him the trick to land the job:

“Just be angry,” Haris said. “Rant and rave. Talk about the grand tragedies, about oppression, zulm, riots and murder. Grow your beard a little longer and miss no opportunity to raise your voice against the suffering of Muslims. It’s what the Mullahs do all the time.”

This cultivated anger gives Rafiq a sort of power that he never had and he carries this trick wherever he goes, to great success.

Jamaal, Rafiq’s son, on the other hand, grows pensive and inward-looking at St. Jude’s. “Being a winner requires more than just being first in a race: a victory is never quite that unless there are people who will acknowledge your triumph. It was the reason Jamaal never stood first in any of his exams.” At school, Jamaal also learns that there is a price to success, and the price isn’t simply hard work.

In the novel, Omair mentions many things: partition, communal riots, Sanjay Gandhi’s nasbandi programme, demolition of Babri Masjid and Advani’s Rath Yatra. But not once does he mention Pakistan. This omission is strange; or maybe it is a welcome relief for many Indian readers. But I wonder if the protagonists ever imagine what their fate would have been in Pakistan. Would they have fared better there?

Since Omair’s Jimmy the Terrorist has emerged out of a set of short stories, the seams have marked the narrative. More than half way through the book, one protagonist fades off and another protagonist takes over. If the story is about Jimmy, tell us Jimmy’s story—some readers might feel that way.

Even though the narrator’s voice in the novel is warm and mellifluous, it sometimes tires you. That is the other problem with the novel. Omair’s tendency to overexplain things slows down the narrative.

Jimmy the Terrorist is no Booker Prize material (here I humbly disagree with the novel’s publisher who had thought that it was Booker prize material)—it does not have the level of complexity and technical finesse of a great work of fiction but given the fact that the Chetan Bhagats are ruling the roost in India, it is encouraging to see young writers like Omair Ahmad trying their hand at serious fiction. Jimmy the Terrorist should be applauded for that daring itself.

This review was written in March and a version of it appeared in Indian Literature (published by Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi) in August 2011.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Paris on my mind

For the last few weeks, Paris has been on my mind.

It all started with Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. I had seen the movie on a plane en route to Shanghai. I had loved it for the sheer fact that it has characters that portray literary figures such as Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald. And Marion Cotillard--she is divine even though she is in a cameo in the movie. I had loved Hemingway's (played by Corey Stoll) macho dialogues. "No subject is terrible if the story is true, if the prose is clean and honest, and if it affirms courage and grace under pressure," says his character at one point in the film. I also loved the scene where Gil (Owen Wilson) asks Hemingway to read his novel. Papa says he hates it. "Why?" asks Gill, "You haven't even read it". "If it's bad, I'll hate it," says Papa. "If it's good, then I'll be envious and hate it even more. You don't want the opinion of another writer."

There are many such memorable scenes in that movie from the Paris of 1920s when Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, James Joyce, Piccasso, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald, among others, enlivened the literary world of Paris.

I mentioned this, my love for Paris arising from the movie, to one of my friends in Paris and she invited me to visit the city in December. How sweet of her! Alas, I cannot make it as I may have to travel to India in connection with a book.

But ever since, almost anything I have touched has some Paris in it. Weired, isn't it?

One day I picked up this book from the library which I thought would have nothing to do with Paris. It is called The Insufferable Gaucho by Roberto Bolano. Now I have loved some of Bolano's works, not all of them.
In this book, there is a lovely essay, Literature + Illness = Illness but the story that I loved most in the collection is titled Alavaro Rousselot's Journey. It is about a lesser known Argentine novelist Alavaro Rousselot who takes a trip to Paris to hunt down a French filmmaker who he thought was his most ardent reader/follower and who had made his name by making films that had plots similar to the plots of novels that Alavaro had written earlier in his career. It is a beautiful story and it ends poignantly like all good stories should, touching you somewhere on the spine, to make it atingle (to borrow that Nabokovian phrase).

The next two books I picked up and read also had a lot of Paris in it. One is a book of interviews of Nabokov, selected by the great writer himself. He had spent parts of his youth in Berlin and Paris as an immigrant and he talks about seeing Joyce and Aleksei Tolstoy there. Joyce once even came to one of his talks that he was made to give at the last minute after a famous Eastern European writer failed to appear at a scheduled event.

The other book that I have been enjoying a great deal is A Moveable Feast by Hemingway. As you may know, this book is Hemingway's tribute to Paris and an elegy to the remarkable group of expats that formed the literary and artistic life of the Paris of the 1920s. In this book, I have loved the chapters on Scott and Zelda. His struggle to become a writer amid poverty should inspire all poor writers, like myself. It was strange to read how Hemingway treated poverty, exactly like me: "We did not think ever of ourselves as poor," he says. "We did not accept it. We thought we were superior people and other people that we looked down on and rightly mistrusted were rich." Reading Papa's words brought me some relief; only I do not believe in the inferior and superior bit, but I would certainly never respect anyone just because he/she is rich. Only two qualities - piety and knowledge - will generate awe in me for a person.

It was about Paris that Hemingway wrote to one of his friends in 1950: "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."

I know Paris has changed since Hemingway's time. But after reading so much about Paris and having watched so many great French films, why won't I wish to see Paris? I know it is a matter of time. At least, I hope so.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Dr. Susan Lim's search for justice

In recent months, well-known Singapore surgeon Dr. Susan Lim has received enough media attention here and abroad in the wake of her run-in with the Singapore Medical Council (SMC). Last week, the judgment on her appeal against constituting a second disciplinary committee by the SMC was reserved.

SMC, whose job, among others, is to determine and regulate the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore, wants to conduct a second disciplinary inquiry into the Ministry of Health's accusation against Dr. Lim that she overcharged a patient--the sister of the Brunei queen--over seven months in 2007. Her controversial medical bill, still unpaid, after discounts, stands at $12 million.

The first SMC disciplinary committee had to stand down after Dr. Lim's lawyers claimed it had per-judged the case (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). Dr. Lim's lawyers want to exploit this 'standing down' of the first committee to avoid being further investigated. "It was illegal, improper and biased," said Dr. Lim's lawyer in the court of the SMC's disciplinary proceedings (The New Paper, 11 Nov, 2011). However, the SMC's lawyer insists that there is a case against Dr. Lim since there is no evidence of an agreement between the doctor and the patient of a fee agreement, and so the overcharging was unjustified. Who knows if this case leads to the standardization of fees by medical specialists in Singapore, just like Britain is contemplating legislation next year to curb excessive executive pay?

I had briefly written about this case before as it had caught my attention (a writer always keeps a lookout for interesting stories; Hemingway, when he was in Paris, loved to read crime stories in the scandal sheets). It sounds callous and heartless but that is how writers are.

Months later, upon reading my piece, one day I was invited to meet Dr. Susan Lim's team. They wanted to present the facts, their side of the story which was not sufficiently covered in the media, in front of me. I wondered why they would want to do that for an insignificant blogger like me? Maybe it was because of the questions that I had raised in my previous blog post.

One the one hand, I was curious; on the other, I was apprehensive, not sure about going for the meeting. A meeting meant an obligation to write a piece. Or may be not. But as is the case with me, I am too soft-hearted to say no to anyone. I also had to think of the possibility of any consequences of my writing about an ongoing case. Should I be afraid of anything? The moment I thought of that, of being afraid, I knew what I should do. I went right ahead to the meeting. Ideally, the whole country's media, and not just me, should have been called in to an open press conference for them to be presented with the facts of the case.

The meeting lasted more than an hour. It was a pleasant meeting. Like any corporate briefing, there also was a representative of a PR company present there. At the end of the meeting, he asked me to get in touch with him if I needed any more info. "Shop talk," I smiled and got out of the meeting venue.

A reputation collapses under the weight of newspaper headlines

After the meeting, I was thinking about the beleaguered surgeon and her staff (I don't know how many of them have already been retrenched because of lack of funds). What a price to pay for a royal engagement? One the one hand, Dr. Lim's image has been tarnished because of the heavy media coverage and the chatter in the blogosphere: she has been portrayed as a greedy profiteer, as if she were not a top surgeon but a buccaneer, prizing profit out of human misery (even though the 'misery' was royal in her case). On the other, she has lost her business. A medical practitioner of 30 years standing, Dr. Lim once (in 2007) led the largest surgical practice in Singapore with 33 staff at two clinics in two of Singapore's top private hospitals. Not long ago, according to her team, Dr. Lim's business was worth about 80 million dollars in valuation. Today, that business has gone kaput, bankrupt. Dr. Lim is a pioneering surgeon in Asia; she is a star speaker in conferences all over the world.

Imagine losing your business after achieving such great success, after climbing such great heights, and on top of that, being labelled a greedy person, a profiteer. And for what? According to her team, it was merely for going out of her way to treat the patient. She should have billed the patient every month. Then the issue of outstanding bills would not have arisen.

According to her team, the doctor has been wrongly accused of having no fee agreement with the patient. But the agreement was only verbal--or so it was said. Their point is that Dr. Lim had been assured by the royal patient that Istana (The Royal Palace of Brunei) would take care of her fees and she should not worry about it. True to the promise, for six years, the doctor was paid her fees, whatever the amount, without any questions asked; but, once the patient passed away, the same kind of fees were deemed outrageous. According to her team, the Brunei government were appreciative of her services and only wanted a benchmark or justification from the Singapore authorities for standardizing fees.

Since the rest of her story is well-known, encapsulated here in this video ( (brought to my notice by her team) and numerous press articles and blog entries, I will not go into much detail. As a writer and artist, I am only interested in the individual.

From the meeting, I emerged impressed by the fearlessness and perseverance of Dr. Lim's team. All they want is to get her name cleared.

Justice and Fearlessness: A Faulknerian quest

After the meeting with the doctor's team, I had been thinking of the controversial case. Why is it important for anyone but her? Why should anyone bother about what happens to her? She is not even an underdog! (It is simple human instinct to champion the underdog) She is well-set and is married to a rich banker. I have been wondering about all these questions when one afternoon, as if by serendipity, I came across a volume of American writer William Faulkner's Essays and Speeches in a library. Some of the Nobel prize winning writer's thoughts jumped at me, making immediate connection with my quest at hand as well as with numerous uprisings making headlines around the world.

In speech after speech, if Faulkner has emphasized on anything, it is fearlessness. In his Nobel prize acceptance speech in 1950, he said that the basest of all things is to be afraid. In 1951, addressing the graduating class of University High School, Oxford, Mississipi, he said: "What threatens us today is fear. Not the atom bomb, nor even fear of it...Our danger is not that. Our danger is the forces in the world today which are trying to use man's fear to rob him of his individuality, his soul, trying to reduce him to an unthinking mass by fear and bribery...because they themselves are baffled and afraid, afraid of, or incapable of, believing in man's capacity for courage and endurance and sacrifice."

In the same speech, Faulkner says: "It is not men in the mass who can and will save Man. It is Man himself, created in the image of God so that he shall have the power and the will to choose right from wrong, and so be able to save himself because he is worth saving;--Man, the individual, men and women, who will refuse always to be tricked and frightened or bribed into surrendering, not just the right but the duty too, to choose between justice and injustice, courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed, pity and never be afraid. Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion, against injustice and lying and greed."

Dr. Lim is fearless and is seeking justice for herself and her team. If she thinks she has a solid case, which she thinks she has, why can't she allow SMC to conduct another inquiry and prove her point? After all, SMC has the responsibility of regulating the conduct and ethics of registered medical practitioners in Singapore. If SMC does find something wrong in her case and passes a regulation which she might consider unfair, she still would have recourse to justice, won't she?

One can understand that her faith in the SMC is shaken after what happened in the first disciplinary committee. But my hope is that Singapore, having made its name on the back of championing hard work, fairness and justice, will give Dr. Lim a fair chance to clear her name.

What's wrong with Ra.One?

Contrary to what the title of this post implies, there are many things right with Ra.One. It is an ambitious film, in terms of scale and budget. It is India's most expensive film to date. It introduces the superhero genre to the Indian audiences. For some, it even has moments of breathtaking special effects. And no matter what the naysayers say, the film has already recouped its cost (over Rs 125 crores, according to actor and producer Shahrukh Khan) from the trade.

Lead actor Shahrukh Khan and director Anubhav Sinha wanted to make a superhero film for (their) kids. Both wanted to pay a tribute to the dads of the world that they are cool too. The boxoffice says they have succeeded in their effort. Good. I am happy for these two brave dads.

A dad's reaction

I took my daughter to the theatre to watch Ra.One last week. She liked it. She had already got hooked on to the Chamak Challo song. For a six year old, the story and the effects would have been overwhelming.

Personally, I wanted to like the film. I had loved Shahrukh's My Name is Khan, though many of my friends didn't like it--I have a weakness for films or literature with ideas and social messages: a sure sign of mediocrity, and I know Nabokov would not approve of it: A work of art has no importance whatever to society; it is important only to the individual, he has said. But I know what you are thinking already. Are Bollywood films even works of art? Can Nabokov's standards be applied to Bollywood or even Hollywood films? It is not even debatable, I know, I know (with some exceptions again).

Apart from its timeliness and social relevance, I had liked My Name is Khan because it was smoothly written and Shahrukh's acting was consistent in the film (excepting one or two scenes, if I remember correctly). The credit also must go to the film's director Karan Johar and writer, Shibani Bhatija. That film, and many of Shahrukh's earlier films, had led me to believe that Shahrukh had a great script sense and no matter who he worked with, he would bring up the film to a level that would make it appear grounded and polished. His Don with Farhan Akhtar is another recent example.

With Ra.One unfortunately I did not feel so. Despite the special effects (and many would say "I have seen better" effects), the film has many blurs and blotches. The characters are not grounded enough and everything has a plastic feel to it. The film is too episodic in nature and the seams in the story are visible. The trick is to hide them.

My problem, in regard to Ra.One, is clearly with the story and the writing. I will not discuss Shahrukh's acting here: the performance has been more or less consistent except for the scene towards the end of the film where G.One tells Prateek (Armaan Verma) that he has to 'go'. There, he slips into the My Name is Khan mode of acting.

Now, look at the writing credits of Ra.One (source: IMDB):

David Benullo
Kanika Dhillon dialogue
Kanika Dhillon screenplay
Niranjan Iyengar dialogue
Shah Rukh Khan screenplay
Mushtaq Sheikh screenplay
Anubhav Sinha story

When many writers work on a project, the resulting product could go in any direction. Example: Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Even though the film was based on a book and four writers worked on it, the film failed to appeal to many Scorsese fans. I am afraid the same has happened in Ra.One's case.

Superhero films needn't be for children alone (Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight is an example). And even for a children's film, I found some dialogues in Ra.One distasteful. At the film's beginning, in the fantasy sequence, the Bruce Lee and his three sisters-- Iski Lee, Uski Lee and Sabki Lee-- joke was not only trite but subpar (It belongs to, maybe, an Anurag Kashyap film dealing with characters who are Mumbai's scum). That too from a kid like Prateek (he is dreaming out this sequence) who is studying in England? Will his jokes be like this? I doubt that. Also, the kid is perhaps a genius geek, even though all he does is play video games, argue with his father and listen to loud music by Michael Jackson. In the first half of the film, he is writing an essay on his father in his classroom (makes him a primary school kid?); in the second half of the film, he successfully assembles G.One at his home. What a leap for kid like him!

The other distasteful jokes were the kondom, kondom joke and the power yoga joke. These could have been weeded out at the script level.

Shahrukh's V.Shantaram-loving Shekhar Subramaniam character is also a hodgepodge, just like his plate of noodles and curd. Back in India, all we see about Shekhar is an empty house and two neighbours. What is his backstory, guys?

I know all these points do not matter, now that the film is a success. Like Hollywood's, Bollywood's biggies too know the box office game too well. As has been noted in a book on summer blockbusters (read Diwali or Eid here), these big budget films will work no matter what kind of writing they employ. My only request to the Shahrukh Khans of Bollywood is that, please, encourage good writing. It is sad that it does not matter but it should.

I am sure Shahrukh will make a sequel of Ra.One (called G.One?) and it too will become a huge hit at the boxoffice. When it comes to the cinemas, I know that I will bring my daughter to the theatre to see it. I know that she will like it too--she is just a child. But can Shahrukh make his writers work harder this time, so that a dad like me can enjoy the film with his daughter, without having to squirm in his seat. That is my only request to Shahrukh Khan and his team.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Bangkok Floods: News vs Facts

If you have been following the news, you would get the impression that all of Bangkok has been flooded. Cars and apartment buildings are submerged in water. You can't walk in the streets. You would have to wade through waist-high water. The city, as far as civic life goes, is dead. The government has declared a state of emergency. And so on -- a litany of dreadful dross. That is the kind of depressing news you must be getting.

Trust me, it is far, far from the truth (well, the emergency thing is true but I hardly saw any soldier anywhere).

I am just back from Bangkok after nearly a week-long stay there and I did not see a single drop of flood water. I repeat, not a single drop of flood water--and I was in central Bangkok. It was warm and sunny and it did not rain at all during the six days of my stay in Bangkok.

Before I had started for the Thai capital, my friends had cautioned me. I had chosen a bad time to go to Thailand.

It reminded me of the last time I had visited Bangkok. Then too, the city was battling another national crisis. The red shirts and the yellow shirts were fighting it out on the streets of Bangkok. Malls were burnt down, people had been shot at. Army had been called in.

Like the last time, this time too, I ignored the warnings and went ahead with my plans. I come back with no regrets.

True, there are widespread floods in the plains and in the areas adjoining Bangkok, but the water is still outside the city. Areas like Pathum Thani have been inundated, which is like 25 kilometers away from the main city (locals have moved to shelters and expats have moved back to their countries for now). The water has since been coming closer to the city and the administration wants to use the city canals to drain off the water to the Gulf of Bangkok. Yesterday, the headline in a local daily said that flood water in Bangkok was expected in 4-5 days.

The government has said that the flood situation could continue for 4-6 weeks in the affected areas. If it does not rain, I don't see any major flooding in the Bangkok city.

During the time I was in Bangkok, I did not notice any flood water but I saw some signs of public panic. I put it down to public preparedness, a natural human instinct, in the face of an expected disaster.

In one of the stores Big C in downtown Bangkok, I went to buy bottled water. Most of it was gone. Only a handful of bottles were left on the shelves. Same was true of noodles (The Thais are fond of noodles, aren't they?).

My sister who lives in Bangkok reported something similar. Water and noodles were gone from the shelves at the store in Narathiwas where she shops. I checked for other items in the same store. There were many empty shelves and I noticed that some choice spices were also gone. My brother in law, who is an expert in disaster management, said that these stores are one of the biggest beneficiaries of the flood. Given the brisk sale and the resulting profits, one shopping store chain has even announced an IPO on the stock exchange. This is called business sense.

Another interesting story that I read in the papers was about some local residents who had parked their cars on a highway, fearing that flood waters might damage their vehicles. This kind of parking then caused anger among the motorists who use the highway. Apparently, all parking places have been opened to Thai citizens who can park their vehicles without paying fees.

In the flooded areas outside Bangkok, apparently some crocodiles had escaped the farms. The authorities had advised people to beat the waters with sticks to scare away the crocodiles. A zoo in the city reported that it was ready to move the animals to proper shelters following an emergency evacuation plan.

A city of sandbags

While I walked around the city, I noticed sandbags at the entrance of malls and other business establishments, especially banks and ATMs.

Other than this, the city seemed normal. It was business as usual everywhere. I saw the Thais and tourists enjoying their Phad Thai noodles and barbequed chicken and cat fish everywhere. The malls were open, tourists were buying fake Luis Vuitton bags and the pimps were peddling girls and sex shows in Patpong like nothing was happening outside the city.

Outside a mall. I saw a tent manned by uniformed people. They were there to collect donations for the flood victims. I saw packets of noodles and water bottles stacked up within the tent.

On my way to the Suvarnabhumi airport on Sunday, the freeway was devoid of much traffic. It was a shiny morning and the green farms around the airport looked beautiful. As I boarded the plane, I silently said a prayer for the City of Lost Angels. I flew with the foolish belief that calamity will not touch this great city. Foolish beliefs--sometimes that's all we have.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Job, Jobs and 'The Tree of Life'

This Thursday (6 October) morning, I was on the bus to my office. I was surfing through the books section of The Guardian on my iPhone when I received an SMS from my colleague and publisher, Mark Hobson. "I'm hearing on the news that Steve Jobs is dead." The message shook me to the bone. I didn't know what to say. For a few seconds, I just held the phone in my palm. It lay there, cold. I knew that the cancer-stricken, frail-looking Steve Jobs, the darling of Apple's fans, might die in the next few years. But I didn't expect to receive the news of his death so soon. It was as shocking as Michael Jackson's sudden death or as Lady Diana's death in a freak accident many years ago. Only a day before, Mark had shared with me that iPhone 4S, and not the much-awaited iPhone 5, had been launched in the US. And the very next day, I am told that that the man who gave the world the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone was dead.

I checked the news in Google. It was true. Jobs was dead at 56. A rare form of pancreatic cancer had claimed his life. I checked my friends' status notes on Facebook. Many were mourning Jobs' death. "Oh, no!" I replied to Mark.

Death. It spares no one. As children, our elders told us: "Death is a certainty. If you remember death every day many times over, the chances are that you will not make grave mistakes in life. You'll not go astray."

I remembered Jobs' own words on death from his famous commencement speech delivered at Stanford: "No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life." (Stay hungry, stay foolish)

Jobs, probably the most iconic inventor of our times, was saying this about death--that death is "very likely the single best invention of Life". Such words could have come only from a deep understanding of life. Jobs was a man whom life had afforded a second inning, and in his speech, Jobs had acknowledged his search for self-knowledge in India when he was young and out of college. The son of a Syrian Muslim, raised by a Christian couple, had gone to India to seek peace and knowledge from Hindu sages and had died a Buddhist. Jobs' understanding of death--and in turn, of life--could have come only from the wanderings of such a bold and searching spirit that he possessed. That's why he could say to the Standford graduates: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma - which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

I haven't heard any contemporary business leader speak so eloquently about death and about the courage to follow one's heart and live with its consequences.

When I reached office, I found my colleagues discussing Jobs' passing away. Jobs' death had made everyone sad.

The Tree of Life

In the evening, I was supposed to go to watch Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. This was Malick's fifth film in a career spanning 40 years. The project was apparently in development for decades. Malick had been developing it as 'Q' and it was meant to be about the birth of the universe and the creation of life. After years of many false starts, the film was finally produced by the film's lead actor Brad Pitt. The film missed 2009 and 2010 release dates and was premiered in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d'Or. Robert De Niro, who was the head of the jury, said that the film fitted the bill for the prize.

Some of my screenwriting buddies had read rave reviews of the film and wanted to see it in a group. Eight of us marched into the theatre. The theatre soon filled up with people. Two middle-aged ladies sat next to me.

When I began watching the film, I suddenly realised that Malick's film fitted in squarely with the sombre mood of the day. The Tree of Life is about birth and death, about love and loss and coping with pain.

Both Malick and Jobs are great minds. Unlike Jobs, Malick is very reclusive: he refuses interviews, refuses being photographed. Even though it might sound ludicrous, I began to see (perhaps more now when I am writing this, in hindsight) some parallels between Malick's and Jobs' lives: both had Middle Eastern fathers (Malick's was an Assyrian Christian Lebanese immigrant), both dropped out of college (Jobs from Reed College and Malick from Magdalen College, Oxford), and both had a philosophical bent of mind (it sounds weird to use past tense for Malick)--Jobs was interested in Eastern philosophy, Malick in the Western. Malick even translated Heidegger's Vom Wesen des Grundes as The Essence of Reasons and taught philosophy at MIT before he turned to filmmaking.

Malick is a rare filmmaker in America: Hollywood that produces hundreds of soulless films every year, a filmmaker like Malick compensates that soullessness with his uniquely photographed films, which are more like poems in motion pictures. His films are deeply philosophical and metaphorical.

The Tree of Life opens with a quotation from the Book of Job, when God asks, "Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation ... while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"

I saw this film as an adaptation of the story of Job from the holy Bible. Malick has set his film in the 1950s Texas, where he spent his own childhood. A large part of the film revolves around the childhood of Sean Penn's character and his two brothers and parents, played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. One of the three brothers dies (perhaps in a war zone) when he is 19. The film is about Penn's childhood memories and Chastain's and Penn's coming to grips with the loss of the child (for plot and production derails, see this page).

Here, the Biblical Job is Pitt's character, Jack O'Brien (initials are J-O-B). In the Bible, Job was a man tested by God after Satan wagers Job only serves God because of His protection. After losing his wealth, family and health, Job would rather curse himself than God (from IMDB).

One of the most weird parts of the film is the almost half an hour long creation of the universe sequence which is breathtakingly photographed. I saw the two ladies sitting next to me giggling at this Malickian indulgence. Because of the film's quirky sequences, apparently in the US, some theaters set up signs that warned "moviegoers about the enigmatic and non-linear narrative of the movie - following some confused walkouts and refund demands in the opening weeks". I can understand this confusion and I do empathise with such viewers. Perhaps they did not want to follow the director's vision, who, with a godlike eye, shows us the dimensions of the universe and the powerful elements of nature (just as the Lord talks about them in the Bible in the Job chapter).

The Tree of Life is a work of art, a work of genius, and by the end of the film, I was speechless at the sheer ambition of the film. I felt as if I had read a great book of philosophy or a great and wise tale from Tolstoy. Some critics have compared the film to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a film, The Tree of Life seems to be able to transcend all boundaries and communicate to even filmgoers who might live on other planets. This is a truly cosmic film. The last scene of the film, about life after the Day of Resurrection, is one scene that I dreamed of filming as a filmmaker. Malick beat me to it.

Poor Sean Penn looked lost in the film, not sure of what was going on. "I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read," he said in an interview. "A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly."

When I came out of the theatre, I felt compelled to write about it on Facebook. I posted a status update. The film somehow lessened my pain of Jobs' death. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Singapore 'Borders' closed

It is curtains for Borders in Singapore.

The only functional Borders outlet at Parkway Parade closed its door on Monday. For good.

Last Saturday, I made a trip to the bookstore. Books were being sold off at 70 per cent discount. I knew that all the good books would have gone by now. Still, I wanted to go to the bookstore one last time. So, I went. Like a pilgrim, I had to make that last journey.

As expected, there was a good crowd. Most of the books left in the store were crap. Yet, people thronged the shelves that had some stock left on them. Half the bookstore's shelves were without books. There were 'Out of Bound' signs to prevent the public from entering those spaces.

I spent more than an hour looking for books I could buy. I found a couple of novels and two books on screenplay writing worth buying. My daughter found two books that she wanted to buy. I waited for almost half an hour to make payment for my purchase. It was all very civil. When I paid for the books, the counter clerk looked me in the eye and said, "Thank you". If it were business as usual, she would have said, "See you again, sir." We both knew it was the last time. But there was nothing on her face. No smile, no sorry, no regret.

I stepped out of the store and looked at it one last time.

With Borders' closure, a chapter has ended for book-lovers in Singapore. I will miss a bookstore like Borders. I think it was not lack of customer support that killed the store. It was the rent. Singapore's escalating rent is killing many businesses, most of them small businesses. Selling books is not just business--it is more than that. Bookstores should be given the non-profit treatment, and every Mall should give discounts in the rental for bookstores. Bookstores are like parks in a city. What kind of ROI do we expect from them? If a bookstore goes, the loss is ours.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


This post is not about Dibakar Banerjee's upcoming film Shanghai, which is being shot in Kolkata. Though I must say, I am looking forward to watch that unusual film. I am told that it is adapted from a 1966 novel by Vassilis Vassilikos that inspired Costa Gavras to make Z, one of the most astute political films that I have seen so far. In adapting Z to an Indian setting, Dibakar has a great challenge on his hands. Will he live up to the expectations, especially of those who have seen Costa Gavras' film? Only time will tell. At this moment all I can do is to wish Dibakar good luck.

I had to put that note in because in future, people might stumble upon this blog post, taking it for a review or discussion of Dibakar's film. Sorry amigos! If you are here to read about the film, you are at the wrong place. Time to hit the back button, you know.

Anyway, talking of Shanghai, I happened to be there last week for three days. The visit was work-related, so I couldn't spend much time exploring the city. As such, my impressions of the city should only be considered sketchy and superficial. What I am going to share with you here is more about my journey to Shanghai than about the city of Shanghai itself.

Initially I was not sure if I was going to Shanghai at all but the visa came through. I had tried once before but was not lucky enough to get the visa (in that instance, the paperwork was not complete and so on; it's a long story). I was totally unprepared for the journey this time. This was one of those rare journeys which I undertook without reading anything about the city that I was visiting. I think there was some innocence about this unpreparedness, this ignorance. I took Shanghai as she revealed herself to me. I didn't go there with any fixed images, so I was neither overwhelmed nor underwhelmed when I stepped into Shanghai.

Before going to Shanghai, one of my colleagues had shown me pictures of his visit to the city nearly ten years ago. In his collection, there were pictures of skyscrapers, the famous Bund, and some Chinese temples. In the pictures, the sky looked muddy, overcast with smog. Only that image of a smog-laden Shanghai stayed with me. Avoid the beggars in Shanghai, my colleague warned me. There will be plenty of them and they will approach foreigners like you, he said. I noted his advice. From my Indian experience I knew how to avoid beggars, so I was not worried about encountering them.

The flight was normal: I read a book, watched a couple of movies (Midnight in Paris and Dum Maro Dum), ate my Moslem food and nodded off. When I landed at the Shanghai's Pudong International Airport, I found it impressive. It was sans frills but was massive in structure. Architecturally, it even looked beautiful from the outside. Only the smoking rooms are much smaller at the airport-each room cannot hold more than 7-8 people smoking simultaneously. And you wouldn't find Starbucks or Coffee Beans there. I noted that on my way back.

The Arabs and the Chinese

But first, let us check out the immigration queues that reminded me of India and Australia. It took us nearly half an hour to clear immigration. The same process does not take more than ten minutes in Singapore. Singapore-like briskness is unique to Singapore only, I guess. How does Singapore do it? Other countries should learn from the Lion City.

While waiting for clearance, I looked around. A signboard said the airport staff was committed to providing quick service to the passengers, without compromising on their duties. You should be attended to within 25 minutes -- that was the written commitment. Nearby there were huge signs saying things like, No Photography and Quiet (there was no 'please' after 'Quiet').

At the airport, I was struck by the number of foreigners queuing up at the immigration counters. I saw a surprisingly large number of Arabs and people of Middle Eastern origin waiting to enter the city. Outside the arrival hall, I saw many locals holding placards in Arabic to welcome their guests. Looks like the Arabs and the Chinese are doing brisk business.

Meeting Prasoon Joshi

One of the amazing things about journeys is that you never know who you are going to bump into. I had the good luck to meet the amazingly talented ad man and Bollywood lyricist, Prasoon Joshi at the airport. We were going to the same hotel to attend the same event in the same car, so we had a good conversation in Hindustani throughout the journey. It was such a pleasure to talk about India with Prasoon: he was sweet and forthcoming. We talked about India, his work with children in schools, his views on Anna Hazare and media's role in the Hazare movement, and so on.

Meanwhile, we kept looking out of the car. The temperature was around 26 degrees so it was quite pleasant. Outside, all we could see were rows after rows of cookie-cutter housing complexes and skyscrapers. There was nothing Chinese or even Asian about the view. We could well have been in some European country.

Where are the beggars in Shanghai?

Since I stayed close to an area where the Shanghai Expo is located, which is a little far from the main city centre, I could make sense of a few things only.

Shanghai's skies were still smog-laden but I found no beggars. Even when I travelled to the city centre, I found no beggars. In some old parts of the city, I could see only relatively poor people on bicycles or lugging things on tricycles.

Also, I did not see as many people on the street as I had expected to see. China being the most populous country in the world, you expect a horde everywhere. But it wasn't like that. That way, Singapore looks more crowded than Shanghai. I could see the public buses, made by Volvo, with reasonable number of passengers on them. This was unlike the public buses in Singapore, which are often overcrowded. I wanted to but I had no time to take the Shanghai metro even once.

Food is comparatively cheaper in China, except for coffee. Taxi is inexpensive. Foreign cigarettes are inexpensive, though it is difficult to find tobacco products (Family Marts don't sell them, nor do all the supermarkets). A taxi ride to a cigarette shop cost me around S$2 whereas a pack of Marlboro cost me a little over S$1. At the same shop, piles of pirated DVDs of latest Hollywood films were heaped outside the storefront. The storekeeper did not even try to hide his bootleg stuff. What does it tell about China's anti-piracy efforts?

For moving around with ease, you better have someone with you who can speak Mandarin. Taxi and shop keepers don't speak English. I was lucky to have someone with me who could speak the language.

Over two days, I could visit only two interesting places during my stay: one was the Bund, the other was an arts village kind of touristy place where you have Italian and French style cafes and many many shops selling clothes, nick-knacks, and art. I think it was Xintiandi, famous for its renovated shikumen lanes. The Bund was glorious at night, illuminated by lights of myriad hues giving the place a colorful and mesmeric, dream-like appearance. There were many people taking a stroll on the Bund. A young Chinese boy (though he was working as a salesman) came up to me and struck a conversation with me. Hailing from Jiangsu, he was with a group of young guys. This was his first visit to Shanghai. He wanted me to get photographed with his group members. I obliged.

I remember the boy, his energy, and his outgoing dare. He was learning English and wanted to make a career in sales, hoping to exploit his linguistic skills. "Can you speak Chinese?" he asked me. I nodded no. "One of my English teachers is from Singapore," he said. Maybe that's why he wondered if I knew Chinese. After the picture-taking, we went our own ways.

At the airport's smoking room, on my way back, I was looking for a light. On the wall there was this machine that had lighters embedded in it--the machine looked menacing to me. It looked like a mini-electrocution-er (not sure if this is even a proper word but what the hell!). The sign above the machine did not help either. Please Use Sparingly, it said. Sensing my discomfort, a young American chap offered me his lighter. "Thanks," I said. "How come you could bring in your lighter whereas mine was confiscated by security people?" I asked him. "I don't know," he said with a smile. We talked a little more. He was going to his hometown, Chicago. He taught English in China.

Indian and Chinese airports have at least two things in common: lighters are confiscated and queues at the immigration counters are long. I kept smiling to myself thinking about these similarities while I waited for my flight back to Singapore where I knew things would be fast and smooth.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The difference between taste and judgment

We are very quick to pronounce our judgments on works of art: a book, a movie, a picture. I don't like this book. I love that movie. And so on. The point is, as long as we have a basic respect for a work of art, it is OK to express your opinion about it.

This and many other interesting points make Rick Gekoski's piece, It takes judgment, not taste, to pick a Booker winner, quite readable:
Claiming that something is right or wrong is generally regarded as more than mere opinion. Murder is wrong, being kind to old ladies is right: such conclusions are the result of first principles, argument and sustained consideration. If I prefer merlot to cabernet sauvignon, football to cricket, blondes to brunettes, spinach to mushrooms, that is a matter of taste, and I am under no obligation to defend my preference. But if I adore murdering, and am gratuitously beastly to old ladies, I am (in many ways) likely be called upon to defend myself.

Where does this leave us? With a clear distinction between matters of taste and matters of judgment. You like Mateus Rosé better than Château Pétrus? No problem. You think it is a better wine? You're wrong. You're clearly without the experience, palate, or discrimination to make such a judgment. As unfit as I would be to decide which sort of catalytic convertor to fit to my car. I simply don't know enough. This seems obvious, but increasingly such a position offends against the spirit of the times. Nobody is wrong these days. We are all "entitled to our opinion", and the notion that there is some gap between opinion and truth, assertion and argument, seems to be getting lost.

His final point:

You will have gathered by now that this is not about Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, or even John Banville, who merely provides its occasion. What is it about, then? Respect. For people, for texts, for the act of reading, and of talking about books and their authors. Implicit in this is John Stuart Mill's wise advice: it is easy enough to be grateful for friends who agree with you, but who we really need to value are our antagonists, for it is they who make us think harder, strive to refine and elucidate our judgments, making them (and ourselves) both clearer and better. I would love one day to argue publicly with Boyd Tonkin about The Sea. I think he was wrong. He thinks I was. Maybe one of us might actually change his mind?

Full text

Friday, August 26, 2011

Anna, fight moral corruption in India

More important than wholesale and retail corruption is the third dimension of corruption—moral corruption—that has to be checked. Corruption can only be stopped if we are ready to suffer by not giving bribes. Indian citizens have to go through that painful phase.

By Zafar Anjum

In school we were taught that constant vigilance is the true price of democracy. For decades, we did not take this principle seriously. We allowed politicians, bureaucrats, and power brokers swindle billions of rupees from the public system decade after decade. We made a few noises from time to time and then we hurtled along the path of democracy with our heads bowed. We had a nation to build. Life was not easy anyway. The result of this half-century long lapse is today’s anti-corruption crusade by Gandhian activist, Anna Hazare and his team.

Corruption in India has reached its tipping point. People can’t take it any more.

Anna has been fasting for the introduction of the Jan Lokpal bill in parliament for 11 days now. Negotiations with the government have been blowing hot and cold. Both team Anna and the ruling Congress Party have stonewalled themselves. Everybody is looking for a closure. A 74-year old frail Anna’s life is at stake.

There is doubt if the government will concede to all of Anna’s demands. Even if it does, will it solve the widespread corruption in India? That is the question I want to raise.

Anna’s demand for the appointment of a Lokpal at the Centre, a new agency empowered to fight corruption among public servants, with sweeping powers over all government officials, the prime minister included, will create a bureaucratic monstrosity. Anna also wants to appoint Lokayuktas at the state level, with bureaucratic machinery to support them.

First, people who will be appointed in this bureaucratic set-up will again come from the same society that produces the corrupt police and administrative officers, politicians and clerks. How different will their morals be from their current counterparts? Second, even if they turn out to be honest, they will have to handle billions of complaints from 1.2 billion Indians. To sort out the complaints, they will have to work with other government bodies which are supposedly staffed with corrupt officials. How is this system going to work then?

Corruption happens because of two main reasons: one, absence of a stringent rule of law, and two, moral weakness in individuals (instances of corruption can arise from both greed and for need of money). A nation that has people with a strong moral fibre will not tinker with the institutions in place. That’s what India’s basic problem is today. No one is arguing that corrupt government servants should be spared a harsh crackdown. But crackdown alone will not solve the problem of corruption. In China too, there is visibly harsh punishment for corruption, yet cases of corruption keep getting unearthed. Therefore, alongside the struggle for Lokpal, Anna should focus his energies on building a mass movement to develop people with character.

This suggestion might sound a bit moralistic but if you think of it, why is it that India is in such a state today despite having all the institutions in place? The chalta hai attitude, the jugaad culture, the bribes for chai and paan has totally eaten into India’s moral fibre. Anna’s honesty, fearlessness and fighting spirit is an exception in today’s India. People might wear ‘I am Anna’ caps but are they, really?

Middle class morality

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh must be a baffled man at this time: India’s middle class has stood up against him. It is the same middle class that was midwifed by his financial reforms 20 years ago. This middle class has given him the epithet of Dhritrashtra—the blind king of Mahabharata who presided over the epic war, oblivious to the wrongdoing of his own people.

Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms were justified by invoking the trickle down theory. The theory was a Trojan horse to implant neo-liberalism. Today, the same theory is known as voodoo economics. Among the many things, India’s liberalisation has also created Indians with oversized ambitions and the gap between the haves and have-nots has only widened. Capitalism and neoliberal values have unleashed a fountain of aspirations in India. People will do anything to get by and get hold of shiny, material objects advertised on TV. The result is greed and moral decadence. No one wants to cut his coat according to his cloth. No one wants to live within his means, according to his station in life defined by his wage and profession. There is a rush to be seen with wealth, no matter how ill-gotten.

We are all in it

When we talk about corruption, we often refer to our politicians and bureaucrats, the big and small government servants. We have to bribe them for every little transaction—from getting a birth certificate to getting a passport. This corruption has been going on for ages: questioned but tolerated. Why? Because no one wants to suffer. We are all in a hurry to get our work done. There have even been demands to legalise bribe giving in India. It has been supported by respected entrepreneurs like Narayan Murthy, the former chairman of Infosys, one of India’s biggest outsourcing companies.

Former Infosys CEO, Nandan Nilekani, now chairman of the newly minted Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), has interesting terms to describe corruption in India: wholesale corruption (like the Commonwealth Games scam, the telecom scam) and retail corruption (corruption that occurs at the points of citizen-government official interaction).

Wholesale corruption can be checked by strong institutions that are already in place. If the Lokpal becomes a reality, it can certainly focus on weeding out wholesale corruption in India.

More difficult to tackle is retail corruption. There are 2.4 million government officials in India. How is one going to keep an eye on their activities? According to Nilekani, e-governance, transparent systems, and enabling electronic instruments such as Aadhaar (unique identity project that can help check corruption in the public distribution system) can help reduce retail corruption.

More important than these two, however, is the third dimension of corruption—moral corruption—that has to be checked. Corruption can only be stopped if we are ready to suffer by not giving bribes. Indian citizens have to go through that painful phase. And now that Anna has awakened the nation, there is no one better to do this job. That should be his next mission.

An updated version of this piece was published in Guernica Magazine, USA.