Wednesday, December 26, 2012
Friday, December 21, 2012
We (I was accompanied by my wife) reached
Tokyo in the afternoon of November 24. We were very tired as we
had to leave house around to catch
the Delta flight. Not only we were tired, we were very hungry
too. We had a quick sandwich at Starbucks before we boarded the flight. I could
hardly sleep on the plane as I am always tempted to watch movies on a flight
and I always have a backlog of movies that I wish to watch.
Just two days before the flight to Tokyo I had watched almost an hour of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel en route to Bangkok and had loved it completely (especially the humour in the film). So, during the flight to
Tokyo, I first watched that movie (from where I had left it off)
and I don't regret it. Perhaps it was the best film of this year for me. Many
Indians, including myself, dislike India for its crowd, squalor and poverty, and the film sort of
showed me how to see the same situation in a different light ("In India,
life is not a right," says one character. "It's a privilege.").
That is the beauty of the film.If you haven't watched it, you must. There is a
lot of good humour in the film. I thought it was a well-written movie.
Singapore, almost any airport in the world will disappoint me--in
terms of ease of movement, layout and sheer opulence. Narita was no different.
Anyway, the immigration process was very smooth and after collecting our bags,
we boarded the Narita Express (NEX) to our hotel in Shinjuku.
Shinjuku is one of those little districts in
After a while, we hit the streets. It was evening and it was very cold, and we admired our cleverness that we had packed enough winter clothing to brave the
Tokyo weather. The streets around Shinjuku had a quaintness to
them—small, narrow streets, with small, little shops and lots of neon signs and
locals, mostly youngsters, pounding them in groups. My wife thought we were
back in the 70s. Despite the cold, it seemed there was enough cheerfulness in
the atmosphere and it didn't seem like a country that had been stuck in
economic stagnation for decades now. The traffic was slow and there
didn't seem to be a mad rush for anything (or was it because it was a
Saturday?), and many people rode bicycles on the streets. Even the taxis looked
of an old vintage but they were all in good condition. The whole atmosphere
reminded me of a Dev Anand film shot in the 1970s or 80s. My wife was right
about the feel of the district.
Next to our hotel and across the street there were plenty of vending machines. That's where I first saw vending machines that dispensed cigarettes. Also, every now and then, one would find a Family Mart or a store to buy items of daily and frequent use, including food items, water and fat, comic magazines that were sealed to prevent thumbing by browsing-happy readers.
The streets were packed with noodle bars and restaurants (the signs were sometimes vertically displayed, implying different restaurants at different levels of a building) and global fast food restaurants like McDonald's and KFC were easy to find. We also spotted a Yoshinoya outlet but it looked so different from what I had seen in
Singapore that I decided not to enter it. There didn't even seem to
be a menu at the counter.
Across the Shinjuku station, there was Takashimaya, the shopping complex of the same-name that we have on
Road in Singapore. That's where we planned to spend the evening. On the way
to the mall, we came across beautiful Christmas decorations. We saw people taking
pictures around the decorations.
Even though the mall was sprawling, the layout of the stores seemed to be a bit confusing or maybe it needed many more trips to get used to it and find our way around with ease. We had spent nearly half an hour inside the mall and as we entered an elevator to go to the fifth floor, we had a taste of the famous Japanese earthquake. The elevator shook, the lights sputtered off and the doors forestalled. Luckily, we were not between two floors so all of us rushed out of the lift.
The mall's staff sprung into action: all elevators and escalators were jammed up, and they showed the shoppers the exits. I wanted to see Kinokuniya the bookstore but my wife didn't want to hang around anymore so we followed a bunch of locals who took the staircase down. Somehow we managed to get out of the building. Outside, people were milling round on the streets as if nothing had happened. We went to a Starbucks which was very crowded, (and it seems young people in
We had our dinner at McDonald's--we got some burgers and we had to ask for ketchup. It was really self-service in there as we had to clear the table after we had eaten--everyone was doing that in the restaurant. Japanese shops seemed to get along fine with minimal staff and we saw it everywhere. They could hardly speak English but communication was not a problem. Gestures and pictures supplemented pidgin English.
I slept at night wishing for our safety. There weren’t any more tremors that night.
The next morning we set for Odaiba, a reclaimed island next to the
We entered one of the shopping malls in Odaiba and by the time we were done with our shopping it was dark outside. We had our lunch inside the mall--we ate the delicious beef bowls at Yoshinoya, and I put a check on my list.
After coming back to our hotel room, we went out again. I had to see the original Kinokuniya in
The next morning we left
Tokyo for the United States. The journey from the hotel to the Narita airport turned
into our biggest adventure in Japan, and what was meant to be a 90 minutes journey turned into
a 3 hour long rush. That is something I have to tell you when we meet (remember
to ask me), and not write about it here.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
New York-based writer Suketu Mehta is one of my favourite writers. I became a fan of his writing (he also loves Hemingway and Naipaul like I do) when I read his autobiographical account of his experiences in Mumbai (where he was born and partly raised before his diamond trading merchant family moved to New York), Maximum City. The book was published in 2004 and I read it shortly after I moved to Singapore. I loved the book because it was not a chore to read; it was like watching a Bombay film. Why was it an easy read? Mehta explains in an interview:
"... the impression readers have that Maximum City is a quick read is a false one because it was certainly not a quick write. But it takes a lot—Hemingway taught me this—to make writing seem effortless. It took me a long time before I learned how to write simply. My early sentences back in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop were long. As Indians we tend to like longer sentences."
Unlike many contemporary writers who are in a hurry to churn book after book, Suketu is a patient writer. He took seven years to research and write Maximum City. What I did not know though is that he had bankrupted himself while doing this book. This happened to him even though he had an advance from the publishers. In this interview with NDTV (Power of One), he reveals that he incurred a considerable amount of debt by the time he was done with the book. "When I finished my book, I was 40,000 dollars in debt," he tells NDTV's Srinivasan Jain.
How many writers will take this kind of risk?
In an interview with Karan Mahajan, Mehta revealed his method of working in Mumbai: he would hang out with his book's characters until 3 am and would write down everything between 3am and 6am:
"I wrote as I reported [in Bombay]. So I would meet, say, a gangster, I’d go hang out with him, then I’d go to the beer bars and meet Mona Lisa [an alias for the bar girl in Maximum City], and then I’d come back home at 3 a.m. From 3 to 6 a.m. I would just write. It was the easiest writing I ever did. It was all in my head and I needed to get it out in real time. So I wrote these long sections—it was great. I was on speed or something, not literally. Better than speed"
Suketu currently lives in a Manhattan apartment and teaches journalsim (narrative nonfiction) at New York University. In the NDTV interview, he says that he has been working on a book about the New York City immigrant experience. The current reality is that every two in three New Yorkers are immigrants, he says, and he wants to tell the story of the city from that point of view.
India books a big mistake
Mehta is skeptical about the recent crop of India books--big books that try to define the phenomenon of a changing India within a few hundred pages. "All big books that have recently come out about India are a big mistake," he says. Why? Because it is insane to try to capture such a vast country within a book. However, he says Aakash Kapur has done a relatively better job in India Becoming where he follows a set of characters.
Mehta is also an admirer of Katherine Boo's book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. "I was filled with envy when I read Kat Boo's book," he says. "She has done exactly the right thing with the book ... and I am amazed that she could do it without (understanding) the language".
Mehta then talks about Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, an American journalist who writes on the marginalized members of society (adolescents living in poverty, prostitutes, women in prison) and mentions her seminal book, Random Family (2003). "Her book was inspiration for our books," he says, "mine and Kate Boo's."
When Jain asks him if he likes any nonfiction books done in India, he mentions Following Fish by Samant Subramaniam.
How 9/11 changed writing
At one point of the interview, Mehta says that "more students now want to do narrative nonfiction than fiction" in the context of his journalism classes."9/11 had a lot to do with it," he says. "After 9/11 we realised what kind of fictional image could be created that could compete with this image of two giant airliners
slamming into two giant towers and the whole world changing as a result." Fact had become stranger than fiction and fiction could not compete with it--or was confused to deal with it for a while.
However, he says that now, some American novels are dealing with the 9/11 tragedy. He mentions Netherland by Joseph O'Neil as a good example.
On Social Media
Mehta is on Twitter but he rarely tweets. "I have only tweeted 7 times," he claims. Even though there are very few writers on twitter (Salman Rushdie is there), some have made good use of it. "Teju Cole has taken the form and made it literary," says Mehta about the writer of Open City. He likens the twitter form to the form of Haiku.
Mehta is not worried about the future of books or writing. "Storytelling is a basic human need," he says. "It will always be there, only the forms of delivery will change." How reassuring!
Fellow New Yorker Salman Rushdie is a friend and Mehta says he likes his memoir, Joseph Anton, and he is aware that some have not liked it and some complain of his artistic decline after the fatwa was imposed on him. Mehta has a very simple explanation for all the Salman-bashing: "People hate Salman because he gets a lot of chicks around him."
Apart from the New York book, Mehta is also working on a new translation of Gandhi's autobiography. This is what he told Karan Mahajan in an earlier interview:
"Once, I was telling my father how I think The Story of My Experiments with Truth is really not well written, how it’s long-winded, even if the material is certainly fascinating. My father said, “But it’s really beautifully written. It’s really elegant and concise.” I said, “We’re not talking about the same book.” He said, “Which one are you talking about? I’m talking about the original, in Gujarati.” Then we compared the Aatmakatha with the English version. This book was written in the salad days of the century and it was translated by two of his political secretaries—Mahadev Desai and Pyarelal—who were very good political secretaries but not necessarily good writers in English. Gandhiji did look over the translation and corrected it, but, you know, he had a few other things on his mind, like leading a country to independence!"More power to your pen Mr. Mehta and may you get to take a lot of afternoon naps!