Category Archives: Books – Please Turn Over

Desires of the undesired

I watched Margarita With A Straw last night, and it’s still on my mind. Most frequent moviegoers will acknowledge that that is quite a rarity in today’s times. Margarita is beautiful. It is the story of a girl with cerebral palsy, and her experiences as she explores her sexual desires. It is natural, understated and heartfelt. At the center of the film is Kalki Koechlin, who shines like a thousand stars in the role of Laila. Laila, who is restricted to her wheelchair and has speech impairments, is out there. She’s in Delhi University, she’s in New York University, she’s doing a creative writing program, she’s hitting on men, she’s dancing with her family and in a NYC club, and she’s also dealing with layered relationships – with her caring parents who get a little overprotective at times (for good reason), with her friends, with her crushes, with her partner. Sounds familiar? Absolutely! It’s about what you, I and everyone “like us” go through. We’re just able to enunciate our sounds better and walk on our feet.

Margarita, apart from being an endearing work of art, is also important in many different contexts. First, while its protagonist is physically challenged, the movie treats that as a fact and as a backdrop. There have been good films in India about physically and mentally challenged individuals – Gulzar’s Koshish back in the 1970s explored the marriage of two deaf-and-mute people; Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par was a take on the travails of a child with dyslexia; Bhansali’s Black was about a girl who was blind, deaf and mute. All of these were beautiful movies and important in their own right. But they were essentially about the disability of the protagonist. The disability wasn’t a mere backdrop, it was the story. Margarita, on the other hand, has a most natural way of dealing with the disability. The fact that Laila goes to class every day on a wheelchair, or she makes music and performs in concerts, or the fact that it does not take a lengthy dramatic scene between her parents to decide that she will go to NYU – all of these could be happening in any home. The adjustments her limitations call for – such as her father driving a Matador van that can hold her wheelchair, the peons carrying her up a staircase when the elevator stops working, are also weaved in effortlessly, without arousing any sympathy in the audience, and yet presenting an alternative way of life.

Second, Margarita is about sex and sexuality – and not in a way that most Indian movies understand those subjects. There are no full-busted women coming out of water, or hot men doing peekaboo of butt-cracks. It breaks paradigms all over the place – a girl, a physically-challenged girl at that, is attracted to men and women along the way, and explores that side of her. In a country and an industry where the concepts of sex, women, and homo/bisexuality are bigoted and convoluted, Margarita is the most human telling of this undeniable emotion that makes us living things.

Third, Margarita is important because, yet again, it has proven that good cinema does not need male superstars. In recent years, Bollywood’s women have taken it upon themselves (of course backed by a small bunch of great directors and writers) to cleanse the stinking industry, that sees disgustingly artless and regressive movies starring 50-something actors in 20-something roles make Rs.100 crores in opening weekends. Movies such as English Vinglish, Queen, Kahaani, Lootera, Highway, NH10, Mary Kom and now Margarita will change that slowly and steadily. If this trend continues, in five years’ time, we may be able to get rid of the senior citizen brigade thriving on teenage buffoonery. Hopefully, the girls will also serve as a lesson for the new boys (Ranbir, Ranveer, Varun, etc).

English Vinglish Movie Stills

queen nh10

Last but not the least, Margarita is important because it will do well internationally. It will win prizes, be screened at film festivals, and be talked about. It will finally present India as a place where specially-abled people CAN go to college, CAN have friends, CAN have supportive parents. It will also open up to the world a country of understanding fathers and male friends, empowered women making their own decisions, and a sensitive and cultured society. Of late, India has been in the international news for its crime against women, attacks against minorities, and culture policing. This film will work as one of the many little things that will reveal another side of India. We may not want a Western stamp of approval on everything we do, but that does not mean we would like to be known to the world as barbaric and criminal. The American boy in the film asks Laila – do I have to marry you if I kiss you? We’ve all had to answer such idiotic questions – a Dutch professor once asked me in the middle of a viva voce if I was treated specially in India because my surname signified my ancestors were priests. Hopefully, with the likes of Margarita, we can do away such eye-roll moments.

One last thing – superlative works of art always remind us of other good works. I’d like to mention two here. One is the film Amu, made by the same filmmaker as Margarita. I don’t think it got a big release back then, and many might have missed it then. Do watch. The other is a book called Trying To Grow by Firdaus Kanga, that is a beautiful autobiographical account of a physically-challenged boy growing up and exploring his sexual preferences within the confines of a Parsee family in Bombay. It isn’t that readily available. I had read an excerpt of it, and had placed an order for the book at Singapore’s National Library. They promptly got it for me. Even today, it costs a bomb on Amazon, or is only available as used copies. It is imperative that we preserve such alternative literature. This one already seems to be hitting oblivion. But times have changed. Margarita will stay and be remembered for a long time to come.

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The Phad came to town!!

Just as William Dalrymple’s  City of Djinns aroused a newfound fascination in me for the rajdhani Dilli, so does his latest book make me fall in love with India all over again. This time, for a completely different reason. Nine Lives delves into spirituality in modern India, expressed through various conventional and unconventional forms. While, on the one hand, there is the age-old tradition of idol-making for temples in Tamil Nadu, on the other hand there is the power and practice of Tantra shastra, usually kept at bay by us city types because of its eerie association with black magic and voodoo. Of the nine pehloos that Dalrymple chooses to relate after intense research but through easy story-telling, of the most interest to me is the pratha (ritual) of performing Pabhuji ki Phad in Rajasthan. An age-old custom, the phad is a long drape on which are painted myriad stories and incidents of Pabhuji’s life. Pabhuji is a local nomad-turned-chieftain-turned-deity who is today synonymous with the God of the Thar Desert and is credited with keeping the livestock alive and healthy, and providing sufficiently for the survival of the desert tribes. The spirit of Pabhuji roams the desert at night and breathes through the grains of sand, quite like the night-watchman, making sure his subjects are safe and the goats and camels are taken care of.

The narration of the legend of Pabhuji is called phad baachna. The phad itself is hung in the background in all its intricacy and grandeur. The responsibility of narrating this timeless legend is, however, not for everyone to take up. It is done by the bhopa and his bhopi. The bhopa is the bard, who typically tells the story with his wife, the bhopi. The bhopa sings a verse while the bhopi holds the lantern on the part of the phad that depicts the episode being sung. The bhopi then repeats the verse for emphasis. The bhopa plays the ravanhatta,  an elementary stringed instrument to keep the rhythm going. A rapt audience sits through an entire night of performance, listening over and over again to the tales of valor and chivalry of the great Pabhuji.  Blame the advent of modern civilization for the length of the performance. In centuries gone by, a performance would go on for four or five nights. It would almost be an insult to Pabhuji to wrap his tales up in one night, non?

Some very interesting facts stood out as very striking to me. For one, the bhopa’s choice of profession is as much a matter of destiny as it is that of talent. Yes he has to be a magnificent and powerful singer and has to begin learning the innumerable verses right from when he is seven or eight years old. But there’s more! He can perform only if his wife, the bhopi, is as good a singer as he is. Given that these tribes still practice child marriage, there is no way of knowing whether an aspiring bhopa’s wife would be able to sing, leave alone keep the verses in memory. There are examples of a bhopa having to turn to other menial work because destiny did not gift him with a wife who can sing. And of course, in such tribes, the idea of performing with a lady who can sing well but is not your wife is not a possibility. Secondly, a bhopa commands immense respect in the tribal community. Unlike us urban audiences who take the liberty to sneak out for pee breaks during performances, a bhopa’s audience dare not move while he is singing. It is only when the bhopa is tired and needs to re-energize himself that people  stretch their limbs. Throughout the performance, the audience calls out verbal affirmations and applauds the bhopa’s talent. How else will the bhopa get the energy to pull through an entire night? Thirdly, a bhopa is usually illiterate and commits all the verses to memory. An alarming fact is that one of the bhopas was sent to school and educated. Soon after, he began forgetting his lines and had to peep into his diary from time to time! I’m tempted to question whether education is playing its rightful role in preserving our rich heritage of oral literature, but let’s not get there today.

Just a few days after I read this story and it completely took over my imagination (a night-long performance in the darkness and starkness of the desert by a tribal couple with a lantern in hand referring to a tapestry), the most celebrated Rajasthani artiste of India today, Ila Arun, came to Bombay. Coincidence? Well, wait, not yet! She could have done anything really, but she was performing the phad. She had adapted one of Henrik Ibsen’s plays The Lady of The Sea into a Pabhuji ki phad format. The play is aptly called Mareechika, meaning “mirage”, since the sea is nothing but a mirage in the expanse of the Thar desert. The performance was divided into acts and scenes with Rajasthani folk song and dance copiously flowing through the two hours. Ila Arun and Ravi Jhankal played the bhopi and bhopa. What a pleasure watching them sing, dance, holding a lantern to the phad and playing the ravanhatta! Though not in the desert and not night-long, the performance helped to partially quell my desire to board the next flight to Rajasthan. Quite thoughtfully, to give full credit to the original creator, Ila Arun named the legend Ibsenji ki phad –  the mark of a true artiste.

The bhopi mentioned in passing that the best phad is made in Bhilwara. She probably knew that at least one person in the audience would not miss the information; because I am already dreaming of a desert holiday and what will adorn the wall of my living room.

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The Black Sider

Dear Aravind (or should I say Mr.Adiga).

I decided to address this letter to you in your style of addressing letters to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in your award-winning book The White Tiger. Though, I have to admit, I was blunt enough not to understand the rationale behind dragging the poor chap into your story. I mean, why not address it to Obama, or even better, Osama? When there are more potent (on the verge of being omnipotent) people in the world, why wake up the sexagenarian Premier to read your story?

Well, the two good things about your book are – it was easy to read and it made me think. I should compliment you for the simplicity of language. “Great” writers of our generation (OK, I’ll take names – I’m literally falling asleep on Mr.Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. It’s much ado about nothing), in their pursuit of greatness and utter lack of plot, seem to be of the opinion that the contortion and complication of the English language warrants a recognition of their greatness from their readers and critics. I’m happy you didn’t fall prey to the lure. I finished your book in 3 hours straight (and I’m a slow reader!), so that’s something!

Well, also, your book made me think, which is a good thing too! I should say it called up a lot of empathy for the class of people your protagonist belongs to. I could absolutely identify with the treatment meted out to them by the higher-ups. We all have a dozen such people surrounding us in everyday life (especially in India) – our domestic helpers, drivers, plumbers, carpenters, the person who irons the clothes of the locality (yes, we outsource that too!). It is true that there is rarely any recognition of their services or respect involved in dealing with them by most households. I would pat your back (if you were around) for having talked about this and I’m sure your readers would have pondered on how they behave with their helpers after reading your book.

Now the tougher part! It’s not easy to critique someone’s creation, especially when it has been awarded one of the highest literary prizes we have around and I have no creation of my own to set a benchmark. But there were things in your book, Sir, that I cannot help not bringing up to tell you how disappointed I was!

I am an Indian to my very core and I know that only an Indian is capable of comprehending the vast problems of the country. An outsider can only look up to some things and look down upon most things, but we Indians can have both reactions to the same thing. I am very aware of India’s poverty, of the utter lack of facilities in villages, of corruption and hegemony of the political class, of the squalor in our cities (leave alone smaller towns), of the abject conditions of most of our people and much more. I don’t hold it against you for graphically depicting all this in your book. But I do hold it against you for making this the only picture of India. And now that the entire world is reading the book, how I wish you would’ve written about the other side as well. Yes, we are corrupt, but we are still the most populous democracy of the world. Yes, we are under-nourished and poor, but we still haven’t ended up like Somalia and Kenya. Yes, we are illiterate, but we are still one of the fastest-growing economies of the world. There is always a silver lining to every cloud, Sir, and every silver lining always runs the risk of being covered by a cloud anytime. We are a country of more than a billion people, but at least we don’t face the bane of an ageing population like Europe does. We have absolutely wicked politicians running our country, but at least our press and people have the freedom to talk about anything at all, quite unlike your Premier Jiabao’s country. We are religious and superstitious and classist, but at least we have had the broad-mindedness to not invade upon the sovereignty of other nations and bring terrorism to their lands, unlike the biggest superpower of this world. All I am saying, Sir, is that India is a gray picture, just like any other country of this world is. It is far from perfect, but then no country is either black or white. We live in a gray world, so let’s not single out our motherland and scream BLACK about it to the world.

Time to switch to my second objection, Sir. When I started reading your book, and you threw in hints of your protagonist, Balram Halwai, becoming an entrepreneur by the end of the story, I thought THIS (finally) was a book saluting the millions of spirited entrepreneurs India has created over the years – people who have fought against families, classes, systems, lack of facilities and money and much more to reach where they are today. So you can imagine how betrayed I felt when Balram had to murder his boss to get hold of the 7 crore rupees (or howmuchever it was) and escape to Bangalore to become a successful businessman. I mean, come ON!!! Balram didn’t HAVE TO do that – you MADE HIM DO THAT!! You made the entire entrepreneurial class of India drive knives into the moneyed class to justify their newfound affluence. So unfair, so untrue! Did Dhirubhai Ambani or Jamshedji Tata or Narayana Murthy have to murder people to be founders of corporations India will forever be proud of? OK, let’s talk about humbler examples. The domestic helper at my home (yes let me take her name too – Mithoo) walked out on her husband because, in her own words, he used to “kick her around like a football”. Note – she was just in her mid-twenties then and a mother of three daughters! She made her way to Calcutta from her village, toiled day and night and today, she sends one of her daughters to school, pays for her private tuitions, has remarried – this time, an understanding and loving person, has a bank account and has earned the love and support of the entire neighborhood. Another one – our plumber (his name – Nidhiram), came to Calcutta as a frightened youth from a nondescript village in Orissa (quite like your Balram Halwai). Today, he has a house of his own, runs a network of plumbers, spent thousands to fight his wife’s cancer, educates his children in schools and will, I’m sure, very soon buy a car. Sir, as much as you may try, I will not let these people and the millions of other entrepreneurs be defamed by your fancy of a chaotic India speeding towards self-annihilation. After all, these are the “white tigers” – the chosen ones of this generation, as you put it in your book, and NOT the character you have opted to glorify.

Lastly, the “rooster coop”. Yes the “rooster coop” that Balram Halwai spots in the markets of Old Delhi and thinks of the similar coop he is in, where chicken are jammed in side-by-side, knowing they’re all going to be slaughtered sooner than later and yet, can’t do a thing about it. Well, Sir, it’s not just Balram Halwai or the poor or the trodden-over or the underprivileged who are in the rooster coop. We are ALL in our own rooster coops. You are in yours and I am in mine. I’m sure, Barack Obama will soon see the walls of his coop as well! We’re all bound in many ways, we’re all limited, we’re all “claustracized”. Trust me, there is no dearth of hurdles that one has to face in life – doesn’t matter if he/she has a silver or gold or bronze or plastic spoon in his/her mouth. It is how we break the walls of our coops and emerge victorious at every stage, it is how we are human and different from the roosters, it is how we step out into freedom of our own choice and yet not pay the price by committing murder – that’s the stuff “heroes” are made of and books are written about. Not some escapist cowardly person you have chosen to make your protagonist.

And yeah, that thing about Balram being asked by his masters to own up for a hit-and-run he had not done, happens everywhere. Not just Delhi. The rich and the powerful control and dictate the people below them all across the world. I don’t think there was any need to write to Premier Jiabao and the entire world about such a ubiquitous phenomenon.

You could say you were just telling us a story. There was no portrayal of India in it (though there is enough evidence in the book pointing to it) and it was just a personal tale. Then, Sir, I have to tell you that it is a rather unimpressive lackadaisical unremarkable uninspiring story I wouldn’t even have cared to remember had you not won the Booker. And if you say you don’t carry the responsibility of painting the brighter side of India and humankind to the world, well then… I don’t have anything else to say and I’ll leave you to your pessimism.

Congratulations on the win! Try finding some color in the world, Sir. It hasn’t yet turned all gray and black.

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Review of “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple

City of Djinns is William Dalrymple’s accounts of a year spent in Delhi, the Indian capital city. It is an account from the heart, in a candid conversational style, that makes a full circle of Delhi in every conceivable way. 

City of Djinns is absolutely devoid of any format. In fact, the manner in which the chapters have been formed escape a reader’s logic, because a single chapter might contain accounts of absolutely different subjects. The prime focus of the author has been to walk through Old Delhi and dig up the history of the ruins and the narrow lanes, the people and the lives, the royalty and the social pariahs. Dalrymple dwells on the significance of Delhi in Asian history and tries to find signs of the old life still breathing in today’s capital. 

The author simply talks about everything. The tone is not academic or preachy. Instead he takes the reader along with him on his journey around the city. The smaller details of his landlady, his taxi-driver, his experiences in government offices, what time he woke up, his personal reflections etc gives a fictional side to the book. He also makes sure he does not overburden the reader with a high dose of history. He keeps shifting back and forth in time, talking about the present-day Delhi too – the cultural biases, the festivities and celebrations, the marriages, the demography and how it came about, the food and several other nuances of life in the capital city. He clocks them with the time of year, talking about the extreme seasons and weather conditions in the capital.  

There is no denying that Dalrymple has done his homework well. He has Delhi’s history on his fingertips. From the Delhi sultanate to the Mughals, from the British to the Partition, from Aurangzeb usurping the throne to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 – he talks about it all. He uncovers historical structures that are not tourist places anymore and hence, the people of India, themselves, are ignorant about. The abandoned city of Tughlaqabad, the house built by William Fraser and several such structures are not part of a tourist’s itinerary anymore, and hence, go absolutely unnoticed. He even breathes life into the still-famous structures like the Red Fort and the buildings of New Delhi (North & South blocks, Parliament, etc) in a unique style, that is neither like a historian nor like a traveler. He quotes generously from accounts of travelers to Delhi over different periods of time, not only talking about facts known in history text books but also about the gossip, the first-hand descriptions, the daily nitty-gritties from that era and so much more.  

One pattern the author follows is to try and find survivors in the present Delhi of every historical chapter he talks about. He traces the last direct descendants of the Mughals living in abject conditions in an Old Delhi haveli, the Anglo-Indians and how they fit into the Indian society after the British left, the British who had spent their childhood in India during the time of the Raj. Through these accounts, he sketches a living picture of everything he talks about. He also uncovers what has survived over the centuries – the Central-Asian unani strain of medicine still practiced in Old Delhi, the bird-fights, the dying art of calligraphy, the qawwalis at the shrine of Nizam-ud-din, the final prayer in fasting on the eve of Id at Jama Masjid. The line between history and present-day, though stark, is rendered rather thin by the author. 

City of Djinns is William Dalrymple’s first offering in the series of books he has written on different Indian aspects. It is during the writing of this book that he gradually fell in love with India and it’s peculiar ways. Evidently, the honeymoon with India shows in every page of the book. The wonder at learning things new, the honest observations, the discoveries tinged with familiarity and the gradual foundation of a long-standing relationship between the author and the subject are what make this book so much more colorful to read. 

For me, the book has been an eye-opener. It brings forth myriad details of the history of my country and my capital city that were unknown to me all these years. I’m sure there are millions of Indians who are still in absolute ignorance of the charm of their capital city and how it has been a central force in history and shaping the future. It is indeed a discovery at every step to know how much of our current music, food, language etc, that we take for granted, evolved in this city over century after century.

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Excerpt from “City of Djinns” by William Dalrymple

“Perhaps it is language, the spoken word, which is the greatest indication of the distance traveled since 1947. 

The English spoken by Indians – Hinglish – has of course followed its own idiosyncratic journey since the guardians of its purity returned home. Like American English, likewise emancipated by Britain’s colonial retreat, it has developed its own grammatical rules, its own syntax and its own vocabulary. 

One of the great pleasures of our life in India has always been being woken on the dot of 7.30 every morning by Ladoo bearing ‘bed tea’ and the Times of India. The news is inevitably depressing stuff (‘400 Killed in Tamil Train Crash’, ‘150 Garrotted by Assam Separatists’ and so on), yet somehow the jaunty Times of India prose always manages to raise the tone from one of grim tragedy. There may have been a train crash, but at least the Chief Minister has air-dashed to the scene. Ten convented (convent-educated) girls may have been gang-raped in Punjab, but thousands of students have staged a bandh (strike) and a dharna (protest) against such eve-teasing (much nicer than the bland Americanese ‘sexual harassment’). And so what if the protesters were then lathi charged by police jawans? In the Times of India, such miscreants are always charge-sheeted in the end. 

My favourite item is, however, the daily condoling. If the Times is to be believed, Indian politicians like nothing better than a quick condole; and certainly barely a day passes without a picture of, say, the Chief Minister of Haryana condoling over the death of the director-general of All-India Widgets. Indeed, condoling shows every sign of becoming a growth industry. If a businessman has died but is not considered important enough to be condoled, it is becoming fashionable for his business colleagues to take out an illustrated advertisement and condole him themselves. The language of these advertisements tends to be even more inspired than that of the Times news columns.”

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