My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
A horror film from 1980 anticipated the Age of Instagram. And it is indeed a horror.
William Shakespeare was once confronted by his girlfriend. “You pretended to be so gentle and millennial while wooing me,” she said, “and then you go and write Titus Andronicus. What’s going on in that head of yours?”
“All the world’s a stage,” replied Willy, “and we are all performing. Even I don’t know what I really am.”
We live in performative times. Peeps on Twitter are signalling virtue, peeps on Instagram are documenting what they want others to believe their life is like, and solitary loners are blogging about their solitary aloneness. All this merely makes explicit what was true for humans all along: we’re putting on an act.
I thought of this recently while watching a masterpiece released in 1980: Cannibal Holocaust. This was one in a wave of Italian cannibal movies that came along in the late 70s and early 80s, and was directed by Ruggero Deodato, known to the French as ‘Monsieur Cannibal’. His work influenced directors like Oliver Stone, Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. After Cannibal Holocaust, his ninth film, was released, Sergio Leone wrote to him to say: “Dear Ruggero, what a movie! The second part is a masterpiece of cinematographic realism, but everything seems so real that I think you will get in trouble with all the world.”
He did. He was arrested because it was believed that the murders that took place in the film were real ones, and it was a snuff film, such was the realism with which it was shot. The actors had to show up in court to prove that they were alive. The film was banned in more than 50 countries, before which it grossed US$ 200 million worldwide.
In the film, a group of documentary filmmakers go off into the Amazon jungle to make a documentary about cannibal tribes. They go missing. A rescue team led by an American anthropologist goes off in search of them. After numerous adventures, they discover the mutilated bodies of the filmmakers – and all the footage that they shot. They bring this back to New York.
This footage is like a film within a film within a film, because the filmmakers are like conceited millennials instagramming everything. Whatever you see on camera is a performance, and they record everything, even sex. They are stars of their own reality show. They will use only some of what they shoot, but they shoot almost compulsively. It feels like an addiction.
A few days into the trip, their guide is bitten by a snake. They record his pain. They amputate his leg to save him. They record the aftermath. They leave him to die. The camera is on all the time.
When they reach the tribes, they need spectacular footage, so they stage a massacre, forcing tribe members into a hut, setting it on fire and not letting them escape. This is for their documentary. (For a previous documentary, we are told, they had incited executions in war-torn countries so that they’d get some dramatic footage.) What happens next is not for the documentary.
They trap a tribal girl, and gang-rape her. Every detail of this is filmed, with one man handing over the camera to another when his turn comes. Later, they come across the girl impaled on a wooden stick, and find it hard to hide their glee at getting such a great shot. They do a pop-sociological explanation for the camera by saying she was killed because she lost her virginity.
Later, the tribe comes for revenge. As they scurry through the jungle, one of the two cameramen is hit by a spear. The director shoots him so they can get footage of him being mutilated by the tribals, and tells the other guy, “Keep filming, Mark.” They do, as the tribals cut off their captive’s penis, decapitate him, hack his body into pieces and then cook and eat him.
Then they are on the run again, the director speaking to the camera as they run. His girlfriend, the lone woman in the group, is caught and dragged away. He decides not to try to rescue her, with the surviving cameraman reminding him of his priorities. “Think of the film! Think of the film!”
They follow, they shoot. The girl is stripped, raped, hacked, decapitated. The tribals hold her head aloft and celebrate – and then notice the filmmakers in the bushes, who keep the camera on. The last shot of the footage is the bleeding face of the director besides the fallen camera, and you have to wonder at what point he snapped out of his filming state and realised that this was real. The horror of that moment!
The film was controversial for other reasons. Although no humans were murdered, six animals were killed live on film. With each death, the director cuts off the sound to play the elegant score by Riz Ortolani, and that repeats when the human deaths are filmed. This is also commentary.
Interesting trivia: years later, Deodato played a sophisticated cannibal in one of my favourite scenes in Eli Roth’s Hostel 2. He walks into the room, elegantly slices off a piece of thigh from a conscious captive, and then proceeds to sit at a table and eat it, as a theme from Bizet’s Carmen plays in the background.
Roth was inspired by Deodato, and I consider Hostel 1 and 2 to be great films as well. Isn’t this odd, that I find social commentary in horror films? No, it isn’t. Given what human nature is like, there is no genre more apt.
If you have the stomach for it, you can watch Cannibal Holocaust here. NSFW, trigger warning, etc etc.
Appearances can be deceptive. I saw two Bollywood films recently that evoked different reactions in me. One was supposed to be gritty, realistic and well-researched, but actually showed completely ignorance of the world it was set in. Another had a small story at the start of it that seemed outlandish, the product of an imagination gone wild, but was spot on. Sometimes the most obvious truth can be a falsehood; and the most surreal story can be true.
Let’s start with the believable story. Shah Rukh Khan plays a bootlegging gangster in Raees, a film directed by Rahul Dholakia, who had made the acclaimed Parzania ten years ago. Raees looks real, and some reviews called it well-researched, but this is a façade. The writers seem to have no actual knowledge of the criminal underworld and the political economy in Gujarat. While the film is full of implausible events, one particular arc gives it away.
You would imagine that a man who sells alcohol would be the enemy of the man who wants alcohol to be banned. So when a sanctimonious politician plans to carry out a Darubandi Yatra (pro-prohibition march) through Gujarat, Raees Alam, our hero bootlegger, warns him not to bring it through his area. He fears it will affect his business. This seems intuitive and natural. These men are working at cross-purposes, right?
Well, in the real world, these men are allies. Prohibition is the greatest boon to a bootlegger. It is the main reason he exists. And a politician who supports prohibition should be his greatest ally. He should support him to the point of funding him, and even share his profits with him. This is best illustrated, in economics, by the concept of Bootleggers and Baptists.
The regulatory economist Bruce Yandle first coined the phrase ‘Bootleggers and Baptists’. It describes how regulations evolve, and how the different interest groups that benefit from them become unlikely allies. For example, take a Baptist who preaches that alcohol is evil, and makes sure it is banned. Where there is demand, supply will spring up, so enter the Bootlegger.
Bootleggers and Baptists share a symbiotic relationship. In Yandle’s words, “Baptists flourish when their moral message forms a visible foundation for political action. […] Bootleggers, who expect to profit from the very regulatory restrictions desired by Baptists, grease the political machinery with some of their expected proceeds.” In other words, not only are their incentives aligned, they might sometimes be overtly hand-in-glove as well, with the Bootlegger funding the Baptist.
Look at the regulation around you, and you will see Bootleggers and Baptists everywhere. Every government regulation on free markets benefits a specific interest group at the expense of the common people. These interest groups then funnel some of their gains back into politics, in the form of donations to the very politicians who create, perpetuate and expand these regulations. It is a vicious cycle in which the common man gets shafted.
Let’s move on, now, to a better movie. Akshay Kumar’s entertaining Jolly LLB 2 gets a few details wrong about the legal system, but the most outrageous story in the film is actually true. Jolly LLB, played with impeccable comic timing by Kumar, takes on a case at the start of the film on behalf of a man who’s been declared dead by his family so that they can take his property. All government papers say he’s dead, and the judge refuses to believe that he is alive. He needs proof that he exists, and he eventually gets it by throwing a shoe at the judge. (This scene was censored, so you won’t actually see it, just the commotion afterwards.) The cops have to record his name as they arrest him, and boom, that becomes the proof that he’s looking for.
Surreal, eh? You haven’t heard the half of it. This story is actually all a true story – and if anything, understates it. Its inspiration is surely a gentleman named Lal Bihari, a farmer from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh. Lal Bihari was born in 1951 – and was told by a government officer in 1976 that he was dead, and that his land now belonged to his cousins. “But I am here before you,” he said, as reported in Open magazine. ““You know me. I have met you before.” But nothing doing, he had no proof that he was alive.
That’s only where the story begins. Lal Bihari renamed himself Lal Bihari Mritak (dead man), and went about proving himself alive. To do this, he organised his own funeral (Munnabhai style), applied for compensation for his ‘widow’, threw stones at a police station so that he would get arrested and his existence would be recorded, kidnapped his cousin, and finally, stood for election.
He took on VP Singh from Allahabad in 1988 and Rajiv Gandhi from Amethi in 1989, but dead men don’t win elections, and he didn’t either. By this time, he found that there were many others in the ranks of the walking dead, and founded the Uttar Pradesh Mritak Sangh, an association of legally dead people. At last count, they had 20,000 members, of whom four had managed to come back to life. One of them was Lal Bihari. From 1994 he was no longer Mritak, and when he really dies, I bet the authorities will be, like, been there done that.
You can’t make this shit up, right? Bollywood filmmakers should learn this lesson from Jolly LLB and Lal Bihari Mritak: real life has all the great stories you need. Just dig into that.
So I finally saw ‘Dear Zindagi’ (after invoking it for the sake of my column last Sunday), and I was appalled. The one kind of Bollywood film I abhor is a shallow faux-serious movie, which is exactly what this is—give me honest escapism over this any day. Before enumerating what I didn’t like about it, here’s what I did like:
1. Alia is brilliant in the film, such an exceptional actress. She’s blown me away before in ‘Kapoor and Sons’ and “Udta Punjab’, the only two other films of her that I’ve seen. Unlike so many of her Bollywood peers—especially the men—she doesn’t emote or ‘act’ as much as she sinks into the skin of a role. That should be fairly basic, but in Bollywood it needs to be drawn attention to, especially given who our superstars are. Her friends and family are also well cast. And the film itself is slick.
That’s all, sadly. Now for the things I did not like:
1. I read somewhere that the film was being praised for acknowledging mental health issues. But the treatment of Alia’s depression is Bollywoodized. In the real world, no mental health issue can be explained purely by circumstances or cured by thinking differently. The cause of depression is never one flashback away, and the cure to it is never the kind of banal self-helpisms that Shah Rukh’s character unleashes. Which brings me to my second point.
2. Practically everything Shah Rukh’s character says is nonsense. 90% of it is banal—like Ravi Shastri talking about cricket—and the other 10% is downright wrong and dangerous—like Modi talking about economics. The kind of psychotherapy he is shown doing is basically quackery, and the way he talks you’d imagine he’s never read a book in his life and spends 20 minutes each week on brainyquotes and Wikipedia. Simply put, the guy’s a buffoon.
3. I’ve often maintained that Shah Rukh Khan is the worst actor in history. I know Amitabh was his idol when he entered the industry, and while Amitabh has done some monumental hamming in his time, Shah Rukh knocks him out of the park. Watching Shah Rukh ham it up in scenes with the wonderfully naturalistic Alia is as painful as watching Amitabh ham it up in Piku in scenes with the brilliant Irrfan Khan. Is the contrast not obvious to viewers? Am I the only one cringing?
4. The film is otherwise filled with predictable narrative cliches. The parents are cartoon characters, not real people. The conflicts are cartoon conflicts, even though Alia’s lovely acting manages to make it seem real. All loose ends are neatly tied up by the end. Barf.
What irritated me the most, though, was the shallow, ignorant treatment of mental health. It’s an issue that needs to be talked about and acknowledged, and films like this actually do a disservice to that end. To repeat: depression, or any kind of mental health issue, cannot be explained by circumstances, and cannot be cured by the barrage of banalities Shah Rukh unleashes in this film. I wish the director-and-writer, even if she didn’t actually know any people with mental health issues (which itself would be astonishing, given how common it is) had at least bothered to research the subject. A pity.
It’s rare that when a prize is given to someone, it is the prize that is elevated, not the recipient. That is exactly what has happened with the Nobel Prize for Literature this year. Bob Dylan is an artistic legend who needs no validation – but the Nobel Prize itself has taken a lurch towards relevance.
The first thing to note is that Dylan did not get the prize for his ‘poetry’. Instead, according to the Nobel Prize citation, he got it “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” The Nobel committee did not force-fit his lyrics into an existing category, but accepted that literature exists outside the conventions typically assigned to it. This renders criticisms of Dylan’s lyrics from a poetic standpoint moot, because they weren’t written as stand-alone poems, but as songs set to music. The Nobel Prize citation recognises them as literature, nevertheless—and that’s spot on.
What is literature? Definitions are troublesome, but I love Franz Kafka’s description of an ideal book as an “axe for the frozen sea within us.” For more than half a century now, Dylan has been wielding that axe and reaching into millions of frozen seas. His songs range from the political to the deeply personal: he captured the spirit of the times with the same acuity with which he wrote about his own existential struggles. His art evolved as he aged, and some of his meditations on ageing and death (listen to ‘Not Dark Yet’) are as powerful as any literature you will read.
Dylan’s impact is incomparable: He changed the landscape of popular music in America, influencing generations of songwriters, but his influence goes beyond the world of music. He is the most cited songwriter in US judicial opinions, showing how deeply his songs permeated into the culture. No previous winner of this prize has moved so many people to tears or rage or joy or wonder.
If you Google a definition for literature, the first one you will come across reads: “written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit.” This is the crux of much criticism of this award: Dylan wrote great songs, but they’re not primarily written words, so how are they literature? Here it must be asked: Why “written words”, and not just “words”? Long before printed books existed, epic poets wrote their poems to be performed. We consider them literature today. William Shakespeare, in fact, wrote little that was meant for the printed page; and yet, if his plays are not literature, nothing is. Writing or print is merely one medium for words: surely the medium does not matter, and the words themselves do.
I am going to stretch that argument further. Shakespeare’s plays were basically screenplays for theatre productions, so how are they different, in terms of category, from screenplays for movies? The most powerful art form of our times, in fact, is the TV series, so what about those? Would Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull), William Goldman (All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride) and David Simon (The Wire, Treme) be future candidates for a Nobel Prize for Literature? What about stand-up comedy? The greatest artistic genius of our times, in my opinion, is Louis CK. His masterpiece, the TV series Louie, cracks open my frozen sea time and again. Is his work literature? Could he win the Nobel some day?
The merits of specific artists are irrelevant to this discussion, though. What matters is that the Nobel Prize Committee, with this bold award to Bob Dylan, has acknowledged that literature exists outside the narrow confines of past conventions. For this, they must be congratulated.
One: Our laws are still screwed up. The repeal of 66(a) of the IT Act was rightly celebrated as a win for freedom, but there are already laws in the IPC, like 295(a) and 153(a), which can also be used to strike out against Free Speech. (Here’s an ancient piece of mine on the subject: Don’t Insult Pasta.) The last I heard, people were planning to file a case against Bhat using those laws. I hope they don’t. And those laws should really not exist. As long as he is not directly inciting violence, Bhat should have the right to say whatever he wants, however offensive, however obnoxious.
Two: By the same token, others have a right to react to his comedy in whatever way they please, as long as they’re not trying to force him to shut up. So someone who says his comedy is disgusting is not attacking Bhat’s right to free speech unless he follows up by filing a case or trying to get him banned or whatever. And we can react to their reactions in the same way, and so on recursively. That’s what social media is for, isn’t it?
Three: The quality of Tanmay’s humour is less important to me than the context of it. Standup comedy in India is relatively young. (We have a great, centuries old tradition of humour, actually, but not this specific form, so don’t hit me with history and tradition, please.) And we are too quick to get offended. So it’s important to keep pushing the envelope, to keep stretching those boundaries. Nothing should be sacred. No holy cows.
Now, because our standup ecosystem is nascent, all the stuff that floats to the top won’t be of the highest quality. But that doesn’t matter. I didn’t enjoy all the humour in the AIB Roast, but boy, am I glad they did it. These guys are putting themselves out there, unlike many of us armchair observers. That is admirable in itself. And while doing it, they’re also taking giant steps forward for Indian standup comedy. (In these early days, all steps are giant steps.) That, in itself, deserves applause.
Four: Sit back and think for a moment about the nature of comedy itself. When Bhat says that Mangeshkar’s face looks like it has been kept in water for eight days, or he invokes the bitterness of a notional Sachin Tendulkar, is he really talking about just them? I don’t know Bhat personally, but I’m pretty sure he is under no illusion about his own good looks, or his mortality, or his importance to this world. Very few comedians are. If anything, comedians are people who’ve realised the essential tragic nature of the world, and certain fundamental truths about the human condition, such as a) our mortality, b) the huge role of dumb luck in our lives and c) the self-delusions which we need to survive, and with which we convince ourselves of our own importance. (I’m sure Bhat doesn’t think about it in these precise terms, but you get the drift.) Once you figure this out, the only appropriate reaction is laughter.
So when Bhat subverts the notion of Sachin and Lata as hallowed figures who cannot be made fun of, he is really just telling us to laugh at ourselves. ‘Look at us, we’re so funny and pathetic. Hahaha.’ I think he does it really well—that Mangeshkar ‘face in water’ joke is observational genius—but even if you don’t, it should not matter. More power to him regardless.
I just hope, after all this, he doesn’t end up apologizing.
Speaking of Spectre, surely Bond would kiss beautiful women he encounters, he isn’t going to say Namaste to them.
So why didn’t people object to the earlier Bond films? There was not a single kiss shown in Skyfall. That time no one thought of the sanskaari thing? We have passed the kiss! We only asked them to reduce the duration by 20 seconds.
I don’t get this logic. A kiss is a kiss. Ten seconds or one minute.
(Gets angry). This means you want to do sex in your house with your door open. And show to people the way you are doing sex.
Nihalani is a buffoon, but that is not the point. Nor is it the point whether the censor board has been more ‘liberal’ under the previous government or under this one. The point simply is that the censor board should not exist at all. The existence of the board is a violation of free speech. Period. Protesting against or making fun of Nihalani is besides the point. Even if the most cultured and intelligent and pro-free-speech people on the planet headed the censor board, they would be as deserving of my contempt as Nihalani is.
Years later they find themselves talking
about chances, moments when their lives
might have swerved off
for the smallest reason.
I hadn’t phoned, he says, that morning?
What if you’d been out,
as you were when I tried three times
the night before?
Then she tells him a secret.
She’d been there all evening, and she knew
he was the one calling, which was why
she hadn’t answered.
Because she felt-
because she was certain-her life would change
if she picked up the phone, said hello,
said, I was just thinking
I was afraid,
she tells him. And in the morning
I also knew it was you, but I just
answered the phone
the way anyone
answers a phone when it starts to ring,
not thinking you have a choice.
I can’t imagine where his concepts of rights arises from. Everybody has the right to call India anything they damn well please—and he has the right to disagree, as Banerjee pointed out. It is incredibly ironic that his riposte to those complaining about rising intolerance in India actually proves their point. The elite and supposedly cultured Anupam Kher is Exhibit A.
From a fine essay on Vladmir’s Nabokov’s love for Véra Evseevna Slonim :
He could not write a word without hearing it in her pronunciation.
He also called her “his kittykin, his poochums, his mousikins, goosikins, monkeykins, sparrowling, kidlet [...] his skunky, his bird of paradise, his mothling, kitty-cat, roosterkin, mousie, tigercubkin.” He eventually married her; they were together for half a century.
The amazing Maria Popova of Brain Pickings also wrote a great post on this once.
For a couple of years, every Monday I’ve been posting a poem on Facebook, with the intent of demonstrating that good poetry is something that can speak to everyone, and need not be abstruse, self-indulgent writing that only a chosen few can engage with. Starting this week, I’m shifting this tradition to India Uncut. Here’s the Monday Poem for today:
THE OLD WOMAN
by Arun Kolatkar
An old woman grabs
hold of your sleeve
and tags along.
She wants a ﬁfty paise coin.
She says she will take you
to the horseshoe shrine.
You’ve seen it already.
She hobbles along anyway
and tightens her grip on your shirt.
She won’t let you go.
You know how old women are.
They stick to you like a burr.
You turn around and face her
with an air of ﬁnality.
You want to end the farce.
When you hear her say,
‘What else can an old woman do
on hills as wretched as these?’
You look right at the sky.
Clear through the bullet holes
she has for her eyes.
And as you look on
the cracks that begin around her eyes
spread beyond her skin.
And the hills crack.
And the temples crack.
And the sky falls
with a plateglass clatter
around the shatter proof crone
who stands alone.
And you are reduced
to so much small change
in her hand.
This poem was from Kolatkar’s 1976 masterpiece, Jejuri. The entire book is brilliant, I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The Modi government, under fire for rising intolerance and violence related to eating beef, has allegedly disallowed permission for the airing of a documentary on beef-eating practices made by students of Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
The film titled “Caste on the Menu Card”, about the beef eating practices in Maharashtra, was to be screened on Saturday at the Jeevika Asia Livelihood Documentary Festival 2015, in Delhi. However, the makers of the movie say that they were informed by the organisers that they would need a censor certificate.
Firstly, you should note that this is not a protest by some ‘fringe elements’ within the RSS fold, but a decision by the government. So that whole approach of saying ‘Hey, we’re focusing on development, these are fringe elements, nothing to do with us’ won’t work here.
Secondly, you should also note that it was a Congress government that first introduced censorship in India, and over the years have been quite happy to ban books, films, plays and even music albums. So the fault really lies with us. We’ve been tolerating these assaults on free speech for way too long.
It’s never too late to start being intolerant of intolerance.
Oh, and here’s the trailer of the film in question. I don’t know if watching the full film will make me angry, but it is guaranteed to make me hungry.
A number of the machines have been installed in the city of Grenoble already and are distributing original stories to anyone who wants one for free.
Each story is printed on paper similar to a receipt and people can choose if they want a story that will take one, three or five minutes to read.
Why do I think it’s a great idea? Because it’s a new way of looking at literature, and of pushing it to people with short attention spans. Why do I nevertheless have reservations? Two reasons. One, since these stories are free, there’ll be quality-control issues. Two, they’re printed on paper, which misses the point, because they could just as easily be delivered on an app to the phone of the intended reader, which would be more convenient for that person.
In the long run, no one will read physical books. As I’ve argued before, a book is just the words an author writes, and the rest is packaging. Those of us who are attached to physical books are just attached to a particular form of packaging we are used to, and because we associate it with the joy of reading. That will end in a couple of generations. And there’s nothing sad about that. What matters is that people read, and not the device they use to do that reading.
You might well ask me at this point what I think of Juggernaut, Chiki Sarkar’s new phone-publishing venture. Well, I think it’s brave and visionary—but I worry that it might be ahead of its time. There is that old saw about how those who look into the future often overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term. I think that might be happening here. Juggernaut’s vision is fundamentally correct, but their pockets have to be deep enough, and their investors patient enough, for them to last long enough to actually succeed as a company.
A friend of mine posted an interesting cartoon on Facebook the other day. A man stood in front of a gigantic empty bookshelf at his friend’s house, peering at three small items on one corner and saying to his friend, ‘Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader… I say, Hardwick, this sure is an impressive library.’ His friend, presumably Hardwick, sat impassively on the sofa, smoking a pipe.
Many of my friends would relate to that. ‘I can never read a book on a screen,’ says one. ‘I need to hold the book in my hand.’ Another says: ‘I love the smell of paper. E-books can never replace the real thing.’ And so on. But these sentiments, noble as they seem, expressed with an air of superiority, as if one is taking a principled stand, are somewhat misplaced. The chief reason for this is a popular misundertanding of what a book really is.
A book is the words a writer writes. Nothing less; nothing more. Everything else is packaging. Whether it’s printed on paper or written on rice, whether its paperback or hardback or a spectral presence in the Kindle app for Android, is irrelevant to the book itself. For centuries now, the dominant form of packaging has involved paper – but books existed before paper did. Media as diverse as clay, stone, bamboo, metal sheets and wood were used to carry the written word, as also was papyrus. Paper was the bold new technology that made all of them redundant; and now we have a newer technology that threatens to replace paper.
So all my friends who prefer printed books to ebooks are not showing a love for books per se, but just a nostalgia for a particular form of packaging. There’s nothing wrong with that – as long as you don’t imagine that feeling that way makes you some kind of connoisseur, like the wine snob who prefers Domaine de la Romanee-Conti Grand Cru to a mere Sula.
Indeed, imagine a novelist pausing in the middle of a paragraph and saying to himself, ‘Let me tweak this sentence structure a bit so that the paper smells better.’ That would be absurd – as absurd as pretending that you are somehow more refined than a guy who reads books on a Kindle because you can smell the paper. Are you a paper-fetishist or a book lover?
I am writing this column from Turkey, where I’ve been spending much time in museums, forts, palaces, mosques, underground caves, hot-air balloons and Facebook. In a place called the Museum of Mosaics in Istanbul, I was amused to see people furiously clicking cellphone pictures of what I thought were pretty mediocre mosaics. (The ones in the Chora Church are better, partly because of their proximity to a marvellous restaurant called Asitane, which I highly recommend if you visit Istanbul, but I digress.) So here’s a thought experiment: if you had a time machine at your disposal, went back to the age when mosaics were being made, cornered a mosaic maker and showed him a 20-second cellphone video shot in these modern times, how do you think he’d react? My hypothesis is that he’d instantly go insane, right there. He would not be able to fathom what just happened. And even if he got over it somehow, he would never make a mosaic again in his life. He would not see in it the charm that we do now. All he would want, more than love, sex, happiness or lamb on a bed of aubergines, would be a cellphone. That’s all he’d want.
Well, we have that.
Mosaics are an old technology that is now redundant; will printed books go the same way? I own thousands of printed books myself, though I am also a Kindle power-user, and my prognosis is that within 30 years, printed books will be like LPs are today: mere artefacts. We love printed books because we love reading, have always read printed books, and associate the joy of reading with the habit of reading printed books. My generation, and the one after, will keep buying them. But the kids growing up in the post-App era, who slide their finger to turn a page, won’t have that same habit or association. For them, it’s a no-brainer: e-books will be both cheaper and more convenient. (Besides, reading devices will also evolve. Although I love my Kindle, the model I use will be fit for a museum in 2040.)
The publishing industry will also be transformed by then. Much of what traditional publishers do now – printing and packaging the book, and distributing it – will be redundant, and the nature of book marketing will also change. The curatorial and editing functions will remain important, but publishers, in whatever form they exist, will get a smaller cut of the price of a book. (Authors will get more.) Books will also be cheaper, though the processes of discovering them, and shaping our tastes, will change in ways we probably can’t imagine now. There’s a brave new world coming up, and there are a lot of trees in it that should dance a dance of woody celebration, for if it were not for technology, we’d be cutting them down for paper. Start the music.
One of the finest graphic novels I’ve read recently is Paying For It, a ‘comic strip memoir about being a john’ by the Canadian writer Chester Brown. In 1996 Brown’s girlfriend informed him that she had fallen in love with someone else. Brown took it well, and they even continued living together for a while, till eventually Brown moved on. But he saw no sense in seeking conventional relationships that involved ‘possessive monogamy’, and instead started seeing prostitutes. Paying For It is an account of more than a decade spent eschewing romantic love and instead satisfying his sexual needs with a series of paid encounters.
Brown treats his encounters in a matter-of-fact way, right down to his chapter titles (‘Carla’, ‘Anne’, ‘Angelina’, ‘Back to Anne’, ‘Edith’ etc). There are no seedy, cheap thrills to be had here, and Paying For It is more about the internal workings of Brown’s mind through these years than anything that actually happens. He doesn’t try to sentimentalise or glamorise the lives of the women he sleeps with, and there isn’t much of their back story in the book.
The book would be worth your time for the appendices alone. In a series of clear, nuanced arguments, Brown lays down why prostitution should be decriminalised. He is a libertarian (as am I), and the basic premise of that argument is simple enough: what consenting adults do with one another is no one’s business but their own, as long as they do not infringe on anyone else’s rights while doing so. When a john sees a prostitute, it is fundamentally an economic transaction, with one party paying the other for services rendered. That’s it. There is no moral dimension to it.
One can argue, especially in a third-world context, that many prostitutes are forced into that line of work, and that there is always coercion involved. This is exactly why prostitution should be legal. Whenever the state outlaws victimless crimes, such as prostitution or sports betting, the underworld fills the resultant vacuum, and things get shady. Human trafficking thrives not because prostitution exists, but because it is illegal and we’ve left it to the mafia. (Ditto match-fixing in the context of sports betting in India.) If it was legal and transparent, trafficking and coercion would be vastly reduced, and easier to counter when they did happen.
There are those who hold that prostitution necessarily involves implicit coercion, because which woman would choose it willingly? This is just plain disrespectful to the women who make that choice. If someone deems it the best option open to them, who are we to pass judgment on their choices? Also, why is it frowned upon if you sell sexual services for money, but not if you sell other parts of yourself? One of my marketable assets, for example, is my writing ability, and I’ve sold my services to dozens of publications over the years. (Indeed, at the moment I write columns for both Hindu Business Line and the Economic Times.) Am I a slut then? Do I become a slut if I sell my physical labour? If I work as a construction worker or a massage therapist? Why do we stigmatise sex?
You could look at that last question as either a rhetorical question or as an anthropological one. But here’s my point: if we look down upon sex workers for the kind of work they do, then that reflects badly on us, not on them. People who use the terms ‘whore’ or ‘slut’ as pejoratives are demeaning themselves.
That brings me to the sad, sad story of Shweta Basu Prasad, who was caught a few weeks ago in a ‘prostitution racket.’ Prasad is an accomplished national-award winning actress, who has also made a documentary on Indian classical music, and decided, at some point, to look at other ways of earning money. She was arrested during a raid at a five-star hotel in Hyderabad where she was, we are salaciously informed, ‘caught in the act’. She was sent to a government rehabilitation home for ‘rescued’ women. (She had no say in this.) And of course, she was named and shamed in the media.
Some of the people who spoke out in her defence were outraged that she was put in the spotlight and humiliated, and not the businessmen on the other side of the transaction. But why should even they be named and shamed? In my view, both Prasad and the businessmen were doing nothing wrong – there was clearly no coercion involved, just consenting adults getting together. Nor did the pimp involved do anything wrong in bringing them together. The people who should be ashamed here are the police, who spend time and effort busting victimless crimes instead of focussing on so many of the other duties they fail to perform. And it’s obvious why. Why do you think the raids happened in the first place and the businessmen weren’t named?
The police across the country act like a mafia engaged in extortion of those unfairly criminalised by our antiquated penal system, such as homosexuals, prostitutes and their customers, gamblers and so on. They are the ones who should be shamed, who should not be able to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning, whose families should feel embarrassed by them. And yet, poor Shweta Basu Prasad is treated like a criminal and humiliated in this manner. It’s a disgrace. She did absolutely nothing wrong, and is the victim here, not of the clients she was working with, but of the police, and of our hypocritical, repressed Indian society.
The last chapter of Brown’s book is titled ‘Back to Monogamy’. But unlike what that might indicate, he doesn’t realise the error of his ways and goes off and find a conventional girlfriend. Instead, he finds his comfort zone with one of the women he has had paid sex with, and decides to be monogamous with her while continuing their financial arrangement. This might seem unusual to you, but on reading the book, you’ll see why it makes perfect sense for Brown. We all stumble through life, trying to understand what makes us happy, making compromises, negotiating with our destinies. Whatever works, works. There is no right or wrong in this.
‘Before anyone else was interested in the ornithology of terror he saw the gathering birds,’ Salman Rushdie writes about himself in Joseph Anton.
Something new was happening here: the growth of a new intolerance. It was spreading across the surface of the earth, but nobody wanted to know. A new word had been created to help the blind remain blind: Islamophobia. To criticize the militant stridency of this religion in its contemporary incarnation was to be a bigot. A phobic person was extreme and irrational in his views, and so the fault lay with such persons and not with the belief system that boasted over one billion followers worldwide. One billion believers could not be wrong, therefore the critics must be the ones foaming at the mouth. When, he wanted to know, did it become irrational to dislike religion, any religion, even to dislike it vehemently? When did reason get redescribed as unreason? When were the fairy stories of the superstitious placed above criticism, beyond satire? A religion was not a race. It was an idea, and ideas stood (or fell) because they were strong enough (or too weak) to withstand criticism, not because they were shielded from it. Strong ideas welcomed dissent. “He that wrestles with us strengthens our nerves and sharpens our skill,” wrote Edmund Burke. “Our antagonist is our helper.” Only the weak and the authoritarian turned away from their opponents and called them names and sometimes wished to do them harm.
It was Islam that had changed, not people like himself, it was Islam that had become phobic of a very wide range of ideas, behaviors, and things.
Read the full thing. I know people who are turned off by the stylistic flourishes of his novels, but Joseph Anton brims with clarity and insight, and is well worth your time.
I’m amazed that India hasn’t yet woken up to the fact that Himesh Reshammiya is the new Govinda. I mean, check out the awesome video below of ‘Umrao Jaan’, a song from his forthcoming film Damadamm. It’s WTF, yes, but it is brilliant in its WTFness, which is quite deliberate and over-the-top, much as Govinda was at his best. There are just so many kickass moments in this. I especially love the end…
One of the great delights of Indian newspapers is that they often report seriously news that is insanely, rotfl-ly funny. Take the following news headline: ‘Dhoni Keeps Promise, Adopts a Tiger’. On reading this story, you find that India’s cricket captain, MS Dhoni, has adopted a tiger called Agsthya in the Mysore Zoo. Javagal Srinath persuaded him to do so, and Dhoni isn’t the only early adopter: Zaheer Khan has adopted a leopard, Anil Kumble has adopted a giraffe and Virat Kohli has adopted a rabbit. (Incredibly, I’m making up only the bit about Kohli.) The tiger is 9 years old, so any questions about whether it will be nursed by his wife are out of place here. In any case, young Sakshi Dhoni would no doubt not want her Masabasaris to be peed on by a baby tiger, and I’m safely assuming that young Agsthya Dhoni will remain a resident of Mysore Zoo.
As you would guess, this reminds me of MF Husain. The celebrated painter died last week, and the media has been full of tributes to him. (My friend, the prolific Salil Tripathi, wrote four of them: 1, 2, 3, 4. My fellow Yahoo! columnist Girish Shahane also wrote one.) Husain is one of the most recognisable and familiar figures in this country: almost everybody surely knows his name. He was an uber-celebrity, which is ironic for two reasons. One: He was hounded out of the country by goons who believe that goddesses should not be painted naked. (Ludicrously, they believe in goddesses. WTF?) Two: Most of the people to whom he was such a recognisable figure, who would have burst crackers and felt mega-proud if a nobel prize for painting were instituted and given to him, wouldn’t be able to tell you what made him great. They wouldn’t have an opinion on what was notable about his art, and why his paintings are more or less compelling than those by Raza, Souza or Salman Khan. They’d know that he likes to be barefoot because Bombay Times (and Lucknow Times and Kota Times and suchlike) would have mentioned it a few hundred times, and they’d know he liked painting horses and developed crushes on Bollywood actresses from time to time. But that’s it. To them, he’s a celebrity because he’s a celebrity.
It’s a sign of the widespread shallowness of human beings that being celebrated and being a celebrity are two different things. People become celebrities by achieving something, or by being someone’s wife/husband/girlfriend/boyfriend/alleged shag. But once they make it to page 3 a few times, the original reason for their celebrity becomes redundant, and they become ‘famous for being famous’. First they get their 15 minutes of fame for XYZ; then they get a lifetime of fame for being famous for that original 15 minutes, and XYZ no longer matters. Husain the quirky public figure displaces Husain the painter. When he dies, we pretend to be celebrating his work, but we’re really just celebrating his celebrity, which is as much our doing as his. Then we move on to Dhoni’s tiger and Kohli’s rabbit. (I can’t get Kohli’s rabbit out of my mind.)
Why are we so shallow and obsessed with the superficial? One reason, undeniably, is that we are all voyeurs. I watch Bigg Boss religiously when it’s on, and spend as much time on Bombay Times as The Times of India. (This is because ToI is boringly awful and BT is glamorously awful, and I prefer pretty pictures.) Which of us doesn’t clamour for gossip on who is sleeping with who, and who had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in a near nip-slip (as if everybody doesn’t have two nips), or which designer flicked a design from which fellow designer (as if they both haven’t flicked from an old issue of Vogue)? We crave wealth and beauty, and are obsessed by the rich and the beautiful: that is in our genes.
Another possible reason is an evolutionary one, cited by Johann Hari in an old essay on the subject. It is possible, he writes, that “we are hard-wired to seek out Big Men (or Women) and copy them,” an instinct that evolved for our survival and has led to the flourishing of the tabloid media. We are drawn towards success and achievement and beauty; celebrity seems a validation of all these things; so we are drawn towards celebrity, ultimately for its own sake.
This is not necessarily harmful, unless we become stalkers or are stalked by them. But this celebrity thing can be taken too far—consider the temples built for this cricketer or that film star, and the near-religious adulation heaped upon them. This is especially dangerous when they enter politics, extending the halo of their celebrity into a field where you actually need to be competent, and merely being photogenic or charming or controversial or famous isn’t enough. The south has had its share of filmstar-turned-chief ministers, who gather cults, not followings. Their power makes them celebrities, their celebrity gives them more power, and the perpetual motion machine keeps running. This cannot be healthy.
We also make the mistake of assuming that because we are familiar with the public image of a celeb, we are familar with the celeb himself. If a particular cricketer is known for being humble and unassuming, it doesn’t actually mean that he is really that way. His public persona is being mistaken for his personality, which may or may not coincide, and if they do, that is bound to go to his head, so how the hell can he stay humble? Celebrity is tough.
Another mistake we make is assuming that being a celebrity extends your competence in fields other than what you are originally known for. The frequently naive views of celebs are given more importance than they deserve, often in subjects they know nothing about. (For example, Dhoni’s giving a lakh to Mysore Zoo does nothing for animal rights. It is a cosmetic gesture, though I have no doubt it is a well-meaning one, and he’s an awesome cricketer, so Agsthya is now my favourite tiger.) Sometimes, of course, they are sensible, but I am always surprised when that is the case. In general, celebs’ views on politics or economics are staggeringly banal or stupefyingly silly. But then, just as we get the leaders we deserve, perhaps we also get the celebs we deserve.
* * * *
Going back to the news item on Dhoni, I notice his quote about the tiger being our ‘national animal’. WTF is a national animal? Is the concept itself not absurd, like a national bird or national sport or national colour or a national brand of underwear? It’s like an insecure nation reassuring itself with a signalling device. Why isn’t the donkey our national animal? There are more donkeys than tigers in India, surely? Is it because donkeys are vegetarian?
Dhoni should have thought about this and adopted a donkey in protest.
I’ve watched it in utter delight about five times now, and each time I notice wonderful new details. Like Say and Mises being in Hayek’s corner during the boxing match, and Malthus in Keynes’s. It’s a brilliant production, and Russ Roberts (of Cafe Hayek) and John Papola deserve much credit.
Trivia: The security guard in that video is Mike Munger, the libertarian economist.
The embedded video above is a sequel to this one, by the way. I prefer part 2, as it happens.
And yes, regular readers of this blog would know whose side I’m on. Much of my worldview is shaped by Hayek, who is one of my intellectual heroes.
If I went online and tried to find the perfect mate—and I think that that is probably an excellent use of the internet—I couldn’t have done it better. That’s such a smart way to do it, by the way. I think that a couples therapist and a computer geek should form a company and shepherd people through it. For so long, there’s been this terrible process where we find a mate through our worst instincts and our reiteration of all our family mistakes. We always become one parent and marry the other one.
That sounds like a fabulous little insight to me, though I think that it is also true that some people do it the other way around, and find a mate who is nothing like their parents, so that they don’t end up like one of them. Who can say who is making the greater mistake?
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I am reminded of Philip Larkin’s great poem, “This be the Verse”, and even though it has appeared on this blog before, I shall reproduce it again:
This be the Verse—Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish. That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation. I wish that children nowadays could have similar experiences, but it’s not very easy.
I think Miyamoto’s lament holds true not just for kids but for all of us. We are desensitized and apathetic, and there is no sense of wonder in our lives anymore. How does one recapture it? I don’t think going back to nature and escaping from the urban grind is an answer in itself. Those of us who do that do it as an anaesthetic or a balm. There has to be something more.
At 2:28 pm on August 28, 2003, a middle-aged pizza deliveryman named Brian Wells walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania. He had a short cane in his right hand and a strange bulge under the collar of his T-shirt. Wells, 46 and balding, passed the teller a note. “Gather employees with access codes to vault and work fast to fill bag with $250,000,” it said. “You have only 15 minutes.” Then he lifted his shirt to reveal a heavy, boxlike device dangling from his neck. According to the note, it was a bomb. The teller, who told Wells there was no way to get into the vault at that time, filled a bag with cash—$8,702—and handed it over. Wells walked out, sucking on a Dum Dum lollipop he grabbed from the counter, hopped into his car, and drove off. He didn’t get far. Some 15 minutes later, state troopers spotted Wells standing outside his Geo Metro in a nearby parking lot, surrounded him, and tossed him to the pavement, cuffing his hands behind his back.
Wells told the troopers that while out on a delivery he had been accosted by a group of black men who chained the bomb around his neck at gunpoint and forced him to rob the bank. “It’s gonna go off!” he told them in desperation. “I’m not lying.” The officers called the bomb squad and took positions behind their cars, guns drawn. TV camera crews arrived and began filming. For 25 minutes Wells remained seated on the pavement, his legs curled beneath him.
“Did you call my boss?” Wells asked a trooper at one point, apparently concerned that his employer would think he was shirking his duties. Suddenly, the device started to emit an accelerating beeping noise. Wells fidgeted. It looked like he was trying to scoot backward, to somehow escape the bomb strapped to his neck. Beep… Beep… Beep. Boom! The device detonated, blasting him violently onto his back and ripping a 5-inch gash in his chest. The pizza deliveryman took a few last gasps and died on the pavement.
This is just the beginning of a complex case where all the details haven’t yet been resolved. But what a story it is. Just the start, these first three paras, can be the basis for a gripping film or novel: a metaphysical thriller where the collar bomb could stand for much more than just a collar bomb. I wonder what some of Bollywood’s new directors would make of it.
Of course, in the film our pizza deliveryman wouldn’t die so soon, but would struggle against time and circumstance, as we all do. And that’s the story.
The Times of India investigates if “Aishwarya Rai (Jodhaa Akbar) has been replaced by younger Bollywood star Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as the face of cosmetics firm L’Oréal”, and ends its report with these two priceless paragraphs:
Distinguished Hindu statesman Rajan Zed, in a statement in Nevada (USA) today, suggested that instead of obsession with minor issues like “pitched battles of Aishwarya and Freida”, media should focus more on highlighting major issues facing humanity, world and India today.
Rajan Zed, who is President of Universal Society of Hinduism, stressed that instead of running after these mundane things, we should focus on realizing the Self. As ancient Hindu scripture Katha Upanishad points out that when wise realize the Self, they go beyond sorrow…When one realizes Self, there is nothing else to be known.
I’m racking my brains about what “realising the self” could mean, and I can’t think beyond masturbation. In my nihilistic worldview, there can be nothing more divine than a self-inflicted distinguished Hindu orgasm. The rest is illusion. No?
* * *
Meanwhile, bothered by thoughts of neither Aishwarya nor Freida, the irrepressible MF Husain has expressed his love for Anushka Sharma. Besides being gorgeous, she also acted really well in Band Baajaa Baaraat, so I’m going to cheer him on in his efforts to “paint her in myriad hues.” I wonder what Mr Zed would have to say about that.
If Hartosh Singh Bal did not exist, one would have to invent him. A few months, he stirred up much righteous outrage across Indian literary circles with his attack on “navel-gazing contemporary Indian fiction”—see the comments there, much fun. On that occasion, I thought he had a point, but expressed it poorly, with all the wrong examples, and commenters duly took him apart.
Well, now he’s back with an attack on the Jaipur Literary Festival that seems to be attacking the establishment only because it seems a cool thing to do, and makes a whole bunch of silly arguments, such as a bizarrely personality-based one about William Dalrymple—I’d be surprised if he even convinced himself with that piece. The action has begun in the comments there—my friends Nilanjana, Devangshu and Sonia have already weighed in—and there will surely be much more in the days to come. Watch that space.
But why do I welcome Hartosh’s pieces when I don’t entirely agree with them? It’s because, like a true Bigg Boss watcher, I like the drama and the fighting that ensues. I also enjoy the terrible self-importance running through some of the comments, and that oh-so-serious tone as if the issue being discussed affects all our lives, and is hugely important, like global warming or Islamist terrorism or the ethics of wearing hoodies and sunglasses during poker tournaments. It’s not! No one gives a shit! It’s just books! Chill out, people!
So much fun.
* * *
On the subject of book festivals, I’ve attended just a couple (Jaipur and Galle, though I wasn’t an invitee at the former), and had a whale of a time at both. For any reader, it’s an amazing experience to be able to spend three or four days listening to writers talking about their craft, and mingling with fellow enthusiasts. And the Jaipur fest, far from showcasing only foreign writers, as Bal implies, actually presents a terrific platform to Indian writers as well, including vernacular ones. At the very least, even if you’re skeptical about them, they do some good and no harm at all. So where’s the problem?
* * *
I won’t be going to Jaipur this year, though. My pilgrimages are poker tournaments, and there are three this weekend in Goa. My writing has suffered terribly because of this new addiction, but I’ll find a balance soon. Just as soon as I finish playing this hand.
What did you say, raise? Are you kidding me? That’s so rude. Ok, then, I’m all in.
* * *
I mentioned Bigg Boss earlier in the post, and the thought now strikes me: Is Hartosh Singh Bal the Dolly Bindra of Indian literature? Now it all makes sense…
Huffington Post has a good feature up in which a few major contemporary writers are asked to name “the most important contemporary fiction writer” according to them. There are some interesting choices there, and I’m not surprised that the only one picked twice is Alice Munro. As I’ve blogged before, she’s my favourite living writer by a long way, even though reading anything by her makes me feel my own inadequacies as a writer so much more acutely. As Joni Mitchell once said, “Whereas Carver makes me think I can write short stories, Munro makes me think I can’t.”
Anyway, go check out the whole list: hopefully you’ll add a few items to your must-read list, as I did. Time to go buy me some Stanley Elkin…
... have been announced. It’s a solid line-up, and I’ll be looking forward to the talks by Antonio Damasio, David Brooks, Anthony Atala, Ed Boyden and especially Roger Ebert, who has reinvented himself so magnificently on Twitter. And ah, there’s also Salman Khan—not the Bollywood actor, but the entrepreneur who created the wonderful Khan Academy. It should be quite something.
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Aside: If the Bollywood Salman Khan was ever invited to TED to give a shirtless speech, what do you think he’d talk about?
Salman Khan bagged the Best Actor Jury Award at an award function last night. Apparently the actor was expecting to win the Best Popular Actor Award which went to Shah Rukh Khan.
The actor was present backstage when the Jury Award and the Popular Awards were announced. Disappointed with the announcement, Salman refused to come on stage to receive his award.
This is hilarious at multiple levels, but leave that aside. I feel a bit sad for Salman, that such a petty thing should matter to a grown man. In award-infested Bollywood, who remembers who got which award for what film anyway? After the kind of career he’s had, it’s kind of poignant that Salman Khan needs validation this bad.
Having said that, I will now stop commenting on how 40-plus men can play characters so many years younger than them. If they behave like babies, then maybe they’re really just acting above their age.
This is the 29th installment of Viewfinder, my weekly column for Yahoo! India, and was published on November 18.
The world is so insane that it is a wonder satirists have a job. I read recently in Hindustan Times—yes, HT, not an Indian version of The Onion—that the makers of Golmaal 3 have been sued by The Indian Stammering Association “for mocking people who stammer.” Shreyas Talpade stammers in the film, and the other characters reportedly keep making fun of him. (I haven’t seen the film.) So this organisation of stammerers is upset about it, and they’re going to court. So far, an association of mute people hasn’t surfaced to join in the revelry—Tusshar Kapoor plays a mute character in the film, and ends up landing the heroine, which does not surprise me: which woman can resist a man who just shuts up and listens?
Seriously, are we a society of eight-year-olds? Even if the explicit intent of the film was to make fun of people who stammer—and it obviously wasn’t—so what? Such mockery always reflects badly on those doing the mocking, not on those being mocked. Why be so sensitive to criticism and mockery (or even abuse)? How insecure do we have to be to let mere words affect us so much?
A few months ago, a salesman from an finance company called me a couple of times to try and sell me an insurance package. I was irritable that day, and the second time I said something to the effect of “... and don’t f***in’ call me again!” before hanging up. 30 seconds later, the phone rings. It’s the same guy, demanding to know “Why you call me f***er? WHY YOU USE BAD LANGUAGE?” I lost it this time, and unleashed a string of pejoratives at the fellow. I hung up again, he called me again. Though I did not answer any more of his calls, he called me about 35 times in the next two days, and his number is still saved in my mobile phonebook as ‘Birla Sunlife Troll.’
Why did it matter so much to him that a random stranger called him X and Y? He screwed up his peace of mind, agitated over it for a couple of days, and it is likely that it affected his interactions with other people around him as well, besides endangering his job. It was irrational—but we are an emotional species more than a rational one, so it is understandable that one gets upset about it, even though being called a ‘bastard’ or a ‘bhainchod’ does not literally make one a bastard or a bhainchod—and hell, we don’t even know what ‘chootiya’ means. But while being upset at abuse or mockery is understandable, what is bizarre is that we expect the legal system, like a school teacher in a yard full of unruly schoolkids, to take over and punish the bad boys. What is even more bizarre is that our legal system actually has provisions for this.
I’ve written before about how certain provisions of the Indian Penal Code make it a crime to give offence in certain contexts, and how the Indian constitution does not provide adequate protection to free speech. All that is a shame, and an example of what’s wrong with our legal system. But there is also something wrong with us, that so many of us take offence so easily at something we could so easily ignore. It speaks of low self-esteem and diffidence, the very qualities that a stammering association should be trying to eradicate in its members. That makes this court case especially ironical, doesn’t it?
* * * *
My respect always goes up for people who show they can laugh at themselves. The sardar who tells sardar jokes, the fat guy who jokes about his paunch, the poker player who mocks his own poor plays, these are my kind of people. They are comfortable in their own skins, and they get that we are a bumbling, imperfect species doomed, biologically, to self-destruct—so some things are just not worth getting het up about. The biggest human failing is that we take ourselves too damn seriously. When we do that, the universe laughs at us.
Growing up, I was a lucky kid. My father was an avid reader, and his collection of books numbered in the thousands. It wasn’t a surprise, then, with books all around me, that I became a keen reader as well. At an age when other children dream of being astronauts or movie stars or cricketers, I wanted to be a writer. And I wasn’t just reading Enid Blytons and Hardy Boys—at age ten, I discovered a book called The House of the Dead, thought the title indicated a thrilling read, and embarked on my first foray into serious literature. It happened to be written by a dude named Dostoevsky, and while it didn’t contain the ghost stories I expected, it got me hooked. Dostoevsky was my first favourite, and I admit that looking back on it, I find it a bit freaky that I read all the major Russian novelists at age ten, and all of Shakespeare as well. (I liked Titus Andronicus more than Macbeth, so it’s fair to say that my tastes weren’t all that refined.)
My reading habit ebbed and flowed over the years. From a weird-ass, serious geeky kid who read a lot, I turned into a rebellious teenager who wore torn jeans, listened to alternative rock and didn’t read all that much. But one thing didn’t change: the desire to be a writer. After college, I wandered into copywriting, then into writing for television, then journalism, then blogging, and then after years of procrastination that I blame on my half-Bengali genes, I finally wrote my first novel a couple of years back. None of this would have been possible if my dad hadn’t been such a collector of books, and if serendipity hadn’t started at home. Forget the fact that I am a writer: I’d be an entirely different person if I hadn’t been the kind of reader that I was. My life would have been diminished.
As it happens, I have become a bit of a book collector like my father was, and while he lived in large, spacious bungalows all his adult life, I have lived in relatively small apartments in Mumbai for much of mine, and the thousands of books I own have created a major storage issue. The bookshelves are overflowing; all the beds with storage space are filled with books; there are three cupboards filled with books; the tables and sofas in my living room overflow with them. So it’s a surprise that I held out for so long before buying my first Kindle.
One reason I didn’t buy the Kindle earlier is that I like the feel of books in my hand. (Not so much the much-touted smell of paper, because years of sinus issues have ravaged my sense of smell.) Also, I used to think that I wouldn’t like the Kindle because one can’t read off a computer screen for too long. However, on using a friend’s Kindle, I discovered that the E Ink technology that the Kindle uses replicates the look of print on paper almost exactly, and is easy on the eyes. (No backlit screens and all that.) Also, the marketplace, which was once a bit limited, has now expanded, and book prices are quite affordable: often cheaper than you’d get in a real bookshop, and when it’s not, the premium is worth it in terms of convenience and storage space. So I’ve gotten myself a Kindle 3, and I love the machine already: it’s lighter than a paperback, can contain thousands of books, and the look and feel is just wonderful.
But I’m not writing this column to evangelize the Kindle as a device. I’m writing, instead, because while browing the online store, I remembered my privileged childhood. I bought a handful of books on my first day with the machine, but the vast majority of the hundreds of books I downloaded in my first few hours with it were free. Every book published before 1924 is in the public domain, and therefore free to download. So there I was, reliving my childhood, downloading Dostoevsky and Turgenev and Dickens and Shakespeare and Mark Twain and even some of Agatha Christie and Wodehouse on my Kindle—for free. In half a day, I put together a collection of books that must have taken my father years of perseverance and saving up to compile. To me, that is a matter of great wonder.
For someone who doesn’t like children very much, and chose long ago not to have any himself, I will now have the audacity to give the parents reading this piece a word of advice: kindle your children. The biggest thing you can do for your kids is open up the world to them, and reading is a great way of doing that. One can’t force kids to read, of course, but merely having books around the house is often enough. (Most avid readers I know picked up the habit that way.) The Kindle—or any other ebook reader that you prefer—saves you a lot of trouble and makes it easy to put a world of books at your kids’ disposal. So here’s what I suggest: gift your kid a Kindle, load it up with a library of free classic books, and set up a one-click payment system through a debit card with a monthly budget so that your kids can buy a reasonable amount of books themselves, regularly, without your supervision. Give them the power—and set them free. There is a good chance that, 30 years later, they will thank you for it. And, thanks to the wonders of technology, it will take you far less effort than it took my dad.
You have to feel sorry for poor Rohinton Mistry. A few years ago he cancelled a book tour in the US because on its first leg, “as a person of colour he was stopped repeatedly and rudely at each airport along the way - to the point where the humiliation of both he and his wife [became] unbearable.” This was in the aftermath of 9/11, with racial profiling in full swing and Mistry, brown and bearded, having the wrong kind of looks. Still, he could have consoled himself with the thought that the US isn’t where he’s from, and he would never be treated that way in Canada, where he lives, or in Mumbai, where he was born. Right?
Ah well. While Mistry in person hasn’t been harrassed, his Booker-nominated book, Such a Long Journey, was recently withdrawn from the Mumbai University syllabus because of a protest spearheaded by Aditya Thackeray, the 20-year-old grandson of Bal Thackeray. Thackeray Jr., who is being launched in politics as the head of the Yuva Sena, a youth wing of the Shiv Sena, reportedly instigated the student wing of the party, the Bhartiya Vidyarthi Sena, to launch a protest against the book. The reason, according to the BVS chief, was that the book “uses extremely obscene and vulgar language in its text and also makes anti-Sena remarks.” The university’s vice-chancellor, presumably not wishing to be beaten up by Shiv Sena thugs, duly took it off the syllabus.
Thackeray Jr. justified his decision in an interview to Mid Day saying, “It is a question of people’s sentiment and India is a very sensitive country. There is a man (Balasaheb Thackeray) who has millions of followers and the author insults him purely on the basis of his own opinion and not the facts. That is where the problem lies.” Watch the video of the full interview on that page, it’s fairly amusing—and also quite scary. When Thackeray says, “You can’t just abuse someone,” it’s not just the immature voicing-off of a random 20 year-old kid, but a portent for the future, from the inheritor of a political party that uses intimidation and thuggery as its political weapons of choice. True, it is not the only party doing so—but it is the primary party responsible for what my friend Salil Tripathi, in an excellent column published today in Mint, calls “Bombay’s decline into Mumbai.” This is what we are becoming, and these are the people who will take us there.
* * * *
The Sena does not have a monopoly on intolerance: instead, it is actually written into our laws, and in our constitution, neither of which respect free speech. (I’ve been writing about this for years, for example in my old piece, ‘Don’t Insult Pasta.’) The Indian Penal Code, framed by the British in colonial times, contains a number of laws that make giving offence a crime, and throttle free speech. For example, there’s Section 295 (a), which makes it a non-bailable offence to “outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.” There’s Section 153 (a), which seeks to punish “any act which is prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities”. There’s Section 124 (a), which prescribes life imprisonment for anyone who “by words or expression of any kind brings or attempts to bring or provoke a feeling of hatred, contempt or disaffection towards government”—something that any critic of any government could be accused of.
The constitution, framed not by the British but by the freedom fighters who got us independence, cops out when it comes to free speech. While Article 19 (1) (a) pays lip service to it, Article 19 (2) lays out “reasonable restrictions” such as when it applies to matters such as “public order” and “decency or morality”, matters which are, of course, open to interpretation. I’d love it if we had something like the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which contains no such caveats—but sadly, we don’t.
Adults should not run around complaining about the words of others. Even in school, the kid who ran to the teacher demanding that the boy who called him a monkey should be punished was laughed upon by everyone. But in our public life, it has somehow become quite okay to complain that someone who has offended you should be punished. If giving offence is a crime, then free speech is impossible, because anything you say can potentially offend someone or the other. And people who take offence so seriously are demeaning both themselves and the entities on behalf of which they are getting offended.
If Bal Thackeray is indeed such a great figure, then why should the words of one Rohinton Mistry bother him? Are any of our religions so fragile that they need to be protected from the criticism of mere humans? God, if He existed, would no doubt be exasperated by the things humans do on His behalf. “Am I so powerless?” I can imagine him asking. “Am I so petty? Jeez, you humans suck. Stop this videogame already.”
My fellow Yahoo! columnist Nitin Pai coined a term a few years ago that I find very apt: Competitive Intolerance. It’s become a rising trend in politics in recent years, especially in Mumbai, where the Shiv Sena and the MNS, with their warring Thackerays, are constantly finding grievances to complain about. These have nothing to do with the state of public services or infrasructure or poverty or any of the urgent issues that should concern us all, but silly things like mere words in a book. Like, really, come on.
* * * *
It, of course, remains a lasting matter of shame that India, the world’s largest democracy, was the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Until that ban is reversed, do not tell me that India is a free country. We accomplished part of the job in 1947—but much remains to be done, in so many different areas. Sadly, most people don’t care. Do you?
Location: A small preview theatre in South Mumbai. Characters: Five members of the Censor Board for Cinema in India, and a young bespectacled man, his brows furrowed, looking younger than his years despite streaks of grey in his hair. They are watching a film called Lunch, Snacks aur Dhokla.
The film is centred around the instinct to eat, and the desire for food that is an undercurrent in all our social interactions. Through the film, hidden cameras show people engaged in the act of wanting to eat, plotting about eating, dreaming of food and, in a scandalous five-minute scene, two characters actually sitting at a table and eating food. It is a provocative sequence: two people, alone together with their desire, shamelessly, repeatedly, keep thrusting food into their oral orifices, and then chewing, chewing, chewing.
So far, the censors have been tolerant. Barring the occasional small change, such as asking that a clearly racist putdown of black coffee be chopped, they haven’t been demanding. But at the end of this bold scene, they ask for the film to be paused. The censors whisper among themselves, so softly that the director can practically hear his racing heartbeat. Finally, the chief censor asks the director to step forward.
“This is too much,” says the safari-suit clad optician. “We cannot have this scene. You must cut it.”
“But I’ve applied for an ‘A’ certificate,” says the director. “What’s wrong with it if only adults see it?”
“Our society is not ready for it. Even our adults need to be protected from themselves. We know what’s good for them, trust me. Cut that scene.”
The director swallows his pride, forgets all his logical arguments, and begs. This works. The censors allow him to keep half the scene. Five minutes becomes two-and-a-half minutes of raw, unrestrained, uninhibited eating. It is more than the director could have hoped for 20 years ago—but that’s poor consolation. He gets home just in time for dinner and, while having sex, starts crying.
* * * *
The scene above is my reconstruction of what the film-maker Dibakar Banerjee might have gone through when the censor board saw his film Love Sex aur Dhokha, based on my friend Rahul Bhatia’s report in Open magazine. The only difference is that I’ve replaced sex with eating. This is a significant difference, and turns the scene at the censor board from one that is routine and expected to something surreal. And yet, in my view, it is absurd that this difference should exist.
Sex and eating are both acts that are central to our existence. We are hardwired for hunger and lust. These are the primal instincts that drive us, and are at the heart of all our motivations. And yet, our attitudes towards them are so different.
We eat openly, and talk about food openly. It is not socially unacceptable to ask a friend of the opposite sex if she has tried the seafood risotto at the new Italian restaurant down the road—but ask her if she’s tried the reverse cowgirl position, and you’ll get some strange looks, especially if there are other people around. We can ask people out for dinner—and yet, not ask them casually if they’d like to have sex with us. (Though the former is often intended as a prelude the latter.) We have to find roundabout ways of getting to the point. (In evolutionary terms, the only point.)
We might admire foodies for their taste and discernment, but we look down on a woman who ‘sleeps around.’ (Indeed, the word ‘slut’ is a pejorative, which is so WTF.) We don’t talk about sex openly, and in some cultures more than others, feel embarrassed by public displays of affection. Most bizarrely, in an Indian context, we censor the depiction of sex in our movies, even in those certified for adults alone, as if we became a nation of more than 1 billion people by kissing with our lips closed. It is absurd—as absurd as the scene that begins this piece.
* * * *
Thankfully, literature does not have to deal with the restrictions that film-makers face. Those battles were won long ago, and it is not uncommon for a mainstream novel to feature detailed and evocative descriptions of all kinds of sexual acts, with a straightforward frankness that most cinema, even in the West, cannot match. I say ‘thankfully’, because of a recent assignment I’ve just taken up: I’ve been asked to put together Electric Feather 2, Tranquebar’s follow up to Electric Feather, the groundbreaking anthology of erotic fiction from South Asia, which was edited by the novelist Ruchir Joshi. I’m excited by the task ahead of me, not just from the point of view of enjoying erotic writing, but also from a literary point of view.
The Indian subcontinent is a sexually repressed region which is just beginning to stumble towards modernity. This is a land where the 19th century coincides with the 21st—and they often share a bedroom or a head. Sex is one of the major fault lines in our society, and a literature that attempts to capture these times will, at some level, have to enter that territory. An anthology of erotica from the subcontinent is, thus, much more than a chance to create a naughty collection that you can read in the loo: it is a serious literary project than can aspire to make contemporary readers sit up with the shock of recognition—and readers a hundred years from now to say, ‘Ah, so that is how it was.’
I’m already approaching writers I admire for submissions to the anthology. And I’m also open to new voices, or voices that I may simply not be aware of, in my ignorance. So if you are a writer and think you’d be interested in contributing, do write to me at amitblogs[AT]gmail[DOT]com.
* * * *
It’s a little ironic that I should be editing this collection, because I find writing about sex immensely hard—only partly because of the absurdity of the act itself. As a fiction writer, I try to keep my writing at a minimal and functional level. I don’t have a taste for baroque, expressionistic writing, and I also do not like writing that shows a fetish for description. Given that writing about sex is usually descriptive, and often lushly so, I tend to skim over those bits when they pop up in books. The subject is such that you have to be pitch-perfect when you attempt it, and that makes it very hard. No wonder so many otherwise great writers have performed so ineptly at writing about sex, as a glance at the past shortlists of the Bad Sex Writing awards would demonstrate.
That said, I’d rather have the writers in this anthology overreach instead of holding themselves back. As in sex itself, if they avoid self-consciousness and just enjoy themselves, it should work out okay.
Let’s take a break from serious column writing this week. Here’s a short story I wrote a long time ago that has just been published by Rupa as part of a collection of Indian short stories, Why We Don’t Talk. It’s called ‘Urban Planning’, and features, in a side role, Abir Ganguly, the narrator of my novel My Friend Sancho.
‘The commissioner will see you now,’ said Gaitonde, the secretary of the municipal commissioner of Mumbai, to Abir Ganguly, the journalist from The Afternoon Mail.
Ganguly walked into BR Sharma’s office. He walked up to his desk and offered him his hand. BR Sharma pretended to look at his mobile phone. ‘Sit down, Ganguly,’ he said. ‘What can I do for you?’
‘Sir, I need to ask you a question about the recent move of the Mumbai Stock Exchange from Worli to Vashi. I need to know if your office authorised it.’
‘Well, yes, we were told the stock exchange is moving, and we do not have a problem with that. We were told it will relieve pressure off the city center towards New Mumbai. That is a good thing.’
‘Well, sir, I am just coming from Vashi. From the stock exchange building.’
‘It’s ready already? The new building? How is it?’
‘The new building is the old building, sir.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The new building is the old building. The stock exchange has shifted, but not from one building to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange building itself has shifted to Vashi. From Worli.’
‘The building itself? How is that possible?’
‘That’s what I’m here to ask you sir.’
‘So what is in Worli? Where, um, the building used to be?’
‘Sir, there is a Sulabh Shauchalaya there, and half of a public park. They used to be in Vashi.’
‘How can this be?’
‘That is what I am asking, sir?’
‘I will see for myself.’
* * * *
BR Sharma got into his Ambassador with the deputy commissioner for urban planning, S Lokapally. ‘Bahubali,’ said BR Sharma, ‘Do you have any idea what is going on here?’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Yes, sir. Lokapally.’
‘Ok. Lokapally, do you have any idea of what is going on here?’
* * * *
The ambassador stopped at where the gate of the Mumbai Stock Exchange used to be. There was a crowd of curious people being shepharded away by police. BR Sharma’s driver got out of the car, sprinted round to BR Sharma’s door, and held it open. BR Sharma got off, grabbed the belt of his trousers and, in an authoritative way that made it clear who the boss was, hauled it up by an inch. He really did need to go to the gym.
Oh, and the building wasn’t there.
As Ganguly had said, there was a Sulabh Shauchalaya and half a public park, with half a bench at one corner of it.
‘I have never seen anything like it before,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Neither have I, sir,’ said Lokapally.
‘Veeravalli,’ said BR Sharma.
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally,’ said BR Sharma, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this. Institute an enquiry. Set up a committee. I want to know how that building got from here to there without our permission.’
* * * *
Later that evening, the municipal commissioner, the police commissioner and the home secretary were ushered into the chief minister’s office.
‘I want to know, how this can happen?’ asked Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, the chief minister.
‘It is most worrying, sir,’ said BR Sharma. ‘I think this is a law and order issue. Our police is supposed to guard our property. How come none of the policemen saw this happen?’
JP Fernandes, the police commissioner, bristled at this. ‘Urban planning is the direct responsibility of the municipality,’ he said. ‘If a building moves from Point A to Point B, the municipality is responsible. Had I been asked to provide forces to defend any of the buildings in the city, I would have done so. Mumbai’s law and order is the best in the country.’
‘The best in the country, my foot,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Now a building has gone, tomorrow the whole of South Mumbai will move to New Mumbai, and your policemen will be sitting on the kattas putting oil on their paunches.’
‘Now now, Sharmaji,’ said JP Fernandes, ‘this is most unwarranted. Why don’t you first keep your buildings in their place?’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil stepped in. ‘Calm down, men. This is not the time to fight.’ He turned to Pravin Deshmukh, the home secretary. ‘Pravin, the inquiry committee will take some time to give their report. But the press is hounding us for answers now. What are we to tell them?’
‘I have an idea, sir,’ said Deshmukh. ‘Let’s tell them that we ourselves shifted the building from Worli to Vashi. We will say that it was a planned move by us, which saves on construction costs. We will be enigmatic about how we shifted the building, and will say that we cannot reveal our methods, it is a state secret. And we should guard the new location of the building, to make sure that nothing happens to that.’
‘Good idea,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. He turned to BR Sharma. ‘I would like you to speak for us at the press conference. And Fernandes, I want your forces guarding the Mumbai Stock Exchange round the clock. Okay.’
‘Yes, sir,’ the two men said together.
* * * *
BR Sharma waited until the flashbulbs stopped going off. Then he read out the statement prepared for him by Deshmukh’s secretary, Vincent Lobo. Then he asked for questions.
Ganguly, who’d had his ear to his mobile phone until a minute ago, popped his hand up.
‘Sir, can you tell us if the municipality plans to shift any more buildings in this manner?’
‘No. I mean yes. I mean yes, I can tell you that no, we will not shift any more buildings for now. One is enough.’
‘Well, sir, I have just got news on my cellphone that the Air India building has shifted to Mahim.’
‘Yes, sir. The Air India building has shifted from Nariman Point to Mahim. It is now in the middle of the road at the start of the Mahim-Bandra causeway. In its place in Nariman Point, according to what my colleague just told me on the phone, is a traffic signal with a bird on it.’
‘Yes, sir. A bird.’
* * * *
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil was pacing up and down when BR Sharma entered his cabin.
‘Varma,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Here you are.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Ok, Sharma. Look, these bloody journalists are hounding me, and my press officer will get an ulcer like this. And the PM has been calling, and I don’t know what to tell him. I need an explanation. I need this matter sorted out. Should we conduct a puja?’
‘Sir, I’ve already set up one enquiry commission. I’ll set up another one.’ This was unprecedented in terms of efficiency. Two enquiry commissions looking into the same thing? Amazing.
‘And what will your enquiry commissions do, ask the buildings why they moved?’
‘I know all about your bloody enquiry commissions. I want answers. I want to know how a building can move from here to there. And did nobody see it? Mumbai never sleeps, Mumbai never sleeps, we are told. Well, somebody must have seen the building shifting. Find him!’
* * * *
Three hours later, BR Sharma and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil met again, this time in the police commissioner’s office. ‘We have a witness,’ said JP Fernandes. ‘He is waiting in the next room. He says he was staring at the Air India building when it moved.’
‘Why was he staring at it?’ asked BR Sharma.
‘What else could he stare at? Have you seen the other buildings there?’
The three men walked into the next room, where an old man in a dirty white kurta-pajama sat on a chair. His hair was ruffled. He clearly hadn’t bathed in many days, and the police inspector with him, Inspector Waghmare, held a handkerchief to his nose. (His own nose.)
‘So tell us the details now,’ barked Fernandes. ‘What did you see?’
‘Sir, I was sitting at the paanwalla opposite the Air India building, just about to put a paan into my mouth, when I heard a loud thud. I looked at the building. It was shaking.’
‘Yes, sir. And then a lighting bolt appeared and hit my paan.’
‘A lightning bolt? Your paan?’
‘Yes, sir. And then Goddess Laxmi, the goddess of wealth, appeared before me in a silk Banarasi saree with lots of gold jewellery. She wore a red bindi on her forehead. She had a Rolex watch on her wrist. She had a twinkle in her eye.’
Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil looked at BR Sharma. BR Sharma looked at Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘She told me,’ the witness continued, ‘that all my good deeds had finally borne fruit, and she was going to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams. She was going to give me a prime parcel of land in South Mumbai. The plot that was behind her at that moment, in fact.’
‘And what did you say?’
‘I said, but Deviji, there’s a building there.’
* * * *
BR Sharma’s phone rang. It was his secretary. ‘Sir, Mr Lokapally says that the enquiry commission is gathered in the conference room. They are waiting for you.’
‘Let them wait,’ thundered BR Sharma. ‘I am the municipal commissioner of Mumbai. Let them wait. And, er, have you organised samosas?’
‘Yes, sir. The samosas are on their way to the conference room.’
‘I’ll be there in a minute.’ BR Sharma hitched up his belt, smoothened his shirt, patted his paunch consolingly, and headed towards the conference room. The samosas were already there, and many of them were being eaten.
‘You are here!’ said BR Sharma.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Lokapally. ‘We were waiting for you.’
BR Sharma grabbed a samosa and looked around the table. He was bad at names, but he knew what they all did. There was an architect, a civil engineer, an urban planner and the head of the Mumbai Stock Exchange at the table.
‘Tell me, gentlemen, what do you make of what has just happened?’
‘Sir, it is not possible,’ said the civil engineer.
‘What is not possible?’
‘Sir, the building shifting like that. It is is not possible. You see, buildings have deep foundations, and they cannot just…’
‘But it has shifted,’ BR Sharma exclaimed. ‘What do you mean it is not possible? It has happened.’
‘We should deny it, sir. We should deny it repeatedly, and after a while, people will forget about it.’
BR Sharma stared at him. Yes, that was the standard practice in public life. But not for something like this, surely. He turned to the architect.
‘Architect,’ he barked, ‘tell me, what do you think?’
‘Sir, it is too early to say. I agree with my esteemed colleague here that it is not possible…’ – he clearly hated his esteemed colleague – ‘but the building has shifted, and the matter must be examined. And we shall examine it. We are the committee. In fact, I suggest we constitute a fact-finding mission to Japan. I volunteer to head it.’
‘Why, have any buildings shifted there?’
‘No, sir, not like this. But their architecture is advanced. Their buildings are made to be earthquake-proof. Maybe if the stock exchange was made with that technology, it would not have moved.’
BR Sharma knew this was ridiculous. Junkets were good, junkets were healthy, but not at a time like this. He turned to the urban planner and asked him his opinion.
‘Sir, the shift is poorly planned,’ he said. ‘If I was carrying out such a shift, I would not have left half a bench in Vashi and brought the other half to Worli. We must find out who is responsible.’
BR Sharma sighed. He looked at the head of the stock exchange, whose name was SK Gindotra, he now remembered. Gindotra had been a classmate of his in school. He used to play badminton.
‘Gindotra, what about you? What hypothesis do you have?’
‘These samosas are damn good, Sharma,’ said Gindotra. ‘As for what hypothesis do I have, I have none. I don’t know how the damn building shifted. There are limits to my knowledge, and I accept that with great humility. But I do know this: you government people don’t have the slightest clue about what is happening. You are running around like headless chickens, and I am enjoying the sight. I just wish my bloody commute was suddenly not so long.’
BR Sharma looked at Gindotra, and a wave of affection rushed through him. Yes, the samosas were good.
* * * *
Outside, the media wallahs gathered.
‘This is Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar from New Bharat TV,’ barked one young man into a TV camera. ‘We are gathered outside the municipal commissioner’s office in Mumbai – but who knows, we may suddenly find that the office has disappeared and is in Delhi now. No, dear viewers, I am not joking. All over Mumbai, buildings are going from one location to another. The Mumbai Stock Exchange has shifted from Worli to Vashi. The Air India Building is now in Mahim. No one knows how this has happened. No one saw this happen.’
Now he began to wail.
‘Is this the coming of kalyug? Is this a plot by Pakistan? Is this a plot by the CIA? The government owes us an answer, and we at New Bharat TV will get you an answer. We will wait here until BR Sharma comes out, and we will ask him some hard questions. For you! We will do it for you! For the nation! Our great India! We want answers! Aaaaanswers!’
At this point, Ashok Brihanchaputlakumar had an epileptic fit and passed out.
‘Sir,’ said Lokapally inside the building. ‘A reporter seems to have fainted outside.’
‘Go out and make sure he is taken to the newest hospital,’ said BR Sharma, ‘wherever it is.’
* * * *
That evening, BR Sharma sat in the loo. If the chair in his office was his seat of power, the commode in his loo at home was the seat of peace and calm. No one could disturb him here.
But he wasn’t at peace now. Why were these buildings moving around like this?
The art of government, he had learnt early in his career, is the art of confidence. A government servant may not be in charge of a certain situation – but he must pretend to be. The public looks to the government to control the economy, to maintain law and order, to make sure everything in its cities and towns works. Often, governments may have no control over these things – and little understanding of them. Still, people have blind faith in governments, and if that faith is broken, all is anarchy.
So when a crisis comes, you need to signal to the common folk that you are in command, and are taking action. Make statements in the press; institute a committee; issue a show-cause notice to someone; or, if nothing else works, distract the media by raiding a dance bar. Do something.
BR Sharma had once been part of a committee that was investigating rising prices in Maharashtra. Among the nine members of that committee, eight had different theories about why prices were rising and how they could be countered. BR Sharma did not have an opinion on this matter. There were too many factors involved in such phenomena, and as long as Mrs Sharma did not complain to him about why onions were 25 rupees a kilo, he really didn’t care.
That committee didn’t actually end up doing anything. But the government said a committee was at work, thus showing that they were fixing the problem – and the next year, monsoons were good, and prices came down. The committee patted itself on the back, and went for lunch to the Taj, where BR Sharma had seven golden-fried prawns followed by half a sushi platter. He had a stomach upset the next day and did not go to work, because of which Mumbai stopped running, suddenly confused about what to do.
Now, again, there was a big problem and the people of his city had turned to its municipal commissioner. And BR Sharma didn’t have a damn clue about what to do. If this matter wasn’t sorted out quickly, people’s trust in government would disappear. Like a child who learns that there is no Santa Claus, the people of Mumbai would lose the faith – and they would never regain it.
BR Sharma made a face. His nutritionist had been right, he really did need to have more fibre in his diet.
* * * *
The next morning, traffic was slower than usual. The road down Mahim Causeway that led to town was blocked because of the Air India building, and the load on alternative routes was immense. BR Sharma had foreseen this, and had reached office at seven-thirty, before the rush hour traffic became really bad. He had tossed and turned all night, and his eyes were red.
At 9.30, his mobile phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was Abir Ganguly, that damn reporter.
‘Hello, Mr Sharma. This is Abir Ganguly. You won’t believe this, but I am at Madh Island.’
‘Ganguly, you are calling me to tell me you are in Madh Island? What am I supposed to with that information? Why is it important to me? I am fed up of you!’
‘No, sir, this is important. It’s like this, five minutes ago, I was on my way to Worli. Now I am in Madh Island. That is because the Bandra-Worli Sea Link has now become the Versova-Madh Island Sea Link.’
BR Sharma gulped. Had he heard correctly? Was he dreaming?
‘Yes, sir, I kid you not, the Bandra-Worli Sea Link now connects Versova and Madh Island. And I really would like your quote on this matter, sir? Has this also been planned by the government? Why weren’t commuters warned about it earlier?’
‘The monsoons,’ said BR Sharma. ‘It must be the monsoons.’
‘Nothing,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Look, I can’t comment on this till I set up an enquiry and we get more information on this. But I can tell you one thing off the record?’
‘The next time a building moves, please do not call me. Assume that I already know. I am the municipal commissioner of this city. I know everything.’
* * * *
At noon, BR Sharma was in Worli, at the exact spot where the Sea Link used to begin. (Or end, depending on whether you lived in South Mumbai or North Mumbai.) With him were Lokapally, JP Fernandes and Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘I think we are ready,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil, looking up at the nearest street light. ‘Varma, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Sharma.’
‘Sharma, switch it on.’
‘Mahakali, switch it on.’
‘Sir, my name is Lokapally.’
‘Lokapally, switch it on.’
Lokapally spoke into his phone, and the street light came on. The four men stared into the sea – as did their 40 or so minions there, who would not have dared to look elsewhere while their bosses were looking in that direction.
‘Nothing happened,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil.
‘Yes, sir,’ said BR Sharma.
‘This is the beauty of science,’ said Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil. ‘Now we know what does not work.’
He turned around and walked away. He had been told that just before the Sea Link disappeared, one of the streetlights there, which had been on a few hours longer than it should have been, had been switched off. Light off – Sea Link gone. Correlation – causation. So Raosaheb Mohite-Dholepatil wanted to see if turning the light back on would bring the Sea Link back. No such luck.
‘If a hen had laid an egg here just before the Sea Link vanished,’ said JP Fernandes to BR Sharma, ‘I wonder if our honorable chief minister would have tried to push the egg into the hen’s arse. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. But I do know this: If there was a hen here this morning, it’s no longer here. It’s disappeared.’
* * * *
From there, BR Sharma went home for lunch. There was nothing to be done. He had set up another committee that morning, but he was confident nothing would come of it. He had read all the newspaper reports on this subject, but none of them had the slightest clue of what could have caused this.
Some commentators were putting forth theories that pushed forward whatever agenda they believed in. Swami Ramdas said that God was punishing Mumbai for its immoral ways, and for its tolerance of homosexuals. TV Iyengar said that while the specifics needed to be examined, this was surely the fault of unbridled capitalism. MS Azmi blamed global warming. Ravikiran Sabnis said that this proved that government had failed, and that markets would fix this. And Govind Joshi said that this was all the fault of allowing migrant labour into Mumbai.
They were all mad. BR Sharma wanted to line them up in front of a wall somewhere and shoot them with a water pistol. Just like that.
‘I heard about the Sea Link on the news,’ Mrs Sharma said. ‘This is so strange. Are you all right?’
‘This is like you running off with the driver,’ said BR Sharma.
‘With Prem Singh? Why would I run off with Prem Singh?’
‘No, not you literally, and not Prem Singh literally. I mean, a guy thinks his life is just fine, then one day his wife runs off with his driver. All his certainties are shattered. He loses faith. This is like that.’
‘But have you seen Prem Singh’s face? He must be earning so little. Why would I run off with him?’
‘It’s an analogy,’ said BR Sharma. ‘Don’t take it literally.’
‘You are very disturbed. Why don’t you stay at home today and not go back to work? You need to rest.’
‘I think I’ll do just that,’ said BR Sharma. He had already put his phone on silent. He glanced at it: 279 missed calls.
Mrs Sharma set the lunch out on the table. Baingan ka bharta. Dal. Some chicken curry from last night. Chapatis. Rice. BR Sharma looked at the food and thought, how lucky I am. This was a good meal. He had a good life.
But he didn’t have an appetite, and after one-and-a-half chapatis, went to the bedroom to nap.
* * * *
In his dream, he woke up to the sound of waves. He went to the window, and found that his house was in the middle of the sea. He ran around the house, to all the windows: they were surrounded by water. Mrs Sharma sat in the living room, knitting.
‘You know, I’m missing my kitty party because of this,’ she said. ‘My mother was right: I should not have married you. You are good for nothing.’
‘Your mother said that?’
‘Maybe not. But she should have. Now see where you’ve gotten us. Do you even know where we are?’
BR Sharma looked out of the window. No, he did not know where they were. But he could see the sun setting in the distance. He looked at his phone. No signal. They were stuck.
And in Mumbai, he knew, where his house had been, there was now a pool of salt water. He could imagine Lokapally standing outside it, dialling his number furiously. Oh, how he wished the phone would ring now, so he could pick it up and say, ‘Lokapally, Lokapally, I remember your name!’
It’s a bit disconcerting that newspapers should report stuff like this—and that people would want to read it. What is it about other people’s dirty linen that we can’t stop staring. Bhala iski kameez...
Reuters, in a story headlined ‘Russian fraud police track down grab-and-run granny’, tells us about a “71-year-old Russian grandmother” who swindled Moscow businessmen out of “more than half a million dollars.” She allegedly “posed as an influential lobbyist with close ties to Moscow’s City Hall,” and “promised to deliver the swindled sum of 16.4 million roubles ($531,200) to her alleged contacts within the authorities as a bribe on behalf of clients keen to purchase prime real estate in the heart of the capital.” Then she disappeared.
Frankly, I think she’s a stud. Her alleged crime is that she promised to commit a crime and reneged on her promise. She out-crooked a crooked system. I’m sure she can bake some pretty mean cookies as well. Grab-and-Run Granny, you’re my hero.
Aside: Wouldn’t this be a great plot for Rajkumar Hirani’s next film? Munnabhai goes after Grab-and-Run Granny to bring her to justice, and grows inordinately fond of her when they meet. Hell, maybe he even falls in love with her. Given Sanjay Dutt’s age, that’s plausible.
I don’t watch much television—some cricket once in a while, and Bigg Boss when it is in season, for its unwitting insights into human nature. But one of the shows I do follow regularly when it is on, and am a bit of a fanboy of, is American Idol. A few hours ago I saw the final two contestants, Lee DeWyze and Crystal Bowersox, battle it out for the crown. They’re two of my favourite AI contestents ever, and I’m convinced both will have glorious careers, regardless of who wins. (The winner hasn’t been announced at the time of writing this.) And Bowersox blew me away with her final song of the day, a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Up to the Mountain”.
“Up to the Mountain” is inspired by Martin Luther King’s classic “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” speech, which he delivered in 1968 the day before he was assassinated. It’s a powerful song, and has been brilliantly performed in the past by the likes of Solomon Burke, Kelly Clarkson, Susan Boyle and Griffin herself. Bowersox’s version lived up to all that. The emotion in her singing was palpable, and she barely held back her tears as she improvised and sang the words “It’s been a long time coming….” When I watched it for a third time, discreetly wiping a tear because men are not supposed to be moved unless by force, I wondered whether, while rehearsing the song, the thought struck Bowersox that it had been a long time coming for her as well.
Bowersox has been a musician since childhood. She was used to public performances as a kid (such as this one, at age 13), and used to busk at train stations in Chicago as she grew older to support herself. She wrote and recorded a bunch of stirring songs, some of which are up on You Tube. (Check out “Farmer’s Daughter” and “Holy Toledo”.) She had years of struggle and music behind her before she decided to take part in AI, partly so that she could give her child a better future. (She is a single mother.) She had paid her dues.
Talent shows such as AI are often portrayed as platforms where great natural talent is discovered and nurtured and allowed to bloom. But Bowersox’s story is actually typical of the great singers it has showcased. Kelly Clarkson was singing seriously from the time she was in school, and performed in a number of musicals. Carrie Underwood performed prolifically as a kid, and almost got a record contract with Capitol Records at the age of 13. Adam Lambert did musical theatre from before he reached his teens. Clay Aiken sang in school and church choirs, performed in musicals, and had his own band. Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Fantasia Barrino: they all started young, they all paid their dues.
You’ll find the same phenomenon in pretty much any talent show, anywhere. Natural talent alone isn’t enough to make you good. You have to work damn hard, and practice damn hard. Some researchers have even put a number to how many hours of practice you need to achieve excellence: 10,000 hours.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell cites a study conducted in the early 90s by the psychologist K Anders Ericsson at the Berlin Academy of Music, which was renowned for its training program for violinists. Gladwell writes, “With the help of the Academy’s professors, they [Ericsson and his colleagues] divided the school’s violinists into three groups: [...] the world-class soloists ... the merely ‘good’ ... [and] students unlikely to ever play professionally. All of the violinists were then asked the same question: over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practised?”
After doing the match, the study found that “the elite performers had each totaled ten thousand hours of practice… the merely good students had totaled eight thousand hours, and the future music teachers had totaled just over four thousand hours.” The part of the study that I find astonishing is that not only did all the top performers have over 10,000 hours of practice to their credit, but everyone who put in 10,000 hours was a top performer. The key to excellence was not natural talent, but hard work. (Caveat: this is not to say that talent doesn’t matter at all. Firstly, as the researchers pointed out, there was a minimum level of talent required to get into the Academy. Secondly, a completely untalented musician would probably not get the positive feedback for his work that would motivate him to put in 10,000 hours in the first place.)
Ericsson and his colleagues elaborated on their theory at some length in their famous paper, “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance” (pdf link). Gladwell, illustrating it in his book, turned to examples like the Beatles, who spent months doing live shows in Hamburg long before they made it big, and Mozart, who, for all his prodigiousness, was composing since early childhood before he produced his first acknowledged masterwork at the age of 21—around the time he might have been winning American Idol if he was a singer who lived in our times.
The 10,000-hour rule might seem a bit pat, in terms of the number itself, but the general principle, that hard work matters far more than talent, is one I find credible. Look at our own geniuses, here in India: Sachin Tendulkar might have been born with a special talent, but the most memorable stories of his younger years are those that speak of his hard work: he would spend hours at the nets, perfecting his cricketing reflexes, and would get his coach, Ramakant Achrekar, to ferry him around on his scooter from one match to the other so he could play as much cricket as possible in a day. Another genius, AR Rahman, was a keyboardist in Ilaiyaraaja’s troupe at the age of 11, and played and arranged music for a number of bands in his youth. At the time Roja released, in 1992, he had been in the music business for 15 years. I suspect if you ask them to comment on this, they would agree that if you take away the toil, the 10,000 hours, they would never have made it here.
I feel a personal connection with the 10,000-hour-rule, for it holds true not just for geniuses, but for anyone who wants to improve his skills at anything. Given a certain baseline of talent, it really is hard work alone that makes the difference. (And luck: being in the right place at the right time. But that’s an uncontrollable element.) Ordinarily, this would have been bad news for someone like me a few years ago, aspiring to be a writer but as lazy as a brick. I was lucky, though, that the internet came of age with me, and I started blogging when I did. Blogging was fun, and never felt like work. Motivated by a growing readership, and the pleasing validation it brought, I blogged voraciously, averaging about five posts a day on India Uncut for the first four years of my blogging life. (I’ve gotten tardy, and barely manage that many in a week these days, a matter I intend to remedy.) I’ve lost count of how many posts I’ve written, across blogging platforms, but my last estimate was over 8000. Put it together with the journalism I did, the columns and suchlike, and that’s a hell of a lot of hours. I didn’t realise it at the time, but looking back at my earlier writing, much of which makes me cringe, the 10,000 hours I metaphorically put in made me a vastly better writer than I was. (This is relative, of course, and maybe ten years later I’ll read this piece and cringe.) I’m far from being the only writer to benefit from blogging: close to home, the lucid prose of Annie Zaidi’s recent book, “Known Turf”, surely owes a debt to her many years of blogging over at her blog, Known Turf.
At one level, the central point of this piece seems obvious. Of course hard work is important: that isn’t rocket science, and we don’t need an academic study or my anecdotal endorsement to tell us that. Nevertheless, practically every day I come across the attitude that ‘talent’ brings with it an entitlement to fame and recognition. (It is mostly the untalented who have this attitude, ironically enough.) I see this in talent-show auditions, where people sing all flat and besura, and act outraged when they are rejected. I see this when young people ask me for advice on how to become better writers, and are surprised when I say ‘read and write as much as possible’. (A good writer must be a good reader, so you need 10k hours of reading as well.) I know writers who have written one book and will never write another because now that they haven’t been acclaimed as geniuses, what’s the point in writing any more? I sit in the local Barista at Versova and see the Bollywood wannabes all around me, the self-conscious actors, the scriptwriters bent over their laptops, and so often I overhear them cribbing about how their talent gets such a raw deal. Well, maybe sometimes it does.
And sometimes, you have to keep at it.
* * * *
Whoops. As I’m getting ready to wind it up and send in my piece, I read that Lee DeWyze has just been crowned the new American Idol. Good for him. He’s no overnight success either, having released three indie albums before he made it big here. Star World shows AI episodes three days late, so rather than wait, I will now start downloading this final episode. Given the perilous state of my allegedly broadband connection, I can only hope it doesn’t take 10,000 hours.
I just finished reading Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin, and was struck by the last line of the book:
She was sixty-three in 1882 when her oft-stated longing for death was fulfilled at last.
It is an unlikely last line, given that Mary Lincoln plays a side role in the book—and yet, it is perfectly apt, and wraps up the book with just the right tone. We get a sense of Mary’s fatigue, and her relief, emotions we can perfectly empathize with at the end of a 754-page book. I loved it, by the way.
ToI reports that the Supreme Court has “quashed 22 criminal cases filed against South Indian actress Khushboo for her remarks in various magazines allegedly endorsing pre-marital sex.” This is an encouraging judgement—especially the following words from the bench:
When two adults want to live together, what is the offence? Does it amount to an offence? Living together is not an offence. It cannot be an offence.
Well put. And extending that further, if two adults want to do anything together, by mutual consent, without harming or involving anyone else, what is the offence? Should there be an offence? No freaking way.
The cases against Khushboo were filed in 2005. It took five years for this trivial matter to be sorted out. Imagine the state of someone spending years living through the tension of more serious cases. In our legal system, the process can be the punishment.
And oh, while confirming when the cases against Khushboo were filed, I came across this masterful headline:
Question: Do you wash your hands after you have had a wee?
Saatchi: I have an acute sense of hygiene so I wash my hands before I have a wee.
I love this because it so succinctly hints at what I have always believed: that we are dirty, not our sexual organs.
I do not recommend, of course, that you leave your hands unwashed after having a wee. Wash your hands as often as you can, out of courtesy for others if not concern for yourself. Indeed, wash your hands every time you read India Uncut—or you could catch my disease.