Thursday, August 31, 2006


It was December of 1988, when I first heard of Naguib Mahfouz. Although by then he was a well established author in the Arab world with a fan following from Baghdad to Beirut, relatively few outside the Middle East had read his books. Much of his works had not been translated; of those that had been, few were available in India. It would be many years before I could lay my hands on any of his writings. When I finally could, I noticed that his most famous work, the Cairo Trilogy, was first translated into English around 1990 or so. Over the years, people like Edward Said did try to persuade publishers to put out translations but it took the Noble Prize of December 1988 to set those wheels in motion.

Yet I remember being touched by the text of his Nobel speech which was published by many leading Indian newspapers and magazines of the day. So that without having read a single piece of his writing I became somewhat of a fan of the man.And every time I remembered his evil is a loud and boisterous debaucherer, and that Man remembers what hurts more than what pleases, I couldn't help but marvel at the simple truth put in succinctly in those lines.

Cairo Trilogy took me several months to finish (and several years to get over, but that's another story) although it was the only book I was reading at the time. My progress was hindered by the fact that I would keep turning the pages back and re-reading the older sections. And no, this didn't arise from any confusion over the characters, or the generations or the events. Rather it felt more like savoring a delicious meal, where one's taste buds and thoughts might still dwell on the delicacies just ingested.

For instance, I would go over and over the descriptions of Amina's kitchen and the makings of the seasonal delights and sigh at the sheer magic of Mahfouz's words. Words that could transform the most dank and darkest of places in a 1920s Cairo household, the kitchen, into a life giving fountain of joy and pleasure, and make mundane tasks as kneading the dough, appear divine. As the coals and wood burned and glowed, you could scarcely pity Amina's stifled existence under the iron fisted patriarch. Despite all the indignities heaped on her, those "sweet compotes and doughnuts for Ramadan, the cakes and pastries for Id-ul-Fitr" as "the blaze of the fire gleamed from the depths of the oven through the arched opening like a flaming firebrand of joy in the secret recesses of the heart" made Amina's world a place of sheer beauty.

This is from the first part of the book called the Palace Walk (the other two are Palace of Desire and Sugar Street also called Al-Sukkariya in the original version). The trilogy spans three generations and covers a period from the end of World War I to the rise of Nasser and modern Egyptian nationalism in the mid-1940s. Mahfouz's women were made of stern stuff and almost always occupied centre stage. And they rebelled. In every generation, be it Amina or her daughters Aisha and Khadiga or eventually Susan Hammad. Against the system, against their circumstances; but their rebellion was quiet and non confrontational. Their gradual, non violent and perseverant struggle had the power to transform just as the slow flames in Amina's kitchen could change even the lowliest of grains to golden flat bread. This was the beauty of Mahfouz's world.

Details of Mahfouz's life and times have appeared in obits published in The Guardian, BBC and a host of other sites. (last link courtesy Pia)

Tuesday, August 29, 2006


The booker Prize longlist this year (announced on 14th August) consists of the following works.

Carey, Peter Theft: A Love Story (Faber & Faber)
Desai, Kiran The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
Edric, Robert Gathering the Water (Doubleday)
Gordimer, Nadine Get a Life (Bloomsbury)
Grenville, Kate The Secret River (Canongate)
Hyland, M.J. Carry Me Down (Canongate)
Jacobson, Howard Kalooki Nights (Jonathan Cape)
Lasdun, James Seven Lies (Jonathan Cape)
Lawson, Mary The Other Side of the Bridge (Chatto & Windus)
McGregor, Jon So Many Ways to Begin (Bloomsbury)
Matar, Hisham In the Country of Men (Viking)
Messud, Claire The Emperor’s Children (Picador)
Mitchell, David Black Swan Green (Sceptre)
Murr, Naeem The Perfect Man (William Heinemann)
O’Hagan, Andrew Be Near Me (Faber & Faber)
Robertson, James The Testament of Gideon Mack (Hamish Hamilton)
St Aubyn, Edward Mother’s Milk (Picador)
Unsworth, Barry The Ruby in her Navel (Hamish Hamilton)
Waters, Sarah The Night Watch (Virago)

This list was chosed from 112 entries by a judging panel comprising of novelists Simon Armitage and Candia McWilliam, critic Anthony Quinn and actress Fiona Shaw (Chair is Hermione Lee). The shortlist wil be announced on 14th September and the winner will be announced on 10th October.

Last year, Azar Nafisi (of Reading Lolita in Tehran fame) was on the judges' panel. Nafisi is the kind of teacher who would explain "kitsch" to students in her Teheran University classroom with a bouquet of lilies in one hand and plastic flowers in the other. No wonder she was so popular.

Though I haven't finished reading last year Booker winner, John Banville's The Sea (heck haven't started it yet!!!) some of the books that made it to the winner list in the past few years have been truly great works. For instance Arundhati Roy's God of Small Things, Coetzee's Disgrace and Yann Martel's Life of Pi.

Monday, August 28, 2006


Take phoren cars, to it add cell phones and laptops of any and every conceivable make, sprinkle women in smart business suits, a dash of amrikis, garnish liberally with godmen, conmen and politicians, for decoration use cocktails aplenty and waning "femly bhelues"......shake...stir.....whatever. And Voila, you have created what in ajit-lingo would be "car"porate nagri.

This is a nagri of cut-throat competition, where two rival business houses will stoop to being the scumiest of the scums to keep their profits rising and shareholders happy. Just so that no one in the audience feels left out, a drone of a voice in the background keeps explaining deal, merger, takeover and such like concepts till you are ready to scream. Funnily none of these were really necessary because in its heart-of-hearts corporate is true blue masala. Masala with a few boardroom meeting thrown in, where half the junta act like overgrown six year olds.

Top exec Nishigandha Dasgupta (Bipasha Basu cast as a neat package with sharp smart demeanor in all those armani suits and gelled hair worn in a neat ponytail). [as an aside: Come bharatiya naritwa time, however, armanis and gels get replaced by crumpled salwars and dishevelled hair]. Nishigandha is tough as nails and will stop at nothing, such as lying, bribing, scheming obtain her rival's secret. Now the corporate world is such where every CEO/VP worth his salt is hitting and pawing on the next bright, young female exec (women IIM grads beware!@#$). Here sleeping with the enemy could ensure easy success. But our Nishigandha aside from having a virtuous soul also has a brilliant mind shaped by the times. She hatches a plan wherein the bed time duties are duly outsourced to a beauty of unknown name (couldn't find her in the titles) who leaves the lusty lascivious enemy in snoring bliss, while Nishi busies herself downloading all his files with rival product launch plans. Gone are the days of yore when scraps of paper masqueraded as THE "secret formula". Now when Nishi downloads data, it is from Mr Rival's laptop into a...ahem....USB port. Though audience is no longer treated as technologically challenged idiots, one wishes that the poor rival wasn't treated as one. He should have been allowed a password at the very least. After all the fortunes of his company resided in that laptop. Perhaps he could have it written on the underside of his undies as a cryptic puzzle. Solve the puzzle, enter password, download data. Much more challenging!!

Anyway nemesis awaits Ms. tough-as-nails. In the form of CEO's brother-in-law Ritesh (played by Kay Kay Menon of Hazar Khwaishein Aisi fame). Ritesh gets her heart in a platter. Spiked by huge chunks of her brain as well. Why else would she admit to crimes that she never committed and allow others to go scot free? Or perhaps she thought the Indian judiciary was a bigger joke than Bollywood movies.

In Page 3, his earlier film, Bhandarkar had a more convincing cast and portrayal of characters. In contrast, Corporate does not even take off. The cut-throat competition, warring factions and tattle tales all seem so tame and sedate that one could sing a lullaby. The Bipasha-KK romance, so pivotal to the story lacks passion and punch and is reduced to a collage of scenes of various degrees of undress. These and other newbie gadgets fail to lift Corporate from its very mediocre status.

Monday, August 21, 2006


Ustad Bismillah Khan, the man who single handedly brought the Shehnai into prominence, passed away today. He was 91. Born in 1914 in a family of musicians in Bihar, he moved to Benaras as a young boy. Starting his career with his older brother, Bismillah Khan often played down his part as he didn't want to overshadow his brother. "Even though I have the ability, I must always remember that he is my elder brother" he always said with humility and modesty. Both brothers played together from the ramparts of the Red Fort on the eve of India's first republic day.

Khan Sahib as he was affectionately called was a great believer of the universality of music. A devout Muslim, he called his Shehnai his Quran- I-le. And every year, on the day of Muharram, when he led a procession through the narrow lanes of Benaras, he would blow his Shehnai and proudly ask "How could my music that gives such peace and happiness be haraam?" In this interview taken in 2005, he talks about the divinity of music and how he could take on and convince a Maulana from Iraq of this, simply by singing Allah's name in Raag Bhairav. He sang and played at all the temples in Benaras and was particularly attached to the Vishwanath temple where he was often seen. Simple, honest and unpretentious he remained in his old home at Benares till the last. His mode of transport was a cycle rickshaw. His fans will remember the child-like two toothed grin of his last years.

Bismillah Khan was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Benares Hindu University and Shantiniketan. Over the years numerous honors were bestowed upon him from the Sangeet Natak Academi, the Madhya Pradesh government (Tansen award) and the Govt of India (Padma Vibhushan). The long due Bharat Ratna,the nation's highest honor, was finally given to him in 2001.

Even Bollywood wasn't left untouched by his Shehnai. So impressed was film director Vijay Bhatt after he heard Bismillah Khan play, that he made a film on the instrument. "Gunj Uthi Shehnai" for which Khan sahib composed some music as well, was a great hit.

Bismillah Khan will be remembered as one of our finest musicians. He is survived by five sons and three daughters.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


Good ol' Amriki Barbie goes desi.

Says the ad "Diwali Barbie doll wears a traditional teal sari with golden detailing, a lovely pink shawl wrap and exotic ewellery. The final detail is a bindi on the forehead-a jewel or mark worn by Hindu women to indicate that they are married. Doll can't stand alone."

umm....bindi implies "married". Now does sari imply lehenga (see barbie pic).

Monday, August 14, 2006


Remember Lech Walesa. The trade union leader who formed his own political party and played a key role in ushering electoral reforms in Polish politics. This famous Gdansk citizen (Walesa was born in Gdansk,the largest seaport in Poland) is asking another son of Gdansk (none other than Gunter Grass) to give up his honorary citizenship. This comes after Grass, a famous writer and Nobel laureate confessed to being an ex-SS Nazi.

The revelation by the Nobel prize winner, now approaching his 80th birthday, has shocked Germany's literary and cultural world. It was Grass first and foremost who insisted the Germans "come clean" about their history and that his own generation should not try to pose as "victims" of Hitler's National Socialist ideology.
Now the great advocate of facing unpalatable truths has lived up to his own standards, but a little late.
Grass now says that, although he had told the truth to his wife, those he deceived included his children and his biographer Michael Jurgs, with whom he spent countless hours apparently going over the minutiae of his life in the latter years of the Third Reich.
in Saudi Arabia

Young men and women can meet and date thanks to all the cell phone and wireless technology.

Cellphone technology is changing the way young people meet and date in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most insular, conservative and religiously strict societies in the world. Calls and texting -- and more recently, Bluetooth -- are breaking down age-old barriers and giving young men and women discreet new ways around the sentries of romance.

he, as they say, is a great leveller.

Friday, August 04, 2006


The epidemic of obesity hits India as the economy grows and thousands are added into the ranks of the rich and wealthy. Fast foods, sedentary lifestyle and the thrifty gene all contribute to an overweight population. Read on.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006