Sunday, December 31, 2006

BEST WISHES FOR 2007 (forwarded by a friend)

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral celebration of the winter/summer solstice holiday, practiced with the most enjoyable traditions of religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice with respect to the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.

I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2007, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make this country great (not to imply that it is necessarily greater than any other country) and without regard to the race, creed, colour, age, physical ability, religious faith or sexual preference of the wishee.

Disclaimer: No trees were harmed in the sending of this message; however, a significant number of electrons were slightly inconvenienced.

Friday, December 29, 2006


Early on in the Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai has the cook lighting a small fire to boil water for tea. She has him so scared of those plump scorpions in the wet firewood, that he uses a stick to turn the damp wood pieces on the pile. For an odd moment, this setting with the kettle of boiling water hissing in the dark, dank kitchen of a dilapidated, dirty and grey home in Kalimpong, seemed strangely reminiscent of another world; a world created by another Desai in another day and age.

That was more than two decades ago. The protagonist sat drinking chai at a teashop on a wooden bench. The book was In Custody and the writer was none other than Kiran's mother, Anita Desai. The protagonist, as you may have well guessed by now was Deven, the lecturer of a college in Mirpore, on his way to interview the great Urdu poet Nur Shahjahanabadi in Delhi's Chandni Chowk. Tired after a bus journey, he had stopped for a cup of tea on the roadside. The plot highlighted a world where there was talent, fame, sensitivity on the one hand, while on the other was genteel poverty. Perched in the wedge between the two, one could distinctly recall the same dark, dank slice of life that the Junior Desai now portrays in her new book: the world of doubt and shadow, of identity and inequality and of diffidence and unfulfillment, that almost always accompanies the sense of loss or unbelonging.

When I first "discovered" Anita Desai's works it felt like seeing India through a new lens. The steady diet of Jeeves and Reginalds and the antics of the three men in a boat, which I had hitherto been raised on, was never my world. Make no mistake though- I am a great fan of P.G. Wodehouse, my love for H.H. Munro (Saki) 's brand of subtle humor still endures, and I can't remember a time when I didn't laugh my head off at Jerome K. Jerome's comic prose. However, it was also a world I could scarcely identify with. It needed huge doses of imagination to picture their royal highnesses, those dukes and duchesses in full regalia who sat in lovely manicured lawns where the afternoon teas were served to the accompaniment of buttered scones by gloved butlers. When came the time for their lordships to depart, they would do so in their buggies after having successfully negotiated the carriage steps with the liveried coachman's help.

This world encompassed us so totally that even after 35 years of independence most Indian-English fiction still reeked of the Raj. We were still feasting on Kipling and Forster and when we wanted a respite, out came the Jane Austens and Bronte sisters. For the highly cerebrals, there were always the family of the Stuart Mills. Something had to be said for the fact that in the creative writing courses we had in school, almost everyone wrote about this Anglicized world. I remember how our annual school magazine short stories were more about Counts and Countesses than schoolteachers, clerks or regular people. And how the dum aloo subzi we young girls ate at home, miraculously transformed into baked potato Vichyssoise with red caviar once it reached the fictional dinner tables of our characters.

True, there was R.K.Narayan, but his Malgudi,though geographically in India's perimeter, lacked its earthiness. The characters were Indian, wore Indian clothes and ate Indian food, but there was a strong Anglicized upper class ethos overall. Then there was the other founding father of the Indian English novel. But Mulk Raj Anand's India of Bhangis like Bakha (The Untouchable), touching and poignant though their tales were, needed a different sort of imagination to figure out. That left Nehru and Gandhi and the whole freedom fighter clan of erudite writers, who we did read now and then. But in the winter of 1984, the worlds of the Lahore Congress and Quit India Movement and the Round Table talks seemed equally alien.

In the meantime, unbeknownst to our group of friends, Salman Rushdie had arrived with his Midnight's Children in 1981. Thanks to the Booker, we did hear his name, though it would be many years before I could lay my hands on his first book. I am glad it happened when it did and not earlier, because Rushdie's was hardly the sort of fiction for young readers to cut their teeth in, much less comprehend.

But Anita Desai's was not. It was a treat to read of the Devens and Murads and the Nur Sahabs and of their sadness, tongue tiedness, pushiness, meanness; to see them scoop subzi with a roti and eat radishes with relish. Why, even their dals, like ours, came loaded with small stones (this is the mid-eighties when dals came from ration shops and weren't perched on fancy supermarket shelves). It was quite reassuring to see their roads littered with cows and cowdung (with the former around can the latter be far behind) where one could easily be hit by a rickshaw if one wasn't careful. Dust and grime were omnipresent, as were blaring loudspeakers. Road side stalls sold oily food in dirty dishes wiped dry with equally dirty rags. And when the characters were distraught, the cause was usually more genuine than not wearing matching pearls to the Viceroy's ball or missing the tiger's forehead by a tiny inch in last shikar. In short, Desai Senior's rare eye for detail and fine minutiae captured what was so uncannily and quintessentially Indian that I yelped with joy. It seemed that the soul of India lay bare before us. A soul where beggars, clerks, shopkeepers, teachers, poets, learned men (may be even men of royalty) all jostled for their place. And each came away with their own sense of unbelonging in the context of the whole.

It is precisely this feeling that resonates through the Kiran Desai's Booker winner work. Her characters, too, live in various degrees of unbelonging. If the Anglophiles of Kalimpong with their Swiss cheese and broccoli, and Mark and Spencer's underwear don't belong, neither do the Nepali insurgents who live and work in poverty. Neither does Sai, the young protagonist, who by virtue of being raised amongst the elderly and being home schooled, does not quite belong to the world of the young. In distant New York too, where the cook's son, Biju, works in restaurants and saves money to send back home, there is the same sense of not quite belonging to the new world order set by immigration laws, work permit papers and quick profits.

The era of Unbelonging is no longer caged in any time or shore. It is now a zeitgeist. And Kiran Desai has none other than her mother to thank for that.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Your diamonds are forever but are they conflict free
It is 1999 in Sierra Leone. The country is in the midst of a horrific civil war with the rebels of the Revolutionary United Front or RUF fighting the government forces. Ruthless and brutal, the RUF sweep the countryside looting, killing and hacking off limbs.
In a quiet village in Sierra Leone, it is early dawn. Fisherman, Solomon Vandy (Djimon Hounsou) is up and getting ready to send his son Dia, off to school. A school means an education that could help Dia live a life of comfort and dignity. Already Solomon has dreams for Dia. He wants Dia to grow up to be a doctor.

These dreams are soon shattered as their village becomes the target of an RUF attack. Young boys and men are either killed, maimed or captured. Although lucky to be alive, those captured must either fight with the RUF or work on diamond fields, panning diamonds from water. These diamonds are the sold to buy weapons to fight the the civil war.

Danny Archer (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a white Rhodesian turned South African, involved in diamond smuggling and arms dealing. He is in cahoots with the Colonel Coetzee (Arnold Vosloo), an army bigwig who while running army operations as a peacekeeper is also intricately linked to the arms-diamond trade.

Solomon and Archer come together in their quest for a pink diamond which Solomon accidently stumbles upon while panning the water. For Solomon, the diamond is a means to save his wife and children including Dia who now works as a soldier for the RUF; while for Archer it is his passport out of Africa.

There is also the journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) who want to expose the nexus between the armed struggle and diamond merchants in Europe and show the world how conflict diamonds are fuelling civil wars in Africa. With her help, Solomon and Archer, undertake a journey to find their stone.

Although a well made film, Director Edward Zwick has, in parts reached the zenith of melodrama. When the Archer-Solomon duo along with Dia are about to escape in a helicopter after finding the diamond, Zwick milks the wounded Archer for some sentimental moments. If this seems too out of place, wait till you see Archer gasping like an asthmatic patient after (more spoilers!!!) being shot and waiting to die and then spouting all those softie dialogues on a phone to Maddy (he carried a satellite phone in case you were wondering and he remembered Maddy's cell by heart...he did have her card but by this time it was so soaked in his blood that one doubts if anything was legible there!!). Such words which might have been very appropriate in a romantic Titanic like setting seem totally contrived in the dog eat dog world of blood and gore of Sierra Leone.

Also the distribution of violence at regular intervals throughout the film, didn't seem relevant to the narrative. If it was meant to keep the story from slacking and to convey a feeling of fast pace that could easily have been achieved by a bit of tight editing. However a good film and a good message, overall.

Here's more on the conflict diamonds:

A long running war in Sierra Leone finally came to an end in the first months of 2002 as the UN, British armed forces, and government troops edged clashing factions towards a peace agreement. The UN supervised rebel disarmament were held in May 2002. Rebels line up to surrender weapons.

Members of former rival factions, now doing military service together, relax at Bemgeuma training camp

A boy sifts for diamonds. The struggle for control of diamond mining and other natural resources was a source of conflict.
(Above pics are from World Press Photo 2003: Photographer Jan Dago, Denmark, Magnum photos/Alexia Foundation for World Peace)

Many of the prisoner-laborers who work Sierra Leone's open-pit mines end up in shallow graves, executed for suspected theft, for lack of production, or simply for sport. (© Jean-Claude Coutausse/ CONTACT Press Images)

According to Amnesty International only 11% of the diamonds that reach US markets are conflict free. So what can the consumer do? Next time, when you seek a diamond for its Carat, Cut, Clarity and Color, also look for the 5th C. Check if it's Conflict free.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Before I write a word about the Umrao Jaan of the celluloid and paper, of the new and the old, I have a confession to make. Actually make that two.

One, I love muslim socials.

Stories set in the Nawabi era or the bygone Mughal days. All those Bahu Begums and Chaudvin Ka Chands who at the slightest hint of male presence would pull veils over their fair faces with Hai Allahs!. Who can forget those Taj Mahals and Mughal-e-Azams with the Salim-Anarkali dalliances. And how, all those konishes and kowtowing to Jahanpanahs and Mallika-e-alams nothwithstanding, the Salims sang rebellious Zindabads to their mohabbats (Ae Mohabbat Zindabad) and the londis unabashedly declared their love (Hum Intezaar Karenge, Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya). It was indeed a wonderful world.

Two, I detest tears by the bucketfuls.

Having been raised on regular Bollywood fare, I understand of course, that tears are to damsels in distress what dal-chawal is to the common man. And they have to be shed where they have to be shed. But why let copius amounts flow where a few drops or slight wetness of the eye would suffice. Why this colossal waste!!!

And thus between these two preferences, my watching of Umrao Jaan became somewhat of a tussle. So that for every tug at a beautifully crafted scene there was a kick at an overabundant emotion on display.

Both movies, the earlier Umrao Jaan Ada by Muzaffar Ali (starring Rekha in the title role for which she won a National Award) and the recently released J.P. Dutta's Umrao Jaan are based on a book of the same name penned by a Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa, sometime around 1905-6. This slim volume begins with Mirza Ruswa's encounter with Umrao, at a Seraikhana somewhere in Central Awadh. Hearing that the renowned singer and poet was occupying another wing of the same house, Ruswa strained his ears for some snatches of poems or music that might come his way. Soon he summoned enough courage to go and speak to her. And from her story was born his book.

In that sense, J.P. Dutta's new rendition of Umrao's tale is closer to the book. Dutta begins by having Umrao (Aishwarya) narrate her personal saga of sorrow to Ruswa. This Ruswa character was quite inspid, I thought, played as it was by a Mr-No-Name-Unknown-Face who looked as if he were just going through the motions. One would have liked to see an actor of some presence and calibre play this role.

The movie runs thus. (Warning-spoilers and all that)

Young Amiran gets kidnapped and sold into the tawaif-dom of Khanam Sahib (Shabana Azmi playing the role her mother, Shaukat Azmi did so competently in Muzzafar Ali's movie). Khanam Sahib who in her heydays was a top courtesan and had nawabs twined around her fingers, now raises a future generation of tawaifs and kothewalis by giving them taleem and tarbiat (oh! how lovely it all sounds in Urdu!!).

Among these girls is the young Amiran now named Umrao, who is "given" by Khanam to Bua Hussaini, a domestic of sorts in the household, to be looked after and cared. While Bua (Himani Shivpuri) plies her with love, Maulvi Sahab (Kulbhushan) teaches her the written word and all those rhymings,lilts and undulations that are needed in the world of Urdu poetry. Judging from the couplets that Umrao and the Maulvi make, the results of this taleem are pitiable. (One is reminded of all those street urchin style couplets that run along the lines "love mangta hoon, refuse maat karna, mere hope ke bulb ko fuse maat karna").

Soon Umrao's has her coming out day when she performs a mujra before a huge Lucknavi audience. Among them is a junior Nawab Saheb (played by Bachchan Junior) who is quite taken aback by the combination of Umrao's brains and beauty. The besotted Nawab seeks out Umrao and the love birds sing and dance for awhile. After this, a mound of misunderstandings follow, each accompanied by a greater mound of tears. Thus is the story lost like a small stream in a desert.

Where is the real Umrao? Where is the woman who was learned and erudite, who wrote, composed and sang; who was equally famous for her mehfills and mushaiaras as she was for her generosity and piety. A woman who headed a household, earned like a prince and donated to the poor and destitute. Where Rekha had brought a touch of class, showcasing an Umrao with strength and stoicism despite her weaker moments, all Ash does is dress well for every dance.

The men in the movie seem like misfits too. Khanam's son (Puru Rajkumar reciting his dialogues as if he were in a memory competition) is shown with a soft spot for Umrao; however the undercurrent of his relationship with Umrao is never explored, unless the scene where he forces himself on her falls in the exploratory category!!!! Neither is Suniel Shetty suited to the character of Faiz Ali. Faiz Ali is meant to be a brave and ferocious individual. That Umrao runs away with him is meant to show how desperate she is to get away. Here Faiz Ali seems like a wimpering idiot!!!

Abhishek Bachchan as the Junior Nawab doesn't do too bad. He tries to look somewhat convincing, beard and all, but the 21st century sheen stays. Kharbanda and Himani do a good job, as much as the script would allow. I quite liked it where Himani in a snatch of dialogue, pronounces Lucknow as Nuclow; Nuclow being a true blue Lucknavi's term of endearment for the city.

The other women don't get much meat, either. The tawaif girls who are Umrao's friends, hardly have any footage, Shabana gets some and does a great job of it. In fact, she conveys so much by a cynical twitch or a slight raising of brows or a quiver of mouth that you wonder why dialogue is not redundant. To be frank, Dutta wastes a lot of celluloid on the misunderstandings and wimperings and tears that the Nawab and Umrao subject each other to: had he shown some thrift here, some of the other characters could have been better etched.

What he does not waste on, mercifully, are the dances of Umrao. Arguably these ARE the show pieces of the film. The ornate rooms, the elegant costumes and the stunning Ash whirling in them, make these dances a visual treat. The scenes captured from above as the pankhas gently move and one intakes of the opulence and grandeur, while Ash's hands make stylish movements, are indeed breathtaking beautiful.

J.P Dutta's Umrao is SO different from the life of that feisty, strong and talented woman that Ash has nothing to perform here. She cries her eyes out (beautiful blue eyes at that!!), her heart out, indeed almost her very life out. And yet no one is touched.

Tears by the buckets don't necessarily touch people's hearts. Someone needs to tell out Bollywood directors that.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


When this book came to me for review I was captivated by the pretty cover picture of one of the ghats, or stairs, lining the Ganges. Wasn't sure though whether it would turn out to be a traveler's journey or a seeker's. That it was the latter isn't surprising given the large number of people who are drawn to India to partake in what is considered her spiritual heritage!!!

And no river epitomizes this heritage more than the Ganga, or Ganges. One of the largest rivers of India, the Ganga is considered holy and sacred by those of the Hindu faith. Legend has it that in ancient times, the goddess Ganga agreed to fall from the heavens upon the earth to save her mortal devotee, a king named Bhagiratha whose ancestors, having been burnt to ash, could only be freed for salvation by her pure waters. So mighty was she that when she cascaded from the heavens, the world was in danger of being washed away by her strong currents. So Lord Shiva, one of the gods of the holy Hindu trinity, gallantly stepped in and offered his locks to receive her waters and then gently lowered her to flow over the plains of India. Given her divine source and her short stay on Shiva’s locks, Ganga is worshipped as a goddess and a spiritual entity by millions of Indians who address the river as Ganga Maa or Mother Ganges and believe that her water can wash their sins, heal them, and help them attain Nirvana or Moksha, the freedom from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Originating from the Himalayas in Northern India, the Ganga traverses hundreds of miles through the heartland till it flows into the sea, supporting a population of more than half a billion. Along its banks are India's numerous towns and cities, sacred as well as densely populated - cities such as Hardwar, Varanasi, Allahabad and Rishikesh. For hundreds of years, these towns and cities have welcomed seers and believers who seek spirituality and tranquility. Today, the wheels of modernity that churn in a new and vibrant India have also touched these places. Seekers and seers now brush shoulders with a local populace leading a regular lifestyle, so that alongside Nirvana, one finds the huge rich-poor divide, the squalor, the poverty and petty crime. All this, I guess, also makes for an odd, unreal, and in some ways spiritually uplifting experience for most non-Indians unused to the heterogeneity of many centuries living side by side.

When author Claire Krulikowski lands in India, first in Delhi and then Rishikesh, she is enveloped with a sense of calm and belonging. Many Indians find this strange and often roll their eyes in disgust at the thought of anyone, let aside firangs coming from the land of plenty, finding peace amidst the poverty and squalor that permeates these towns. My own take is that perhaps there is an element of calm in the chaos and some sort of cheer amidst the fatalism that draws them.

In many ways the society of these towns and indeed, in many parts of India, is relatively open and inclusive. There is, of course, nothing magnanimous about it. In a place that is teeming with life and where swamis, monkeys, shopkeepers, other pilgrims, godmen all jostle for room, acceptance is not a concept anymore, but becomes a necessity. This openness is what draws the author more and more into the country, its people and its mores. She starts to feel a sort of inner peace in this mishmash of wealth and poverty, spiritualism and materialism, acceptance and rejection. Her journey through Rishikesh and its ghats and her interactions with sadhus, lepers, monkeys and cows as well as ordinary people fill her with an immense joy which somehow translates through her writings. (Although I was guffawing at her
experience with a mother cow!!!)

A pleasurable read, funny in places and disgusting in some. Although I would maintain that it is not the sacred or the divine that is the source of her well-being and peace; rather, it is the dichotomies of chaos and order, tradition and modernity that impart a surreal character to her life in India, a surrealism that makes her and others more casual, accepting, trusting and open-minded.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


Bangladeshi performers sing Tagore, Yunus receives Nobel, says I believe that we can create a poverty-free world because poverty is not created by poor people.

Dancers from Bangladesh at the Nobel award ceremony

Check out the video clip of the ceremony here. (For those interested in fast forward: The Tagorean song and dance sequence appears 37 min after the start of the video and are followed by the prize presentation and lecture)

A carpenter working in his back yard shop opened with Grameen bank's microcredit loan


Mohd. Yunus and Taslima Begum (representative of the Grameen Bank) with Norwegian royals

I support globalization and believe it can bring more benefits to the poor than its alternative. But it must be the right kind of globalization. To me, globalization is like a hundred-lane highway criss-crossing the world. If it is a free-for-all highway, its lanes will be taken over by the giant trucks from powerful economies. Bangladeshi rickshaw will be thrown off the highway. In order to have a win-win globalization we must have traffic rules, traffic police, and traffic authority for this global highway. Rule of "strongest takes it all" must be replaced by rules that ensure that the poorest have a place and piece of the action, without being elbowed out by the strong. Globalization must not become financial imperialism.

The whole text is here.
General permission is granted for the publication in newspapers in any language. Publication in periodicals or books, or in digital or electronic forms, otherwise than in summary, requires the consent of the Foundation. On all publications in full or in major parts the above underlined copyright notice must be applied.

Friday, December 08, 2006


The text of Pamuk's Nobel lecture is now available at the Nobel prize site.

I liked that as a broad theme, the lecture revolved around the concept of not quite belonging and of trying to escape's one own culture as a result. Very much in tune with what millions of people the world over feel at this moment!

As for my place in the world – in life, as in literature, my basic feeling was that I was 'not in the centre'. In the centre of the world, there was a life richer and more exciting than our own, and with all of Istanbul, all of Turkey, I was outside it. Today I think that I share this feeling with most people in the world. In the same way, there was a world literature, and its centre, too, was very far away from me. Actually what I had in mind was Western, not world literature, and we Turks were outside it. My father's library was evidence of this. At one end, there were Istanbul's books – our literature, our local world, in all its beloved detail – and at the other end were the books from this other, Western, world, to which our own bore no resemblance, to which our lack of resemblance gave us both pain and hope. To write, to read, was like leaving one world to find consolation in the other world's otherness, the strange and the wondrous. I felt that my father had read novels to escape his life and flee to the West – just as I would do later. Or it seemed to me that books in those days were things we picked up to escape our own culture, which we found so lacking. It wasn't just by reading that we left our Istanbul lives to travel West – it was by writing, too. To fill those notebooks of his, my father had gone to Paris, shut himself up in his room, and then brought his writings back to Turkey. As I gazed at my father's suitcase, it seemed to me that this was what was causing me disquiet. After working in a room for 25 years to survive as a writer in Turkey, it galled me to see my father hide his deep thoughts inside this suitcase, to act as if writing was work that had to be done in secret, far from the eyes of society, the state, the people. Perhaps this was the main reason why I felt angry at my father for not taking literature as seriously as I did.

And later where he alludes to the darkness that almost always accompanies the feelings of being marginal and unbelonging.

But as can be seen from my father's suitcase and the pale colours of our lives in Istanbul, the world did have a centre, and it was far away from us. In my books I have described in some detail how this basic fact evoked a Checkovian sense of provinciality, and how, by another route, it led to my questioning my authenticity. I know from experience that the great majority of people on this earth live with these same feelings, and that many suffer from an even deeper sense of insufficiency, lack of security and sense of degradation, than I do. Yes, the greatest dilemmas facing humanity are still landlessness, homelessness, and hunger ... But today our televisions and newspapers tell us about these fundamental problems more quickly and more simply than literature can ever do. What literature needs most to tell and investigate today are humanity's basic fears: the fear of being left outside, and the fear of counting for nothing, and the feelings of worthlessness that come with such fears; the collective humiliations, vulnerabilities, slights, grievances, sensitivities, and imagined insults, and the nationalist boasts and inflations that are their next of kind ... Whenever I am confronted by such sentiments, and by the irrational, overstated language in which they are usually expressed, I know they touch on a darkness inside me. We have often witnessed peoples, societies and nations outside the Western world – and I can identify with them easily – succumbing to fears that sometimes lead them to commit stupidities, all because of their fears of humiliation and their sensitivities. I also know that in the West – a world with which I can identify with the same ease – nations and peoples taking an excessive pride in their wealth, and in their having brought us the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism, have, from time to time, succumbed to a self-satisfaction that is almost as stupid.

Go on read it.

Monday, December 04, 2006


Singur, a small town, in Hooghly district of West Bengal made news when the State Govt. decided to sell more than a thousand acres of fertile agricultural land to Tata Motors to set up a car factory.

Policemen sitting on guard around land acquired by the Tatas

Resistance by farmers and locals is being ruthlessly crushed while leaders like Medha Patkar are under arrest.

Google video has this documentary on the Singur crisis. Check it out.