Sunday, May 27, 2007


....It is the green-ey'd monster which doth mock
The meat it feeds on."

One of Shakespeare's most ironic lines in Othello mouthed by the villanous Iago who while warning Othello of the perils of jealousy also plants in him a dangerous doubt which in time will metamorphose into a monster to consume and wreck them all.

This emotionally wrenching and heartbreaking play was again brought to life at this season's rendition of Othello by Philadelphia Shakespeare Festival.

The play starts with Iago (Karl Hanover) declaring his hatred for Othello (played by Brian Wilson), a Moor general of the Venetian forces. This hatred is further spurred by Othello's favoring of young Cassio (Damon Bonetti) over Iago for promotion. Iago then sets about plotting revenge by ruining Cassio's reputation in the eyes of Othello, and manipulationg Othello to believe that his wife, the sweet and beautiful Desdemona (Christie Parker) is betraying him with Cassio. Othello seized with furious rage and jealousy smothers his wife dead. When the truth is finally revealed by Iago's wife Emilia (Teresa Castracane), Othello filled with overwhelming sorrow and remorse, kills himself.

Othello's fatal flaw was his jealousy. I have often wondered how the play would be received had Othello been unrepentent after Desdemona's murder. Would he then be called a skunk and no tragic hero! Is rage and jealousy more forgivable than meanness?

Shakespeare based his Othello on a story by the Italian poet Giovanni Battista Giraldi . Giraldi's Hecatommithi had several short stories of which two (Othello and Measure for Measure) had influenced Shakespeare. In Giraldi's plot, the Moor is unrepentent and together with the Iago equivalent escapes justice.

Director Carmen Khan, who has been at the helm of the Festival for the past decade, guides another magnificant performance. The two pillars of the play, the mean yet mischievous streak in Iago and Othello's passion and emotion in love and jealousy, were particularly powerful and dynamic. It was also touching to watch Desdemona's sweet and soft demeanour and Emilia's devotion to her, particularly in the scene where she prepares Desdemona for bed.

Khan's productions always boast of unusual props and here they were in the form of rectangular boxes serving diverse functions as tables for a drunken brawl,a pulpit for Othello and Iago, and a ship for the Venetians.

These also served as the bed where Othello throttles Desdemona and later kills himself out of repentence. Although I would have preferred him unrepentent. But a hero is allowed only one fatal flaw.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Incidentally, Ray was posthumously awarded the Akira Kurosawa Award for Lifetime Achievement in Directing at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1992.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Welcome to the world of Precious Ramotswe, Botswana's only female detective. Precious or Mma Ramotswe as she is called is the daughter of the late Obed Ramotswe, Botswana's famous cattle owner. So knowledgeable was he about cattle (2); so kind, dignified, and wise, that Mma Ramotswe holds him in the highest regard and considers herself privileged and lucky to have been born of such a father. Besides Obed, there's one other person whose memory Mma Ramotswe worships. And that is Sir Seretse Khama, the good man who founded Botswana from Bechuanaland Protectorate, and who, Obed had had the singular good fortune of having shaken hands with, eons ago.

Mma Ramotswe runs her The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency from Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. Originally her office was at Lobatse Road but since her engagement to J.L.B. Matekoni, Mma Ramotswe has moved to Tlokweng road and now shares her office with J.L.B Matekoni's Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors garage. About Matekoni, the finest mechanic of cars, it can safely be said (at least as far as engines go) that he's scaled heights of excellence similar to that of Obed Ramotswe's in matters of cattle. While the professional arrangements have changed for Mma Ramotswe post engagement and marriage, the domestic front has not. J.L.B Matekoni has left his old house to live in Mma Ramotswe's lovely home on Zebra drive. Here along with the couple live their two adopted kids, a wheel chair bound quiet and dutiful daughter and a boisterous son. Evenings are family time when Precious Ramotswe cooks pumpkin and meat and fish. While her daughter often helps with the cooking, J.L.B. Matekoni attends to odd jobs at home and takes care of the garden.

The other important person in Mma Ramotswe's life is her able assistant Mma Makutsi. Mma Makutsi is a record holder, a 97% er in short, from the Botswana Secretarial College. She is very proud of it too. And rightly so. After all, how many girls from such backwaters as Bobonong can claim to have made it to the capital's popular detective agency. And so her degree with the clearly legible 97% hangs right above where she sits, putting most visitors at unease.

The two sleuths often get very busy with cases that range from finding lost American men (Tears of the Giraffe) to handling errant husbands (The Kalahari Typing School for Men) and truant businessmen and intruders (In the company of Cheerful Ladies). Amidst all this, there is the hullabaloo of adopting the two children, Mma Makutsi's budding romance with the kind and nice, stuttering and stammering Phuti Radiphuti and Mma Ramotswe's dark secret from the past in the form of the jazz musician, Note Mokoti.

Alexander McCall Smith has come in for a great deal of criticism for his portrayal of this simplistic life in Botswana. For inventing a land where people take endless tea breaks, watch lovely sunsets, and spent hours upon hours ruminating on life.

True, these are simple lives led at a slow leisurely pace. And there are no major twists in the plot, no complex characters. Not much of literary worth either. Why do thousands of readers, like myself, enjoy the series, then? The answer lies in the comfort, joy and succour such stories of ordinary humdrum existence can bring to most of us leading a harried overworked life.

As for me, Mme Ramotswe and her ilk bring back memories of those sunny winter afternoons spent with a book in hand. They remind me of the cacophony of the other kids playing around while I watched, the sun streaming on my face and hair. Of the gentle chatter of mothers and aunts while their knitting needles went clickety-click. And above all of that all pervading fragrance. Of oranges. Yes, that would be oranges.

(1) With thanks to AT for introducing me to this series
(2) McCall Smith probably missed telling us this; but had circumstances permitted, Obed would easily have authored the one and only encyclopedia on cattle. And thereby in one stroke, have put Botswana on the bovine map of the world.

In one word, Khadak is a film about nostalgia. Nostalgia for the pristine beauty of a land untouched by modernity and for a way of life that is gradually becoming extinct.

Bagi, a teenager lives with a nomadic life in Central Asia with his mother and grandfather. This idyllic existence is disrupted when officials of the state arrive in a convoy of trucks and declare the region to be under the threat of plague. The family along with others is relocated to a new mining town and their way of life completely altered. While the mother is employed in the mines, Bagi gets a mailman's job. Bagi's grandfather who enjoyed his animals now spends his days cooking potatoes in salt for the family.

Bagi is epileptic and during his seizures in the desert his grandfather would consult a shamaness. This woman who brought back Bagi's wandering spirit to his body after every fit also tells the old man that his grandson's destiny is to become a shaman himself. The film uses Bagi's epilepsy as a window for his soul searching, a tool for his metamorphosis and also as conduit through which multiple plots progress. Each epileptic seizure is a series of dreamlike sequences. During one such experience in his new mining surroundings, he is able to "see" through a coal dump, a young coal thief buried and choking under a mound of coal and dust. He rescues the fellow and meets a girl who also works in the coal theft gang. A series of new experiences follow as this gang is arrested and Bagi is put into a forced labor camp.

Soon his epileptic seizures are detected and this time he is put in a hospital where doctors correctly diagnose his illness. But Bagi's destiny is different. The shamaness returns in his dreams and Bagi starts to accept his fate.

It's easy to empathize with Bagi, his family and the hundreds of nomads from Mongolia hauled up from their home in Gobi desert to be placed in a neo-industrial landscape. The lovely backdrop of the desert and their life in the tents amidst the livestock seemed far more picturesque and romantic when compared to the concrete Communist era structures they later live in. But this romantic picturesque also eclipses the harsh side of a life tethered to the elements of nature.

In this respect I am often reminded of the Spencer Tracy character in Inherit the Wind; as a lawyer defending the right of his client to teach evolution he repeatedly points to how modernity comes at the cost of leaving some abstract romantic notions behind (something to the effect that while the mail and telephone make communication easy, they take away the romance and pain of separation).

In other words, nostalgia or not, life for Bagi and his people would become easier even if they have to leave a few romantic sunsets on the Gobi behind.

Sunday, May 20, 2007


To be honest, a regular whodunit is not my cup of tea. One is thrust into the guessing game very early on, the detective always gets his culprit, and this person is the least likely suspect. As a genre, the detective novel is conventional and predictable and does not often make for a good reading experience. An exception to the rule is P.D. James. Anyone who has read A Time to be in Earnest will testify to the wonderful charm of the long bygone era her work evokes - a world of fine taste, lovely autumns, and summer houses in Scottish coasts. And yet it is grounded in reality with complex characters and circumstances that fit into a contemporary setting. Indeed, it is a testimony to James’ genius that her plots, centered on death ‘n’ detection as they are, turn into fine literary pieces. James, however, has never been too concerned about defending or legitimizing detective stories as a genre and considers them merely as another form of fiction. Words from an earlier interview come to mind:

The mystery is an artificial form, but then all fiction is an artificial form. All fiction is the rearrangement of the author's compulsions, visions, ideas in what the writer hopes is a compelling and logical form.

A major attraction of her work is, of course, Commander Adam Dalgliesh. This charming detective is also no-nonsense and practical, yet there is a quiet, deeper, introspective side to him. James’ creation is also a multifaceted complex personality; while day-Dalgliesh heads the Scotland Yard Special Investigation Squad, night-Dalgliesh is a poet.

In The Lighthouse, Commander Dalgiesh finds himself in an unusual situation. The murder site is remote and inaccessible, forensic help isn’t very forthcoming, and he suddenly takes ill. The scene of the crime, Combe Island, is off the coast of Cornwall, a reclusive private island offering the rich and famous an escape from their high-powered lives. In the midst of this peace and tranquility is found the corpse of renowned author Nathan Oliver. Dalgliesh is summoned almost immediately, and James teams him up with Inspector Kate Miskin and new recruit Benton-Smith. Miskin’s initial professional discomfort with Benton-Smith moves into easy camaraderie; soon, with Dalgliesh falling ill, the mantle is thrust upon these two to solve the case.

Everyone on the island seems to be a suspect, and most alibis are weak at best. There’s Oliver's daughter, Miranda, and her lover Dennis Tremlet, a match of which Oliver didn’t approve. Many of the staff are openly antagonistic toward Oliver. Even the staid and matronly Mrs. Burbridge and Mrs. Plunkett seem to have hidden secrets. To make matters worse, Dalgliesh is in love and very jittery, having just proposed marriage to his lady by mail. As he waits for her reply he has to, with Miskin and Benton-Smith's help, solve the murder.

Sunday, May 06, 2007



If it is India, the setting must be Benaras. Or the forts of Rajasthan. If these don't work, any random place can be filmed as long as the Taj can be made to figure in every alternate frame. Not be forgotten of course are the camels and bovine creatures with their respective dungs scattered around.

Benaras must at all times be referred to as Varanasi. And this V word must be uttered on screen to the accompaniment of soft strains of sitar in the background. To break the monotony it is allowed to loan a few bars from Zakir Hussain. For better effects, the sitar-tabla drill can be substituted by a deep OM that must seem to emanate off a sadhu from the depths of his dark cave.

Of course with a subject like India, can words like "caste" "half caste" "untouchable" be far behind. Never mind that in public spaces, nobody goes around checking people's castes. For instance when was the last time an airliner checked your caste! One can only guffaw at the idea of Air India hostesses serving the twice born better. In fact the mere thought of those hostesses serving anyone well, is worth a lot of guffaws. Thus in matters of service to the public the Indian state apparatus and allied machinery are truly egalitarian. Which means that everyone gets equal BS, unless of course one is a minister's nati. In which case things are different.

Now that Varanasi and music have been suitably dealt with, welcome to the ghats. Obviously this implies the burning ghats by the Ganges. For anyone thinking of those obscure mountain ranges, let it be known that while they may be able to drench India they have zilch potential when it comes to dunking the screen in nirvana, moksha, karma, dharma, gyana, Om and what have you! For that one has to turn to Ganges ghats.

Then of course, the Western belle must meet the Indian man. But wait! she must first be introduced to the "kaalchaar" and "bhelues" of the Indian family. These two words are shorthand for:

a. saying namaste every 5 secs.
b. eating with your hands
c. showing a wedding that absolutely MUST be an arranged one (no ifs and buts here)
c. women getting bedecked with zari, gold and nagra jooti for aforesaid wedding while men sport smart achkan-churidaars
d. a wedding decor that is actually a borrowed set from Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana
e. elephants (and some cell phones thrown in for good measure ostensibly to show the ancient-modern dichotomy)

After all this it is time to head back to the paschim but not before that mandatory vedic oil massage with a bunchful of agarbattis going hyperactive in the background. The sound track in the meantime has been handed over to our sadhu from the depths of the cave!!!


Inspired by The Untouchable and Wainaina.

Friday, May 04, 2007


Sanskrit lovers the world rejoice! You have nothing to lose but some $$$ and the lost world of 100 old texts to win.

For the Clay sanskrit Project has undertaken an enterprise which when completed will result in the translation of countless old Sanskrit texts. Among them two of my all time favorites: Dandin's Dashakumaracharita (What Ten men did) and Vishakadatta's Mudrarakshasham (Rakshasa's Ring).

A few years ago I came across Dashakumaracharita in a book titled Three Novels from Ancient India. Translated by Vishwanath Naravane this volume contained, apart from Dandin's work, Subandhu's Vasavadatta (not to be confused with Bhasa's Swapna Vasavadatta) and Banabhatta's Kadambari.

I remember quite enjoying Dandin's plot. In contrast to the trials, travails and tears of separated lovers of the other two works, Dasha.... is a refreshing take on life in the 6-7th century. Easy and witty, Dandin's language and world both seem eons away from Subandhu's Vasavadatta. However nobody could be a match for the ornately decorative that is Banabhatta's Kadambari where every sentence, para and stanza seems to bursting with all that is excessively ornamental and highly artificial. A simple scene of maidens working in a palace thus becomes a delightful display of the richness of imagination.

That is not to say, of course, that Dandin wasn't a master of ornamental or stylish prose. In the introduction to the translated work, Naravane tells us how in one of the chapters of Dasha...., the narrator's lips are bruised from kisses of his beloved; so Dandin has him telling his story without a single word containing pa, pha, ba, bha. Yet the language flows so freely that this omission would easily escape the reader.

It is this breezy witty and easy going style of Dasha.... that makes it enjoyable even today. The story revolves around the adventures of Prince Rajavahana and his nine friends. In the course of their exploits which take them into different lands within Bharata or Aryavarta, we get a glimpse of life in the 6-7th century A.D. Interestingly the figures in this kaleidoscope are not limited to kings, princes, sages, ministers, singers. There are thieves, killers and cheats. Women figure prominently throughout the stories, as courtesans, prostitutes and also as virtuous characters. None of these are mutually exclusive categories either. For instance one of the young men Apaharavarman falls in love with a Rajamanjari, the daughter of a courtesan and sister of another. However despite of being born in a courtesan's home and performing music and dance for all she is a virtuous woman and "is indifferent to money and insists that she will not allow any man to hold her hand except in marriage".

Another prince Upaharavarman falls in love with a queen married to an evil king. These men are shown extolling the virtues of their beloved but not before dashing off a silent prayer to Madana, the god of love. So here we have Upaharavarman reeling off to Kalpasundari,

"The curve of your eyebrows is more enchanting than his (Madana's) bow; your lips are prettier than his saffron coloured flag; your slender arms are more graceful than his staff of flowers. Your glances are more powerful than his flowery arrows, your curls than his bowstrings. Moreover your fragrant breath is sweeter than that of Cupid dearest friend, the south wind. "

The other young men in the story, sons of the king's ministers and counselors, with such sweet sounding names as Pramati, Mitragupta, Mantragupta, Vishruta, Arthapala, Somdatta amd Pushpodbhava all have stories to recount. Each man different, each experience distinct. In a world full of opportunity. It is a world where young people (read men) set out to win battles, enjoy new surroundings, indulge in romance, make wealth albeit by dubious means, satiate their senses with food and drink and music and dance and licentious relationships. And all this without a single rant on ethical values or religious compunctions.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


.....and the birds.

Check out this gem of a movie.