Sunday, June 24, 2007


Can pictures tell the truth about a conflict ridden world? Does a single photograph have the power to convey the misery, dread, death or even of hope in the midst of violence. Or are such photographs a mere mass marketing strategy.

It is true that lenses have captured the pain of Phan Thi Kim Phuc or the quiet strength of Sharbati Gula for posterity. But how far have they helped the victims? The image that can be used to draw international attention to conflicts can also be used to catapult a photographer and his newspaper to fame. When does a victim's poison become the media's meat. How does one draw the line.

These are precisely the questions that "Skin in Flames" which plays at Adrienne forces upon the audience.

The setting of the play is a war torn country now on its path to peace. The rebels factions are still in armed conflict but a new democracy is slowly taking shape. The new government has initiated a peace process with the rebels. Into this country invited by the new government, arrives Frederick Solomon, a foreign photojournalist. Solomon's photograph of a small girl flying into the air with a book tucked under her arm as a bomb hit her back, shot two decades earlier, had brought international attention to the region. As a result of which the country is finally getting conflict free and is on its road to peace. Now that there is peace at last, Solomon is being bestowed an award by the government.

Solomon arrives in his hotel room accompanied by a journalist, Hannah. Hannah works for a local pro-government newspaper and wishes to interview him. As Solomon settles into his room he looks out of the window to see the sounds and sights of the city he knew so well. What he sees instead, is the body of a young woman lying on the streets. Hannah tells him that this is a fairly common occurrence, given that the hotel is the tallest building of the country. "People seeking a quick painless end, often come here", she says.

But as the interview proceeds and Hannah begins to question him about that event which shot him to fame, it becomes apparent that she knows more than she should about that small girl from the photo. Who really is Hannah?

In a parallel plot that has occurred in the same room some time ago, a young woman Ida is in an compromising position with a UN diplomat, Dr. Brown. Ida gives sexual favors to the doctor in return for the medical treatment of her daughter Sara. As he undresses her the audience gets a glimpse of her burned and disfigured back. Ida carries with her a book of animals. Though we are told that this is Sara's book, Ida enjoys reading it to herself; in fact it is the only time that she looks genuinely joyful. This partly burnt book she keeps hidden under the pillow in the hotel room.

Sara's medical expenses continue to climb and Dr. Brown assures Ida that he would send the girl to America. In return he demands that Ida satisfy his sadistic urges. Ida endures the misery for her daughter's sake.

Meanwhile tempers flay in the course of the interview and as Solomon gets more and more suspicious, Hannah takes off her blouse to reveal her burnt back. But Solomon is not convinced. Hannah then recounts her story of the morning of the bomb attack when she, a 7 year old was on her way to meet her friend Ida, a girl from another school, nearby. Hannah had Ida's animal book that she had to return to her. As she entered Ida's school, the bomb siren sounded. Hannah panicked; she knew she had to go to a bomb shelter but she was suddenly afraid. She went into the toilet to hide but left her book outside the door. As the planes came close, she ran out. She saw no Ida; the streets were empty and she was lost. She saw noone save a man with a camera, wearing a yellow jacket and bloodied armband. Up above the sky, the planes droned in circles. And then there was darkness.

Who was the girl Solomon photographed? Was it Ida or Hannah?

Solomon gets ready for the ceremony to receive the award. He intends to take Hannah with him to finally reveal before the world his long lost subject. With a sardonic smile he softly tells her that her story has two errors; he wore a white jacket with no armband on that fateful day and the planes had not circled the school before dropping the bombs. But she would still do as his "small girl from the bombing" story.

Ida worried about her girl, tries to give Dr. Brown the animal book so that he may request the hospital nurse to read it. It is here that Dr. Brown informs Ida that Sara has died the same morning in the hospital. Ida is overcome with sorrow and doubles in pain on the floor.

As Solomon moves toward his bed, he notices a book under the pillow, its covers somewhat burnt. Inside is the picture of a small girl. This girl is Sara, Ida's daughter who probably is in the image of the mother. There is a flicker of recognition in Solomon eyes. In another time in the same room, the devastated Ida moves toward the hotel room window. And for a moment it seems that Solomon and Ida transition the time and space between them, and see and acknowledge each other.

But only for a fleeting second before Ida hurls herself from the high rise window.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Kazuo Ishiguro

From the outset, there seems to be something not quite right in Never Let Me Go. The story’s narrator is Kathy H., who we are told is a carer, and although she cares for “donors”, it is not quite apparent what this caring job involves. We are also aware that Kathy H’s donors “do much better than expected” and that “hardly any of them have been classified as agitated, even before fourth donation.” But a sense of foreboding pervades the plot.

Kathy’s past is rooted in Hailsham, a private school where she spent her younger years and made friends with the two other main characters of the story, Ruth and Tommy. As she reminisces and her school days unfold before us, we get the feeling again that something sinister is going on. But Ishiguro has so horrific and terrifying a secret that no amount of guessing by the readers will help uncover it before its time.

One of Hailsham’s goals is that its children are exposed to the world of art and literature and kept healthy and fit. Yet the obsession with health strangely assumes gargantuan proportions. There are regular weekly medical checks; smoking is considered criminal. It is at this point that one starts to wonder what Hailsham sees these kids as - individuals or machines. The fog begins to clear when we read one of their teachers telling them “That's what each of you was created to do.” And even as they meet their very end they are simply called “completed”, as any mission should be.

Revealing too much of the plot would be a sin; suffice to say that Ishiguro achieves what he sets out do to in his characteristic slow, gentle, and unobtrusive way. At the heart of the shocking tale of exploitation, extreme cruelty and brutality, lies the understanding of what it really means to be human. As Kathy H. holds her imaginary baby close and croons “Baby, never let me go,” we get a glimpse of how human frailties, follies and warmth can be found in the most unexpected of places.

Friday, June 08, 2007


"It is a truth universally acknowledged that a married man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a son and heir".

Thus begins Emma Tennant's Pemberley, a sequel to Jane Austen's most popular novel Pride and Prejudice. Almost two centuries after its first publication in 1813, Pride and Prejudice continues to be a much loved book. (In fact a recent poll conducted by BBC in Britain showed it to be the second most popular book in that country.)

No wonder then that two dozen or more sequels have followed over the past few decades continuing the saga of the Bennett family. Inspired by the characters (Mr Darcy takes a Wife, Darcy and Elizabeth, Mrs Darcy's Dilemma, Mr Darcy's daughters) or the estate (Pemberley, Days and Nights at Pemberley) or a word play on the original (Desire and Duty and its palindromic twin Duty and Desire, Vanity and Vexation, Trust and Triumph) these sequels are centered around the married lives of the sisters. Austen had ended Pride and Prejudice with the marriage of three of the five Bennett daughters, giving ample opportunity for expanding on the new Mrs. Darcy, Bingley and Wickham. Some stories have Kitty and Mary playing larger roles as they are wooed, betrothed and eventually married. Yet others went on to the next generation with the readers getting a glimpse of the world of the pretty Miss Darcys' and Master Bingleys' and their romantic trysts. For instance in Darcy's Daughters, the parents are off on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople, while their five daughters amuse themselves in London. The eldest two, Letitia and Camilla enjoy the social scene, Althea engages in perfecting her music while the twins Georgina and Isabelle indulge in mischief.

Of the few that I've read, my favorite is Pemberley. Perhaps it seems to blend effortlessly with the original because it stays closest to Austen's style and sketch of characters. Right from the opening lines (that pay obeisance to Austen's universally acknowledged truth 'that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife') a great deal of the book is so Austen-esque that it almost seems like a continuum.

Pemberley is set a few years after Darcy and Elizabeth's wedding. In the intervening years, Mr Bennett has died, the Wickhams have expanded to a huge brood, Jane and Charles Bingley's sweet toddler, Emily is the apple of her aunt Elizabeth's eye. Darcy has by his ever increasing kindness found himself a staunch ally in mom-in-law Mrs. Bennett. Meanwhile, the property at Longbourne, by virtue of being entailed to a male heir, has passed on to Mr. Collins, a cousin of the Bennett sisters. Had Collins been wedded to Elizabeth, he would as he had promised, kept the Bennetts under his roof after Mr. Bennett's death. But as Elizabeth declined, Collins went on to marry her best friend, the quiet and docile Charlotte, and upon Mr. Bennett's passing inherited the Bennett family home. Aided by Mr. Darcy's generosity, Mrs. Bennett and her two unmarried daughters Kitty and Mary now live in nearby Meryton Lodge.

As Elizabeth gets comfortable in her new role as mistress of Darcy's family estate Pemberley, she wishes to throw open their home to her mother and younger sisters for Christmas. Ever indulgent husband Fitzwilliam Darcy happily agrees. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Mrs. Bennett is planning her family reunion at Pemberley and has invited the Bingleys (Jane's family) and the Wickhams (Lydia's family) there. While Charles Bingley and Darcy are friends, the same cannot be said of George Wickham. Indeed Wickham is undeserving of any kindness from the Darcy family. To complicate matters, Darcy's insolent aunt Lady Catherine de Bourgh, invites herself to Pemberley for Christmas. The no love lost status between Lady Catherine and Elizabeth (from Austen's original) has hardly changed. Darcy's aunt abhors the Bennetts and has made no bones of the fact that she considers a Bennett presence "polluting for the shades of Pemberley". As if all this were not enough, Mrs Bennett invites to Pemberley, a suitor in the form of a Colonel Kitchiner to check if he meets her daughters' approval.

With a house full of people to be entertained and fed (and Pemberley is known for its hospitality) Elizabeth is on tenterhooks. The atmosphere is vitiated by the constant bickering between Lady Catherine and Mrs. Bennett. While Lady Catherine looks disapprovingly at Elizabeth's ways, her own mother makes embarrassing and unsophisticated remarks and her younger sisters overstay their welcome. Darcy is often aloof, distant and cold. And Elizabeth grateful and beholden to him for his kindness and generosity toward her family, finds it difficult to confront him when he ignores and upsets her.

The jarring note in the book comes in the form of Elizabeth's unhappiness at not being able to provide Darcy with a heir. This and her nagging fear that perhaps her husband does not want an heir at all, and we almost lose the spirited Elizabeth of the original. She is also terribly juvenile when the appearance of a small boy with a dead French mother, sets her wondering about Darcy's past and running away from Pemberley.

Thursday, June 07, 2007


....goes to CHIMAMANDA NGOZI ADICHIE for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun. Readers of her first novel Purple Hibiscus will testify to how her powerful writing brings to life, the culture, politics, customs and above all the food of Nigerian society.

Haven't got around to reading Half of the Yellow Sun yet, but it is on my ever increasing to-do list. Here's a snippet from Random House.

With astonishing empathy and the effortless grace of a natural storyteller, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves together the lives of three characters swept up in the turbulence of the decade. Thirteen-year-old Ugwu is employed as a houseboy for a university professor full of revolutionary zeal. Olanna is the professor’s beautiful mistress, who has abandoned her life of privilege in Lagos for a dusty university town and the charisma of her new lover. And Richard is a shy young Englishman in thrall to Olanna’s twin sister, an enigmatic figure who refuses to belong to anyone. As Nigerian troops advance and the three must run for their lives, their ideals are severely tested, as are their loyalties to one another.

Extremely promising.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Growing up, one of my favorite pastimes was foraging the neighborhood kabari stalls. This, of course, was much before any fancy shmancy bookstore chains had dotted the landscape. And long long before one could buy a book, hardbound, paperback, old or new by a mere click of a mouse. Had they existed, they would have been no match for the raddiwallah of those days who offered everything at ridiculously low prices. Besides providing at no cost the challenge of unearthing anything worthwhile from several mounds of paper.

Often the afternoons spent furrowing through piles of GrihaShoba and Sarita would yield nothing. But once in a while, a Ruskin Bond or Rudyard Kipling would emerge quietly from between the colorful covers of a Pyaar ki Jwala and Agnipariksha ke Din. From books on the Second World War to the Art of Origami, they were all there for the taking if only you could find them. So you see the possibilities were endless.

One such find was Plain Tales From the Raj. I have not quite unearthed how this book, now perched on one of the bookselves at home, has remained with me over the years and across continents when hundreds of others that figure higher on my list are now gathering dust in India (though truth be told they are dusted with alarming regularity) or are inhabiting the black hole of the storage dungeon. But that can wait!!

I was reminded of this book quite by chance today when the subject of British India came up today in a converation with a friend. Frantic search followed as did a renewal of the resolution to arrange everything according to the alphabet (never mind that it disappeared as soon as the book was located).

Anyway here are some enjoyable snippets from the book:

'When I brought my two children home,' remembers Kathleen Griffiths, 'we got into the train and the younger one, aged five, piped up in front of a carriage full of people, "Mummy why hasn't the guard come along and asked your permission to start the train" and I replied "Darling we are not in Daddy's district now! They do not come along and ask me if they may start the train here. This is England and we must get used to English customs here."


'One of the most charming things I had ever seen,' declared Reginald Savory, 'was the ayah squatting down on her haunches on the verandah with a child and saying the nursery rhymes together. Most of them they had translated into a curious Anglo-Indian patois. There was "Humpti tumpti gir gaya phat". Then there was Mafti-mai; Muffety mother was eating her curds and whey on grass. There were also the Urdu songs and rhymes that Ayahs sang to put their charges to sleep and which many never forgot:

Roti makan chini
chota baba nini

Talli, talli, baja
ucha roti chat banaya
Tora mummy kido
Tora daddy kido
Jo aur baki hai
Burya ayah kido


When giving a dinner party you always consulted what was called the Blue Book. You had to do this most carefully as they all had definite precedence. I've seen memsahibs extremely annoyed when they thought they were being put in the wrong place. John Morris was once inadvertedly placed on the wrong side of his hostess and next day received a note from her apologizing for 'not realizing that I was senior to the other man and for having put me on the wrong side'.


There was no kitchen as such in a British officer's bungalow because the cooking was all done by natives in the cookhouse. The food had to be brought in from there and kept in a hot-case in the pantry which was in the bungalow. In Eastern India where rainfall was frequent, a covered gangway ran between the kitchen and bungalow. Elsewhere a hazardous gap remained. 'We were having duck for lunch,' recalls Rupert Mayne, 'but when it reached the table there was a mound of chips but no duck because a kite had swooped down and gone away with it.'

Sunday, June 03, 2007


One of the earliest historical records of a large scale destruction of books by fire is of the Great Library of Alexandria. Founded by Ptolemy II, this library contained rare manuscripts of the ancient world including that treatise on the Mauryan Empire, Megasthenes' Indica. What caused the fire is unclear but most historical sources including Plutarch mention that it spread across the docks into the library building, destroying a large part of its collection of 1 million scrolls.

Alexandria was the not the first time books were burnt. As early as the 2nd century B.C., the Emperors of the Qin dynasty in China had issued royal decrees to burn books along with their authors. It doesn't take great genius to conclude that these books were the ones that didn't kowtow to the Imperial order.

Through the middle ages, thousands of books and scrolls were set on fire and entire libraries destroyed if they fell in the path of marauding armies. Religious literature faced the worst. The wars with the Catholic Church cost many faiths their entire literature. When the Cathars of France were vanquished by the Church in the 13th century, almost all their works ended in bonfires. Then came the great Spanish Inquistion that saw more destruction of books than ever before. Jewish literature, had often faced indiscriminate destruction in Europe and it is a marvel that anything of worth has managed to survive till date. Ironically it was Chengis Khan, that genocidal general and maniac warlord who left human skulls in his wake, who forbade his soldiers from destroying libraries and burning books.

Revolutions were sparked by grand ideas and thoughts but that didn't change the fate of books and libraries. The people who proclaimed Liberté, égalité, fraternité weren't any different from medieval warlords and soon the royal libraries in Paris were set on fire. Centuries later the revolution that ushered in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" indiscriminately burnt libraries from Moscow to Vladivostok and books pertaining to non Communist thought, such as books on profits, freedom, economy or royal history were set on fire.

Less than two decades later in 1933, the modern world would see another such spectacle, as Nazi Germany sent thousands upon thousands of books into flames at a huge celebration in Berlin's public square amidst nationalistic chants.

In recent years, Indonesia under Suharto's regime burnt an entire library of the dissident author Pramoedya Ananta Toer . And in 1992 Serbs burnt Bosnian libraries at Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war.

But why am I suddenly blogging about burning books? Because it is in news yet again. This time as a symbol of protest. Tom Wayne of prospero books in Kansas city has set a few hundred books to flame to protest against the current downward spiral in reading. Said Wayne as he lit the first books, "this is the funeral pyre for thought in America today".