Sunday, April 30, 2006


JAP's post today about wierdos at Delhi Airport made me think of my own memories of IGI Domestic Terminal A. I've spent more time than I care to remember in that terminal - for close to two years I was on the Consultant Travel Plan (aka 'take two flights and call me on Monday morning') - first flight out Saturday morning to Delhi, last flight in Sunday night back to Bombay. When you get to the point where you meet the gentlemen with the henna-ed hair and the walkie-talkie who manages boarding gates at IGI more often than you do your closest friends, you know you have lifestyle issues.

At any rate: Delhi Airport. The thing I hate about Delhi Airport (other than its tendency to get all mystical and coy and hide itself behind veils of smog just when you have an urgent meeting to make) is its complete lack of decent book stores. My memories of airports, much like my memories of cities in general, consist mostly of the books I buy there. So Heathrow is forever linked in my head to a copy of Thomas Mann's Death in Venice, and Chennai airport (which I've visited all of twice) is the source of my collected short stories of Saul Bellow. And Bombay, of course, has Arjandas Gangadas [1], which is where pretty much my entire Robert Jordan collection, as well as a good number of my Calvinos come from.

This may seem like a pedantic quibble (I can see Veena preparing to shout 'book snob'!) but the thing is, having a good bookstore in an airport is a real help. To begin with, it gives you something useful and amusing to do while you wait for your flight to be announced. Second, it means that every time your flight gets delayed and you realise that you've already read two of the three books you're carrying and have kind of lost enthusiasm for the third, you've got back up. A good bookshop is like a boredom first aid kit - no airport should be without one.

For me personally, Arjandas and co. were particularly important because with the crazy hours I was working I almost never had time to actually make it to a bookstore. I mean I'd go to stuff like the Strand Book Sale, but just regular in-flight reading was a problem. There were weeks when I actually had to dip into the dozens of unread books I had sitting at home in order to fortify myself for a flight (oh horrors!). So that tiny little bookstore [2] in Bombay was my only real opportunity to get in half an hour's worth of book-browsing (plus how can you not love a bookstore that's open at 6 am in the morning?).

Delhi, to the best of my knowledge, has nothing similar. The one time I made the mistake of wandering into the 'bookshop' at Delhi airport, the only things I managed to find were a) a whole bunch of guidebooks on India, b) a bunch of Kushwant Singh joke books c) the latest Sidney Sheldon and d) children's colouring books. I've seen more variety on the pavements of CP.

The one thing Delhi Airport does have in its favour (as JAP points out) is the Cafe Coffee Day [3]. An authentic caffeine source is obviously a major plus for any airport. The trouble is that I don't actually like the airport Cafe Coffee Day outlet. For one thing it's always understaffed (I should say that everything that follows is based largely on my experience from two years ago - things may have changed since - though my experience with the one time I passed through Delhi Airport this January suggests they haven't). Apparently the people who staff this outlet have never figured out that airport outlets may actually need to have different timings from regular cafes. So if you catch one of the early morning flights out of the airport, you'll always find one sleepy looking guy behind the counter who's always surprised to see the number of people who start queuing up for coffee around 6:30 am. Who knew that all these people were going to show up at the airport that early in the morning? What in earth could have motivated them? [4]

My bigger complaint against the outlet, though, is their complete inability to get their heads around the concept of a double espresso. Here's how the drill goes. You walk up to the counter. You ask for a double espresso. The guy behind the counter instantly goes into his clockwork spiel about how espresso is extra-strong black coffee. You give him the look that says he's such a low form of life you don't know why you're still wasting time talking to him. You say, yes, I know that, that's why I want it. He looks disbelieving. He says "Are you sure, sir?", like you'd just asked him to perform an abortion. "Yes, I'm sure", you say, in as loud and distinct a voice as possible (wondering if there's a consent form somewhere you have to sign), "and could you make it a double".

The guy turns around, stares at the board. Then informs you that they don't serve double espresso. You tell him yes, you know that, but they serve single espressos don't they - all he has to do is put two single espressos in a cup. He shakes his head violently. He has limits, he seems to say, he's prepared to be kind to you, but there is an ethical line he will not cross. Putting two shots of an espresso in a single cup is practically illegal - he could lose his license to dish out coffee from an airport kiosk for something like that.

You try reasoning with him. They do extra shots of espresso, don't they, how about if he gives you an espresso, with a shot of espresso added to it? He thinks about this for a minute, then his moral compass swings back firmly to No. He can't do that either. By this time you're beginning to lose your temper. Just for the heck of it you ask for THREE single espressos. He looks a little worried at this, but can't see a way to refuse. He places the three espressos on the counter, each one accompanied by about four sachets of sugar and a cup of water - as if espresso was some kind of dire medicine. Or hemlock. You brush these aside. Then, still standing at the counter, and with visible contempt, you pour all three shots of espresso into a single cup, drain it to the bottom in a single go, slam the cup back on the counter, and walk away.

And the next time you're at that counter, you just order a latte, because you don't have the strength to go through that all over again.

So much for Cafe Coffee Day [4]. The real source of amusement at Delhi Airport (especially if you're interested in watching wie..., errr, studying human nature) is the whole identifying baggage thing. Why they actually make you go through this is beyond me, but on any given day there'll always be at least 10% of the people around who will not be familiar with this arcane custom [5]. And it's always fun to watch them make the discovery, which usually happens just as their plane is boarding, meaning that every now and then the relative calm of the airport security area is broken by the urgent cries of uncle-jis leaping bravely into action, leaving their wives at the boarding gate with clear instructions not to let the flight take off without them (as though otherwise she would just have sauntered on to the plane and not noticed that her husband wasn't with her; oh, and presumably on the assumption that the sheer bulk of her presence at the boarding gate will keep the plane from taking off) and running as fast as their pot-bellied bodies will allow to go identify their luggage (as I understand it, there's now a movement to make the 126 metre Delhi Airport Baggage Identification Dash a formal Olympic Event). It's annoying if you happen to be on the same flight as them, but otherwise it's most entertaining.


[1] I think that's the name, though I'm not sure. I've always thought of it as 'that little bookshop' in Bombay airport.

[2] If you've never been there - it really is microscopic - if you're lucky and there's no one else in there, you might just about be able to breathe, but that's about it. That's by normal human standards, of course, by Bombay standards it's a massive block of real estate practically wasted

[3] Though the Bombay airport terminal does have a Cadbury's vending machine, stocked full of delicious chocolate. That machine's a real technical marvel by the way. I, in my ignorance, once tried getting a bar of Temptations out of it by actually inserting money in the slot and pressing a button to specify my selection. Fortunately, I was stopped from doing this by an irate attendant who came charging up behind me and demanded to know what I wanted and what I thought I was doing. After he'd calmed down a bit and realised that I was a bona fide customer and not some Luddite out to destroy all the machines of the world, he then proceeded to show me how the machine really worked. He took my notes from me, counted them, slipped them into his cash box, then proceeded to open the front of the vending machine, calmly pick out the chocolate I wanted by hand, give it to me, count out my change and hand that back as well, and wish me a good day. By the time I moved to the US I'd got so used to this procedure that the first time I tried getting Sprite out of a vending machine here, I just stood pointedly in front of the machine and waited for the attendant to come by and serve me.

[4] For more griping about this Cafe Coffee Day outlet and its clientele (and Delhi Airport in general), see my post here

[5] Again, for those of you not familiar with this - Delhi Airport requires you to go 'identify' your checked in baggage before you board the flight. This means that while you're traipsing your way through the security checkpoint, your bags have taken the low road and made their way to a little holding area off to the side, where they're waiting anxiously for you to come and claim them for your own. The actual identification process is supposed to consist (as I understand it) of the attendant actually matching your baggage tag to the one on your bag, thus confirming that you are actually boarding the flight along with your bag (though in an age of suicide bombers, I'm not sure how much security that guarantees) but in my experience it usually consists of you pointing to your bag and some guy with a sketch pen making a mark on it. I personally have twice accidentally identified other people's bags for them (you know - you point to your bag and the guy makes a mark on the one next to it and then you say no, no, not that one, THAT one, and he obediently marks your bag as well, but the first bag has been tagged now and will get put on the plane anyway). In theory, however, bags that don't get identified don't get put on the plane - meaning that if it is your first time flying through Delhi Airport, and you're not the kind of person who speaks Klingon and can therefore actually understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, you're almost certain to have that panicked moment where you go running to the holding area to make sure that you're not leaving your bags behind.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

The Tower of History

"As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian."

- Michael Oakeshott, quoted by Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books

It occurs to me this morning (see how much you can get done if you don't waste time shaving?) that History is the true Tower of Babel. Once, perhaps, there was purpose to it; once we built story upon story hoping to pierce the very vault of heaven [1]. But now we know that the future is a sky we shall never touch, and History has become just a place we live in.

Age upon age, floor upon floor, men speak their different tongues [2], live out their crowded, ordinary lives. Real estate is expensive here - it's not easy to get a place - so you would think the conversation between those who did make it would be truly sublime. But it is not so. In truth, History resembles nothing more than an after-event cocktail party, the kind where everyone who's anyone is invited, and no one is quite sure who the host is. Everywhere you look people laugh and quarrel, swap anecdotes and recipes, check out each other's clothes and gadgets. Someone is always standing in the corner, sulking. Someone else is rapping on his glass with a fork, trying desperately to get everyone's attention so he can make his big speech. Someone is shouting into the deaf old woman's ear, asking her if there's anything else she needs. The intense, glowering young man has finally decided to make his move. The girl in white recognises this, and is afraid.

And all the while we are conscious of the footsteps above us, the dimly heard shuffling of the future, wondering what it is that they might be doing up there, and whether their party is really so different from ours.

And what of the future, directly above us? Does it also show such curiosity towards us as we do towards it? No, for it has its own future to listen to. And besides, what is there to be curious about? Everyone there has passed through the past, the facts are known, are remembered, and it is only those who stand by the windows, and hear the snatches of conversation floating up through the air, who realise that they have misjudged the past, that it too has evolved, that it is utterly different from how they remember it.

The view from one side of this tower is pretty much the same no matter what floor you're on, as is the view from the other side (though being a tower, and circular, there are as many sides to History as there are angles). As we climb higher, our view broadens, true, we can see further. But outside of this tower there is really nothing to see - just a low plain running to whatever horizon we happen to be staring at. And going higher also means that the details become more blurred, till we can barely see the ground we stand on.

There is no leaving the tower, of course. There are no elevators, and the way down the winding staircase, even if the guards were to let us through, is much too long for any one man. That is why we continue to invent the future, that is why we continue to build. Not because we have any hope of finding heaven, but because what other way is there for us to escape the crowded, smoky confines of this present of ours but by building a future on top of it? And so, every now and then, a group of young people will break from the herd, climb their way up to the roof of this edifice (some will fall on the way) and build for themselves a new story, whitewashed and roomy and perfect. Except, of course, the minute their work is finished the people they were trying to leave behind will pour into it, the future will be hijacked by the crowd, and they shall be pushed again to the edges, to the windows, staring out from their suffocation.

We could jump, you say, but in truth even that is impossible. This is where the tower stops being a tower - gravity in time works differently from gravity in space. If you were to throw yourself out of History, you would not fall back into the past [3] - instead you would hang suspended in mid-air, with nowhere to go. You would become (the word is Kertesz's) fateless.

What are we to do then? How are we to escape this present, this press of bodies - some living, some dead - that ceaselessly push up against us? We cannot. Our only hope is to turn our back on this mass of humanity, lean as far as we can out of the window, and with as loud a voice as we can muster, shout our name into the sky. And hope that someone, up there in the future, will hear us.

[1] There is the question, of course, of whether History is a circle or a straight line. Personally, I'm of the opinion that it's a spiral, though whether we're going up or down is a matter of taste.

[2] What they're actually saying, of course, is usually the same thing the people in all the other floors were saying. They just don't know it because the words are different and the accents have changed. Which, of course, is the whole point of the Tower of Babel. Remember all that stuff about 'divide and rule'? It's right there, in Chapter 11 of Genesis:

"And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech."

[3] At least not if you jump alone. If you managed to take the whole floor with you, then it may be possible to destroy History, but why would you want to? You'll only have to start building it all over again.

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Friday, April 28, 2006

Plagiarise That

In other news, the discovery of an important new play by Samuel Beckett. This one's bound to leave the audience speechless.


The Paladion Effect

Okay, I realise this is my third post in under 24 hours, but what the hell.

Chandrahas's post on Borges made me go and issue out a copy of Chronicles of Bustos Domecq from the library (it's a delightful book, though not, perhaps, Borges's best work). One of the pieces in the book struck me as particularly relevant to the current discussion on plagiarism.

In the piece, Borges (or rather Domecq), in his glorious mock-academic style, extolls the virtues of one Cesar Paladion. This extraordinary novelist, a true literary innovator of his time, takes the use of quotations in such masterworks as Eliot's Waste Land and Pound's Cantos to its logical extreme. If it's legitimate to use entire lines by other authors in one's own work in the name of inspiration, Paladion asks (and clearly, it is acceptable, even necessary, to use the same words as other writers), then why not a whole book?

Motivated by this idea, Paladion gives us such wonders as Emile, She, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Georgics (he is rumoured to have been at work on The Gospel According to St. Luke at the time of his death). Each of these masterworks consists of a single book-length quote from another author - Paladion, with the iron discipline of the true artist, does not add nor omit a single comma, nor does he commit the "all-too-easy vanity of writing a single new line". Domecq, quoting Farrel du Bosc's authoritative study, which in turn quotes the literary critic Myriam Powell-Paul Fort (don't you just love Borges!) calls this an "amplification of units", and argues that it is an act of signal genius, that the literary community has regrettably overlooked, perhaps because of the confusion occasioned in lesser minds by the apparent similarity of Paladion's work to those of the writers he quotes, though in truth, of course, aside from their entire prose content, these works could not be more different.

Kaavya, are you listening?

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Thursday, April 27, 2006


"The sound of the tango is the sound of a rose weeping in the sunset", he writes. "It is a carnal wound, one that requires all the agility of our youth to stitch it up again. All dance is ephemeral, but the tango, for all its dramatic frenzy, is doubly so, because underlying it is the eternal languor of violins. The tango is a flimsy fabric, flung proudly about, to hide the nakedness of the evening's despair."

He looks up from his typewriter. In the time it has taken him to write this paragraph, the light has got worse. The sound of his wife washing up in the kitchen fills the room with its clanging. Far away the traffic of the city sighs like an abandoned mistress.

"Have you noticed how no one ever smiles when they're dancing a tango? This is because the very idea of pleasure is anathema to the dance. Laughter is the enemy, because it could detract from and destroy the sexual seriousness involved. If the tango is not to collapse into the ridiculous, it must maintain at all times its air of being in deadly earnest. As with all true art, absolute authenticity alone makes the illusion possible. A well danced tango is a ritual, a sacrifice. To laugh during it, would be like laughing in the middle of a sacred rite. "

He reaches for another cigarette, discovers it's the last one in the pack. He'll have to go down to get more. He tries to remember how long the shop stays open. He had better go soon.

"There is a sense in which every tango is a battle, fought between a man and a woman, with the dance floor for a battlefield and sex their only weapon. That is what all this flashing of limbs, all this feint and parry of gestures adds up to. Who wins in this battle is unimportant - surrender can be as much a victory as control - what matters is only the racing rhythm of the heartbeat that it leaves you with. It's as though the dance were practise, as though the dancers were merely sharpening themselves against each other - like knives rubbed together until the sparks fly from their blades - preparing themselves for other, more desperate battles to come. Precision is everything in the tango, its fundamental grammar is that of stab and thrust and plunge, because it is the only way to puncture the swelling roundness of the music, its ripening sorrow."

Is he being a little too over the top here? He reads over what he has written. It does seem a bit, well, florid. He shrugs. It's probably what they're looking for. The true Latin spirit. He grimaces, then writes on.

"Many people have accused the tango of being too grandoise, too exaggerated. 'Why do we need all this fussy play-acting', one North American critic writes, 'when we can savour instead the simple yet sublime grace of the ballet'. To think this is to miss the very point of the tango. The ballet is founded on an idea of transcendence that the more down to earth tango simply does not believe in. At its heart, the philosophy of the tango is a faith in the overt and the overdone. If we live our life in these grand gestures, the tango seems to say, then surely the end, when it comes, shall arrive with a flourish. If we cannot hope for salvation, we can at least ensure that we go out with a bang."

In the apartment, the radio coughs like an old radiator. A quick burst of static announces that the news is next. As the dusk gathers, he pushes his chair back, takes one last drag on his cigarette, stares unseeing at the scarred surface of his writing desk. He is remembering a time when the curfews were still a daily feature, when it was still possible to get shot going down to the corner store for a loaf of bread.


Such stuff as dreams are made on

Is it possible to be a writer, or someone who likes to think of himself as a writer, or just a plain old bookworm, and not love The Tempest? Has there ever been a more indulgent, a more self-aggrandising fantasy for the literati? Which of us has sat through the first act without nodding along to "my library was dukedom large enough"? Betrayed by the crafty and self-seeking politicians who rule our world inspite of our superior wisdom, abandoned by the Caliban masses, who, unheedful of the grace we offer them, have chosen to worship some drunken carouser, turning their ingrate backs on our so potent art, socially shipwrecked, marooned on the island of ourself with only our own intelligence (and that, perhaps, of some doting but heedless child) to admire what wonders we have wrought herein, which of us has not longed for the power that Prospero wields? How wonderful it would be if we had a muse as obedient and nimble as Ariel, if poetry would flow so trippingly of our tongues. How marvellous it would be if by mere shake of pen and study of book we could command the world's attention, bring the lost to knowledge, the innocent to love and (this is the best part) so reduce those who wrong us or are rude to us to subservience, that it may be in our strength to forgive them.

It is in the impossibility of this dream that the true comic potential of Shakespeare's play lies. It is a tribute to the Bard's incredible gift that he makes something so blatantly improbable seem so breathlessly real, making it possible to take the play, and therefore ourselves, seriously. To swell with almost Shelley-ian pride and exult in the notion of the poet as statesman, the philosopher as a man of action. This is the same fantasy that sustains academics in the illusion that their work makes a difference to the 'real' world. We believe it because we want to, because we need to. But you have only to step back for a minute to see how hilarious the whole thing really is, what an orgy of wish-fulfillment. Great comedy works by taking something small and hidden within us and blowing it up like a balloon and letting it float lightly in the hushed air of the theatre. And that is exactly what The Tempest does.

Except that Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the truth is subtler and more desperate than it seems at first, as it often is in life. Prospero, it turns out, will betray us. Will throw away his book, break his staff, abjure his now 'rough' magic. He will abandon this fiefdom of the imagination, that he is established lord of, returning to reclaim his place in the world even though it cost him dearly to do so ("every third thought shall be my grave"). It is an act of treachery against his fellow-magicians, an act that should make us cry out, with Browning "Just for a handful of silver he left us / just for a riband to stick in his coat". Why does Prospero do this? How would it have been if he, beguiled by this world of ideas he had created, had chosen to have nothing more to do with his enemies, and remain, Selkirk-like, on his island, possibly stifling even his beloved daughter, when her need for other company proved too importunate?

How are we to take this return of Prospero's? Is Shakespeare perhaps issuing us a warning, reminding us that the world exists and must be faced, sweet as the play may be to linger in. That we must use poetry as an asylum, retreating to it when we are lost and without hope, and leaving it behind when we have found "all of us ourselves"? Or is this self-inflicted exile merely Shakespeare's way of distancing himself (and us) from all that is unattractive about Prospero - his overbearing pride, his manipulativeness, the evident supremacism that he brings to his relationship with Caliban? By having Prospero leave the island, is Shakespeare seperating the wheat from the chaff, the mortal from the spirit, and giving us leave, in doing so, to keep what we love about Prospero in the island of our hearts, and banish the rest from our memories, as being unworthy of our creed? Could the true salvation of man lie in reclaiming paradise and then leaving it of his own free will?

And is the choice really Prospero's to make? Or is it rather Ariel's, without whose power Prospero, for all his bluster, can do little, and whose impatience he has bought for the few hours he needs to finish his final opus, only by promising him his freedom. Who is the master here, who is the slave? If you have ever had the experience of writing something, then going back and reading it and not being able to believe that it came from your pen, you know (as Shakespeare, more than anyone else, doubtless did) that the muse is not so easily tamed, nor art so easily turned to our purposes. Ours is a pretend mastery - what little control we are granted is purchased through great study and enormous application, and even so we are more like to follow the spirit than to command it, shaping the garment of our commands to whatever motions its pleasure leads us to. Is all this playacting, the breaking of the staff, the repeatedly promised and finally given leave, merely the final gesture of an aging artist who knows his talents will no longer obey him?

Every time I read The Tempest, or watch it performed (as I did last night), I am struck by how much, even by his own standards, Shakespeare manages to pack into the play. How can one single play be about colonialism and government, about nature vs. reason and reason vs. art, about magic and innocence, about disposession and betrayal and vengeance and the virtue of forgiveness and, most of all, about music, about poetry? How can one play be about all of those things and still be a compelling, human drama, filled with unforgettable characters, moving speeches, and some of the finest verse ever written?

And yet for all that, there is a sense in which The Tempest is one long epilogue, a last Hurrah, a work that both celebrates the power of the imagination, and faces up to the reality that lies beyond. There is a deep sadness in the play, it shines like a lonely spotlight on the stage when Prospero steps forward to speak his last lines, to declare his charms o'erthrown. A great play is ending, the time of our release grows nigh. If the play is a simulacrum of life, then surely the short sleep of its ending is death, and we, its audience, must be released of it no less reluctantly than we would be of our own existence. Spells must be broken gently, if they are not to hurt.

Parting has never been a sweeter sorrow.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Passing it on

Oscar Wilde wrote: "The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on."

On the theory that the same principle applies to links, here are a couple of interesting articles that showed up in my mailbox this morning.

Crazy Snake Man writes in with an article about a new drive by the Maharashtra State Education Department to test quality of learning outcomes in schools and set up penalties / incentives for teachers in low performing / high performing schools. There's clearly much that could be done to make the effort more comprehensive, but it's heartening to see the quality of outcomes finally being given priority, and as I said in my earlier post, setting up appropriate incentive systems for teachers is key to improving the primary school system.

Meanwhile, B. points to an editorial in the HT that argues for the importance of primary education reform (rather than reservations in elite institutes) for achieving social equality. I'm not sure I agree with everything the authors are saying (some parts of the piece sound too much like they're just ranting) but the overall point - that elite institutes should be privatised and the funds allocated to them spent on reforms in the primary sector - is one I support.

Finally, this is probably as good time as any to mention a mail S. sent me in response to my reservation post, saying that in her experience, the government's a lot more responsive than I give them credit for in my post. Citing a number of examples where state governments have been very open to new initiatives her organisation is working on, S. writes:

"Wanted to say that at least in my limited experience, the govt has been terrific- very open, pretty grateful for the added insights, connections- I mean it took some time to build those relationships, but once you rope in both the political and the administrative cadre, things move both well and fast. Yes there are petty ego issues sometimes, but I think those kinds of things happen as much in the Indian pvt and non profit sectors too...Maybe it's because we already have a very strong rep in govt systems, but maybe it's also because policy makers are really fairly open to quality, non-threatening help and support."

That doesn't necessarily square with my own experience, and I still feel there's a lot more the government could do to encourage private participation, but it's good to keep in mind that there are organisations out there that have had positive experiences and instances when the government has been open and supportive.

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You didn't seriously think I was going to let this whole Kaavya Viswanathan thing go by without comment, did you [1]? According to the New York Times, Ms. Viswanathan now claims that the copying was "unintentional and unconscious" and that she wasn't aware of how much she had "internalized Ms. McCafferty's words." Let's leave aside, for a moment, the implausability of this argument (I mean okay, so we've all borrowed a phrase or two from Shakespeare without realising it, but 29 whole passages? Unconsciously? Come on! Forget the ethics of the thing, Harvard should throw her out just for coming up with so flimsy an excuse. I mean even Harvard's most incompetent graduate has managed to come up with a more convincing story than that; true, Ms. Viswanathan doesn't have Karl Rove on her team, but still!). The real question to me is this:

Is it better to be a manipulative little vixen who fooled everyone into thinking she was this hotshot teen phenomenon (I especially love the 'high pressure Asian and Indian families' pitch - so eminently marketable), conned her way into Harvard, got herself a sweet book deal and an option from DreamWorks, all at an impossibly young age, and almost, almost got away with it OR the kind of ditsy teenager who internalises a book called "Sloppy Firsts"[2] by someone who's a (former) editor at Cosmo (can it get more cliched than that)?

Personally, I'd cop to the plagiarism charge any day of the week. After all, law suits are one thing, but if you don't have taste what do you have? Being a chick-lit writer (I believe the term is 'young adults'. Ya, right.) is bad enough, but at least you can point out that you get paid for writing the stuff (which is more than I can say for my dissertation, for example, which is almost certain to arouse no interest whatsoever from Dreamworks). Actually paying to read this stuff, however, and then lapping it up as it were God's own gift to the written word, is just unforgivable.

It's at times like these that I'm reminded of the words of that greatest of all mathematicians to come out of Harvard.

P.S. I particularly love the agent's defense of Kaavya at the bottom of the NY Times piece. Apparently, it's just that "teenagers tend to adopt each other's language"!

[1] As someone who's literate, I must, of course, strenuously deny any suggestion that I might actually have considered reading or even so much as heard of Ms. Viswanathan before the current controversy broke out. As far as I'm concerned she's just a silly nuisance who's taking up space in the Books section of the Times which by rights should be going to Philip Roth.

[2] The other books are called, apparently, 'Second Helpings' and 'Charmed Thirds', thus combining deathless prose with what, for their readers, is doubtless advanced mathematics. One wonders what the next book in the series will be called. 'Holding Fourth', perhaps?


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Taking arms against a sea of biographies

Have you ever noticed how the minute you read or learn about something new, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? As though the Universe were conspiring to give you as much exposure to it as possible? I'm sure there's a reason for the phenomenon, something, doubtless, to do with attention (Kundera talks about this somewhere - I think it's in Unbearable Lightness - something about how coincidence is just what we happen to notice), but it still always strikes me as uncanny. [1]

At any rate, my new word for the day yesterday (courtesy of Ash over at DP [2]) was fisking and the next thing I read is this delightful NYRB article by Anne Barton reviewing a bunch of new Shakespeare 'biographies'[3]. I particularly loved the bits where she tears into Clare Asquith. It's wonderful how scathing Barton manages to be, how entirely dismissive (she ends the review of Asquith's book by suggesting, politely, that she focus her future literary endeavours on Southwell, and leave Shakespeare alone!) while still being logical and objective. Make no mistake - under the thin veneer of scholarship this is a rant, but it's a classy, academic rant, and that's what makes it so delicious.

Oh, and don't miss the end of the article either - the bit where Barton outlines, citing the book by David Ellis that she's reviewing, the six strategies for writing Shakespeare biographies. And concludes with:

"Looking at the seemingly never-ending flow of new Shakespeare biographies over the last decade, it is hard not to feel that (barring the unlikely emergence of any important new information) a moratorium on such works really ought to be imposed. There may still be a book to write about just why lives of Shakespeare continue to proliferate—and to sell—as there is for a proper investigation of the psychology uniting all those continued attempts to demonstrate that he was only the front man for the true author, whether Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Bacon, Sir Henry Neville, or Mary Sidney."

P.S. Meanwhile, in Falstaff land, Shakespeare month continues. Coming up: a week's worth of passages from Shakespeare on Poi-tre. Watch that space.


[1] Oh, and in case you've never noticed this before, don't worry. If there's anything in the theory, you should start observing the phenomenon right about now.

[2] Another day, another DP reference. Ho hum.

[3]Personally, I've never seen the point of all this speculation about the 'real' Shakespeare anyway. Who cares? I'd much rather re-read the plays

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Mister Brown to you

A couple of links from DP (see! see! I do love you guys!) to posts talking about racism (this one by Dinesh, and this other one by Amardeep featuring an immigration incident with Amartya Sen) inspired me (hey, it's Monday morning - I'm grasping at straws here) to do my own post about racism.

Personally, I've always been fairly impressed with how genuinely multi-cultural the West (by which I mean, of course, primarily the US [1]) is. I mean okay, so you'll get the occasional oddball who'll have an issue with you because you didn't come over with the Mayflower (like the guy at the Philadelphia Airport check-in counter who spent ten minutes 'checking' whether he could let me on to the plane if the only id I had was my Indian passport - as though it were okay to let me into the country with the thing, but not okay to let me fly to Greensboro, NC on it), but there are messed up people everywhere.

The point is that, at least in my experience, these incidents are few and far between, and, which is more important, they are cautious and implied, rather than explicit. In general, even the most bigoted among us recognise that racial prejudice, if proven against them, could get them into serious trouble. So they're extremely careful about what they'll try to pull. You can argue that that kind of political correctness is a sham, but it's a comforting sham, because the fact that we're all forced to adhere to it is a statement about where we want to go as a society. That's a standard that Indian society itself, as many people have pointed out, often fails to meet.

Ironically enough, my own sense is that, being an Indian student in the US, the stereotype actually works in my favour. I remember flying in to the US a few years ago on a tourist visa to meet my then girlfriend, and being subjected to a long list of questions, simply because I didn't fit into any of the familiar moulds that the immigration folks were used to dealing with. No, I wasn't a student. No, I didn't have family in the US. Yes, I understood that I wasn't allowed to work on a tourist visa, but I didn't want to anyway. I was just on vacation, meeting up with friends. They couldn't believe it. People were supposed to go to India for exotic vacations, not the other way around. Hell, Columbus, Ohio doesn't even have a Lonely Planet guide of its own.

Now, though, I get no such hassle. Being an Indian student in the US is such a cliche that the bored looking immigration officer at EWR didn't even bother to comment on it. He just stamped my passport with a bored expression and waved me on.

The only time I can actually claim to have experienced blatant racism was in Switzerland. I was at a conference there, and I and a couple of other Indian students were coming back from a day-trip to Interlaken when a scruffy looking guy on the train started shouting at us. It was wierd. There was no provocation, no obvious trigger, one minute we're sitting peacefully in the train, admiring the scenery, the next minute this guy's glaring down at us and ranting about how 'people like us' are ruining the country and it's obscene how we all show up here like insects, etc. etc. We were so surprised we let him go on for a good two or three minutes. Then, at some point, he said something like "Who the hell asked you people to come here anyway?", to which we promptly replied "errrmm...actually the University, along with the Ministry of Education, invited us to come present at a conference" (okay, so we made up the Ministry of Education bit, but you know). That shut him up. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

The point is though that that's pretty much the only time I can remember being actively attacked or heckled for being Indian. Which doesn't mean that people aren't surprised when you don't fit the stereotype, of course. I remember going for the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Philly last year, where my friend and I weren't just the only South Asian people present, we were probably the only people who didn't vote Republican, didn't eat grits for breakfast on a regular basis and were actually wearing trousers and a shirt! You should have seen the shock on the faces of the cowboys sitting around drinking beer from the back of their pick-up trucks when we showed up. They couldn't believe we were there to listen to Skynyrd. But they weren't upset about it - once they got over their initial surprise (which took a while - it was a hot day and their beer cooler was already half empty) they were entirely delighted with the idea that people had heard of their favourite band half way across the world.

We're all welcome to make our assumptions about other people. Just as long as we're willing (and happy) to find that we're wrong.

P.S. If you were reading the post carefully, you're probably wondering why I spend so much time travelling to morgues like Columbus or Greensboro. I know. I keep asking myself that too.

[1] It hasn't escaped my notice that neither of the incidents in the posts DP links to actually happen in the US. But I'm not going to let something as trivial as factual consistency stop me, am I?

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

Happy Birthday, William

Playwright, it is thus: thou alone hath ravished
Our mistress Language, though we all rehearsed

Our parts in her; thou alone hath lavished

Such finery upon her, as would make a rich purse

Of a poor man's ear, and thus hung,

Has so won her to favour with thy trusted pen,

That she, once lost, is now forever won

And no man living need write again.

Thou art poet of the thundering mind

Of the wit's lightning and the storms of woe -

The very weather of our art. We come behind,

Our hearts are wings, beating in thy shadow,

Lifted on thy winds, our voices are small.
Drenched in thy rain, we are not ashamed to fall.

William Shakespeare

Born (supposedly): 23rd April, 1564

Rock, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds

He is a ruined man who lives in an old house. The roof of his memories has fallen in. When it rains now the water pours down without mercy. The walls turn the colour of nostalgia. The floor shimmers, slick with images. Somewhere, a metal bucket rings with each drop, like a bell, calling out to no one.

Outside the earthworms are lifelines from which the hands have vanished. They stretch towards some impossible distance, exposed in their vulnerability. He is careful not to step on them. He is careful not to step in the puddles either, even though technically they are inside his house and he has a right. He walks across the floor of his ruined hall on tiptoe, trying not to get his shoes wet.

It seems to him that these puddles are there to mock him. In them he sees (or imagines he sees) a map of his dissolving life. In the old days he would have taken a mop and levelled out the odds. Now he no longer believes in justice, and lets the water collect the way it wants to, watching the stain of the puddle as it colonises the entire surface of the floor.

What little furniture he has has been pushed into the corners, drawn back against the wall. As though it were debris, salvaged from the wreck of some great ship. He opens his drawer for a change of underwear and finds a white film growing on all his clothes. It is the colour of his hair.

"These fragments I have shored against my ruins", he thinks. Then cannot remember what comes next.

Small, green plants have cracked their way through his walls, even on the inside. He tries to weed them out but they are stubborn and their roots run deep. He lets them be, afraid of shaking the house to its foundations. A tendril of ivy trails from the roof like a chandelier.

He never goes out at night. Instead, he insists that the night come to him. When it's clear out, he will sit for hours listening to the sky breathe. Clouds frost the pane of the darkness, the stars are condensation. The day is a sleeve that rubs everything clear.

Now that they have disconnected the electricity, there are no lights left to see by. He is glad. He lights candles instead, feeling a strange communion with these flames that ache so helplessly in the night. Their suffering contained but faithful, rising in twinges, always coming back from the brink of being extinguished. Just like the pain in his bones.

One day a letter arrives for him. It has been left out in the rain and the address has leached away until it is unreadable. So naturally the mailman assumes it is his. It is not. But he reads and rereads it anyway, feeling no guilt, grateful for the love the writer has sent, even though to someone else. Love is something he gets too little of now, like the bottles of milk that are no longer delivered.

Just an old man in a ruined house, waiting for the sun to come out. So he can finally get his shadows back.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Everyone knows it's really the mice, of course

Went for a performance of a cabaret play [1] called I'm Nobody's Lunch last night.

(Spoiler Warning)

It's an interesting enough performance - offering you snapshots of what the performers claim are interviews with real people [2] talking about how we know what to believe in the post 9/11 world of government misinformation. How do we figure out the truth about the burning issues of our time: Were there ever WMDs in Iraq? Is Gitmo real? Are we really mind-controlled sex slaves of the CIA? Is Tom Cruise gay?

On the whole, I thought the premise was fascinating, and the show itself was amusing, if not exactly spectacular. There were certainly sections where my interest waned, but how can you not enjoy a performance that ends with a song comparing love to Schrodinger's Cat?

At any rate. The reason I started to write this post was this: One of the central claims of the performance is that Earth is peopled by invisible alien beings called the Annanochi (sp?) who feed on the energy we generate and therefore must keep us in a constant state of panic in order to stay nourished. Our task as humans then, is to resist these creatures, and refuse to give in to our anxieties - thus proudly ensuring that we are nobody's lunch.

Of course, the fact that this theory is propounded by an actor in lavender trousers who is playing a 10,000 year old alien from the Pleiades with a bad East European accent and insists on calling you 'my boy' is reason to be at least a little skeptical of it. But what intrigued me about the idea was this - if you really did live on a planet run by super intelligent beings who monitored and controlled every move you make, and they told you that things would turn out badly, shouldn't you believe them? I mean, vested interests aside, isn't it likely that they know what they're talking about? And if they really are so keen on using our fear as snack food, isn't trying to contradict them and argue that the world is not so bad after all, just an invitation for them to prove that no, the world actually is that bad, and there really IS reason to be afraid? If the theory is true, wouldn't we be better off trying to convince these creatures to go on some sort of low-carb diet, something that makes them cut back on all this unsaturated terror they're eating? Where's Atkins when you need him? He's just the man. After all, every time I go on a diet the pounds I end up shedding are invisible too.


[1] Before anyone gets too excited, the cabaret bit only means that it's a variety show consisting of a bunch of unconnected scenes including songs, monologues and skits. Half-naked women slithering down poles are, unfortunately, not included.

[2] Although given the kind of paranoia that the play deals in, it's only fitting that one questions the truth of this claim. Are there really people that wierd out there? Or did the company just make them up?

Friday, April 21, 2006

Write and Wrong

Does it ever happen to you that you agree with what someone is saying, but the way they're saying it makes you cringe and want to bludgeon them with a suitably blunt instrument?

Take this article in the Asian Sex Gazette by someone called Roshni Olivera that DesiPundit linked to recently [1]. It's so incoherent, so poorly written, that despite the seriousness of the underlying message I couldn't help laughing out loud reading it.

Look, obviously rape is a serious issue, and there is good reason to emphasise the need for consent to be explicit, not implied or assumed by some arbitrary standard. No is (or should be) No, irrespective of the victim's past sexual record or the perpetrator's beliefs about her willingness. So the two cases that Ms. Olivera points to in her article, both involving rape by 'friends' of the victim are serious crimes and deserve to be appropriately punished.

The article does sort of make this point, but its buried away under a lot of rambling obfuscation. In Ms. Olivera's world view, apparently, "all such rape incidents highlight an issue that has been simmering for a while now - can't a woman just be friends with a man?" Harry and Sally, meet Thelma and Louise. Let's say, for the moment, that a man and woman can't just be friends, that it always has to be sexual. Does that make the cases she talks about okay? No, right? So how is that the issue here? Ms. Olivera seems to recognise this too, and hastily switches back to the issue of consent ("even if there's a bit of teasing bordering on flirtation, does it have to end up in bed?"), but it still leaves you wondering - would it have been too much to ask that she take the trouble to edit her own article? Has it occured to her that there might actually be a difference between a piece of writing and a rambling conversation with a friend? That putting down the first thing that comes into your more or less empty head is not the way to write a good thought-piece?

Where the article gets truly hilarious, though, is when Ms. Olivera decides to 'investigate' the causes for this malaise. She does this in two ways. First, she talks to the 'experts'. They inform her that
"The main issue is that men and women perceive things differently". Ah, so that's why. You would never have thought it, would you? No, no, we needed the EXPERTS to tell us this. There follows a lot of psycho-babble about 'misconceptions' that men have, drawn, one can only surmise, from the long, difficult hours the 'expert' has spent watching Hindi movies.

But Ms. Olivera is not content with this. No, as a true journalist, she feels the need to capture 'public opinion', which, as we all know from regular readings of the Onion, consists of stopping the first three half-wits you meet on the street and asking them for their 'views'. This process, as always, yields deep insights, including:

Some decades ago you wouldn't find a girl and a guy having much interaction. Today, you have girls, even actresses, very open about their relationships. Times have changed. These kind of rape incidents, where a friend is the perpetrator, are appalling."

Anyone care to explain how the sentences in that statement connect to each other. I'm particularly curious to understand the 'girls, even actresses' bit.

And wait, wait, it gets better. Just as you thought this whole date rape thing was a lost cause, Ms. Olivera manages to find the one right-thinking engineer who has practical suggestions to make:

a girl should be smart and understand the guy's intention. If he's just a good friend, there's no question of any sparks. If he's flirting with the girl, she has to clearly set the boundaries. There has to be communication in these matters. And if it's a guy who's the kind to get drunk and misbehave, she should just dump him."

Oh, wonderful. So now it's the girl's responsibility to be smart enough, is it? And never mind the possibility of being sent to jail for years, all we really need to stop people from raping their dates is the threat of being dumped. Why bother with police complaints, criminal trials, etc. when a simple break up will do?

Finally, Ms. Olivera pulls in yet another expert, a legal one this time, who informs us, drawing doubtless on his deep understanding of the sub-clauses of the law concerning rape "
The law is always a little behind social trends, always trying to keep pace. Let's hope for further strides now!". Who would have known?

Never mind the ridiculous stereotyping. Never mind the fact that Ms. Olivera doesn't seem to realise that opened quotation marks need to be closed. Did no one ever tell this woman when she was in school about the importance of a logical sequence of thought? Consider this:

"The main issue is that men and women perceive things differently, say experts. And in most of these cases the perpetrators are either teenagers or young men in their 20s or early 30s. "A girl might not suspect anything.

Can you imagine anything less coherent?

The kindest thing I can say about this article is that it might be a spoof, if an extremely subtle one. Somehow I doubt that. And I'm not convinced I'd appreciate spoofs written on so serious an issue anyway.

[1] Why anyone would be reading the Asian Sex Gazette in the first place is beyond me, of course. At least with the Bombay Times the ads are informative.


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Episode 1: Introducing The Beard

Continuing with the theme for the week - personal rambling inspired by previous posts:

In my fourth term at WIMWI, I grew a beard. Well, maybe I should phrase it differently. The thing is, when you tell someone you grew a beard they have this mental picture of some sort of exotic husbandry, of facial horticulture involving pomades and lotions and a snippily wielded pair of scissors. The image it conjures up is of some gentle gardener tending, night and day, his prized rose.

What really happened was this. Two weeks into fourth term I realised that I had taken on way too much work and decided that the one activity I could definitely do without was shaving. So razor and shaving foam were duly abandoned, and my fallow cheeks were left to grow wild.

The results were not pretty. There's a scene in Wodehouse's Joy in the Morning where Bertie's Uncle has a secret meeting with some US tycoon (his name, if memory serves, is Chichester Clam) at a fancy dress ball, where said tycoon shows up disguised in a perfectly foul explosion of horsehair that he claims is a beard. Bertie's Uncle, discussing the encounter afterwards, professes scepticism as to the historical accuracy of this disguise, arguing that no King of England could possibly have had a beard like that. Posses would have been gathered, strong men would have taken to arms to root out the evil.

No one actually proposed lynching me because of my beard, but grown men (and grown men from IITM at that - who you would think would be beyond disgust by now) were known to shudder at the sight of it, and there was marked tendency for most of the female population to blanch and turn deathly pale every time I passed by [1].

The trouble is, this only increased my attachment to the fungus. There's something strangely satisfying about being able to creep up on an unsuspecting bystander and watch him or her cringe at the sight of your face. You can see why the Devil gets his kicks from this sort of thing. Plus there's the thrill that comes with being perversely stubborn, of course, the strange sense of power that comes from rebelling against what everyone else wants.

Beyond a point, though, the beard began to take on a personality all its own. Soon it felt like I was walking around with a face behind my beard, like some prophet proclaiming a tangled and hirsute truth. By the time the mid-terms came around, the beard had its own e-mail id (it called itself, predictably enough, the Beard of Avon), its own special circle of drunken friends, even its own political opinions. How many times that term did I sit in class listening to the beard put some random CP that I totally disagreed with? How many times did I find myself dragged to some gujju pasta place when I'd much rather have been eating aloo paratha because the beard had this thing for exotic foods? [2]

Dealing with the trauma of seeing your face in the mirror every morning was difficult at first. [3] But pretty soon it was clear to even the meanest intelligence that the scruffiness of our reflection belonged entirely to the beard. You had only to look closely to see the lines of my real face, in all its classically handsome glory (damn! I swore I would type that with a straight face) behind all the wild abandon of the beard.

By the time the term ended it had got to the point where even I no longer recognised myself. I still have a VCD of our days at WIMWI that a batchmate made for us, in which I make a three second appearance making a presentation in class. The first time I saw that clip I turned to the person sitting next to me (also a batchmate) and wanted to know who that prof was, since I didn't seem to remember taking a class with him.

My beard meanwhile, was rapidly acquiring the kind of cult status usually conferred only on B-grade slasher flicks. Those among my batchmates who were more classically inclined had taken to viewing me only with the use of a mirror, inspired, no doubt, by the exploits of Perseus. Meanwhile offers from leading museums the world over to include my humble little beard in exhibitions dealing with the macabre in contemporary art kept pouring in, and there was some talk of including my beard in a sub-clause of the latest draft of the Non Proliferation Treaty that India wouldn't sign. When I flew home to Delhi at the end of the term, my flight was delayed by half an hour while anxious police searched again and again through my baggage, convinced that no one who looked like me could possibly not be a terrorist. As for my parents - well, they were there usual forgiving, forbearing selves, though you could see them eyeing the parents of other batchmates of mine wistfully, wondering how much they would take to exchange sons for the week.

As with all great art, Love was the downfall of my masterpiece, the kryptonite by which I was undone. I had every intention, when I went back home, of continuing to allow my beard its full and free expression, dreaming that someday my facial hair might be listed among the key crops of India, somewhere down there between saffron and banana nut. Except that my then girlfriend, in a move that would make Jeeves nod sagely, decreed that she would have nothing more to do with me unless I shaved the monstrosity off. (I am no longer with this woman, incidentally - how can you continue to date someone who won't allow for your personal growth?). It was a tough decision, but I figured I could always grow the beard back once the relationship had come to its inevitable end, but no woman was ever going to be stupid enough to date me again, so the beard had to go. At the time I saw it as a bold, desperate gesture, not unlike Van Gogh's in cutting off his ear, though maturer reflection has shown the the true cowardice of the deed.

Since then, every time the moon is full or Gillette comes out with 'the revolutionary new concept in shaving' (I mean seriously, what are they up to now - 12 blade razors or something?), I think about growing my beard back. The trouble is, I'm worried about how Bush and Co. will respond. They might decide I'm using my beard to hide WMDs. I don't want to wake up one morning and have to comb Marines out of my beard.

Ah well, I guess I'll just have to go on shaving. Think of it as my personal contribution to World Peace (Stockholm, are you listening?).


[1] And these were facchis (freshers) too - people I'd never spoken a word to - so it wasn't about my personality.

[2] Okay, okay, so I've been reading too much Gogol. So shoot me. But only after you challenge me to a duel.

[3] Plus there was that inexplicably repeated nightmare about having my throat eaten away by a hedgehog.

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Wilbur Force

The New York Times informs me that Richard Wilbur just won the $ 100,000 Ruth Lilly poetry prize.

The article then goes on to quote Christian Wiman, editor of Poetry, as saying:

"If you had to put all your money on one living poet whose work will be read in a hundred years, Richard Wilbur would be a good bet."

Oh, come on. I mean, look, I like Wilbur and I'm happy he's won, etc. but the one living poet who'll survive? Wilbur? Really?

I'd go on about this but a) it's two thirty in the morning and b) I realised I've already blogged about this greatest living poet thing. Here. And about Wilbur. Here.

Sigh. I'm becoming one of those people who don't have conversations any more - they just point you to their blog and tell you to read their views.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Down play

The post on play slaughter a couple of days back made me think of theatrical fiascos (in every sense of that term) that I personally have been part of. So here goes.

This dates back to my undergrad days. The dramatics society of my college (all 6 of us), in a bout of entirely misguided thespian optimism, had decided to participate in a one act play competition. The script chosen (and I swear I had NOTHING to do with this) was this thing called Sorry, Wrong Number which is, in fact, a radio play, but our 'director' only figured that out sometime around the second rehearsal, and besides we figured we might get points for innovativeness if we staged something originally written for radio [1].

This is how the play was supposed to end: after the Killer had abruptly cut the Old Lady off on the phone, the lights were to start to dim, creating an atmosphere of menace and foreboding. Once the room was almost completely dark, the Killer was to leave the phonebooth (where he had been since the beginning of the play; said phone booth being this massive contraption of cardboard and thermocol that we have cobbled together ourselves and were very proud of) walk down the steps on stage left, cross silently over through the audience to stage right, come up the steps there, his feet making an ominous clumping sound causing the Old Lady to start in panic and cry "Who's there? Is there anyone there?". The Killer was then to make his way across the stage to the Old Lady (who meanwhile remained oblivious of his presence) and crouch down behind a chair, waiting. Then, when he heard the distant sound of a train approaching, he was to leap up from behind his chair, knife raised, and stab the Old Lady to death, her screams being conveniently drowned out by the passing train. When the sound of the train faded, the Killer was to hear the telephone ringing, pick it up, and say "Sorry, Wrong Number" thus providing the 'a-ha' moment of the play and bringing it to its half frightening, half poignant end.

Got that? Right.

Here's what actually happened [2]:

1. The lights didn't dim, they simply blanked out. One minute we were on a perfectly well-lit stage, the next we were in absolute darkness. Cries of "It's a power-breakdown!" "I wonder where they keep the candles?" were heard, before the audience (and we) realised this was meant to happen.

2. The Killer left the phone booth. Unfortunately, in doing so, he upset the delicate balance of the phone booth's cardboard facade, which proceeded to come crashing down behind him. To the audience watching, it must have looked like an earthquake had hit the stage.

3. The stairs leading up to the stage turned out to be thickly carpeted and made of stone (unlike the wooden ones we were used to from rehearsal). So that despite the Killer's most valiant attempts to stomp on them, he made no sound coming up. This did not faze the somewhat hearing impaired Old Lady though, who proceeded to start in impeccable panic and call out "Who's there? Is there someone there?" in response to a sound that even the acutest ears couldn't hear.

4. As the Killer crept stealthily up on the Old Lady, his feet accidentally snagged a loose wire running across the stage, which led to a lamp that we had jury rigged to make up for the lack of adequate number of spots. This lamp went flying, nearly doing the Killer's job for him by decapitating the Old Lady (who ducked with surprising alacrity for someone of her advanced years), and smashing into the back of the stage with a resounding crash. Worse, the Killer himself stumbled and almost fell on stage, managing to steady himself only by clutching the chair that he was supposed to be hiding behind. The Old Lady, of course, remained unaware of the menace approaching her so clumsily, continuing to look aimlessly around in disquiet.

5. Back on his feet again, the Killer proceeded to crouch behind the chair and wait. And wait. And wait. But the sound of the train he was waiting for didn't come. Finally, feeling the audience grow restive, the Killer acted with a violence of purpose only a desperate criminal would be capable of, leaping up from behind his chair and proceeding to stab the Old Lady, whose screams, clearly audible in the entire auditorium, left him entirely unmoved.

6. Gory deed done, the Killer then turned towards the phone, and without waiting for it to ring (on the theory that if the train did not come, the ringing phone must be even further behind) proceeded to pick it up and press it to his ear. At this strategic moment, however, the long awaited train did finally come crashing through, so that the crucial words of the denouement were drowned out by its roar. There then followed an awkward two minute silence while the Killer stared meaningfully at the audience and the audience stared back with equal seriousness (there were no curtains in this auditorium) before someone finally figured out that the play was over, and some desultory applause allowed the players to escape, having made their hasty bows.

Afterwards, the one person who came up to us to congratulate us on our performance turned out to be a Beckett fan. She went on and on about how we'd taken a melodramatic over-the-top penny fiction script, and by reducing it to physical farce managed to successfully bring out the essentially absurd nature of the human enterprise. We could only nod along in dumb agreement.


[1] This is less naive than it sounds. I remember going for a play reading contest at Hindu college, where all the other participants had come prepared with monologues / dialogues that they'd spent hours perfecting (Shylock's 'if you prick us do we not bleed' speech was included, as I remember it, and a scene from Pygmalion, complete with accents). My approach to this contest (which I was completely unprepared for, and was only attending because my Macro-Eco class was deathly dull) was to go up on stage, deliver a thirty second encomium on the importance of spontaneity in theatre, and then proceed to solicit any script, at random, from anyone at all in the audience, that I would undertake to read (I think the one I finally ended up with was Beckett's Mouth). Naturally, I won.

[2] Without attempting to defend the idiocy of our performance, it has to be said that because it was a contest, we never had the opportunity to rehearse on the stage we were performing on, so that the sound and light systems were wholly unfamiliar, and a number of things had to be adapted at the last minute.

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Monday, April 17, 2006


A couple of people have sent me links talking about this new poetic form called fibs. Based on the Fibonacci sequence, fibs are 6 line, 20 syllable poems with the syllable counts going 1/1/2/3/5/8.

Now as most of you know, I've always been a sucker for challenges, plus this one actually combines math and poetry, so I couldn't resist.

Here are my first few tries (warning: more might follow):


spirals, dies.
On the other hand
the world expands, and cannot stop.


from vanished
kitchens; sunlight spills
over me, yellow as an egg.


Each petal
expanding into
as many more. Beauty arrives.


Yes. There are
things left unsaid in
them, there is fear of falling short.


with a
achieve line; perhaps,
if we are lucky, a poem.

then two,
we follow
the sequence, hoping
that somehow it will all add up.

line by shy line, all
our sad, seperate love poems.



Watching the hand's transaction
at the deal table, it is hard to tell:

does the knife swipe through mackerel
clean as a credit card,

or is it the silver fish itself
that swipes the blade?

His raw hands cut the deck.
The flesh is dealt.

- Robin Robertson, 'Itamai-San'

Poetry and raw fish. What more can one ask for?


Sunday, April 16, 2006

I know why the caged beard sings

I never shave on weekends. Stocking up on groceries Friday night (my true intentions hidden behind a perfectly respectable 5 o clock shadow), I spend the next 48 hours locked away in my room, feeling myself grow pricklier and more stubborn in my solitude.

As my beard ripens, the mirror changes with it, grows older, darker. I feel as though I'm going back in time - way, way back - to an age before razors and self-image, when my ancestors roamed the wilderness and wore the foliage of Man proudly on their jowls. Beards were not artifice then, not some burlesque disguise that you tacked on to your cheeks, but a living organic part of the human face. Running my fingers along the line of my jaw, feeling it raw against my palm, I can't help feeling that this beard of mine is a secret code, engraved under my skin by long ago cavemen, waiting to be deciphered.

What does it all mean? (Like Whitman, I wish I could translate these hints about the old beards and the new beards)

Sometimes I feel like I want to paint walls.

Sometimes I feel like I want to get drunk on cheap red wine and write like Hemingway.

Sometimes I feel like I want to throw stones at birds, only there are no birds in this city, only planes, and those are too far away.

Sometimes I feel like I want to be a hedgehog, bristling my spines at the world.

Sometimes I feel like I want to play long, groovy solos on a pedal guitar, losing myself in the minstrelsy of cocaine.

Sometimes I feel like I want to discover a new planet. Or Ginsberg.

Sometimes I feel like I want to write long free verse poems about the Revolution, and print them out on leaflets on some basement press and declaim them loudly at railway stations until the police come to arrest me.

(But what if they don't come to arrest me?)

Sometimes I feel like I want to wear stained camouflage uniforms and a beret and live off the jungle with only the long, cool barrel of my rifle for company through those parching summer nights.

Sometimes I feel like I want to lock all the doors and windows of my apartment and just ROAR.

(Hail! Rintrah! Hail the perilous path and the hungry clouds! Every good library should possess a lion).

The book I am trying to read has hidden itself away under my bed. I crouch for hours on the floor trying to coax it out, but it only burrows deeper into the corner. Could it be that it is afraid of my beard? Can it not see that its words too are only stubble, grown over long, long years?

I know I'm pathetic, living out my prototypical neanderthal fantasy alone in my 15th floor apartment in the heart of urban America. But hey, these things grow on you. And I swear I'll punch the first person who even thinks of mentioning the 'concrete jungle' on the nose.

Come Monday morning, I shall return to the reign of safety razors, my face shaved into neutral conformity. Having destroyed all the evidence of my weekend mutiny, having cleared myself of all its prickly charges, I shall lose myself easily in the commuter crowd.

And no one will ever know that underneath this mild-mannered exterior lives the ferocious, depraved intelligence known to barber-shops (and DC comic fans) everywhere as:

The Beard.

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Going back

He parks his car by the side of the sleepy highway, makes his way down to the stream. There is no path here, just the hint of a mountain trail, steep and twisting, its surface scattered with loose, uneven stones and dusty goat pellets. As he descends, he can feel gravity urging him on and he has to resist the urge to hurry. Afraid of hurting himself, he keeps his eyes firmly on the ground, picks his footholds carefully.

It's only when he reaches the bottom that he stops to admire the view. It has been a long time since he has been here, and the landscape has shrunk in his absence. The great mountains he remembered, their impassive, stony faces raised loftily above him, have been reduced to mere foothills, their shoulders hunched in submission. The magnificient suspension bridge of his memory turns out to be little more than a minor footbridge, its great span only a few planks long - no engineering marvel, but a flimsy excuse of a connection, joining one side of the valley to the other. Even the small signs of commercialisation that have crept in, seem, in his eyes, only to diminish the village. The sight of these pathetic little grocery stores, for instance, their shelves stocked with Marie biscuits and Red Label tea, such a contrast to the supermarkets back in the city he lives in. There was a time when it was possible to imagine this valley a secret and pristine Eden, a place that time could not touch. But the highway has reduced it to what it has always been - a decrepit little hamlet where the newspapers arrive two days too late.

Even the stream is not what it used to be. In his memory, it was a mighty river, swift and merciless, part naiad, part demi-god, the dominant spirit of the place, a laughing and electric presence searing its way across the valley. But standing on its bank now he can see that it's just another mountain brook, narrow enough so that you could jump across it, if you were fit enough and could get a running start, shallow enough so that you can see right down to the bottom, where tiny eyelids of fish wink among smoothed and mossy stones. At least the water is still clear, he thinks to himself, grateful that this plcce has been saved the final indignity of pollution. It's a great blessing, he knows, and the stream, with its calmly gliding waters, its banks of lichen and wild flowers, is picturesque enough, but nothing can dissolve the disappointment that fills his heart at the sight of it.

Standing there, he remembers how important a presence this trite little stream used to be in his life. There was a thrill of adventure in being allowed to come down to it by himself, a sense of authentic risk. And while the water was always far too cold to bathe in (though he begged his mother to be allowed to anyway) you could always splash about on the edges, paddle your feet in its swift flow. There had been, in those long ago days, something comforting about the stream, something transcendent - the possibility of being washed clean, the constant feeling of being carried away beyond yourself. This was where he would come when things angered him, or made him cry. Knowing the stream would always be there to console him. Knowing that she would not allow any disturbance of his to break the evenness, the simplicity of her flow.

He thinks of the day his cousin made fun of him, declaring that his painting of the valley by sunrise looked like an untidy snake had wriggled its way across it, that he couldn't paint for nuts and shouldn't even try. He had spent hours on that landscape, even waking up earlier than usual to paint it (his mother had been amazed, but encouraging), and had been very proud of it. Showing it to the cousin had been a privilege, jealously given. So that her criticism of it had reduced him to tearful fury, sent him running down to the river, where he tore the painting into a dozen tiny pieces, threw them into the water.

Thinking about it now, he smiles gently to himself. Yes, this is where it happened. Right here, on this very spot, were enacted the most violent scenes of his childhood. And yet staring at it now, with the temple bells tolling in the distance, and light of these autumn months starting to fade, it is hard to imagine anything more peaceful. How things change, he thinks. Heraclitus was right after all. Sitting down on one of the round, potato shaped boulders that line the stream, he kicks off his sneakers, peels off his socks, folds his pant legs to his knees. Then gingerly, afraid of how cold it might prove, he lowers his bare feet into the stream, savours the first shock of the contact, the sensation of the water swirling through his toes. Lying back on the bank, eyes turned to the sky at first, then closed, he lets the stream flow over him, past him, feeling the purity of the moment soak into the edges of his life. And an image comes to him, unbidden, of a dozen scraps of colour-stained paper, bobbing their confused but resolute way out to the sea. He chuckles out loud, and the stream chuckles with him.


The Force is strong in them

Quick update. Remember Akanksha's Learning to Lead program? Apparently they've been busy taking journalist's to task now. So proud, I am.

Friday, April 14, 2006

King Leer

Aishwarya's comment to my last post made me think of this one:

Hands down the worst performance of a Shakespeare play I ever had the misfortune to see was this travesty of King Lear put up by the students of Baroda University. This was way back in the late 90's, in Delhi. The folks at ICCR had this triple bill of Shakespeare plays - including that version of Othello in Kathakali. And King Lear.

Now the thing is - I WORSHIP King Lear. It's impossible to have a favourite Shakespeare play, but if I had to pick one, Lear would be the one I would pick. Don't get me wrong - I love Hamlet as much as the next guy, but there's something about Lear (Keats calls it "the fierce dispute / betwixt damnation and impassioned clay / ... the bitter-sweet of this Shakespearian fruit") that is just special to me.

So anyway, we get to the theatre. It doesn't look good. There are exactly 24 people in the audience. The four of us (me, my parents and a friend), three sets of proud parents with a proud sister thrown in, one extremely stoned looking guy, and twelve Japanese businessmen lined up in the last row - clearly there to check out the Indian theatre 'scene'. I've just discovered that the play is being performed by students from Baroda University. I'm trying not to be judgemental about this. They may be quite good, I tell myself. I mustn't be a snob (you can see how naive I was - I still thought being snooty was a bad thing).

The play starts. It turns out to be the Patel store version of King Lear. To begin with, the company feels that the play is too long. So they decide they don't need all this side story with Gloucester and his sons. What's the point of that - it's supposed to be about this Lear guy, right? All this parallel narrative will only confuse the audience.

Not that they cut Gloucester out entirely. He still puts in an appearance. For all of the one scene where he has to get his eyes plucked out [1]. This is the most animated scene in the play - largely because I suspect it's the one scene that the cast members actually understand. There's a lot of screaming, a lot of lurid lighting, a lot of spilled ketchup. The Ramsay brothers would have been proud.

If that wasn't bad enough, the players also decide that all this abstruse wording might get a bit much for the audience. Who's going to spend all this time learning thous and thees? So they rewrite the dialogue, entrusting this trivial detail to a semi-literate twelve year old brought up on a staple diet of Hindi films. The result is a script that doesn't quite get to the point where Cordelia shouts "Pitaaji" and runs into her father's arms - but she comes close.

Oh, and the acting. It wasn't that they were bad actors, exactly. I'm sure their school plays in Class III brought down the house. The only trouble was that they didn't seem to have figured out that it was actually possible to move and talk at the same time. So dialogue delivery consisted of stopping flat-footed on stage, taking a deep breath, and then launching into their lines, eyes firmly fixed on some distant point on the horizon. You got the feeling that they were a little miffed with Shakespeare for putting in all this endless talk. A little less conversation, a little more action, you could see them thinking. More opportunities to drag out the props left over from last year's performance of Ramayana and show off their sword-fighting skills.[2]

There ought to be a law against playslaughter. 5 to 15 years in prison with nothing to read but Tamerlane.

P.S. For a truly interesting take on Lear - go watch Kurosawa's Ran. It's barely Shakespeare (you lose the text, the plot gets modified) and yet it's entirely brilliant.


[1] Errr...I'm assuming I didn't need spoiler warnings on that one.

[2] The people I felt really sorry for were the Japanese Businessmen. Every time I turned around I could see them watching with rapt concentration, sweat staining their buttoned collars, trying to grasp the deeper cultural nuances of the performance. If that's the only play they watched while they were in India (pray God that it wasn't) they're probably still out there, haunting the Tokyo cultural scene, delivering bon mots about 'the burlesque plasticity' of Indian theatre, its concern with 'reducing the dramatic act to its two dimensional core'.

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Much Ado About Nothing

I've said this before and I'll say it again. Shakespeare never ceases to amaze me. I attended a performance of Much Ado about Nothing two days ago, and the audience spent some 60% of its time in splits - by the time we got out of there my sides hurt from laughing so much. Obviously, a lot of that is the acting and what the performance is able to bring out, but it never ceases to astonish me that a 400 year old script can still seem so relevant, so accessible [1] . And it's not like Much Ado is one of his greatest plays or anything.

The trouble with reading Shakespeare / watching his plays performed, I think, is that it's impossible to empty your head of all the literary / cultural baggage that we bring to him. I can never help wondering, as I sit through one of his plays, how much of what seems familiar to me was new and startling when it first came out. What would it have felt like to watch the first performance of Othello, to hear that green-eyed monster line for the first time? Was there a time when that balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet was an innovative way of staging? How much of this banter between two sincere but clueless watchmen was avant garde stuff in its time?

Or, put more generally (for the problem is hardly exclusive to Shakespeare), how do we deal with an artistic endeavour so successful that it has become an integral part of our culture, has become, in other words, cliche? We can appreciate what's beautiful in it, of course, but how do we recover that sense of innovation, that feeling of surprise?

[1] Well, almost accessible. I have to say that there were a few points in the play where I was the only person laughing. You know the bit in Act III, Scene 3 where the watch is being given their charge? We got more than halfway through that before anyone else seemed to realise it was a joke.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke

Ok, ok, I know I said I was going to move on, but I've been doing some reading on affirmative action in higher education in the last few days (discussion on my last few posts made me realise how little of the literature I actually know) and I couldn't resist sharing this with you [1].

In 1978, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in the case of Regents of the University of California (Davis) vs. Bakke (henceforth called Bakke) - Bakke had essentially sued UCD (which at the time had quotas set aside for minority students) for denying him admission despite the fact that his grades were better, etc.

The Supreme Court ruled that such a quota system, where 16% of the seats were set aside for minority students, was unlawful. In delivering that judgement Justice Powell argued that "racial and ethnic distinctions of any sort are inherently suspect and thus call for the most exacting judicial examination".

But that's not what makes the case interesting to me (before you jump up and start arguing that this is India, not the US and we can have our own judgements) - though I think it's interesting to think about whether the policy proposal we've been debating has been subjected to the most exacting examination. What I found more interesting was the argument for why the policy was unlawful and what role the court saw for affirmative action in higher education admissions.

The Supreme Court essentially based its conclusion on the following judgement in an earlier case (Sweezy vs. New Hampshire): "It is the business of a university to provide that atmosphere which is most conducive to speculation, experiment and creation. It is an atmosphere in which their prevail the "four essential freedoms" of a university - to determine for itself on academic grounds who may teach, what may be taught, how it shall be taught, and who may be admitted to study"

The key words are - on academic grounds. Preferential admissions to minority students can be justified on the basis of superior educational outcomes - if the university believes, for instance, that diversity of perspective may actually enhance the educational outcomes for students per se. Arguments for social justice or inequality reduction are irrelevant here - in order to be using race and minority status as a basis of discrimination in admissions, universities had to show that it was academically optimal. In particular, the Bakke ruling made a distinction between the UCD policy of setting aside quotas for minority students and the Harvard policy (at the time) of giving minority status weightage in the admissions process. Minority status, the court argued, could be used to tip the balance in a candidate's favour, just as a candidate's participation in sports, musical talents, etc. could be used. But it should not block off access to seats for non-minority students. Justice Powell writes: "race or ethnic background may demand a 'plus' in a particular applicant's file, yet it does not insulate the candidate from comparison with all other candidates for the available seat".

What does all this mean for reservations in the IITs / IIMs. Obviously, the US and India have different laws, so legal precedents do not strictly apply, but I think the following points are worth highlighting:

First, that the decision to adopt an affirmative actions admission policy should be the university's, not the state's. The state may intervene if it sees discrimination against minorities (as it famously did in the desegregation of public schools in the South in the 60s), but universities should have the right to decide on their own admission policies.

Second, giving special weightage to a candidates socio-economic status is not the same as protecting him from competition by reserving seats, and the former is preferable to the latter because it is fairer to all concerned, and effectively limits the extent to which quality standards have to be compromised.

Third, the only valid rationale for allowing minority candidates to enter into universities is educational. To the extent that diversity of perspectives aids creativity, enables the exchange of ideas and helps prepare students for success in a diverse society, minority candidates may be preferred over others. Because of what they can contribute to the university, not because of what the university can contribute to them.

Fourth, that these affirmative action policies must be designed with careful thought and close scrutiny, and drawing heavily on existing research on affirmative action's effects on outcomes.

Personally, I'm still unconvinced that taking candidates who have lower scores on entrance tests, etc. but come from a different socio-economic strata is going to improve the performance of students in the IITs / IIMs. But I may be wrong. There's a lot of research out there (now that I'm really paying attention) on the positive effects of affirmative action on overall educational outcomes (though, of course, in very different contexts) so maybe it's worth looking into / trying.

That doesn't mean that there's any case for reservations in IIT / IIMs. What it does suggest is that faculty in the Institutes may want to sit down and spend more time thinking about what metrics they use for admission and whether there are criteria they want to add / emphasise. It's not just a question of the University's independence. It's also that, if it's a question of studying the relevant literature and coming to rational, responsible conclusions, I'd trust the faculty of an IIT / IIM over some random politician any day.

[1] Two things: First, I'm not a lawyer (thank God!) so I'm basing this more on academic articles I've read on the ruling as well as my own reading of it, but I may be missing much of the nuance in the discussion. Second, while the Bakke case is fairly old, the US Supreme Court has apparently continued to stand by its point of view in recent cases involving the University of Michigan the University of Texas.