Sunday, September 30, 2007

Reviews Ahoy

I'm back. And have much to blog about. But first I need to recover from the 12+ hours I've spent in the movie theater in the last 48 hours. While I'm doing that, here's the list of films I watched this weekend (from the ones I liked best to those I liked least). Reviews coming up shortly. Stay tuned.

1. The Man from London

2. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

3. Hamlet (1920)

4. Lust, Caution

5. The Romance of Astree and Celadon

6. The Orphanage

Thursday, September 27, 2007

In New York...

...this weekend. Catching a slew of movies at the New York Film Festival, as well as the exhibition of Dutch paintings at the Met.

And if that doesn't reduce you to a blancmange of quivering jealousy, consider what I'm taking along with me for light reading - the new Philip Roth[1].

See you Monday.

[1] Okay, okay, so I know plenty of critics have panned the book. But it's still the new Roth. More - it's the new Zuckerman.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Women and Happiness

"feminism isn't an argument or a position but a kind of sanity ... a way of looking at the world that takes the humanity of female people seriously"

- Ariel Levy

Over at the Guardian, an article about books that served as introductions to feminism. Good to see Virginia Woolf in there.

And while it feels mean-spirited to be picking on the NY Times twice in one day, here's Language Log's Mark Liberman on why the NY Times article about women being unhappier than men (link via India Uncut) is, like most NY Times reporting that cites 'research' complete codswallop. Ah, the joys of ordered probit!

If it's Hip, Fast and Furious, Is It Journalism?

I know I've blogged about this before, but seriously, why is it so hard for the NY Times to turn out a news story about India that doesn't degenerate into misrepresentation, ridiculous stereotyping and general incoherence?

So India wins some new-fangled cricket tournament. Fine, whatever. This is not a hard story to write.

Para 1: "Cricket fans on the subcontinent were jubilant today as....Twenty20[1]...blah blah".

Para 2: New format - change from one day matches, which themselves were shortened form of test matches - 20-over format talked about for a while - (weren't there some earlier attempts to do something similar).

Para 3: Well received - hope will be more popular format - quotes from cricketers on how they feel about it? (note to self: if current team is not reachable, find retired cricketers and ask) - purists?

Para 4: Context of win - Cricket in the popular imagination - status of cricketers - yet, World Cup, etc. - excitement that Indian team actually won something - how much of popular reaction to this new form is biased by that?

Para 5: (Closing) Exciting new phase for cricket? Maybe, maybe not. Fireworks in New Delhi for now anyway.

There. Cheesy, true, but as simple as falling off a log.

Instead, we get this grotesque mockery of a piece from Somini Sengupta, who doesn't seem to have seen a cricket match since 1972 and apparently figures that just because she's writing a piece about cricket is no reason to leave out all the other tidbits she's been collecting for stories she's never going to get around to doing now.

Look, I have no interest in cricket and haven't watched a cricket match in ten years, but even I know that cricket does not consist of "gentleman players" distinguishing themselves in "white trousers and knit vests" in a "customary" five day match. Ms. Sengupta is contrasting this new format with a caricature of cricket that resembles the modern game about as much as life in England today resembles the novels of P. G. Wodehouse.

But that, frankly, is the least of her crimes. The really appalling bits are the ones that involve 'deep exploration of the Indian psyche'. So we're told that one of the gifts of this "new face of Indian cricket" is

"to present, for the first time, a powerfully athletic presence on the pitch. Athleticism has never been associated with Indian cricket, nor with Indians in general, and that has been a chip on the shoulder of Indian manhood."

Wtf? Not only am I supposed to have spent the last 28 years of my life feeling insecure about my manhood because I'm Indian and Indians are not athletic (why don't they tell you this stuff in school?), I can now stop feeling conflicted about it, not because I've got any fitter, but because some unshaven troglodyte can swing a piece of wood. Joy. I wonder what Indian manhood is going to do the next time the Indian cricket team gets trounced, which should take, oh, about two weeks? Ms. Sengupta attributes this opinion to one Rajdeep Sardesai [2] and "other cricket watchers" (whatever that means), but even if they actually said this, is it really so hard to see how completely ridiculous the statement is?

It gets worse. We're then told that

"The average age on the 11-man Indian lineup was about 23, and on the Pakistani team just under 25. That reflected two disproportionately young nations: the median age in India is about 24, and in Pakistan, 19."

Huh? Again, I know nothing about cricket, but I would think most cricket teams would tend to be fairly young - with average ages in the sub-25 range, completely independent of the demographic profile of the country they were drawn from. Surely it would be more relevant to tell us how the average ages of the Indian and Pakistani teams compare to the average age of other nations participating in the tournament? Or with the average age of the one-day sides of these two countries.

My favorite part, though, is this:

"It was impossible for the cricket-watching audience, which today excludes very few Indians, not to seize on the metaphors that Twenty20 offers for the changes sweeping the country, like the rise of small-town working class India and the fading of the old cricket decorum itself."

Really? So in a population of (purportedly) one billion viewers there wasn't a single one who was just enjoying the game for the sport itself? No, no, they were all sitting there thinking "What a lovely shot! Soaring straight into the stands! What a glorious metaphor for the rise of the Sensex". Or "Look, look, that boy from Ranchi hit another four! Don't Class A towns rock?". And just why was it "impossible" for them "not to seize on the metaphor"? What if they tried really, really hard? And will someone please explain to me how Twenty20 is a 'metaphor' for the fading of the old cricket decorum? Or for that matter how the fading of the old cricket decorum is a "change sweeping the country"?

The next paragraph achieves even greater incoherence:

"Much was made of the fact that the captain, Mr. Dhoni, grew up in an uncelebrated eastern city called Ranchi. The batsman S. Sreesanth, it was said, defied cricket manners by being unusually aggressive. The bowler Joginder Sharma was celebrated as the son of a small shopkeeper who could afford to buy no more than a cloth ball for his son."

I'm not even going to ask what "uncelebrated" means. Or what "cricket manners" are, or what being "unusually aggressive" consists of, or by whom "it was said". Or why Ms. Sengupta needs to say both "defied cricket manners" and "unusually aggressive" - surely each by itself would be enough? But I'd love for someone to tell me what sentence two has to do with sentences one and three. The latter are about cricketer's background, the former is (supposedly) about their behavior. Is there a reason why those two themes need to alternate? Twelve-year olds can write better than this.

Finally, I must make special mention of the line "Twenty20 was accompanied by cheerleaders wearing what resembled sports bras". First, what is something that resembles a sports bra? Can you buy them in stores? At what point do they stop resembling sports bras and actually become sports bras? I'm not being flippant, really. I'm genuinely curious. After all, these are weighty issues, probably allegorical of the uplift of India's poor and / or a long-standing chip on the shoulder of Indian womanhood. Second, was there a particular kind of garment these women were wearing, or did they just put on anything that struck them as resembling a sports bra? Third, were they really "cheerleaders" or were they just cheering fans?

Look, I understand that journalists get tough deadlines and don't have the luxury of doing as much research as they would like to. I get that they may have no interest in cricket and be bored and bewildered by having to write about it. Hell, I empathize. But that doesn't excuse writing this ridiculously bad - poorly structured, sloppily edited and full of non sequiturs and hyperbole. And it doesn't excuse propounding some half-baked theory or unsubstantiated generalization and passing it off as fact. This piece reads like it belongs in the Delhi Times. And it's a shame that people who know nothing about cricket or India are going to read it and come away with an even more warped understanding of both than they started with.


[1] By the way, Twenty20? Most uninspired name ever.

[2] And that's another thing - why is it that whenever the NY Times interviews people in India for 'public opinion' they always seem to find the loopiest fruitcakes? It is so difficult to find someone capable of offering an intelligent, lucid point of view? I don't know who this Sardesai character is, but someone should make him stay back after school and write "I shall not use shopworn cliches, such as the names of daytime soaps I watched in my hormone soaked adolescent days, in interviews with the international press" 500 times with a blunt pencil.

Monday, September 24, 2007

All together now

It would be easy to be all grown-up about Across the Universe, Julie Taymor's new film, which fashions an unlikely musical out of Beatles' songs. It would be easy to sit aloof at a critical distance and point to the hackneyed screenplay, the juvenile in-jokes, the incoherent plot and the unevenness of the music; easy to dismiss this film as a silly mish-mash of old pop tropes, ludicrous idealism and adolescent sensibility.

I hope I never get that old.

The truth is that Across the Universe is everything the Beatles were - silly, sentimental, hilarious, quirky, psychedelic, sexy, intense, innocent, idealistic, chaotic and gorgeously, heartbreakingly beautiful; a swirling kaleidoscope of a film shot through with snatches of pure poetry, that captures as well as anything ever could the joy, the goofiness, the sheer fucking exuberance of that most transcendent, most essential of rock bands. Even calling it a film is doing it an injustice - this is not a musical, nor (god forbid) a romantic comedy - it is a magical mystery tour, a collage of exquisite moments, a sequence of dreams turned into music videos, one long, freaky acid trip.

What this movie understands, I think, is that the Beatles were never about the lyrics (which were frequently trite) or the tunes (which were often cheesy), any more than the sixties (or what we now think of as 'the sixties') were really about sex and drugs and protest marches. All of that happened, existed, but underneath it all was the awareness that you didn't need some complicated philosophy or self-important achievement to be happy or alive - all you needed was the courage to go out there and live with all your heart, to give yourself to any and every cause and idea and person that moved you and not be afraid to feel or admit that you were moved; all you needed was to revel in the unadulterated exhilaration of being alive. The Beatles understood, as Taymor seems too, that art, like love, doesn't come from surrounding yourself in cleverness, protecting yourself with irony and cynicism, it comes from a willingness to risk being ridiculous. The Beatles were never afraid of making fools of themselves - on the contrary, they reveled in it - and it was this that gave them and their music a kind of irresistible honesty. Whatever else they were, the Beatles were always genuine, always real, and it was this unselfconscious spontaneity of theirs that put them beyond all criticism. It is a quality that Across the Universe shares. It's terrible, but it's also brilliant.

Czeslaw Milosz, in his Charles Eliot Norton Lectures (collected as The Witness of Poetry [1]) speaks of "the poet as a person who differs from others in that his childhood does not end and who preserves in himself something of the child throughout his life". If that is true, then John, Paul, George and Ringo have to rank among the greatest poets of the last century. If we continue to treasure the Beatles today, it is because they represent a kind of innocence, a kind of beautiful naivety that we, in our jaded, sophisticated, post-ironic, desperately self-conscious world need to cling to. That is why it doesn't matter that the plot of Across the Universe is corny, that the characters look like they've stepped out of a Benetton catalog and that at least some of the scenes will make you cringe. Nobody is trying to pretend that the 60's made sense, least of all this film, that makes it abundantly clear that the 'Revolution' such as it was, was a revolution of children. Of course they were being impractical. Of course there are things that can't be done, that can't be sung, that can't be made or saved - love is not all you need. But what matters here is the earnestness, the enthusiasm; what matters is that all of us, either as children, or, in some cases, as young people in the 60's, sincerely and in good faith believed in these things. It is that sense of possibility that the Beatles, and this movie, celebrate. e e cummings writes: "Because my father lived his soul / Love is the whole and more than all". Replace 'my father' with 'The Beatles' and you have it, precisely.

To be fair, the movie does do a good job of demonstrating the sheer range of the Beatles' music - taking it from corny pop songs to tender ballads to gospel to screaming, head-banging rock. Watch out for renditions of Helter Skelter, Why Don't We Do It In The Road, Something, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Come Together and, perhaps most memorably, Strawberry Fields, not to mention the sight of Bono singing I am the Walrus, or the scene when an impromptu band plays Don't Let Me Down at top volume from a Manhattan rooftop, which, of course, is how it's meant to be played (Oh! and IMDB confirms it - that is Joe Cocker playing a busker singing Come Together. Yaay!). But the real reason the film works, I think, is because for those of us who grew up listening to the Beatles, their songs constitute a language all their own, a special secret mother tongue whose every word sounds familiar, whose every line comes remembered from the heart. So when the characters in the film suddenly, often bizarrely, break into song, it doesn't strike us as odd or peculiar, it strikes us as natural as if they had suddenly switched to French or Hindi, and we understand exactly what they mean. If for no other reason, you should watch this film because, while there will always be other films in French and Italian and Japanese, this may be your only chance (outside of special showings of A Hard Day's Night et al) to see a film in Beatle-se.

P.S. I should say, though, that this is a film strictly for serious Beatles fans. If you've never heard the Beatles (you miserable loser!) or don't much care for them (die! die now!) then you are likely to find this film entirely inexplicable, and should probably stay away.

[1] Space Bar: Now there's my Bible!

Good Ol' Sergei

Isn't serendipity wonderful?

I borrowed a 3-CD set of Fritz Kreisler recordings from the library yesterday, mostly because it contained his 1936 recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto [1] with the London Philharmonic conducted by John Barbirolli, and discovered that the set also included sonatas for Violin and Piano by Beethoven, Schubert and Grieg. Out of idle curiosity I decided to check who the pianist was, figuring it would be someone I'd never heard of (the recording is from 1926). It turned out to be Sergei Rachmaninoff. Immense fanboyishness ensued.

[1] A piece I'm a little obsessed by, to be honest. Kreisler's recording of it is a virtuoso performance - he pulls off the almost impossible task of making the cadenza at the end of the first movement sound fluid, before ending the movement on note of tenderness I've never heard before (most other recordings I've heard tend to end on a note of triumph), and then playing a second movement so achingly mellow it sounds almost like an Aria.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Brit Wit

Two selections from an anthology of New British Poetry (Graywolf, 2004) that I was reading this afternoon - both hilarious:

Alba Einstein

When proof of Einstein's Glaswegian birth
First hit the media everything else was dropped:
Logie Baird, Dundee painters, David Hume - all
Got the big E. Physics documentaries
Became peak-viewing; Scots publishers hurled awa
MacDiarmid like an overbaked potato, and swooped
On the memorabilia: Einstein Used My Fruitshop,
Einstein in Old Postcards, Einstein's Bearsden Relatives.
Hot on their heels came the A.E. Fun Park,
Quantum Court, Glen Einstein Highland Malt.
Glasgow was booming. Scotland rose to its feet
At Albert Suppers where The Toast to the General Theory
Was given by footballers, panto-dames, or restaurateurs.
In the US an ageing lab-technician recorded
How the Great Man when excited showed a telltale glottal stop.
He'd loved fiddler's rallies. His favourite sport was curling.
Thanks to this, Scottish business expanded
Endlessly. His head grew toby-jug-shaped,
Ideal for keyrings. He'd always worn brogues.
At bannocks in exile. As a wee boy he'd read The Beano.
His name brought new energy: our culture was solidly based
On pride in our here, The Universal Scot.

- Robert Crawford

That Old-Time Religion

God and His angels stroll in the garden
before turning in for the night.
They've adopted the style
of rich and gifted young Englishmen this evening
and also, bizarrely even for them, decided that they shall speak
in nothing but Sumerian to each other
which all agree was a truly heavenly language.

It isn't long before God starts boasting
in Sumerian of course, that He's the only Being He knows
who knows by heart The Bothie of Tober-na-Vuolich,
and is about to prove it when Lucifer intercedes
to make the points that

a) they've all agreed to speak Sumerian, which was never the tongue of that estimable poem, and that unless He wants to
pay the usual forfeit, which wouldn't really be consonant
with His divinity, He'd better give up the idea;

b) should He decide to do it into
instantaneous and perfect Sumerian metres,
a feat of which they're all aware He's capable,
He wouldn't be proving His grasp of the original
and would run the risk of them thinking Him a show-off;

& c) since He, God, and not Arthur Hugh Clough must be regarded
as the only true author of The Bothie, as of all things,
he, Satan, doesn't see what the point of it would be anyway.

In the silence which follows the Creator is keenly aware
of the voice of the nightingale, then murmurs of consensus,
them much delighted laughter from the angels.

Lucifer bows.

The nightingale stops singing.

God sighs. He could really do without these bitches sometimes
but then where would He be?

As if to answer this question to Himself
He withdraws to the farthest reaches of the garden,
and leans on the parapet, smoking in fitful gloom,
for what seems like an eternity.

He lights each gasper from the butt of His last
then flicks the flowing end far into the dark,
displeased at His foreknowledge of where it will fall.
To KNOW what His more intelligent creatures have thought
of these lights that appear in August out of Perseus
and not to have disabused them of it, as He's always meant to,
is unforgivable. He gazes in their direction in the dark
and gives them His Word that soon He will change all that,
silent at first, then whispered, then shouted in Sumerian.

- Peter Didsbury

Saturday, September 22, 2007

It didn't happen one night

Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach

Early in Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach, there is a scene where a pair of newly-weds sit glumly working their way through an unappetizing English supper, keen to get on with their evening but feeling that certain proprieties must be met. It's a feeling of being trapped by an unacknowledged rule that readers of McEwan's new novel will find familiar, as they ask themselves why they're bothering to go on reading this thing when they could be out enjoying the last of the Fall sunlight.

To put it mildly, On Chesil Beach is not McEwan's most successful novel. In fact, it's barely a novel at all, more like an insecure short story blustering its way into novel status by adding a lot of padding and pretending to be a lot more grown up and serious than it really is. The story revolves around Edward and Florence, two newly-weds who are, as the first line of the book informs us, "young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night". The reference to the happy couple's mutual virginity is not incidental, since losing this virginity is the nub of all future events. It's a prospect that Florence views with apprehension bordering on disgust, while Edward, doing his part to live up to the gender stereotype, awaits with eagerness the prospect that "the most sensitive part of himself would reside, however briefly, within a naturally formed cavity inside this cheerful, pretty, formidably intelligent woman" - easily the most nauseating description of the sex act I've read all year (I mean really "naturally formed cavity" - what is she, a cave? a piece of missing tartar?). You have to feel sorry for a woman who's married to a man who would put it like that[1], even to himself. At any rate, it's no surprise that things go badly and the whole thing ends up being, both literally and figuratively, a mess.

The really sad part about On Chesil Beach is that the sequence of misunderstandings and thwarted communication that play out between these two silly young people would be deliciously funny (in a Stendhal kind of way) if the two lovebirds, and McEwan, weren't so hell bent on taking it all seriously. McEwan seems to have decided that the best way to get the maximum mileage out of this book is to combine the story of Edward and Florence with a socio-cultural visit to the sexual mores ( sexual lesses?) of England in the early-60s, a subject which is even more dreary now than it must have been then. It's almost as though McEwan, like a self-important grandfather taking pride in the hard old days wanted to show you just how bad things were when he was growing up.

The worst part of this is that his development of this theme is excruciatingly heavy-handed, so that we get a lot of lines of the 'they were listening to Macmillan on the radio because, you know, MacMillan was in power then and we used to sit around in the evenings listening to him on the radio' variety, and time and time again McEwan steps out of the narrative to point out that 'things were different then', as if we, living in the first decade of the 21st century, could not possibly notice the difference for ourselves. In places the book itself reads more like an outline of a potential novel than a novel itself, with the points to be made simply written down on paper, without any real attempt to weave them into the story.

If all this weren't bad enough, McEwan also decides to interfere with the clean, simple plot to add long chapters giving us the back-story on each of his characters - back-stories that do little but destroy entirely the fledgling comic possibilities of the book and make the eventual denouement seem even more grotesquely unlikely than it would anyway. What McEwan is after, I suspect, is providing us with a clear portrait (or rather two clear portraits) of what life was like a for a particular generation of people growing up in post-war England, showing us the typical experiences that shaped and defined the values and beliefs of an entire class of people. At the same time, though, he cannot resist the temptation to dramatize, to make his characters more 'fictional', more interesting, and this leaves us with large sections of prose that are, like the people they describe, pleasantly dull.

When the action finally returns to the bridal suite it moves swiftly enough, though in a manner that is so un-sexy as to be almost mechanical. If McEwan's aim here is to convey awkwardness and lack of skill, he does so admirably, but the overall effect is like reading something written by the illegitimate love-child of Iris Murdoch and D.H. Lawrence. Once we get past the sexual situation and enter the realm of the purely emotional / psychological, McEwan finds his rhythm again, and the final encounter between Edward and Florence is the first exchange between them that feels real. After that point, the book winds quickly and tidily to its end, in prose that is skilled and surefooted, but by then the book, like Edward and Florence's marriage, is already beyond saving.

As Julian Gough points out in his piece in the Guardian, On Chesil Beach is the latest variation on a familiar McEwan theme: the idea that a random event - a chance meeting, an accidental misunderstanding, an unlikely error - can change the course of your life forever. This 'great event' theory of our personal histories (most effectively demonstrated, perhaps, in Atonement) is not without its problems - the most obvious being that it requires McEwan to consistently invent the most outrageously improbable scenarios and make us believe them, convincing us that a combination of pride, small-mindedness and insecurity can make rational, reasonable human beings magnify an insignificant incident so out of proportion that it will come to blight the rest of their lives. McEwan's gift lies precisely in the fact that he can pull this off - that at his best he can turn out prose so mesmerizing, dialog and action so authentic, that we never stop to think about the gaping inconsistencies in the logic, never notice how ridiculous the whole premise is.

Where he doesn't succeed, however, we are left with the inexplicable prospect of people acting in ways that are so ludicrous as to be comical, and the sympathy McEwan is trying to make us feel turns to mockery. And that, I think, is the problem with On Chesil Beach. Because we never really develop an authentic connection with either Edward or Florence, because their sexual anxieties take up too much of the stage to allow us to develop a larger sense of their character, because they seem more like personifications of the attitudes of their time than real people, because it seems impossible to believe that two people could love each other deeply, could enter upon the massive enterprise that is marriage - clearly aware of the sacrifices and compromises this would entail - and then let it all fall apart on the basis of one quarrel, because McEwan neither manages to convincingly portray the love between these two people or clarify the reasons for their lasting division, On Chesil Beach is, ultimately, an unconvincing book.

I will say this, though: of the books on the Booker shortlist that I've read (and I've now read all except Darkmans), On Chesil Beach would be my second favorite pick after Animal's People. That isn't necessarily a compliment to McEwan's novel though, it's more a reflection of how disappointing this year's Booker shortlist has turned out to be.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; cross-posted on Momus]

[1] Pun intended

Thursday, September 20, 2007


All my life, I've been envious of tomboys. Or rather, of the term 'tomboy'. It strikes me as deeply unfair that women who like hanging out with men and shun 'girly' things should get such a nice, precise, decent, respectable word to describe themselves, while people like me have to struggle to find a phrase the expresses the male equivalent. For as long as I can remember, my female friends have outnumbered my male friends, and I've always shunned any activity that involved the faintest aura of testosterone [1] (I would never dream, for example, of cutting ants in two - I'm much more likely to sit for hours watching them and then write a poem about it). And yet to even try to express this in words (as I'm doing here) is to open myself up to a litany of misrepresentation and insult. I realize this is probably because in the deep-rooted patriarchal order of things a woman wanting to be more like a man is perfectly understandable but a man wanting to be more like a woman has to be a sign of weakness - but that doesn't help much, does it? It's discriminatory, that's what it is. So I hereby demand that we coin a term that is the mirror image of tomboy and make it part of everyday use.

Except that - and this is the real point of the post - I can't come up with a word that seems appropriate (I refuse to go around describing myself as a 'vivgirl'). Any suggestions?

[1] My idea of a savage, heart-pounding blood rush is listening to Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps - as I did this evening in the opening concert of the new Philadelphia Orchestra season.

Stupidity and Cleverness

"Some say that poetry is stupid,
Some that it's too clever.
For undergraduate rhymes for Cupid
I hold with those who favor stupid.
But for more 'post-modern' endeavor
I must give irony its due
And say that for detachment clever
Will also do
and..." Oh, whatever!

(with apologies to Robert Frost)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


When the storm comes the tree shake its bare branches, like a man adjusting an antenna, who receives nothing but snow.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

There and back again

Just got back from a special screening of In the Shadow of the Moon - the new documentary that tells the story of the US moon missions by combining narratives from the astronauts who flew those missions with archival footage of the missions themselves. It's a nice enough film, though mostly because the subject matter is so inherently fascinating. It doesn't matter that the soundtrack is annoying, or that the film is about fifteen minutes too long (the last quarter of an hour being spent with the astronauts pontificating about God), or that there's a fair deal of American Jingo-ism involved, just watching the footage from the moon landings, the slow motion shots of the rockets blasting off from earth, the scenes from inside the NASA control center as the Eagle hovers above the lunar surface looking for a landing spot, all the thrilling detail of those flights combined with the sheer breathtaking awe of space travel is enough to make this film a marvelous watch.

But the person who really makes the film work, for me, is Michael Collins. We tend not to remember Collins much - he's the guy who stayed on the main space craft while Armstrong and Aldrin went down to the moon; a role he's splendidly philosophical about - but he effortlessly steals the show here. He's warm and thoughtful and funny and charming and you get the feeling, listening to him speak, that he's giving you the honest, sincere lowdown on how it really was. Oh, the other astronauts are nice enough - a great bunch of guys overall - but Collins is so real, such a delight to watch, that you can't help feeling, as Anthony Lane puts it in his review of the film, that he's "the ideal human to send into the unknown".

"Ephemeral but wonderful" is how Collins describes the goodwill that followed the first moon landing - and that's exactly how the film feels as well. By the time you get back home you've started to think about how chauvinistically male-centric the astronaut world is, how the whole thing, ultimately, was just a ridiculous PR exercise - you find yourself reaching for your Gil Scott-Heron CD to play Whitey on the Moon. But for the hour and a half you're sitting in that theater, all you're thinking about is the wonder of that furthest of all human voyages, and the incredible heroism of the men who made them.

UPDATE: Thinking about it, it occurs to me that Armstrong got it exactly wrong. This whole moon flight thing wasn't a giant leap for mankind - it was a very minor step that went nowhere. It may have provided us with a certain schoolboy thrill, but it didn't, as far as I can see, help make the world we live in any safer or happier. But for the people who actually flew the mission (as well as for the engineers on the ground who made it possible) it was, in fact, a giant leap, an incredible adventure requiring every ounce of courage and ingenuity that they possessed.

Am I a slacker Mom?

That's a question I ask myself everyday. Or, at least Gmail asks me everyday. That is, when it's not offering to tell me shocking secrets coffee companies don't want me to know.

Personally, I can think of a couple of biological objections to this hypothesis, but I'm not a search engine that employs half the desi engineer population and is worth billions of dollars, so what do I know?

Is slacker moms an equal opportunity sub-culture, do you think? Can you tell a Slacker Mom by the way she never makes fun of Britney Spears and is always anxious to know more about making "organic, nutritious meals usually involving the four food groups" for her little brat, right until she remembers that she's left him in the car with the windows rolled up? Are there I Am A Slacker Mom T-shirts for sale, and if you wear one, do you get a lot of plastic surgeons soliciting you for business?


Meanwhile, in yet another example of life imitating the movies, Yahoo! has this story about a village in Peru that's been struck by a mysterious illness after a meteorite crashed in the neighborhood. The villagers have apparently been suffering from headaches and nausea. I wonder if it's an alien life form taking over their bodies, contact with the Sperm of Satan (which the meteorite will doubtless turn out to be) or the shock of realizing that their lives consist of being extras in a John Carpenter film?

Monday, September 17, 2007

You know you're getting obsessed with this blogging thing when... find yourself making mental notes for the obituary of someone who's still alive. Thinking "Well, eventually he's going to die, and I'm going to want to put up a post in appreciation, so what am I going to say?".

Does anyone have the number for Bloggers Anonymous?

P.S. In case you're wondering, it was Godard - this whole comparison between him and Aristophanes.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Mixed Medea

I've always been fascinated by Medea. She has to be one of the most complex and interesting female characters in all of Greek myth. Is she:

a) A strong-willed, independent woman striking out against the patriarchy

b) Jason's willing love slave turned woman scorned, whose fury hell hath no equal of

c) An evil, sadistic sorceress, hell-bent on perfecting betrayal into an art form. A sort of Hellenic Morgan le Fay

d) A dupe of the gods

e) Schizophrenic

f) All of the above?

What brought this on, you wonder? Well, Diane Wakoski has a radiant poem about Medea over at Agni Online, all moonlight and silver:

Perhaps bathed in his
wreath of golden decisions,
shimmering as he rowed his ship in the arms
of Apollo’s furled musings,
perhaps he felt manly for taking
her back with him,
for not abandoning her
after she helped him to murder her brother Apsyrtus so
that the Argonauts could
escape, and perhaps he even admired her silver body
under the mantle of dawn, after making love on the ocean that widened her
against her own people.

- Diane Wakoski (read the full thing here)

Wakoski glosses over this murder of Apsyrtus - she doesn't deny Medea's part in it, but she mentions it as a sort of off-hand fact - Ovid, in Tristia, has a more graphic description:

In the vessel that warlike
Minerva built, the first to sail uncharted seas,
heartless Medea, in flight from the father she'd deserted,
made landfall (so goes the story) off this coast.
The look-out from his hilltop espied her pursuer, told her:
'A stranger approaching - from Colchis - I know the sail!'
Panic among the Minyans. They cast off the cable, quickly
hauled in the anchor. All this while,
too-conscious of her deserts, Medea struck her breast with
the hand that had dared already, would dare again
so many unspeakable acts. Though her heart remained audacious
the girl was thunderstruck, her face dead white,
and when she too glimpsed the approaching sail - 'My father's
caught us', she cried, 'we have to find some trick
to delay him - ' Then, while searching in every direction
for an answer, her eye
chanced to alight on her brother. Aware now of his presence
she whispered: 'I've got it! Kill him, and we go free!'
At once, with the boy still ignorant, unsuspecting,
she drove a sword through his innocuous heart,
hacked the corpse from limb to limb, scattered the fragments
all over the countryside, a hard job to collect,
and - to make sure Papa saw them - stuck her brother's bloody
head and blanched hands up on a high crag: thus
their father would be held up by this fresh grief, would gather
the lifeless fragments up, delay his grim

- Ovid, Tristia III.9 (7-33), translated by Peter Green

Good fun.

P.S. I'm not too happy about the "innocuous heart" bit. The original reads:

Protinus ignari nec quicquam tale timentis
innocuum rigido perforat ense latus

Actually, the whole thing in Latin is:

Nam rate, quae cura pugnacis facta Mineruae
per non temptatas prima cucurrit aquas,
impia desertum fugiens Medea parentem
dicitur his remos applicuisse uadis.
Quem procul ut uidit tumulo speculator ab alto,
"hospes," ait "nosco, Colchide, uela, uenit."
Dum trepidant Minyae, dum soluitur aggere funis,
dum sequitur celeres ancora tracta manus,
conscia percussit meritorum pectora Colchis
ausa atque ausura multa nefanda manu;
et, quamquam superest ingens audacia menti,
pallor in attonitae uirginis ore fuit.
Ergo ubi prospexit uenientia uela "tenemur,
et pater est aliqua fraude morandus" ait.
Dum quid agat quaerit, dum uersat in omnia uultus,
ad fratrem casu lumina flexa tulit.
Cuius ut oblata est praesentia, "uicimus" inquit:
"hic mihi morte sua causa salutis erit."
Protinus ignari nec quicquam tale timentis
innocuum rigido perforat ense latus,
atque ita diuellit diuulsaque membra per agros
dissipat in multis inuenienda locis.
Neu pater ignoret, scopulo proponit in alto
pallentesque manus sanguineumque caput,
ut genitor luctuque nouo tardetur et, artus
dum legit extinctos, triste moretur iter.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

New Feature: Recent Reads

The more observant among you may have noticed that there's a new addition to the sidebar of this blog - a section called Recent Reads.

Technically, it's just a link to my Shelfari Book Shelf. The plan though, is this - every time I read a book I'm going to add it to the shelf, along with a rating [1] and (possibly) a short 2-3 line review. I may even include an extract. That way those of you who actually care about my opinions on books will have a constantly renewed list of things to read (and not read), those of you who just can't get enough of this Falstaff character will have more fuel for your fascination and, most importantly, I'll actually remember what I've read and how I felt about it.

A few requests:

Resist the urge to quibble with my choices or argue with my ratings. I'm happy to receive e-mail about books I've just finished but try not to start them with either "Why were you reading X? Everyone KNOWS that Y is his / her greatest work" or "How could you give my beloved Z only 2-stars?"

Resist the urge to try and keep up. Remember you have a job [2].

Resist the urge to tell me what an elitist, snobbish, pseudo-intellectual prat I am. I already know. And you'll only encourage me.

Resist the urge to take out your DIY Psychological Profiling at Home kit.

Resist the urge to beat either yourself or your bookseller up because a majority of these books aren't available at your local bookstore (this is especially true if you live in India). Feel free to congratulate yourself if you have access to a library that has all of these though.

Resist the urge to say "What! You're only reading that now?!"

Resist the urge to take print-outs of these lists and thrust them at your football / cricket- watching boyfriend / husband and say "Why can't you be more like Falstaff?".

Resist the urge to give me technical advice on how to make this thing look better. Do not use the words RSS, Widget or Javascript, all of which mean nothing to me.

Finally, resist the urge to ask "How do you find the time?". Okay, so I'm an insomniac and my life is meaningless and empty. Do you have to rub it in?



[1] I'm not, in general, a big fan of ratings, but I suppose they're better than nothing. Just so you know, the rating system I'm trying to follow in my head looks something like this:

1 star - It's crap!

2 stars - It's not bad. It had some good points, but overall I was unimpressed / bored

3 stars - It was fun. A bit spotty in parts, perhaps, and not brilliant, but I enjoyed it.

4 stars - It's very good. I really loved it.

5 stars - You have to read this! It's so brilliant I went out and bought myself a copy just to have on my shelf.

[2] Remember also that I'm not necessarily sticking to books I'm currently reading. Every now and then I may throw in a book that I read a while ago but that I feel like mentioning.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A different kind of booth capture

Over the last few weeks, there's been a great deal of media attention focussed on Senator Larry Craig, who's been accused of soliciting sex from a man in a public rest room. Amid all the mockery, accusations and outrage that the news has generated, I can't help feeling that everyone's overlooked an important feel-good message that comes out of the story - the robustness of US Democracy.

Think about it. This man is a three time United States Senator, a leading figure in the party that rules his country - politically speaking, he's a 'powerful' man. Yet when he wants to have illicit sex, what does he do? Does he use some corrupt, obliging aide to procure for him? Does he summon the bunch of goons he keeps on his payroll and ask them to threaten the intended victim into compliance? Does he have the secret police make a midnight arrest on some trumped up charge and then make sexual satisfaction a condition of release? Does he at least use his political clout to leverage himself some action by promising a few special favors in return? No. Instead, he's reduced to looking for cheap hook-ups in airport rest-rooms like any other Average Creep.

Now that's what I call democracy.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


"Goodness does exist! Not just evil, stupidity and Satan. Evil has more energy, and can act with the speed of lightning, like a blitzkrieg, whereas goodness likes to dawdle in the most peculiar fashion. This fatal disproportion leads to irreparable losses in many cases."

"But goodness returns, calm, unhurried, like those phlegmatic, elegantly dressed, pipe-smoking gentlemen detectives in old-fashioned mysteries, who appear upon the scene of the crime the day after it's been committed. It comes back slowly, as if it alone had no access to modern modes of transportation, no train, car, plane, rocket or even bicycle at its disposal. It returns, though, deliberately as a pilgrim, inevitably as the dawn. Unfortunately, it comes back too slowly, as if it doesn't want to recall that we are tragically caught up in time, we have so little time. Goodness treats us as though we were immortal; it is itself immortal in a certain light, dry way, and it apparently ascribes the same quality to us, dismissing time and the body, our aging, our extinction. Goodness is better than we are."

- Adam Zagajewski, Another Beauty

(Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh)

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Pip Squeak

Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip

There is a scene in Lloyd Jones' Mister Pip where Matilda, the novel's (then) 13-year old protagonist, is caught writing the name of Pip (from Dickens' Great Expectations) next to the names of her ancestors, which she's been asked to memorize. Scolded by her mother for sticking the name of a make-believe person next to those of her kin, Matilda replies that though Pip isn't a relative, she still feels closer to him than to all the strangers whose names she's been made to write in the sand.

I know exactly how she feels. Pip, or rather the specter of Pip that hangs over Jones' novel, is about the only warm or believable character in the whole book - the only one I can bring myself to feel anything for, and that mostly for Dickens' sake. Everyone else in this book is so two-dimensional, so much a stock character, that it's a wonder that they manage to stay upright when a wind blows across the island.

Jones' Mister Pip is a feather-weight of a book whose chief merit is that it's really, really short. In fact, even calling it a novel feels like an exaggeration - it's more like a collection of crumbs and odd tit-bits left behind from the great feast of the Dickensian novel.

The story is set in a place called Bouganville and centers around the figure of Mr. Watts, the last Englishman left in this tiny Papua New Guinean village. When war breaks out on the island, a blockade is put in place that cuts Bouganville of from the rest of the world, leaving its inhabitants at the mercy of the army and the rebels (called - get this - the 'Redskins' and the 'Rambos'). It's a difficult time for the people of the village, and in it our Hero (for that, with a capital H, is what Mr. Watts infallibly is) steps forward and offers to serve as the schoolmaster for the village children - a task which, as he interprets it, consists of alternating between reading Great Expectations to them and getting their mothers and aunts to come in to fill their heads with local superstitions and (literally) old wives' tales.

What follows is about a 100 pages of the most sickening twee-ness involving the children's discovery that yes, they can relate to Pip, even though they live on an island while he's a character in a book set in far-off Victorian England, their childlike wonder at discovering the power of their own imaginations, and other such trite epiphanies. Oh, it's all very charming and clever, and there's a great deal of Post-Colonial sub-text, but the whole thing reads like it's been laid on like strawberry jam. Forget Dickens, if there's a guiding spirit here, it's Enid Blyton.

This phase of the book ends, mercifully, with the arrival of soldiers in the village, at which point events take a darker turn. Through a series of ridiculous coincidences and accidents, the fictional 'Pip' becomes a wanted rebel, and the search for him sets off a chain of violence and brutality that can only end in tragedy. This is easily the best part of the book, if only because Jones manages a couple of truly affecting scenes and his singing, clever prose manages to sustain, for a while, the illusion of something profound, almost mythical, taking place. There is magic here, but it's only the magic of fool's gold. The plot is thin and contrived and more or less inchoate, with one thing haphazardly following the other; the setting is poorly evoked - we are told that the villages live in fear and deprivation, but this never really comes across; and by the end even the power of Mr. Watts yarn spinning grows pale, until it becomes hard to believe that someone this pathetic could be a figure of fascination to anyone else.

Most damning of all, Jones never really manages to get you emotionally invested in his characters (mostly because they seem too artificial, too much like archetypes) so that when the denouement comes, horrible as it is, it leaves you largely unmoved. What makes this worse is that you get the constant feeling that Jones wants very desperately to move you - that he is constantly manipulating you, constantly tugging at every heart-string he can find in the hope of making you feel for his characters. So obvious and so labored are his attempts to do this, that you find yourself suppressing what little sympathy you do feel for the characters in order to resist being emotionally panhandled.

I said denouement, but the book isn't over yet. It feels strange to accuse a book that is a mere 250 odd pages of being too long, but too long Mister Pip undoubtedly is. The story reaches its climax somewhere around page 210, then proceeds to ramble disconsolately on for another 50 odd pages, throwing in a random assortment of musings on Dickens, revelations about Mr. Watts, forced parallels to Great Expectations and general plot developments, as though hoping that something among these odds and ends will connect and make the book come alive for you. It's as though Jones simply cannot let go of his characters, or is so worried that we will not realize that Mr. Watts is meant to be an enigmatic, unreliable figure that he feels the need to keep telling us this, thereby making him not only less enigmatic but also less interesting. Or perhaps he simply recognizes the slightness of the book and decides that it could use a little more padding. At any rate, I think it's safe to say that you could abandon this book on page 210 and not be the least bit the worse for it.

It's not all bad, of course. Jones is a master at turning a phrase, and the prose throughout sparkles with clever descriptions and images. In fact, Jones does manage to infuse the book with a great deal of charm, so that if it hadn't been quite so empty it may actually have made for a pleasant read. Jones also, to his credit, is extremely clear-eyed about the atrocities of war, and doesn't flinch from portraying the casual brutality of the soldiers. And the links to Great Expectations are interesting, or would have been if Jones hadn't gone on and on about them.

Overall, then, Mister Pip is a clever, well-crafted and charming book that reads like it is targeted at twelve-year olds. If the plot had been remotely credible, if the characters had been even slightly believable and if the entire tone of the novel hadn't been so relentlessly sentimental as to be almost cheesy, this might actually have been an interesting read. As it is, it's a trivial little book that's barely worth the two hours it takes to get through. You're better off reading Dickens.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted on Momus]

Monday, September 10, 2007

Animal's Spirit

Indra Sinha's Animal's People

Serre, fourmillant, comme un million d'helminthes,
Dans nos cervaux ribote un pueple de Demons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes. [1]

- Baudelaire

[plot spoilers]

In the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, from which the quote above is taken, Baudelaire gives us a litany of nightmarish images, then concludes by speaking of one "more damned than all" - l'Ennui. Yet boredom is the one monster you're unlikely to encounter in Indra Sinha's magnificent if somewhat overwrought novel Animal's People, a book that more than makes up in ambition what it lacks in finesse.

Set in the fictional Khaufpur (a transparent stand-in for Bhopal), Animal's People is the story of Animal (Jaanwar) - a crippled orphan whose back has been permanently bent by the poisons released by an industrial accident, and who lives his life (literally) in the shadow of the 'kampani''s abandoned factory, trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and ill-health that afflicts everyone who lives in his neighborhood. Yet Animal is no mere 'victim'; he is sly, street-smart, aggressive, petty, a slave to his hormones, desperately proud and frequently confused - in short, everything a normal adolescent is, except that this adolescent scuttles about on all fours. Sinha's great achievement in laying out the character of Animal is to scrupulously avoid sentimentality, to refuse to idealize Animal and / or his sufferings, and to force us to see the rough-edged, often unattractive truth of who Animal really is. We shall come to love Animal by the time the book is over, but we shall come to love him not through some easy mix of guilt and pity, but with the fierceness with which we love another human being, accepting him for both the temper of his qualities and the inevitability of his flaws, making room for him in our hearts as one makes room for an equal, caring for him as one cares for a friend.

But Animal is more than just some crippled boy. He is also an attitude, a state of mind. Animal's creed is that since he is called an animal and treated like one, since he cannot aspire to the condition of humanity, he is therefore exempt from behaving like a human, and may turn his very abjectness into a form of license. Animal is not alone in taking this stand - when an American doctor criticizes the living conditions in the slum where Animal lives she is told "What can the poor do?"; even Zafar, a leading activist for the rights of poison victims, and a hero to the people in Animal's slum, speaks blithely of the power of nothingness, takes pride in being powerless. It is a way of shifting responsibility, a kind of moral laziness, and while Sinha is not unsympathetic to the conditions that give rise to such an attitude, he recognizes that it is an attitude that Animal must leave behind if he is ever to become a Man in the true sense of the word. Animal's back is not the only thing about him that is twisted, the deeper handicap is a bent of mind and spirit that keeps him pressed to the ground and it is when he has learnt to overcome that disability, when he has learnt to stand upright not physically but emotionally and mentally, that he will cease to be Animal. In this sense, Animal's People is truly a bildungsroman, and watching Animal grow into his own person is one of the sublimer pleasures of Sinha's book.

Attending him on his journey into person-hood is a cast of vivid characters, all rendered with scrupulous accuracy. There's Elli Barber, the American doctor who's left her practice in the US and come to Khaufpur to set up a free clinic for poison victims; there's Pandit Somraj, a classical singer who lost his voice in the poisoning, and whose quest for harmony in the aftermath of his loss becomes an embodiment for a larger struggle to retain one's humanity in the face of suffering; there's Ma Franci, a half-crazed French-speaking nun who sees the poisoning as the harbinger of the Apocalypse, but who nevertheless manages to serve as a mother to Animal, as well as be a beloved figure to the whole slum; there's Farouq, a rather uncouth young man whose general loutishness is balanced against an almost fanatical devotion to the cause of the poison victims; and there's a whole host of marginal characters - corrupt politicians, honest judges, inquisitive reporters, indifferent attorneys, greedy shopkeepers, small-time con artists. Sinha is taking us into the grimy heart of impoverished urban India, into the dilapidated bastis and the fetid slums, but also into the fears and aspirations of the people who live there, into their superstitions and loyalties, their prejudices and principles.

Just to attempt this would be an act worth praising, but what makes Animal's People a truly impressive achievement is that Sinha gets it right. It's not just the richness of the language - which evokes the rhythms and nuances of Indian speech with pitch-perfect accuracy - it's the details - the ignorance, the petty combination of sexual frustration and misogyny, the automatic deference given to foreigners. This is a book that could only have been written by an insider, by someone who understands India, and that alone makes it a book worth reading.

And if Sinha manages to avoid falling into the trap of cultural stereotyping, manages to present India as she really is rather than how an outsider would see her, he also manages to avoid making this a simple black and white story of good vs. evil. Oh, he's unmerciful to the company and the corrupt politicians that go hand in hand with them - there can be no doubt about which way his loyalties lie - but even as he pillories the company, he's quick to show us the flaws among those on his own side. These are not the idealized heroes from some Bollywood movie, they are weak, often selfish people, who have found something larger than themselves to cling to. This is most glaringly true in Animal's case, but it is true of the others as well - isn't Elli just fleeing a failed marriage, isn't Nisha's devotion to the cause merely an extension of her love for Zafar? None of the characters who inhabit this book were born great, but some have achieved greatness and others will have greatness thrust upon them before the book is through.

Or perhaps it is more that under certain circumstances survival itself is a form of greatness. The real canker that poisons Khaufpur is not chemical - it is a cynicism born out of hopelessness, a spirit of self-seeking calculation married to a deep suspicion of any assistance that seems disinterested. "Too long a sacrifice / Can make a stone of the heart" Yeats writes, and the people of Khaufpur have surely borne more than their fair share of outrage, of loss. Little wonder then that when Dr. Barber first arrives, with her offer of free help, she is viewed with suspicion, suspected of being a stooge of the 'kampani'. If hope survives, then, if they find it in themselves not only to struggle on, but in the midst of this struggle to care for and be kind to each other, then that by itself is a kind of heroism, perhaps the only kind there is.

Not that Animal's People is without its faults. Comparisons with Rushdie are inescapable, not only because of the zest with which Sinha uses language, but because of the characters he creates (I mean really - a nun who speaks French and lives happily in a slum where no one understands her? A crippled boy who hears voices and speaks fluent French? A character called the Kha-in-the-Jar?), yet it is Sinha's occasional descent into what I can only describe as Rushdie-ism that are, for me, the weakest parts of the book. When he's sticking to realism Sinha is a formidable writer, the minute he tries to get even slightly magical he loses it and becomes derivative and vaguely ridiculous. Do we really need Animal to be able to make up songs about himself or come up with clever rhymes that make him sound like a cut-rate Saleem Sinai? Is it absolutely necessary for him to hear voices and have vaguely hallucinogenic encounters in abandoned factories or hold conversations with damaged fetuses in formaldehyde? Do we really need the piano?

There are half a dozen places in the book where Sinha (either through his characters or otherwise) lapses into long soliloquies about the plight of the people of Khaufpur, their hunger, their hopelessness, their memories of the dead - all of which might have been needed if Sinha had been less of a writer, but precisely because he is so good at conjuring up the sense of despair and gloom that broods over Khaufpur through his characters and story, these long diatribes of his seem unnecessary, even artificial. Sinha is also, to my mind, a little too fond of his Animal metaphor: it's a clever idea, this notion of someone scuttling away from his humanity because he feels incapable of asserting it, but the third time someone tells Animal that he only likes to call himself an animal so he can avoid the responsibility of behaving like a human, you want to scream "okay, okay, enough already - we get it!". I have to admit, also, that I found some of Sinha's plot developments a little contrived. At least one of the love affairs in the book struck me as improbable and poorly developed, the scene with Animal's first sexual experience was a total cop-out and adding a sweet, precocious little girl just so you can kill her off in the end (a tragedy that I could see coming a mile off, btw) is the cheapest trick in the book.

But the book's greatest failing, for me, was the last 60 pages. The blurb at the back of the book describes the finale as 'explosive', but for all the fireworks that Sinha packs into it the ending of the book struck me as terribly weak. Worse, it struck me as a definite false note. That Animal might want to escape the horror that his world has become by going on a crazy drug trip I can understand, but what excuse does Sinha have for that kind of escapism? Brilliantly written as they were, the descriptions of Animal's retreat into a temporary madness left me entirely cold, simply because they felt like a betrayal of the clear-sighted, unflinching narrative the book had provided till that point. I didn't want to be off in some feverish land of metaphor and dream with Animal, I wanted to be right there, in the heart of Khaufpur, watching Animal's people somehow make it through that night of terror.

Reading Sinha's descriptions of Animal's dementia, I couldn't help thinking of Rushdie again: this is precisely the kind of extraordinary, imaginative ending I would expect in a Rushdie novel. Except Animal's People is not a Rushdie novel, it's a Sinha novel, and it deserves a finale that's more down-to-earth, more grounded. I've said the comparisons with Rushdie are inescapable, but for me, reading the novel, the book that came to mind was not Midnight's Children, but that other Booker prize winner - James Kelman's How Late it Was, How Late. Now there's an ending that Sinha could learn from.

Don't get me wrong - Animal's People is an exceptional, large-hearted book by a writer with tremendous energy and a great deal of talent. I've only read (or part-read) four of the six books on the Booker shortlist so far, but of those four this one is easily my favorite. There are parts of Animal's People (the fire-walking scene comes to mind) that are simply breathtaking, and if you have any interest at all in Indian writing in English this is a book you absolutely must read. I maintain that it could have been a better book if Sinha had tried a little less hard with it - some of the plot devices seem gratuitous, some of the metaphors overdone and the ending feels needlessly over the top - but even as it is, it is a fine, moving book.

[Part of the 2007 Booker Mela; Cross-Posted on Momus]

[1] Translation (by Roy Campbell):

"Packed tight, like hives of maggots, thickly seething
Within our brains a host of demons surges
Deep down into our lungs at every breathing,
Death flows, an unseen rivers, moaning dirges."

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sunday Poetry

It's a lazy Sunday and I'm spending it catching up on poetry, so figured I'd toss in a few links:

First, the current issue of Poetry has a special section on Indian poetry edited by R. Parthasarathy. I think Parthasarathy's a little too dismissive of Indian poetry in English (in his article accompanying the poems in the issue - most of them translated from regional languages - his only comment on English poetry is that it "has served as a model to be imitated, often with unhappy results") but he makes a good point about Indian poetry in languages other than English not receiving adequate translation and therefore remaining inaccessible to a wider audience, and his discussion of the evolution of Tamil poetry is fascinating.

I'm not too happy with his selections of poems for the magazine either - I can't help feeling that too much of what he picks feels dated, old-fashioned and well, parochial - but here are two of the better selections, both available online - Amrita Pritam's Street Dog and Vinda Karandikar's The Wheel. Parthasarathy's article, alas, isn't available online, and neither is a lovely essay by Brian Phillips on the problem of taste in poetry, which really deserves a whole other post (which I will get around to eventually; n! - there's a challenge to look forward to).


Meanwhile, over at the APR, Bob Hicok has a set of poems dealing with the Virginia Tech shootings. Hicok is an assistant professor at Virginia Tech and Seung-Hui Cho was apparently a student of his, so he has a set of poems talking about the tragedy, one of which is available online here.

Personally, I wasn't too impressed with the poems - some of them felt a little too manipulative, a little too pat. The one bit I did like, though, was in this poem titled Whimper:

"years from now

I'll be a man who buys grapes for the reason
anyone buys grapes, and in the way anyone buys grapes,
by eating some and putting some in bag to be eaten
at a later date, with the difference that,
as I turn for a twist-tie if it's a store
that still provides them, not all stores do
and fewer I suspect will be so thoughtful
in the future, somewhere in that turning
I'll sense a parent some states away
dropping to the floor as I imagined
a moment ago, with no image of the face and the body
really just a cloud, it's the action
that's distinct, the cause, the erasure
of the daughter or son who went off to college
to get maybe a little drunk - the parents knew that -
a little laid, a little while passes and the picture
that's not exactly a picture passes too
and then it's back and this is just how things work
around here now, I'm a theater of these short films
of people I don't know falling down and being broken, why
do we think answers will help, and why ask that why

of the larger why, why did this happen, and why from that why
branch to the why am I alive why"

- Bob Hicok, 'Whimper'


Finally, an old pal of mine shows up (again) in the Guardian Poetry Workshop, this time with a poem about poetry and forests (scroll down to the third poem).

I have to agree with Matthew Sweeney that the poem is more than a little overdone, still I like the gambit of the opening lines (the first line comes from a poem by WS Graham, which was the point of the workshop exercise) and I like the bit about Blake's tiger and Borges' (for more on tigers in poetry see Chandrahas here). Plus I can't help wondering if some of the overwrought bits aren't deliberate: after all he is talking about a ramble in the forest, about being "out on what you thought / would be a stroll / but has become an excursion", so perhaps a more polished poem would be too neat? At any rate, it's fun to see a familiar name in print.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

The New Mexico Story - Part 4

[continued from here]

Day 4

Our first stop this morning is the Aztec Ruins National Monument, just 8 miles away from where we stayed the night, so obviously we get lost. We finally stop at the Visitor's Center in Aztec to ask for directions, which are provided by the extremely chirpy young woman behind the counter. I then make the mistake of asking her if she knows what time the monument opens. She says she's not sure and pulls out a brochure which says "Summer Hours: 8 am - 6 pm, Winter Hours: 8 am - 5 pm". She's not sure if Winter Hours have started yet, but she can check. I try pointing out that in either case the site opens at 8 am, but this doesn't register. She spends five minutes messing about in her e-mail inbox trying to find the mail about when the Winter Hours go into effect. She then consults the Aztec Chamber of Commerce (aka the woman on the next desk) since she's the one who originally sent out the mail with the timing information (why they need to exchange e-mails if they sit right next to each other don't ask). Chamber of Commerce then proceeds to search through her sent mail for another five minutes. Neither of them considers running a Google Search on Aztec Ruins Monument Hours, which, of course, would have been the faster way of finding this out. Eventually one of them finds the mail and deduces that yes, indeed, the site will be open by now (it's 8.30) since in Winter it opens at 8.00 unlike in Summer when it opens at, oh, 8 as well. Sheesh!

Aztec Ruins itself turns out to be a bit of a damp squib. Oh, it's a nice enough site - it's just that after you've spent half a day wandering around in Chaco Canyon, Aztec Ruins feel a bit tame. Partly it's just that the site is smaller. Partly it's that the buildings here seem more reconstructed, more artificial. Still, there's a lot to see. There's a second three-wall structure (they're extremely rare, apparently). There's another path leading through a series of low rooms, this time with little exhibits on the side protected by glass. Most impressively though, there's a reconstructed Grand Kiva, a great cylinder of a room whose luminous, hushed atmosphere allows you to experience a sense of meditative serenity, so that you find yourself taking a break from the photographs and the guide books and just sitting there, on the side of the great room, breathing in the calm all around you.

Our original plan for the day was to spend the morning seeing the Aztec Ruins and then head back to Albuquerque to catch our flights. Except that because the Aztec Ruins site is pretty small, we're done with it by 9.30, so we figure we might as well try and catch something else before we fly out. Z is keen to see a ruined mission or two, so we decide to visit the San Esteban del Rey Mission in the Acoma Sky City. One fifteen minute stop [1] at the Farmington Starbucks later (I've been surviving on Gas Station Coffee for three days, I NEED this) we're headed South on the NM 371.

Another long drive, another stretch of empty country. Driving down the road, we see endless clusters of mushroom rocks, bringing back memories of having to draw diagrams of these things in school, and making this perhaps the first time that anything I learnt in Geography has proved to be relevant, not to mention the first time I've managed to think of my Class IX Geography Teacher without breaking into a cold sweat. The other interesting feature of this drive is the sheer number of churches along the way. We barely see any signs of human habitation - a dilapidated shack here, a stray ranch house there - yet every five miles or so there's a sign for a different church. It's almost as though every single person living in this area had their own personal denomination.

Eventually, our route connects us to the I-40, and from there to the road to Sky City. We know from the guide book that Sky City sits on top of a large mesa, so we spend the twelve mile drive off the I-40 staring intently at every ridge, mesa or general outcrop of rock, imagining that we can see buildings on top of it. We finally settle on one particularly impressive plateau that we decide simply must be the place. It turns out that this plateau - called the Enchanted Mesa - isn't the location for Sky City, but used to be the main site for the Acoma people (dating back to sometime in the 7th century AD) before a bolt of lightning shut off the only access route to the top - so we feel somewhat vindicated.

The real Sky City lies a few miles South of here, on another plateau. It is, we are told, the oldest continuing habitation in North America - the Acoma people have lived on this site since the 11th Century AD and continue to live there now. The settlement has no electricity and no indoor plumbing, and it's a pretty bleak spot to live in - scorching heat in the summer, freezing wind in the winter - and nothing but rock and sand around (there is exactly one tree on the mesa). In the old days, the mesa top was reached through a crude stone staircase that runs up the side of the plateau (you can still walk up it), though now a two lane road winds up to the settlement. Also, as it turns out, the site is not open to visitors - you are only allowed into the settlement if accompanied by a Native Acoma guide.

Z and I are fascinated. We weren't really expecting anything this special - we'd figured there would be a ruined mission of some sort, a few old houses, maybe a kiva or two. We'd scoot up, take a few pictures, walk about a bit, grab lunch somewhere and be done in an hour. Instead we find ourselves signed up for a one and a half hour guided tour through the settlement (luckily, we get there just as a tour is about to start). I'm not, in general, a big fan of guided tours, but our guide on this one (Fred?) turns out to be a real gem. It's lovely when a tour guide doesn't simplify things down to the comprehension level of a ten-year old, doesn't spend all his / her time trying to make small talk or cracking stupid canned jokes, and instead provides rich information and detailed context. We learn a great deal about the Acoma people in that one hour with our guide - their history, their traditions, their culture, their current mode of life, their agriculture, their religion, their architecture. Learn, for example, that after the Spanish missionaries tried to suppress their native religion, the Acoma people took to building square kivas and practicing their faith in secret. Learn that the ladders leading up to kivas are painted white and have pointed ends jabbing into the sky to bring down rain. Learn that the timber that went into the making of the mission church was carried from Mt. Taylor (40 miles away) and that the men carrying it were charged with never letting it touch the ground along the way. Learn about the Pueblo rebellion in which the Native Americans rebelled against the Spanish conquerors, and how 7 of the 21 clan systems of the Acoma were wiped out as a result of this action. Learn that the traditional three story structures of the Acoma never had doors on the ground floor, and that the role of top and bottom floors were interchanged with the seasons. The script of that tour alone would have made for a interesting hour-long lecture - that it was accompanied by a 1 mile walk through the settlement only made it more captivating.

But it isn't just about the info. There's also much to see and admire on top of the mesa. Most striking of all, perhaps, is the San Esteban del Rey Mission - a great adobe structure over 70 feet high, with a proud bell tower and a cemetery in front. It's an impressive church- not, obviously to be compared with the great cathedrals of Europe - but the perfect embodiment of a style of architecture familiar to the American desert: a plain, low building, unadorned to the point of bluntness, its walls as much as nine feet thick.

But the rest of the settlement is intriguing as well. There's the quaint mix of the primitive and the contemporary for one thing - modern plaster walls rub shoulders with structures made of straw and mud, shining new cars stand parked outside houses that look like they date back centuries, portable plastic toilets live next to dusty stone cisterns of muddy green, the cylinders of propane vie with the Hornos or clay ovens, that the people here still use. I am reminded of small villages in India, which is the only other place I have seen this balance of the new and traditional. Only here the contrast seems starker, bleaker - in part because you sense the pride that makes the people who live here cling to their old ways, and in part because the location itself seems so inhospitable.

Sky City is also, inevitably, something of a Crafts Bazaar - every few houses you'll find a table laid out in the sun with little pieces of pottery, handicraft or other mementos laid out for tourists, and watched over by the colorful people who make up this community. After a point this gets a little tedious, especially if, like me, you have no interest in these knick-knacks, but the beauty of the place is that you have only to turn to one side or the other before something else catches your eye. If the quaint buildings don't fascinate you, there's always the view from the mesa itself - a great scrub plain stretching in every direction, with a low ridge of cliffs in the distance and Mt. Taylor like a blotch of dull blue behind them. You can see Enchanted Mesa from here as well as well as number of smaller rock formations at the base of the Sky City Mesa, including one called Lonesome Rock, which is where the ancient Acoma used to corral their horses. Perhaps most glorious of all, though, was the sheer brilliance of the sky above us, its vibrant blue setting the dull brown and ochre of the settlement in striking relief.

Sky City is our last stop on the trip. From here, we drive to Albuquerque, return the rental car, and prepare to fly out of New Mexico. Z's flight leaves at 6 pm, mine at 11.30 - which means that I had a good 5+ hours to kill at Albuquerque airport - not the easiest thing to do. I mope about drinking coffee for a while, then sit in the airport brewhouse watching Justine Henin destroy Serena Williams. It turns out that the last but one flight leaving from Terminal B of the Albuquerque 'Sunport' is scheduled to depart at 7.40 - the four hour gap between that and my flight meaning that everything in the airport shuts down by about 9.00. The last time I saw a security lounge this empty was when I showed up at Raipur airport at 3 in the morning for a flight at 7.

Not that people helped. When my fellow passengers finally show up, they include:

a) One precociously annoying seven year old being 'encouraged' by his parents to engage with the Continental representative at the counter. In the course of some 5 minutes this kid i) asked her if the flight was on time and when she said it was told her (and everyone else) that she was lying because look, he'd just looked it up on the Internet and it was five minutes late, ii) wanted to know whether she could upgrade all 4 of them to Business (she couldn't) iii) wanted to know if she could put all 4 of them in the 'bulwark' seats at the front of coach (she couldn't) iv) wanted to know if she could give them all window seats (again, she couldn't) v) aisle seats? (nope) vi) wanted to know if there would be a movie (no, it's a red-eye) vii) why there wouldn't be a movie (see above) viii) what's a red eye (sigh) ix) whether they showed movies on this sector if it wasn't a red-eye (yes) x) whether there would be radio (no) xi) why would there not be this point the harried representative rushed into the plane, supposedly to check if we were ready to board but really (I'm sure) to avoid the little brat.

b) One desi uncle-ji, who, by the time we got onto the plane had informed practically everyone in the security area that i) that good-looking middle-aged Caucasian woman hiding behind a newspaper was his Wife (pronounced with a capital W) ii) that he ALWAYS traveled First Class, but had CHOSEN not to fly it this time because, you see, he was flying First Class to Manchester from Newark right after this (why this stopped him from flying First Class to Newark was not clear) iii) that he ALWAYS takes an aisle seat (presumably the only person in the whole wide world to have thought of this) and that iv) he had been clever enough to book a window seat for his Wife (see above) and an aisle seat for himself and was hoping no one would come between them [2].

c) One near-hysterical woman, who, having just discovered that she was sitting next to an emergency exit (don't these people every check their seat assignments before hand?) was now not only in total panic at the prospect, but felt that it was only fair that since she clearly couldn't sit there, she be allowed to choose any other seat on the flight that she might fancy.

d) One standard-issue smarmosaurus with a ridiculous combover, who saw no reason why all of the above should keep the poor representative from listening in rapt attention to his fascinating talk about flight schedules and connections to Albuquerque (just how dumb can people get? I mean, I'd be the first person to admit that I know absolutely nothing about chatting up women, but even I can see why a discussion of the various flight options out to the East Coast from Albuquerque might not be the most fascinating topic for someone who works for an airline out of the city).

Thank god for earplugs!


[1] Why is it that Starbucks in small towns are so woefully inefficient? It's bad enough that each customer seems to take about two decades to decide what he or she wants, but it's also that the staff seem to be under the delusion that what they do is a deeply creative exercise. It took the woman behind the counter at Farmington three minutes, three WHOLE MINUTES, to fill one cup of plain old coffee and hand it to the customer. I shudder to think what would have happened if someone had asked her for a Cappuccino. We would probably have been there till Christmas.

[2] As it turned out, the poor unfortunate assigned the seat between uncle-ji and his wife was this nice, polite desi boy who was traveling with his aged grandmother. The conversation went as follows:

Desi Boy: "Excuse me. I was wondering if you would mind switching to the aisle seat on the other side? I'm traveling with my grandmother and she needs my help, so we were hoping to sit together"

Uncle-ji: "But I'm traveling with my wife."

[Pause as Desi Boy tries to figure out how this is relevant]

Uncle-ji: "You see, what I did was, I took one aisle seat and one window seat so that no one would sit between us."

DB: "But I am sitting between you"

Uncle-ji: "Oh, you have the middle seat. What a shame. You should always choose the aisle. I always do."

DB: "Yes, but this other seat is also an aisle."

Uncle-ji: "But then how will I sit next to my wife"

DB: "But I'm sitting between you."

Uncle-ji: "Yes, yes, but we're still together no?"

DB [giving up]: "Anyway, it's okay - I just thought I'd ask"

Uncle-ji: [having tasted blood] "So you are from India, no?"

DB: Mumble

Uncle-ji: "What part of India?"

DB: Mumble

Uncle-ji: "Oh, I was born in Ahmedabad. Not that I'm Gujarati you understand. No, no, I'm from Punjab. But I was born in Ahmedabad. And then when I was three my family moved to Jallandhar. So you see, I am from the Punjab. Only I have not been living in India for very long now. No, no. I used to live in the UK, you know, Manchester. You know Manchester? Yes, well, I used to live there. Then I moved to the States five years ago. To be with my Wife, you see. And now I live in New Jersey. Which is like a little India only..."

DB [after about five minutes of this]: "Yes...Errr. Excuse me. I think the seat next to my grandmother is empty. I think I'll just go sit there. Yes, I know we're still boarding. But if someone comes I'll come back. Okay. Thank you. Bye" [flees]