Thursday, May 31, 2007

Of supermodels, Goya and Giovanni

Watched this thing called 'La Doublure' (The Valet) yesterday (Stephen Holden's review here) - which is a kind of post-view of what Notting Hill would have looked like if it had been a French film. The Valet is silly escapism, but it's charmingly silly escapism, a delicious confection of silliness that makes for pleasant entertainment on an otherwise dull day. In common with Veber's other work, The Valet has a bunch of characters who are endearing if not quite believable, a situation that it ridiculous overall but surprisingly accurate in its details, and the overall feel of a whimsical daydream. Mostly though, it's a film I enjoyed because it plays out that timeless fantasy of the contrarian man - to meet an incredibly hot supermodel and NOT go to bed with her [1].

In other news, it seems that Milos Forman has a new film out (I saw the trailer at the theater yesterday) called Goya's Ghosts. Okay, so it stars Natalie Portman, who I never cease to find annoying, and Randy Quaid, which isn't a promising sign. But it's Forman. About Goya. Showers of succulent gumdrops.

And finally, here's a lovely piece on Poetry from Nikki Giovanni's new collection Acolytes:

"Of the many foundations upon which humans rest, words are probably the most solid. I remember the old children's song "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never touch me." Which is totally not true. We remember cruel things people have said long after we have forgotten the person....But words without heart, without emotion, without passion are themselves less meaningful. Words need to combine with words to make not a better word but a more meaningful metaphor. Poetry. When arrogance calls it should always be poetry that answers thereby granting a stay to humankind's feelings of omnipotence. When love calls it must be poetry that answers bringing the sweet perfume of gentleness as our hearts pound and pound; when courage calls it will always be poetry that answers as we rise above ourselves to bring about a better thing. When war calls, poetry is the only answer. Poetry says No to destruction and Yes to possibility. Poetry is a good idea. A good friend. A good neighbor. Let's write poems."

- Nikki Giovanni, 'Creative Writing - Poetry'

Am I the only person, by the way, who always thought the saying went "words will never hurt me" rather than "never touch me"? Ah, well. As Terry Pratchett puts it:

Sticks and stones may break my bones, [Rincewind] thought. He was vaguely aware that there was a second half to the saying, but he'd never bothered because the first half always occupied all his attention.
- Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

P.S. As you've probably figured out by now, I'm back in Philly.

[1] To be fair, not all supermodels are beyond the pale. After all, there's always Carla Bruni.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The Spectacles

It was the kind of accident that could happen to anyone. A misjudged step, a sudden spill forward, his hand reaching out just in time to grab the bannister - and there they were on the ground, his spectacles, broken neatly into two where the bridge had snapped, two orphaned circles staring mournfully back at him.

He had a spare, of course, but his prescription had changed and he'd never bothered to get the spare updated, so that wearing it now the world was blurred at the edges and a half an hour of reading was enough to make his eyes burn. Still, it would do for now. Tomorrow he would go across to his optician and order a new pair. No big deal. It was time for a change anyway.

The next day he left work early, stopped over at the optician's. But the shop was closed. Rows and rows of blank frames stared back at him from behind the shuttered shop window, refusing to meet his eyes. Was it the optician's day off? No. Had he come too late? No. Why wasn't the shop open then? He asked around. The hairdresser next door smiled and sympathised, but knew nothing. The chemist on the other side just shrugged. Two shops down the watchmaker looked at him accusingly, telling him that the optician was always there at this hour, and seeming to imply that it was somehow his fault that the shop wasn't open today. In despair, he jotted down the phone number of the shop on a piece of paper and went home.

He tried calling the optician the next morning. No answer. He tried again in the evening. Same thing. For three days he fished that scrap of paper out of his pocket, stared at it blearily, dialed the number and listened to the phone ringing on the other end, its ring growing hollower and more plainitive as the conviction grew on him that it would never be answered.

What could have happened to the optician? Had he closed the shop and gone away? It was a tough neighbourhood and small businesses were closing all the time. In his head he could see the story of the optician - a sincere, hardworking man whose poetic temperament and much too generous nature made him a poor entrepreneur, so that much as he loved his work, he could never make it pay, never make enough from it to make ends meet. For it was a noble profession wasn't it? This business of bringing light and colour into other people's lives, helping them to appreciate the beauty of the world around them. A task almost priestlike in its beneficence, and made all the more intimate by the way it was practised - the moments spent staring deep into a stranger's eyes, the slow revelation of the lines of letters, their descending font sizes becoming gradually clearer to the short-sighted mendicant.

But perhaps it was something more temporary. Perhaps he'd simply gone on a vacation somewhere. (Did opticians take vacations? He supposed they must, though he'd never really thought about it before). Perhaps there had been an emergency of some kind - a sudden illness, an unexpected death in the family - and the poor optician had been called away. As he sat clutching the receiver to his ear, listening to the phone ring in the deserted shop, he wondered what he should say if the optician did answer. Should he mention that he'd been trying to call for the last three days now? Wouldn't it be insensitive of him to bring this up, to talk about his own petty inconvenience while the optician was suffering god knows what bereavement?

Meanwhile the strain on his eyes was beginning to tell. He had a headache every night now and his eyes ached all the time. He could always go to another optician, but he was reluctant to do so. He liked this optician. The thing about him was that he didn't treat you like you were a child of four, incapable of understanding the oh so inscrutable science of optometry. Instead of behaving as though making a pair of glasses were some sort of occult magic trick, this optician would carefully explain the properties of the different lenses, debate their pros and cons with you, discuss your needs and figure out what would serve you best. The point was, he listened.

On the fourth day, he went back to the optician's store, thinking maybe the number had changed and that was why he couldn't get through. But the shop was still shut. It was time to admit defeat. He found another optician in the next block, told him he needed a new pair of glasses. It was an ordeal. First he had to have his eyes tested again (the old optician had kept records of every customer on his computer). Then he had to listen to a long sales pitch about how particular lenses were the best because they came from Ee-yorope and were made with The Best German Engineering. When he asked why this was an advantage the shopkeeper just shook his head, implying that it was self-evident that things from abroad were better than things made at home. Then there was a long argument about which frame to buy, with the shopkeeper insisting that he go for something thin and rimless because it would make him look younger and more fashionable. Explaining that he didn't care about fashion, and that he didn't want to look younger because life was hard enough for a 25 year old consultant working with clients in their 50s, didn't help. The shopkeeper wasn't interested. He just wanted to sell the most expensive frames.

As he left the market, he passed the old optician's shop again. As though hoping that it might have opened up in the last half hour, so that he could go back, cancel the order he had just placed and return to his old favourite. But the shutter was still down on the old shop, like a veil cast over the question of where the old optician had gone.

Three days later, wearing his new glasses, his world finally restored to its original sharpness, he stood by his apartment window, staring out at the anonymous buildings with their confident, self-contained lights, thinking about all the people who pass from our lives unnoticed. The waiter at the restaurant that we never go back to; the jolly old great-aunt we meet once or twice, at weddings, before learning that she has died; the drinking buddies from college we lose touch with at some point; the kind nurse; the jovial janitor - all the people who brighten up our lives in their small, limited ways. People whom we felt close to, connected with in some way, but whom we shall never meet again now, never learn who they really were or what became of them. People we not only lose, but also forget.

He realised after a minute that his eyesight was blurring. Only this time it wasn't the spectacles.

Monday, May 28, 2007


How long can a man hold his breath underwater?

He no longer knows how long it has been. The count in his head gives way to a more immediate agenda - the struggle not to breathe. The air he holds inside him is a kind of integrity, an assertion of the self that he must keep unspilled. Against the suffocation pressing in on him his will clenches like a fist.

He opens his eyes, expecting the water to drown his vision. Instead there is a little sting, then everything is surprisingly clear. The world around him seems denser, more subdued. Everything moves in slow motion. The sunlight diffuses through the water, like a stain seeping down from the surface; lines of electric white dance on the waves. The blank, almost anesthetic smell of the sea fills his nostrils, tempting him. The sound of the ocean fills his ears - a roaring absence, a silence made loud.

It is time to go. Reluctantly, he rises up from the depths, his legs jacknifing. He feels no panic now, only sadness, its blue, sodden weight like a gravity he dare not hold on to. He has no choice but to leave - he cannot stay here, would not survive. Yet as his head breaks through the surface - lungs gasping hungrily at the air, ears rediscovering the familiar noise of the world - what he feels is not relief but a sense of parting. As though he had betrayed something. As though he had left something behind.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Setting your teeth on edge

Dentists are sadists - it's the only explanation for them. What sort of person makes polite conversation while he's got three different probes stuck in your mouth, one of them holding down your tongue? Actually, what sort of person thinks having someone lying flat on his back in a chair while you scrape off little bits of his teeth with a drill is a social opportunity? Whiiirrrrr. Whiinnnnnnne. "Spit. Rinse. So where you do you live in the US. Philadelphia? Oh, I have a tau-ji there. Open mouth. Wider please." Whirrrrr.

I don't know what the selection criteria for dentistry are, but I'm sure they involve kicking small puppies and sticking pins into dolls with studied vehemence.

Plus there's the pessimism. I mean okay, so I can see how spending your life staring into other people's mouths might sour your outlook on life. You might turn into an alcoholic, say, or tell your wife there was not point in buying new shoes because the world will end tomorrow (not that this will work), or get your children to do extra chemistry homework. But you'd think that within the narrow confines of the upper and lower jaw you'd be suitably jaded, having seen it all before.

But no - show me a dentist and I'll show you a doomsday prophet in waiting. Look, cavities happen. I'm not proud of them or anything, but I think two cavities in 28 years is not an unreasonable number. To listen to my dentist though what I've got is less a cavity and more a wormhole in the space-time continuum located on my left second molar. If not instantly plugged, this ghastly aperture will bring forth strange monsters from the Lower Dimensions, thus placing the very survival of the Milky Way in jeopardy. Only our hero, armed with the all-powerful ionoresinomercurocomposite (tooth coloured, imported from Germany) can protect us from imminent interstellar collapse. Aren't we lucky I came to him when I did?

Not of course, that this means there's any real hope for my teeth. So what if my teeth have served me unexceptionably so far, stolidly munching their way through substances chewy, frozen or rare. So what if they haven't yet caused anyone to recoil in horror, and have even been praised (admittedly only by short-sighted great aunts) as constituting a 'charming' smile. All this, in the great Vedic tradition, is Maya. The truth is that the condition of my teeth is APPALLING. SIMPLY APPALLING. If I don't instantly have four different types of surgery, all of which have been conveniently invented in the last three years and all of which (it just so happens) our friendly dentist is an expert in, then: "thousands, no millions of little creatures will eat their way right down to the base of your jaw, your gums will droop and fester like decaying lilies, your nerves will get infected and send volcanoes of pain gushing through your skull, eventually your bones will rot like corpses in a charnel, your jaw will sag, invisible worms will run through your root canals and after all your teeth fall out (as they inevitably will) you will be left looking like an old man with a slobbering maw of a mouth and drool dripping from your lips and no one, no one, will ever have sex with you again. MWAHAHAHA!" (Okay, he didn't actually say MWAHAHAHA, but it was implied). Just listening to the average dentist describe what could go wrong with your teeth is like taking anatomy lessons with Jack the Ripper.

But, of course, dentists are also our premier philosophers. They're the originators of a school of thought called dental determinism. According to this ideology, Man is responsible for his own downfall and must endure both overwhelming guilt and excruciating pain for his sins, even though his sins are inevitable and cannot be put off under any circumstances. Take the whole process of tooth cleaning. My dentist tells me I must have my teeth cleaned every six months. This, I am told, is crucial to removing plaque deposits that, if left unchecked will cause "millions of little creatures", etc. etc. These plaque deposits are, unambiguously, MY FAULT. I have allowed them to develop (presumably because I so enjoy spending long hours in a dentists chair having poke-y things scraping against my teeth) by not taking proper care (what this might consist of is rarely specified, though it unfailingly involves spending long hours in communion with your toothbrush and a piece of dental floss, preferably after you give up your job). To drive home this point my obliging dentist actually scrapes together a tiny crumb of deposit and makes me touch it, as though it were an exhibit in a petting zoo, just to prove that he's not making all this up.

Falstaff: "Okay, so does this mean if I do take proper care of my teeth I don't have to go through this cleaning thing every six months?"

Dentist: "No, absolutely not. Cleaning every six months is essential, because plaque deposits always build up."

Falstaff: "What, even if one takes care of one's teeth properly?"

Dentist: "Yes."

Falstaff: "Even if one brushes one's teeth, say, six times a day?"

Dentist: "Yes."

Falstaff: "With sandpaper?"

Dentist: *looking confused* "Cleaning every six months is always necessary."

Falstaff: "So these plaque deposits would have happened no matter what I did?"

Dentist: "Yes."

Falstaff (switching into full Perry Mason mode): "So the fact that I have them doesn't actually prove that I'm not caring for my teeth properly."

Dentist (reluctantly): "No. But it's really important to take good care of your teeth. Because if you don't millions of little creatures..."

Falstaff: "So is there any way one can prevent plaque deposits from accumulating?

Dentist: "Not really. Not if you're going to eat."

He doesn't actually say so, but I get the feeling my dentist would be happier if I gave up eating entirely. Okay, so it would mean I would starve and die a fairly painful and hideous death. But at least my teeth would stay perfectly preserved, which, as everyone knows, is the important thing.

P.S. A previous rant on dentists (which I discovered only after I wrote this piece) here.

Pale Parabolas of Joy

Have been reading a lot of poetry by Indian poets recently (mostly because being in India means I have better access to it). Some good stuff - Ranjit Hoskote's New and Selected, an interesting if slightly too-clever collection by Vivek Narayanan, and a set of poems by Amit Chaudhuri that just go to show that life is not fair (I mean really - it's not enough that the man can sing and write the most exquisite prose - he has to turn out to be a poet too?).

But perhaps most entertaining of all has been an anthology called Confronting Love edited by Jerry Pinto and Arundhathi Subramaniam (Penguin 2005). Confronting Love is entertaining for two reasons. First, because it includes some truly gorgeous and relatively obscure poems - mostly by the usual suspects - the kind of poems you've read before but never fully appreciated because you were always focused on other, better poems in their original collection. Thus you get Shahid from The Half-Inch Himalayas:

your furniture neatly arranged for death,

you sharpened your knife
on the moon's surface,
polished it with lunatic silver.

You were kind,
reciting poetry in a drunk tongue.
I thought: At last!

Now I loiter in and out
of your memory,

speaking to you wherever I go.

I'm reduced to my poverties

and you to a restless dream
from another country

where the sea is the most expensive blue. "

- Agha Shahid Ali, 'Leaving your City'

or Sujata Bhatt from Point No Point:

"Who speaks of the green coconut uterus
the muscles sliding, a deeper undertow
and the green coconut milk that seals
her well, yet flows so she is wet
from his softest touch?"

- Sujata Bhatt 'White Asparagus'

There's also a delicious, if not entirely relevant Kolatkar, a half-brilliant Ramanujan and a Tara Patel poem called 'Request' that I've always been inexplicably fond of.

But the second thing that makes Confronting Love so entertaining (though I fear unintentionally so) is the amount of really bad poetry it contains. In their Introduction, the editors claim they've actively looked for unfamiliar, less-anthologized poems. While I'm all for breaking away from anthologies, I can't help feeling that a lot of what they've ended up with is so trite, so cringe-worthy that it should scarcely have been published in the first place, let alone included in an anthology. Reading much of Confronting Love leaves you stuck between chortling at the puerile absurdity of the writing and wincing in near-horror over how anyone who writes like this can call themselves a poet.

Take, for instance, these lines from Rukmini Bhaya Nair's Usage (one of the worst poems in the anthology):

"Among your secret thoughts, of which such
Quantities exist, some spill, one's about touch.

Because the form's thickened you called 'petite'
And my arms, on the inside, turned to putty

The swan-shape of my neck, once a single span
Now quite escapes this measure of your hand.

Before I did, you noticed new lines cut me up
In the rough contours of an unfamiliar map.

Therefore these minefields are dangerous,
Memory may blow us up like enemies, strangers.

If all we remember, is a firm bend of thigh
And the toss of limbs, we could fight shy.

- Rukmini Bhaya Nair, 'Usage'

Forget the disastrous and childish end-rhymes. Forget the sheer tone-deafness of writing a line like "My arms, on the inside, turned to putty". Forget the gratuitous cliches (what exactly is a 'swan-shape' neck? and why would a lover measure the thickness of his beloved's neck with his hands? What is she, Porphyria?). Would someone care to explain to me the punctuation here? "If all we remember" comma "is a firm bend of thigh / And the toss of limbs" comma "we could fight shy." Huh? And "Before I did, you noticed" ? Groan!

It gets worse. We're then treated to Dinyar Godrej's 'Kiwi Fruit' which reads:

"Our love was like kiwi fruit
you gave me that I in the kitchen
the secret sharer, partook."

Can you imagine anything half-decent coming out of an opening like that? I can't.

The poem goes on to speak of "the same quotidian covering / of plain brownpaper as our lives / were then" and how "Now there is only languor / between assignments and the boredom / of expectancy." I particularly love "quotidian covering of plain brownpaper". As opposed, doubtless, to quotidian coverings of fancy brownpaper. Or extraordinary coverings of plain brownpaper.

Then there's Marilyn Noronha, sounding like Emily Dickinson at the age of three:

"There is one comfort now,
I don't fear death.

At worst, it will be
an undisturbed repose
and I am very tired,
God knows.

At best it will mean happiness
that I have never known.
If I am with you, once more,
it will mean going home."

- Marilyn Noronha, 'There is one comfort'
Never mind the banality of the idea or the complete absence of originality - whether in thought, image or language. What cracks me up every time is the "God knows" at the end of the second stanza. It's so complete an anticlimax as to be practically bathetic. For Ms. Noronha's sake I hope she wrote this poem as a spoof, because that's what it undeniably is.

But the award for the worst poem of the lot goes unequivocally to this howlingly bad piece by Menka Shivdasani, which I reproduce in its entirety:

"'How come your hair is so silky?'
the black musician asked, and she,
half-asleep, said Hong Kong was full of gloss
and sometimes the place got in your hair.

He was a professional, and they were playing
games with each other, fine-tuned notes
on silken skin. 'The trouble,' he said,
'is you're too sensitive,' and drew
music from the guitar strings on her head.

It was when he got to the bass
that something changed.
Later, he asked, anxious: 'Did you,
baby, did you?' for at a crucial moment,
there were silences he didn't expect.

'I always come quietly,' she told him,
not adding, 'I always go quietly too.'"

- Menka Shivdasani, 'Bass Notes'

Can you imagine anything more hideously juvenile? I'm reminded of being back in high school and having to read poems for my school magazine by hormone-crazed adolescents who'd never read poetry, had just discovered sex, and thought their ability to use 'come' in a play of words made them clever [1]. I mean seriously, if someone made that quip about Hong Kong getting in your hair in a random conversation I would break into groans. Reading it in a poem is physically sickening. And "Later he asked, anxious: 'Did you, / baby, did you?' for at a crucial moment / there were silences he didn't expect"? Tchah!

Don't get me wrong - Confronting Love is not a book you should avoid (though you're probably better off skimming it in the bookstore than actually buying it), on the contrary it's a book you must read, if only to remind yourself of just how hilarious truly god-awful poetry can be, as well as to wallow in nostalgia for what passed for poetry among us when we were 15.

[1] If you were one of the people whose poems I rejected for my school / college magazine, I apologize. Apparently they really were great poems and if only you'd had M/s. Pinto and Subramaniam as your editors instead of me, you could have been one of India's most celebrated poets by now.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007


No one, now no one will ever return.

- Faiz Ahmed Faiz, 'Solitude' (trans. by Agha Shahid Ali)

3 am. The lights are out in all the apartments. Only the staircases still burn, proud like vertebrae, the inflexible spine of some obscure principle that holds these towers high.

Who are they waiting for, these staircases? What visitor do they hope for at this hour? No one will come now - it is late. And if anyone did surely they would take the elevator that stands empty on the ground floor, humming gently to itself.

Stripped to the barest neon, their vigil has the quality of loneliness, but also of a kind of belief. As though if they stayed awake long enough someone would come.

This is how the mind advances, not vertically, but in small flights. Its ascendancy both triumph and escape.

Night after night, in a million apartment blocks in a thousand cities, the staircases wait. Does it solace them to know that somewhere, in some corner of the world, there is always a staircase being climbed? Can they hear the ghosts of those distant footsteps echoing through their bones?

Soon I too will be asleep. But they, for their part, shall burn till morning, their hope fading only in the dawn, finally extinguished by some careless watchman, who arrives too late to help.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


The other thing I did over the weekend was read Amitabha Bagchi’s Above Average. I’ve generally stayed away from the recent spate of ‘IIT’ books, having winced through a chapter or two of Chetan Bhagat, but Bagchi’s book came well recommended, plus a book about an opera-loving rock-crazed teenager growing up in Mayur Vihar in the 90’s comes (literally) too close to home to be ignored.

Calling Above Average a novel, is, to me, something of a misnomer. It’s more like a collection of modestly well written vignettes loosely cobbled together into a book. The overall effect is of spending an afternoon with an old friend listening to him reminisce about the good old days. A few of this friend's war stories are genuinely entertaining, but most have only the value of nostalgia, and you listen to them politely, because, well, the person telling them is such a nice guy.

Two things make this book enjoyable. The first is the sincerity of Bagchi’s writing, its quiet simplicity. Bagchi has considerable talent for bringing conversations to life, but on the whole he’s not a particularly astonishing prose writer. What makes the book a pleasant read is that Bagchi seems to recognize this, and doesn’t try to push the limits. It would have been easy to be too clever or too dramatic in writing this book, but it’s a trap that Bagchi successfully avoids. And because he does the book has a certain basic authenticity, a sense of genuineness, of fundamental honesty. It’s a quality that’s rare enough to be worth admiring.

It’s also a quality that makes it possible for the reader to identify with the book’s narrator, which is the second pleasure that the book affords. There’s something insidiously appealing about reading a book that reflects so much of your own life experience, especially when that experience is so competently described. The book works, I think, because its nostalgia comes clothed in the familiar, so that in reading it we get access to our own memories, our own past. This sense of identification is presumably strongest for those who went to the IITs (though not having been to one I can only speculate) but I think anyone who went to college in Delhi in the mid to late 90s will find something in the book to relate to.

My biggest frustration with the book lies with Bagchi’s development (or lack of development) of its narrator. This narrator – one Arindam / Rindu – is the proper centre of the book. Given that the episodes in the book are connected loosely, if at all, it falls to the narrator to hold them together, to provide, in his own person, the essential gravity of the novel. Yet it is precisely here that Bagchi’s honesty fails him. For a book manifestly about the coming of age of a certain generation, Above Average is unbelievably reticent about its central protagonist. We learn a lot about Rindu’s friends and the people he interacts with, but he himself remains sketchy and elusive. The book tells us, for instance, almost nothing about his family or his relations with them. Rindu’s interests are mentioned and implied, but barely developed – we get one fleeting reference to opera, and his entire interest in literature and writing (surely a huge part of his life) gets summarily dealt with in a couple of pages. The same thing happens with Rindu’s decision to join academia, and his one significant romantic relationship remains virtually unexplored as well. You almost get the sense that Rindu is telling you these long elaborate stories about other people to keep from talking about himself. So reluctant is Bagchi to provide any emotional access to Rindu, that the narrator remains a blank, shadowy figure, impossible to really invest in. This is a shame, because it gives the book a weightless, unanchored quality, and because the few times we are allowed into Rindu’s feelings are among the most powerful in the book. If Bagchi had shared more of Rindu with us, this would have been a better book.

It would also have been a better book if Bagchi had spent more time on the everyday. As it is the book reads like a collection of episodes with much of what goes on in between edited out. Bagchi does give us the occasional glimpse of what ordinary life was like for Rindu and his friends, but these pieces seem haphazardly thrown in and they are too few of them. What the book hints at but doesn’t quite deliver is a tangible feel for the experience of being at an IIT, a real sense of the context in which its action takes place. This is not, by itself, a criticism – the act of writing is necessarily about selection and Bagchi is free to focus only on key incidents – but I can’t help feeling that a richer description of the more mundane world of the IITs is exactly what Bagchi’s talent seems best suited to. For me, the value of the book even as it stands lies not so much in the plot development (such as it is) but in an almost anthropological exploration of a particular time and place, and I can only wish that Bagchi had developed that more fully.

Overall then, Above Average is a book I’m underwhelmed by. It has its moments, and is a pleasant and mildly entertaining read, but I can’t help feeling that the two and a half hours I spent reading it could have been better employed chatting with an old college batchmate.

[Cross posted on Momus]

Monday, May 21, 2007

Bombay when it sizzles

Back from a hectic (and somewhat drunk) weekend in Bombay (have I mentioned how much I love that city?)

Was very excited to discover that there was a Satyajit Ray special running with three of his films being screened, including one - Aranyer Din Ratri - that I'd never seen before. So my friend S and I show up at Fame Adlabs Friday evening all enthusiastic (after a quick visit to the Landmark store next door). We buy corn, recline our seatbacks, kick off our shoes, and when the movie begins, discover that there are NO SUBTITLES. No, they won't start after the title sequence. No, the dialogue won't switch to Hindi / English when the characters get to the forest. There it is, the movie, in pure, unadulterated Bengali - a language that neither of us speak.

Surprisingly, the film turned out to be rather fun anyway. Partly because it's Ray, so the images themselves are both lucid and exquisite. Partly because the plot (or at least the parts of it we managed to figure out) is fairly simple, so there isn't much scope for confusion. Partly because when you really put your mind to it, it's impressive how much of an unfamiliar language you really do understand.

That said, I have to wonder why anyone would go to the trouble of setting up a screening of Ray's films in Bombay, supposedly with the intention of making these classics accessible to a wider audience, and then not bother providing subtitles so people could follow what was being said.

I'm also intrigued by what theatres in Bombay have done with the National Anthem. In the old days you got the standard issue national anthem: just before the start of the movie a sign would come on asking you to stand. Then you'd get the familiar chorus singing Jan Gan Man accompanied by a visual of the Indian flag in extreme close up. You'd wrestle your way out of your seat balancing pop corn and soda. You'd stand awkwardly in your place wishing the uncle-ji next to you would stop singing along in his horribly off-key voice. You'd hear that voice grow more and more desperate, as though the fate of the nation hung on it finishing the song two bars ahead of everyone else. You'd hope uncle-ji wasn't going to cry or something. You'd watch the last minute stragglers push their way into the centre of the row, treading unapologetically on the toes of their impromptu fellow patriots. You'd wonder, now that it was too late, whether you shouldn't have gone to the bathroom after all. Then suddenly the thing would be over and everyone would sit down with obscene haste, as though a little embarassed by what they'd been up to, as though afraid of being the last one left on his / her feet.

But in the two theatres I watched films in this weekend (Fame Adlabs and the Juhu PVR [1]) the staid old Jan gan man is, apparently, no longer good enough. Instead I got first a music video featuring the usual suspects (Lata, Asha, Jasraj, Bhimsen, Rehman, etc) singing an ornamented and somewhat inchoate version of the anthem, and then, next day, a rendition of the song with extra orchestration that sounds vaguely like it comes out of loony tunes. It's as though someone had decided that upmarket urban consumers wanted something more sophisticated, more stylish, in the way of national anthems.

Now personally, I think this whole national anthem before movies thing is bit of silly jingoism, so I find the idea of making it more 'fancy' fairly amusing, though I can't help thinking it's missing the point a little. I wonder where all this will lead. I suppose it's only a matter of time before we get the 'remix' version of the national anthem with dhin-chak beats, faux rap solos and a troupe of nubilely female dancers the indifference of whose dancing is made up for by the shortness of their skirts.

[1] Where I watched an extremely mixed bag of shorts about Paris called Paris je t'aime. Some lovely little pieces by Isabel Coixet, Alexander Payne and the inimitable Coen brothers, but also a lot that is predictable and trite, most excruciatingly Gurinder Chadha's five minute cliche fest.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Post of Perfect Propriety

[Poetry Request # 17]

Oh I should like to be a novelist
Writing many a thousand page,
Capturing frailty, emotion, plot twists
And the spirit of the age.
I'd like to be a fearless journo
Writing exposes on crime;
Or compose a second Inferno
In effortless terza rime.

I should like to be hyped by the media
Be famous and widely read
Have my own entry on Wikipedia
And a fatwa on my head;
Publish one book, or two at the most
But make every word ring true -
But all I do is write little posts
As little bloggers do.

I should like to be a philosopher,
And dabble in metaphysics,
Unintelligible to book shoppers
But beloved of academics;
Write books that are ever so serious
Full of footnotes and other fuss
Titles Latin and oh so imperious
Like Tractatus Ordinaricus.

Or to write about exotic places
Like isles where they grow copra
Travel cities and wide open spaces
To end up on Oprah;
To journey to happening hotspots,
Give readings from coast to coast -
But all I do is visit Blogspot
and post my little posts.

Give autographs to pretty young things
Who'd think they'd gone to heaven;
Write the seminal text about suffering
In literature post 9/11.
Write something bildungsroman-y
Portrait of Artist as Young Porker
Get rave reviews from Ms. Kakutani
And a chapter in the New Yorker.

It would leave tears in the reader's eyes
And be quoted much like scripture
Labeled "Bestseller", "Booker Prize"
and "Now a major motion picture".
I'd be the greatest! (not to boast)
I'd be the new William Faulkner! -
But all I do is post little posts
And even that I could do oftener.

(See the original here)

P.S. I'm going to be traveling the next few days, so will only be posting after the weekend.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

When I fell in love with Paris Hilton

[Poetry Request # 16]

A sonnet in appreciation of Ms. Hilton, as requested, with dashes of Greek legend added to the mix. The sentiment entirely feigned, of course. Blond bimbettes do nothing for me.

The face that launched a thousand gossips
stares out at me from each tabloid -
those eyes, those breasts, that hair, those lips,
surrounded by Trojans, scattered and void.

And I, like some heartbroken Menelaus,
roaring in pain to find me omitted;
wishing my equipment was as big as horse
no sooner seen then swiftly admitted.

O to be pierced by fair cupid's arrow!
O to bear arms for such sweet caresses!
Drunk with such influence, stray from the narrow,
imprisoned forever among her tresses!

Alas! that this thought should quite undo me
That the Judgment of Paris lights not unto me.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The Baroda Incident

You've almost certainly heard about it already, but just in case - here's a link to zigzackly's post with links to news articles, blog posts and a schedule of protests that were, presumably, held today.

Also, a link to further developments here.

Enough has been said about the inherent fascism of these actions and the bitter irony of the fact that the hooligans involved are essentially protesting the very culture they claim to champion.

What I personally find frightening, though, is not that this can happen in what is supposedly a democratic society, or that those concerned can get away with it. What frightens me is their motive. The hooligans attacking the MSU Fine Arts faculty aren't, after all, motivated by any genuine moral outrage. They're motivated by a cynical calculation which tells them that attacking a group of artists in the name of tradition and culture will get them more support in the next elections.

They may, of course, be wrong about this. But assuming they're not, it frightens me to think that there are actually people out there who are MORE likely to vote for a party because its hoodlums attack students and act as if they're above the law. That people will vote for a party not out of self-interest (since it's hard to see how these voters could possibly benefit from this attack) but, presumably, out a sense of identification fueled by outrage over a work of art they've never even seen [1].

The incident at MSU is thus a failure of democracy in two ways. It is a failure of democracy because the executive failed to protect the rights of the individual and his / her freedom of expression. But if Niraj Jain and his cronies turn out to be right, then it's a failure of the electorate to recognize where its own best interest lies - its willingness to let trite nationalism or its own sense of disentitlement (because this isn't really about culture or religion, is it?) damage or destroy all that is positive or progressive in society. If actions like this help the BJP win the next election then those who vote for them will be like the basement dwellers who, outraged at their upstairs neighbors' place in the sun, bring down the roof on their own heads.

These incidents are also, of course, a reminder of just what the revival of India's past as envisioned by these self-styled champions of our culture amounts to. It is not the resurrection of our artistic and intellectual traditions they are after; rather it is a return to feudal parochialism, to a medieval pre-democratic society where artists and intellectuals are mistreated, originality and creativity punished, debate and free speech suppressed and dogmatism and prejudice rule the day. A stagnant, airless world where brute violence is the basis of power and those capable of it sit above the law, doling out whatever punishment their whims dictate. A society where the only way to ensure your personal safety is to stay silent and adhere to whatever ignorant tenets the rulers choose to lay down. A return, in short, to the middle ages. This is the 'culture' these people champion. These are the 'traditions' they hope to impose on us.

[1] Which reminds me, does anyone know how / where one can get hold of a picture of the supposedly offensive paintings. I'm curious. Plus I can think of few more effective ways to protest this kind of activity than by displaying the supposedly offensive image as widely as possible.

UPDATE: Some links to the 'offensive' works here, here and here (thanks to those who e-mailed me) - not particularly clear, though.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

The Little Escape

Another sleepless night. He lies awake, watching the sweep of the passing headlights across his bedroom wall. The shadows like prisoners caught escaping, isolated, trapped in a searchlight, trembling with discovery. And he, like a guard too humane or too indifferent to stop them, firing no weapon, raising no alarm.

Is this how it feels to be God? To watch shadows scuttling about in a brief illumination, knowing they are his to destroy but not save. Watching them fade away into the darkness before he has time to interfere.

Again and again his mind sweeps through the night, picking out worries, hopes, ideas. Pinning them in his sights for a second, then letting them go.

In the morning, the wall will be clear, and all the shapes will seem familiar, bathed with the sun. But for now there is this oppression, that he is both part of and against. In which he is both alert and helpless.

Friday, May 11, 2007

A short filmmaker

S K Jha describes him as "a short film director". PFC themselves call him "a short filmmaker".

Just how short is this Srinivas guy anyway?

(I know, I know, it's appalling and all that. The Mumbai Mirror has no standards. So what else is not new?)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

A for -ism

[Poetry Request # 15]

Not quite a comic poem perhaps, but whimsical, certainly whimsical.

“Life is just suicide at a snail’s pace”,
you say.

Does this mean that snails spend their entire lives
trying to kill themselves?

I imagine a garden full of them,
all driven frantic with despair
all trying to climb high enough to jump.

Can snails jump though?
Aren’t they just stuck there?
Isn’t that why they want to die?

Come to think of it,
do snails even know what suicide is?

Maybe it’s allegorical.
Maybe it means that to be suicidal
is to carry the shell of Death on your back,
be ready to slip away at the first sign?

Maybe it’s a way of saying
that our lives are just a blind crawl
over an uncertain wall,
leaving a wake of slime?

And why snails anyway?
How many people you know have actually seen a snail?
Why not something more contemporary,
something everyone could relate to,
Like “Life is just the Fates channel surfing”
or “Life is just a case interview for Death”
or “Life is like grad school – sooner or later, you graduate”
or maybe “Life is a film with really long end credits - endless credits really - an entire heaven of people sitting in the darkness just waiting to find out who the Director is.”

Okay, so that last one is too long.

So how about something shorter,
like “Life is just suicide”.
There, that’s got a nice post-modern ring to it.
Or even better, “Life is just.”
Only, it isn’t, is it?
Maybe “Life just is?”
Too existentialist?
Too Nike?

All right, all right, have it your way.
Life is just suicide at the pace of a snail,
Death is just a cheque in the mail,
an unspilled pail,
or the birth of the body from the womb of Time.

Meanwhile, a friend of mine says we must dine
at the new French Restaurant on 38th street,
because, as he puts it,
“If you haven’t had their fresh escargots
you haven’t lived.”

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Too much, too early

Do you ever get the feeling that you read too much too early in life?

I was looking over my bookcase today. I'm one of those people (assuming there are other people who do this) who can spend hours in rapt contemplation of their bookshelves, experiencing a sense of exhilaration that is part communion and part sensual delight. But as I ran my fingers over the spines of these old friends, some of whom I haven't opened in years, I couldn't help feeling a sense of sadness, of loss. The way one looks back to a childhood love affair and thinks of how foolish, how immature one was. How things could have turned out so differently if only one had known better, been more experienced.

It's the same thing with books, in a way. Can I really claim to have read them - these books that I devoured when I was 17 or 18? How much must I have missed in them, how much must I have read and forgotten that might speak to me now, ten years later, the way it never could in those distant days. Sure I loved them, even then, loved them with a passion that, if anything, was less critical than it would be now. But did I really appreciate them? Or was it a foolish, unthinking, boyish love?

At times like these I want to start over, read them all again. Yet something tells me I'm never going to find the heart to do this, will never gather either the time or the energy to reopen all the Woolfs, the Sartre's, the Marquez's of my youth. Because everywhere I look new books tempt me, novels I've never got around to reading, ignored classics expressing their superior claim. Wouldn't it be unfair of me to deny them, to return, selfishly, to my old loves? Wouldn't it be illogical? Wouldn't it be - that worst of all fates - stagnation? What was it Poe said: "A voice from out the Future cries / "On! on!" - but o'er the past / (Dim gulf!), my spirit hovering lies"

And even if I were to read them once again - who's to say it would stop there? If reading is truly such a Heraclitean pleasure then who's to say that ten, even five years from now I wouldn't need to go back and re-read them again? Who's to say I won't look back at my 28 year old self, perhaps even at this post, and shake my head in despair at the immaturity, the blindness of who I used to be? Is that why I keep putting off re-reading these books? Saving that pleasure for an unspecified 'later', when I shall finally be ready to experience them in their deserved fullness. A 'later' that will, of course, never come.

Or for that matter, who's to say that my enthusiasm for these books will have survived the intervening years? Some books, after all, are meant to be read when one is young. Could I worship Keats or Shelley with the same ardor today as I did when I was 16? I doubt it. So perhaps it's best that I read those books when I did. Perhaps. As Hemingway writes in a novel of which I now remember nothing but the last line - "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Tuesday, May 08, 2007


New York to New Delhi.

Flying over Minsk, I wonder:
is this the path they would have taken,
will take, the ICBMs that end
our world? Bad news travels faster
than the fastest plane. It takes seven hours
to get this far on commercial airliner –
an advance, I know, over an earlier age –
but not fast enough, still, to outrace
Death; no, not even in First Class.

How long do you think it will last,
the Apocalypse. Three hours? Four?
Less surely than the fourteen hours
of this flight, our little lives
held aloft in the air, returning to find
that we have missed the show.
Our beloved earth destroyed forever.
Or rather, not returning, having
no place left to land, but circling
the catastrophe of time, flying on
in a vacancy of dislocation
until gravity reclaims us.

And what of the day of Reckoning?
Will that too vanish between time zones?
For surely when the trumpet sounds
(as who knows when it may)
there will be those who are left
hanging in the air, uncounted,
unclaimed, strapped into their chairs,
reading the safety instructions again
and again, trying to discover
why the temperature outside
is no longer minus 60 degrees.

Idle reflections on my flight to India a couple of days ago. As you can see, I'm not the world's most optimistic flier.

Monday, May 07, 2007

The IIMs as Venture Capitalists

Coincidence is an amazing thing, isn't it? Here I am, thinking about how it's been a while since I fisked anyone and almost immediately the folks at DesiPundit are kind enough to supply me with the perfect fodder - yet another nitwit blithering on about how the IIMs have got it wrong and what they should really be doing to make his invertebrate little life easier.[1]

Mr. Gaitonde's post starts by criticising the new IIMA policy of allowing students to take a year off after they graduate to pursue their own ventures while retaining the option to come back for placements next year. Having criticised the policy (and I'll come to his argument there in a minute, well, maybe five minutes depending on how fast you read) he goes on to list three things the IIMs could do for budding entrepreneurs, which are - provide them with low-cost financing, help them in dealing with regulation and provide office space, and make industry databases and reports available to them [2].

Let's start with these three initiatives. Why, exactly, I wonder, should the IIMs do this? The last time I checked, they were educational institutions, not angel investors - their primary purpose being to provide quality business education, not to provide succour to wannabe start-ups. Of course, to the extent that they want to promote entrepreneurship among their students, they may make a few minor modifications to their placement rules. That's very different from playing an active role as an incubator for start-ups. I'm not sure that the IIMs want to be doing the latter. And I'm not sure that they should.

(It's not clear to me, incidentally, whether Mr. Gaitonde actually wants the IIMs to become angel investors / incubators, or simply to do all the work of these entities without sharing in the upside. The general idea in his post seems to be that the IIMs should provide all this assistance out of the goodness of their heart, or for some kind of unspecified 'fee' - presumably one lower than the market rate - without any discussion of how they might share in the profits of the enterprise.)

I'm not sure that the IIMs should do more to help start-ups because I see no reason to believe that they have any special competence / ability to do so. Mr. Gaitonde himself states that "Academicians do not understand managers. Managers do not understand entrepreneurs" (of course, this says nothing about whether academicians understand entrepreneurs - logical consistency is clearly not our budding entrepreneurs strong suit). Why then do we believe that the IIMs are well-positioned to provide assistance in working through regulatory issues? Or providing support / advice to young entrepreneurs more generally [3]? And all this talk about low-cost capital and office space. Do the IIMs have access to lower-cost funds from the market, that they should be passing on, without a risk premium, to entrepreneurs? Do they have even the basic ability to manage a debt portfolio or investments in new ventures, let alone a superior capability to do so? Why should the IIMs price funds they provide to entrepreneurs lower than the market? If venture capitalists, banks and angel investors won't invest in a project, why should the IIMs? Sure, they have government funding, and everyone knows that you don't need to earn a return on government funds, you can just hand it out in sops and let the taxpayer bear the cost. But is that kind of profligacy really what we want the IIMs to be encouraging? A similar argument holds for office space.

The point is - there's a market for ideas out there. Venture capitalists, angel investors and incubators exist, and IIM graduates have, if anything, better access to them than anyone else. Sure, these opportunities are limited and it's really, really hard to get the kind of support you need, but that's a reflection of the probability of eventual success. If a start-up isn't able to access what it needs, or finds the market price for those services / facilities too high, then there's no reason for the IIMs to second-guess the market and subsidise ventures that the market has found unviable. And even if you believe that the entrepreneurship market is underserved and there's an opportunity for additional incubators / angel investors, that need is best served by specialised players with experience and / or ability in meeting the needs of entrepreneurs, not by the IIMs stepping in to play a role that they weren't designed for, and are unlikely to be good at. This is especially true when you consider adverse selection - since the IIMs are clearly not the best place to turn for advice / support in starting a new venture, start-ups that can get backing from more specialised / expert sources will end up going elsewhere, leaving only the projects that can't get support from anyone else still knocking at the IIMs door.

Finally, let's say that you do believe that the IIMs have the ability / competence to provide superior guidance to young entrepreneurs (why you might believe this is beyond me, but let's say for a minute you do). Why should this guidance be available only to former students? If the IIMs are going to run an incubator, one would hope that they would choose from the full set of available projects, not only from the handful of ideas that their students come up with. It's not as though selection into the IIMs is based on entrepreneurial ability. A large proportion of students have no work experience, and even those who do have been out of industry for two years by the time they graduate, so they're unlikely to be the most clued-in people around. There's really no reason to believe that in any given year the projects IIM students come up with are likely to be the best new ventures out there. So even if the IIMs do set up an incubator, it would make sense to delink it totally from the business school and invite ventures from a more general pool.

What we really have here, then, is not a sensible call for policy reform, but the wish-list of a whiny adolescent who wants to be handed his opportunities on a silver platter. Wouldn't it be great if someone gave you money at less than the market rate so you could it invest it your own two-bit schemes? Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone else sorted out all your regulatory issues for you, leaving you to sit around in your free office space and play entrepreneur? Wouldn't it be marvelous if you didn't actually have to ferret about for information but had someone make it available to you? The only way these policies 'help' is by protecting entrepreneurs coming out of IIMs from market realities, at the cost of the IIMs. That's not support, it's patrimony. And not only is that bad policy for the IIMs, it's also potentially harmful for the entrepreneurs themselves - protectionism, after all, breeds incompetence.

But what about the reform the IIMs have introduced - the change in placement policy? Mr. Gaitonde claims that this policy will hamper innovation, basing his argument on the fact that successful innovations often take more than a year to become profitable.

Two things. First, successful start-ups may take years to become profitable, but there are often ways to gauge whether the idea seems to be working or not. Any half-way decent business plan will have short-term milestones, and checking achieved performance against those milestones will usually provide at least a tentative sense for whether the project is likely to turn out to be viable. And while it may be too early to say whether the project is going to succeed, it may not be too early to see that it is definitely going to fail. I can think of several people I know who've started something and realised it was going to work out within an year. So having an easy exit route back to placement even one year in may still be useful, at least for a subset of those who take the plunge.

Second, even if the new policy isn't likely to be too useful, given the short-time horizon, how does it make things worse than they are? Before the reform, students interested in starting up their own ventures straight out of an IIM could only do so by foregoing the placement process entirely. This meant giving up on an incredible valuable opportunity (placement) in order to pursue something that was little more than a pipe dream on paper. As someone who toyed with the idea of starting a venture of his own coming out of WIMWI and gave up on it because he didn't have the nerve (in hindsight an extremely wise decision, looking back I can see that I just didn't have the experience / capability at the time to pull it off), I can attest to how well nigh impossible that choice was to make. Now, students have the option of taking a year off, testing the waters, getting some additional information (however imperfect) on whether their idea is likely to work or not, and then making a choice on whether they want to pursue it further or want to fall back on placements. Sure, some students will take the safer route and give up on ventures that don't seem to be doing too well in favor of placements. But is it likely that, under the old regime, these students would have tried to launch their venture at all? If the uncertainty of the venture proves too much for them one year in, wouldn't that uncertainty have been even greater when they were graduating, and wouldn't they almost certainly have caved in at that point if the option of taking a year off weren't available to them? I personally think having that year to explore the option with minimal downside is really valuable and will encourage at least a few more students to take the plunge, but even if that's not true, it's hard to see how greater flexibility is going to harm innovation.

The one sensible issue that Mr. Gaitonde raises is the unfairness of the policy to graduating students - it's certainly true that these students will face additional competition from the returning job candidates (though in part, this effect may be offset by the lowering of competition among the current batch, as greater numbers of the graduating cohort opt out of placements to pursue start-ups). That's reason for the current students to complain about the policy (though I'd like to think that they won't be so petty). But it doesn't in any way mean that the policy is bad for encouraging entrepreneurs.

On the whole, I'd say the new policy is a small, but useful gesture towards encouraging more IIM students to pursue entrepreneurship. Does it solve all the problems that these entrepreneurs are likely to face? Certainly not. But it's not the IIMs' role to do that. What it does do is provide a little additional flexibility, making it a little easier for IIM students looking to start their own ventures by giving them a valuable option. I'd be surprised if you see more than a handful of students using that option - and so the effect of the change on entrepreneurship overall is likely to be marginal - but it will still be a positive change.

[1] Notice that I'm explicitly stating that I'm in the mood to fisk someone and this post just happened to fall into my lap. So spare me the 'but he's just a hapless little boy with a good heart and doesn't deserve to be treated so brutally' comments.

[2] I'm not sure what reports or databases the author is talking about, but in my experience most databases made available to educational institutions are specifically earmarked for academic use only and are not meant to be used for commercial purposes. Those are the terms under which the providers of this information usually charge these institutions an academic rate. Often, this information is available to commercial subscribers as well, at a suitably higher rate. So I'm not sure that making them available to ex-students is even feasible.

[3] Don't get me wrong. I'm very fond of some of my old profs. They're wonderful, intelligent people and they taught me a lot. But I'd trust them to mentor a start-up they way I'd trust Cuthbert Calculus to babysit.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The Lost

Thoughts on Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost

We must now balance everything

with heavy dreams, and set
savage memories
upon what was once today.

- Yehuda Amichai (trans. by Robert Friend)

At the heart of the enterprise of History is the problem of narrative. How do we tell the story of the past? Do we put it down as a clean, logical sequence of dates and events, convert it into abstractions and call them facts? Or do we focus on the human, the everyday - tell the story of one household, one person - and risk drowning in subjectivity, find ourselves walking the line between truth and fiction. Because it is impossible to ever truly know another human being, especially across the distance of time; impossible to understand how they lived, what they thought, how they felt. And is there, perhaps, a middle ground between these two extremes - a version of history somewhere between the dry narrative of the textbook and the exciting yet unreliable yarns of our grandparents?

Daniel Mendelsohn's The Lost is an attempt to construct one such narrative. Mendelsohn starts with simple curiousity: his grand uncle Shmiel, he has been told, died in the Holocaust along with his wife and four daughters. Because the memory of this loss is so painful to those of his parents and grandparents generation, and because the Holocaust itself is both too well understood and too horrible to bear speaking about, this fact - that the family of six was killed by the Nazis - is almost all the young Daniel can learn about them. He knows nothing about who they were; what their lives were like; how, when and where they died. In the case of the four daughters he does not even know their names. In trying to protect themselves from the pain of this memory, his family have ended up erasing the memory itself - these six relations of his have been truly lost.

The Lost is the story of Mendelsohn's quest to recover this lost family. It is a journey that takes many years and involves travelling all over the globe, meeting with the few remaining survivors from those distant days to try and learn as much as he can about these long dead relatives of his - both about the circumstances of their death, but also about their personalities, their interests, who they were. It is a search for a missing branch of the family tree, but it is also a search for its roots.

Why, you may well ask, do we need another book about the Holocaust? There are, after all, thousands of books already in print describing the facts of that terrible time in carefully studied detail - few episodes in history can have been as exhaustively researched and documented. And if it's a more personal take you're looking for, there are innumerable survivor accounts, as well as the books of people like Primo Levi and Imre Kertesz, which provide haunting explorations of the horrors of the Shoah.

The Lost differs from these accounts in three important ways. First, it is not a survivor's story - it is the story of a family that didn't survive, and of which little trace remains. Second, Mendelsohn is not so much interested in describing the acts of cruelty themselves (which have already been documented) or in imagining the emotions of the victims (a task that, he is quick to admit, is impossible, given that none of us will ever experience the horrors that these people witnessed and suffered) but rather in contextualising the terror, in trying to recapture a sense for who these victims were. What Mendelsohn gives us (or tries to give us) is a portrait of what it was like to live and grow up in a small Polish town; to recreate, before it is forgotten forever, the everday world of European Jewry - a world that the Holocaust destroyed forever. Six million is a unforgivably large number, but to think of the victims in figures is to reduce them to numbers, render them anonymous. If we are to truly honour the dead we must remember not (or not only) how they died but also how they lived - who they dated, what they were like, how they spent their time.

And this, I think, is Mendelsohn's third point - to break away from the traditional narrative of the Holocaust - a narrative that, by this point, has become a cliche. Writing about a trip to Auschwitz Mendelsohn reflects on why the site of the infamous concentration camp, today a living symbol of the Holocaust, leaves him unmoved. The problem, he suggests, is that dealing in the symbolic has the effect of desensitizing us. We visit the usual tourist spots, see the famous signboards, the familiar gas chambers, the ubiquitous cattle cars, and we think we've understood what happened here. But the truth is we have understood nothing - we have not even really thought about what happened - we have simply fallen back into a series of intellectual platitudes, into mechanical habits of thought and feeling.

What Mendelsohn does with The Lost is force us to see things differently. Again and again through the book he points to things that we usually don't know or don't think about. That many of the atrocities commited against the Jews were committed not by the Germans but by the local population. That not all Jews were killed in concentration camps; in the early days thousands were shot and buried in mass graves. That the real impact of the Holocaust can be seen in the large tracts of empty land in the Jewish graveyards in Europe - graveyards that would have been full if the people who were to occupy them had not been killed and buried (or left unburied) elsewhere. These facts are important not because they change the basic facts about the Holocaust, but because by challening our set views of the event they force us to think about what happened afresh.

The other thing that makes The Lost a fascinating read is the way it is structured. Mendelsohn does not tell us the story of his lost relatives, he tells us the story of his search for information about them. The facts about Shmiel and his family emerge slowly, pieced together bit by bit, stray jigsaw pieces of information, some of it contradictory, that slowly assemble into the full story of what happened to this one family. In telling the tale this way Mendelsohn not only recreates for us his experience of discovery - an experience that makes the story more emotionally involving than it might otherwise have been - he also creates a structure that allows him to connect his central story to other stories. As he meets with other people who lived in his ancestral town of Bolichow during the war, and gleans from them the tiny bits of information they still remember about the family Jaeger, he (and by extension the reader) also learns their stories: what they were like before the war, what they lived through in those bleak days, how they survived, and perhaps most fascinatingly of all, where they are now and what their lives have become. Living in Australia, Scandinavia, Israel, the Jews of Bolichow have spread far and wide, have become parents, grandparents, have built lives that to the casual observer would appear unexceptionally normal. And yet under this mundane surface runs an undercurrent of loss and tragedy, a hidden narrative of families obliterated, loved ones lost. And it is this that Mendelsohn is trying to tap into, knowing that when this generation of survivors dies, their stories will die with them, and be lost to us forever.

The Lost is non-fiction, but it reads, in many ways, like fiction. Mostly this is because the survivors he talks to all have stories that sound like they could have come out of a novel (as one person he talks to puts it - if you didn't have a dramatic story, you didn't survive). But it's also because the plot of The Lost (if one may call it that) is a string of happy coincidences, accidents of chance through which Mendelsohn eventually learns the true fate of his lost relations.

Some things about this book are annoying. For one thing, Mendelsohn has a habit of foreshadowing coming revelations. Time and time again he says things like "It would be years before we would find out the true story about" or "little did we know then how far we would have to travel to learn the truth". This seems unnecessary, and I suspect the book would have greater impact if the reader were allowed to share fully in the error-filled process of Mendelsohn's discovery. It's frustrating and a little alienating to be told, as soon as some new information is revealed, that it isn't actually true (or is incomplete) and that the full story will emerge at some unspecified point a few hundred pages later.

Mendelsohn also intersperses the basic narrative with a discussion of the first few books of the Jewish bible, drawing on interpretations from well-respected scholars to provide a sort of philosophical / intellectual frame through which to view the story he is telling. Some of the resonances here are interesting, but on the whole these discursions did little for me, and many of Mendelsohn's 'insights' struck me as both obvious and a little forced. What Mendelsohn is doing, I think, is taking us through the emotional journey he underwent on his quest, and the way he sought meaning in religion, used the text of the Bible to make sense of what he was learning. This is not entirely uninteresting, but it detracted, for me, from the immediacy of the book.

Ironically, the thing that struck me the most in the stories that Mendelsohn finally unearths, the thing that I realised I'd never really thought about - was the role the non-Jews played in the Holocaust. Certainly there was widespread anti-semitism, with locals collaborating with and even, at times, surpassing the Nazis in their cruelty towards their erstwhile neighbours. But as Mendelsohn points out, every single survivor he spoke to had a story that involved being helped / saved by a non-Jew. This is not, of course, to take away from the horror of what the Jews of Europe went through. But it is worth remembering that in a world gone mad with hate and fear there were still those (if only a handful) who, for the sake of love or friendship or plain humanity, were willing to risk (and often lose) their lives and the lives of their families to help other people survive. Where there is life, there is hope, the saying goes. But in a world grown inhuman hope exists because someone, somewhere is willing to die rather than compromise his or her humanity. And that, more than anything else, is a message worth remembering.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Motherhood Statements

The history of abortion is a history of stories, and the ones that took place before Roe v. Wade are oftentimes so pitiable and heartbreaking that one of the most powerful tools of pro-choice advocates is simply telling them. The Choices We Made is a compendium of such stories, and while you could read it in an afternoon, you should not make the decision to do so lightly: It will trouble you for a long time afterward. In it, women whom we know for the large space they occupy in the world—writers Grace Paley, Linda Ellerbee, and Ursula K. Le Guin, and actresses Polly Bergen and Rita Moreno among them—tell us about a time in their lives when they were reduced to begging for a simple medical procedure that, because of the circumstances in which it was performed, almost killed several of them and left at least one infertile. Abortionists in those days included a handful of merciful and scrupulous doctors willing to risk prison, and more than a few monsters who considered groping or sexually assaulting their patients a droit du seigneur.

- Caitlin Flanagan in the May issue of the Atlantic.

In her thought-provoking if somewhat incoherent quasi-review [1] of The Choice We Made, Ms. Flanagan argues that the conditions the book describes - from a time before abortions were made legal - would not be replicated today. The social stigma around unwed pregnancy, she argues, is (at least in the US) a thing of the past, adoption procedures have improved, medical procedures have become both safer and simpler. These are heart-breaking stories, but they ought, in Ms. Flanagan's view, "to have little role in shaping today's public policy".

I disagree. I would argue that these stories are extremely relevant to the debate on abortion, because they underscore the terrible dangers of forcing an important activity underground. Making abortion illegal, these stories suggest, denies women access to appropriate medical facilities, and leaves them at the mercy of whatever scoundrel or quack they can find to do the deed. Medical science may have made great leaps forward in improving the technology of abortion (progress made possible, of course, by the fact that abortion was legal), but who's to say these advances will remain available to women if abortion is banned? Isn't it more likely that underground abortions will revert to primitive, even barbaric means? After all, it's not as though the horrifying procedures Ms. Flanagan describes in her article represented the state of the art at the time - they were simply the best the person performing them could manage, given the legal constraints.

Okay, so unwed pregnancies aren't as much of a social black mark as they used to be. Okay, so some women are even choosing to have their babies that way. How is that relevant to the question of abortion? Presumably women who are choosing to be single mothers are not the ones demanding abortions in the first place. Greater social acceptance may mean that the demand for abortions has gone down over time, with women who would have had abortions because it would ruin their 'reputations' no longer doing so, but social censure is hardly the only reason women seek abortions, and the fact that the demand for abortions may have gone down only means that the 'cost' of making abortions legal is lower today than in the time of Roe vs. Wade. All the more reason to keep abortions legal.

More importantly, though, this is all a little besides the point. The heart of the pro-choice argument is not a competition of suffering - to compare the damage done on one side vs. the damage done on the other. 'Pro-choice' is not a euphemism for pro-abortion, it is a fundamental belief in the individual's right to self-determination. No one is saying that women should terminate pregnancies, only that women should have the right to make that decision (and a difficult decision it is [2]) for themselves.

That society - or its agent, the state - should have the right to control what a woman does with her own body is troubling for two reasons. First, because it subordinates individual identity to an abstract principle, justifies human suffering in the name of social or religious good, is an act of tyranny in the name of piety or social order. You may think that abortion is wrong, and you're welcome to that view, but in a pluralistic society there's no reason why you should (or should be able to) impose your view on others, restrict their choices based on your beliefs.

The second difficulty I have with making abortion illegal is the way it implicitly gives primacy to a woman's biological role. If a woman is to be expected to sacrifice any and all other opportunities in order to be a mother, this can only be because being a mother is her primary function in the world. Motherhood, then is more important than adulthood, than independence. And since the key role that women play in society is to produce children, why should society not commandeer their bodies for its own purpose, never mind their feelings or opinions in the matter. [3]

The point is that making abortions illegal, or granting the state control over them, is an insult and an injury to women everywhere. It is to use biology as a way of making women second class citizens, denying them their right to self-determination. Certainly, there is a practical cost to making abortions illegal - in that it exposes women to unnecessary hazard - and that is a point worth keeping in mind in the abortion debate. But it is, in the end, a secondary point. Abortions should be legal because women have the right to make their own choices, not because making them illegal would be victimising women more than necessary.

Towards the end of her article Ms. Flanagan writes:

But my sympathy for the beliefs of people who oppose abortion is enormous, and it grows almost by the day. An ultrasound image taken surprisingly early in pregnancy can stop me in my tracks....The demands pro-life advocates make of pregnant women are modest: All they want is a little bit of time. All they are asking, in a societal climate in which out-of-wedlock pregnancy is without stigma, is that pregnant women give the tiny bodies growing inside of them a few months, until the little creatures are large enough to be on their way, to loving homes.
The key word here is demand. Because demand can be both a plea and an order, and it is only the latter that the pro-choice argument is opposed to. There is certainly much to be said against abortions, and those who oppose abortions are welcome to say it. Let us, by all means, minimise the cost of not terminating a pregnancy - by ensuring that unwed mothers get greater social acceptance, by ensuring proper counselling and adoption services. Let us, by whatever means possible, using whatever arguments or propaganda we see fit, try to convince women not to go through with abortions; let us ensure that women everywhere consider abortion, if at all, only as an extreme last resort. All of this, I, as someone who is clearly pro-choice, have no problems with. My only concern is that the right to make the decision on whether or not to carry the pregnancy through to term, remain with pregnant women herself.


[1] In which Ms. Flanagan also indulges in some immensely silly stereo-typing. Women, it seems, have sex because they feelings, while men have sex because they are horny. Oh, please.

[2] What would be interesting, I think, is a book about how emotionally traumatic having an abortion is even after the procedure has been made legal. To hear the pro-life folks tell it, women have abortions with the same blithe readiness with which they order frappucinos. I somehow doubt that's true. And even if there are women like that do we really want them to be mothers?

[3] There is also, of course, a patriarchal undercurrent - the idea that women with unwanted pregnancies are 'loose' women who ought to be punished. An attitude best exemplified by a particularly cretinous classmate of mine who, in a discussion on abortion, said (I paraphrase): "It's her fault, so why shouldn't she have to pay for it?" - as though men, of course, never had anything to do with pregnancies.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Woolf in sheep's clothing

"When I rummage in my own mind I find no noble sentiments about being companions and equals and influencing the world to higher ends. I find myself saying briefly and prosaically that it is much more important to be oneself than anything else"

- Virginia Woolf

An old favourite, but one that rewards re-reading.

Rubik's Cube

96th street.

The woman sitting next to me on the 2 pulls a Rubik's cube out of her purse, begins to play with it. So intent is she on twisting and turning it that she doesn't notice the eyes watching her. The eyes of the two men standing by the door, the taller one explaining what a Rubik's cube is to his friend, who, incredibly, has never seen one. The eyes of the teenage couple sitting opposite, holding hands, who have fallen silent watching her. The eyes of the young mother pointing the cube out to her two year old. The eyes of the child filling with wonder as it sees the toy flash in the woman's hand. Even the eyes of the permanently scowling young man peering surreptitiously out from under his hood. All these strangers, joined for a moment in a half-assembled intimacy by these impromptu arrangements of colour, this sliding of planes back and forth.

What is it about the Rubik's cube that fascinates them? Is it a shared desire for order, for the restoration of pattern and sequence? Or is it simply nostalgia for a long-ago childhood, some memory they are trying to hastily put together, knowing it will not come out quite right? Or is it simply curiosity, the unexpectedness of this activity, so innocent and yet somehow so personal, that takes them by surprise - these people who have learnt to live in a mutual privacy, who would have looked away if the woman had been crying, or pleading for help, or kissing.

The woman pauses. She has managed to get one face of the cube to be all red. Her fingers trembling with hope, she turns the cube in her hand. But no, the puzzle is not done - on the other face blue and yellow are mixed hopelessly together. She will have to break up the all-red face. There is no help for it. Around her, the disappointment in her hands is mirrored in a half dozen faces.

72nd street.

I get off, and the young couple gets off with me. Behind us, the woman with the Rubik's cube is starting again, breaking and remaking what she has done, approaching the problem in a different way. She must be going somewhere, I know, she is only doing this to pass the time. But in my mind I imagine her sitting there forever, in that faded subway car, assembling and reassembling the crowd around her, trying for that perfect unity, that perfect balance, everything in its right place.