Friday, September 21, 2007

The little ones – III

Moody’s eldest baby, a grey and white male, is also the biggest of the lot – and that was probably why she rather neglected him as a baby, focusing most of her attention on her weaker children. At three weeks, while gazing at me with steady blue eyes (which were soon to turn greenish, and then a tawny yellow), he looked so like a tiny lion cub that I, fresh from my reading of C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, had no doubt what his name had to be – Aslan.

Baby Aslan was the loveliest kitten you ever did see – exactly like one of those adorable little guys who adorn picture postcards. He was also the most sickly – a rather bad chest infection when he was barely two months old permanently damaged his vocal cords, because of which his maiows are still rather cracked. Not that that mattered much to our lion king – baby Aslan grew into a gorgeous tomcat, fiercely protective of his little brother and sister, headstrong, fearless yet trusting, and very, very affectionate. He would run to his mother, lick her lovingly, and then have a mad game of roll-me-over with her – and later, he would jump on our laps, butt his head against our faces, and contentedly go off to sleep in our arms. Aslan was always the most patient of the three, and the most accepting. He would wait patiently for his turn to eat (we soon stopped feeding them together when we realised that murder and mayhem would ensue if three mad little kittens were let loose together on a bowl of fish or milk), and would then eat neatly, slowly, and with a gravity that accompanied all his actions.

For all his leonine majesty, though, baby Aslan is the most homebound of the lot. For him, home is where his heart is – he hated the outdoors, and always refused to accompany his siblings on their adventures, preferring to stay in with us instead. He’s also extremely na├»ve and innocent, with a firm belief in the goodness of all living beings – quite like his namesake, the lion king of Narnia. Aslan’s mortal enemies were towels, socks, and trousers – his strong little teeth would soon rip anything flapping in an unseemly manner, or anything furry that didn’t have a tail. Once he realised that we were less than pleased at this systematic destruction of our towels and clothes, he began dragging his prey off under the bed, when he would gnaw peacefully for hours until, much to his annoyance, we would decide to play spoilsport and drag him and whatever remained of our towel out.

Tawny-eyed Aslan is also incredibly possessive and jealous – especially of K. He didn’t mind me petting his little sister, whom he adores, but would always leap into my arms whenever he saw Ariel being cuddled – whereupon Ariel would then be unceremoniously smacked out of the way, and I would feel a reproachful yellow glare on me. But K – he couldn’t even give me a hug without Aslan knocking him over, jumping into his arms, and staying put, growling if anyone dared come close. He periodically gets into these mad fits when he rips up newspapers, and plays like – well, like a mad kitten – joined by his siblings, whose wild, crazy games would send us alternately into fits of laughter, and screeches of horror when they landed too close to something breakable.

Aslan hated the journey to Kolkata, and being the fearless warrior that he is, he let everyone in the airport know just how displeased he was. He has now attached himself to my father, and having discovered the joys of an open kitchen after the strict dietary discipline that he had been under while they were with us, he soon set to figuring out how to open the larder door using his teeth and all four paws – and once that was done, Aslan would get the food out (not steal it – my little ones have no clue what ‘stealing’ is – as far as they’re concerned, food that they see before them is meant for them), and then, like a feline Robin Hood, gather all the other cats around, and proceed to feed himself and his merry men (and women). My parents actually had to get a stout padlock for the larder, much to Aslan’s anger!

Unfortunately, baby Aslan still remains the weakest of the lot – he has fallen ill about thrice already, twice rather seriously – and we spent plenty of anxious, sleepless nights here in Delhi, calling my parents twice every day, asking for daily reports. While he is a big tomcat, he doesn’t see the point in all the male posturing, preferring to eat, sleep, play, and have his head and shoulders stroked instead (did I mention Aslan loves being scratched? K was the only one who could do it well, and Aslan lying with closed eyes, purring away, the picture of happiness, while K scratched his furry head and back was such an adorable sight!). He’s quite the favourite grandchild of my parents’ – but who can resist those grave golden eyes, that silky fur, and that gorgeous face?

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The little ones – II

Moody’s only daughter is beautiful, her coat a rich orange, black and white. Unlike her gentle and steadier brothers, this little one, ever since she was a tiny little thing, barely able to toddle on four paws, has been hyper, loud, demanding, and imperious. Had she been a human child, we would definitely have had to take her for counselling sessions for her hyperactivity. She was the last of them to be named, all because we just could not come up with a name that suited her, that somehow was her, till, suddenly, while playing with them, we came across an absurd name, but one that was her – Piglet, Piggy for short.

Babysitting Piggy was a bit like Calvin’s mom trying to tire him out before bedtime – we were exhausted long little Piggy was even remotely sleepy. She was a tiny bundle of limitless energy as a kitten, jumping around everywhere, clambering on our shoulders, running around playing, all the while yelling at the top of her lungs. She had a rather unfortunate penchant for biting people’s toes and fingers – as a friend of ours discovered one night when Piggy, annoyed at his sleeping on what she considered her and her brothers’ bed, decided to get him out by nipping sharply at his toes and his fingers all night. Mealtimes were the most exciting part of the day for our little princess – she would sometimes caper around so madly that she wouldn’t even notice her bowl till she – quite literally – fell into it.

Piggy’s relationship with K is delightful – she is, to put it simply, his daughter. He adores her, spoils her rotten, lets her get away with pretty much everything – and she knows it. The love is reciprocated in full measure, of course – little Piggy would only sleep once K had picked her up, and she was nestled comfortably in his arms, purring loud enough to wake the neighbours. We knew our little princess was sleepy when we saw her come running to K, calling loudly to him – and within five minutes of his picking her up, she would be fast asleep. She’s just as trusting as Aslan is, rushing up to play with whichever human comes before her – she even won my grandmother, who isn’t all that fond of cats over when she rolled on her back, grabbed my granny’s saree hem and began playing with it, all the while watching her with her enormous, liquid green eyes that can melt even the most hardened hearts.

Piggy is the darling of the family – her brothers let her get away with pretty much everything, too, especially Ariel, who even lets her eat his share of the food once she’s speedily demolished hers. It was wonderful watching how Ariel and Aslan always took care to not throw her down too hard, or roll her over gently during their mad games – the ‘rough’ stuff they kept for themselves. Despite her hyperactivity, Piggy is quite the lady – she doesn’t go in for tearing or destroying things around, like Aslan, or eating everything in sight, like Ariel. As she grew older, she would take frequent breaks during their games, when she would climb on to my lap, sit in a proper fashion and groom herself – till her kitten instincts took over and she bounded into the fray once more.

K, always the protective father, lay down eight rules of dating for Piggy when we left Kolkata – no dating, no dating, no dating, no dating, no dating, no dating, no dating, no dating, till the cat age of 45. He threw a fit when my mom told him she was seeing a rather gorgeous black tom called Hyper – but Piggy, good girl that she is, soon broke it off. Now that she’s an adult, a rather unexpected side to her has surfaced, one that we had never anticipated – our Princess Piglet has a very strong maternal streak to her. The once spoiled baby is now adopting all the little stray kittens that my mom regularly rescues from the streets – she’s grooming them, looking after them, even hunting mice and birds for them (and, when she gets lucky, she manages to snag a packet of hilsa fish, or some freshly fried luchis [Bengali puris]). She and Aslan are still the best of friends, and she helps him in all his Robin Hood-like activities. We will be seeing them all soon, and something tells me that regardless of the fact that we haven’t met them in months, Piggy will soon be nestled in K’s arms, purring away, Ariel will come running to me, wanting to be held, and Aslan will be trying to knock them both away so he can have us all to himself.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The little ones – I

This is another of those long-overdue blogs – for all those who have been waiting for me to write a post on my cats, here it is, finally.

Moody gave birth to three lovely kittens on 15 April 2006 – not at home, though, much to our worry. She came home for her meals, spent some time with us everyday, and then would run off to where her babies were – till a week later, when, hearing the familiar thump that was Moody jumping in through a window that was always kept open for her, we turned to see her with what looked like a tiny furball in her mouth. She had finally brought the babies home.

We had a huge cardboard box lined with newspapers and an old T-shirt of mine ready, and Moody settled into her new home within a home contentedly with the little ones, who we loved immediately. One looked exactly like her, one was grey and white, and the other, multicoloured (and therefore obviously female). They were smaller than the palm of my hand, and their eyes were still shut tight. As that was 23 April, Shakespeare’s birthday, we decided to call one of them, the littlest one, the black and white baby, Ariel.

Ariel, the spitting image of his mother, is a bundle of contradictions – at once gentle and stubborn; the sweetest-natured and the most timid, yet the most intrepid; the most cautious yet the most curious, a born explorer; the most intelligent of the three, yet the most impetuous. At the age of one month, Ariel was the first to learn how to climb out of his cardboard box into the big wide world outside – there was nothing so high that Ariel couldn’t climb it, no place so hidden that he couldn’t find on one of his adventuring forays. K always said he had some mountain goat blood on him – a feeling that was reinforced after he ate our money plant. From the time that Ariel was two months old, he could often be seen at the top of our ceiling high curtains, slowly making his way around the length of the room, while his siblings watched him admiringly from below.

As a little baby, Ariel was the weakest and smallest of the lot, which is probably why Moody loved him the most. He was the one she would nuzzle first, and she’d make sure he always lay closest to her so she could give him the first lick, and sleep with her arm around him. He hardly ever mewed, and was content to cuddle up at my back on the occasions that we took them out of their box and let them play on the bed. A month or so later, though, and all had changed – he became a bright, inquisitive, little thing, whiskers quivering with excitement and eyes bright with delight at the prospect of getting into some more mischief. He never did learn to not repeat the same mistakes ten times – and each time would look so heartbroken and terrified while being scolded that I didn’t have the heart to do so. And he was just as fussy about food as his mother – he was the first to tire of his Lactogen (which was their regular diet once Moody began weaning them till they were around three and a half months old); and he was the first to refuse Mother Diary milk, preferring, like his mother, DMS milk instead. And once they began going outside, we realised that little Ariel was quite the lone ranger at heart – he slowly began exploring the world outside, preferring to stay out by himself for long hours at a time, returning home every now and then with scratches on his nose, or eye infections that we tended to.

Though he is fiercely independent, he loves being cuddled – of the three, he’s the only one who would come running up, and hold out his arms, asking to be picked up. Quiet and thoughtful, he’s also the most sensitive, quick to pick up on moods and emotions. My little prince, as I call him, is also extremely fastidious – he hates getting his spotless fur dirty, or being in messy surroundings. That fastidiousness doesn’t hold when it comes to food, though – Ariel still eats everything around him, including bean bag balls (once he and his big brother had made a sizeable hole in one of our bean bags that never could be sat on again afterwards) and cotton wool. Like a little boy, he often threw tantrums, doing exactly what he wasn’t supposed to, all the while keeping an eye on me to see if I was watching, and playing with a stuffed ladybird that was his special toy. While he loved K just as much, he was also scared of him, and was nothing but beautifully behaved when he was around – and very delighted on the occasions that K picked him up for a cuddle.

Ariel’s in Kolkata now, along with his siblings (and the story of how we all got there will form the subject matter of another blog), and my mom tells me he’s still quite the adventurer, staying out by himself most of the day, coming in only for his meals and to sleep. He was the first to get friendly with the other cats, and the first to accustom himself to his new surroundings. While his nature is as sweet and gentle as ever, my mom says he’s not all that demonstrative of his affection, something that secretly rather pleased me – that means his displays of love were for me only, that he still loves me the most.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Addendum to
Deathly Hallows

I know it's possibly bad form to return to a review that's already been written, but in this instance, there are far too many questions and issues that have come up at a later stage for them to not be discussed. While I don't want to change any of what I said in my previous review, the lot more thinking that I've done on Deathly Hallows, the discussions I've had with friends and on various forums, and, most importantly, my second reading of DH - which allowed to me to notice sundry details and mull over missing links and gnash my teeth over irritating parts way more satisfactorily than the first, frenzied reading had - have all left me feeling very disappointed, frustrated, and badly in need of answers. So this post will not be anywhere near as positive as my first review was.

What was most inexplicable and disappointing was the treatment meted out to Voldemort. In previous books, the Dark Lord had been an ominous, menacing, chilling figure - powerful, evil, completely devoid of a conscience or any human frailty - apart from megalomania, I suppose. He was evil, but also supremely intelligent, 'terrible, but great', as Ollivander had once remarked. Despite not having any choice but to dislike him, one couldn't help admitting that the man - wizard, rather - had style. Not any more, though. In DH, he was little more than a pompous, screeching, petulant tyrant, constantly missing his target, constantly goofing up, content to leave everything in the hands of his bumbling followers while he chased fairly tales that he had not even taken the trouble to get to know well. Tyrants seldom trust, or have confidants, and Voldemort was no exception - so why was he content to leave the matter of hunting Harry down in the hands of his Death Eaters? Voldemort was privy to the darkest magical secrets, and was in the habit of planning ahead - so why, then, did he allow the connection between his mind and Harry's to open up all over again, when he knew full well that doing so would allow Harry to glimpse his every move? He had been practising Occlumency all this while, so why would the greatest Occlumens of all times grow careless at this, the most dangerous period? Voldemort never left anything to chance, so it seems a bit absurd that he would actually believe that no one but he knew the secret of the Room of Requirements at Hogwarts. The very fact that that particular room in question was crammed full of things that desperate students over the years had hidden and then forgotten should have told him that he was not the first to use it - and that he wouldn't be the last, either.

I believe Rowling resorted to the cheap trick of reducing Voldemort to little more than a 'glorified snake charmer', as one of my friends put it eloquently, to highlight the contrast between the stoic, fairy-tale hero, Harry, and the ignorant, pitiful, bullying big bad, Voldemort. Which is why Voldemort was constantly depicted as screaming in rage, in frustration, while Harry, even in moments of intense grief and tension, kept his head, and his gravity. By juxtaposing Voldemort's high screams with Harry's very masculine silences, and his desire for physical labour to work out his anger and grief, Rowling seems to be almost emasculating Voldemort while elevating Harry to the level of the fierce warriors of yore. But by doing so, she took away from a lot of the series' mystique, and appeared to be catering to popular tastes, especially those of pre-pubertal children. It is quite incomprehensible how the greatest dark wizard of all times could be thwarted at every step by three teenagers - it took a wizard like Dumbledore to defeat Grindelwald, but the wizard far darker than even Grindelwald was ultimately felled by - wait for it - 'Expelliarmus!' And correct me if I'm wrong, but weren't the Death Eaters supposed to be powerful dark wizards themselves? Not all of them were bloodthirsty savages like Fenrir Greyback or McNair, or moronic bullies like Crabbe and Goyle Seniors. Lucius Malfoy had been a Prefect at Hogwarts, and we all know just how skillful a witch Bellatrix was. So the idea that in a battle, they would all go down under a barrage of body-bind and stupefying spells (which is all that Dumbledore's Army seemed to have learnt under Harry's tutelage) when they had dark arts at their disposal seems patently absurd. One would have expected more displays like Crabbe Jr's Fiendfyre, but unfortunately the Death Eaters were reduced to a group as pathetic as the 'Chief Death Eater' himself.

About as infuriating is Rowling's blatant sexism, and the way she sidelined the only strong female character in the books, Hermione. Hermione, the most intelligent, perspicacious and talented of the trio, continued to think and plan ahead, and save Harry and Ron's hides the way she had since 'Philosopher's Stone'. Yet, notwithstanding the fact that without her Harry would have been a sitting duck from the very moment the MOM fell, right after Bill and Fleur's wedding, it is Ron who continues to be the 'best friend', Ron whose transgressions Harry forgives far more easily than he forgives Hermione for accidentally breaking his wand. Quick to criticise Hermione's words of caution as yet evidence of her narrow, closed-in, unimaginative mind, Harry seems to almost welcome Ron's self-centred, moronic suggestions during every discussion. Hermione's steadfast loyalty and unwavering courage is taken for granted, while much is made of Ron's decision to return after having deserted his friends when the going got tough - 'He saved my life, Hermione,' Harry tells her reproachfully when confronted by her anger at Ron's betrayal, quite forgetting that that was exactly what she had been doing when his wand got broken.

And come to think of it, what of the other women in the books? Fleur Delacour, Triwazrd champion, is reduced to a simpering maiden who graduates into a harassed housewife; Tonks' only role in DH was to get pregnant, give birth, and then, inexplicably, die; and even Mrs Weasley's defeat of Bellatrix was in the guise of a mother protecting her children. It's rather strange that a twice-married, independent, creative woman like J.K. Rowling should be so conventional at heart - the only non-conventional, strong woman unfettered by the normative ties of marriage or motherhood in the books was Bellatrix Lestrange - and who in their right minds would want her as a role model? The only road left open to every character, man or woman, was the one that led to the altar and subsequently, to parenthood - and every generation seemed to excel in falling in love at school, and then marrying their childhood sweethearts by the time they turned 20. And here I thought that the chances of teenage romances working out were fairly remote - or perhaps knowing how to do magic does give you a toehold in the land of happily-ever-afters.

While I still think that the concept of the Deathly Hallows was brilliant, and I loved the way she humanised Dumbledore - and the episode in Godric's Hollow was easily the best part of the book, in turn moving and chilling - I have to say that DH, for me, is the weakest book of all seven. And I do wish Rowling would stop answering questions and giving out tidbits of information in every interview that she's giving - does she really expect every Harry Potter fan to be doing little other than avidly trawling the net every other day in the hope that they'd stumble upon some loose end being tied up? These are issues that should have been dealt with in the book, not post-publication interviews! But I daresay it's Rowling's not-so veiled approval of the blatant commercialisation of the Harry Potter franchise (she's given over the rights to the name to Warner Bros, and is enthusiastically participating in planning hugely expensive Harry Potter theme parks that will be inaccessible to most fans, for example) that's led to the dilution of the books' content - most people would agree that her later books were nowhere near as good as the earlier ones. In fact, I doubt the later books would have been as huge a success had it not been for the hysterical marketing hype - much as I still love Harry Potter, I have to admit he faces stiff competition - Rowling does not have Philip Pullman's radical desire for subversion, to push the boundaries of fantasy fiction; nor does she come close to Jonathan Stroud's delightful, imaginative, quirky trilogy. These are books I find myself recommending heavily these days - and where satisfactory endings are concerned, few have come close to Stroud's The Bartimaeus Trilogy. What a glorious, ambitious, heart-warming, rousing finale that was. Would that I could say the same about my beloved Harry Potter!

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Political (In)correctness?

This is going to be yet another complaint about one of my pet peeves – if people, even those view other, overweight, people with disdain, can refrain from commenting on their appearance (either because it’s not politically correct to hurt a fat person’s feelings by calling her/him ‘fat’, or for some other reason known best to themselves), why can they not extend the same courtesy to those others who happen to be (un)fortunate enough to be slender? As a slender person, I’m often the target of remarks that are at times downright rude; most of these come from people who don’t even know me, yet have absolutely no qualms in making presumptuous statements that they would otherwise cringe from making in polite society. So what is it about slenderness that makes rudeness acceptable? Are our feelings supposed to be as non-existent as the amount of excess fat we (don’t) carry?

I first heard this sentiment being voiced aloud by a young woman in her early twenties some seven years back – I was volunteering with a help-line in those days, along with a bunch of other people of all ages and from all professions. This poor woman, being stick-thin and rather fragile looking, found herself bombarded with remarks from people she had just met, statements ranging from the relatively innocuous ‘Oh boy, are you thin!’ to the pathetic ‘joke’ – ‘I bet you don’t try venturing out in a storm – a gust of wind would carry you away’ – accompanied with sniggers; to others who kindly took it upon themselves to apprise her of the dangers of being underweight. She lost patience after a couple of days and her furious ‘You know, thin people have feelings too’ finally put an end to the audible remarks. This is exactly what happens to me – I’m constantly told at dinners, lunches, etc., that I surely won’t be eating as obviously I’m on a diet; at the gym I’m asked why I even bother to come, since I obviously don’t need to exercise – and by the way, do I eat at all?; an ex-boss made a derogatory comment on the way I dress and later, at an official dinner, passed snide remarks concerning my refusal to order dessert (and that was only because I had stuffed myself with a pasta with cheese sauce, and everyone knows that cheese – see what these constant remarks have done to me? I can’t stop being on the defensive even in my own blog!)

Not that all people are kind to all their overweight fellow humans – as a plump teenager, my cousins made me the butt of ridicule and cruel jokes that added considerably to my pre-pubertal and teenage angst; and an outraged plump friend told us recently how tired she was of her colleagues’ remarks about her weight and their advice to hit the gym at the earliest, because how could she survive in the ‘marriage market’ unless she was thin? And I know full well all the dangers associated with the pressure to lose weight and conform to the stereotypical norm of female beauty – but this post is not about that. I’m genuinely perplexed as to why people, who know full well how ill-mannered it is to make personal remarks, relax that rule when talking about a slim person’s appearance. Why would they do that? What makes them think they immediately know what my eating habits and personal obsessions are – and why do they presume I’d welcome a conversation on the same? My husband says it’s because most of these busybodies, being overweight themselves, are jealous, and that may well be the case – but what of the slim ones who do the same? Why are most people unable to feel good about themselves unless they’re running someone else down?

I don’t go around commenting on people’s appearances – if I’ve ever asked a plump friend to visit the gym, it’s been out of concern – being overweight is not a good idea not because it’s not cool, but because it can lead to various health-related issues. So if I can behave myself, I don’t see why others can’t. And I’ve decided to stop being polite and make equally rude remarks in return – and I would really love some suggestions, so please, everyone, pitch in with your ideas!

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

I was, strangely enough, singularly loath to begin reading my copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final instalment in J.K. Rowling's immensely popular Harry Potter series. For I knew that once I'd begun, I wouldn't put it down till I was done - and that wouldn't take more than a couple of days - and then, it would all be over. No more Harry Potters. No more waiting, no more arguments and endless discussions with friends and on public forums, no more anticipation, no more excitement. Having discovered Harry Potter before the advent of all the media hype that turned the publication of every new book into a veritable circus, I count myself among the group of original Potter fans, and I didn't want it all to end. But I didn't really have a choice, did I? So, after having stared at the cover illustration for as long as I could, trying to glean little details of the plot from the design, and having read the blurb, the dedication, and even the copyright page, there was nothing left for it but to dive in.

We all knew what Harry was expected to do in Deathly Hallows - at the end of Half-Blood Prince, he had resolved to carry out Dumbledore's final instructions, and now, aided by best friends Ron and Hermione, he sets out in search of Voldemort's Horcruxes, each of which he had to destroy before he could confront - and ultimately vanquish - the Dark Lord himself. Meanwhile, with Dumbledore's death Voldemort's powers had reached new heights - after taking over the Ministry of Magic, and the press, the new regime proceeds to unleash their reign of terror, particularly targeted against Muggles, and Muggle-born wizards, offensively termed Mudbloods, a term that belongs to the same category as, say, 'nigger'. Amid all the persecution a huge hunt is launched for Harry, the 'Undesirable No. 1' who has a bounty on his head - for the Boy Who Lived, the symbol of hope around whom the resistance was rallying, could not be allowed to continue living if Voldemort was to reign supreme.

Taut and dark, the book offers no respite, no breathing space from the very beginning, with the deaths of known and loved characters beginning from the fourth chapter itself. You realise then that this is how it has to be - in a world taken over by the Dark Arts, there can be no Hogwarts Express, or light-hearted moments. We are given a short breather during the run-up to Bill and Fleur's wedding, after which the action begins in earnest. Rowling's gift lies in her storytelling - while she isn't likely to get an award for the beauty of her prose, she does manage to communicate the tension that every one of her characters are going through - indeed, it is sometimes hard to remember that we, the readers, are outside the events being described.

But are we, though? No writer can escape the influence in her/his writing of the world that they live in, and Rowling is no exception. When you take into consideration the fact that despite the magic, the spells, robes and wand-waving, Rowling's work is firmly rooted in reality, a decision taken years ago when she decided to set the books and the characters in our world, our time and our dimension, the events that she describes become that much easier to relate to. I once argued that Voldemort's obsession with pure-blood witches and wizards, and his evil henchmen, the hooded Death Eaters, are symbolic of the racism that has been prevalent in every part of the world at all times - the Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan - and nowhere is that brought home more strongly than in Deathly Hallows. The setting up of the Muggle-born Registration Commission (headed by the evil, sadistic Dolores Umbridge, whose brush with the centaurs had clearly left no lasting impression), the refusal to allow Muggle-born witches and wizards a place in Voldemort's new wizarding order, the unceremonious arrest and deportation of all Muggle-borns and those holding out against the regime to Azkaban, the derisory way of addressing the few witches and wizards who had escaped arrest but been reduced to begging as 'it', thereby robbing them not only of their identity as members of the magical community but also of their humanity, brings to mind the horrors of persecution the world has been witness to - Nazi Germany, the compulsory registration of all Jews, the Holocaust, the Iraq war, religious persecution and Guantanamo Bay - our own government had, following the barbaric murders of the Staines family, decided to have all Christians living in the country register themselves - Nurmengard, the prison where Grindelwald's supporters, and Grindelwald himself, after his defeat at the hands of Dumbledore, were imprisoned, bears phonetic resemblance to Nuremberg, the place where the trials of those Nazis who had participated in mass genocide were carried out. In Voldemort's regime, Rowling envisions a future not unlike the dark world that Jonathan Stroud describes in his The Bartimaeus Trilogy - one where 'magic is might', and commoners/Muggles have to accept their rule, their superiority, and acquiesce to a life of subservience, where fear and suspicion prevails, and where resistance brings with it the firm promise of death.

Harry himself, an adult at 17, finds himself cast adrift without the magical protection that, thanks to Dumbledore's spells, Privet Drive had offered, and bereft of the wisdom and guidance that the headmaster has always held out to him, and that he had taken for granted. Now, robbed of his one true father figure, he realises what it is to have people look to him for guidance instead, and feels the weight of the burden he bears, perhaps for the first time. Lost and lonely, and faced with unsettling facts about Dumbledore's hitherto unknown past, Harry reacts in an all-too typical fashion - he rails against Dumbledore for not having made his task easier, for not having taken him into confidence, for not having trusted him - part of the anger is directed against himself, for not having asked, and learnt, enough about/from Dumbledore when he had had the chance. Ron and Hermione, always true, always supportive, learn that Dumbledore, who knew them better than they realised, intended the mission to teach them more about themselves - Ron, having deserted his friends, gathers strength from his moment of weakness and emerges a true Gryffindor; and Hermione, while understanding that myths and legends can have as much of a basis in truth as facts and theories, finds within herself the courage to withstand even the torture that Bellatrix puts her through. Deathly Hallows is as much their journey as it is Harry's.

The slow, descriptive tone of Deathly Hallows in no way takes away from the grim tension - Harry, Ron and Hermione seem to be living on borrowed time, and each narrow escape from Voldemort could well be their last. The introduction of the deathly hallows, three objects that can allow the wizard/witch who manages to unite them 'mastery over death' provides a twist to the narrative - as Harry now has to make a crucial decision, and choose between Horcruxes and Hallows, power or his journey, and the knowledge that he will ultimately gain from it. It takes the death of Dobby, the house-elf so beloved to them - and us - who gave up his life while trying to save Harry's, to give Harry the enlightenment that he had been desperately seeking. The journey ends where it began - at Hogwarts - and it wasn't only Harry, but I, and I'm sure many, many others, who had a feeling of having come home in the familiar corridors and grounds. The last battle at Hogwarts, with the teachers, the DA, the Order, and every other student who refused to give in without a fight ranged against Voldemort and the Death Eaters was glorious, rousing, spirited, easily the best thing Rowling has ever written. The final confrontation, with Snape's vindication (no surprises there for those among us who had believed, if not so much in the likelihood of Snape's 'goodness', then certainly in Dumbledore's wisdom) and Voldemort's defeat, which came, as Dumbledore had predicted, through the former's complete ignorance of the power of love, comes as a fitting finale, everything that one could have hoped for.

Rowling had once stated that she hadn't read much of fantasy fiction, except for the canonical masters of fantasy like Tolkein and C.S. Lewis, and their influence is apparent in Deathly Hallows. The Slytherin locket Horcrux that weighed down the wearer, possessed their thoughts and imagination, and turned friends against each other is reminiscent of the ring of Sauron; and nowhere are the Christian allegories more stark than in Deathly Hallows. The constant emphasis on the power of love, of white magic that ultimately triumphs over the Dark Lord; Harry's choosing to sacrifice himself to save the lives of his friends and everyone else who loved and supported him, a choice which bestowed on them the same protection that Lily's sacrifice had bestowed on him, and, indeed, the entire episode in the Forbidden Forest reminds one very strongly of the Stone Table in Narnia, when Aslan chose to sacrifice himself to the White Witch in order to save Edward. Harry's subsequent resurrection mirrors Aslan's (and Aslan, as those who have read Narnia would know, was supposed to have been a metaphor for Christ), a resurrection that symbolised the return of hope, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. The power of a pure, and whole, soul was constantly harped upon, brought out in the chapter 'King's Cross', where Harry meets Dumbledore after his 'death' in a place that could only be limbo. Accompanying them there is Voldemort, in the form of a ravaged, mutilated, whimpering, tortured foetal-like creature, for whom 'there is no help possible'; and in fact, the importance of keeping Harry's soul whole and pure is also iterated in the fact that Voldemort dies not at Harry's hands, but at his own, when his Killing Curse rebounds on him, bringing us full circle to the events of 16 years ago at Godric's Hollow, and the chain of events that Voldemort chose to begin himself through the murders of James and Lily, and his attempt on Harry's life.

Several of the question we had been debating for the past two years were answered satisfactorily - where Snape's loyalties lay, and why; the meaning of the triumphant gleam in Dumbledore's eyes at the mention of Voldemort having taken Harry's blood; the bond that Harry had created between himself and Wormtail by having saved the latter's life (a debt that Wormtail, in his turn, repaid, a moment of pity that he paid for with his life); we learn, as promised, a little more about Aunt Petunia. The surprising revelations about Kreacher and Dudley's characters drive home the fact that even the most unexpected people have the power to astonish us; Mrs Weasley's duel with Bellatrix is nothing short of brilliant; and the delightfully irreverent Potterwatch, the underground radio channel run by members of the resistance, bears testimony to Rowling's ample wit. However, there were several unanswered questions and disappointments, not least of which was the way most of the deaths were handled. Dobby and Fred's deaths were moving, and would have driven most people to tears, and Snape's death, and the memories that he left Harry were beautifully written. However, were Hedwig, Mad-Eye Moody, Lupin and Tonks so insignificant that their deaths were dispensed with in just a couple of terse lines? Despite all the hype surrounding the deaths, it seemed as though Rowling had taken the easy way out, killing some of the most lovable, yet supporting characters while the major ones all escaped virtually unscathed. And if Harry escaped death only because his blood ran in the living Voldemort's veins, how did he not die when Voldemort did? Or, after resurrection, are you supposed to stay resurrected? And why would the blood-thirsty Death Eaters, who cheerfully struck everyone they could find with the Avada Kedavra without a second thought, not kill Hagrid when they had the chance but tie him up instead? And what on earth was Colin Creevey, a Muggle-born, doing at Hogwarts when the school was only open to pure-bloods?

Rowling's epilogue, 'Nineteen Years Later', her attempt at providing the series with a fairy-tale ending, bordered on the cheesy. Amidst the news that everybody had, most incestuously, married one or the other of the Weasley family, and that they all had at least two to three children with rather predictable names (except for the touching Albus Severus; and surely it's reasonable to presume that almost two decades later, teenagers would not still be using that most irritating word, 'snogging'?), many questions went unanswered - what, for example, had Harry, Ron and Hermione taken up as professions? It was wonderful knowing that Neville, the hero of the resistance, was Professor of Herbology at Hogwarts - but who was the current Headmaster? Did Kingsley stay on as Minister for Magic? Where was Luna? Where was George, and how had he coped with losing a twin? And surely it wasn't mere coincidence that led Rowling to give Teddy Lupin the same fate that had befallen Harry himself, the sole exception being that Teddy had a godfather, in the form of Harry, who could, and did, provide him with a family. Perhaps Rowling will give us some answers in the Harry Potter encyclopaedia that she has been thinking of writing - but the fairy-tale happily-ever-after made for a very anticlimactic ending for a dark, yet positive book. Had she left that out, it would have been pretty much everything fans the world over were hoping for.

Monday, June 11, 2007

American Idol - Season 6

Does anyone else watch American Idol? And did anyone else, apart from me, think Season 6, the latest season that was just wrapped up three weeks ago, sucked big time? From mediocre contestants to obvious rigging to Republican propaganda to feel-good 'we Americans are so great, we're still carrying the white man's burden' hogwash, this season was everything a reality show that's got too big for its boots shouldn't be, but was. Warning: those not interested in this show would probably get bored, and fans of Jordin Sparks very offended.

Season 6 started out in much the same manner - there was the always effervescent Ryan Seacrest, the three judges, true to type - Randy Jackson, whose vocabulary didn't seem to have improved in the slightest in the last one year, and who warned everyone that this time, he was 'going to keep it real'; Paula Abdul, as flaky as ever (seriously, what IS she on?); and Simon Cowell, as smug as they come, sarcastic British wit still firmly in place. Hollywood Week was the usual melodramatic event, and then you had the top 24, only to realise that there were just two people worthy of note - Melinda Dolittle, a shy, humble background singer whose stage presence and brilliant vocals just blew you away; and Lakisha Jones, a black single mother with a powerful voice reminiscent of Aretha Franklin's. And I had yet another personal favourite - a big, curly-haired, gravelly voiced guy called Chris Sligh, who was more intelligent than all the contestants, judges and producers put together, and whose one-liners kept everyone in splits throughout.

Surprisingly, most of the people among the top 24 - and these, apparently, were the 24 'best' singers in North America - were insipid, with weak vocals, and entirely forgettable. Not surprisingly, the judges reacted to the high-school level singing with a barrage of criticism, and pretty soon 12 had been eliminated, leaving behind the top 12, at least two of whom definitely did not belong there. Within a couple of weeks into the competition, though, it was clear - at least clear to anyone who had been watching this show for a few seasons - that the judges had their own agenda, in all likelihood spelt out for them by the producers, FOX network, and Sony - and so the winners had been chosen, and were now being sold ('pimped', in the words of angry AI watchers who haunted the message boards) to the audience. The winner had to be either the enormous Jordin Sparks, a 17-year-old who could undoubtedly sing, but who needed a lot more training before she could make it to the ranks of the better singers of the day, which included her fellow contestants Melinda and Lakisha. Plus, she had a lot more growing up to do - poise and maturity were qualities she sorely lacked. The other contestant marked out for the big prize was Blake Lewis, a goodlooking young man who had been born to sing in boy bands, whose idea of 'singing' was beat-boxing after every two lines, and who had tons of screaming girls falling all over him from week two.

So there was the giggly, incoherent Paula Abdul, who, as everyone knows cheers and dances to the songs that only the young, attractive boys sing, and marks out her special pretty boy every season, who then can do no wrong in her eyes - last year it was Ace Young, and the year before that Constantine Morales - getting up to dance to Blake's beat-boxing before Blake had even stepped on to the stage, thereby proving to all who cared to notice that no matter what Blake sounded like, he was getting her vote for sure, and telling him while there were still eight or nine contestants left - 'I'll see you at the finale!' Jordin was told after every rendition of yet another soulful love song, which clearly was her genre, that 'that was a bomb' (Randy), 'you're so adorable, you're 17 and you're so great' (Paula), and 'you're definitely in the same league as Melinda and Lakisha (Simon). In fact, Simon Cowell went a step further and did 'his thing' - abuse his position as supposedly neutral judge - and told her he thought 'she could win this competition' when there were at least seven people, some of them far better than her, left on the show.

It wasn't that this was the first time something like this was happening - the judges have their favourites every season, who they shamelessly peddle to the audience. Simon, who is only too aware of the fact that he's the judge with the most power to sway public opinion, doesn't hesitate to cash in on it. He's the one who helped Carrie Underwood win Season 4 with his 'predictions' ('you're going to win this competition, and you'll be the winner who sells the most records'); and last year he tried gamely to push Kelli Pickler before realising that (a) she was almost embarrassingly dumb; and (b) that she really couldn't sing too well, after which he transferred his attentions to Katherine McPhee and Taylor Hicks (who ultimately won). But the problem with this season is that the 'fixing', and the pimping, was incredibly blatant - it's almost as though they'd thrown all pretence of the show being a democratic one, where the audience gets to choose the winner, out the window, and were doing all they could to make sure their favourites won. And here's my take on the reason behind this desperation: last year's winner, Taylor Hicks, didn't do all that well, especially compared to Chris Daughtry, the most talented person on the show, who had been among the top four before being eliminated. Chris' album has sold almost 3 million copies, and he's been at the top of the charts for a very long time. Even Katherine McPhee, the runner-up, had her single debut at No. 2, right behind Daughtry - but Taylor Hicks, on the other hand, sold only 700,000 copies of his album, and wasn't anywhere near the top of the charts.

Quite a huge let-down for AI producers, who conspicuously left Taylor out of the show this year, despite the fact that the previous year's winner always makes an appearance the next year. They yelled themselves hoarse about how Carrie Underwood is a Grammy-award winner, how Chris Daughtry's done so well, how Elliot Yamin's album's just been released - but not a word about Taylor and his failure to leave a mark on the music world. And we all know that the winners don't get to make an album of their choice - rather, Clive Davis decides their sound, and what he thinks will sell most copies (his recent, much-publicised falling out with Kelly Clarkson because she decided to write all the songs on her new album and sing them her way provides ample testimony to what happens when AI winners decide to show some individuality). Stands to reason that after last year's debacle, FOX would take no chances - they'd deliberately plump for the ones they thought would be the most saleable, the most popular, and the most amenable to being moulded. Jordin Sparks, at 17, and not a very mature 17 at that, was the most likely choice, more so than Blake, who, though by far the most marketable and popular, had a rather distinct style of his own. So while the judges were busy telling the world that Jordin was the one to vote for, the studio did their own not-so-subtle version of hard-sell - the camera would focus more often on Jordin than anyone else - the audience was treated to an incessant display of Jordin giggling, pouting, beaming, preening, occasionally trying hard to squeeze out a tear when someone got eliminated; Randy Jackson, on a television interview that he gave while there were still 10 contestants left, stated that in his opinion, Jordin had it in her to win; Ryan Seacrest moved away from his duties as a host to state on his show that Jordin was the one to watch out for, that she had shown the most 'growth'; Simon began deriding every other contestant in his usual charming fashion while praising Blake and Jordin to the hilt; when interviewing people on the streets about their favourite contestants, studio executives, through careful editing, showed us how young people loved Jordin and were dancing to her songs on the streets, and how they only managed to find a lone barmy old geriatric when they went in search of Melinda's fans. The message was clear - she's the next American Idol. You'd be dumb to vote for anyone else.

I'd predicted victory for Jordin to anyone who'd care to listen weeks before the finale, but there still are a few niggling questions left. Why were so many of the top 24 so very mediocre? Surely, among the thousands who auditioned, there would have been some really good singers? Or did the judges deliberately select some weak singers who they began trashing from day one so as to make it easier for their chosen ones? I mean, take the example of Antonella Barba. When she came to audition with her best friend Amanda, she told the judges guilelessly - 'Amanda's the better singer, she's trained. I'm not.' Pretty Antonella muffed up her lyrics, a crime for which better singers had been eliminated, she was among the last two left before the final 24 were selected, and even a moron could tell that the other girl, Marisa, was a better singer - yet Antonella made it. And here's the twist - before she even appeared on the stage (where her singing was promptly trashed by the same judges who had chosen her for her, well, singing), controversy broke out. Semi-nude pictures of Antonella had been published on the Internet, supposedly by her best friend, whom she had beaten in the competition. The controversy made sure of one thing - AI was in the news. People were watching, visiting the official site, thronging the message boards. And people were voting. Would people be too far off the mark to suggest that maybe, just maybe, she had been taken in because the producers had got wind of the published pictures and wanted the controversy? After all, she wasn't a good singer - she'd never make it to the top 12. But this incident would attract a lot more people to their television sets.

Or take Sanjaya Malakar, who I'm furiously defending these days. Granted, he couldn't sing that well - but then he didn't sing all that well during Hollywood Week either. Why choose him in the first place? The judges are part of the music world, they've been on this show for the last six years - do you seriously mean to tell me they can't recognise good singing from mediocre? I suspect he was taken in because he was weak. Unfortunately, their plan backfired - Sanjaya might not have been a good singer, but he was far more endearing and charismatic than Jordin could ever hope to be. People loved him - and voted for him. While the judges watched in horror, he stayed safe - and no amount of howling about how 'this is a singing competition' (yeah, right!) could make a dent in Sanjaya's popularity. And all through the brickbats, that young teenager did not lose his cool - or his impish smile. Dragged into a controversy that he certainly had not anticipated, Sanjaya is still the butt of ridicule - and he takes it all in his stride, and laughs at himself along with the rest of the country. I admire that boy - especially given the fact that he's only 17.

Haley Scarnato, yet another popular contestant with little talent, was driven to tears when Simon, in his most disgusting avatar yet, told her it was clearly her strategy of 'wearing as little as possible' that was keeping her in the competition; Chris Richardson, a quiet guy who was giving Blake a good run for his money, was dismissed as being 'too nasally'; a bewildered Lakisha was told her 'dancing' was not good enough; and Melinda, about whom Simon had once petulantly complained 'We'll never be able to criticise you!' was faulted for her humility, and the fact that she had been a professional back-up singer. Blake, on the other hand, and told he was original, quirky, prone to taking risks, even when he was busy butchering songs or covering his lack of singing ability with generous dollops of beat-boxing and copying moves that every self-respecting boy band member had worked in at least one, if not all, their dance routines. And when Jordin sang so badly that the judges had no choice but to tell her so, they sugar-coated their criticism with remarks like 'But never mind, everyone had a bad week now and then'; 'You're still wonderful, and we still love you, and I'm sure America feels the same way'. Now why did Melinda not hear that the only time she was a tad less than perfect?

Why am I making a big deal out of a reality show? Because I used to love American Idol, that's why - and like every other Melinda fan, I'm disgusted with the outcome. And don't even get me started on the 'Idol Gives Back' propaganda, where they collected money for people affected by Hurricane Katrina and the 'poor, starving children in Africa'. What about the poor, starving, orphaned children in Iraq, one wanted to ask. The Republican propaganda reached its lowest ebb with a shot of George W. and Laura Bush, who thanked Americans for raising money 'for charities they themselves are too mean to support' as a reader put it. That, more than all the rigging in the world, is why I'm never watching this show again.

End of rant.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Moody Cat

A very long time ago, I promised readers posts on my cats. I never did get around to writing those posts for various reasons - but I've decided to rectify that by doing a post on our Moody Cat, the cat who adopted us soon after we got married. People who don't care all that much for cats/animals might want to skip what will definitely be a long, rambling, maudlin post.

I first saw Moody one winter afternoon - she'd got into the house somehow, and seeing me, a complete stranger, she was rushing helter-skelter to try and find a way out before I chased her or hurt her in any way. I opened the terrace door for her and stepped aside so she could have the space to run out, and hoped she'd visit again. She was on our terrace a couple more times, once with a rather goodlooking gold and white tom, who was clearly enamoured of her. Next time, I called out to her - she came closer, wary yet curious - and graciously lapped up the bowl of milk I held out to her as a friendly overture. She became a regular visitor from then on - and delighted to have a cat around again, we took to feeding her. She was astonishingly well-bred and well-mannered - she would wait patiently outside the door for us in the morning, drink her milk, allow herself to be petted, and then curl up in the shade. She never asked for anything more - and while we repeatedly urged her to come inside, she never did - till enough time had elapsed for her to trust us, approve of us, and decide that we really did want her. I remember the first time she came in - tail erect, she wandered around, peeping into the kitchen, sniffing around - and that night, after dinner, she jumped onto a chair in the foyer, curled up, and regarded us with a solemn happiness that clearly said - 'I like you. This is my home now.' And it was.

We soon discovered just how quirky and moody she was, especially when it came to food - hence the name - she'd drink a bowl of milk one day, sniff at it suspiciously the next; eat her fish and rice happily one day, and the next day refuse till we sat beside her and coaxed her into eating; discover a love for paneer and sweets, only to go off them just after I'd fixed a paneer meal for her. Moody became our child, companion, friend - we went fish shopping, got her her own plate, fussed after her, took care of the colds to which she was prone, chased away the horrid old tom who beat her up and stole her food, increased her protein intake once we realised she was pregnant - and in return Moody was affectionate, trusting, looking to us for love, shelter and protection; she was always there to greet us when we returned from work or elsewhere, there to curl up beside us while we were watching TV, to jump onto our bed and sleep alongside us at night.

She soon figured out that I loved her unconditionally, and would forgive any transgressions - she was simultaneously a pet, companion and almost a friend to me. With K (my husband), though, it was a different ball game altogether - she loved him, felt secure around him, yet feared him, because he was the authoritarian one. Quite a stormy relationship they had, too - Moody's naughty fits were always noticed and punished, whereupon she would sulk and look the other way whenever she caught sight of him, till he had cajoled her and grovelled enough to merit forgiveness (one of the funniest sights was that of K's rump sticking out while the rest of him was under the dining table, coaxing Moody out of her sulky fit with a fat pork frankfurter). When, however, she decided he had gone too far with the disciplinarian act, she'd punish him the best way she knew - by peeing copiously on whichever pair of his shoes was closest to hand, glaring defiantly all the while. As for the fireworks that usually followed - let's not go there.

Moody's babies, of course, were just as much our children- they took over our lives completely. Ariel, Aslan and Piglet will form the subject matter of another post - suffice to say that Moody was a very good mother, till they turned three months old, which is when she decided it was time they were weaned. After that she would content herself with sniffing them all over to make sure they were alive and healthy, and then smack them out of the way. They got a bit too much for her in the end, though, especially when they were over four months old and running all over the place, giving neither her nor us a moment's respite - she decided she couldn't share her space with them any longer, and left. She'd drop in initially a couple of times a week, but then stopped coming altogether. I, of course, promptly went out of my mind with worry and misery, till I accepted it as one of the things that regularly occur in the feline world. K spotted her around the place a couple of times - she seemed to be okay, he told me.

I still miss Moody. I loved her happy maiow of welcome when I'd return from work, loved her affectionate moments when she'd butt her head against my leg and purr contentedly as I stroked her soft, silky fur. She'd keep me company in the kitchen whenever it was my turn to cook - I'd sometimes sing to her (she was the only one who seemed to enjoy my very tuneless singing), or talk to her, and she'd respond with a twitch of an ear or the flick of a tail - but mostly we did our own thing in companionable silence, she either stretched out, grooming her already spotless fur, or sitting upright, paws folded beneath her, contemplating the mysteries of life in typical inscrutable cat-fashion. I remember one time when K was late returning home from work - attempts to reach him on his phone had been unsuccessful, and I was really worried. Moody stuck close to me throughout - when I was in the room she was sitting next to me, brilliant green eyes fixed on me, when I paced out on the terrace, she paced with me, occasionally rubbing herself against my leg. Even after I got her dinner ready she didn't leave my side - she only ate after K had returned, and she sensed my relief.

But the sweetest, and most incredibly touching thing she ever did - I was home alone one evening, and I'd ordered a chicken I intended to cook for dinner. When the delivery guy appeared, Moody went with me to answer the door. Once I'd opened the door, I went back inside to get the money, and on returning to the door, I saw Moody standing squarely in the entrance of the doorway, staring straight at the delivery boy, tail swishing from side to side slowly, dangerously. She was guarding the house, guarding me. My little Moody, who certainly would not have been a match for an adult male, had decided I needed protection, and had appointed herself guard-cat. I never loved her more than I did at that moment. Wherever she is now, I hope she's well, and safe - most of all, I hope she's found another family to love and be loved by, another family who's discovered she likes DMS milk, not Mother Diary, loves pork, not chicken, and loves having her head stroked and her cheeks scratched, but hates being picked up.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Things people may - or may not - know about me

This is going to a fun blog, quite different from any of my other posts in both content and tone. Inspired by a friend, who wrote a post entitled '10 random things about me' on her blog and then asked if any of her readers/friends would be brave enough to do the same on either her blog or their own, I've decided to go ahead, indulge in a bout of narcissism, and list out 10 things about me, in no particular order. Actually, while I'm at it, I'll go a bit further, and list out 15 things. So here goes.

1. I love editing. Seriously. It bothers me when an article or a book is so well-written that there is no need for me to intervene.

2. I love crying at the movies.

3. I abhor violence, but am morbidly fascinated by criminology, and addicted to all the crime serials on television - all the American and British ones, that is.

4. I have a very short attention span for pretty much everything.

5. I adore television, and even insist on staying in to watch my favourite shows while on holiday. Hotel rooms have to have cable TV, else I'm not staying there.

6. I've always liked animals more than people, but after 31 years of living, the last 10 of which have been spent in a moral cesspit called Delhi, I'm a confirmed misanthrope.

7. I'm the biggest procrastinator that ever lived.

8. I'm also a chronic, obsessive worrier - there are times when I wish I didn't have such an active imagination, for I'm always thinking of a million reasons why something should go wrong, and a million more ways in which it can go wrong.

9. I'm a very good mimic.

10. I'm very, very shy, a trait that most people interpret as arrogance or snobbishness. That irks me, because shyness and snobbery are two entirely different things - when I'm being snobbish, trust me, you'll know.

11. And here's a weird thing - despite being shy, I love being the centre of attention (which, sadly, hardly ever happens). I loved doing presentations, both at the university, and the few brief times at my workplace.

12. I love early mornings, even though I'm not a morning person.

13. I still don't know how to drive, and I'm terrified at the prospect of learning.

14. If I could choose a superpower, I'd want to be like Jean Grey (of the X-Men).

15. I don't have a favourite colour.

So, to ask my friend (and everyone else who might be reading this) the same question she asked - do I come across as odd, or, as I like to think, fairly normal? And if people want to tell me 10 - or more - things about themselves, you're welcome to do so in the comments section - I'd love to know!

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Eragon - and 300

I watched a few rather disappointing movies recently. Some readers will remember my review of Christopher Paolini's Eragon, which, despite it's flaws and lack of originality, I had quite liked. So of course I had to go and catch the film Stephen Fangmeier had made based on the book, which finally released here a couple of weeks back. Boasting of a sterling cast, which included legendary actors like John Malkovich and Jeremy Irons, and special effects that would bring fire-breathing dragons to life, the film appeared promising. It didn't live up to that promise, though - to put it briefly, it was terrible.

I now know why the film Eragon has received consistently bad reviews. Everything that made the book enjoyable and complex has been cut out, leaving only the bare bones that made for an insipid, two-dimensional film. I know that movies based on books rarely live up to expectations (except for films like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Lord of the Rings trilogy) - but surely they can at least stick to the plot and try to make it work? And if Peter Jackson could have made such fantastic films out of Tolkein's incredibly complicated The Lord of the Rings, a book that Paolini himself drew liberally upon in both Eragon and its sequel, Eldest, couldn't Stephen Fangmeier have given us a passable movie version of Eragon? Everything went wrong in Eragon - Ed Speeler, who played the title role, was wooden and amatuerish, the script was shoddy, the backdrops all too clearly created in a Hollywood studio, the acting, with the exception of the big names, pathetic - and Saphira was just not blue enough! From a sapphire blue dragon whose scales would shine as brightly as gems, she was transformed into a blue-grey dinosaur with a tail, who was just not awe-inspiring. At various points majestic, frightening, lovable, stubborn, impish, quirky, wise yet child-like, Saphira, Paolini's best and most original creation, was reduced to little more than a talking winged steed. Much as I like Rachel Weisz, I have to say that she didn't bring Saphira to life - and the beautiful, loving relationship that Saphira and Eragon, as Rider and Dragon, shared, was dealt with in only a few perfunctory lines of dialogue.

John Malkovich's Galbatorix was menacing enough - more so when you consider the fact that he did not have much to go upon, as in the books, Galbatorix, despite being a constant presence, never does make an appearance - but then, when has Malkovich ever disappointed? Jeremy Irons made for a brilliant Brom, but here again Fangmeier slips up - the bond that Brom and Eragon come to share, as mentor and protege, surrogate father and son, Riders with shared powers and destinies, is not allowed to develop. So we never get to see how Brom shaped Eragon, a mere farm boy, into a Rider, or how they both learn to trust each other with their lives; instead, we are supposed to believe that Eragon learnt how to wield a sword all on his own, and began using his magical powers quite, well, magically. Brom's death fails to move because we never get a sense of the kind of person he is, and Saphira's last gift to him is puzzling, because we don't understand why she should do so much for him. And key characters, who make Eragon the book such an exciting read, are unceremoniously dispensed with - Roran, Eragon's cousin, whose transformation from village apprentice to warrior is as powerful as Eragon's, only appears in the first 10 minutes of the movie; Angela, the lovable herbalist/fortune-teller is reduced to a Barbie look-alike in a lot of gold bling who enters and exits within a confusing span of two minutes; the fearsome Razac, modelled on Tolkein's Nazgul, and who are as indestructible as the latter, are casually killed in a very short battle; the Urgals were, as my husband said, nothing more than tattooed WWF wrestlers; and Solembum, the wonderful were-cat, is absent altogether.

Sienna Guillory's Arya leaves a lot to be desired - it is very hard to imagine her as the beautiful, brave, clever and inscrutable elf princess. And while Garrett Hedlund is capable enough as the tortured Murtagh, his character, too, is glossed over - the announcement, 'he is Morzan's son', is met with next to no emotion. The one who stands out, however, easily the best thing about the film, is Robert Carlyle, in the role of the Shade Durza - he is chilling enough to send very real shivers down your spine. Powerful, arrogant and cruel, he sweeps through the film dripping scorn and disdain for the mere mortals that dare to stand in his way - Durza was so brilliantly played that I actually hated to see him die. It's hard to tell why the people responsible for this film actually made it, since they robbed it of its very essence, leaving in its place yet another action adventure meant for children, and not a very good one at that. Did Paolini have any role to play in the making of Eragon? Did he react at all to the destruction Fangmeier and Peter Buchman (the scriptwriter) had wrought upon his book? There probably will be a sequel to the movie as well, as Eragon ends with a shot of Galbatorix and Shruiken, his black dragon, both roaring with anger at their defeat - but unless, like the Harry Potter movies, Eldest is made by another, and better, director, I think we can safely presume that it will be as big a disaster as Eragon is.

Far more disappointing, because there were far too many expectation attached to it, was 300. After the gritty, in-your-face, dark Sin City graphic novels, made brilliantly into a film by Roger Rodrigues and Frank Miller, I have been a die-hard Miller fan. While I haven't read 300 yet, the film didn't come anywhere close to the celluloid version of Sin City. Dripping testosterone, the film was all about CGI, male bonding, the glorification of war, and the age-old divide between the mythical 'East' (in the form of the Persians, led by the god-king Xerxes) and the 'West' (exemplified in the Greeks, particularly the Spartans, the repository of all that is brave, and good, and noble). Laced heavily with rather blatant racism (the Persians, who all look suspiciously like members of some long-lost African tribe, are cowards, at best; at worst, they embody in themselves every form of depravity known to man - be it treachery, barbarism, or kinky sexual fetishes that would make even the Marquis de Sade look like an unimaginative schoolboy), 300 is actually considered by some to be part of a psychological warfare being levied against Iran, in tandem with the impending threat of attack from the US government. This very male film, made by a man for men of all ages (there is only one female character in the film, King Leonidas' wife, who sums up her role, and that of all Spartan women, in one sentence - 'Only Spartan women can give birth to real men') takes off from the socialisation that all little boys are subjected to, which says that unless you go aggressively charging through life bloodying every demurring nose within sight, you're not worthy of being called a 'MAN'. So there's loads of rhetoric, lots of decapitations, artistically spurting fountains of blood, severed limbs, battle-cries, in the midst of which the noble 300 fight their beautifully choreographed way through, ankle-length cloaks, which, if worn in real battles, would trip the persons wearing them right under the closest sword, swirling gracefully. Yet somehow the battles fail to move, the war-cries don't elicit a corresponding stirring of hearts (the way they did in LoTR, for instance). All one can ask at the end of what a newspaper report called 'the Spartan workout video' is - which self-respecting Spartan would go into a battle fought with spears, swords and arrows wearing only the briefest of chaddis?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Closet Voyeur(s)?

I've recently discovered this television channel that I didn't know existed. It's called Zone Reality, and it showcases events that have actually happened, and people who are real and, more often than not, seriously moronic, sometimes to the point of being deranged. This is the kind of channel you discover while idly fiddling with the remote (or rather, while my husband's idly fiddling with the remote) when your regular shows are over, and you want to be sure there's nothing interesting going on before you switch the TV off. After the initial couple of days of watching Reality, which mostly consisted of my tossing sardonic and superior remarks in the general direction of the TV, I found myself, to my increasing horror, actually getting curious, interested, what have you, in a couple of shows. The one I actually sit through is called 'Cheaters' and, as the name suggests, is about Americans (who else?) who call this show and get them to investigate their spouses/partners who they suspect are cheating on them. It's corny, tacky, sordid - but I still watch it if I come across it. I suppose there's nothing left but for me to admit that yes, I possibly am a closet voyeur.

But see, I cannot possibly be the only one. This show's aired nearly every day, and there are loads of people who call these guys, which means there must be lots more watching it. So what is it about these reality shows that appeal to people? Reality television is quite the buzz word these days after the furore over Shilpa Shetty and Celebrity Big Brother - and everyone was interested, even the ones who wrote about how incredibly tasteless the show was, and how it appeals only to the lowest common denominator. I know we all have the option of switching off the TV - but we rarely do. Why? Does it have to do with mere voyeurism, the guilty pleasure we all experience at being allowed a glimpse into someone else's secrets, salacious and otherwise? Or is it a genuine curiosity about human nature, about the way people across the world, people we'll never ever meet or know, lead their lives?

Take 'Cheaters', for instance. I find myself actually getting involved with what's happening on the show, with the people - who are all ordinary, often from the lower end of the socio-economic hierarchy - on the show. 'She should leave him,' I remark to my husband, or 'How could he be so dumb?' or, in less charitable moments, 'You mean that guy actually has two women willing to sleep with him?!' It's led to the two of us discussing the boundary between truth and deceit, infidelity, human insecurities - in real life, literature, and in the movies. The producers of the show like to pretend they're providing the people who call them with a form of social service - albeit one that fills their coffers like no 'real' social service ever could - 'exercise your right to be informed', they state with ponderous solemnity after exhorting viewers who suspect their partners of infidelity to call them. They actually provide the 'investigative' services free of cost, which only proves just how lucrative this business is - not to mention the fact that all the investigators on board are licensed, and the equipment they use, even for a prurient television show such as this, is more expensive and up-to-date than any that even our cops possess.

Two things stand out - first, how very similar people across the world are. Regardless of who you might be, or what you might be working as, or where you might be living, the key to happiness for most people has to do with their jobs or the absence of it, money or the lack or it, and relationships, and whether or not one person's cheating on the other. Second, it's amazing just how much time people spend in deception, in concocting tissues of lies, in clandestine behaviour, when the simple truth could make life so much easier for everyone. So many of these relationships that 'Cheaters' highlights are clearly on their last legs, but the person who wants out only comes out with it after having been followed around by mysterious men with cameras for weeks and having had their escapades broadcast before the whole world - not to mention the final humiliation of being confronted by their furious lovers armed with a camera crew, who proceed to berate them loudly in public spaces.

The makers of the show take a morally upright stance, often letting viewers know at the end just how beneficial this exercise has been for the people concerned. I daresay most viewers feel the same way - we always like the thought of wrongdoers being punished, unless, of course, it's our sins in the spotlight - in which case it takes only a split second for them to be whitewashed into socially acceptable behaviour. Apart from getting a glimpse into the murky depths of people's lives, viewers are also provided with an opportunity to play judges in the security provided by familiar surroundings, far away from cameras, unsympathetic strangers or hostile environments - and castigate strangers while being secure in the knowledge that it's not you who's been dumb enough to get caught doing something you shouldn't, or pathetic enough to be cheated on. And I think that accounts, in large measure, for reality television's phenomenal popularity.