Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter calm

Winters in Calcutta are unpredictable. First, because you can never be sure there will be any winter at all; this year, for instance, we had to wait till Christmas for the weather to turn colder, for sweaters and thick blankets to be dragged out of storage, dusted and aired. And then, when it does get colder, you can never be sure how cold it will be - two years ago it was so chilly that one wished for a heater, which are unheard of in this city. And then, of course, you never know how long this blessed respite from heat and humidity will last - we like to say that the weather remains cool and pleasant till March, but that doesn't always happen.

But there's one quality to Cal winters that never changes, regardless of temperature and chill factor - that peculiar peace that surrounds the city, a stillness that permeates the very air, a quiet that soothes and calms. And at no time during the day is this more apparent than the afternoons, that quietest time of the day, when the morning chores are done, baths taken, lunches eaten and cleared, leaving people free to choose a spot in the sunshine to snooze, read, or converse quietly. Sitting in our room, I can see sunny ledges and balconies, pigeons sitting huddled in the sunshine, disembodied voices of people in various flats floating up now and then; and over it all, the occasional sound of traffic, which somehow seems to lose its strident quality at this time of day.

The calm and quiet are more apparent where my parents live, where I grew up, which is still far from main roads and busy traffic. Winters afternoons in my childhood were incredibly pleasant - we would make our way up to the terrace, dragging a mat and pillows along, armed with books and that most evocative of all fruits - oranges. Once up, the mat would be unrolled in a sunny spot, pillows placed wherever one wanted, books opened, and oranges peeled. And the only things that broke the silence were quiet voices and the rustling of pages being turned. If you looked over the ledge, you could see one or the other of our cats sleeping soundly in the sunshine on some ledge or wall, or washing themselves thoroughly prior to settling down. Occasionally one could see a neighbour or someone's maid appear on their terrace with a bucket of washing, which would be hung out to dry on clotheslines - and perhaps they would then stop to call out to us before settling down to their sunny siesta.

A warm, wintry sun, crisp clean air, the smell of oranges, quiet voices that carried, cats stretching luxuriously in the sunshine - these are what made up Cal winters. And they still do. Nowhere else have I noticed this gentleness to winter, the lulling, soothing quality that leaves you warm and peaceful, somehow glad to be alive - and after a decade in Delhi, I'm glad to find that some things haven't changed.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Blog meme!

is all because of PD tagging me on her blog - now I have to follow suit! Okay, so maybe I don't HAVE to, but I'd like to! So here goes.

Favourite song right now?
The Call, by Regina Spektor (from the soundtrack of The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian)

What did you last eat?
Lunch! The usual, regular stuff, but then I had one of Nahoum's lemon tarts, followed by some lemon tea!

What kind of books do you read?
What kind of books don't I read might have been a better question! I read everything except inane, mindless racy thrillers and soppy romance. Very partial to crime fiction, especially good, old-fashioned police procedurals, fantasy fiction, and some sci-fi.

What are you reading right now?
Just started reading a new Swedish crime writer - Hakan Nesser; his first novel, The Mind's Eye.

Favourite Television show right now.
If I had to choose among those being currently aired, I'd have to say House MD. But I also love Brothers and Sisters, Supernatural, CSI, Monk. And I'm pretty hooked on to Desperate Housewives too! :D

What are you wearing right now?
Jeans, tee, sweater.

What’s your current fandom / obsession / addiction?
Fandom: Adam Lambert; Obsession: Farming games on Facebook; Addiction: Reading :)

What did you really want to do today that you didn’t?
Believe it or not - get a certain amount of work done!! :( Which never happened.

What are you most excited for?
Nothing. Seriously.

If you could be a mythical creature, what would you be?
A Centaur. They're fascinating; and so majestic, noble, and beautiful.

What was the last thing you bought?
Some baking stuff my mom wanted, some foodie stuff for us (mayo, pasta sauce, etc.) and plum cake, sponge cakes and lemon tarts from Nahoum's.

If you could have any pet, what would it be?
A tiger cub. We already have three gorgeous, adorable kittens, and more cats at my parents' place, and I've always wanted a little tiger cub to bring up.

What do you want right this minute, off the top of your head?
I want to be completely relaxed and at peace with myself and the world.

Where is the place you like to return to in order to calm down / relax / etc.?
Home, which is my parents' place. I need to have family around me - husband, parents, cats - to relax and calm down.

Who was the last person you visited?
Parents, yesterday - we spent Christmas with them, eating our way through the day!

Are there any bits of childhood that you miss?
Oh, so much. School, vacations, pujo holidays, all the spoiling and love, the joy and innocence of those days. Why did I have to grow up?

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter?

Say something to the person who tagged you:
This was fun - and thanks for providing the motivation that finally dragged me back to my blog!

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Fun ways to waste time!

Confession time - I'm as addicted as the next person to Facebook, particularly to the various apps (applications, for the uninitiated) they offer, despite K's amused disapproval and warnings on what great time sucks these are. But these apps are fun; they're relaxing; and there are times when you actually get to learn things about people you thought you knew - who's competitive, who's obsessive, who's bitchy, for instance.

Farmville, my favourite - and that, I suspect of thousands of others - is, as the name suggests, all about farming and the farm life. You have your own plot where you grow cereals, fruits, vegetables; plant all sorts of trees; and tend to your livestock. The trees and animals/birds mostly come as gifts from friends, who are your Farmville neighbours, while the seeds you buy from the market. You buy at lower rates and sell at market prices, thus increasing your store of FV coins and cash - with that money, you grow your farm, buy all sorts of essentials (like wells, hay wagons, fences, etc.) and buildings (like your own little cottage, or a barn for the cows), and steadily climb up levels (because all this activity rewards you with experience points). You work on your neighbours' farms for coins and XP, which is fun - and it also gives you an opportunity to see what they've been up to on their farms. It is competitive, since you are climbing levels, after all - and you can crow over each achievement on your home page - but on the whole, it is a peaceful, happy, friendly game. Unlike some other farming games (yes, there are more - many more!) where you can actually sabotage your neighbours' crops and steal their animals! (closes eyes in horror)

Sorority Life, on the other hand, is not so - well - friendly, or peaceful, or happy. As the name suggests, it is about joining sororities, and asking your friends to be your sisters - you can dress your avatar in cool clothes, get a cool job, and 'socialise' for money and influence points, which again helps you climb levels. But here's the flipside - it is fiercely competitive, and downright bitchy. You can 'fight' other girls - especially those with houses smaller than yours - and each win nets you cash and more influence. And, as my house is pitiably small, I tend to be 'fought' rather often, and 'destroyed' with dismal frequency. You learn some rather amusing details of American life - for instance, a waitress makes more money than a research assistant, and therefor is a more lucrative career option; and being an art gallery intern, however exciting that sounds, ranks way down than a wedding planner. The game cleverly stokes the competitiveness that's unfortunately inherent between women while harping, at the same time, on sisterhood and solidarity - and while Sorority Life is the only place where I (or my avatar, to be precise) can dress in Christian Dior, wear Manolo Blahnik sandals, carry a Prada bag and drive a Cadillac Escalade in this lifetime, this game is getting a tad too annoying - and boring - for me.

But why, as I was asking K recently, do resolutely urban people, who take pride in their country's rapid urbanisation, their mushrooming malls, branded clothes, pedigree dogs and fancy cars, get addicted to a game about farming and tending animals? Granted, you're not really expected to muck out or get down and dirty in real fields - everything's done with the click of the mouse in air-conditioned confines - but still, farming?? Seriously? Because it represents an idyll, K said, that we all secretly - and some of us not so secretly - long for; or is perhaps because you can be in total control of what goes on in your farm, without having to contend with, say, the vagaries of the monsoons, a control you cannot extend to any other aspect of your life; or perhaps because a gentle, friendly game like Farmville takes one away from the relentless competition and expectations that permeate most people's lives.

Or perhaps I'm reading way too much into an essentially mindless game that is, above all else, FUN! :D

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A nightmare journey

After a recent visit to Darjeeling/Siliguri, K and I were returning home to Kolkata on the Darjeeling Mail, which leaves New Jalpaiguri at 8.05 PM and arrives at Sealdah station at 6.00 AM the next morning. My cousin, whose house we were staying at in Siliguri, had us dropped off at NJP station, and armed with our baggage and one rather fragile gift for a two dear friends, which I clutched to myself, we entered the train. The first sight that greeted me was that of a short, fat, pot-bellied man dressed in a tee and - get this - boxer shorts, performing some ablutions at the sink immediately before the door. I remember thinking vaguely how weird some people were - I mean, what's the point of getting into your night clothes in public on a train, for God's sake? - before following K in to find our seats.

Now, I hate trains. Always have. Being cooped up in a compartment with so many people makes me claustrophobic, and since I've never had much luck where co-passengers were concerned, the journey becomes, at best, tedious. Plus there's the close proximity of strangers in 3-tier coaches, which I find horribly intrusive. Planes might be just as bad at times, but at least it's all over in a few hours. So anyway, we find our seats, tuck our luggage away, I squirm my way into my window seat (luckily we had a lower and a middle berth) - not an easy task, since someone had helpfully wedged a suitcase right where I was supposed to keep my legs. K settles down next to me, we start talking, and then Mr Boxer Shorts comes in and plumps himself across from me. K's eyes widened, and we grinned at each other. And then arrived two other men, all clearly from someplace in UP, judging by the language they spoke - one in a loose white kurta pyjama, with hennaed hair and a tiki/choti at the back, marking him out as a Brahmin; and the other a huge fat man with a stomach to rival Boxer Shorts'. They plonked themselves down, began talking loudly, interspersed with loud chants of 'sri radhe radhe' every now and then. Across from us, on the two side seats, was a Marwari couple, who had begun eating their dinner quietly.

So far so annoying. But now, just a little while before the train was to depart, arrived another man, clearly of the 'sri radhe' party, completing the cosy foursome, again a potbellied, slightly seedy, but otherwise ordinary looking person. He stands there, talking as loudly as his pals, and then I notice him beginning to unbutton his shirt. 'Here's another about to wear his night-suit,' I remember thinking. Except he didn't. Wear anything fresh, that is - the disrobing, on the other hand, continued. While K and I watched aghast, this person calmly removed his shirt, sat himself down on the seat opposite, rucked up his undershirt almost to his shoulders, and, as if that wasn't enough, proceeded to unbutton and unzip his trousers. I shot one appalled look at K, who was staring expressionlessly at the man, dived into my bag, yanked out The Wizard of Earthsea, and stuck my nose resolutely into it. Bless Ursula le Guin for being brilliant enough to even engage my attention at that moment; and I came up for air only when K asked me, in perfectly normal tones, if he should 'tell that pig to wear some clothes and behave himself'. I asked him not to - I didn't think we could take on four enormous ruffians. Just then, a respectable-looking Bengali gentleman came in, and it turned out that his was one of the seats that one of the barbarians had occupied. There was a scramble to get his luggage out so he could go sit where he rightfully belonged - and I'm not usually so provincial, but I have to admit that the sight of a decent Bong man filled me with unutterable relief.

I didn't look up from my book even once since then except to talk to K, and then I didn't look ahead, pretending - and I can do that very well if I choose - that the people crowding my space didn't exist. Nauseous sounds of chomping, slurping, burping a while later told me the cave men had sat down to feed; Ged had just reached Roke, and I followed his efforts to find the Archmage with a desperation that rivalled his own. After a while K pokes me and says - again in his normal baritone - 'Look at that fat pig. He doesn't even know how to eat properly.' I refused. K continued staring, still without expression. Once the burp fest was over, loud post-dinner chatter ensued; the Marwari couple had settled down to sleep, but their noise disturbed the lady in the lower berth so that she sat up, looking at them - K tells me her look was one of horror, and then she apparently looked at us with much sympathy. At some point they clambered onto their respective berths and relative peace ensued. The Bong gentleman made his bed on the top berth with much apologies for taking up our space while doing so; and then he climbed up and firmly switched off the lights. The Marwari lady lay down in relief, I emerged from Earthsea, and we had a quiet dinner in the relative privacy afforded by the darkness.

The medley of snores kept me up all night, but I didn't care; and when the train pulled into the station, I leapt out almost before it stopped. White kurta Brahmin was still snoring, incidentally, regardless of his pals' attempts to wake him. The last thing I saw was a coolie poking him - hard, I hope.

So. WHY can Indian men not behave themselves in public? I mean, is that so hard to do? As K said, if a foreigner had seen these buffoons, would s/he not have been justified in believing that Indians are an uncivilised race? And, as K said later, that disgusting disrobing was, in a way, a complete denial of my existence in the same shared space - women, in their world, are clearly invisible, inconsequential entities. I think there was both a denial and an affirmation operating at the same time - the entire episode was also for my benefit, a form of sexual intimidation targeted towards the woman so far removed from their own social milieu. As a student of sociology, I am aware of culture-specific behaviour - but I fail to understand what role 'culture' has to play in the lives of people who know as little about the norms of public behaviour as a caged animal. And if it comes to that, give me a caged animal any day. Nor was this display about class/caste - in the minds of most people, even today, the people lower in the socio-economic hierarchy are the ones who're considered 'uncivilised', 'uneducated'. These people were middle-class, and of the Brahmin/Kayastha castes. How could they have been brought up - or not - so badly? And the scary part is that these aren't the only specimens - most Indian men are this disgusting. My paradigm and theirs are so far removed that we might be living on different planets - and our worlds collide only rarely, for which I am thankful. I'm glad I don't belong to their world, for - and I'm stereotyping, but I think this time it's justified - these men, without doubt, are chauvinistic, misogynistic, patriarchal tyrants.

I'm never travelling on a train again, unless accompanied by people - and then we can travel in the 2-tier coaches, and hopefully we'll fill up all the seats around. Oh, and here's another bit of irony - there they were, these right-wing, Hindu, crude specimens of humanity, with their sri radhes and their talk of 'Shri Krishna ki Janmashthami', and there I was, in my cool Tantra tee which said, 'God is too big to fit into one religion'.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

David Yates, I thought, did a fine job with the fifth film, The Order of the Phoenix, which is a difficult book to translate into film, being the largest and the most unwieldy of the lot - so it was with great expectations that I went to watch The Half-Blood Prince, which happens to be based on the book I love best in the series. Except - it turned out to be a big disappointment.

The first half wasn't too bad, really - the screenplay had been tweaked to open the film in a subway cafe, instead of Privet Drive - and I think a few, like me, might have been disappointed at the omission of Dumbledore's impromptu tea party with the Dursleys; but Jim Broadbent's Horace Slughorn more than made up for it in the very next sequence. The sixth story is really about the coming of age of three, not all that different in very many ways, teenagers - Harry himself; Tom Riddle (the future Lord Voldemort, whose story is told through Harry's forays into Dunbledore's memories through the Pensieve, lessons that Harry had to learn if he was to ever defeat him); and Draco Malfoy, who, while facing the task given him by Voldemort, discovers the great gulf that exists between aspiring to evil and the actual doing of it. It is also the last 'normal' year the Hogwarts students are to have, so the usual activities that make up a school - Quidditch, classes and, for the 16-year-old sixth-year students, teenage romances - abound.

And that last is where the problem lay. Because the - to use a rather reprehensible phrase - 'Hollywoodisation' of the Harry Potter series meant that a decision was taken to highlight the 'snogging', at the expense of more important matters. So half the film dealt with the Ron-Lavender, Ron-Hermione, Harry-Ginny sequences, some of them concocted for the audience's viewing pleasure, while grimmer, crucial details were unceremoniously cut.

The film had some great moments, though - as mentioned earlier, Jim Broadbent excelled as the bumbling, egoistic, well-meaning Slughorn; Alan Rickman's Snape was perhaps even more chilling; Helena Bonham Carter brought the evil, half-crazed Bellatrix Lestrange to life; and one could see very clearly just how comfortable Michael Gambon had grown in his role as Albus Dumbledore. The initial sequence with Narcissa Malfoy, Belltrix and Snape was beautifully done, with Helen McCrory managing to bring out a mother's desperation in the short time allotted to her. But outstanding were the two boys who played Tom Riddle at ages 11 and 16 - Hero Fiennes-Tiffin and Frank Dillane, respectively - as were those Pensieve sequences. The menace, evil, and quiet power that both boys brought to the screen were phenomenal - one only wished there could have been more of them, and less of, well, love potions!

But to my mind the actor who stood out was one who has, strangely enough, been written about the least, strange all the more when one thinks of the key role he plays - Tom Felton, as Draco Malfoy. Over the years, Tom Felton has grown into the role of Draco as surely as the three central characters have grown into theirs; and his portrayal as the increasingly unsure , vulnerable, and confused Draco was powerful, and entirely convincing. His racking sobs as he tried to come to terms with the depths to which he was being forced to sink; his contempt, that of one 'chosen', for his clueless classmates, a contempt laced with fear as he searches for the evil he hoped was within him, only to find it missing; his fury at Harry's discovering him at his most vulnerable - and, at the very end, the pleading in his voice and eyes as he tells Dumbledore, 'I have to do this. If I don't, he'll kill me' - all touch you in way that none of the other, more touted performances do. It's a shame that so fine an actor and so complicated a role has been allowed to get lost in the flurry of accolades heaped on less deserving ones.

While Yates captured the wild cliff face and the green cave where Harry and Dumbledore go to hunt for a Horcrux beautifully, complete with the terrifying Inferi, the climax, which never fails to move me to tears when I read the book, left me cold because of the ridiculous omissions - couldn't Yates have spent five minutes (cutting out the superfluous and entirely unnecessary scenes concerning the attack at the Burrow, for instance) showing how the students were taught to Apparate? How on earth is one to believe that Dumbledore, in his weakened state, could apparate Harry back to Hogwarts? And why, pray, did Dumbledore not stupefy Harry? Are we to believe that all Harry did through Dumbledore's final moments was gape open-mouthed at the proceedings, without even, at the very least, running for help? And speaking of help - where were the Aurors who were supposed to be patrolling the corridors and grounds, and who were shown at the beginning? Isn't it crazy that a group of Death Eaters could calmly kill Dumbledore, tear up the Great Hall, stride out of the front door, pursued by a lone Harry who had finally found his feet? David Yates' biggest mistake was doing away with the battle at the end, between Aurors and Death Eaters - the film leaves too many unanswered questions without it. And it's also sad that Dunbledore's death was not made more of - Hermione discussing Harry's snogging Ginny and whether Ron would approve bang in the middle of a talk about Horcruxes trivialised the gravity of the situation.

Given the hype that surrounds every major film release, it becomes very difficult to separate a film from its promotion, and to watch the characters on screen and not remember the actors. On reading the interviews, reviews, etc., one can forgiven for thinking that the films have just three actors - Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (in that order of appearance). Too much rides on their shoulders, and here, at least, they fall woefully short - Daniel is, to quote the delightful Luna Lovegood (played to perfection by Evanna Lynch), 'exceptionally ordinary', Rupert clowns his way through, and Emma really hasn't much to do, except stare in a lovesick fashion at Ron and cry. Perhaps they have become a tad too confident of their ability to play these characters? Or perhaps the media conflation of these three with Harry, Ron and Hermione means they don't need to work too hard at their roles? Or perhaps they're plain bored. Any of these could explain the careless performances, made all the more apparent by the superb supporting cast, even those given very little screen time. Watch Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince only for these 'other' actors - both the established great actors and the younger, newer ones - and not for the three who usually hog the limelight.

The Harry Potter films are losing their charm. Or maybe it's my disillusionment with the whole series, brought on by the disastrous seventh book, speaking. Either way, give me Narnia or His Dark Materials any day.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Nostalgic for Rath

The Rath yatra festival came and went this year without most of us coming to know of it. My friends and I often talk of the happy childhoods we had, despite the absence - or perhaps because of it? - of cable TV, the Internet, reality shows and malls; and I realised sadly that the total disappearance of rath from the lives of people symbolises the passing of a way of life that was so much a part of our growing-up years.

As children, we didn't care much about the giant rath being pulled out of the Jagannath temple in Puri; what was important was us dragging our little rath models, with tiny idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra ensconced inside, down the rutted lanes of our neighbourhoods, a fun evening with friends and sweets and fried papad before us. The excitement began with the onset of the monsoons, and when the first delicate white flowers known as furush made their appearance in our garden, my happiness knew no bounds. And then the first rath models began to be seen in the market - they were rickety wooden affairs, hand-painted in bright colours, and in various sizes - little ones, almost as tall as I was when I got my first rath; others were taller, with two to four vertical compartments built into them. I still remember how proud I felt when I was considered old - and tall! - enough to be bought a 'three-storeyed' rath; and how carefully I placed my little idols, one in each compartment, with a tiny plate of sweets in the topmost 'storey'.

School gave over by 1 PM that day, after the morning classes; the pleasure of a half-day was heightened by the anticipation of decorating our raths at home, readying them to be taken out later, towards evening. I'd pester my mother and Didi to start helping me cover every inch of the rath, barring the front and the top, with strands of white furush and leafy stalks immediately after lunch; sweets would be bought from the closest shop and arranged on the tiny plates my mother had kept ready; and all the while I would be driving everyone crazy, blowing on the 'bhyapoo' - a long pipe-like object made of banana leaves with a plastic cone stuck at the top which, when blown into, made an infernal, ear-splitting noise, anathema to adult ears, but music to ours. By 4 PM my friends would be banging on our door, and out I'd scamper, the rope tied to the rath front clutched in my little hand, and off we'd go, importantly dragging our raths behind us, blowing on the bhyapoos and talking incessantly. Frequent stops had to be made to set our raths right - the ramshackle wooden structures and rutted roads meant that every five minutes, someone's rath would topple over. We'd meet other kids, look derisively at their raths and their decorations; neighbourhood adults would stop us to tell us how beautiful our structures looked; the older boys would find ways to distract us and steal the sweets so lovingly placed inside (running away before we could discover their perfidy, and before the consequent wails brought concerned, yet amused, parents out to refill those plates). By 5.30 it would start to get dark and we'd be called in - but then my father would carry my rath up to our large terrace, and I'd pull it around, with Sheru, our Alsatian, loping along, trying to get at the idols and sweets inside.

I always refused to take off the 'decorations' till the leaves and flowers had dried, clinging on to the festival for as long as I was able to; and then the rath and idols would be wrapped up carefully and stored in the loft, where it would remain for the next one year.

Children don't know what rath is any more - and I suspect that if they did, they'd find the idea of pulling a rickety wooden toy down the streets both embarrassing and ridiculous. Colourful raths are no longer to be seen in markets or on streets. The furush flowers sway gently in the breeze, but no one picks them any more to adorn little raths. The defeaning bhyapoos have fallen silent. And when they did, a part of childish innocence and fun was lost forever.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

J.R.R. Tolkein, The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun

This is the latest marvellous offering from Christopher Tolkein - two unpublished and unknown poems written by J.R.R. Tolkein sometime in the 1930s that were based on a corpus of poetry called the Poetic Edda, dealing with Nordic mythology. The poems are flanked by detailed commentaries written by Christopher Tolkein, and are preceded by an Introduction by J.R.R. Tolkein himself, taken from a lecture he delivered to the English faculty at Oxford University, titled 'The Elder Edda', which includes a fascinating discussion on how, as pagan religions in Scandinavia and Iceland gave way to Christianity, the wonderful world of old Norse mythology and folklore died out, coming to exist merely as disjointed fragments of what was once a rich oral tradition.

Lovers of fantasy fiction who are ardent admirers of Tolkein's works will love this, not least because it sheds a lot of light on the etymological and creative origins of Middle Earth, and some of it's much-loved characters. I just reviewed this book for BusinessWorld online, on their books site, so shall desist from rambling on here; but those interested in reading my review can visit the site at

And those of you nice enough to read the review, do come back and let me know what you thought!

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

On films

I must be among the very few not celebrating the return of Bollywood films to the multiplexes - I've been enjoying myself, actually, watching the good English films that the plexes were being forced to screen in the absence of suitable mindless fare - but now it'll be back to waiting impatiently for the odd good English film that pops in for about a week or so amid the gaggle of Hindi blockbusters. It wouldn't have been that big a deal had we still been in Delhi - most English films do make their way to the various PVRs, regardless of the presence of Bollywood; unfortunately, most Kolkata people, despite their many cultural and intellectual pretensions, are singularly unable to appreciate good films - for most, the 'best film' they have seen in 'a long time' is Dev D. English movies are, for most, merely an opportunity to make out in a semi-empty hall or, for those groups of badly-behaved, horny men so peculiar to Bengal, to catch sight of Kate Winslet's lovely legs.

But K and I've had a lovely time catching all the Oscar-nominated films, which begs the question - HOW did that very ordinary (at best) Slumdog Millionaire pip these fabulous films to the post? Granted, Danny Boyle did little else but lobby for nearly a year before the Academy Awards - but seriously, did everyone leave their brains behind when they cast their votes? Slumdog didn't have the depth, pathos, or the disturbing quality of The Reader; it had none of the joie de vivre, social relevance, energy or sheer brilliance that made up Milk; none of the slow narrative power, cinematography or wonder of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (and this despite Brad Pitt, who, despite special effects, resolutely remained Brad Pitt all the way through, allowing Benjamin not a chance to get under his skin); even Revolutionary Road, which proved disappointing (primarily because of all the expectations riding on it), had way more intensity and powerful moments than Slumdog could ever dream of. I guess all one can be thankful for is that they handed out the Oscars for acting to the people who truly deserved them.

But now it's back to sadly going over the movie listings and finding not a single one I'd like to see; growing ever more depressed at reviews of films that were long released but would never grace a theatre near me; asking hopefully for DVDs that take forever to appear in shops, if they ever do; and longing for that nice cheese popcorn that Inox serves.

But I suppose Star Trek will come to Cal theatres, right? I mean, even Cal people would want to catch Captain Kirk and Spock in action! And who doesn't love Wolverine?? And the Terminator - especially now that Christian Bale's playing John Connor? Right?

One can only hope.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Delhi trip

After a gap of a year and half, I returned to Delhi for a short visit about a month ago. It had primarily to do with family matters, and was a whirlwind trip of a week, in which I had to pack spending time with family, catching up with a few friends, swatting off pesky work-related phone calls, getting a certain amount of work done, browsing at Midlands, and feeling incessantly homesick. I didn't, of course, manage to do quite a few things I had really, really wanted to - like eating loads of golgappas and plates of papri chaat, for instance - I didn't manage even one - and shoe shopping, and meeting or even talking to every friend of mine in the city, as a result of which at least one friend has stopped talking to me for what I fervently hope is the time being. But the net result is a feeling of utter relief at the knowledge that I no longer live in Delhi, that our decision to move out wasn't, after all, a mistake, in that we are definitely much happier at having moved out.

Most of south Delhi - which, being where I had lived for the last ten years, was where I confined myself - seemed to have become one large construction site; everywhere I went, roads were blocked off on both sides by PWD boards; the city seemed to be given over to the construction of flyovers or the extension of the Metro line - either way, it was a commuter's nightmare. There is frenzied building all over in an attempt to be ready for the 2010 Commonwealth Games - most residents, however, are pretty doubtful as to whether the city will be ready in time. Never a friendly city where pedestrians are concerned - after all, if you're so pathetic as to be walking on foot instead of driving or being driven in big, fancy cars, you may as well resign yourself to a life of invisibility, shorn of all humans rights - the blocked-off roads and deep trenches mean that it is well-nigh impossible to walk down some Delhi roads, even if there's an emergency. I was told that once all the construction is completed, Delhi will be a city to behold - an ariel view will show a cityscape akin to any mega city in the world, with beautifully laid-out roads and interconnecting flyovers, and gleaming malls boasting of every luxury brand imaginable. I think there must be something decidedly wrong with me - because at that image, I uttered a silent thank you to whatever powers-that-be do or do not exist that in that future, I will be living in chaotic, confusing Kolkata, teeming with people jostling for road space with rickshaws, rattly, noisy buses and cars - and little shops and dhabas lining the sides of nearly every street, selling you everything you would want, and a lot more you wouldn't.

I enjoyed my desultory amble down Green Park Market, though, and hanging out at Midlands, wishing I was a millionaire so I could buy up half the shop - but since I wasn't, I had to remain content with two books (Ian Rankin) and a graphic novel (Mauss) for K (after all, we had pretty much bankrupted ourselves at the Kolkata book fair, and it's not right to be too greedy, is it?) - followed by a fun afternoon at Dilli Haat with a friend, PD, where we ate our way through a couple of food stalls and wandered around in the misting rain (and, of course, it had to rain the one day I decided to spend outdoors, dressed in my summeriest best) - however, after the first couple of days of going out, while walking down the crowded Khan Market with its glitzy shops (but not a single decent shoe shop anywhere; I mean, seriously, what's gone wrong??), I realised that I was, quite unconsciously, comparing myself to the women around and coming up short, even in my mind - my hair looked stupid, my clothes were shabby and uncool, and I did need a pair of good shoes. I'm not sure if the first two were true, but that's how I felt - and I realised that just a couple of days in Delhi had reduced me to defining and judging others - and my own self - by my appearance; suddenly, what I was wearing, where I was wearing it to, and how I looked was so much more important, because that's how it is in Delhi - clothes and cars and shoes and hair and brands make you who you are, separate you from those who are with it and therefore worth it, and those who aren't. It's funny how I never think along those lines in Kolkata, no, not even if I'm going out to some so-called 'happening' place; but despite knowing where my insecurity stemmed from, I couldn't stop myself staring miserably at my hair and my supposedly pitiful collection of clothes all through the week.

And here's another thing about the visit - I was careful to make sure I was back home before dusk, unless we had a car or I was being dropped back, because I was told time and again that Delhi, never a 'safe' city for women, had grown worse over the last couple of years. There was a murder just a couple of days before I left - and the one evening I made my way back on my own somewhat late (after 8 PM) after meeting a couple of friends, I clutched at my pepper spray nervously through part of the auto ride that took me through a desolate stretch with a woody patch on either side, cars zooming by at full speed, and not a soul on foot - not that that would of any use, in a city like Delhi. Halfway through the journey, I received an anxious 'where are you, it's getting late' call from my aunts, and was greeted with 'we were getting a bit worried' once I returned home. I don't recall being this nervous in Kolkata, ever, not even later in the evening. It's sad that the capital of the country, the future mega-city, cannot assure its citizens the basic safety they're entitled to.

I miss my family - my granny, my aunts, my uncle - and my friends, and a few favourite places - but on the whole, as I told Mary, another friend, this return visit brought home to me all over again just how much I'd grown to dislike Delhi and everything it stood for, and how relieved I feel to no longer be living there. My apologies to those who love the city and cannot imagine living elsewhere - as far I'm concerned, home is where the heart is, and my heart is lodged firmly in Kolkata.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Fred Vargas

I've been deep into crime fiction, one of my favourite genres of literature (yes, I said literature. So there.) of late - and European crime fiction at that. Americans, I find, can write good thrillers and potboilers, which become all too predictable after the first three or four books, but when it comes to police procedurals, complete with imagination, ingenuity, detailing, characterisation, it's the Europeans who rule. And I have recently discovered yet another writer of police procedurals - a Frenchwoman, an academic, who goes by the decidedly unfeminine name of Fred Vargas.

Vargas' books are set in Paris, and her main character, Commissaire Principal Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg, is clearly modelled on the detective who set the whole concept of urban police procedurals with a flawed, damaged even, policeman at the centre in motion - Chief Inspector Martin Beck, of the wonderful and canonical series of ten books written by the Swedish pair Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo. Like the Martin Beck series, where the city of Stockholm plays as huge a role as any character, Paris, with its quirks, its alleyways, its cafes and the various arrondisements into which it is divided, is a constant presence in the Adamsberg books. Like Beck, Adamsberg has a disturbed personal life; again, like Beck, he goes on to head a murder squad; couldn't care less about rules or his appearance or the image he portrays; is intuitive; solves pretty much every case assigned to him; is, by all accounts, an attractive man. That's where the similarity ends, though - but more on that later.

That Vargas is an academic is made abundantly clear in her plotlines, which very often have academics with esoteric specialisations and references and quotes from medieval tomes peppered liberally throughout - sometimes they even form the pivot around which the plot turns. Like her detective Adamsberg, who is prone to daydreaming and functions for the most part with 'his head in the clouds', Vargas' tales often take meandering turns down flights of fancy, with whole paragraphs devoted to disjointed and vaguely confused thoughts invested with the task of propelling the narrative forward. Adamsberg, we are told, is a gentle yet restless man - his voice has a peculiar soothing quality that lulls the listener to tranquillity and pushes them to confiding in him - a trait that comes in very useful during interrogations - yet he cannot stay still for a moment, preferring long walks to desk work, and constant activity at particularly pressing moments, when he most needs to think. His train of thought follows no apparent logic - intuition, of the almost mystical, clairvoyant kind (unlike Beck, whose flashes of insight were always rooted in reality, in fact and experience) is what leads him to an understanding of how, and why, the crime was committed.

Adamsberg's counterfoil is Inspector Danglard, his second-in-command - as addicted to logic as Adamsberg is to woolly chains of thought, a firm believer in the routine his superior holds in mild disdain. Danglard, with his alcoholism ('Tell me what you need me to do before four in the afternoon - I don't function too well after that'), his five children (two sets of twins, and one, the blue-eyed boy, 'was clearly not his', but his wife had dumped him on Danglard anyway) who he adored and who kept him sane, his unhappiness at his lack of physical attraction, which his impeccable clothing did nothing to compensate - is, somehow, a far more believable and endearing character than Adamsberg - as are the various other members of the Murder Squad - the intrepid Violette Retancourt and the wide-eyed Estalere, for instance. However, unlike the Martin Beck series, where Beck is a part of a team, whose other members are just as important - sometimes even more so - than the central character, Vargas tends to devote more space to Adamsberg dreamy soliloquies, which tend to grate at times - especially when some of the perpheral characters turn out to have much more heart than the principal one. This, perhaps, is one of the biggest flaws in Vargas' writing - that she has created a central character who is very difficult to identify with, or even like.

This flaw in a way also diminishes the rigor of police work - the dull routine slogging, which forms the bulk of police work, so carefully and intricately detailed by Sjowall and Wahloo (and by writers like Ian Rankin, P.D. James, Peter Robinson, Henning Mankell) is pushed to the background, and Adamsberg and his imaginative forays down paths where the proverbial angels fear to tread dominate - and so, at the end, you're at times left dissatisfied, unable to connect the dots that led to the denouement. Rigour is also sacrificed at the altar of what has clearly become the modern-day version of witchcraft - hacking. Hackers, the twenty-first century shamans with their codes and encryptions and viruses taking the place of spells and rites are now increasingly being turned to in the solution of murder mysteries - why follow clues or deal with forensics when you have someone to sit before a computer and almost intantly - CSI-style - provide you with all the answers you need, generously supplied by people too stupid to know better than to confide their deepest, darkest secrets to their computer's hard drives. I'm not sure, being almost a Luddite, if this is at all possible - all I know is that taking this easy short-cut has sounded the death knell of ingenuous police procedurals. It isn't just Vargas, but otherwise brilliant writers like Stieg Larsson who succumb to this temptation - thereby substantially eroding the charms of the good, old-fashioned detective novel.

The Adamsberg books are typically French, though, with their emphasis on the pleasures of a good cup of coffee or a glass of wine; the importance attached to people's clothes and styles of dressing - Adamsberg, who for the most part goes around looking 'like a pig's breakfast', is regarded as a curiosity because of his total disregard of what he wears; his sandals once moved a junior sufficiently to exclaim, in tones of great horror, 'You're surely not going out in those!'; sexual relationships are a necessary, but hardly all-consuming parts of characters' lives; and the French disdain for and amusement at English people and Canadians are all too apparent.

Vargas' books are interesting and informative, although sadly lacking in humour of the sort that was so apparent in the Martin Beck books - but then, aren't the French supposed to take themselves very seriously? - and well worth reading if you're a fan of police procedurals; however, if you like this genre to be rooted in solid police work, and if you like your detectives to be real and endearing like Martin Beck and his murder squad, or gritty like Rankin's Rebus, or as dogged and stubborn as Mankell's Kurt Wallander, you'll probably come away wanting more.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A feline interlude

A couple of mornings ago, I was awakened at an hour that, by my reckoning, is quite unearthly, by the frightened miaows of a little kitten - inside our house. I jumped out of bed to see K holding a little month-old kitten against him - he had heard the little one's voice from the bathroom, and upon venturing out to investigate, saw it crying piteously while moving dangerously close to the railings on the floor just below ours. He immediately rushed downstairs to rescue it - and just in time too, as the baby was being frightened even more than it already was by a hulking, fat boy who, strangely enough, was just as terrified of it. We knew who the little one belonged to - the mommy cat, a very friendly, pretty young thing, had often been petted by us on our way up. A gentleman who lives on the ground floor, and who clearly likes cats, had told us once while we were talking to her that she had delivered babies 'oi oi dike' ('somewhere that side'), a vague description made even vaguer by hand movements in pretty much every direction.

While trying to comfort the kitten, we decided to troop down and see if we could locate where 'oi dike' was - or find someone who knew where the cat lived. We even considered ringing every doorbell on the ground floor to see if we could locate the cat-loving gentleman, but decided it might not be such a good idea to wake people up just to ask - 'Apni ki beral bhalobashen?' ('Do you like cats, by any chance?'). Our plan wasn't much of a success, though - no one knew where the cat had had her babies, or that there was a cat at all. And all the while, the little one clung to me and cried her/his heart out. So back we came and then the plan was - we shall hunt one more time, and if we don't find the mom, we shall take her to the original mommy of all creatures feline (and canine and bovine and err ... goatine and monkey-ine) - my mom. So back we went. And the little one was still crying, and scared, but was looking around curiously in a typical kitten-fashion - and upon being set down on the bed, s/he ran across to K's pillows, climbed up the stack of magazines that were sitting beside it, and proceeded to go to sleep. S/he opened her eyes now and then warily, began crying when s/he found her/himself all alone, stared solemnly at our maid and maiowed as if to ask what she was doing in 'our' house, and was clearly getting used to us. The trust that animals place in us humans, a trust that most of us do not deserve, never fails to amaze, and move, me.

Manadi - the maid - ran in after a while saying she had heard a cat calling out loudly; K ran out to see the mother cat wandering around, yelling at the top of her voice. The little one was snatched up all over again, and we rushed out and down the stairs - and no mommy cat. But there were helpful people around the lift, the kuda-wala, for instance, who told us, yes, there is a mommy cat and she had been wandering around crying for her baby for a while now; and unsettled by the noise and the people, the baby began wailing in my arms. The next moment, what do we see but the pretty mother running towards us - towards the sound of her baby, that is; I held the kitten out to her and watched the joyful reunion - the delighted mother sniffed her baby all over, maiowing anxiously all the while; the equally delighted baby, back in the security of her/his mother's presence, began showing off tremendously, stretching, scratching its little ears, all the while pretending that it had been on a fantastic adventure; and a delighted me watched the little tableau. The mom let me pet her, but looked at me suspiciously - she probably thought I'd been trying to kidnap her baby. She soon moved away, followed by the kitten, as frisky as a little lamb now - I tried to follow, to see where she'd take the baby, but she turned around and maiowed at me once as if to tell me to stay away. She was a mother protecting her young, and she didn't want to trust any human in her space just yet. Respecting her space, I stayed back.

We felt happy the rest of the day - it was such a lovely sight, that mother and child reunion. It's also good to know that most people out here don't mind cats; in fact, some actively like them, unlike in Delhi, where cats are feared and disliked, and, by extension, hurt. I still don't know how the little thing got up to the second floor, though - someone must have picked it up and brought it up, it's paws were too small to manage the stairs. We're keeping our ears pricked, though, for further maiows, which might signal the return of our much welcomed house guest.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Rooting for Freida

My dad's a journalist, of the old-fashioned kind - he's from the time when journalism really meant the things the word still implies - the pursuit of truth, moral courage, social responsibility, ethics. K's from a different generation, but journalism still meant something during his time, which is probably why he finds it easier to talk shop with my dad than with the young, cocky twenty or thirty-somethings who call themselves journalists these days. The degeneration of journalism into pointless muck-raking; frothy, nonsensical, never-ending pieces about Bollywood and the incomprehensible world of fashion; and partisan reporting has been around for very many years now, but I was reminded of it all over again this morning when I read the cover story published in a supplement of one of Cal's leading - and still much-respected, a respect it's increasingly ceasing to deserve - dailies, on Slumdog Millionaire's leading actress (or should I say one of the leading actresses) Freida Pinto.

Quite unnecessarily spiteful and vituperative, it proceeded to make the point that Freida Pinto is a mere flash-in-the-pan, a nonentity who merely got lucky (and, through barbs and innuendos, managed to convey the impression that she did not deserve that luck - after all, she's just like hundreds of other young women, and hey, all she had was 15 minutes of screen time, in which she was really not given much to do), and is now living it up. Laced at appropriate intervals with nasty comments by people, most of whom happen to be columnists of the paper in question, the article left a rather nasty taste in my mouth, not least because of how pointless it was. Considering that all of India's rushing to lay claim to Slumdog, which is, to all intents and purposes, a British film, and not a very good one at that, one would have thought that the success of one of the Indian actors would have made the country legitimately proud. I guess not, though, at least not while we have vicious, envious people who can write - or get someone to write - scurrilous articles aimed at pulling people who've surpassed them down.

It's undoubtedly true the Freida's got lucky. It's also true that she didn't have much to do in the film, and that the younger Latikas outshone her. But the same can also be said of Dev Patel. Is the reason why Freida's 15 minutes is being sneered at while Aishwarya Rai's 15 minutes in the mediocre The Pink Panther 2 is being lauded because Freida was, before the phenomenal success of Slumdog, a virtual nonentity? And because she's making it to the Tonight Show and has caught Woody Allen's attention while the other Bollywood actresses who routinely talk about their 'Hollywood projects' haven't? Or because, while our esteemed media loves talking about 'feel-good', 'rags-to-riches' stories, they haven't found it in themselves yet to embrace the people who actually make it? How can the same media be so proud of A.R. Rahman and Resul Pookutty, who it hadn't even heard of previously, but not of Freida Pinto?

I've shot off a letter of protest, which I'm certain will never be published, the concerned newspaper not being too bothered with opinions different from theirs; I do hope, however, that Freida's Hollywood ventures pay off, and she emerges a star - then, when the very same media falls over themselves to court her, I shall take an especial glee in writing them another letter, reminding them of the time when they informed her 'there's nothing to be so kicked about', as her success was merely due to 'luck by chance'.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lance that freedom

There's a new four-letter word currently doing the rounds in my life - an 'f' word at that - 'freelancer'. I first realised just how scurrilous a word it can be when, from the respectable confines of a 9-5 job, I joined the despised ranks of those who 'work on their own', the people who spend all day 'just chilling', the freelancers. My responses to the question 'But why are you not looking for a JOB'? - that I really needed my own space, away from stifling and nonsensical office rules; that I was tired of battling office politics and never getting anywhere or doing what I wanted to do because I could never be what higher-ups wanted me to be; that, on a less sombre note, I really hate waking up early in the mornings - cut no ice with well-wishers who were firmly convinced that I was 'too young' to take such a step, that I was throwing my life away.

Two years after I took the decision to 'throw my life away', I find it's working out pretty well, at least as far as the quantum of work and the issues of space and freedom are concerned. Where it's not working out, however - and other freelancers will no doubt know exactly what I mean - is in the total lack of respect I am accorded by the very people who think I am 'mature and experienced' enough to be trusted with 'very important' projects. And this lack of respect, this invisibility, comes only because I work on my own, without the imposing edifice of an organisation to 'have my back', as the Americans would say. Had I been doing sub-standard work, but from within a cubicle, I'd have mattered more.

Why are people so reluctant to embrace the idea that options that are a tad different from the run-of-the-mill definitions of what constitutes 'work', 'success', and 'professional' are just as real? Why can people not appreciate that even without a desk job, I am just as professional - if not more - than the people who give me orders from the air-conditioned confines of their office spaces? And that that professionalism deserves the respect and courtesy that would be due any of their colleagues with office spaces similar to their own? That when they have no problem flattering me with talk of how 'valued' I am, how needed, when there's a dodgy project they need to palm off to someone whom they can subsequently blame if something goes awry, they shouldn't have any problem saying a simple 'thank you' when I turn in work that is of decidedly high quality?

Since beginning my career as freelancer, I've realised that people don't value risk-taking, independence and discipline, all of which form an integral part of a freelancer's life. That my work is not considered 'work' because I do it from home; that my work deserves absolutely no credit because I do it from home, on my own, in my time; that people actually feel it is absolutely all right to dismiss me as 'just chilling' (and this after I had spent time detailing some of the books and journal issues I had recently worked on; that person had no idea how close I came to punching that fat face in), take the credit for my work while giving me absolutely nothing in return; that so-called professionals think it's all right to renege on payments or, at the very least, be tardy about it, while having the gall to ask me why I wasn't prioritising their organisation when it came to accepting projects. (Here's one excuse that never fails to mystify me - 'I was too busy to pass your bill/reply to your email/send you the cheque'. Which category, pray, did my email/bill fall under, if not that of 'work'? Giggly timepass with bosom buddy??)

I've decided, though, that I am not going to let these people - well, most of the world, I guess - tell me how I should feel about myself and my work. I am bloody good at what I do, which is why these same people seek me out - and I am proud of my skill. I take immense pride in my work and my professionalism, and it's perhaps time to demand that respect that is my due. I work harder than a lot of people who sit around in offices collecting pay checks they never earned, and I am not going to allow people to say anything different.

As a friend once remarked, 'working on one's own does not mean sitting around eating potato chips and watching soap operas!' A truer statement has only rarely been uttered.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The 'common' existence

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel annoyed at being referred to as 'common'? And being lumped together in one category with most of the world's - certainly the country's - population, as if we were all one homogeneous, amorphous mass, robots, all, cast in one mould by an indifferent, bored Creator? Or are most people so used to this 'common' label that we don't really care to dwell on the connotations - the signifieds, if you will - of this simple word, an exercise that would, in all likelihood, cause us to ask belligerently in our best Eliza Dolittle manner - ''Ere! Oo are you callin' common, then'?

A few second on gave me 22 results, of which only a few suited my needs:

1. of mediocre or inferior quality; mean; low: a rough-textured suit of the most common fabric.
2. coarse; vulgar: common manners.
3. lacking rank, station, distinction, etc.; unexceptional; ordinary: a common soldier; common people; the common man; a common thief.

Note the juxtaposition of words here - inferior quality, mean, low; unexceptional, ordinary; and the gradual degeneration of the common people into the common man and then the common thief. Consider, then, the obviously non-ordinary, very exceptional people who us 'common' types are pitted against, the same people who speak patronisingly of the 'common man' (where, pray, are the 'common women'?), citizens, fans, without knowing the first thing about who - or what - they're talking about: in our country, it's the politicians and celebrities, who all, with very few exceptions, hail from the over-hyped, over-rated and, to my 'common' mind, the very mediocre world of showbiz. Although, considering that politicians are all uncommonly self-serving, uncommonly corrupt, uncommonly ignorant and uncommonly stupid; and showbiz celebrities are uncommonly lacking in talent, uncommonly parasitical, uncommonly self-indulgent, uncommonly ignorant and stupid, that distinction does make some sense; however, it's precisely for this reason that my 'common' self rebels against this unflattering label.

Isn't it absurd that most of us who are better educated, decidedly more intelligent, and worthy and useful members of society than the preening members of the category supposedly signifying 'station and distinction' should agree to this demeaning label thrust upon us by the latter group? The term 'commoners' might make sense in a country like Britain, where it's used to separate the royalty from the rest of the people, but in democratic countries - however farcical that democracy might be - this label has no meaning. We should rebel. And ask for this term to be brought under the 'politically incorrect' category - perhaps, from now on, we should agree to be called, say, 'financially challenged' (because, as we all know, one of the biggest, and possibly the most important, factors separating the 'common' from the 'uncommon' is money - it's money, and the power and resources and luxuries it brings in its wake that gives the 'uncommon' ones their 'distinction'), or the 'Thinking, Educated, Socially Aware Section'.

A digression - the discipline of sociology eschews the term 'common', and its various definitions - the very first seminar that was held at the beginning of our MA course at the D'School was on 'Sociology vs Common Sense' - it was believed that we wouldn't be on our way to being good sociologists till we purged everything commonsensical, commonly believed and accepted from out systems. After all, every student of sociology knows just how difficult it is to categorise any group of people, more so in a country like India - there are castes and sub-castes - varna and jati - communities demarcated and split again and again on the basis of region, religion, sub-sects, languages, dialects, cultural specificities; but let's leave that discussion for later.

In the meantime, if any of you agree with me, do come up with more names for our own sub-group!