Friday, December 28, 2007

Picks of the Year: Books

It is the last few days of the year, and everyone is busy making the good, bad ugly lists of the almost 365 days gone by. Expanding on a trend I began last year (inspired a little by fellow bloggers), I have decided to use this space to reflect on the best of reading and cinema I came across this year. I think 2007 was a year rich in both – movies particularly so because I experimented with many different genres, more than I had ever done before. Even in reading, I came upon a few new writers, and read more of the ones I had read last year. I even came back to a few writers which had become kind of a stumbling block before, and I am glad I finally read them. I only closely made it to the 50-book milestone, but I am proud to have gone through some arduous books as part of this list. Some of the interesting and notable things that I read this year are:

Jose’ Saramgo – I read three more books from this Portuguese Nobel Laureate: The Cave, Gospel according to Jesus Christ and Blindness. I enjoyed them as much as the Double, the first two more so. While Cave and Blindness were what you would call typical Kafkaesque works, Gospel… was mainly a humanistic and slightly satirical take on Bible. There is nothing realistic about Saramago’s works – they are always placed in a nameless town, with nameless people trapped in a situation which we can only call a negative fantasy – yet there is something of a very raw reality. I loved the sort of doom and helplessness they portray.

Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie – This was a very complex allegorical work, complicated further by Rushdie’s winding sentences and words hand-picked from a thesaurus. It took me quite a while to wade through this heavy book, but it was an interesting read in the end. I don’t particularly care for magic realism, but I like allegories – and this book had many.

Nadime Gordimer – She was another author I read further after an introduction last year. Though I didn’t like any of Get a Life or The Conservationist as much as The Pickup, the latter was good, with its monologues and all-pervasive emptiness. Get a life, on the other hand, was quite passable.

Naguib Mahfouz – I read this Egyptian (exotic, isn’t it?) Nobel laureate for the first time, in two different avatars. In books like Khufu’s wisdom, Mahfouz has taken over the task of re-telling old Egyptian tales, and frankly, I do not wish to pick up anymore from this genre again (they are outdated tales of morality and wisdom which are great for bed-time reading if you are an insomniac!) However, I simply loved his existential author avatar in Midaq Alley, which is an assortment of the life stories of a few people staying on a modest Cairo street. Purely despondent, very existential.


Zeno’s Conscience, Italo Svevo – Now this was one book I loved. It is a mock autobiography written by a smoke-addict, on the suggestion of his psychiatrist. The writer spins a tale replete with Freudian overtones and laden with ‘guilt’. Remarkably cunning in its humor.

Orhan Pamuk – I read two of his works, actually one and a half, for I have not finished The Black Book yet. I enjoyed the exceptional story telling in My Name is Red, it was another complicated tale, and the mixed narration was a real joy. The more confusion in the story, the better. Both these books are mysteries, and weave the Turkish life in their stories, which seems to be flavored with a lot of coffee houses, gossips and unreturned loves.

Evelyn Waugh – I like his satire for it offers a freshness from the desperate tales that I read otherwise. This year I read the twin books of Decline and Fall & Vile Bodies – both of them a mockery of the elite British society

The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky – Now why didn’t I read Dostoevsky before? May be the book’s daunting size has the answer, but it was 1100 pages well spent.

WG Sebald – He is certainly the ‘find’ of the year, the way Saramago was last year. I simply enjoyed curling up to Austerlitz and then was overwhelmed by Rings of Saturn. I am resolved to make one of his foot journeys and then hope that I can write something like that. He is completely different from what I mostly read and describes a melting, disintegrating world, which makes you want to curl up your legs and weep, and at the same time also take off on the lonely road and crash with the breaking world. Funny that I should love such a heartbreaking imagery!

Other noteworthy reads were a couple of autobiographical works – Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt and Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende. Also liked Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Book Crossing

I had learned the term Serendipity only about ten days before I came across the concept of Book Crossing. (I of course learned the term because of the silly movie by the same name – not by watching it, but by hearing of it from loads of people who could not stop swooning over its fairytale romance! A couple of years later when I did watch the movie, I felt nauseated with the overdose of sweetness, not to mention stupidity!). The movie aside, it was an interesting word, and sounded even better when combined with books. Imagine sitting in a cafe, sipping coffee and enjoying the music, and on a curious impulse, you look under the table and find a packet wrapped in brown paper. You pick it up, and find it is that rare book you have been thinking of reading for a year! Yes, yes, I realize the over optimism and romanticism hiding behind that 'dreamy' thought, but that's the good thing about dreams. You can make them far more beautiful than reality.

So, when a friend sent me a mail about Book crossing, I registered at their site. For the uninitiated, the concept behind book crossing is that readers across the world release their favorite books with a book crossing ID (BC-ID), and leave it at some public location – for instance in a park, a café, a hotel, a train or a station. When someone finds that book, (and if they are Book-crossing savvy), they go to the site and register that they have found the book against the book's BC-ID. So you can track your book as it crosses from one hand to another and at the same time also serendipitously find books left by other BC members. Of course, I was loathe to trust anyone with my books and therefore hoped only to find one left by a more trusting soul. For a few days, I kept logging into the site to check if someone had left a book behind in some part of my city, where I could conveniently go and pick it up. Unfortunately, there are few trusting souls in India, and neither of them had the good fortune to be members of BC and be in Bangalore at the same time! I gave up after a few attempts – after all the most likely fate to be suffered by an unclaimed book in India is that it will find its way into the second hand market or in a waste paper shop.


Recently, I read an interesting an amusing article in NY Times which brought back Book Crossing to my mind. The writer makes several attempts to leave books in conspicuous spots, always hopeful of finding something in return. She finds herself getting cross with Book crossing and struggles to serendipitously find a released copy. It was nice to know that I don't stand alone in hoping the scales of serendipity to tip in my humble favor.


Book Crossing aside, I have serendipitously found a few books in different places, and they have been good reads. (I hunted for a BC-ID in them but never found it) I found Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose lying on the shelf of a community kitchen, and found Roddy Doyle's A star called Henry in a Garage takeaway (well, it was like a garage sale where you didn't have to pay !). In more conventional places like hotels, where a lot of tourists leave their books, I have found and read books like The Accidental (Ali Smith) and PGWoodehouses. (Even some random romances, but I am ashamed of mentioning those J ) It is a delight to stumble upon such books and devour them, especially when you are not carrying enough to read on a journey. My only hope is that people get more generous with their books. But alas, when I checked book crossing this afternoon, I realized that book crossers in Mumbai are no better than Bangalore and there is only one book released in the entire city. On second thoughts, I suppose I should go hunting for that in stead of wasting my time writing this!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Hitchcock & Maurier

At one time I was introduced to Hitchcock with Psycho, and I thought - Huh! What's the big deal. After that I have not gone back to this movie to really figure out if there was any 'big deal' with it. However, since then I have watched numerous Hitchcock movies and have liked them - not particularly for technique or greatness, but simply because they are generally entertaining thrillers.

In the last week I watched two Hicthcock movies based on Daphne Du Maurier's books - Rebecca (1940) and The Birds (1963). I enjoyed watching both - the first one particularly more than the other. I had read Rebecca a long time ago, and it stayed with me for some time - as did another Daphne book: The Loving Spirit. Both stories had a haunting presence, their heroines seized by an invisible force, in one case a dead woman, in another a queer wanderlust.

In Rebecca, a young woman marries a rich widower and comes to his estate, which appears to her a kingdom of the dead wife - someone all servants and guests hold in reverence and cannot stop talking about. She is intimidated with the hold that the dead woman continues to have, and attributes her husband's distance and distraction also to his love for the first wife (Of course, it is a Hitchcock movie, and you would therefore expect that something else lies beneath the apparent exterior).

The movie is a good adaptation of the text, though I think the tension in the book was far stronger than what the movie was successful in conveying. While in the book, the dead wife Rebecca almost appears like another character, always moving through the shadows, she is almost absent in the movie, except in the obsessive dedication of the housekeeper. Judith Anderson as this housekeeper, however, was positively spooky and did an excellent task with her character. The movie won an Oscar, surprisingly Hitchcock's only one for Best Film

The other movie, The Birds, was quite horrifying. Classified as an apocalyptic, 'Revenge of the nature' film, it showed the unification of bird-kind against humans and the havoc they bring about as they attack a town of Bodega Bay and peck people to death. The movie does not explain what causes this sudden unification or revenge, and does not even give a deterministic end, except an escaping family, running away from a vast spread of birds. The thought that birds, which far outnumber the humans could collect their forces against us, is quite scary. Tippi Hedren, after acting as the heroine of this film, "was riddled with nightmares filled with flapping wings".

The shots in both the movies are eerie, and in both Hitchcock has used long intervals of silences to create a scary effect. If you enjoy a spooky weekend - here's your chance to indulge!

Friday, December 21, 2007

A perspective on Sebald

I stumbled upon a book by Mark McCulloh on Understanding Sebald in Google books. The book contains Sebald's biographic details, his writing style and chapters singularly dedicated to each of his four novels which have been published in English (I am quite proud of being the prospective owner of all four of them, now that I have ordered Emigrants and Vertigo from Landmark online!).
In the initial chapter on Sebald's Literary Monism, McCulloh discusses Sebald's fascination with the past - something which no reader of Sebald can ignore. He puts it as:
...Everywhere in Sebald's work, beginning with his poetry, that the author recalls the past, recovers the past, and seeks to depict how the present fades imperceptibly into the past. His narrators and many of his characters are convinced that the dead are with us still, a part of who we are, and he is intent on telling their often obscured or suppressed tales...
Actually, Sebald's narration of the obscured tales is what endeared his works to me most. His narration,too, is special in its own sphere, moving through the world noiselessly, observing a world which knows nothing of his presence. In McCulloh's words,
His own narrative, as German readers have pointed out again and again, is archaic, that of a specter.
This may be a nice introduction for people intending to read Sebald, or others like me who are eager to delve deeper.

Monday, December 17, 2007

A journey through shadows: Rings of Saturn

There are only two real hobbies that I have - reading and traveling (Yes, I am still only slipping into cinema and have a long way to go). In a way really they are quite connected because they are both about seeing the world. Of course with books, you can see more worlds than the one that lies before your eyes, because they can transcend the borders of time, and you have to spend far less on the journey :-)

So what delight it can be, if the two of my favorite things come together in a travelogue, which delves deeper than a trip account and transports one into a totally different world. That too a world which lives not in the present but is only a decaying ghost of of an eventful, rich past.

Rings of Saturn by Sebald is an account of the narrator's foot journey through East Anglia, covering the counties of Suffolk and Norfolk. Whether Sebald actually undertook this journey or if the book is a completely fiction is something I have not managed to find out. The narration, however carries the conviction of memoirs and as you walk through the pages, you feel that not only Sebald, but you yourself also made that journey. Page through page, you can hear the 'rumble of thunder', smell the acrid fumes and sometimes even feel the shuddering chill as the textual clouds cover the textual sky. In so many ways, Sebald has managed to paint on a canvas through words and make his picture come alive.

As I said earlier, the journey transcends the borders of time, and it seems that in stead of being unidimensional, time had in stead become a hall with many doors, and you could move through these times at will, or at least at the author's will. The hall, however, is only a ghost of what lies beyond these doors. And Sebald heartbreakingly devours this ghost, through words and images, before entering through one of those doors in a flourishing time. He then makes us meet a lot of illustrious characters who live or lived in East Anglia - the learned and the eccentric, the dedicated and the talented. We see him uncovering the life of Conrad, pondering over the anatomical works of Browne or imagining himself to be a shadow of Michael Hamburger.

Many times, the book seemed to me, more than a travel account to be an account of destruction wrought over by time, almost as if time makes everything worse, and we are merely living in a fraction of the world that was. This thought is no better underlined than in these words:
...time has run it course and that life is no more than the fading reflection of an event beyond recall. We simply do not know how many of its possible mutations the world may already have gone through, or how much time, always assuming that it exists, remains.
At such times, the reading became very disconcerting and disturbing and I found myself wading depressively through my memories and weighing these words, of course never finding the answer, or even knowing if it exists.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Blindness

I think a lot has been said in general about the animal instinct of man - his capability of rapid degeneration in face of calamity and the tipsy and highly vulnerable nature of order and organization, that merely hangs on weak threads of faith and fear. Therefore, Saramago's re-emphasis on the same instincts and his question-mark on humanity and civility appeared to me like flogging of an already weak and slightly horrifying horse. It did not help that Saramago applied himself to careful detailing of this degeneration and continued to re-draw those details in every scene. As a result, it became quite difficult for me as a reader to wade through the muck of a sub-zero level hygiene and rampant putrefaction, and reach the literary brilliance at the core.

The work, no doubt, in that signature style of Saramago that I have come to love, is insightful and very expressive. Here too, like The Double and The Cave, he takes us to a nameless country, has us meet the nameless people who are identified only by their first appearance in the novel - the doctor, the doctor's wife, the old man with the black eye patch, the first blind man, etc. He then holds our hands and delves deep into these characters, forcing us through the web of complex thoughts and emotions that goes on in those minds. Sometimes, the reader is fascinated by this web - but sometimes, you just don't like to see what rot lies there - something that is specifically true of Blindness.

Blindness is a story of a whole city (perhaps country) gone blind, for no explicable reason. The initial people to go blind are put in an asylum by the Government, and the book focuses on the tribulations of these people, and their view (only figuratively) of this blind world. In this group is a woman, who for some reason retains her sight. It is perhaps through her eyes that we see the moral, civil and human degradation of the world in the face of this calamity.

The literary value of the book is high, and you can dig a dry irony in many places. For instance the book begins with the scene of a traffic light:
The amber light came on. Two of the cars ahead accelerated before the red light
appeared. At the pedestrian crossing the sign of a green man lit up. The people who
were waiting began to cross the road...
These few words describe the dependence of this world on visual signals, and thus even before he begins on the calamity, Saramago tells us how much havoc is he going to create in this 'automated' world by taking away the sight.
Since I just posted the link to the review of Coetzee's work, I can't help noticing the stark contrast between these two authors. While Coetzee draws heavily on the existing world as a backdrop for his works, Saramago stands on the opposite end and makes a new and strange world in his novels - carrying only a few elements of human nature from the real world.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Review of Diary of a Bad year

New York Sun has published a good review of Coetzee's latest work: Diary of a Bad Year. I have been wanting to pick up this book, but the two reasons that keep me from doing that are: 1) the backlog that already adorns my shelf (Argh!) and 2) the fact that the book is still only available in a hard cover and I am waiting for a paper back edition. (Yes, as they say no sense is stronger than economic sense!)
As for the review, I really liked what Marco Roth says about Coetzee's writing:
He has never really written baggy novels or created self-standing worlds. Early works — "The Vietnam Project" (1974), "Waiting for the Barbarians" (1980), "Foe" (1986) — required readers who could check off their own internal references to the Pentagon Papers, structural anthropology, Kafka, C.P. Cavafy, and Robinson Crusoe, and who also knew something of life in apartheid South Africa
And, this statement about Elizabeth Costello (so unbelievably true..)
"Elizabeth Costello" (2003), a novel that can only be called a novel in the sense that Plato's dialogues are plays.

Looking forward to getting to this book in the near future. I am getting a feeling that I am always running after this pile which keeps growing higher and higher!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Mar Adentro (The Sea Inside)

Generally speaking the movies based on real life can get a little arduous. So when I picked up this Spanish movie based on the life of a ship mechanic, I expected a little bit of sentimentality, some show of real heroism and a bit of boredom. But generalizations are in general risky and one can never learn enough that they should be avoided.

The story, contrary to what most briefs about the movie will have you believe, isn't the story of Ramon Sampedro's life at all. It is a story of his death, which begins when he is 20 and meets a diving accident and ends 28 years later. During these 28 years, Ramon lives his quadriplegic life, but refuses to accept this existence choosing in stead to die. He fights a legal battle for euthanasia, but the law continues to rule against it. Eventually, he manages to convince enough people to assist him in his death and takes a cyanide injection, thus completing the cycle that had begun 28 years ago.

The movie, however does not focus on the legal drama at all, as you might expect from the plot outline. In stead it focuses on the personal life of this bed-ridden guy who denies even the use of a wheel-chair, perhaps because he does not want to reach a compromise with his condition. It focuses on the family ties and the bond between two people battling with a degenerate disease, on Ramon's love for sea and his dreams about flying out to it. But most importantly it is about personal dignity and a man's vehement denial to be forced to accept what is handed out to him , because he has no other choice. So even though his family and people around him continue to love him and care for him, he continues to resent his dependence on them. At some time, specially when you see the sad faces of his family members, Ramon's decision to die seems thankless and a little cruel. But it is rational to abhor dependence and be at the mercy of this love, specially for a sailor who loved his freedom and traveled around the world at a young age of twenty. And it is unfair to expect everyone to accept a severe setback and make amends with it.

Javier Bardem's performance in the movie as Ramon was extraordinarily brilliant. He surely deserved an Oscar for expressing his bitterness, love, mockery and determination merely through his eyes. The movie is also very well scripted and directed, and it steers clear of making any moral judgement on whether euthanasia should be supported or legalized, which is remarkable as anyone making a movie on such a moral question is often tempted to take sides and at least tip the scales to one side. What Alejandro Amenábar has done is simply portray the life and the thoughts sensitively. It may be the emotional tear-jerking drama, it is surely well worth the time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The bicycle thieves & Neorealism

Continuing my experiments with Italian movies, I watched De Sica's masterpiece Ladri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves) sometime back. The film was highly ordinary and non-special, and it was in this non-specialty that its charm lies. It is a story of desperation and poor luck, the kind that can (and does) fall on most people in their everyday lives. And that is the reason why the movie in particular and De Sica in general are tagged as the champions of Neorealism - a wave which dominated the post World War II Italian cinema and dealt exclusively with real people and their un-special lives.

Bicycle Thieves (I use the plural used by UK film distributors, because I think that is more correct in the light of the story, which actually was about two thieves rather than one) is a movie about a common man Ricci, who lives in the post world war Italy, and waits in queues to get a job. He finally finds one, on the condition that he has a bicycle. He pawns linen to get an old cycle that he had pawned earlier, and for a few minutes in the movie, we see happiness and hope on the face of this small family as they clean and polish the cycle which was to them, their route to happiness and comfort. However, as a viewer we know the name of the movie and are therefore not convinced by this show of happiness.

Sure enough, on the very first day of the much regarded job, a thief comes along and steals away Ricca's cycle. Ricca along with his son Bruno and a few friends, struggles to find the cycle in bicycle markets, looking for each part as they expect the cycle to have been taken apart by the thief. This scene is particularly vivid and marks the desperation and finally the frustration of the father and the son. Defeated after this search and another hopeless pursuit, they both go to a pizzeria and spend the little money that they have on a sumptuous meal, the mental frame aptly described by Ricca's words: What the hell! In this scene we also see the strengthening bond between the father and the son, and again for a moment there appears a shade of happiness.

Later, Ricca accidentally spots the thief and follows him - however the pursuit again proves futile as the thief is backed by a supportive neighborhood who are willing to give him a false alibi. Now truly broken and desperate, Ricca attempts to steal a bicycle himself to keep his job, but is caught and disgraced in front of his son. The end thus succinctly puts him at par with the thief, who also would have been driven to theft by his social conditions.

In the neorealistic style, De Sica has used non-professional actors in the movie, and has shot the entire movie on the streets of Rome, without the extensive use of sets and editing. Having grown up on Bollywood movies, I think that the reality offers a pleasant freshness despite the evident despair. There is nothing theatrical about the family's tragedy - no overbearing landlords nor warlords. You can easily think : That could have been me - and through most of the movie, I did end up remembering my own despair at having my passport stolen on a crowded metro station of Paris, and my hopeless search for it.

Having said that, I am sure I would still continue to enjoy the more theatrical movies as much, because it is as important to sometimes escape reality as it is to sometimes face it.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

MMM: Manic Monday Morning

Yes, its the morning of that horrible day of the week that-should-not-be-named, and of course the blues are on in full swing. I remember them creeping in on the previous evening. Here I was, laughing one moment at the incessant banter of Jab we met's Kareena Kapoor, and then, in the next moment was tinted with blue as I got reminded of the coming morning. Nothing like a Monday morning to mar the last shreds of the happy weekend.

So here we are in that dreaded day, and I have decided to make the day even worse by waking up early. After all my sinning on the weekend, I feel guilty enough to punish myself a bit and push myself to take an early morning walk. Such guilt pangs hit me every weekend, especially when that delightful Ducth Truffle is going down my throat and when the waiter is clearing away the remnants of a happy meal. At such moments I can really appreciate the true meaning of Gibran's words when he says:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
Except that in this case, things turn on their heads and the well of laughters leads up to the tears :-(
As I step out for that walk, I am pleasantly surprised by the cool in the air. Bombay must be getting a touch of the winters. For once I am prepared to like this city, but I don't suppose the city is yet ready to see me as the friend. For, only two rounds later its back with its signature warmth and by the time I am ready to go back in, the heat is on!

I go back up, looking forward to the day's gossip on Bombay Times, with one or two horrifying items from the Mumbai Mirror. Unfortunately the newspaper boy displays a superlative efficiency and decides to skip the locked house. It is miraculous that a fellow who always miscalculates a simple bill and in 8 months has not understood that I need a different paper than the one he is giving me, is smart enough to realize that if my door is locked, it means that I have already read the weather report and therefore will not need the newspaper for the day!

Not knowing what to do with the extra time on my hand, I switch on the TV. Since this is one device I use very rarely, more so for watching news, I have to spend considerable time finding a 'good' news channel. After a long hunt, I find none and settle down with the lesser yellow ones. Most of these channels, like the newspaper boy, think that news is all about weather and I see temperatures everywhere - either in tickers, or on the fancy maps of the country. I seethe when I look at the 14-15 degrees in Delhi and Jaipur and cry over my lost days spent in these places (Yes Monday makes you more melodramatic! and emotional).

Finally, sometime later I give up on news and switch to music. The blue of my mood is deepening all this while as the time to go to office approaches and Channel V sympathizes with me completely by playing more blues. I would suggest that they rename the program from Goodmorning V to V love Himesh, so at least I know what to expect.

Finally, I approached the moment of truth, and on my way met too many people running towards their truths. Somehow on Mondays Mumbai people get increasingly eager to reach office and it is heartening to see the overwhelming crowd on the road, clearly expressing their delight over the impending reunion with their offices by honking incessantly. Don't we all just love our work?!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Brothers Karamazov

I have not been much exposed to Dostoevsky except for a few short stories (In fact except for a bit from Tolstoy and Gogol, I have somehow skipped the Russian writing altogether). I have liked Dostoevsky's short stories, and so his megalith had been on my reading wishlist and on my shelf for sometime now. I am glad I picked it up finally, for it was definitely amongst my top ten reads this year.

It is a story of parricide, where a son is accused of murdering his father, and the conservative Russia is aghast at such a heinous crime. (I suppose such an overt crime will raise contempt even today, despite the apparent apathy which has been cultivated through over-exposure to all kinds of horrifying crimes). However, this book can barely be summed as a book of crime or a courtroom drama, even though it has elements of both. Dostoevsky has added everything: a little bit of mystery-as the actual murder is never shared with the reader, a little bit of romance, some philanthropy, some religion, some sociology and a lot of philosophy and psychology. To think of it, he hardly left anything. Except perhaps science fiction, which he replaced it with mysticism and prophecy.

As is expected from such a heavy tome (my edition was 1040 pages long!), there were a few sub-plots and each was given a lot of detailing. The story began two days before the murder, and I had finished almost 600 pages before even the whiff of murder appeared. The narrator gives a detailed account of the movements of the brothers, their conversation amongst themselves, their conversation with others, the entangled love stories, the family drama and the religious discourses at a monastery in town. However, it is to Dostoevsky's credit that he would exit the detailing just when it began to get arduous, though the sheer length of the book did ask for a lot of reader's patience.

I liked the narration of the book. Most of the time the narrator pretended to be another resident of Staraya Russa (the town in which the novel is set), giving an account of the happenings. But this did not prevent him to be omniscient, omnipresent and completely aware of even the most intimate discussions amongst the characters.

Apart from the main plot, the book outlines a religious debate and explores the question of existence of God. Ivan, one of the Karamazov brothers who seem to have done a lot of rational thinking, gets into many such discussions. He also argues the rationality of having a system of justice separate from the justice of church (or God), and the book seems to subtly raise the same concerns with its plot.

Brothers Karamazov, apparently is the masterpiece that Dostoevsky hoped to write before meeting his end. He put in a lot of himself in his last work, including his own grief upon his son's death. The grief finds expression in the sequence of the captain and his dying son Illyusha. The benign hero of the novel, Alyosha is also named after Dostoevsky's departed son. It is believed that the death changed both Dostoevsky's mind frame and the course of this novel significantly. Though it did not prevent Dostoevsky from writing the signature masterpiece.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

On Thanksgiving

Yes, I am not a Christian, neither of the western world, but on the day when so many people are offering an appreciation for their blessings, I can join them in appreciating a few things that make me happy:

  • A walk with my headphones on my ears and my ipod in my pocket, as the breeze makes my hair fly
  • The pure joy and richness of written word
  • To sit by the window and look down 16 floors at the the vehicles rushing by
  • To reach home every evening and close the door on office
  • To experiment with movies on the handsome looking LCD screen
  • My small library
  • The ability to criticize everything and everyone
  • To have a set of friends who never say no to a trip or to an evening of fun
  • Good Wine
  • To work with people who can have a good laugh
  • Living with the perfect person
  • The mountains and the beaches

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Amarcord (I remember)

I have very recently begun exploring Italian movies, and Fellini is a revered name of this genre. Sometime back I watched Otto e Mezzo (8 1/2) by this movie-maker, and was rather impressed by the work. The movie is a depiction of a director's brain-work as he struggles through a director's block, exhausted of any original and artistic ideas. During this period, he delves into memories, fantasies, dreams and nightmares, mostly absurd and illogical. However, the viewer is always kept confused between the mind-work and reality, as both of them overlap with a persistence. It is a well known fact that it was an autobiographical movie, and after watching Amarcord, it appears that Fellini likes to put in an autobiographical element to his works.

Amarcord is far removed from the serious and a rather hopeless tone of Otto e Mezzo, and is a rough and risque comedy. It is Fellini's recollection of his rustic hometown of Rimini, as he takes us through an year of this town's life. It's a town which enjoys its silly rituals, lusts after women and has a bunch of bored school boys indulging in fantasies that they hide from their prohibitive church. It is a rather conservative and retrograde town, rejoicing in simple entertainments like cheering the passage of a very large ship (Rex), and tumbles into chaotic activity on arrival of the Fascist leader Mussolini.
Though the movie is largely told from the perspective of young Titta, who is actually a cinematic version of Fellini's own youth, it is actually a collage of different stories featuring different people. Though the scene with the tobacconist features in almost all discussions that I read of the film, I thought there were other sequences which deserved better attention - for example the sequence of church confession which depicted the un-accommodating and unrealistic nature of the church, the sequence about the uselessness of school education and the hilarious scene with uncle Teo!
This film has been described in many places as a 'Coming of age' film, though frankly, the 'growing up' part was not too visible to me. In fact I thought that the end scene where the town's femme fatale gets married to a Fascist officer, almost eliminates from the story Titta and what happens to him at the year's end.
Overall, I think this movie was a well done tribute from Fellini to his hometown, and it was apparent that he was looking back at this small place fondly and without reproach for all its misgivings.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald

While studying history, the two world wars captured my imagination more than any other historical event. However, even amidst these, I was most haunted by the holocaust - a tragedy of boundless dimensions that touched and wrecked the life of millions of beings. Since then, I have come across this horrific truth in many movies and books, and it is still a mystery to me as to why this ugliness fascinates me and the rest of the world so much that we pursue it time and again.
This fascination and a suggestion from a fellow blogger prompted me to pick up this book. It is said that Sebald is an authority on holocaust, and thus what I was expecting from this book was another vivid account of the misery afflicted on Jews. But in stead, this book completely stormed me by giving a haunting account of life after the holocaust and a victim's almost violent denial and suppression of its memories.
The book is about the life of Jacques Austerlitz - an academician who, in his childhood, is forced to leave Prague as a refugee due to the Nazi accession of Czech territory. He lives in London under an alias and does not come to know his true identity until senior years of schooling. During this phase of anonymity, his subconscious mind suppresses all memories of his exile and childhood spent in Prague.
At some stage, perhaps after meeting the narrator of the novel (who almost seems indistinguishable from Austerlitz himself), he decides to go down the memory lane and uncover the fate of his parents, who, it turns out were not able to escape the holocaust. To piece together the history he goes first to Prague, then tries to trace his mother's movements from one ghetto to another. Eventually he attempts to find an account of his father's life.
Austerlitz's life through these narratives, appears to be a tale of melancholy, disorientation and identity confusion. He is almost friendless and detached, seeking solace only in buildings and their stories. It is this silent loneliness and personality disintegration which makes the story so powerful and heart-wrenching.
Sebald's narration is monotonous. He uses a narrator to convey Austerlitz's story, but apparently the only purpose the narrator serves is to screen off parts of the story and emotions that a first person narrator could not have escaped. The gaps between the meetings of the two serve well to cover the gaps in the protagonist's life. An interesting dimension is added by the use of pictures, and I understand that it is a dimension used by Sebald in most of his works. The pictures do not have any labeling and sometimes you have to struggle to find a connection between them and the accompanying text. While this may be disconcerting at times, the pictures also say their own story and somehow make the sense of a haunting isolation more acute. I particularly liked the use of Turner's watercolor 'Funeral at Lausanne', which reminds Austerlitz of farewell and a funeral he himself attended.
It is difficult to imagine how many lives would have been shattered by a whimsical tyranny, and when we shudder it is only for those who met this terror. But it seems much harder to imagine the agony of those who lived in the aftermath of this terror and survived to face the tremors everyday.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Abatement

I have been away from blogging for sometime now. Though the initial gap was attributed to work(!!), the later part was for a much better reason - a week long trip to Manali and Lahaul/Spiti! The trip was out of the world, with its share of adventure, madness and fun. I can't wait to write down about it on my travel blog, though looking at the work piling on my desk, it will be sometime before I will get time to do that.
Also saw the two new Bollywood "Blockbuster" releases - Sawariya and Om Shanti Om. The latter was fun, if you watch it as a spoof on Bollywood in general, but the former was a complete disaster. After reading Dostoyevsky's 'White Nights', I should have stayed away from this one, for Sanjay Leela Bhansali has made the story into a self indulgent movie with almost talentless actors. One should stay away from adaptations if they have nothing to lend to the narrative. It is a crime to make a musical curry out of a presentable theme. Perhaps the dreaminess of the movie could have been delightful if the actors were not so serious about themselves and could show some emotion in stead.
I am not in the least a bollywood fan and such movies reinstate my general disinterest. I think current Bollywood is far removed from greatness and focuses too much on selling starry dreams.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Citizen Kane

In the midst of a completely technical education, there is very little 'Humanity' that I studied. That, only because my college made it compulsary to take 4 courses in the stream. I simply glided through those courses as a mandatory duty - like a dutiful engineer who hates everything but engineering. I even cheated a little by sneaking in Economics amongst those 4 courses. In other words, I , like most of my batchmates, thwarted all attempts by the college to give me a 'complete & well-rounded' education. Years down that road, I do regret not taking up a greater interest.

I saw Citizen Kane for the first time in one of such courses (called Art & Technology). The movie was screened after class hours - which meant an evening away from the usual campus life - something that we resented awfully. And as the screening started, a black & white image appeared, accompanied with a loud, sharp voice that is typical of the movies from that era. In other words, all elements that had the potential to heighten a disinterest already present. The only thing that I remembered from that movie was the breakfast scene between Kane and his first wife Emily. In a run of 4-5 consecutive breakfast scenes, Orson masterfully depicted the changing relation between the spouses. Even with my disinterest, I was able to appreciate the subtlety. But that was about all.

Thankfully, my second experience of Citizen Kane was a more rewarding one. The movie is about the life of a newspaper tycoon, who begins his career on grounds of idealism but eventually gets enamored with the smell of success, and leads his newspaper into a very yellow and very popular journalism. His single-minded and overbearing pursuit of money, fame and power leads to his eventual alienation with his friends, lovers and principles. The movie begins with his death and traces his life through interviews with people he interacted with.
Its true that the plot of the movie is not terribly path-breaking. There are a lot of movies which are loosely based on the lonely man at the top. However, Orson's rendition of the theme is nothing short of perfection. He has turned the biography in a mystery, as a newspaper reporter attempts to understand the meaning of Kane's dying word - 'Rosebud', which leads him to reconstruct the tycoon's life.
Then there are several subtle depictions like the breakfast scene. For instance the focus on 'No trespassing' sign both in the beginning and the end of the movie and the picturization of the palace life with jigsaw puzzles, countless statues and endless mirrors. I particularly loved the shot where Kane is shown in the many mirrors of his palace - nothing could have shaped his isolation and loneliness better.

The movie of course courted many good reviews, and the critics applauded it for its innovation. For the first time a movie used a combination of elements such as newspaper reports, narratives, diary entries and memories to tell its story.
Jorge Luis Borges summarized the movie very succinctly when he called it a

...metaphysical detective story, its subject (both psychological and
allegorical) is the investigation of a mans inner self, through the works he has
wrought, the words he has spoken, the many lives he has ruined.

However, at the time the movie was released, it was largely affected by the negative publicity efforts of the media tycoon William Randolph Hearst who went all out to keep the movie away from public, as it was said to be (rather very closely as many believe) based on his life. He was enraged with the 'negative' and lonely portrayal he recieved.
But despite all the controversy and the battles over the movie, it made its due mark and is regarded as one of the greatest American movie ever made. That may be a little bit of an overreach, but certainly not way off the top mark.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The mega project

I have finally undertaken that mammoth project - of reading Ulysses! I think I must have promised myself this read years ago when I saw this book top the Modern library critics list of 100 best novels - but something (or someone) always prevented me from doing the same. I think it was partly laziness, and largely apprehension. Now that I am on to the project I can figure that the apprehension was not misplaced. In the last ten days, I have progressed to only 100 pages and there are 700 more to go. I have read and re-read pages and lines and get rapidly lost if the internet is not at close disposal for reference. Wikipedia has been a terrific help, with its entry on the novel and additional terms that keep cropping up during the reading.

To be frank, I have not been able to appreciate the book too much yet - it is slow and it is complicated. It keeps getting into the labyrinths of the minds of the characters - and honestly, the labyrinths are messy and unclear (well at least to my eye). The similitude with Odyssey (which I have not read but am familiar with on a summary level) is remarkable and the symbolism is interesting. Hopefully I will soon turn the last page on the book and not give up on it midway.

Booker goes to 'The Gathering'

Seems like it is the Europeans' year - After British Doris Lessing won the Nobel for literature, the Booker goes to Ireland for Anne Enright's The Gathering. According to the bets running prior to the announcement, Ms. Enright was far behind the two major contenders - Jones and Mcewan. But I suppose the Booker is following the dark horse tradition for a couple of years. Sometimes I wonder if Booker has become a way of promoting new and lesser known authors rather than rewarding a well-recieved book.
But of course, to make such statements without reading either name on the shortlist is downright bias.
A review of the novel by The Guardian can be found here.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The night

I hate the kind of work life that leaves little space for much else. Unfortunately for the past month, I have pretty much been in that sort of work life and missed out on watching enough movies or reading enough books. And of course writing down about whatever I did watch or read.
To be fair, though, I partially made up for the lack of movie watching in a single weekend by going for a marathon of seven movies over two days. Most of them were the kind of movies that I enjoyed - two of them particularly so: La Notte and The Brave One. Also watched both parts of the Japanese Ringu - much better and far scarier than the English versions that followed as ‘The Ring’ series. I think remakes are a bad idea in general – statistically speaking. Though of course The Ring did make its share of box office money.

I had been meaning to watch Anotnio’s 'La Notte' for a long time. (Of course, it is impossible to find sufficient time to do all the things that you would rather do – ironically you spent most of your life doing stuff that you would rather not). La Notte is the story of a night in a couple’s relationship - Giovanni & Lydia – It is a night both in the physical and metaphorical sense of the word. A culmination of what perhaps was a shining relationship, into the dusk of coldness and indifference – leading to the dark hour of perhaps eventual separation. Antonioni, in his typical style which says more through gestures than words, has taken the viewer though this painful sequence of distancing. It makes you wonder why two attractive people who have each other would seek the company and affections of others. In the beginning, this ‘other’-ly interest is subtle. Giovanni’s interest in a nymphomaniac, Lydia’s glances towards streetwalkers. That they are no longer ‘together’ is highlighted by Lydia’s otherworldliness in the presence of her husband. The estrangement is mutual – and it is because they both seemed to have married a concept rather than each other – Giovanni a rich attractive girl desired by many, Lydia a talented writer adored by lot. They try to love the concepts, and are therefore disappointed, annoyed and jealous in the real persons that lives behind those ideas.

The movie has a terrific ending - if novelists don't know how to wind up their writing, I suppose they can pick up a cue from Antonioni. He knows how to do it in perfection.

Antonioni has done a remarkable work with this movie. It seems very real and un-dramatic. (Except for the scene with the nymphomaniac, which seemed a little out of place). I have really begun to like him quite a lot, though I think he can be (and IS) excruciatingly slow. thought I would hammer Jack Nicholson in ‘The passenger’ to make him move a little faster!
La Notte is supposed to be the second in a trilogy made in combination with L’Avventura and L’eclisse – either of which I have not seen, but will get on to soon. Even though it looks a little unlikely right at this moment.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Conservationist by Gordimer

When you write from a divided home, it is inevitable that the divide manifests itself in your writing. Writers from South Africa, I suppose, therefore feel compelled to return to apartheid in some form- either in Coetzee's Disgrace or in Gordimer's 'The Conservationist'.

In fact, Conservationist did remind me terribly of the other. The white man with a loosely strewn together life, a farm with black workers, the divide and the mutual acceptance across the divide.

The book primarily consists of self-monologues of a white millionaire in an apartheid South Africa, who buys a farm in the suburbs. The monologues and thought chains draw out his rootlessness and the emptiness of his life. The title very beautifully captures his essence - a man comfortable with the state of affairs, disinterested in freeing his country out of the apartheid which serves him well. In other words, a man who wants to conserve what is. Very subtly, Gordimer has mocked this entire group of these 'comfortable' people, which were instrumental in maintaining the racial divide.

At other times, she delves into the monologues of a few others - significantly the rich man's farm manager Jacobus and an old Indian shopkeeper living close to the farm. Both these men too, are reluctant to any kind of change - comfortable in the continuum. Through them, she tries to give the perspective of those discriminated against and the immigrants, always struggling to only keep their feat on the foreign land.

The Conservationist is a rewarding reading, even though it is a bit tedious because of its monologues. The 'You' in the monologues keeps referring to several different people - the son, the mistress, the ex-wife, and you have to pay attention or the monologue floats away fast. But in the midst of the tedium, you can see in the rich farmer the entire country. And then there is the freshness of the farm to enjoy.

Monday, September 24, 2007

The brand new chamions of the brand new cup!

Wham! Booms! That's all you can hear in the Indian sky today. Everyone is busy celebrating. Yes, they have brought it home. After beatings, brickbats and a write-off by almost everyone. A world cup finally after 24 years! Not the same cup, a new one, but not any less important. The only small thing about the Twenty20 tournament was the number of overs. In everything else, it over did the ODI by a far margin. Great entertainment, great spirit, great shots, great cricket! And those Sixes!
How comfortable to go home in the evening and get glued to your television for three hours. 3 hours - that's all it takes to wind up two innings. And because of the fewer overs, you do not have to wait till the last few overs to find the excitement. It is there throughout, waiting at the edges! In a single match, the game turns to either side several times.

The final was of course the icing - even an off match between India and Pakistan has the thrill and tension of a world cup final, so a final between the two was bound to be a breathless roller-coaster ride. Both teams played excellent cricket and gave their fans and supporters many reasons to cheer.

India was terrific in the series. They played with the cool-headed aggression that they have always been blamed of lacking. And it paid off. In every match we found them turning the match in the last over, with a stroke of good bowling or a sustained effort at fielding every run. The team pulled it off without the traditional spearheads - Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid. Dhoni lead the team with exceptional tactic, being the clear leader. As Gavaskar put it - you could always see the team looking at him in the field, which is a true sign of a leader.
The best part of course was Yuvraj's six sixes. Had he done any better in the final match, no one could take away from him the glory of being the Man of the series. But for India, he would remain the ultimate hero for the tournament after turning the significant matches with England as well as Australia in complete style.
RP Singh showed great bowling, unlike Shreesanth who was consistent only in his tactics rather than the bowling. The latter could do better than to annoy the batsman with his drama on the field and adopt a little bit of finesse.
At the end of the day, it was a delight to see India the team win, rather than seeing another one-man showmanship that always architects India's fate. Well done.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

End of the novel

Long time back, in a class on 'Modern Fiction', we were making a presentation on Ayn Rand's 'Atlas Shrugged' (Of course, there is nothing modern about Rand's writing but for the theme, which too becomes outdated in two readings, but that is beside the point). At one point we were making sarcastic comments on the ending of the novel. After 50-100 pages long speeches on objectivism, Ms. Rand pulled off an end in a complete Bollywood style, with the hero escaping from the villain's den in a helicopter as the whole world collapsed beneath! Surely she could have taken the end more seriously.
At this point, our Professor (a grandson of the venerable Premchand, but admirable for his own qualities) pointed out that it wasn't simply Ms. Rand's at fault. A good number of authors face the dilemma of finding the perfect ending for their novel, and often come up with a mechanical end, which does no justice to the exceptional innovation of idea with which they started their work.

And we agreed that it was a fairly good point. If you write a novel mocking an artificially perfected world, like 'Brave New world', how do you end it, except for the cliche' end of a world turning on itself or a personal tragedy? In other words, a complete anathema of the 'They all lived happily ever after'. It appears that the modern writer has taken a directly opposite line from that taken by its predecessor.
But can a good story possibly have only the two diametrically opposite ends of complete catastrophe or the promise of the moon?
Perhaps as a mid-way many authors have resorted to ending their works without a conclusion. Surprisingly this strategy seems to work well, even though the readers are often left with a unsatisfactory taste on their palate. And yet days after days, readers appreciate the ambiguous non-ending. Lawrence can end his exquisite work (Women in Love)with a simple statement 'I don't believe it' and readers clap with vigor.
For that matter, many a writers have resorted to ending the novel with a dialogue. Coetzee ends 'Disgrace' with a simple conversation over a dog: 'Yes, I am giving him up' - encompassing a man's defeat and submission. And Maugham ends his autobiographical masterpiece with a simple 'Dear!', capturing the hollowness of the song and dance very simply.
Favorite endings?
I am sure everyone has them. I particularly like what Pirsig says at the end of 'Zen...', because it emphasizes the happiness of the moment, without the mirage of its perpetuity:
Trials never end, of course. Unhappiness and misfortune are bound to occur as long as people live, but there is a feeling now, that was not here before,
and is not just on the surface of things, but penetrates all the way through:
We've won it. It's going to get better now. You can sort of tell these things.
One author, whom I believe to be the best when it comes to endings is Orwell. He perfectly rounds off the 'Animal farm' and brings us back to the beginning. And carries to a fitting end a great tale of dystopia in 1984: 'He loved Big Brother'.

Then there is Kundera in Identity, who brings in the author directly in the foreground - asking questions of the reader: 'Who was dreaming?'

And how can I forget my recent two favorite authors.
'He'll come back.' But perhaps a reassurance offered for herself, Khadija thinking of her man at the oilfields. (Nadine Gordimer, The Pickup). In one single statement Gordimer defines both the acceptance of an alien and the difference between acceptor and the accepted.

He changed his clothes, clean shirt, trousers, jacket, his best shoes. He stuck the pistol in his belt and left. (Jose Saramago, The Double). Doesn't that statement hold so much promise of future action, no indecision to be entertained anymore?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Rare surges of patriotism...

The moments when Men in blue make everyone back home awfully proud and happy - when they bring a match with Pakistan to a tie, and hit wickets with every ball, even as the other team misses with equal consistency.
And then in a single over,Yuvraj hits sixes continuously on each ball, as if he has discovered a magic formula. 6 balls - 36 runs! You cannot help feeling buoyant on such an occasion.
Way to go!

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Innovation of image

Amongst the several alternative careers that exist merely in my mind and (day) dreams, a one that figures at least in the top twenty is professional photography. Like all the rest of the list, which includes literature, travel writing and travel journalism for Discovery, I have done nothing to advent this one either and am merely stuck in my dull profession. except browsing on the net for beautiful pictures and sigh at them.
In the course of this browsing, I came upon an innovative form of photography called the 'Kite Aerial Photography' which means shooting photographs from a camera placed on a kite. Surprisingly, I also found that this is not an innovative form - and was first used as long back as 1888 by the French photographer Arthur Batut.

In 'KAP' (which is what kite photography is generally called), the photographer uses a camera tied to a kite and remote controlled by a radio remote. Apart from the fact that the concept sounds fantastic - the kite images have a different quality because of the element of shadow - which forms an important part of the image.

(The famous aerial panorama 'SAN FRANCISCO IN RUINS'
taken by George Lawrence in 1906 after the SFO earthquake)

Some very interesting KAP images can be seen on the French photorapher Mr. Nicolas Chorier's website. Mr. Chorier has recently published an edition on India called Kite’s Eye View: India between Earth and Sky. The preview of the book on this website is definitely interest provoking.

Some more photographs on Flickr.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Bergman in Text

I mentioned in the last post that I picked up a book from Ingmar Bergman: 'Private Confessions' at the Landmark sale. I recently finished reading it and absolutely loved it - even more than Svevo's 'Zeno's Conscience' which I was reading last week and had thoroughly enjoyed.

The book is roughly based on Bergman's life - or rather his parents' and their troubled relationship. It is a story of a married woman (Anna) who is having an extra-marital affair with a young man. It has been narrated through five conversations that Anna has with different people, in an effort to erase her guilt by explaining herself to these people. All these conversations, however, seem an attempt by Anna to convince herself that what she is doing is not wrong. The first three conversations are excellent - specially the one with her husband Henrik. Henrik's reaction have been very realistically drawn by Bergman, beginning with numb silences and ending in angry accusations.

The book however becomes more of a story as it reaches into the fourth conversation, with the focus swept away from conversations into the actual relationship. In fact there is very little conversation in the fourth and fifth 'confessions', something that I did not like about the book. Yet the shreds of conversation that do happen are very poignant and articulately express Anna's guilt and her confusion.

It was amazing how everyone in the story, with the exception of Anna's mother is able to understand her and be supportive in some way. Even Henrik, being a clergyman and the wronged husband! It seemed that even in a severe era of bigotry and sanctimony, people found space for compassion and understanding. However, even with the supportiveness, Anna was admonished by all in some way, ,most of all by herself and her lover, which was the most moving element of the book.

Bergman, as I suspected after watching his movies, was amazing at book writing. He has a particular sensitivity in his movie making, which seemed like an appropriate trait for writing. Of course the filmaker manifests itself in the writer, and so you can immediately see a lot of imagery and detail in the text. At times it almost appears like he is writing a screenplay, describing in detail the posture, the dress, the colors of the moment. He even describes scene cuts at sometimes: Anna on the road, Anna in the garden, Anna at the gate. And like his movies, Bergman is innovative in the way he tells his story.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Shortlist for the Man Booker & Book Sales

The shortlist for Man Booker is out. The six books in the list are:

“Darkmans,” by Nicola Barker

“The Gathering,” by Anne Enright

“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” by Mohsin Hamid

“Mister Pip,” by Lloyd Jones

“On Chesil Beach,” by Ian McEwan

“Animal’s People,” by Indra Sinha

Unfortunately, I have not read any of this to circle out a favorite and bet on it. The betting odds are in favor of McEwan and it is not surprising considering his popularity in general.
It is encouraging to see yet another Indian on the list - specially one who is not completely an NRI, since he has spent a lot of his life in India. There are hardly any noted Indian English writers who are not NRIs.
Along with Mr. Sinha, there is also Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer whose book outlines the suspicions faced by Muslims post 9/11 - a topic which has been much discussed on many forums. But I want to pick up Mr. Llyod's book sometime and see what he has done with Dickens' 'Pip' - but I suppose I have too many unread books on my shelf right now to even think of the new ones.

To talk of new books, this seems to be a lucrative season for Bibliomaniacs like me - Landmark has begun its annual sale, and Crossword is on sale too. I never thought much of the latter's collection, but the sale selection of Landmark too was extremely disappointing this year. While last year I managed to pick up some great authors like Oe & Saramago, this time it is a complete washout - and I picked up only three decent deals - a book by Bergman (I am really looking forward to reading that,because I have always thought his movies would make better books), 'The Impressionist' by Hari Kunzru and 'On the Waterfront' - a collection of articles by Malcolm Jhonson. I also got a chance to indulge in a Coffee table-ish book on movies - 501 must watch movies - and I am on the list with a dedication :-)
I suppose I will have to wait till Strands goes on its Book festival to get my hands on more deals.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Anthills of the Savannah

Sometime back I finally read another book from Achebe. I liked this book, though not so much as the first one - Things fall apart. That was certainly Achebe's masterpiece and I was expecting something comparable when I sat down with this one. That is the folly of expectations and that is also the trouble with beginning on an author with his signature work.
Anthills of Savannah is a story of a nation facing the political conundrum of a new found independence. After years of ruling, it is expected that a country finds itself unable to take charge of a freedom, which it severely struggled to obtain. It is almost like you wait for exams to get over and when they are finally over you do not know how to manage the free time since you have been so focused on seeing them through that your head is heavily blocked up with that.
Achebe describes this confusion through the lives of three political leaders and through alternation of narration tries to give a wholesome picture. However at times, the different narrators do not seem too different but appear as one. In that he has failed to give multitude to his thought.
The book is dark, almost inadvertently it appears, because it starts off with satire and winds up being a serious story.very serious indeed. There appears to be a lot of confusion in the book -not just in the story, but in the writing style also.
In the end, it is a political work, and describes the aftermath of colonialism. Many countries witnessed such destabilization after they freed themselves. Some more than others. Even our country sometime appears to be in similar clutches at time when the Government looks unsteady like a house of cards, ready to tumble down with the merest flicker. But hopefully those are the turbulences of a mature nation rather than a stumbling one.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Memories & objective reality

There are many adjectives that can be used to describe different memories -happy, haunting, scary, embarassing, distinct, elusive, sad and sometimes even perplexing. But perhaps one adjective that can be used more universally with memories is 'interesting'. No matter which end of what spectrum does a memory fall, it is seldom dull and uninteresting. That could possibly explain the prominent featuring of memories in many works of fiction - written or celluloid.

What makes memories so interesting? While we are still in the present, life hardly seems that interesting. Just by moving on in time does the past become more colorful? Perhaps the mind uses the filters - of preserving only the vivid moments - or does it add the vividness to the routine dullness? That is something we will not know - the mysteries of the mind. What we remember as memories - are they real? Or a snapshot modiefied in the photoshop of our minds?

And why just memories, even the reality that we see is perhaps modified by the medium of our minds through which we see it. That's why the account of two people seeing the same thing is so different. Kurosawa's Rashomon focuses upon the impossibility of determining the objective truth, and the complete reliance on individual accounts to arrive at reality. Similarly, we are forced to completely rely on the account that our mind gives us to make an image of reality. 'Somethings have to be believed to be seen', and people often see what they believe. After watching a sacry movie, often the shadow of the trees falling on the window takes gruesome shapes.

A brilliant depiction of the enigma called memory is done by Michelangelo Antonioni in his movie Blow-up where a photographer comes to believe that he has captured a murder on his camera. In this convinced state, he even sees a body lying at the spot. But when he returns in the morning, there is no body. And without a proof, he cannot claim to the truth of the murder. He is not even sure if he saw the body or it was an image from his mind. The last scene with the mimic tennis game brings home this point with remarkable clarity and finesse.

I wonder if there truly is an objective reality? What if, like Matrix our minds are projecting a world reality and it is largely uniform accross a number of people only because it is programmed to be so. Sometimes a bit of a fault in the program makes people see an alternative reality and we call them mad, insane or 'soft in the head' depending on the degree of deviation. Does what is seen by a majority of people become objective reality? Because 2 out of 3 witnesses said they saw a similiar picture?

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Bergman & Allen

I cannot believe that Woody Allen is a fan of Ingmar Bergman or is influenced by him in any way. Whereas you hardly hear the spoken word in Bergman's movies, talking and words are all that Allen uses in his films. Its like he cannot stop talking.
Strange influence this is!

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bright Young people

Just the other day in a disc, I and my friends were quite appalled to see a bunch of really young looking kids drinking, smoking and dancing away to glory way past the prescribed bed times for people their age. Their callous attitude and overt amorous behavior and our obvious disgust for it made me feel for the first time that perhaps the new generation has come in and we have moved to the next level. And I suppose like every generation, even ours has not escaped the trap of assuming that the next one is decadent and shallow. Of course the 'Bright young things' will protest - as we did when we were in their shoes.

Evelyn Waugh's novel 'Vile Bodies' is a satirical take on the lifestyle of these bright young people and is a brilliantly funny work. After a series of serious narratives, reading Waugh was like a breath of freshness, even if the humor towards the end grew dry and derived its punch exclusively from 'tragedies'. The tragedies however did not trouble the happy go lucky young things who went on with their partying even in the face of worst calamities. Their biggest fear every night was something else - something aptly described by Waugh in this line:

Soon someone would say those fatal words, 'Well I think it's time for me to go to bed. Can I give any one a lift to Knightsbridge?' and the party would be over.

So night after night, this group of people party-hopped - ranging from airship parties to masked parties to drunken brawls at the Downing street.

The book is a story of one such person who keeps running into money and subsequent losses of it, accordingly breaking and keeping his engagement to his sweetheart. It begins on a very light note and the humor arises out of truly comic situations (like a forgetful father in law), however at some point it passes into a dark tale of irony and becomes a shade depressive.

It is amusing to see that generations don't change, and even in the midst of a social party of their own, the parents worry over the mindless parties of their young, and as the two parties (that of the young and the old) are described almost in parallel, there is very little contrast you can see in the uselessness of each.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Sophie's Choice

I have been stumbling upon too many Meryl Streep movies lately - it appears that she figures in many important ones. That perhaps is explained once you see her act - for she is a graceful actress - a woman with substance and it is hard to shrug her away with decoratory roles.
The latest in the list of her movies that I watched is Sophie's choice, adapted from the famous novel by William Styron. The story is set in Manhattan and centers around a struggling writer (Stingo) and his relationship with a couple - Sophie and Nathan, both of them being a little eccentric and a little esoteric.
Sophie is a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp, and is a non-Jewish Pole, while her lover Nathan is a schizophrenic American Jew. The story moves back and forth in time, narrating Stingo's own experiences, Sophie's memories of her experience in Poland and then Auschwitz, the couples' memories of their encounter and of course the present.

Both the book and the movie are needlessly long. In the book Stingo struggles to keep the focus on himself with his sexual escapades, his fantasies, his life in Southern American and his thoughts, only relating Sophie's stories in the gaps. In the movie, the story continues to move in the present for the longest time, focusing on the strange relationship between Nathan and Sophie and Nathan's unpredictable countenance. Sophie's story begins much later and is over very soon. Her life in the concentration camp is almost glided over when compared to the book.

However in both versions, the crux of the story - that of Sophie's choice comes towards the far end and if I had felt that the book did not do enough justice to the dilemma, I think the cinematographic Sophie made up for this injustice. For even though short, the scene is impactful and splashes a small cold shiver on your spine.

Even with a strong story, I think Styron has messed up a little by trying to put too many words in the same book, but for his verbosity, I believe his book would have been higher than now on the critics list. As for the movie, I think the adaptation is wonderful, especially so because of Streep. Neither Kevin Kline as Nathan, nor Peter Mcnicol as Stingo were too impressive but Streep kept the focus away from them. Her Polish accent was so perfected that even after so many movies from her, I was convinced that she could be Polish. I am a fan.

The story of the headless chicken

Mike, the headless chicken would be very proud today - for simply the dropping of his name has tumbled a whole country into turmoil. Some name-dropping that is!
Well, I am not so much for current affairs, less so when comes to political affairs and agendas. But this one is too interesting to miss. When someone sitting in a foreign land, already having his hands full of an explosive deal, throws a 'headless chicken' remark to the media, it is bound to send ripples - even across the seven seas. But what is interesting to watch is how the remark really results into a scramble, creating its own reality, like the self-fulfilling prophecies of the yore. Hours within the comment is thrown, people begin to believe that it is thrown at them. The opposition takes offense, the left takes offense, and even the media takes offense - and all this when Mr. Sen had not pointed his finger at anyone, at best only at Rediff Media. It appears that deep down all of them suspect the worst of themselves! The current situation is remarkably like a pack of chicken, shrieking in confusion, running here and there.

Well perhaps they are not so headless, though. Opposition as well as the Left is always ambling for a cause to topple the Government - to snatch that second chance and to defile the ruling party with mis-governance. This thoughtless remark by an envoy gives them a great opportunity, especially when they have already been working hard on canceling the 123 deal. Our MPs, like everyone else, hate to go to work and keep looking for a day off. If you have ever watched the zero hour telecasts, you can simply see it in the attitude. It is like watching a pack of fighting children, hoping to finish the school hour in the ruckus and not having to sit in the class and study. A thoughtless remark make them their rainy day.

The media of course have a field day on such misgivings - they love to show themselves as the hurt party, braving all criticism in the face of bringing truth to the forefront. In saying that I am not criticizing them, well at least not too much. They do a good job of trying to highlight the irrationality and take the citizen on board. But often their highlighting crosses the bounds of responsible journalism. How much importance does one give to an irrational demand from an irrational segment of Governance? Running around about it too much, even though clearly discounting the merit of the protest is closer to exploiting the issue rather than sensible journalism. And if someone misfires a comment in an annoyed reaction to such running around, sensibility would suggest ignoring such a comment and not use it confound an already messed up situation at home. Is the media really responsible for telling the country that the country's envoy was rude to them and give a chance to the destabilizers to have their song and dance? Yes Mr. Sen goofed up and he ought to face the music for that. Such irresponsible comments cannot be excused from a representative of the country - his role is tact and he failing to keep it up in an important time is sufficient to warrant an exit. But c'mon you newspapermen - are you doing your job well by fueling an irrelevant fire?

Gospel according to Jesus Christ

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this unusual account of Jesus' life by Jose Saramago - of course a version which the saviors of the religion will never accept or include in their canon. After all it raises severe doubts about the benevolence of their God. A God who has already been suspected of 'severity' several times in the past.

The book is an account of Jesus' life as narrated by Jesus of Nazareth himself. A simple man, son of another simple man and not God. A man with human instincts, who takes refuge in the arms of a woman (Mary Magdalene of course) after being troubled with his nightmares and a disturbing encounter with God.
The brilliantly held together story then goes on to describe the miracles that begin to happen to this simple man - something he is neither able to fathom, nor able to control. Miracles that are imposed upon him by God, in an endeavor to expand his empire. For God deems that the presence of his son in the world will spread his kingdom further. Perhaps even God believes in the 'personal touch' - something that he cannot give himself and needs a medium!

Though I have not read either of the four canonical gospels, nor the denounced gospels, but I am sure this one must be more interesting. Its just right that the catholic church should have protested against this novel as blasphemous, but then no religious sect takes well to inspection and scrutiny.

Saramago, as usual is brilliant and original in this work as in all others. I thought his writing style was more expanded and verbose in this one as against the other two that I have read - The Double and The Cave, but that perhaps can be owed to different translators (That is the frustration of reading translations - you never know what got lost, or added, never know how the original author composed it). I love Saramago for his almost always unusual stories, a binding narrative, his tremendous originality, and his exploration of human thoughts under crazy circumstances.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Ilham

Another visit to Prithvi - a Hindi play this time. I normally try to avoid those because most Hindi productions love to immerse themselves in cliche themes of ailing India and poverty. However, this one was both a surprise and a delight. It did not just keep away from these cliche themes, but dealt with philosophy in stead - something plays often keep away from. Perhaps because to deal with the abstract in front of audience, without the liberty of cinematography, is a very difficult task.

Directed and written by Manav Kaul, the play is the story of a middle-aged man who claims to have 'Ilham' - a term from the holy Quran, which means a private revealation. Leading a very average middle life, he one day goes to a park and begins talking to an imaginary man. Slowly he begins to show signs of 'madness' as he plays with imaginary children in the park, talks to his imaginary man (Chacha) and becomes happier, even commits the sin of being satisfied. He begins to understand the mute and the birds, but forgets the human tongue.
His family is worried, running from doctors to magic men. And while they treat him like the mad man that he becomes to the world, his happiness hangs from a thin thread. Caught between the two worlds - the one that his Ilham promises and the one which he has created and cherished till now, he becomes miserable. That is when he realises that he has to chose one world - he cannot live in the promised world while being with his family and so he gives it up.

There is a lot of thought that this simple play with its less known cast but highly competent lightings could have generated. But it gave that slightly dissatisfactory feeling. I may not be living in 1984, and I may not want to dance spontaneously in the middle of the road - but if I ever want to, I know I am not free to do so.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Ingmar Bergman

I had not heard the name Bergman three months ago. And just when I did and was planning to watch one of his movies, the esteemed director passed away. It was only then that I realized the extent of devotion Bergman inspired in movie fans. He overwhelmingly featured in most blogs that I read, in television channels (even DD!) in print, in websites. And I was amazed at just how much I had missed. But then, I suppose I can blame it on my relatively fresh induction into cinema.
Anyways, I finally did watch a couple of movies by him - 'Wild Strawberries' (Smultronstället) and 'Persona' and though I liked and enjoyed the first, I am unable to fathom what is the fuss all about.
Wild Strawberries was no doubt a very interesting movie - through dreams, memories imagination and experiences, Bergman depicted the feelings of a man facing a close death - his fears, remorses, regrets. With brilliant imagery, Bergman has highlighted the personal failure of this man in the background of his professional superiority - as the nightmares and memories haunt him while on the way to recieving an award for professional achievement. Though the tussle of personal lives and careers has been depicted many times, I suppose this one was very poetic and imaginative.
However, I was quite disappointed in 'Persona' - it has been labeled as Bergman's masterpeice, even in his own admissions. Not only did the film lack in imagery (though with some good cinematography once in a while), I could not find any interesing theme in it except for the interspersion of the two characters. The movie is about an actress who is struck speechless during one of her performances and never speaks after that, and a nurse who tries to care of her. The relationship between these two is tensed and is never really clear except that one can all the time feel a character exchange coming, and when it does come, it is almost anti-climatic. While watching the movie, I was strongly reminded of Mullholland Drive, perhaps because both focus on the interaction between two women in slightly unusual circumstances.

In both the films, a common hand was quite traceable - Bergman has extensively used sharp sounds and memories in both. I can see why is he respected so much, but from the limited exposure, I thought I would have savored both themes better in a book rather than a movie. Perhaps he tries to write on screen, which is a novel concept, but the complex web of thoughts is often best depicted in words. Silence can speak but it often becomes boring.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Judgement at Nuremberg

The entire world condemned what happened during the holocaust and the atrocities Hitler and SS unleashed on humanity. The Germans themselves suffered significantly in the aftermath of the world war and were perhaps subdued for a long while under a towering guilt. The legimitation of the guilt was done by the allies, primarily US by trying the entire backbone of Nazi Germany - whether economic, administrative or political in a series of trials famously or infamously called the Nuremberg Trials.

The 1961 Stanley Kramer movie is a powerful and moving depiction of the trials. Based on the trials of judges who carried out the Nazi law, it raises some very interesting and thought-provoking questions. Though a fictional account of the trials, the movie carries remarkable pieces of the horrible reality. There did occur a Judges' trial, there was an infamous "Feldenstein case", which outraged all sense of justice and the movie shows actual videos of German ghettos/concentration camps shot by American soldiers. Though all of us have heard about and shuddered at the account of Jewish miseries, no thought could match the actual image of a thousands of barely skinned skeletons lying in heaps and paraded by bull-dozers like factory trash. Watching those images leaves a lump in your throat that is difficult to swallow.

The trial raises some uncomfortable questions - Is it a crime to look away and give tacit approval to the monstrocities, even if you are only vaguely aware of them? Is it a crime to continue with a regular life when your neighbours are vanishing into the night and the faces you have known perhaps for years are slowly disappearing from the streets? If it is, then why are the Germans the sole bearers of this crime? Did not the whole world look away even as they heard Hitler's views on ethnic cleansing? If they continued with normal lives and sometimes even lent a credibility to Hitler and his agenda, are they not equally to blame as the Germans?

The film both raised and dealt with those questions skillfully - it did not attempt to answer all of them because moral dilemmas cannot be always cleared by Q&A. However, it maintained that shifting the blame on a greater world does not absolve the active prepetrators of those crimes, even if the participation was limited to legalization of crime and not the act itself. I think the judgement of Judge Haywood was remarkably mature and a hard one.

The film had some great performances that are difficult to see in one place. Maximilian Schell as the defense lawyer was brilliant and won an Oscar for his performance. Spencer Tracy (as Judge Haywood) , Richard Widmark (prosecutor) and Burt Lancaster (defendant) suited the characters to a Tee. I tremenduously liked each of them.

A wonderful creation of cinema, the kind that makes us see the reality with greater clarity perhaps.