Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A few Short stories

I have always loved the short story format. Unlike the long novel, where you need to explore the idea and the emotion with depth and persistence, a short story is like a small walk, with always a clearer path and destination, compared to the longer version of prose, which may sometimes take you through the labyrinth and then leave you there. Besides, there are practical benefits to the genre – it is easier to read online and so it is possible to sneak one in amidst work. It's also quite handy during a commute – you can finish one on each ride without breaking the continuity. For that reason, it is also quite good in any time-constrained situations where you are unable to find enough time for a heavier tome.

Lured by all these benefits, I have been indulging in story-reading in the past few days and come across quite a few good ones. A few I really liked:


My Oedipus Complex by the Irish author Frank O Connor. I loved the humor with which O Connor details out a young boy's hostility against his war-returned father

Jorge Luis Borges' The Garden of forking paths (Spanish), which is a slightly cryptic story of several alternative futures and possibilities. A full text of the story can be found here.

A Thousand years of good prayers by Yiyun Li (China). (Her collection has incidentally won the Frank O'Connor International short story award). The story voices the after-effects of living in a prohibitive and secretive communist regime, in a graceful and unpredictable manner.

An Encounter by James Joyce (part of the collection The Dubliners) where two adventurous school students bunk school and go through many experiences, including an encounter with a lecherous old man. I felt that the story summed up the whole experience of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes in a few lines – Ireland through a child's eye. A link to the text can be found here.

Silence by the Russian author Leonid Andreyev, which is a story of the guilt, submission and eventual breakdown of a grievous father after the suicide of his daughter. Andreyev has described beautifully the flow of emotions of a father who confronts his misgivings as a parent without knowing what he could have done better. The story can be read here.

Although not a short story, but belonging to the world of short prose, I also read a fictional letter called Lord Chandos Letter by Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, where Lord Chandos, a once famous writer, describes his failure at words and expression of thoughts. All I can say it is one of the most expressive and elaborate pieces of expression that I have come across, which is very ironic to its theme. The letter can be found here.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Conversation

I have loved whatever few Copolla movies I have seen . And this was one movie I had been hunting for for quite a long time - and just like that it came to me on a platter - my brother gifted me the entire movie collection that he had amassed in his trip to HK! I cannot express my delight on getting the set - even though I have already watched more than 60% of the movies in it. Owning original DVDs is priceless.

Anyways, I watched the much awaited Conversation yesterday and quite liked the movie. When it began I thought I was watching a variant of last year's Oscar Winner Lives of Others - but that changed early enough and then I thought I was watching Antonioni's Blow-up again. The fact that the movie followed Antonioni's excruciating pace added to this feeling of Deja-Vu. While going through the reviews as a post-op, I was not surprised to read that Copolla had indeed been inspired by Blow-up when making the movie.

The story follows a private surveillance expert Harry Caul who has been given an assignment by an influential agency to record the conversation of a couple. He starts the surveillance with the same professional detachment that he accords most cases, but soon finds himself concerned about the safety of these two young people as he realizes that his surveillance report could lead to their harm.

The Harry Caul in the movie, played brilliantly by Gene Hackman is shown to be a very private person plagued by past guilts that he shies from acknowledging, his concerns about privacy amount to a paranoia which leaves little scope for anything else. He surrenders all his relationships, a personal identity and at one point even his strong religious believes to preserve this privacy. The depiction of his insanity is rather classic - it is shown through his overpowering annoyance with any questions, his discomfort at finding a surprise gift in his apartment and his words to his landlady who insists on keeping a copy of the key to his apartment: I have nothing of value except my keys. The paranoia reaches a crescendo in the last scene, and throughout the movie, the disturbance and madness of Caul's mind is mirrored in a beautiful and equally distracting background score (a Piano composition by David Shire).

The movie could be about several themes, each of them enveloping contemporary lives in significant ways. It shows the dilemma of determining the appropriate level of involvement/detachment from a professional assignment, it spends great time on the invasion of privacy by use of technology and like Blow-up, questions the perception of reality. But somewhere behind these broader themes hides a personal drama with all essential elements - religious believes, invasion of professional ethics with personal life, broken relationship, a dramatic past with burdensome guilts, professional jealousies, romantic imaging, chauvinism - there is very little in fact that is missing from the assortment. For the viewer, of course, the conversation of the couple and its significance remains a mystery till the very end, concluding in a sharp reversal - also adding thrill to the drama.

It is one of those movies which I would like to watch a second time. It is perhaps one of the few movies which seem completely different when you watch them pre-armed with the knowledge of the end - you are able to piece together several things that still do not seem to thread at the end in the first viewing. You look at the scenes and the conversation with a different perspective. I have understood (and appreciated) the nuances of movies like Matrix, Prestige, Sixth Sense much more in the second, surprise-proof viewing.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Oscar Nominations

Yes - they have been announced! It is sad that none of the nominees for best picture or best direction or best writing have even been released in India. How many more years will it take before all movie screened in US and all DVDs released abroad find their way legally into our country?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The man who shot Liberty Valance

My relationship with Western movies is very lukewarm. I have never taken to the genre, and every time the prospect of watching one presents itself, my first reaction is to reject the prospect. I don't like either the mad violence, or the terrible accents or the overbearing attitudes so characteristic of these movies. And I think these movies are over simplistic.

And yet, there are a few Western movies that I have been quite impressed with (Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven is definitely amongst them). I think I will put Man who shot Liberty Valance also in this list of aberrations, since I was quite taken with the movie. Although I also have to say it is not a typical west movie, because the protagonist, James Stewart is an educated lawyer- an antidote of the Western cowboy. And the other hero, Tom Doniphon (played by John Wayne) who is the typical cowboy, remains more in the shadows even though the entire movie kind of revolves around him.

The movie starts with a US Senator, Ransom Stoddard (played by Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) returning to a small western town Shinbone for a funeral of a friend (Tom). While talking to the local newsmen, Ransom recounts the story of his coming to this town, when the land was ruled by the gun in stead of laws. He himself had an encounter with an outlaw: Liberty Valance, and had decided to bring this man to legal justice. However, the townsfolk advice him to either use the gun for revenge or forget about Valance. Stoddard, unwilling to give up, tries to educate the townfolk and organize them into a community, perhaps trying to defeat Valance by law in the longer run. But as Valance's atrocities on the town grow in response to his actions, he takes up the gun reluctantly and shoots the outlaw. It is this grand feat, which makes him immensely popular in Shinbone and the rest of the district, and leads to his election as a delegate to Washington to lobby for statehood.
Sometime during the elections, we (and Ransom) are however told the truth behind the killing - it is the village cowboy Tom's bullet that actually killed Valance and not Ransom's. This revelation rids Ransom of the guilt and he pursues the legal path, also stealing from Tom his sweetheart Hallie.

The reason I liked the movie had very little to do with the sympathy I felt towards Tom - though the very little did play some part. He got neither the glory, nor the girl and died a lonely death. In a way, Stoddard got to live a life that was Tom's.
I was touched even more by the dilemma of 'change' that seemed to plague the movie and the town of Shinbone. It seemed that though the locals welcomed the more organized and developed town, they still felt a clutch at the heart for leaving behind their old way of life. Even Ransom and Hallie seem to feel a yearning for the quiet life of the village, despite their good fortune.

I loved both Wayne and Stewart in the movie, though Wayne looked a little too old for the role - at points he seemed to be dragging himself in his Western attire. But his slowness lent a pretty touch to the movie - he seemed to be comfortable being the silent spectator in the shadow. Stewart, even though he must be as old as Wayne at the time, was more agile and quite the face of the 'change' man that he was intended to be and he slipped easily into the kind of slightly imperfect hero that he has played several times elsewhere.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

If on a winter's night a traveler

After a long time of hearing rave reviews, I finally decided to pick up a Calvino. I struggled a bit with the choice of titles, but finally settled on this one, mainly because I love short stories, and I figured this one will come close to that. And it did - not just that, but to a reader who often finds herself disappointed in conclusion of stories, these were all stories with promising beginnings, but limitless ends - for me to chose my own end to each story!

The book revolves around a reader who picks up the latest Calvino, which begins with a promising plot (which is shared with the other reader - YOU) - then finds a printing error in the book, and goes to return the book, to realize that due to an error at the publishing house, the book may have got mixed up with another. Enamored by the plot that he had begun, he buys the other book - but realizes that this is a different book from the one he had begun. Unfortunately this book too is blank after the first chapter. Thus begins this reader's surreal and comic trail of the 'real' book - never going beyond the first chapter and never being able to find the same story again in any of the books. Amidst this pursuit, he also encounters another reader - a girl, whose presence adds a renewed fervor to his book-hunt.

The book is brilliant, not in the ten openings that Calvino has concocted, but whatever goes in the book between these stories. To a compulsive reader, the protagonist in the book is immediately identifiable, and at many points - for instance while describing the process of purchase of a book, Calvino makes you think that he has really come to know you and is talking to you. The fact that he uses a second person narrative also adds to this feeling. I loved the second person narrative - specially the technique of suddenly shifting the second person from one reader to another.

Then at one point Calvino himself comes into the story in the form of Silas Flannery and takes us through the writer's mind, also in a way defending this book by explaining it away as a dream-book that is "only an incipit, that maintains for its whole duration the potentiality of the beginning, the expectations still not focused on an object". The entire chapter picked from Flannery's diary was, to me the best part of the book. Here he describes the process of writing, and the various possibilities that can arise from a simple event. I also liked the last part of the book, in the library - which again tries to explain this hilarious anti-novel by talking about readers' interests, their quest for a novel they read sometime in the past in everything they read, etc.

This book uses all techniques that could perhaps be taught in a creative writing class - actually this is the one thing that I found kind of annoying in it - it tried a little too hard to be 'smart' and 'creative'. There also wasn't something particularly great about the ten novels that begin in this book and end in the reader's mind - most of them are beginnings of pulp fiction works, perhaps with very predictable courses. But that does not take away any edge from the stories - they are interesting possibilities as I said earlier. And these stories are secondary to the theme, which really is the reader's hunt.

I enjoyed Calvino's wit and humor, which kept the confusion pretty manageable. I found it whenever I thought of exchanging this anti-novel for a real novel. And so in the end, I had a satisfied smile of a person just off a mad roller coaster - mind-boggling and fun!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

I Vitelloni - Federico Fellini

I Vitelloni, like another Fellini movie Amarcord, depicts the life of youth in a provincial Italian town. Like Amarcord, it also takes us through the lives of a few young men in the coastal town of Pescara. These young men, with a characteristic immaturity and irresponsibility, dream of leaving the town and making a big future in the city, but never take a step towards making these dreams a reality. Vitelloni literally means large young calves - an appropriate term for these over-grown men with stunted maturity.

The main story revolves around a philanderer Fausto, who goes around flirting with many women, but when he gets one of the young beauties of the town pregnant, is forced by his father into marrying her. The marriage barely brings any change to his womanizing, though his wife continues to ignore the truth till the end.

Apart from this story of infidelity, the movie also takes us momentarily through the lives of Fausto's friends - Alberto's sadness over his sister's affair, Leopoldo's dreams of becoming a playwright and Moraldo's thoughtfulness and introspection. Each of these stories are dealt with a beautiful subtlety, always placed in the empty streets of the town during nights or late/very early hours of the day. It is a technique which was used extensively in The Third Man and formed, in my opinion the strongest aspect of the movie.

The movie ends well, with Moraldo leaving the town, bidding farewell to a young boy. This boy perhaps is a younger version of these Vitelloni - happy with his inconsequential work at the station.

It is perhaps coincidental that most of the Italian movies that I have seen are based in coastal towns or somehow feature the sea, there is almost always one scene where the entire town comes out to stare at a glamorous woman and there are lot of voluptuous women chased with bawdy jokes. Perhaps La Notte is an exception where none of these features overtly exist. I really love to watch the sea in these movies, because it is always given the center stage somehow, as if the sea was single-handedly responsible for the shape given to the characters.

There is a good essay on this film by Tom Piazza here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Bucknored

Post the historical Sydney test which will be remembered for many things other than cricket, some new words have been added to the Oxford dictionary:

Bucknor: (n) (adj)
1. Temporary blindness leading to missing out on the obvious.
2. To be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
3. Situations leading to grave judgmental errors.
Usage: I feel bucknored by my boss; Life often throws a bucknor at you.

Benson: (n) (adj)
1. Something that legitimises a severe bucknor.
Usage: First they bucknored me and then they bensoned it! I am toast.
Also see bucknor

Lifted verbatim from an e-mail forward. No claims on originality or verifiability of contents.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Indian tour of Australia

I realize that I am in severe danger of being called a negativist if I go through with this post. After all, this blog hardly put in a word of cheer when the Indian team completely bulldozed over Pakistan and defeated them after many (20 was it?) years in an ODI series and razed them again in a closely fought test. To be fair, I was too busy enjoying and celebrating the victory to write about it. This time, au contraire, I am following the India Australian series more out of compulsion rather than any interest. No, my interest in cricket has not suddenly waned - it is just that Australia has attained the kind of supremacy that in a test series, where real cricketing mettle is tested, when Indian players get down on the field against them - they are really hoping for a draw at the best. You can almost see the defeat in their faces - especially Ganguli's (I apologize in advance to the whole of Bengal who may want to eat me alive after reading this - but really, I think he needs a regular supply of anti-constipative pills so he can offer the Indian cricket fans a slightly encouraging smile!)

This series, is getting attention for all the wrong reasons - except one right one - that of Tendulkar finally crossing over that 90-something barrier - and in style, finishing unbeaten at 154. It had become disheartening to see him trip over at 95,97 even 99 so many times, and I hope this victory makes him more confident going forward. That India lost even after such a feat is a severe disappointment, and though much of it is being blamed on Umpire-errors, I guess there is no escaping the fact that the team got lost in the blame game and played poorly compared to their opponents.

I suppose everyone will be cursing Bucknor - and he did become the doomsayer for the Indian team. But no one seems to be focusing on the India defeat apart from this 'tragedy of errors'. The cherry that the media and the Indian fans and players seem to be running after is the story of Monkey God. Of course, it is an interesting story - surely more promising than the defeat at the hands of the 'far superior' team as Gavaskar calls them. I am sure our dear lord Hanuman will be deeply offended with this slur on his name and all the controversy surrounding it. All Indians seem to be surprised that this comment has been taken as a racist comment, when so much reverence is associated with monkeys in our culture. What I find more amusing is this precise argument - I am quite certain that there is little reverence Bhajji feels towards the Australian terror, and that he barely intended to use this phrase as one of praise. He of course used it in annoyance - something that he finds hard to check while in the 'steam of the game'. With all his sixes and good bowling, he often displays lack of maturity, cursing incessantly his own team-mates for missing catches on his bowls, while himself showing less than glorious performance on the field. (Ouch! I began with not the least intention of criticizing him, specially after his stupendous 63 alongside the master)

So here is my note of solidarity and a correction for all the criticism that I may have offered to the men who are good in blue, but need to work harder in white:

There is no denying that the ICC is biased towards the Australian team and its players, may be for the simple virtue of their being an established and proven team. There are many moments when on the screen you can see the Australian lips move to words that we girls rarely hear but form the mainstream of engineering college lingo (No, that is not a sexist comment, any resemblance to the same is purely coincidental). I have hardly seen anyone raise fingers to that. And it makes me angry. I think it rather magnanimous of our team to be unhinged by such remarks and continue their play. A lot less can be said of players who curse more every moment with their eyes and then go complaining to the ICC at the slightest - what's it called, slur...

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The storyteller (Mario Vargas Llosa)

I picked up this book because of the mystery and enigma indicated on the back-cover. As I sat down to read it, I realized that the book was quite different from the expectations I had in my mind. There was a mystery, not the kind you will find in a thriller, but a more deep-seated mystery of identities and cultures.
I am not particularly fond of conservation or preservation. In general I don't believe that there could be a virtue in preserving alternative tribal cultures which have missed the train of civilization. Even though I wouldn't give up my life to bring education and civilization to the doorstep of these shelved worlds, neither do I condemn the task carried out by numerous missionaries, priests, NGOs et al, who, in the search of a calling, make it their life's mission to 'establish these people in the mainstream'. After all, why should people go around half naked, walking miles to get food - when they can wear a shirt and trousers and order a pizza online?

It is only when one reads books like Things fall apart or The storyteller, that one sees a perspective that is different from this lop-sided view. The convenience of this online order comes at a cost of losing one's identity, one's believes, one's culture and everything that they have believed in collectively for ages. For the one who brings to them education, teaches them what he himself believes in. He negates everything that this tribe has known for years. He tells them that the sun does not stay in the sky because you are walking like a nomad - but because of scientific principles.

The storyteller presents to us these conflicts. Just sensitizing the harbingers of culture the damage that their culture could inflict on some. It does not give a sob story - neither does it make an effort to generate sympathy. In stead, through a Machiguenga (the tribe around which the book is centered) storyteller it tells us some fantastic stories of magic and tribal belief.As we read these stories, we feel a little sad for their disappearance. For it is much more interesting to assume that the moon is the disgraced father of an angry sun than to think that it is a mere celestial body revolving around the earth. It is perhaps far more awe-inspiring to believe that the marks on the moon are the remains of his dead wife, than know that these are craters which are not illumniated by sun's light because of their depth!

Aside from this tale of a culture's evanescence, the book is also a book on the art of story-telling. Alternating between the actual writer of the novel and the story teller of the Machiguenga tribe, the author endeavors to entertain his reader - to once again command that position of awe enjoyed by the troubadours.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Another year begins...

Its impossible to not feel positive on the first day of a new year. Everything seems full of promise, the canvas looks white and bright. You can simply wipe off the mess of the last year and start anew - even if it is mostly re-patching all the resolutions you made last year and began breaking a little on the same day as well.

Last year was a good year. I enjoyed the kind of life I made for myself in tid-bits. In movies, in books, in walks, long evenings with friends, in making fun of the office oddities, in the few trips taken. I hope I can continue the same in the next year and more years to come.

Last year was an year of movies - I have never watched so many movies in my life before - I think the main reason was living with a person who thrives on movies , even if the tastes differ. I experimented with foreign movies, mainly Italian and with film-noir, and really enjoyed the experience. I think one of my favorites of the year was the German movie The lives of others. I liked the adaptation of Kundera's novel Unbearable lightness of being, and also loved the Italian film La Notte.

On my reading I have said enough. That is a long standing passion and I am glad that this year stoked it sufficiently well.

The year saw me making far fewer trips than I would like to do. I loved Maldives, of course. That is just the place to go if you want to pamper yourself. I loved the Himachal trip for its vibrancy, and of course I loved going to Goa again. I don't think I will ever tire of that sleepy siesta town. I want to travel more extensively in this year - may be 2008 will offer me another chance of back-packing in some foreign land, struggling with the language and enjoying the effects those endeavors have.
This year, the theater hardly charmed me at all. Plays were ordinary, even though I saw Nasiruddin Shah on stage for the first time. He was of course good, but the play didn't live up to it.
That sums up the bloggable part of my life in 2007. I loved every moment of it. (No, of course I didn't mean it - if I loved everything, I wouldn't be me. I crib, therefore I am!)