Monday, December 31, 2007

The year that was

We are saying goodbye to 2007 today. So far, things were going fine--despite the subprime crisis in the US, the news was good for Asia. The Asian economies have been doing well. Things were looking up. Though there were some immediate issues that bothered us all--Modi's win in the Gujarat elections, Pakistan's and Thailand's political turmoil, the Indian discontent in Malaysia--we were hopeful that in time the issues will be resolved. People will learn to live with them or create better conditions.

Then came the news of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

That evening I came home after watching Wang Kar Wai's My Blueberry Nights. I had enjoyed the movie and thought that it was such an assured work. Wang Kar Wai's earlier films had a lot of energy in each and every frame, the stories were so pulsating--but here, with this film, he had shown to have matured a bit. The characters seemed to deal with their situations in a calmer manner (even though some scenes betrayed the director's restlessness). Was it because this was a film about American characters? And in many of the scenes and characters, I could see how there were overlaps with what we had seen in some of his earlier films. But I was generally happy with my experience.

My wife was watching the BBC World and Benazir's news was just being broken. I was suddenly engulfed with a sense of grief. My immediate reaction was to share it with others I knew. I sent out some smes. Some of my friends expressed dismay at the news. "Oh, don't tell me this," said one. What?!, said another. Those who were aware of the news sent me cold, resigned smes.

I remembered, when Benazir was Pakistan's PM, she was regularly connected with India's then PM Rajiv Gandhi--both were young, descendants of slain national leaders and were now they were leading two big countries. Who had imagined both will die the same way, as victims of terrorism.

There are many things to talk about today (like how I recently took my two-year old daughter to watch the film The Golden Compass and how she got bored within half an hour in the theatre) but I leave you with these questions from filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, and I will talk to you again next year:

Who killed Benazir ? Suicide bombings were unheard of in Pakistan before 9/11. And before the US ordered Musharraf to send his army against his own people in Pakistan's western regions to flush out the Taliban. Why ? The supposed reason was to look for Osama Bin Laden. But that was EIGHT years ago, and Osama could be dead of natural causes by now. No one talks about him anymore in any case, and the Keyword has become Al Quaeda, about whom no one knows very much. Because Al Quaeda has now becomea 'philosophy of terrorism ' as an acceptable tool of warfare, rather than a cohesive organization anymore. It is the usual construct of the Western World looking for simple answers to vastly complex problems of cultural divide, religious divide and harsh economic disparities......

And if Al Quaeda is now a philosophy of warfare, then how is it helping that Musharaf sends his troops to fight his own people, and causing huge alienation by killing civilians and calling it collatoral damage ? The philosophy of suicide bombings is merely being exported out of the region by alienating people and encouraging them towards terrorism.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Monday, December 24, 2007

The "unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts"

I wanted to call attention to this passionately (as ever) argued piece by Pankaj Mishra in The Guardian where he takes issue with Ayaan Hirsi Ali's and Martin Amis' recent fulminations against Islam/Muslims. Hirsi Ali has said that the west is "actually at war, not just with Islamism, but with Islam itself". Amis has maintained that "moderate Muslims, if they ever existed, have lost out to radicals in Islam's civil war," and that Islam is "totalist".

Mishra says that all this noise against Islam is largely bumkum, arising out more of ignorance than of clairvoyance:

Never perhaps in history has so much nonsense been so confidently peddled about a population as large and diverse as this planet's billion-plus Muslims. Within the past decade an Islamic movement has led Indonesia towards democracy, while market reforms in Turkey have created a new and religious middle class that now challenges the power of a secular elite.

Mishra goes into the past and briefly in one paragraph shows how the world has to come to be what it is today:

The most recent paranoid obsession with Muslims, which has a long history in Europe, dates back to 2001, when the violence once unleashed on places such as Afghanistan and Pakistan on behalf of the "free world" began to penetrate even the highly protected societies of the west. Almost every day newspaper columnists berate Islam, often couching their prejudice in the highly moral language of women's rights: it is not due to oversight that Indian women murdered for failing to bring sufficient dowry - a staggering 6,787 in 2005 - occupy a fraction of the print acreage devoted to the tiny minority of veiled Muslim women. Rather than engage deeply with the imperial and postimperial histories of societies hardly ever discussed in the mainstream western media, many respectable writers and intellectuals seem to have decided that selectively reading the Qur'an, along with the conveniently pithy exegeses of Hirsi Ali and other neocon pugilists, is the easiest and quickest way to figure it all out.

Then he argues why should we take anything said by the likes of Amis seriously:

The question "Why take Martin Amis seriously?" has kept many dissenters uneasily passive. But Amis's generalisations are amplified from one of the tallest soap boxes erected in the wake of 9/11, and he has a bigger audience than some of the other commentators in the British press who claim melodramatically to be apostate liberals. Whether Amis or any other individual is racist is barely relevant. We should be more concerned about this fact: that ideas regarded as intellectually null and morally abhorrent in any other context are not only accepted and condoned but also celebrated as bold truth-telling.

The italics used above are mine. There, Mishra makes a major point and he rightly cautions the readers to be careful when such generalisations about a community are made by people whose voices are recognised.

Finally, Mishra rounds up his essay with a sigh--not of relief but of disappoinment:

It is a depressing spectacle - talented writers nibbling on cliches picked to the bone by tabloid hacks. But, as Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr pointed out, the "men of culture", with their developed faculty of reasoning, tend to "give the hysterias of war and the imbecilities of national politics more plausible excuses than the average man is capable of inventing". The "public conversation" about Islam proposed by Amis should not be avoided. Its terms have already been set low, and the bigger danger is that it will be dominated by an isolated and vain chattering class that, rattled by a changing world, seeks to reassure us by digging an unbridgeable trench around our minds and hearts.

Anyone who has read Mishra earlier, especially his latest collection of essays, Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond, would vouch for his sincerity and serious scholarship. I have just finished reading that book and the rare insights that he brings to the reader through those essays cannot but make you feel humble in your knowledge about the problematic socities of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, among others. For example, though I have read hundreds of articles on the Kashmir problem, I never fully understood the issue. Perhaps the truth was never bought out in full naked view in the media with the right right kind of information, insights and interviews. But after reading Mishra's essay, I had the feeling that I had finally understood the Kashmir problem. Somebody had finaly got to the heart of the matter. You can write to him at

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Home Truths

Book Review
The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone by Shashi Tharoor
Arcade Publishing (New York); $29.96

In the wake of the recent Tehelka expose of the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat carnage, very few Indian writers braved the danger of inviting ridicule (from the hardline Hindus) by penning commentaries or speaking out on this issue. Shashi Tharoor was one of them (He spoke on the issue through an interview; novelist Kunal Basu wrote a powerful piece), who is the author of the book under review. The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cell Phone is a collection of Tharoor's recent columns.

Columnist Tharoor, who until recently was associated with the United Nations for a long time, is also a novelist. Though widely read throughout India and in many parts of the world, some don't see Tharoor as an exciting colmunist, whose writings are full of "ancient platitudes, second-hand insights, and tacky witticisms."

Whatever one might think of Tharoor's writings, one thing cannot be dismissed about him: His love for India (that too, a secular, pluralist India) and Indians.

"My views have, over the years, earned me more than my fair share of belligerant emails and assorted Internet fulminations from the less reflective of the Hinduvta brigade," writes Tharoor. But he has learnt to take this criticism in his stride. "For Hindus like myself, the only possible idea of India is that of a nation greater than the sum of its parts," he says.

In this book, Tharoor cautions that though the Indian elephant is turning into a leaping tiger (the cellphone is the symbol of progress here), he hopes for an inclusive growth, where the rural and underprivileged Indians (of all faiths and regions) have a share in the building of a new 'superpower' India. Otherwise, the tiger's stripes will vanish again, and it will turn back into its pachiderm form.

The first part of the book, its kernel, if you will, deals with the ideas of Indianness. It is the richest part of the book where Tharoor looks deeper into India's past, its Hindu ethos of inclusiveness, and the current threats to those ethos by a politically inspired Hindu extremism movement.

Tharoor takes interest in defining what it means to be an Indian Hindu--and how the "Hinduvta" brand of Hinduism does not go well with the idea of India. He writes about the universally serene and accommodative nature of Hinduism (as a civilization, not a dogma), quoting Nobel laureate Amartya Sen: "Sen is right to stress that Hinduism is not simply the Hinduvta of Ayodhya and Gujarat; it has left all Indians a religious, philosophical, spiritual and historical legacy that gives meaning to the civilizational content of secular Indian nationalism."

In the essay, The Politics of Indentity, Tharoor underlines the difference between himself and the hardliners: "There are some like me, who are proud of Hinduism; there are others including much of the VHP (Vinshwa Hindu Parishad), who are proud of being Hindu. There is a world of difference between the two; the first base their pride on principle and belief; the second on identity and chauvinism.My Hindu pride does not depend on putting others down. Theirs, sadly, does."

The part five of the book deals with the transformations that have underpinned India's globalisation and its rise as an economic power. In this part, his essays explore the rise of the Indian middle class and urban developments (call centres, IITs, IT companies, etc) that are shaping a new India.

Between these two parts of the book, there are four other parts that comprise essays on variegated themes: Indians that have done the nation proud, Bollywood, NRIs and even cricket. The well-read might find some of these essays tedious, but over all, the book is an enjoyable read, in parts intellectually stimulating and witty (at least to me). The last part provides a compendium of Indianess, an A to Z of being Indian. More than Indians, foreigners will find this part interesting which throws light on topics ranging from bidis and cows to dacoits.

But the book is not all about serious punditism. There are some essays that are quite entertaining. If you are looking for something illuminating yet light (on the mind), I will leave you with one nugget to let you decide if you want to read this book. In an essay, "India, Jones and The Temple of Dhoom," Tharoor talks about Hollywood filmmaker Steven Spielberg's cinematic sucsess: "It has been just over two decades since that blockbuster (Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom) swept the world's movie screens, taking boy-wonder Spielberg (who'd already gone from the dental--Jaws--to the transcendental--Close Encounters of the Third Kind) into the cinematic stratosphere."

Manoj Kumar syndrome?

At the recently concluded Singapore Writers Festival, I did not ask anyone to shoot pictures of the participants during my sessions, even though I was carrying my camera with myself. However, a friend of mine took this photo while I was sitting on the blogging panel. I must be paying attention to what Deepika or Sharon or Ivan was saying but looks like as if I was coming down with the Manoj Kumar syndrome.

Here are some more pictures from the same session.

Serious bloggers! (L to R: Ivan, Sharon and Deepika)

Sharon, the Virginia Woolf of Malaysia, holds forth on her blogging habits...

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Bollywood in America

In the world of media, content is supposed to be the king. Increasingly, however, distribution of content across a bursting sprectrum of media platforms is becoming the king maker.

Despite the hullabaloo of the new media eclipsing everything else, distribution of content, any content, still remains a powerful function in the game of media delivery to the end consumers. Referring to this year's MIPCOM at Cannes, The Screen Daily noted: "For most of the studios, distribution rather than film-making is what they do best. If the rest of the world makes great movies that their markets want, and Hollywood is a partner in ensuring they are seen, so much the better."

Bollywood has already made its way into Western popular culture over the past few years, frequently cropping up in American movies, television programs, and commercials. The emerging power of Indian content was clearly in evidence at this year's MIPCOM where the keynote speakers were from India - Mipcom's focus country this year - UTV founder and CEO Ronnie Screwvala and ZEE TV's founder and head, Subhash Chandra. In the event, Ronnie Screwvala reminded delegates that dealing with India was not one-way traffic.

And sure enough, as Bollywood's content (films, television software and music) looks westward in a bid to corner many more millions of eyeballs and a neat packet of revenues, there is one company in the US that is at the forefront of this jaggernaut, forging ties with America's powerful distribution engines.

That company is Saavn. It is playing a key role in bringing South Asian content to American consumers. Saavn has relationships with leading South Asian content producers such as Yash Raj Films, Adlabs, UTV, and T-Series and key distribution relationships with companies such as Time Warner, Cox, Rogers, iTunes, Amazon Unbox, and Verizon Wireless. In addition to packaging programming for these cable, Internet and mobile carrier companies, Saavn also runs media and marketing programs to help them serve the passionate audience for Bollywood and other South Asian content.

Its most recent move was to make Bollywood music available on Apple's iTunes in October. It came after the fact that even though Bollywood music is becoming more and more popular in the US, but it’s still not readily available. Until now, it could mostly be found in small, neighborhood Indian shops or through low-quality clips of videos found sporadically on the Internet. With Saavn’s content being available through iTunes, everyone can enjoy Bollywood music on their own iPods or computers.

To explore the issue further, I spoke to Mr. Vinod Bhat, General Manager of Saavn (formerly BODVOD Networks), the largest digital distributor of South Asian content in the world with exclusive rights to movies, television shows and music videos from the premiere movie producers, television networks and record labels in India and other parts of the world.

How popular is the Indian entertainment content--Bollywood and television software from India--in North America?
Bollywood movies are the second best performing ethnic category on Time Warner Cable behind Hispanic content. Given the size of the Spanish speaking population is greater than 50 million and there are several other foreign genres of content, Bollywood has a stronger appeal across a wider audience group.

How is Saavn trying to leverage on this popularity of Indian entertainment content?
We’re not trying to leverage per se, but rather correct what we see as a supply-demand imbalance in the marketplace. Many people have heard of Bollywood content, but the problem more lies in their inability to purchase it in traditional retail locations. Unlike India and other parts of the world, Bollywood content is not readily available in mass market retail stores like Wal-mart, Barnes & Noble, Best Buy, etc. Digital and mobile media delivery methods are ideal approaches to correct this problem and serve interested audience segments.

Is Hollywood too interested in marketing this content within the USA, which in effect is a chunk of its domestic market?
Yes, as evidenced by Sony’s first production, Saawariya. The marketing power and sales force of a studio’s distribution arm is critical if Bollywood is to ever have a hit in the U.S. by Hollywood standards.

Which medium is the most popular (among Cable, online and mobile) one in the distribution of this content? What are the trend?
It depends on the content category. For movies, it’s cable VOD. Movies are long form and require the comfort of a couch to view. Music purchase, on the other hand, is all online and mobile. Full length audio is short duration, portable content that is in the sweet spot of online usage. For mobile, music ringtones, wallpapers, etc. are more about handset personalization.

Saavn has recently tied up with itunes for the distribution of Bollywood songs. How is the response?
It’s going very well. We’re working on ways to increase the profile of Bollywood for all iTunes customers.

What is the future of Bollywood content worldwide? How well it may perform on the mobile medium as all future media is said to be converging on that device?It will be several years before we see an “all-digital” distribution of Bollywood content. As they say, the general public overestimate what will happen in 2 years, but underestimates what will happen in 10years. There are also major infrastructure, consumer behavior, and incumbent business hurdles to overcome in certain markets.

Coming to the Hollywood-Bollywood relationship, what's brewing right now? Sony's first Bollywood production Saawariya released in November. Many more Hollywood studios are getting into Bollywood film production. Why is Hollywood interested in Bollywood?
Hollywood is interested in Bollywood because India as a market has the largest and fastest growing middle class in the world. As more wealth is spread among its population, more people will have disposable income to spend on entertainment. Furthermore, the infrastructure to properly support and market theatrical releases is in place. First, multiplexes are now commonplace in all the major tier I and tier II cities. Second, mobile phones have become a very effective means to promote new releases.

Will Hollywood's entry in Bollywood change the equations in Bombay's film industry?Will it break the stranglehold of filmi families (powerful production houses) and provide new filmmakers more platforms to express their vision?
Yes and no. Yes, because similar to the way Hollywood works here, it will back people and projects that have less risk associated with them. If filmi families have demonstrated success and a proven track record, then Hollywood studios will prefer to back them and the strong will only get stronger.
However, there are two definitive positives for independents: 1) if there are independent filmmakers that have had a breakout hit(s) prior to Hollywood’s arrival into India, they (and those associated with them) will get legitimate opportunities from these studios to direct feature films. 2) Because the budgets for Bollywood movies (avg is $3mm) are much smaller than Hollywood (avg is $45mm), the studios may be more flexible in backing emerging filmmakers that have demonstrated success in another medium (i.e. television shows, ad films, etc.). This is the classic portfolio approach in which if you back 10 unknown filmmakers, 5 will likely lose money, 3-4 will breakeven or produce marginal return and 1-2 will be substantial hits.

This interview also appeared in the December issue of India Se magazine.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Net is dumbing us down?

The MSM has picked up this new hook: Nobel laureate Doris Lessing has "used her acceptance speech to rail against the internet, saying it has "seduced a whole generation into its inanities" and created a world where people know nothing."

Reports The Age:

"We are in a fragmenting culture, where our certainties of even a few decades ago are questioned and where it is common for young men and women, who have had years of education, to know nothing of the world, to have read nothing, knowing only some speciality or other, for instance, computers," she said in the speech read out by Lessing's British publisher as she was too ill to travel to Sweden for the Nobel festivities.

She compared her visits to resource-deprived schools in Zimbabwe, where students begged her for books and taught themselves to read using labels on jam jars, to a trip to another school in North London where teachers complained that many students never read books at all and the library was only half used.

Lessing said no one had thought to ask how our lives would be changed by the internet, "which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc".

Similarly, author Andrew Keen argued in his new book, The Cult of the Amateur, that the internet was killing culture and assaulting economics.

"[Anyone] can use their networked computers to publish everything from uninformed political commentary, to unseemly home videos, to embarrassingly amateurish music, to unreadable poems, reviews, essays, and novels," Keen wrote in the book.

That's true but what's the big deal? It is up to us to choose what crap to waste time on.

She also noted that "In order to write, in order to make literature, there must be a close connection with libraries, books, the tradition." This one I agree with.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Writers in cross hair

On Sunday, Crossings, the Singapore Writers' Festival 2007, came to a close. For me, the entire festival was an exciting mash-up (ah, scenes from events are intemixing in my memory) of scenes from writers' lives, off and onstage. It was an opportunity to see many players in action: moderators, writers, bloggers, festival organisers--everyone played cool and I did not see any fretful faces. Or did I miss something?

There were many international writers. The queues were the longest for the famous Chinese writers such as Jung Chang and Bei Dao. There were enough NRI and Indian names in the marquee to make the whole festival a Rang De Basanti. David Davidar, Kunal Basu (photo, above), Madhur Jaffery, Anita Nair, Sharanya Manivannan and Deepika Shetty (as the energetic moderator with a difference). I was also there, connected with two events, but was miraculously not listed anywhere (website, booklets) but I am not blaming anyone. When such big names are around, where do I stand? And frankly, I don't care. I'm happy enough just to be an audience in such events.

First up, on Dec 3, I had the chance to moderate a session with Tan Twan Eng, the Booker longlisted South Africa-based Malaysian novelist, who shot to fame with his debuting work, The Gift of Rain. The session was well-attended. Many had turned up to listen to Twan and get their copies of the novel autographed by the man himself. Contrary to what I had been warned of, Twan wasn't shy at all and he spoke very confidently and eloquently. I would spare you the details as Deepika Shetty has summarised the session in her blog post here.

The other was a session on blogging, again moderated by Deepika. Malaysia's top literary blogger Sharon Bakar and Singapore's Ivan Chew were in the panel. While Sharon I knew as a friend, Ivan was a revelation. I enjoyed the proceedings and discovered that Sharon and I had started blogging at about the same time, Sept 2004! What a coincidence! And Deepika was humble enough to acknowledge how she was inspired by bloggers like Jai Arjun Singh (another friend of mine) and Amit Varma to start her own blogging journey. Both Ivan and Sharon have blogged about this event, so I am skipping the details once again (lazy me!).

I regret not attending the sessions of my friends Sharanya and Chris Mooney Singh who released his poetry book, The Laughing Buddha Cab Company. Sharayna, as it happens, has been making waves in Indian media talking about the Indian discontent in Malaysia.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Rainbows in Braille

Yesterday evening, the Blue Room in Singapore’s Arts House was packed with fans of Elmo Jayawrdena who had turned out in huge numbers to celebrate one of the honest and most down-to-earth voices from Sri Lanka’s literary world. The occasion was one of the highlights of the Singapore Writers Festival. Elmo was launching his collection of short stories, Rainbows in Braille .

Captain Elmo, as the author is lovingly called, is not an ordinary Sri Lankan writer. A lit fest favourite, he is now known the world over for his simple tale of Sam, whom he immortalized in his novel, Sam’s Story. The novel, set in the twilight years of the last century, is about a village bumpkin who comes to work in a Colombo mansion. The novel’s comic façade and the charming simplicity of the text hide the dual core of anti-war and anti-racial prejudice messages that form the only turbulence in this smooth flight of imagination. The book won him the Gratiaen Prize for best Sri Lankan work in English in 2001.

Captain Elmo, now a pilot trainer, has been writing novels and short stories when he has not been flying jets or working for his charitable foundation, Association for Lighting a Candle (AFLAC). After his first novel, he penned a hefty fictionalized history of the Sinhalese kings, which won the State Literary Award for best book in 2005. Rainbows in Braille is his third book and as with all his previous works, proceeds from this book too would go toward AFLAC.

Selling at $10 a copy, the book was seeing brisk sales even before the launch and Captain Elmo was graciously autographing copies for his fans until Deepika Shetty, the event's moderator, dragged him inside the room to start the launch session. I got a copy autographed for my daughter.

"Every copy that I sell feeds a poor Sri Lankan family for a week," he later told the audience.

Elmo has got the volume published in Sri Lanka. "Why did he go the self-publishing route this time," asked Deepika. "Because I want the maximum profit to go the poor with whom I work through AFLAC," he said candidly.

Ubud Writers' Festival founder and director, Janet de Neefe, and novelist Kunal Basu spoke in praise of Elmo before the actual launch.

Kunal became a fan of Elmo after meeting him in Ubud this year. "As the Ubud festival was drawing to a close, I was sort of getting sad as I thought that I might not be able to see Elmo again, as we writers hardly meet each other and most often keep in touch only through emails" he said. So, Elmo's killer charm had worked on Kunal!

"We writers love adulation, we love our readers and fans and we love festival directors...but we hardly can stand other writers...but Elmo is a huge exception," he said.

"In writing, nothing--technique, style, language--matters more than empathy...the ability of a writer to empathise with his characters, and in all of Elmo's writings, his empathy shines through," said Kunal.

Kunal also narrated an anecdote from the Ubud writers and readers festival. Whatever books he had collected in Ubud, he gave it to his mother (an '85 year old, widely read, active Bengali writer with strong opinions') in Calcutta to read before he left for London. A few months later, he asked his mother on phone if she had read all the books. She talked about only one writer. "Who's this Elmo?" she aked.

"Elmo, that is the biggest compliment I can ever give to you," Kunal said.

Elmo talked about the origin of the stories in his collection and how almost all of them were based on real life people and events. He talked about a story, Tsunami. "It is based on an old man who lost his entire family except his two grandchildren in the Sri Lankan tsunami," he said.

Deepika said she loved his short story, The Detergent Salesman. I love it too, Elmo said. But I love all my stories, I love whatever I write, he added.

Despite writing 3 books, Elmo does not have an agent.

"I thank Kunal (Basu) for introducing me to his agent," he said, "but I didn't need an agent for this book. All, my life I have had my own literary agent in my wife Dill." We all laughed. "She is my agent and my editor," he added.

"We all write because we love to write," he said, " and I am sure Kunal will back me up on this, and once we have got the book out, we just let it travel--who knows how far it will go."

During the talk, a charming Captain Elmo acknowledged his debt to all those who had helped him write the stories in this collection. He especially acknowledged his wife’s contribution to his writing life. "She has not just been the air beneath my writerly wings that helped me soar the literary heights but the wings themselves."

Seguing from this, Deepika asked Dill (I hope the spelling is correct) to comment on how life had been with this multi-dimensional man, Elmo. Dill seemed to be taken aback at this unscripted turn of events, the limelight falling on her, all eyes fixed at her but that is the fun of an evening like this, especially when there is a spunky and intelligently unpredictable moderator like Deepika.

"Well," said Dill, "Elmo has been doing many things apart from flying. He started AFLAC and now he has become an author. Sometimes when things become too much, I tell Elmo: Hello, I had only married a pilot!" Aha, so wit runs in the family.

In a gesture that can be only called Elmosque, the author presented the book to his grandson, Navik. These stories are for my grandson’s generation, declared Elmo, whose love for people, especially children, is ever effusive. “Through these stories, I want to show to the coming generations how life used to be in Sri Lanka, so that they too know how simple but beautiful life was before it got lost to the world,” he added.

Captain Elmo’s friends also shared some thoughts at the launch. Top security and anti-terror expert Rohan Gunaratna paid tribute to this writer for his empathy for others, especially the less privileged, and his strong power of observation and the ability to chronicle human life. "I was once having a debate with Elmo over good people and bad people, and at the end of it, Elmo concluded that there are no good or bad people in the world; there are only good and bad circumstances," he said.

Finally, Elmo thanked everyone for coming to the event. "This (Arts House) is an opulent place and all of you here are literary and affluent people and I am deeply honoured by your presence here," he said. The way Elmo said it, the glint of gratitude that shone through his eyes while speaking these lines, were so honest and deeply felt that I almost had goosebumps. His words, truly emerging from the bottom of his heart (as many say it but how deeply they mean it?), made such a strong emotional connection with me (and am sure with others as well) that it would be impossible not to be moved by such heartbreaking modesty in a man who, through his work, had soared to such towering heights that all of us in the room could only aspire to in a lifetime.

(All quotes in this post are from my memory as I hate to take notes during such events; I apologise in advance for any inadvertant misrepresentation)

John Abraham: Beating Bollywood's odds

This outsider made it big ... without a 'godfather'

Weekend • December 8, 2007

Zafar Anjum

EVERY year, thousands of young men and women flock to Bollywood with stars in their eyes. Most end up as debris on the footpaths of Bollywood's dream factories.

It seems you either have to be the child of a star or a well-heeled model to get a break in Bollywood. Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar are perhaps the only outsiders who have it made it to the top in the last 20 years or so.

Among the dozens of struggling models-turned-actors, it seems only John Abraham (picture) got it right. Today, he is a Bollywood A-lister, working with the industry's biggest names.

How did this 35-year-old Mumbai-born actor buck the trend?

John had been a supermodel and was runner-up in the 1999 Manhunt International. But this was no guarantee of box office success — as many models who tried the transition would testify.

Though he started his career with steamy roles in films like Paap, he realised his sex-symbol image was not helping after a string of box-office duds.

John began choosing films that were offbeat. Films like Dhoom (where he played the villain), Water (an Oscar-nominated picture for Best Foreign Language Film by award-winning director Deepa Mehta), Viruddh ... Family Comes First (a small role playing the son of Amitabh Bachchan), Kabul Express (as an Indian journo in war-torn Afghanistan) and No Smoking (as a chain-smoker in one of Bollywood's most bizarre films) helped John carve a niche for himself.

Playing these roles — some meaty, others less so — has endeared John to the public. Most critics would not consider him a serious acting talent but his performances have kept improving. In an industry where star appeal still matters more than acting prowess, this was a leap of faith for the model-turned-actor.

Though his last release, No Smoking, bombed at the box office, Indian cinephiles have appreciated his gutsiness for acting in this crazy, genre-defying surreal film which was so dark that superstars like Shah Rukh Khan and Amir Khan turned down the role. But John was confident in his choice. "After No Smoking, films will be called No Smoking kind of films. It will create a genre," he said.

He now wants to tread the path of doing meaningful cinema, despite the risk associated with such films. He said: "You start doing different kinds of films when you start believing in them. I did Water because I loved her (Deepa's) films, 1947, Earth and Fire … I selected No Smoking when it didn't have a producer."

John's forthcoming films testify to his new commitment. His most important new project is Exclusion, again to be directed by Deepa Mehta.

The film centres on the real-life drama of 375 asylum-seekers from India, who were fleeing British colonialists and arrived in Vancouver aboard the Komagata Maru, in 1914. Most were forced to return to India to face the British. Their plight became one of the most notorious incidents in the history of exclusion laws in Canada designed to keep out Asian immigrants.

John is also slated to act opposite Hollywood actress Rachel Weisz in Deepa's Luna, based on the life of American environmentalist Julia Hill, who lived in a small shelter atop a 180-foot tree for 738 days to protest tree felling.

Choosing to do such challenging international projects bodes well for John. Take the Pepsi commercial he has done with Shah Rukh Khan — the cool duo share the same frame, as if screaming to viewers: Here's your next superstar!

So, is he the next superstar?

British academic and film buff Lord Meghnad Desai certainly thinks so. He wrote, in his review of Shah Rukh Khan's biography: "... a new generation is already crowding the Khans out — Hrithik Roshan, Abishek Bachachan and John Abraham."

Yes, this one-time sex symbol is indeed very much in the reckoning.

Published in The Weekend Today dated Dec 8, 2007.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Coetzee’s recurrent themes

I find J M Coetzee's recurrent themes in his later novels--"the aging protagonist, the attraction to a younger woman, the presentiment of death, the physical and emotional isolation from the modern world"--as identifeid by Siddhartha Deb in this review--quite fascinating, as facinating as a thriller's plotline. Siddhartha says that these themes "have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes."

Coetzee's works are short and his language too is "deceptively simple". I like this writing style so much that I have developed a disinclination toward reading anything that uses flowery language, or expresses emotions in hysterical tones.

Here's Siddhartha's analysis of Coetzee's work:

Elizabeth Costello is structured through a series of lectures delivered by the eponymous protagonist, an Australian writer who is a fierce campaigner for animal rights. Art, politics, the sanctity of life, the aging human body—all these come together in that book, culminating in a brilliant final section that reworks the “Before the Law” episode in Kafka’s The Trial. But what makes the novel particularly idiosyncratic is the fact that every one of Costello’s lectures has actually been delivered by Coetzee. In his next novel, Slow Man (2005), Coetzee begins straightforwardly, writing about an elderly photographer injured in a traffic accident. But a third of the way through, a character called Elizabeth Costello shows up, claiming that the photographer is a character in a novel she is working on.

By the time we come to Diary of a Bad Year, then, it is possible to see that its formal play and many of its themes—the aging protagonist, the attraction to a younger woman, the presentiment of death, the physical and emotional isolation from the modern world—have been presented to us by Coetzee for a while now. This has not always been a successful approach—Slow Man, especially, is a slim novel weakened by its experimental diet—but no one can accuse Coetzee of being caught up in the trivial.

The books have all been short, the language deceptively simple, but Coetzee’s recurrent themes have been no less than the vital signs of a culture, one possibly in its death throes. Diary of a Bad Year may be his most successful diagnosis yet of what we are suffering from, one that even offers hope in the form of resistance, critical thought, and the odd, imperfect humanity that emerges in the story of Anya and Señor C. In other writers, such hope would appear trite, but we know that Coetzee is no sentimentalist. His humanism has always been hard-won, wrested from those early lessons in authoritarianism and opposition, and this brilliant novel shows how much better prepared Coetzee is than many Western writers to come to terms with our new age.

(Thanks Prof Amitava Kumar)

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Rushdie on Anita Desai and Urdu

Decades ago, when a fledgling Salman Rushdie was starting out as a writer, one of the hands that guided and encouraged him was of Anita Desai's. Now, the superstar writer pays his debt to her in a foreword to Anita Desai's novel, In Custody:

When I think of Anita Desai I see her most clearly as a figure standing, as an equal, beside Jane Austen, that other great Indian novelist, creator of brave, brilliant women trapped by conservative social mores into becoming mere husband-hunters, women who would be very recognizable to denizens of, for example, the Delhi of Clear Light of Day. And because while she is wholly Indian she is also half-European I think of her in the company of other insider-outsiders such as the white Caribbean novelist Jean Rhys, author of Wide Sargasso Sea, or the half-Sikh, half-Hungarian painter Amrita Sher-Gil. Nor should Anita Desai be placed in exclusively female company. As In Custody makes plain, she has cared as much about, and been shaped as deeply by, the great (male) Urdu poets as by any woman’s poems.

Here, Rushdie holds forth on the decline of his mother tongue, Urdu:

In Custody was, therefore, a novel of transformation for its author, a doubly remarkable piece of work, because in this magnificent book Anita Desai chose to write not of solitude but of friendship, of the perils and responsibilities of joining oneself to others rather than holding oneself apart. And at the same time she wrote, for the first time, a very public fiction, shedding the reserve of the earlier books to take on such sensitive themes as the unease of minority communities in modern India, the new imperialism of the Hindi language, and the decay that, now even more than when the book was written, was and is all too tragically evident throughout the fissuring body of Indian society. The courage of the novel is considerable, and so is its prescience. The slow death of my mother-tongue, Urdu, is much further advanced than it was twenty-three years ago, and much that was beautiful in the culture of Old Delhi has slipped away for ever.

Choosing a school in New Delhi

Mukul Kesavan in his new book, The Ugliness of the Indian Male:

When I went looking for a school for my son a decade ago, I used to stroll up to noticeboards outside classrooms and school offices hoping to find class lists. If I found them I’d browse through the names looking for clues. If there were no Muslim names (and there were schools where there weren’t any) my enthusiasm for the school would wane. Was this an excess of political correctness? No, not at all. If a good school in Delhi could get by without Muslim students despite the city’s substantial Muslim population, it either meant that Muslims didn’t apply to it or the school didn’t care to do what the NGOs like to call ‘outreach’, and both implications, as far as I was concerned, were bad signs.” (from “Good Omens”) If more parents of privileged children — and the middle class is privileged, even if we moan a hell of a lot about bearing the burden of taxation — did that, we would not be faced with the ghettoisation of the Muslim child, which naturally continues into adulthood.