Tuesday, December 25, 2007


My Revolutions

Hari Kunzru

To me, the most interesting thing about the book was the context – the England of the late 60s and early 70s was a bit of a revelation. It should have come as no surprise that there would have been a radical Left that threatened the Establishment, that there was something called an Angry Brigade that bombed London and had connections with leftist forces elsewhere and that there was an anti-American movement that culminated in anti-Vietnam protests. Strangely enough it did.

Hari Kunzru finally writes a book that completely captures my attention. Chris Carver alias Michael Frame is interesting in the sense that he has been at the centre of a time in history when people were really hoping for or dreading a (depending on your point of view) ‘revolution’. A time when people actually talked about things like “ The state claimed it was an expression of the democratic will of the people. But what if it wasn’t? What if it is just a parasite, a vampire sustaining itself on our collective life, on my life in particular?” Hello???

Chris Carver is 19 years old in 1968. Incidently, it is one year before Hari Kunzru’s birth. But Kunzru manages to make it sound convincing, at least to a fellow 1969-er. Anyways, Chris Carver is 19 years old in 1968 and ends up being Michael Frame dreading his 50th birthday party in 1998, when he expects his carefully constructed alias to come crashing down. The transition from the LSE dropout to the suburban husband and step father is the story of the book. Loosely based on the Angry Brigade (that seem like a Boy Scout crew today, given that their bombings hurt precisely one person), a rag-tag group of university drop-outs convicted for a series of bombings around London, it tracks the story of one of the members, his initiation into the ideals and his subsequent disillusionment, dropping out or betrayal, whichever way you choose to see it and the inexorable way in which the past catches up.

The teenage Chris, with little family life to speak of, is easily drawn into a harmless world of protests and demonstrations that challenge status quo. This initiation quickly turns into bigger things when he joins the LSE and comes into contact with a wider circle calling for the overthrow of the established order and a ‘revolution’. The idealism was, I suppose, real enough. But with hindsight and in today’s context seems a bit naïve and slightly ridiculous.

What starts off as a Bohemian Age of Aquarius trip with acid, free love and communes soon descends into extremism and violence and the justification of it – Mao’s line about ‘In order to get rid of the gun, it is necessary to take up the gun’ is oft-quoted. So sit-ins for affordable housing turn into bombings to make a political statement and anti-war protests turn into training camps with Palestine terrorists. And when international solidarity with the oppressed becomes a reason to take on a job of killing a Jewish capitalist, Chris bails out. He runs with the money and an assumed identity and starts a new life. With an Anita Roddick-type wife and step-daughter who have no clue who Michael Frame really is, his past, his run-ins with the law and his addictions, Chris Carver becomes Michael Frame – still refusing to give in completely to the capitalist pigs, still looking at his business-woman wife with scorn. And there are the in-between years, the 4 years in a Bangkok monastery, getting cured of his drug addiction.

Of course the past catches up with him. And he is forced to choose between a past he is running away from and a present that does not completely satisfy him, yet is something he has made peace with. And that is Michael Frame’s dilemna. Can he truly accept the politics of the middleman Miles, what he calls the 'real, grown up politics, not the kind that starts by carving out a Utopia and then hammering at the world, trying to make it fit'? Whether he does or not, he knows that his daughter Sam, the hot shot corporate lawyer-to-be is lucky. Lucky that in her world, politics feels optional, something it’s safe to ignore. Because he knows that for most people, politics is forced on them. But even in Sam’s world, he knows it’s not really an option. As he tells her in his mind, 'Thatcher’s gone, the Berlin wall’s down, and unless you’re in Bosnia, the most pressing issue of the nineties appears to be interior design. It’s supposed to be the triumph of capitalism – the end of history and the glorious beginning of the age of shopping. But politics is still here, Sam, even in 1998. It may be in abeyance, at least in your world. But it’s lurking round the edges. It’ll be back.'

My Revolutions is an interesting read. Not least because it reminds us that we should be thankful not only because Britain did not go the way of the revolution but also because there was the Angry Brigade and the anti-war protests and the labour union unrest and the rock music and the radical left. It sure made the world a better place for us.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Miscellany

Two books, two movies and a long-ish drive. That was my extended weekend in a nutshell.

The City of Falling Angels by Berendt was a kind-of-gripping read; gripping the way Shobha De and Stardust is. You read it with the feeling that this should not really interest you; that it is somewhat voyeuristic and not in any way adding to your grasp of the world and therefore should not be eating into your precious me-time. But read it you will. Because the setting is historic, romantic, beautiful Venice and the characters are people who have made Venice their home. Now that’s a rarity – there are just 70,000 of them! Berendt takes us to the heart of Venetian society, into their drawing rooms and with a fascination for royalty and big names that only an American can have, he gives us a glimpse into a world that is completely closed to a passing tourist. He starts off with an account of the fire at the famous Fenice opera house and in an investigative journalistic style, tries to unravel the mystery behind it. By the end of the book, no conclusion is reached and the mystery remains a mystery and the whole thing is kind of purposeless (if it’s a mystery, shouldn’t it be solved?). Instead, Berendt gives us a lot of side plots - the case of the Ezra Pound papers and connivers who try to cheat his mistress of them; a hi-society struggle for control of a Save Venice charity; two sons fighting over a centuries-old Murano glassmaking legacy; a greengrocer who dubiously inherits a famous gay poet’s legacy. They make for interesting reading and what comes out is a picture of an ancient and crumbling city holding a deep fascination for outsiders (from Byron to Henry James to Berendt himself and the millions of tourists who cannot have enough of Venice) while the ever-decreasing number of insiders squabble and feud among themselves. The rising water levels and the rats and the rampant corruption, the smell and the Venetian scorn of the tourist – it’s not a very pretty picture. And at the end of it, you wonder why it should matter to you which American plutocrat controls a Save Venice foundation or who really owns the Palazzo Barbaro. I would just like to go to Venice, see its beautiful palaces and bridges, take a ride in a gondola, Casanova-style and click pretty pictures. Being the scorned tourist is fine with me. The insider stuff reads like a gossip column in any other city magazine.

Jhoom Barabar Jhoom was a long awaited movie and I finally got to watch it on DVD. Not least because 2 of my most favourite bloggers went ga ga over it while the rest of the critic world panned it. I was sure there was something in it that the world had missed. Plus, I liked Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli, a cool look at small town India and its aspirations and Saathiya, a lovely little love story. Plus, I kind of liked Abhishek Bachan after his roles in Yuva and B&B. Plus, I really liked the title track. So I went into it looking for a movie with a difference. And I came out really and truly disappointed. First of all, there was far too much music and dance. Ok, I get it, it’s supposed to be something of a musical. But the music wasn’t taking the movie forward! Abhishek I thought was a disaster. He replayed his Bunty act in a London setting and for the life of me I couldn’t understand why any sane woman would be attracted to him. Preity Zinta of course was withered and old and Botoxed and trying so hard to be her vivacious self. It is such a shame that the exuberant freshness of Dil Se and Dil Chahta Hai is gone. Sad what age does to someone. The one fresh note was Lara Dutta. Her prostitute act, though short, was noticeably different. This girl deserves more of a chance in Bollywood. As for Bobby Deol, the less said the better. He is so bad! All in all, the movie is worth watching only for one thing – the JBJ song in all its avatars is a visual treat and the dance sequences and Amitabh Bachan in his Mexican costume are pretty cool. The saving grace in an otherwise disastrous movie. But for that, we just need to switch MTV on.

Edward Luce’s ‘The Strange Rise of Modern India’ was the second book. Luce was FT’s correspondent in India for 5 years and this book is his reading of a country that has quite got under his skin. There is nothing spectacularly new in this for Indians – Luce explores the disparity between a rising middle class and the millions who still don’t know where their next meal is coming from; the caste politics that are making regional parties and coalition governments the norm; the inescapable corruption in Indian bureaucracy and government; the difference in the way the north and south of India have developed; the rise of Hindu nationalism and the Islamic response. Luce covers all of this through a journalist’s eye with anecdotes that are personal and catchy. And while these have been the subjects of deep study and comment already in a number of articles and books, In Spite of the Gods does provide an outsider view that proves interesting at times. For example, Luce comments on the Indian predilection for debate over action and the sense of intellectual superiority that governs Indian diplomats and the resulting frustration among foreign ones trying to effect a deal. It is an interesting book and an easy read. And for a more detailed review, check out http://jaiarjun.blogspot.com/2006/09/in-spite-of-gods-edward-luce-on-india.html

Om Shanti Om was the 2nd movie. I went to a theatre to watch it (something I haven't done in a while) and I found it absolutely delightful. Shahrukh is king in my books once again. Farah Khan’s take on Karz is exuberant and loud and funny and touching – all in one go. It’s her tribute to the movies of the 70s and I watched Rishi Kapoor singing Om Shanti Om, so easy and fluid, with much nostalgia. OSO is Karz-like in its re-incarnation and revenge story, yet it has shades of Dilip Kumar’s Madhumati as well. The movie is filled with references to older films, dialogues, heroes and their foibles and these insider jokes are pretty funny most of the time. Shahrukh and his new-found abs are as cool as ever (despite an age-ing face). Deepika Padukone is pretty and a possible star. Arjun Ramphal is menacing in his villainous role. The 70s is pretty neatly recreated and the junior artist Om Prakash, in love with top heroine Shanti Priya saves her once from a fire and fails to save her the next time. He dies in the process and is reborn as Om again, this time as the son of a superstar and therefore a superstar himself. A junior artist gets to finally become a star, albeit in another life. His past life flashes by of course…and the second half of the film is how he avenges the deaths of his previous avtar and his lady love with the help of a Shanti Priya look-alike and a ghost. The film is typical Hindi masala in parts and in parts is a Hollywood-style spoof on Bollywood. And just for that difference, it will be interesting to see how this movie fares at the box office.

The long drive was purposeless and effective at the same time. One because there was no real destination (or the destination did not really matter) and the second because it gave me license to day dream without much interruption. Music, a fast car and time…always an unbeatable combination.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

By Anne Tyler

My first taste of a contemporary American great. The initial impressions are of a certain quaintness, a chronicle of everydayness turned slightly crooked, of a peculiar sense of irony, wicked almost. It’s an interesting read, one that makes me want to explore further.


Tyler thinks this is her best work (though her most famous is certainly, The Accidental Tourist that was made into a Hollywood movie) and it is a superbly crafted one. The Homesick Restaurant is what Pearl Tull’s second son Ezra runs in American suburbia. It is where an ill-ordered and messy family gather every once in a while for family meals that never get completed. Pearl is a memorable character, proud and prickly, left to fend for 3 children when her salesman husband ups and leaves. She is not a perfect mother and her foibles leave their mark on her children, each of whom grows up to flawed adulthood. Cody the oldest is convinced that his younger brother Ezra is his mother’s favourite and lives his life in competition with him for everyone’s affections. Ezra is the calm saint, trying to get the family to act like one, yet with an unaware ‘ungood’ side to him. And Jenny is the beautiful and erratic youngest, whose irregularity is spawned by her mother’s strict and mostly irrational rules of behaviour. There are some intense and sharp moments in the book, and it takes the final dinner at the Homesick restaurant at Pearl’s funeral to get the complete family (now including the absent father) to finally finish a meal.

There is a Jane Austen-esque quality to Tyler. With no grand themes or plot lines, characters in this novel live ordinary mundane lives spiked with endearing eccentricities. That seems to be Tyler’s calling card – making the everydayness of life worth delving deeper into.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lazy Poetry II

Slumber awaits
A window turning orange
It is tardy

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Noisy shiny night
A thousand dreams flutter
And die in sleep

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Mind says silly
Heart begs to disagree
The war goes on

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Sun beckons flower
She responds hoping fruition
But withers when he sets

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Close ones turn blurry
The world turns upside down
And unreal clarifies

Monday, October 15, 2007


Eve Green

Susan Fletcher

This is a lovely book with a distinctly fresh young voice. Her writing does remind me a bit of Arundhati Roy, though - unapologetically poetic in her use of words, there seems to be no holding back. There is something of the boldness and recklessness of the first novel in it (it is a first novel and a Whitbread prize winner at that). The language combined with the setting – the rough-hewn landscape of Wales, makes for pure theatre.

The plot itself is less electrifying - about a girl Eve Green, now pregnant and 29, reminiscing about the 8 year old she once was, brought to rural Wales from Birmingham when her young mother’s heart gives up on her. It describes her initial years at an unfamiliarly harsh and beautiful place that she grows to love; her slow discovery of her mother’s grand love story, her own conception and her father’s desertion; her friendship with Billy, the village idiot, who knows more than anyone else she knows and who still is in love with her mother; her grandparents, their losses and their unflinching love of her; a school girl’s disappearance, Eve’s own role in it and how it changed her and the town, robbing it and her of innocence; her childish adoration of a man that grows into the love of her life; and her growing acceptance of life and the pain and the happiness it brings with it.

What stand out for me are some breathtakingly beautiful, and for a 27 year old writer, unusually wise and adult lines. Like ‘Influenza. It should have been a girl’s name – a sultry, hot-eyed girl from somewhere tropical, with flowers in her hair and swaying hips.’ Or, ‘..we all want our lovers to see us that way – unaware, natural, serene. We want to change their world with one glance, to stop their breath at the sight of us.’ Or her mother talking about seeing her father for the first time - ‘I don’t think beauty is neat anymore. It’s unordered. It’s unbrushed hair and a torn back pocket.’ Eve justifying her mother’s giving up everything for a man who ultimately betrays her – ‘He showed her seven months of what life should always feel like.’ About a mother whose daughter just went missing - ‘..ex-wife, ex-lover. Can you be an ex-parent at all?’ Lines that make you wish you had written them.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Crossings

The sun glinted on the moss-green water. The only sounds were of the oar on the water and the occasional bird caw. It was a long while since she had known this kind of serenity. Her mind emptied out, no niggling task to disturb it. No nagging ringtone, or the ping of the email. This was her time of cleansing her soul, washing out all the dark dinginess that had tainted it through the year. Her two weeks of complete ‘selfness’, where she was just with herself, her books, the water below and the sky above. And that delicious food, the unfamiliar vegetables – raw banana, yam, tapioca; the unpolished rice that was so healthy. She looked towards the shore she was passing. The coir-making looked tedious, but the lives out there seemed idyllic to her city eyes. The lush verdant green, the sloping tiled roofs, the washing hung out to dry; all spoke of a slow daily unchanging routine. She dreamt of that slowness, of savouring the moment, the words in front of her, the wind in her hair and the sunlight on her face. She wished this could be her world, somehow. That she could belong to one of those tiled roof houses, sit on the verandah and stare at the water as long as she liked.

Her eyes scanned the shore on the other side and she saw a young girl sitting under a tree. There was a vast expanse behind her and far beyond she could see another of those sloping tiled roofs. The young girl was wearing a skirt, a western style skirt. She was writing on a blue inland letter. She hadn’t seen one of those in ages. And the young girl was frowning, biting her pen, not looking too pleased.

She wasn’t too pleased. The sun beat down relentlessly. The flies were annoying. Even the sweetness of the mangoes did not pacify her. She had run away from the house after breakfast to sit near the kaayal. Soon her mother would be calling out to her to take her bath. Ammini would draw the water from the well for her. And if she wanted, though her mother would disapprove, she could get it heated up in the big brass cauldron in the bathroom. She disliked the bathroom, the hamam soap that came with it and the fact that she would have to use the water sparingly. The big house depressed her. There were dark grubby corners, the floor was rough and she had to sleep on a coir mat on the floor. The fan was a table fan and it was never enough to beat the heat. The rice she would have for lunch was not the white clean rice she was used to but the reddish one. There would be fish, always fish and all the horrid bones that came with it. She was writing all this down. To her father. Complaining. Telling him this was not how she wanted to spend her summer holiday. She had to be careful with the letter though. The last time she wrote a letter to her dad, her mother’s uncle had snatched it from her hand, proudly reading her English to his mother. Imagine, he would tell his mother, his grand-niece wrote and spoke English so well. Imagine him reading out this letter she was writing. It would break his heart.

She looked up towards the water. She saw one of those boats with a roof over it. She had never been in one of those. She always got to the house on a small boat. And she was always terrified of falling into the water in one of those. The boat with the roof seemed big and capable and completely safe. She could see a lady in there. Seemed like someone from far away, city-bred. Fair and slim. She was wearing one of those stylishly light cotton pants that came up to her calves. She looked like she was having a good time. She watched the boat slowly drift away. And wished she was her, that lady in the boat, watching the shore disappearing, moving away from this stiflingly slow world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Life Before Man

Margaret Atwood

It’s ‘70s Canada. It’s a marriage that is not really one, at least not a good one. Elizabeth, Nate and Lesje (pronounced Lashia) are the characters that people it. Not one of them is particularly likeable. Elizabeth is scheming, manipulative and damaged by a nasty childhood. Nate is insipid, a bit of a loser and it’s difficult to see the attraction he holds for the women. Lesje is the most attractive of the lot – with her multi-religious East European background and her almost nerdish fascination for dinosaurs (a time before man), there is a refreshing un-worldliness about her. Yet even she turns nagging, conventional by the end.

Life Before Man is a series of short episodes stretching through a time period of 3 years. It is a sharp and tight portrait of 3 people and their relationship with each other. It is a picture of Elizabeth and Nate’s rotten marriage, of her savagery arising out of a painful past that includes suicides of her mother and sister, an ogre-aunt and most recently her ex-lover’s suicide as well. Of unambitious Nate who has given up a career in law to hand craft toys and of his desire for the dreamy paleontologist Lesje who he sees as an ethereal innocent. Of Lesje’s introduction to the adult world of love and hard relationships and her realization that maturity is really ‘the point where you think you’ve blown your life’.

There is hardness and brittleness and vulnerability and cruelty and hopelessness in all of them. They are real in a way very few characters are in fiction. With a precision in language and structure, Atwood has created an intensely insightful novel that takes an extremely un-euphemistic look at people and how they live their lives.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Aah

Aah, for the lotus-eater life
Sloth-guilty, frown-free,
Head empty of whispered commands
An endless day ahead, maybe more.

Solitude, gathering thoughts
Forming a life of its own
On paper, fresh heavenly paper
Hughes-like.

Milky sweet tea, a rain-festered pane
The herb-aroma-ed kitchen beckoning,
The reds and the greens and the purple
Waiting for creation.

Aah, what would it take
To just be.

Thursday, August 02, 2007



I am Charlotte Simmons

By Tom Wolfe


Wolfe is pushing 75. And he then goes and writes a book about college life at an Ivy League college in America. To write this typical journalistic novel, Wolfe apparently lived in a campus for a while to study life there. I guess I am Charlotte Simmons is what results when an old man observes and writes about young people and their lives – an account of a generation in pursuit of things that a man who has lived through WWII will deem superficial and inconsequential.
Charlotte Simmons is a brilliant high school graduate from a really small town Sparta, in the back of beyond. She is the only one from her town who has ever been admitted to Dupont, a prestigious Ivy League college (apparently modeled after Duke). She comes to college armed with nothing more than a suitcase of unfashionable clothes and her mind. And in Dupont, she confronts a world completely different from anything she has ever known. She arrives wanting to live ‘the life of the mind’. She finds instead a cell-phone and computer-wielding bulimic roommate and a generation obsessed with drinking, sex and sports. The heroes are not Nobel prize winners, they are jocks who are in Dupont purely for their athletic prowess and ‘frat boys’, the prep school types who are in college to get an investment banking job. The jocks and the ‘frat boys’ can literally get all the girls and the glory. Sex is an obsession and virginity is a shame. Real study is for nerds and geeks and is not cool. The basketball team and its college life is a revelation for those not familiar with American college life. The way they maintain an average grade point (through ‘sleepers’ who are in the team primarily because they can up the average grades), the ‘tutors’ they have, the ‘easy’ courses they are allowed to take and the fanatical fan following that allows them access to girls and fast cars, make them the superstars of college life.

Charlotte is the prim and proper small town girl shocked by these excesses. It is through her eyes that we see this debauched college life. Jojo is the dumb basketball jock who gets caught plagiarizing a paper in a ‘real’ class and who (through Charlotte’s influence) has aspirations to do some authentic study in college. Adam is the ‘uncool’ intellectual, in love with Charlotte, her intelligence and her virginal beauty. He is the nerd no woman can actually love, including Charlotte. Hoyt is the frat boy, living the easy life with adoring girls and a serious drinking problem. He is bribed with an investment banking job to keep shut about a sex scandal involving the governor and a student. And he is the one who Charlotte finally has sex with and in the process sets in motion a turning point in Charlotte’s college life. It is the moment that embodies the ultimate clash between Charlotte’s quite puritanical world view and the contemporary hedonistic generation. It is also the moment that starts Charlotte’s ultimate co-option into her own generation.

All of these are characters more in the mould of caricatures. They serve no other purpose than to embody the world being painted. Wolfe is making a point about contemporary youth culture and all these people are bullet points in his thesis. It is an interesting thesis for sure, but a thesis nonetheless.

Wolfe portrays an extreme point of view of life in a college. Conservative America will cheer him on for sure, for moralising about a culture where traditional American values of puritanism and self-denial have no place. And yet the extremeness of the viewpoint makes it less real and in my mind, lessens the point he is trying to make. Sure, we appreciate the possibility that the obsession with sex, drink and sports in current college life has been taken to far greater lengths than is sensible. That the disregard for an intellectual life (the very purpose of a college, one would assume) will have consequences on America as a society. But really, is it all that bad? Do girls in college really have little to think about other than boys (there is not a single character other than Charlotte and a rather shrill feminist called rather obviously Camilla who shows any interest in anything other than boys)? Are co-ed dorms really the terror they are shown to be? Can basketball jocks really get through college without knowing who Socrates was? Can there really be a freshman like Charlotte in today's America, so untouched by the sexuality that must have invaded even her small town world?

I am Charlotte Simmons is an interesting book and is worth reading just for the context. It is not in my opinion a great piece of fiction, however. It does not touch you, in many cases it does not feel real and there is little empathy any of the characters generate. Least of all Charlotte, who comes across as a rather prissy small town girl with a completely closed mind. All of this is probably because the book is a portrait of a generation far removed from the man who paints it.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


The Line of Beauty


By Alan Hollinghurst

Here is, at last, a new writer in my library. But my first encounter with Hollinghurst has been a bit of a shocker. The explicit gay sex scenes and the unabashed depiction of drug use overwhelm first impressions. This mix of coke, sex and exquisite language proves to be a heady cocktail.

Nick Guest is a guest, a paying one at that, at the Feddens, an upper class English family with political ambitions. He is an outsider, an imposter in the Fedden world of power, glamour and wealth. Yet, Nick with his passion for Henry James and his intimate knowledge of aesthetics is the true inheritor of beauty. The Feddens might have a Gaurdi on their mantelpiece but it is Nick who understands its true worth. Nick is intoxicated with the idea of being a part of the Feddens because they represent to him a world that he should truly belong to. Yet in Gatsby-like fashion, it is evident he never does.

Gatsby’s 20-s Jazz-age America is Nick’s 80-s Tory England. It is an age where there is an impression of giddy success, where things are hurtling towards disaster, yet life goes on blithely, almost festively. Gerald Fedden is a Tory MP and his wife Rachel, whose house it is, is the one with the aristocratic title. Their son Toby is Nick’s college mate and introduces him to the household. His sister Catherine is the disturbed and rebellious child who the family does not know how to deal with. It is Nick who gets the closest to her, yet ultimately fails to understand exactly how disturbed she really is.

We are treated to 4 years of Nick’s life at the Feddens, exposed to a world of social privilege and pretension, of unapologetic Tory arrogance (with even an evening where Margaret Thatcher herself makes an appearance), of decadence beyond control. Nick himself remains a fascinated observer at first but we find him slowly entering this world and becoming a part of its dissolution, all the while remaining at some central level detached from it. His first encounter with homosexual sex in a garden is detailed dramatically, vividly. The sex scenes then become repetitive and increasingly casual, there is a lot of drug use (the coke line is another line of beauty) especially when Nick gets involved with a Middle-Eastern tycoon, a Dodi-type character, with whom Nick founds a magazine Ogee. Ogee (the curve that is a characteristic of a style of Gothic architecture) is the book’s real line of beauty, and proves to be the culmination of Nick’s quest for the beautiful. AIDS rears it ugly head, snatching away Nick’s lovers one by one. And as the Feddens’ personal and political lives start slowly disintegrating, Nick finds himself the outsider again, never truly able to belong. Yet, we know that at heart, Nick is the observer, able to see the society and age for what it really is – a shallow, bigoted and pretentious one.

Hollinghurst writes beautifully. His language is the best part of the book and some passages just beg to be underlined. While describing Toby’s liking of showing off his rower’s body, Hollinghurst writes ‘It was the easy charity of beauty’, capturing the unrequited longing in Nick beautifully. Nick’s observations about the people and society around him are exquisite. He calls the world a ‘looking-glass world’, where people are constantly looking around to seek validation of their worth. Describing Paul Tomkins, a fellow-Oxfordite, he says ‘It was a mystery to him that fat old Polly, who was rutted with acne scars and completely lacking in ordinary kindness, had such a conspicuous success with men… Nothing that lasted, but startling triumphs of will, opportunism and technique, even so.’ And describing the atmosphere at the Ogee office, he says ‘So he prattled on, mixing up sex and scholarship, and enjoying his wanderings away from he strict truth. In fact that was really the fun of it. And it seemed to fit in with the air of fantasy in the Ogee office, the distant sense of an avoided issue.’ Almost every page has such exquisite turns of phrase, and it kept me going, even when the sex and the coke began to pall.

It took me a long time to get to this book – it was the 2004 Booker winner – yet I am glad I waited. I would have been disappointed with it if I had read it along with the hype surrounding it. Now was a good time – away from distractions, I could savour the delicious language and setting at my own time and pace.

Thursday, June 28, 2007




Temptations of the West: How to be modern in India, Pakistan and Beyond


By Pankaj Mishra


In many ways, this is an uncomfortable book. For English-speaking Indians used to the ‘India Shining’ story streaming out of newspapers, magazines and TV channels, it is disquieting to come across someone who holds a mirror to what can only be called the failures of the Indian state. That is what Mishra does with his latest book. Yes, he has an agenda – a liberal, left-leaning, anti-West one, and that can colour a lot of what he says. And one does get the sneaking suspicion that this is a book meant for the West, and not the South Asians he writes about. Yet, it is thought-provoking and interesting and worthy of note.

The book is Mishra’s take on how traditional societies in
South Asia are coping with the Western version of ‘modernisation’ – of closed economies suddenly coming face to face with a globalised world; of free market economics coming into play in areas that are extremely poor; of Western ideologies of colonization, communism and democracy touching traditionally feudal societies. It is a memoir, a travelogue, a narrative that touches upon history, politics and philosophy. Mishra travels to small town India (Benares, Allahabad, Ayodhya, Srinagar, Jammu) and its biggest city Bombay; to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet; to bring a provocative point of view of what it means to be modern in these places.


In India, he elaborates on a favourite theme – the ‘grimy underside’ of middle class society. A society that is impatient with ‘the stubbornly destitute majority’, an impatience mirrored in their support for ‘strong’ leaders like Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and the creation of a national identity whose ingredients include ‘Hinduism, nuclear bombs, beauty queens and information technology tycoons.’ It is the very same middle class that created the RSS, an organization Mishra equates to the fascists of Germany, creating a self-assertive Hinduism that found its strongest support in wealthy expatriate Hindus. It is this class’s profound distrust of a reclaiming of India by the lower classes and castes, and their fear of letting go of the old order and stability that form the basis of most conflicts in modern India.


And there is a reclaiming. Power has passed to a class of ‘professional politicians’, we have been forced to accommodate Dalits and Muslims and a million other underprivileged classes in politics and a re-arranging of the old order is underway. There no longer is a monolith Congress Party, able to accommodate any and everyone. Each class has its own demands and grievances and its own play for power. Indian democracy is unruly and untidy, and while politicians of all political hues have consistently failed the poorest of the poor in this country, the faith in elections and in their ability to change people’s fate is touchingly alive.


But Mishra has a warning – especially on resurgent Hindu nationalism. ‘Hinduism in the hands of these Indians has never looked more like the Christianity and Islam of popes and mullahs, and less like the multiplicity of unselfconsciously tolerant faiths it still is for most Indians,’ he says. And this ‘profound modernity of religious nationalism’ is disquieting for Muslims and other minorities whose faith in Indian democracy has been tested time and again by the repeated violence unleashed against them. No Indian Muslim so far, other than Kashmiris, has ever been responded to jihad calls anywhere in the world. That statistic is steadily coming under threat.


The chapter on Kashmir is an unflinching look at India’s role in a troubled region. The Indian government’s and army’s continually insensitive handling of a very sensitive issue has exacerbated tensions to almost a point of no return. Draconian measures to curb an insurgency fed on calls of jihad and India’s growing strategic importance to world powers have meant that the majority of Kashmiris live in a state of an uneasy accommodation with the Indian presence in the valley.


In Pakistan, Mishra talks of ‘the dwindling of human possibilities, and the steady grinding-down of individual lives’; of a feudal society at odds with democratic institutions; of an ancient Islamic global civilization broken down by ‘the invincible modern civilization of the West’ and producing a fanaticism that crushes freedom; of Deobandi madrassas that train people from areas as far flung as Kashmir, the Philippines, Chechnya and Afghanistan. Afghanistan, Mishra says is a story of ‘the tragic violence and disorder of a near-primitive society modernizing too fast.’ The modern ideologies of communism, democracy and globalization clash in a country that had missed the 19th century altogether in its history. Its current state is the result of its calamitous encounter with modernity. An interesting take, I thought. In Nepal, he explores the rise of a militant Mao-ism and an ironical clash between two archaic ideologies – communism and monarchy. To the West that is prepared to do anything to stop the Mao-ists from coming to power, he questions the nature of a democracy protected by an autocrat.


But his most touching analysis is left for Tibet. He calls it a ‘unique civilzation’; one whose leaders in exile still believe that ‘you cannot achieve a good end through the wrong kind of means.’ He takes us through their history, the inexorable march of China through Tibet and the unique perspective the Dalai Lama brings to the table. His last words on this distinct place are inspiring, to say the least. ‘It is no accident that the Tibetans seem to have survived the large-scale communist attempt at social engineering rather better than most people in China itself. This is at least partly due to their Budhistic belief in the primacy of empathy and compassion. And, faced with an aggressively secular materialism, they may still prove, almost alone in the world, how religion, usually dismissed as ‘poison’, can be a source of cultural identity and moral values. They may prove how it can become a means of political protest without blinding the devout with hatred and prejudice; how it can help heal the shocks and pains of history – the pain that has led people elsewhere in the world into nihilistic rage – but also create a rational and ethical national culture – a culture that may make a freer Tibet, whenever it comes about, better prepared for its state of freedom than most societies.’


Strangely enough, Tibet is the land Mishra seems most optimistic about. It is an intensely, almost naively optimistic view of what to most people looks like a lost cause. In his world view, Western modernity is almost the call of the pied piper – leading nations, including India, into some mode of self-destruction. It is Tibet, by its ability to hold on to its traditional sources of inner strength, which seems to him most capable of encountering this hostile modernity.

Thursday, June 21, 2007


Sivaji


Shell-shocked. That was what I was after watching the biggest film of the year. What really was that? A man, a superman, a ghost, a god? Rajnikanth does have that kind of an effect on you. Especially if you are not a Tamilian, or you haven’t seen a film of his for over 20 years.

Rajni is a phenomenon – we’ve all heard that. He probably deserves a couple of hundred theses written on him. It still might not explain his incredible sway over audiences, apparently the world over. In Sivaji, he plays nothing but himself – El Mariachi, Neo, Superman, Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle, all rolled into one. There is seemingly nothing he cannot do. Halt a bullet in its trajectory, beat up a hundred goons single-handedly, fly into the air a la Matrix, die and then come back to life.

As Indians we are used to exaggeration – we are familiar with macho heroes, be it AB or MGR, beating up the villains to a pulp. We watch it in all seriousness, suspending disbelief. The difference here is, I am truly not sure if I am meant to watch it in seriousness. Isn’t this really a spoof? Isn’t Rajni kind of winking at the audience and saying, ‘Isn’t this cool? I can be what I want and do what I want – this is a movie,’ with a kind of awareness of the ridiculousness of it all?

Sivaji, an NRI returns to India wanting to set up schools and hospitals for the poor. He runs into obstacles – a ruthless businessman, politicians on the take, shady cops, a corrupt bureaucracy, all of who want their share of the spoils. Sivaji tries paying them off, but there is always one more guy to be paid, he loses patience and decides to take on the system, in the process making it his mission to rid the country of black money. So far so good – we know this happens in our films. A hero gets treated unfairly and he turns to vigilante justice. But then things turn bizarre – we are treated to a lesson in economics (what black money is and why it is bad), money laundering (with Muslims as the hawala traders), dying in police custody, and then being revived, ... the list is endless. Somewhere in between, Sivaji also manages to fall in love with a wholesome Tamil girl who wears revealing clothes only in dream sequences, bathes in Fair and Lovely (how much did these guys pay for the product placement, I wonder), turns a Michael Jackson white for the duration of one song and there is a whole comedy track which is pretty pathetic by Tamil film standards. The plots, the characters, all are secondary - you go to see the film for Rajni, nothing more.

For a movie that is touted as the most expensive Indian film ever made, the production values are not all that hot. The songs and the dream sequences look like a lot of money has gone into them; but otherwise, it’s just average on the looks variety. And I was quite disappointed with the music. Rajni himself looks a bit podgy and his Manish Malhotra clothes don’t do much for him.

But then, the ‘Rajni style’ stays intact. 20 years ago, he made flipping a cigarette into your mouth THE thing to do, for 12 year old boys. This time, they get to choose between flicking a deflected chewing gum into your mouth (the cigarette is too politically incorrect, I guess), drumming on your head, wearing sunglasses at the back of your head or flicking a 1 Re coin from hand to hand and then right into your pocket. And of course, saying ‘cool’ at the end of it all.

All in all, Sivaji is definitely worth watching if you have never watched a Rajni film or haven’t watched one in a long time. It gives you a glimpse into a movie world quite different from any other. You may leave the theatre a lifelong fan. Or you may vow never to subject yourself to this again.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


A Poem for CRY

A lovely little book and a lovely little idea. Two Indian kids taking inspiration from a Dublin project called Lifelines, went about collecting favourite poems from famous Indian people. They compiled this together into a book, the proceeds of which go to CRY. The 2 kids, Avanti Maluste and Sudeep Doshi have managed to get a lot of big names to contribute, 109 in all - and they include the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi, Abdul Kalam, Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Prannoy Roy, The Dalai Lama, Azim Premji, Sachin Tendulkar, Baba Amte, Shashi Tharoor. It's a varied list, spanning different fields and their choices too end up being a pretty varied combination. Not all of them explain their choice. They are sometimes expected, sometimes surprising, but revealing just the same.

Amartya Sen has a great foreword that puts things in perspective, right at the start - "The poems are of interest not only for the merits of the poems themselves , but also for telling us something about the commitments and priorities of the selectors that are reflected in their choices. We live not only by our own thoughts formulated in isolation, but also by the ideas and phrases of others that resonate and move us." So we have an Advani choosing An Ode to the Himalayas, with a call to restore ancient Indian glories, of Rama and Krishna (how can it really be anything else!) and a Shyam Benegal choosing a chilling Auden poem that talks of the necessity of guarding against tyranny in Epitaph on a Tyrant
"When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets."


A lot of the poems are expected, stuff we learnt in English classes growing up - Wordsworth's Daffodils, Keats' Ode to a Nightingale, Kipling's If, Frost's The Road not Taken, Tagore's Where the Mind is Without Fear. But there are many that are new and exciting and surprising. Shobha De's choice was one of my favourites - an excerpt from Neruda's Dies Slowly.

"Slowly dies who doesn't turn the table upside down,

Who's unhappy at work,
Who doesn't risk the certainties for the unknown to pursue a dream,

Who doesn't allow himself to run away from wise suggestions,

At least once in a lifetime.
Slowly dies who doesn't travel, who doesn't read,

Who never listens to music, who doesn't find grace in himself,
Slowly dies who destroys his self-esteem,

Who spends every day to complain about either his bad luck or the never-ending rain.

Let's avoid death in small doses, keeping in mind that being alive always requests a much bigger effort than the simple fact of breathing."
You can almost see Shobha De's life in a different light after reading this.


Shashi Tharoor's choice is the Wilfred Owen poem Dulce et Decorum est. In describing the horrors of war mercilessly, it superbly undermines the warrior myths normally taught to a child - a fitting choice for a man who has worked a lifetime at the UN. Owen who died fighting WWI, brings a quality of graphic realism to the war scene that is unnerving.

"...If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,--
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et Decorum est

Pro patria mori." (Latin for 'It is sweet and proper to die for one's country')


There are some amazing Urdu poems (thank god for the translations) - Shabana Azmi's choice is a poem of her father's as is Amitabh Bachan's; and Yash Chopra chooses a Sahir Ludhianvi one. Kaifi Azmi's poem is particularly moving. It was apparently spoken as Nehru's voice in a Hindi film, when weeping crowds thronged his funeral procession.

"Nainihaal aate hain, arthi ko kinare kar lo

Main jahan tha, inhein jaana hai vahaan se aage

Aasmaan inka, zameen inki, zamaana inka

Hain kai inke jahaan, mere jahaan se aage
Inhein kaliyan na kaho, ye hain chamansaaz, suno
Meri Aawaaz suno, pyar ka raaz suno.
"
It's a poem written for death, but with so much hope in it.

This is a book that inspires in many ways - through its very concept, the inspiring contributors and the inspiring poems. Buy it if you come across it. It can possibly help an underprivileged kid grow up to appreciate the beauty that mere words can bring to the world.

Sunday, April 22, 2007



A kind of pretty

Skin so luminous, it could light up the dark
Eyes so large, so limpid, they look a bit whipped;
Long-limbed as if made for a walk in the park
Slim of waist, generous of bosom, large-hipped.

Thighs made for pleasure and not a magazine cover
All curves, no sharp lines, except for a nose -
Now that could do with a make-over,
With more ease, less force.

Clothed in unstitched drape, fluid, unformed,
Easy to disrobe, to just shed;
Ornamented, baubled, adorned,
With precious jewels or even flowers red.

She's a painting, gilding for a wall,
A tea-stall fantasy, a million calendar themes;
The goddess in the pandal, even an MTV filler doll,
Yet she's just kitsch, inspite of a collective billion dreams.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

300



The Battle of Thermopylae is the historical basis for this extravagant, quite over-the-top movie. Set somewhere in the 5th century BC, 300 is a reproduction of a graphic novel by Frank Miller. It tells the story of a brave defence of Greek territory by the Spartan king Leonidas and his band of 300 against the mighty Persian army of Xerxes. The battle was lost but at great price to Xerxes. And it led to the defeat of the Persians by a combined army of the Greeks at the battle of Salamis.

300, with its much vaunted special effects and CG feels more like a video game than a movie. It is a bit worrying to think that this could be the future of film-making. The men are real enough, but the backgrounds are not, the huge armies are not and strange creatures in Xerxes’ army are not. And there is not much attempt to make them look real either. Rather, it is a glorification of the graphics form as art. Which is why, 300 to me was more form than substance. There is little attempt at building characters or telling a tale. What entertains is not the story but the overwhelming visual saturation of the art. There is nothing subtle, nothing understated. At no point does it emotionally engage you.


The tale itself features purely as a platform to showcase the graphic art form. War is glorified beyond redemption. The white European army of Sparta is pitted against Xerxes’ ‘Asian mysticism and tyranny’. Sparta, the least free of all the Greek states, is portrayed as the defender of the free world (shades of George Bush?). A state that glorified the killing of crippled children, that taught its children to fight and kill, that looked at Athens as nothing more than a nation of ‘boy-lovers’ is the hero. The pure black vs. white form of comic book action takes away from the characterization, the story-telling.

Greeks vs. Persians will make an engrossing video game, if its not one already. It sure does not make great cinema. The pity is, there is a story here. The defence of Thermopylae is truly the stuff of legend. If only someone could get down to writing a real script and making a real movie of it. Ridley Scott, are you listening?

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Shalimar The Clown

By Salman Rushdie

It is always a pleasure to read Rushdie. The more recent works do not possibly have the power to surprise as much as Midnight’s Children and their plots may seem a bit more laboured…but man, can this guy write!
As is his wont, Shalimar the Clown has a sub text of bigger plots. The characters are motifs of Kashmir and the turmoil they go through is reflective of Kashmir’s troubled history. Ultimately, the novel is a paean to a notion of Kashmiriyat – a Kashmir that is the land of a softer, more benevolent Islam, a land whose legends are as much Hindu and Sikh as Muslim, where the beauty of its land and its people are quite unparalleled anywhere else. It is of course a Kashmir that no longer exists. And Rushdie tracks the breakdown of this beautiful land through the horror unleashed on it as much by foreign Islamic militants as by the insensitive Indian army.

That unfulfilled dream of Kashmir is embodied in Boonyi Kaul and Shalimar Noman, a dancer and a clown, and their beautiful village of Pachigam that accepts the unacceptable union of a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. It is Boonyi’s moment of madness, when she makes a pact with the devil, to get away from her claustrophobic Pachigam to see the larger world outside that sets in motion the spiral towards horror. The devil in this case, is the American ambassador to India, Max Ophuls, a man who has himself lost a beloved homeland to the Nazis and in the process become a war hero. Max’s war-time story is an engrossing sub-plot.

Boonyi never quite gets over her flight and neither does Shalimar. When she does come back to Pachigam, she has already been pronounced dead by her village including her beloved father. Dead she is, metaphorically at least, as she leaves behind a daughter she has named Kashmira and comes back only to wait for her promised death at the hands of her beloved Shalimar.

Shalimar in the meantime has joined hands with the international network of Islamic fundamentalists for whom Kashmir is but one stop in their journey. They introduce unknown concepts of Islam into the valley, forcing women to wear the veil (an alien concept in Kashmir till the insurgency) and forbidding contact with the Kashmiri Hindus they call kafirs. Shalimar does not share the burning faith of his militant brotherhood, but what he does harbour within him is the burning fire of vengeance against Boonyi and her American lover. It turns him into a ruthless assassin aided by his clowning skills of tight-rope walking.

When Shalimar ultimately reaches Max, he shockingly discovers the daughter – India Ophuls, named India by one woman and Kashmira by another. The reader cannot but wince at the double metaphor. But that is Rushdie – unabashed about using obvious literary devices to further a tale. India or Kashmira’s tale is a 3rd sub-plot. And possibly the least interesting. The book climaxes to the confrontation-to-the-death between her and Shalimar and Rushdie’s lament on the disappearance of a simpler and more beautiful world is complete.

Is Max’s story a metaphor for the dangers of American intervention in areas best left alone? He is a hero during WWII just as America was. He comes out as less than one after his Kashmir fiasco. There is little sympathy for Shalimar as he lets his personal demons lead him to those who destroy all that he loves best. There is even less sympathy for the Indian army – whose ruthless rape and pillage measures to contain the insurgency lead to a worsening of the situation.

The best parts of the book are the idyllic Pachigam scenes in a less brutal time – the time when Boonyi and Shalimar love each other on the banks of the Muskadeen, the time of the Banquet of 36 courses and the descriptions of the entertainment shows put up by Shalimar’s father Abdullah and his troupe, the rivalry between Pachigam and its neighboring village of Shirmal and the prophecies of the Gujur prophetess.

The book is Rushdie’s requiem to Kashmir. It is a powerful love story and he spares no one who tears the valley apart.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Eklavya

By Vidhu Vinod Chopra

The story of Eklavya in the Mahabharat is well known. A lower-caste by birth, Eklavya goes to Dronacharya asking to be taught archery by the great master. Drona refuses to take him on as a pupil because of his caste. So he practices archery in the forest by himself, worshipping a clay image of Drona he creates, as Drona continues to teach the kshatriya-born Arjuna and his cousins. He becomes a master archer and when Drona accidentally sees his archery skills, he is worried – Eklavya has become a better archer than his best pupil Arjuna. In a cruel move, in order that his favourite pupil Arjun remains the best archer in town, he asks Eklavya for a guru dakshina that would in effect destroy his effectiveness as an archer. Eklavya unhesitatingly cuts off his right thumb and gives it to his revered guru.

Eklavya remains in our popular imagination as the embodiment of guru bhakti. Yet there is no denying the fact that it is a cruel story portraying the excesses of a rotten caste system. Eklavya stays true to his dharma unhesitatingly, unquestioningly, even though it ultimately destroys him.

It is this unhesitating and unquestioning pursuit of dharma that Chopra calls into question in his movie Eklavya. At heart, the movie subverts a lot of what Hinduism holds close to heart. Was Eklavya right, Chopra asks, in doing what he did. And the movie’s resounding answer is no.

Chopra sets the story in a modern day feudal state – where Eklavya is a royal guard, guarding a Rana. He unquestioningly performs his duties protecting his master, just as his father did when he died protecting the current Rana’s father. However he is growing old, and with his failing eyesight, he is not the guard he once was. The Rana is killed and the rest of the story is about Eklavya’s pursuit of his dharma and the moral dilemmas it leads him to.

The cast is apt. Amitabh makes a powerful Eklavya, though one wishes for fresher faces in Hindi cinema. Saif portrays the torn son well. And Jackie Shroff, Vidya Balan and Jimmy Shergill play their parts competently. Boman Irani as the fey Rana is, as usual, pretty good. Sanjay Dutt has a great cameo as the local police officer. The setting is opulent and visually quite stunning. All in all, the ingredients are probably right.

Yet, the movie falls flat. The premise of the movie is powerful and subversive. Yet it is a flat rendering of the story. The drama is not drama enough and there is very little that touches you. As someone who freely cries even in a Karan Johar film, I felt a bit cheated. There was not a single tear drop. The parts add up to less than a perfect whole.

It is a brave effort none the less. The film is unlikely to light up the box office – the premise of the film is a bit too subtle, the story drags in places and even the normally dependable Amitabh sometimes sleepwalks through scenes. Yet it is a good film to have been made – it calls into question a few basics of stories that we have been brought up on. Was Eklavya right in what he did, was Rama right in going off into the forest, was Arjuna right in sharing Draupadi with his brothers, all in pursuit of the unquestionable personal dharma?

One only wishes these questions were confronted in a more dramatic manner. Perhaps the setting is a bit off (the transportation of the Eklavya story into modern-day Rajasthan is less credible than that of Othello into UP or Macbeth into the Mumbai underworld), perhaps the script is not gripping enough, perhaps Amitabh overwhelms the character. Whatever the missing link, the movie is disappointing.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Roger Waters Concert

The concert happened. Went. Enjoyed. He played all the songs I knew of Floyd (countable on my fingers). He looked old (he is almost as old as my dad), a bit like Gere and had a band member with a sexy voice. The pig went up into the air and we all went wow!

Saturday, February 03, 2007

The Demon-Seed (Asura Vithu)

By M.T. Vasudevan Nair

Reading a Malayalam book in an English translation is personally slightly humiliating. After all, I do know the language, can even read it with some degree of capability. But somehow I know I don’t currently have the patience or the time to read an entire book in the original Malayalam. So, when I saw the English translation of Asura Vithu, I had to pick it up. I am somewhat familiar with MT. I have seen some movies that he screen wrote. And I have heard enough about him to know from my mother to know he is one of the more respected Malayalam writers of today.

Asura Vithu is a book that, even in an average translation, reads authentic. I could picture the village of Kizhakkemuri with its lush paddy fields, the river running through it, the coconut and jack fruit trees at each house, its unforgiving monsoons. It is beautiful Kerala at its most pristine, a beauty most Keralites take for granted. But the landscape is not the only thing that rings true. The pettiness of village life, the caste and religious politics and the grinding poverty among such incredible beauty – you know it’s a life lived by the writer.

The story is of Govindankutty, the youngest son of a proud Nair tharavaadu, Thazhathethil. The pride (in its ancestry that can go back a hundred years, in its long-lost riches, in a golden yesterday that exists only in memories) is all the tharavaadu has left. It’s a familiar story told a million times by a million writers and filmmakers. Poverty has ensured that the family land is mortgaged and rice gruel is the only food on the plate. Yet appearances have to be kept up. The eldest son has to give gifts on Onam to his wife’s family – even if it means the jackfruit tree in the compound has to be sold. And it is beneath one’s dignity to labour with your hands in another man’s field – that is only for the lower castes. Caste is important enough to dictate with whom you play, eat or employ in your home. The matriarch of the family Kunhikaliyamma is someone most Nairs have encountered – crusty, old, the ultimate arbiter of what is right and wrong, in complete control of her family. She has little real power to decide anyone’s fate; but in her closest circle, her helpless unmarried daughter, her youngest son she bitterly calls ‘Asura Vithu’, she wields the power to hurt.

It is a story of a desperate Nair boy, tricked into a marriage to redeem his rich nephew’s shenanigans. In a fit of desperation, to flee his shame and his poverty, he converts to Islam. To be forever shunned by his family and all who matter in the village.

There are characters who stick in the reader’s mind – the unmarried sister Kunhioppol leading a life of quiet desperation, the sensible and statesman-like Kunharakkar, the luckless Meenakshi, seduced by a spoiled nephew and thrust upon, as unwanted baggage on Govindankutty. They bring to life the picture of a decaying society where money is concentrated in a few hands and there is little opportunity for anyone else to make a decent life. Unless of course, you leave the village. To anyone who knows Kerala, it would seem little has changed in 50 years.