Saturday, December 10, 2011

Lucknow Boy

By Vinod Mehta

Vinod Mehta was what I wanted to be. My heroes in my youth were MJ Akbar, Arun Shourie and then in my adult adolescence, Vinod Mehta. Men of crusading zeal, of the written word, out to prove a pen mightier than a sword. In a more tainted, grey adulthood, there is ambivalence about the profession and the people in it. Yet Vinod Mehta continues to remain on some sort of a pedestal, however rickety and crumbling it might be. He still wields the baton for a secular left wing India without toadying up to the commies (though his sympathy for the Maoists fills me with the same confusing discomfort the world as a whole does today). So I picked up his memoir not completely sure if I would like the man behind the image, but needing to know if I would.

Lucknow Boy is a racy read. Mehta proves to be an interesting raconteur though an average writer. His background proves to be rather unremarkable and un-intriguing and not quite prophetic of his adult achievements. So they remain quite skip-able. The interesting parts of the book are his run-ins with his various proprietors and assorted politicians. And there is a long list of them. What is also absorbing is his view of and interactions with some famous people – Dhirubhai and Sharad Pawar, Shobha De and Arundhati Roy. And there is of course, his continued fascination with Sonia Gandhi (his section on her is strangely revealing and I am not sure it was intended to be – his apparent joy in seeing her comfortable and relaxed and laughing with her guard down in front of friends is almost lover-like).

There is history here, the lived-in, news-making, journalistic-coup-type chronicle of current events, sure to become the Ramachandra Guha variety of history some day. The coverage of milestone elections that Outlook polls get wrong consistently, the Vajpayee-Advani tussle, the cricket match-fixing episodes and Manoj Prabhakar, the ‘mole-in-the-cabinet’ Seymour Hersh/ Morarji Desai story and of course the Radia tapes. It is a fascinating cocktail of news-making that Mehta dishes out, in quite an absorbing, no-holds-barred way. And what makes it quite endearing is the lightness with which most of the stories are handled – there is little rancour or bitterness even towards the people he so obviously despises (Pawar, Brajesh Mishra, Ambani) and there is little fawning over people he clearly likes (Arundhati Roy, Naipaul, Sonia Gandhi).

Through it all Mehta comes out as someone who grew into his role as one of India’s foremost editors with little preparation, learning as he went along. Some of his musings on his profession are thought-provoking (recommending scepticism rather than cynicism, for instance), though rarely original. Lucknow Boy is a good read. And Vinod Mehta comes across as forthright and unpretentious, with at least a modicum of solidity in a belief system honed over the years. His heroes are Orwell and Greene and they are great heroes to have for sure. But Mehta is not going to be mistaken for an intellectual. He has a home-grown sense of right and wrong and that proves ultimately to be the best part of the man.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Marriage Plot

By Jeffrey Eugenides

Should one review a book ones finds fairly ordinary? Sink more time into an already sunk cause? Or should one treat it as a writing exercise, putting into words why one finds one particular brand of college Americana so fascinating and another rather run-of-the-mill?

Ok, let me get to it. I was not bowled over by Eugenides’ latest work of fiction The Marriage Plot, an average effort at going where so many other impressive works have gone – the coming of age novel. Eugenides, as I found out during my foray into this much reviewed book, is a Pulitzer Prize winner for his previous work, Middlesex. And as someone trying to read more American fiction (I am not a big fan), I got myself his latest.

The setting is Ivy League Brown University in the Reagan-era eighties, and The Marriage Plot follows 3 of its students Madeleine Hanna, Mitchell Grammaticus and Leonard Bankhead through the first few years of their lives after they leave campus. Mitchell loves Madeleine, Madeleine loves Leonard, in spite of some vestigial attraction to Mitchell, and Leonard, well, Leonard has problems. There is a lot of angst about attraction, about college sex, about love. And there is a lot of intellectual discussion based on college texts regarding religious studies (Mitchell’s area of current interest) and the DNA of yeast (Leonard’s specialisation). Madeleine’s interest, Victorian era women’s writing, seems pitifully under-represented.

Madeleine is a child of privilege, and all she really is interested in, intellectually, is reading Victorian era fiction. She should have appealed to me, given my predilection for the Brontes and Dickinson. But she is one of the most uninspiring heroines I have come across in a long time. She is pretty, intelligent, but so taken in by Leonard’s intellectualism, she fails to see him as he really is. And when she realises his problem, she is too committed and can’t help but get in deeper. Leonard is unlike-able completely, in spite of his medical issues. And that is really the failing of the book. A flawed man, he induces so little sympathy, one almost wants to accuse Eugenides of cruelty to the ill. Mitchell is the one character that inspires the most empathy. His experiments with religious affiliations and his foray into working with the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta form for me, the more interesting parts of the book.

Reading The Marriage Plot, I am reminded of better books. Of Wolfe’s I am Charlotte Simmons, with its American campus experience. And of Franzen’s Freedom, with its depiction of a generation’s growing up. And the reminding only serves to show up Eugenides’ deficiencies all the more. Why is it set in the eighties? There is little of that era’s peculiarities in the book and its impact on plot and characterisation is very thin. Why does so much of the book get mired in yeast and semiotics, both pretty much irrelevant to anything else in the book? Why does Eugenides’ objective narrator voice not have half the resonance Franzen’s does?

Eugenides disappoints massively. I am not going to try him again soon.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Paris Wife

Paula McLain

It must be difficult to be married to an artist. First, there is the screwed up, tortured mind to deal with – no artist worth his or her salt is normal, we all know. Then there is the bohemian lifestyle that seems to be de rigueur. And topping it all is the gargantuan ego warring with crushing self-doubt, both of which need such sensitive handling. Why would anyone subject oneself to a life of such complexity?

Hadley Richardson is a normal girl living her youth in early 20th century America. She is living with her sister and her husband after losing a father to suicide, another sister to an accident and a mother to illness. Hadley is waiting for her life to bloom, waiting for adventure, waiting for the dance to start. She visits some friends in big city Chicago one weekend and meets the man who will change her life – a twenty year old Ernest Hemingway, tall, handsome, brimming with ambition, charming beyond resistance. “..he seemed to do happiness all the way up and through. There wasn’t any fear in him that I could see, just intensity and aliveness.” Ernest and Hadley fall in love. She is nine years older than him, but she is beautiful and real and solid and human and so irrevocably in love with this beautiful, strapping boy, McLain ensures we fall in love with her too.

They marry and set off to Paris on a modest inheritance Hadley has. And then there is glorious Paris, twenties Paris, with Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound and Scott Fitzgerald. It’s poverty-stricken but brilliant with the promise of brilliance emanating out of Ernest. Hadley plays the content wife, encouraging, supportive, the calm foil to a tempestuous Hemingway. There is the fishing and the bull fighting, there is skiing in the Alps and a short-lived Canadian experience. But Hadley’s contentment always has a shadow –“He was a light-footed lad on a Grecian urn chasing truth and beauty. Where did I fit in exactly?” And then, somewhere along the way, Hadley does the unthinkable. She loses all of Hemingway’s manuscripts on a train journey. All of them. Forcing a struggling artist to start over. He perhaps never truly forgives her. The loss of something there between them is compounded by the baby. Which Hadley so desperately wants and Hemingway is ambivalent about. The end begins to begin.

Paula McLain follows Ernest Hemingway’s life with Hadley pretty faithfully, like in a well-researched biography. There are enough sources. Hemingway’s memoirs of his life in Paris, letters between Hadley and Ernest, other biographies of the brilliant personages of the age. But McClain writes this as a work of fiction, from the point of view of Hadley herself, in first person. It imbues the work with a sensitivity and feeling that touches me quite inexplicably.

Hadley is the outsider in a creatively brilliant milieu. She is forced to be the appendage to sparkling genius, but we know she is worth more than that in purely human terms. And because she is more, she needs to move out. She cannot be the groupie in a world where “As long as you were making something good or interesting or sensational, you could have as many lovers as you wanted and ruin them all. What was really unacceptable were bourgeois values, wanting something small and staid and predictable, like one true love, or a child. Family life clearly could not last in bohemian Paris. Hemingway finds love again in another woman, Pauline. And in the fine tradition of Pound, tries to get Hadley to stay in the marriage in a free-love-type open marriage. But Hadley as we know is no groupie, no clinging vine. She tries hard, but opts out in the end.

What McLain manages to do so beautifully is make us feel deeply for Hadley yet never at any point make us feel revulsion for the genius artist. Hemingway is the way he is but the excuse is always the brilliance of the work and his passion for it. There is a scene Hadley describes where Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway are hard at work, re-working some scenes in Hemingway’s novel. “Behind me, the men had bowed their heads again and were back at work, talking it through meticulously because it was heart surgery and they were the surgeons, and it was as important as anything they’d ever done. Scott could be a terrible, painful drunk. Ernest could shove cruelly against everyone who’d ever helped him up and loved him well – but none of that mattered when the patient was at hand. In the end, for both of them, there was really only the body on the table and the work, the work, the work.

So Hadley is the Paris wife, the early one, the one who had Ernest before he became famous, before his three other wives, a footnote in a mammoth giant life. But she knew and Hemingway knew and the people who knew them knew she was the real thing. She had the best of him, at a time when “Life was painfully pure and simple and good, and I believe Ernest was his best self then. I got the very best of him. We got the best of each other.

Hemingway finally shoots himself, the way his father killed himself, the way his brother did, the way Hadley’s father did. Hadley goes on to have a long happy second marriage. There is some justice in the world, we’d like to think. The truth, McLain would have us believe is more complex.

It is a tale simply told. But told well. I liked it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Julian Barnes

Thank God for the Booker. I would never have attempted reading Barnes if he hadn’t won the prize for The Sense of An Ending. And reading him has given me so much of pleasure in the last few days.

The Sense of An Ending is quite a gem. It is a meditation on the illusory nature of time and memory, told by Tony Webster as he reflects on a life mildly lived, or so he thinks. As he delves into the depths of his memory, he realises how memory can play tricks, and that reality is often so distant from what memory serves up. Adrian, Alex and Tony are school friends in days when “we imagined ourselves as being kept in some kind of holding pen, waiting to be released into our lives. And when that moment came, our lives – and time itself – would speed up.” He reflects on those early days of precocious youth when the fear was that “Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents – were they stuff of Literature?” Adrian is the cleverer, more seriously philosophical of the three and his suicide in his early youth is both pre-destined and profoundly shocking. And as Tony gets on with living what he terms his ‘average’ and ‘careful’ life, marrying, having children, divorcing, surviving, he does not expect time to serve him surprises any more. But the nature of time and memory is such that it does serve him surprises. A past girlfriend Veronica, a weekend spent with her family, her subsequent relationship with Adrian and a letter written in anger, all come together to dish out repercussions Tony is never aware of until the very end. And the slow realisation of the consequences of the past is lovingly teased out by Barnes with exquisite fineness ending in quite a startling finish.

Barnes’ craftsmanship is beautiful. His control of the language and the pace of the narrative is so strong, you speed away through the book, while at the same time forcing yourself to periodically stop and savour the thought so pithily expressed. And there are so many of these lovely ones peppered through the book. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”; “Some Englishman once said that marriage is a long dull meal with the pudding served first.”; “life is a gift bestowed without anyone asking for it; that the thinking person has a philosophical duty to examine both the nature of life and the conditions it comes with; and that if this person decides to renounce the gift no one asks for, it is a moral and human duty to act on the consequences of that decision.”

I am quite in love.

And so I go along to another Barnes novel, Talking It Over. This has Stuart, Gillian and Oliver, a trio talking over their lives to an anonymous fourth person, perhaps the reader, perhaps a documenter of their lives. Other characters flit in and out but the primary ones remain with their characteristic voices. Stuart and Oliver are best friends through school, though their friendship is a strange one, given the difference in their personalities. Stuart is the sensible, slightly boring one, the one with the carefully stored up money, the ant to Oliver’s flamboyant, careless and yet very attractive grasshopper. All is fine with Stuart proving to be Oliver’s safety net while Oliver introduces some excitement into Stuart’s life. Until of course Gillian enters. Stuart and Gillian fall in love and on their wedding day, Oliver discovers his own feelings and that leads to a string of consequences that upturn their lives entirely.

Barnes uses his characteristic command over the language to bring alive the differences in personalities between Stuart and Oliver in their first person narratives. “And even people who say they don’t care how they look care how they look. Everyone does. It’s just that some people think they look their best by looking terrible,” says Oliver. And “I’ve always thought you are what you are and you shouldn’t pretend to be anyone else. But Oliver used to correct me and explain that you are whoever it is you’re pretending to be,” says Stuart. Of course there are the pithy reflections that I have come to think of as Barnes-isms. “Life is like invading Russia. A blitz start, massed shakos, plumes dancing like a flustered henhouse; a period of svelte progress recorded in ebullient despatches as the enemy falls back; then the beginning of a long, morale-sapping trudge with rations getting shorter and the first snowflakes upon your face. The enemy burns Moscow and you yield to General January, whose fingernails are very icicles. Bitter retreat. Harrying Cossacks. Eventually you fall beneath a boy-gunner’s grapeshot while crossing some Polish river not even marked on your general’s map.” Exquisite. There are so many of those quotable quotes, that I have four whole pages of notations in my kindle. And then of course there is the characteristic (at least I think it is characteristic, given that I have read precisely 2 books of his) Barnes twist in the ending that tends to be quite unexpectedly startling.

And that is why my love affair with Barnes continues.

Saturday, November 12, 2011


By Haruki Murakami

1Q84 is vintage Alice-in-Wonderland Murakami. It is also a love story and a thriller. It kept me enthralled through much of its large number of pages and when it was over, there was that bit of regret that always accompanies the end of an engaging book.

Aomame and Tengo are the lonely boy and lonely girl who meet and part when they are ten years old and from then on carry a part of each other with them as they go about their not-so-ordinary lives. It takes twenty years before a shift in the time-space continuum get them to start looking for each other. It is 1984, not yet Orwellian, but Aomame goes under a freeway and comes out into a shifted world that she names 1Q84. There are two moons in this world, policemen’s uniforms are changed and they carry more sophisticated weapons. There are cults and cult leaders who hear voices from Little People and have sex with pre-pubescent girls. There are alter egos and sex through mediums (not a new concept in Murakami novels) and dreams that are as good as reality. There are stories within stories and thriller-type surveillance, tracking and killings. Aomame’s 1q84 is Tengo’s cat town and they have to find each other in this altered time and then get out of it to escape its consequences.

And through it all, there are the normal Murakami touches. Obscure European classical music, Western pop references, cats and girls with beautiful ears. And simple, straightforward language and narrative and some uncomplicated philosophy – “We come in, sit down, have a cup of tea, gaze out the window at the scenery, and when the time comes we say thank you and leave. All the furniture is fake. Even the moon hanging in the window may be made of paper.”

It is a world where the rules that normally govern it have loosened up, there is little logic and when Aomame says ‘It’s very difficult to logically explain the illogical”, she probably speaks for Murakami fans trying to explain their fascination for this strange but magical writer. But at the end, 1Q84 is a strangely moving and lyrical love story of a boy and a girl who are connected, unchanged through a strange labyrinthine world even through twenty years. “The two of them on top of the freezing slide, worldlessly holding hands. Once again they were a ten year old boy and girl. A lonely boy and a lonely girl….They had never, ever, been truly loved or truly loved someone else…The two of them didn’t know it at the time, but this was the only truly complete place in the entire world. Totally isolated, yet the one place not tainted with loneliness.” And like the lyrics of Paper Moon, a phrase Murakami keeps using, finally, his message is of the power of love – “It's a Barnum and Bailey world/ Just as phony as it can be/ But it wouldn't be make-believe/If you believed in me.”

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Martin Trap

I am caught in a trap. A well-meaning, engrossing, sometimes-captivating, sometimes-exasperating trap. But a trap nonetheless. It’s called A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin’s 7-book opus. I am on the 3rd one, and I have 2 more to go before I catch up with the 5 books Martin’s already put out (there are 2 more in the pipeline).

Why is it a trap? Because I can’t bring myself to put these volumes down and reach out for the new Lee Child or the new books on the Booker list or the Murakami. And these volumes are massive. Seemingly endless tales of medieval intrigue in a fantasy continent of Westeros. Seven kingdoms fighting for supremacy while all the while, ‘winter is coming’ from up north. War, blood, gore, lust, terrible treachery, incredible bravery, incest, rape, plunder, magic, purity. It’s all there, along with dragons and dead men walking.

I feel like I am re-living my childhood again. Head buried in a book, not wanting to get away for anything – not a job, not food, not tv. And while it’s amazingly enthralling, I have that Lee Child and the Booker books at the back of my mind. When, oh when, can I get to those?

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Narrative of Romance

I love love stories. From the cheesy Mills and Boon variety to epic ones like Dr. Zhivago and Anna Karenina and Wuthering Heights. And the movies – oh, there are some exquisite ones there. It’s almost like love stories fulfill some deep-seated need to believe in something pure and untainted in a very tainted world. Or a need to believe in magic – that some exquisite, inexplicable enchantment is possible in an otherwise dreary, wearisome world.

Strong consistent narratives keep recurring in these stories.

Like the Cinderella one. Poor girl, down on her luck, finds the man of her dreams. There are trials and tribulations on the way. Villains try to keep them apart. But there is a happy ending, when the prince disavows societal disapproval and figures that the girl he truly wants is the one without the money. Cinderella of course, is the role model. But there is also the dour Darcy falling for the feisty but poor Elizabeth Bennet; Richard Gere finding the prostitute Julia Roberts irresistible; the chauffeur’s daughter Sabrina falling for the lord of the manor; Jennifer Lopez seduced by Ralph Fiennes in The Maid in Manhattan. It works best when the girl is spirited, inventive and independent, not a boring Cinderella. Jenny in Segal's Love Story.

Then there is the Falling for the Bad Boy routine. Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind is the ultimate bad boy. Scarlett takes her time, and the whole 1000-odd pages of the book to realize she has fallen for him, but fall she does. Baby in Dirty Dancing is no match for Johnny and his dirty moves. And of course, can any girl in her right mind resist Danny in Grease? It’s the lure of the unknown.

On the other side is the shrew. As in Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew variety. We had our Indian shrew in the form of Sridevi in Laadla, ultimately tamed by Anil Kapoor. A bossy Sandra Bullock in The Proposal is ultimately reformed by love. A tad distasteful is this narrative, a bit regressive perhaps.

And so we come to Forbidden Love. Always ripe for tragedy. Romeo and Juliet, of course. And the modern day Westside Story. Mani Ratnam’s Bombay (why do I love his love stories so?). The extra-marital love– Greene’s magnificent The End of the Affair, Karan Johar’s pretty bad Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Zhivago and his Lara, Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love. Very rarely does this narrative end in happily ever after.

Another one that rarely does is the dark, brooding, obsessive one. The Heathcliff variety. Sharon Stone in Fatal Attraction. Shahrukh Khan’s obsession for Kkkkiran in Darr.

One that can be quite touching is the unrequited, unfulfilled love. Sydney Carton in The Tale of Two Cities. Keira Knightley’s section in Love Actually. One of my favourites - Maharaj Kumar’s in Nagarkar’s The Cuckold. How could he compete for his wife Mira’s love with a dark-skinned god? Yet he tries, gamely.

And then what about the love that is delayed, for years? The Hum Tum variety. The Before Sunrise and The Before Sunset series. The sense of anticipation in these is quite delicious.

So many narratives. Over so many centuries. Each with its own powerful enchantment. Someday it could be material for a paper. Or a brand strategy perhaps.

Saturday, August 13, 2011


It’s the first week in a new school. It’s a class with boys, alien creatures in her single-child life. She has never felt so alone, friendless. And for reasons she never fathoms fully, the teacher makes her a candidate in the class election. Pitting her against a boy, whose popularity is so obvious, it seems faintly ridiculous to have an election at all. Heck, she wants to vote for him herself, though she does not. The defeat is crushing. Twenty six votes to four. She wonders for the rest of her life who those three kids were.

They have never had a conversation. The most popular boy in class and her. The boys in the class adore him. The girls are secretly in love with him. But these are the years when boys think it’s below their dignity to talk to girls and the girls are too superior to make the first move. So they go about their lives, not talking, never acknowledging each other. But she is conscious of him in a way she never has been conscious of a boy ever since. Three years. And then he leaves school for another city. And google has a name to search for now, forever.

It is a school camp. In a forested area near the city. It’s her first night away from home and is exciting in only the way any ‘first’ can be. They find a group of older boys, college kids in the camp. With long hair and guitars. Curiosity drags them near. The older boys laugh at them and drive them away. They slink back to mosquitoes and bad food and the stern teacher. But not before the nice looking college kid casually says to her, ”You have the loveliest eyes I’ve seen.” It’s a line she holds on to, into an adulthood that does not find her that lovely again.

The Turning

By Tim Winton

This is Australia. Small town Australia. Before Australia became rich. Tim Winton’s set of short stories plumbs the depths of people caught in the morass of everydayness. People stuck. Going to work day after day to a meat-packing factory. In a violent marriage. With a runaway father and a self-sacrificing mother. There are escapes. To the university, to the big city, out of Australia, turning to religion, burning houses behind. But there is never an escape from the impressions of childhood spent in an out-of-the-way town, seeing the destruction wrought by hopelessness and despair. It’s a rich inner world of ‘damaged souls’ that Winton explores. But it is bleak. Oh so bleak. It has none of the hopefulness of his Cloudstreet. And strangely, the bleakness is addictive. You can’t help but keep walking vicariously through the wreckage. Because Winton is a writer of some wise and exquisite prose. ”In the hot northern dusk, the world suddenly gets big around us, so big we just give in and watch.” “All the big things hurt, the things you remember. If it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t important.” Some mornings out in the misty ranges the world looks like it means something, some simple thing just out of my reach, but there anyway.” And that is compensation enough for the bleakness.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Movie weekends: A hilarious caper and an angst-ridden road trip

Delhi Belly was the movie last weekend - Abhinay Deo’s directorial debut. It’s a fun, racy, cheeky script, with a very young urban India today feel. Tashi, Arup and Nitin (Imran Khan, Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapur) are roomies (and what a room.. messy and unclean in the way only bachelor rooms can be) leading single lives in the big city. Tashi is a reporter, soon to be married to Sonia (Shenaz Treasurywala); Arup is a cartoonist in an ad agency (presume he is an art director with ambitions of becoming a cartoonist, since there are no cartoonists in ad agencies and everyone in an ad agency really wants to be doing something else) who hates his boss and whose girlfriend dumps him; Nitin is Tashi’s journalist photographer who takes on photography assignments on the side, to make a little extra money, and who while eating roadside food, triggers a severe case of delhi belly and thus the title of the film.

The plot is a caper that Sonia unwittingly sparks off by agreeing to carry a packet from a relative stranger on one of her flights (she is an airhostess). What follows is a hilarious roundabout with the 3 roomies being chased across the city by deadly gangsters and the boyfriend of Menaka, Tashi’s journalist colleague. It is a screwball comedy with Guy Richie-type elements that in turn are hilarious and suspenseful.

The language is mostly English, the way we speak it, with a lot of Hindi words and slang – and thus not endearing itself to a lot of the moral brigade. There is toilet humour as well, but in the context of the genre, it does not grate.

The actors are first rate. Menaka (Poorna Jagannathan) is fresh and sexy but unusual in the Hindi film variety, and it is difficult to see her going beyond anything niche. Imran has long been a personal favourite and he does not disappoint. Vir Das and Kunaal Roy Kapur are perfect in their roles. The music too has a novelty value that is refreshing. All in all, Delhi Belly is the most exciting Hindi film I have seen in a long while.

I cannot say quite the same about Zindagi Mile Na Dobaara, the one I saw next. The premise is interesting and puts it in the generation-defining mould of Dil Chaahta Hai and Rock On. But the movie does not really live up to the premise. It’s the actors. They cannot hold a candle to the easy camaraderie we saw in Amir, Saif and Akhsay. And of course, the sponsorship of Spain tourism means we see a lot more of Spain than the characters themselves.

Here again, it’s 3 boys, men actually, in this case – Kabir, Imran and Arjun (Abhay Deol, Farhan Akhtar and Hrithik Roshan). Kabir is to be married to Natasha (Kalki) and before he does, the three friends take off on a road trip in Spain. It’s Hangover-like, with a lot more philosophical questions and a whole load of upper middle-class angst thrown in, and of course, is not half as much fun.

Each has their own demons to fight and conquer – Kabir and his decision to marry a girl he is not completely sure of, Arjun and his obsessiveness about making money and Imran and his discovery of his natural father. It is a trip that gives them the opportunity to do this and while it all looks good on paper, there is a falseness to the whole journey that ensures the film does not touch you the way a DCH did. Or even actually a Rock On.

It is of course beautifully shot. Hrithik is hot in the way only he and his bare chested body can be. Katrina is pretty and does the bindaas babe routine decently well. And Farhan has his moments. But it’s a hollow shell of a movie and leaves one wishing for a better, less stilted script. And better music (not a patch on DCH or Rock On).

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

The Tiger’s Wife

Tea Obreht

Tea Obreht is the Orange Prize winner this year and is 26 years old. What can you say to such precociousness?

Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement; Tito and Nehru; these were so much a part of my growing up years. And then of course, the break up happened and we watched it with the growing realization that we were probably wrong all along. That ethnic identity that comes along with myriad languages and religions will always triumph over a manufactured secular one. It made us look inward at our own manufactured one and wonder and question.

And then twenty years after that civil war comes a book that uses as its setting, this strangely familiar Balkan land. It’s a tale, or rather, many tales, that can come only from old cultures with a rich storytelling history. It can seem exotic and elaborate and fantastic to many (as many reviews testify). But for someone who comes from the land of O.V.Vijayan’s Khazak, they sound eerily familiar.

Nathalie is a doctor of indeterminate nationality in the Balkans and her tale is of her grandfather’s – another doctor who grows up in the Yugoslavia of Tito and war-ridden Europe. So here are Nathalie and her grandfather, people of science, negotiating wartime conflicts with family and cultures brimming with myths that science has no answers for. There is the deathless man who Nathalie’s grandfather encounters over and over again, never-changing, never-dying, ready to lead the real dying to the next world. The grandfather refuses to believe him and his stories but even his rational scientific mind can't help but believe.

The tiger’s wife is a deaf-mute Muslim girl who befriends a wandering tiger, let out of a zoo by wartime bombing. And in the process, she incurs the wrath of a superstitious, scared village and a butcher of a husband. Nathalie’s grandfather is a little boy who is fascinated by the tiger and the girl’s friendship with him. And it leaves a lifetime impression and fascination with the animal, long after the girl is dead and the tiger moves away.

There are interesting side stories. That of Luka the butcher, a butcher by profession and a butcher to his young deaf-mute wife. There is Darisa the bear, a hunter with a passion for taxidermy, finally encountering a hunt he cannot win.

And there is Nathalie herself, who while dispensing rational medicine to villages in need, buys into the myths of the villagers without necessarily being consumed by them.

The narrative moves back and forth across time and characters and can prove disorienting at times. But it’s a classic storyteller’s tale and Tea Obreht proves a worthy Sheherzade.

And in the process of the telling these fables, we catch glimpses into the monstrosity of war and conflict that tear neighbours apart. “..the pieces that made up our country no longer carried the same characteristics that had formerly represented their respective parts of the whole. Previously shared things – landmarks, writers, scientists, histories – had to be doled out according to their new owners. That Nobel Prize winner was no longer ours, but theirs; we named our airport after our crazy inventor, who was no longer a communal figure….All his life, he had been part of the whole – not just part of it, but made up of it. He had not been born here, educated there. His name spoke of one place, his accent of another.” – The tragedy that is Yugoslavia is brought intensely alive without making too big a deal of it.

It’s a lovely little book, made all the more poignant with the nostalgia that comes with it. Tea Obreht is the latest in a long line of fabulists that start from the Mahabharat, runs through O.V.Vijayan, Marquez, Rushdie and Mitchell. A find.