Thursday, November 30, 2006

Crustimony Proseedcake

“Well,” said Owl, “the customary procedure in such cases is as follows...”
“What does Crustimony Proseedcake mean?” said Pooh. “For I am a Bear of Very Little Brain, and long words bother me.
“It means The Thing To Do.”
“As long as it means that, I don’t mind,” said Pooh humbly.

“Centenary Hall?” I asked the watchman.
He pointed towards what could have been the driveway, or the volleyball field beyond, or a derelict car park.
Aap meeting ke liye aaye?” he asked. “Hau,” I replied feeling as pleased as I had the first time I said the word when I came back to Hyderabad. Each time I say it, I feel like I’m truly home.
“Meeting Shahjehan Hall mein hai, saab.”


The meeting was indeed in Shahjehan Hall, but the name was much grander than the place. Chairs were jostling with tables, which were placed in neat intervals through the not very large hall. Nothing else in the place was as neat; the dias, a good deal higher than the floor of the hall, was filled with broken chairs thrown anyhow. Tattered and faded blue curtains hung limp by the wings; along the walls were portraits of principals past, all of them scratched, peeling or hung askew.

We were in Nizam’s College, in the Assembly Hall. The students had been writing their exams here, but now two people were industriously disarranging the chairs and pushing the tables to the side. Someone else was setting up a mike next to a long table and another flunkey had in his hands a tablecloth of a shade of green rarely seen outside hospitals.

I waited for someone to notice me. One of the two men shifting chairs turned and beamed.

“I hope I’m not too early,” I said.

“My dear young lady, you can never be too early! Have a seat.”

The Poetry Society of Hyderabad was meeting for the six hundredth and something time. Started some time in the thirties, it is one of the oldest poetry societies in the country, one that has met with no break since its inception. It has hosted at various time, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarojini Naidu and god knows who else.

People started to trickle in. In a very little time, I began to realise that my mere presence brought the average age of the gathering down to about 55. The eagerness of the Secretary’s greeting seemed less sinister. I had handed in my form and offered to pay up then and there, but he seemed reluctant to take the money just then.

“You see, we have to put the application up to the Committee, and after they approve you can pay.”

The customary procedure is that one attends three meetings before even asking for an application form. I suppose they need to check if you dribble the tea or sneak a biscuit for later, when the reading gets too much. I thought I was exempt. I had attended Brian Mendonca’s reading in August, and I read in September, for heaven’s sake! But rules are rules, etc, and I submitted happily. I had only a hundred bucks in my purse anyway.


I was looking forward to this meeting. Brian’s reading had gone very well. People really seemed to enjoy his stuff. My reading – with two other poets – went off even better. I noticed someone having to stand at the back because there weren’t enough chairs. People clapped after some poems, and I was very gratified by this show of good taste. This evening one Dr. K was going to give a lecture on Modernism. It all seemed very intellectual and I wondered what I’d been doing for three years.

The Irani samosas kept us occupied until Dr. K arrived. He began his lecture with the Romantics. Now, I’ve no wish to diss a man who must have spent a fair amount of time putting the lecture together, but this was incoherent stuff. I thought the talk was supposed to be on Modernism, but he spent more than half his allotted time on Keats and Wordsworth, with no real explanation for why he thought it was important to talk about the Romantics in the context of Modernism.

Also, he seemed to think that we needed to be entertained. While this is not an unreasonable assumption to make when you’re standing in front of a class of undergrads who have to listen to what you are saying, it is insulting to assume that people who turn up voluntarily for your talk have to be tricked into absorbing something of value.

Maybe he thought we were Bears Of Very Little Brain.

So while he waved his hands around like windmills to explain how the daffodils might have looked to Wordsworth, I watched the Secretary trying hard to separate xeroxed copies of poems to distribute.

This caused a bit of a stir. While Dr. K talked, people handed around poems to each other, compared pages to see what was missing from their set, and noisily passed around duplicates to those who didn’t have that particular page.

The inevitable phone rang, of course. This hardly needs to be said anymore. If there is anything that requires a degree of silence, you can be sure that someone will have (a) set their phone to Loud (b) put it in the deepest recesses of their most complicated purse/cargo pants (c) been gifted a phone that very morning, and not know how to turn it off without the help and advice of at least three other people. (3a)This is once they begin to realise that it is their phone that is ringing, and not some unnamed antisocial in the gathering.


I have to say, though, that he chose some very good poems.

The Panther – Rilke (he didn't mention who the translator was)

A Carafe, That Is a Blind Glass – Gertrude Stein

The Red Wheel Barrow -- William Carlos Williams

The Steeple Jack – Marianne Moore

Paradoxes and Oxymorons – John Ashbery

And one of my most favourite poems,

The Snow Man – Wallace Stevens.

This is not counting the annoying Daffodils; and To The Skylark, which he tried to quote from memory and at which he failed spectacularly (he said, and I couldn’t believe my ears, “unpremeditated strains”!!!).

But if you left out his closed readings, which were very undergrad, and looked at the poems, you could lose yourself in the poetry. Which was fine by me.

So the next meeting I attend, we will sing rousing Christmas carols as a change from all this high-brow stuff. All this modernism and no rhymes and deliberate confusion. We’ll show ’em all that much joy can had by rhyming ‘holly’ with ‘jolly’ and ‘way’ with ‘sleigh’.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

In mourning…

…for my VHS tapes.

Nearly twenty years ago, when my favourite video rental place was packing it in to do Satellite TV instead, they sold off their tapes to their favourite customers. Because I was averaging at least two films a day, I was kind of top of their list. And what films they had! For thirty bucks a tape, I staggered out with several Woody Allens, Howard Hawks, Ford, Marx Brothers, Wilder…and the Hitchcocks! I had Rope when the Film Institute didn’t! And Under Capricorn? No? Well, I had that one as well.

But having a VCR is like owning a vintage car: you want it pat it fondly and look at it and croon over it, but you know you can’t really use it in case the whole thing falls apart and then where will you go for spares? The other biggie is keeping VHS tapes free of fungus for over 20 years (the tapes had been rented out for at least a few years before I bought them). So the tape gets fungus, you put it in the VCR and play it, the head gets screwed, you clean the head, watch the film for a few minutes, the head gets screwed, etc. Your life goes into a loop and you begin to feel like Sisyphus.

So last month I went to my friendly neighbourhood and magnanimously offered to sell him my VCR at an absurd price, concealing the while my breaking heart. "Madam, find someone who wants a VCR and give it away to them," he said. He seemed to imply that I might even need to pay someone to take it off my hands. Humph!What did he know. Because I found someone who’d take it, and I didn’t need to pay them to do it.

Yesterday, this person turned up to take the VCR away. In a characteristic burst of generosity, I offered to give him all the tapes as well. I mean, where is he going to get VHS tapes now, what will he do without tapes and how will I watch my tapes without a player?

So I cleared out my shelves. Reap The Wild Wind. I hadn’t seen that since the day I bought it. Or Calamity Jane. And I wish I had known even ten years earlier that this would happen; I’d have converted into VCDs Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon, Red River, Hatari, Bringing Up Baby, Arsenic And Old Lace (I almost kept this one back just so I could look at the title every now and then), A Night At The Opera, A Day At The Races, Sunset Boulevard, Casablanca (at least the last two are replaceable). Hannah And Her Sisters, Play It Again Sam, Manhattan, Bananas, Take The Money And Run.

And where on earth am I going to find again, The Reincarnation Of Peter Proud, or To Chase A Crooked Shadow? Or I Confess (hell, even Under Capricorn). Or To Kill A Mocking Bird.


I have five tapes left on my shelf, even though I know I’m not going to be able to watch them: The Decalogue, Chinatown, Through A Glass Darkly, Last Year At Marienbad and my diploma film. Except for the last, the others are all originals, nearly brand new and I just didn’t have the heart to part with them.

More than the acute sense of loss, I’m overwhelmed by how we all think our present world seems unchangeable or that our technologies will last forever. The VCR has had a good run, but the LD came and went in the blink of an eye. How long do we imagine DVDs will last? Sure, the image itself might be less corruptible than magnetic tape, but something else will come along that will make one’s collection obsolete and unwatchable.

Maybe one day, some derelict old man will shuffle along an empty playground, stop anyone unwise enough to meet his eye and start reciting screenplays while they look at him slightly pityingly and start edging off to wherever they were going.

“No, wait!” he’ll say, desperately trying to catch them up. “This is really funny. Cary Grant says, ‘Men don’t just get into window seats and die!’ and the aunt says… aren’t you going to stay and listen? This is really funny! She says, ‘Of course not dear. He died first.’ Hey! Wait!”

Or, like a pathetic flasher, he’ll show people a few clips of Gentlemen’s Agreement on Youtube or something. And people will walk away, shocked and shaken, wondering if they ought to report him or just have a stiff drink instead.

Sigh. I want to watch Gentlemen’s Agreement. Or To Have And Have Not. Or Key Largo. Or Philadelphia Story.

More. I want to own all of them. Again.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

RIP Altman

Robert Altman died yesterday.

Earlier this year Altman was presented with a lifetime achievement Oscar at
the annual Academy Awards. Accepting the statue, he admitted that he had
received a heart transplant from a female donor who was in her late-30s. "By
that calculation you may have given me this award too early," he told the
audience. "Because I think I've probably got another 40 years left."

Saturday, November 18, 2006


Feeling dreadfully ill and too exhausted to give anyone a catalogue of my disasters (also too polite). So will be back in a couple of days.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Rangzen (Freedom)

The Government’s gag order on Tenzin Tsundue (link via Desipundit ) should come as no surprise. Over the last several years, we’ve seen the ease with which institutions bend over backwards to avoid displeasing those whose sentiments are easily hurt. Think of the censor certificate row that led to Vikalp.

Of course, while it is not clear that the Chinese Government is similarly stuffed with fragile sentiments, our Government probably feels it is right to err on the side of caution.

But deportation? And to Tibet? What does that mean – to deport a Tibetan with a Resident Certificate, to a country that doesn’t exist as an independent entity? In effect, does it not mean handing over Tenzin Tundue to the Chinese Government? It seems a disproportionately severe threat to hold over someone who is only going to say, Free Tibet.

Here’s a poem of Tsundue’s:

When I was born
my mother said you are a refugee.
Our tent on the roadside
smoked in the snow.

On your forehead
between your eyebrows
there is an R embossed
my teacher said.

I scratched and scrubbed,
on my forehead I found
a brash of red pain.

I have three tongues
the one that sings
is my mother tongue.

The R on my forehead
between my English and Hindi
the Tibetan tongue reads:


More poems here.

But lest anyone think that Tsundue is another woolly-headed Tibetan who believes that something will happen some day that will magically solve all the problems of Tibetan refugees, this article should dispel those illusions. He says:

A general apathy over Tibet and this non-action "non-violent freedom struggle' is
slowly killing the movement. Though exotic Tibet sells in the West, there are
hardly any takers when it comes to tackling the real issue. The issue is

and later:

The very nature of the Tibetan problem is political, and it has to have a
political solution. We are grateful to India for whatever help and support she
extended to us, but if the Tibetan problem has to be solved she should support
the freedom struggle.

This might help to explain India's gag order. A call to actively support the Tibetan freedom struggle, over some well-meaning arrangements they might make to facilitate a Kalachakra ceremony? Oh, no. That would be way too risky. Who knows who else might follow with calls to support their freedom struggles?

Other links: Amardeep’s post at Sepia Mutiny

Friends Of Tibet

Pankaj Mishra’s article in NYT

Friday, November 10, 2006

Do Not Press

You hear me?

Do Not Press.

(Link via Swar, who posted it here.)


Poetry From 'The Axis Of Evil'

Alwan for the Arts & Action Wednesdays Against the War



THU, November 16th, 2006 @ 7pm
Alwan for the Arts16 Beaver Street, Lower Manhattan
$10 suggested sliding-scale, no one turned away.
Cash BarDirections:

This is the season of despair, this the season of longing. This is the season of the cage and the season of the noose. But this too the season of passion, the season of compassion, the season of resistance. In an age of war, let poetry and music give voice to hope, peace, justice and love.

Come out and listen to musicians and singers, and to performers reciting iconic, classical, contemporary, and radical poetry from the Axis (and near-Axis) of Evil in the original Arabic, Persian, Korean, and Urdu along with English translations.



Dalia Basiouny is an Egyptian Theatre director and academic who is writing a Ph.D. on Arab American Women theatre at CUNY Grad Center and currently works for the UN Radio.

Hossam Fahr is an Egyptian writer and interpreter. He has published three collections of short stories and a novel in Egypt. His fifth book is due to come out in Cairo this month. He lives in New York with his family.

Ali Mir is the co-author of "Anthems of Resistance," a book about the Urdu poetry of the Progressive Writers' Movement.

Iraj Anvar, is the translator and editor of the ground-breaking book of the poetry of Jalal al Din Rumi, "Divani-i Shams-i Tabriz: Forty Eight Ghazals of Rumi." A leading member of the theater community in Iran until his departure in 1978, Dr. Anvar has taught for many years at NYU and has led the New York Ava Ensemble, dedicated to performing classical Persian poetry.

Sok-Min Seo was raised in Seoul, and has studied film and communications in London and New York. He is a film maker and has several short and documentary films to his credit. He is currently working at the UN department of public information.


Tareq Abboushi (Buzuq)
Taoufiq Ben Amor (Vocals, Oud, Daf)
Hedayat Shafei (Tar)

If you're in the area, do try and attend. And pass the word!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Get rid of the black holes...

...of internet censorship. We've been at the receiving end only recently. Today, Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) organises a 24 hour online demo against internet censorship. More about it here.

You get click on a map of the world where the worst examples of censorship take place.

And if such push-button activism seems ridiculous, do check out the rest of the site.

Link via The Griff.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Of books, released or destroyed

Nothing about the Dalrymple reading was as amusing as the report of it that appears in today's Metro Plus (The Hindu's city supplement)

Here are some gems from Serish Nanisetti's report:

William Dalrymple is that rare yarn writer of history who doesn't let
people yawn while he is positing his latest hypothesis after digging up tonnes of documents

he begins, and then about Bahadur Shah Zafar:

...what Dalrymple suggests is that he was a symbol of a culture clasp that
almost (breathed) out the British Empire before it was born.

Dalrymple may have done a TV series about Sufis, but it also seems to have induced in him hitherto unsuspected powers:

Beginning his talk with levitating comments about the American worldview
and how it proximates to worldview during the time of uprising, Dalrymple moved on to his subject.

My favourite section, however, is when Dalrymple, like a wrestler (read the whole report), plunges into the story:

narrating the tragic story of the last Mughal from the time his cask is
lowered into the grave in Rangoon in November 1862 to the stirring times when the figurehead became a centrepiece of liberation.

Bahadur Shah Zafar, The Ghost Who Walks. And we never knew.

Who says only the TOI does purplocity (to filch a phrase from Amit)? Read the whole thing here.


For as long as I can remember, the Book Bazar at Koti has been around. My father says it's been there since he came to the city in the early 70's. Sundays meant a heavy brunch and then off to Abids, where secondhand books were neatly laid out on the pavement. As the road curved around the Head Post Office, the type of person browsing would change. If Abids had all those looking for magazines and fiction, Koti had all the earnest students who came hunting for textbooks they would not otherwise be able to afford.

Yesterday, the MCH razed all the shops at Koti. A percentage of the booksellers have been accomodated at Sultan Bazaar, but this is just another instance of the total insensitivity with which Govt. bodies operate. A couple of years ago, they nearly destroyed a heritage building

It's going to be strange to see the place without its bookshops.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Spaniard Buses It

One way of getting to know a city well is to take its public transport. More specifically, when you take a bus, you find out things about a city that you thought you knew well. When I was in Bombay recently, I took a bus from Worli to Regal. Now, a bus taking the usual route would have gone via Haji Ali, Pedder Road and so on, taking the logical, well-established way of getting from point A to point B. but this bus – Route No. forgotten-the-number – turned left at some point when I wasn’t noticing, and the rest of the journey was an adventure the high-point of which was a sign that read: “Today is Prevent Car Theft Day. Spread the word.” What were they thinking? Did they hope that designating a day and putting up a sign would shame the car thief into slinking off hopelessly into the dark?

And what are the odds that you would have spotted such a sign outside Phoenix Mall? This sign I saw was outside a slum where carefully constructed ‘first floors’ housed sleepy people just waking up or watching TV two feet away from their eyeballs. No doubt the people who dreamed up the line thought these guys absorbed English by osmosis from their TV sets. Because the sign wasn’t even bilingual. That’s targeted advertising for you.

There’s something comforting about being on a bus whose you route you know so well, you can fall asleep and wake up in time to get off at your stop. The 91 from Haji Ali to Kalina used to be the perfect bus for me when I was at Sophia. I staggered out at half past six in the morning, and got an empty seat near the window. Slightly more than an hour later, I woke up just in time to jump off and walk briskly to college.

This only happens after a long time, though. The first time in a city, on a route, on a bus is always an anxious time. (The first time I ever took a bus was in college; having studied in boarding school, I never needed to take a bus ever. This incident has scarred me for life, but I will not recount it here. It would make me blush.) You wonder if you’re standing on the right side of the road; if you have enough change in your bag; if you ought to ask how much the ticket is, or look cool and take whatever change the conductor gives you, always thinking the while that he could be gypping you and you’d never know it; or worse – you could look really silly by handing over less money than you need to give. Hell -- you're not even sure you'll know when it is your stop. It's enough to make you never want to go anywhere.

In Bombay, my peculiar problem was getting used to reading bus routes in Hindi. Never having had to use numbers in Hindi, I could barely recognise one number from the other. Of course, in time you get used to it. It’s better than listening to people rattle off numbers in Hindi, as happens all too often in Delhi: “Hanhji, yeh painsath pandrah paanch sau nabbe?” Huh? I always hung up or said, “Wrong number.”

I’m not even getting into the anxieties of standing while taking a bus, especially in Delhi. Suffice it to say that we were never unarmed; an open safety pin was sometimes protection enough.

Sometimes, you’d get on from the front of the bus, because the queues were too long at the back, and you couldn’t face the thought of being felt up by dozens of men as you made your way to the front. So you got up at the front and passed on your change to the conductor and hoped that no ticket inspector would turn up. Of course, they invariably turned up on the days you thought you could get away with a two-stop ride with no ticket. Others routinely got away with never buying a ticket just by the simple expedient of hissing out ‘ishtaff’ from the corners of their mouths. Even if they were callow second years from Dayal Singh (that has to be an oxymoron, I just realised.)

But this business of getting on at the front – it is a peculiar characteristic of buses in the south, that the women have to get on at the front and stay at the front of the bus. At least, in Bangalore and Hyderabad, you get on in the front; don’t think that happens in Madras, but they certainly do seem to all sit in the front (nothing about Madras stays in my head. I’ve taken buses there but it’s all a thankfully blurred memory).

In Bangalore, while editing a film, we travelled every day from Seshadripuram to Jaya Nagar. Until then, Bangalore, for me, was M.G.Road and Brigade Road. It was Koshys and Permier Book Store and Select; and that film guy whose place I always forget – just down the road from Koshys.

Taking a bus changed all that. Sure, you passed the Vidhana Soudha and all the palces you’d expect. But the bus also took you through Chamrajpet, where the houses look like they’re from another century. When jobs are ‘Bangalored’ it’s not because of places like Chamrajpet and Gandhi Nagar.

Do you notice an omission? I do. I’ve never, yet, taken a bus in Hyderabad. It sounds awfully snooty to say thing, but I’ve never needed to. Yesterday, as I was waiting for the light to turn green, a bus pulled up next to my car. It occurred to me that if someone was visiting and asked me what bus they should take to go somewhere, I wouldn’t have the shadow of a clue. I know 127J (in Hyderabad, there’s a letter alongside the route number, to indicate area. So J is Jubilee Hills, K is Kondapur and so on.) but that’s the extent of my meagre knowledge.

So that’s on my list of Things To Do Before You Hit Irreversible Old Age.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All style, but who says no substance?

I liked Don. Not because my expectations were lowered by too much advance carping. Not even because I’ve forgotten the original – I haven’t. I liked Don because though there are many commonalities in plot, it is the departures that are most interesting and significant.

Farhan Akhtar’s Don inhabits a more morally ambiguous universe than Chandra Barot’s Don. Barot has said in an interview, that in his Don, the fight was between good and evil and that he couldn’t see the value in a fight between evil and evil.

Akhtar situates his story very clearly in a post-Cold War (though not explicitly in a post 9/11) international context. Early on we are told that after the break-up of the Soviet Union, a Russian criminal, Boris, has set up a drug cartel operating out of South-East Asia. Singhania is the inheritor of his empire; Vardhaman, who was also a part of Boris’s inner circle, has disappeared. Don is Singhania’s man, and the most dangerous of the lot.

The subtext of this early scene is that if the world had been viewed thus far through the lens of Capitalism = Good and Communism = Bad, the only ism of any value in a post-Soviet Union world is Opportunism. Where is the post-9/11 dominant world-view of Islamic Fundamentalism, you may ask? Where are the clear divisions of the “if you are not with us, you are against us” rhetoric? If there is an international context at all, how is it that the latest demons are entirely absent from the film?

I think that this omission cannot but be deliberate. We know that the story takes place post-9/11, because Arjun Rampal’s character, Jasjit, mentions the year 2002 to his friend when he comes out of prison. I would interpret this as a deliberate refusal to be drawn into easy and absolute definitions of good and evil; if these people are criminals, they are criminals regardless of religion or nationality.

The only scene in the film where religion is overtly displayed is the Ganpati visarjan scene. Even here, the departure is significant. In the earlier version – I hesitate to use the use the word ‘original’ too often – Vijay was an itinerant circus-type performer, a character very much on the margins of society, as was Pran. In this version, to place the character in the institutionalised, and highly politicised context of a Ganpati visarjan is, I think, to make a statement about the largely cynical way in which religion is used (or misused) in public life.

There are only a few scenes set in India. Even the Paan Banaraswala song is set in Malaysia, amongst a fortuitously found Indian community celebrating Mahashivratri. The architecture of globalism is everywhere – the Petronas Towers (the scene where Arjun Rampal takes his son across the bridge between the towers was a great variation of Pran's tightrope walk, I thought), the flyovers, the ropeway at the end of the film, the cars, the gadgets and the cast.

It is as if Akhtar wants to tap into the much-imitated coolth of Asian cinema, and he pulls it off. But he does this not as tribute or homage, in the way that Kill Bill is a homage and a continuous quotation of yakuza and martial arts cinema; he does this by using the earlier version as a palimpsest upon which he writes an entirely different story, but through which you occasionally see glimpses of the old one.

And this is why I think the film is good: because though you are reminded often of the old Don, you don’t spend your time making futile comparisons. Instead you watch this one for its own sake and recall the earlier version only once in a while and that with no regret.

Make no mistake: the film is all style but it is not without substance; a substance that we have not been used to seeing in Hindi cinema – where criminals are criminals with no redeeming features attached; where revenge is ugly and unsweetened by True Love, whatever that is; and where identity is no sheet anchor mooring us to the world as we know it, because everyone is also someone else.

PS -- I especially liked Priyanka Chopra’s Roma in this and thought it was better than Zeenat Aman’s Roma, not least because in this film, the character is unapologetically feminine. (Of course, this might not be as progressive an impulse as it appears, because the audience demands eye candy and perhaps androgynous sulkiness is no longer a turn on.)