Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Small Town" Calcutta

As the plane begins its descent, objects detach themselves from the general golden haze and begin to exist again as individual entities. The undulations that ‘could have been’ hills and brown-and-green patches of earth assume their proper identities. The furrows on the broad silver river, ploughed by ferries and large boats, become visible; smoke spirals rise from the obelisk-like structures of the numerous brick kilns that dot the countryside.

Being in Eastern India is always a homecoming of sorts for me. Having grown up in industrial towns, I’m at home with massive chimneys vomiting ugly dark smoke into serene blue skies, or pink smoke into star-sprinkled black nights. Small towns delight me with their stolidity, with their propensity to be excited into a flurry of activity once or twice a year during a festival perhaps, only to retreat into their shells once the burst of energy has run its course. Neighbours hail each other in the morning across the fence and talk while they’re watering their gardens. Happiness is more about knowing that someone you know has made it to the “city” and gone to a good college, than flaunting a sedan or designer clothes- for the quintessential ambition of “small town” parents is to see their children get out of the confines of the colony they’ve grown up in.

Calcutta isn’t a small town, but despite- or because of?- its size and bursting population, there is a quality to it that makes it very warm and human. I felt at home on my first real trip to the city- maybe it helps that I am a little familiar with Bengali, having heard it quite a lot while I was growing up- and I wasn’t stuck with the unpleasant task of having to peel off a fa├žade to expose the skeleton to my wondering eyes. Calcutta isn’t a city caught in the rabid clutches of impersonal modernity and progress, unlike a couple of others I’ve lived in.



Calcutta has a large South Indian population, particularly around Lake Market. A small shop, tucked away between stately buildings and nondescript stalls, sells everything that a homesick Tamilian population can ask for. On a nearby wall, a poster advertises the Telugu movie ‘Orange’. And for a moment, you could well imagine you were in a street down south in the peninsula, and not traipsing through the eastern parts of the country. The old juxtaposed against the new; cultures mingling and acquiring a new identity. This is what Calcutta is about.



At the Esplanade, where buses from the states around West Bengal converge (there are even buses to Bhutan here), there is a flurry of activity. The roads are packed; a few hundred metres away, red flags are being held up and men are climbing aboard a van in preparation for a rally. Some distance away, a rival party readies itself for its own rally. These converging masses of men will bring the traffic to a standstill. More traffic policemen will be pressed into service to deal with irate motorists near the New Market area.

The New Market is perhaps one of the oldest shopping areas in the country. Bustling even on a Sunday morning, it doubles up as a flea market and up-market shopping destination. Vendors quote outrageous prices for their wares, and it takes all your bargaining skills to bring them down to a reasonable level. What I’m really looking forward to on my next trip to Calcutta, though, is a visit to College Street- that haven of secondhand bookshops. On the pavements of Gariahat, a number of rickety stalls sell pirated editions of Chetan Bhagat, Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. People here like to read and to learn- I can barely remember an edition of the Bournvita Quiz Contest, Mastermind India or University Challenge without a contestant with Bengali affiliations (not forgetting the quizmasters, of course- Derek O’Brien and Siddharth Basu respectively).

Timeless charm, grace and tenacity- this is what Calcutta is all about. Vast tracts of slum land surround the city and the airport is in desperate need of a facelift. The government has plenty to deal with in terms of the Maoists and industrialisation glitches. It struggles its way to progress and may not strike a newcomer fresh from the glitz of swanky glass and steel as the most exciting holiday destination. If you don’t care to delve beneath artifices, though, Calcutta is the city for you, because it lays itself bare and isn‘t confused about its identity.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Patrick French on 'India: A Portrait'

Cross posted on The Weed Joint

Author Patrick French was in Bangalore this evening, promoting his new book, ‘India: A Portrait’. Not having heard of either the book or the author earlier, I wasn’t too sure if I wanted to attend the session, until, through sheer coincidence, I stumbled upon this review on the Guardian website. Aravind Adiga hasn’t been too kind to the book- while praising the author’s style and in-depth research, he has denounced the large number of loose ends he claims to have discovered.

It will be unfair of me to take sides with either French or Adiga in this debate, considering I haven’t read the book. The Englishman came across as a keen, intelligent person in the hour-long session. Beginning with Ladakh, he talked of his journeys down south and among the Khasi tribes. He read out excerpts from his book and described the amount of research that went into it. A great deal of statistics was evidently involved, and French gave examples in the form of an analysis of the dynastic politics rampant in India. He was appreciative of the UID scheme and marvelled at the diversity of the country, and its acceptance without question, unlike in many other parts of the world where people were just learning to come to terms with it. He spoke of how science and religion weren’t treated as separate entities but coexisted in India, unlike in Europe a few centuries ago.

At the end of his reading, French fielded questions from the audience. When asked what differences he saw between India and China, having written about both, he spoke of the difference between India’s democracy and China’s single-party system where public opinion couldn’t be voiced as openly, and about the latter‘s single-child policy which was resulting in an aging population. He explained how a factor in the lack of young politicians in India was the number of career options available to the youth. On being asked what other facets he would have liked to cover, he mentioned that he wanted to write more about the North-East. He explained that he hadn't written about farmer suicides and some other issues because they didn't fit in with the tone of this book.

French steered clear of the more controversial excerpts that Adiga has discussed in his review. Perhaps, having published the controversial Liberty or Death – India’s Journey to Independence and Division earlier, French has decided to play it safe this time. It was disappointing though, for in bringing out some of the more colourful parts of the book, French might have excited greater enthusiasm for and interest in his work.

Adiga, in his review, has said that most books on India tend to be either literary or journalistic. Considering French writes with style while also laying emphasis on facts and figures, this book seems to be treading the middle line. I must admit that I didn’t think there was anything new explored in the book. In talking about the dabbawallahs and the small-scale entrepreneurs, French is only charting familiar territory, discussing subjects that we’ve seen Suketu Mehta and Mark Tully do earlier. If, instead, French had gone ahead to open up the North-East to the rest of the world and focused on things often ignored in favour of the exciting story of India’s growth coupled with the inevitable comparisons with China, this book would have been something to talk about. As of now, though, it just seems like yet another book on India from a foreigner’s perspective. Not a travelogue, not a book of dry figures, but something in between.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I scour the strainer hard, wondering at the particles of grime that manage to make their way into the various crevices unnoticed until they accumulate into revolting, sticky brown cakes. Set against the fluorescent-green plastic, it is not a pretty sight. The milk boils and rattles against the steel vessel, a brown crust forming on its inside. Time to turn it off before it swells and pours onto the platform- I abandon the strainer and do so. I take the lid off the container where I store the coffee powder and inhale the intoxicating aroma- it is the best thing in the world next to the fragrance of moist earth touched by fresh rain.

I heap generous spoonfuls of the powder into my coffee-maker, a very thoughtful birthday present, pour water into it and watch the thick mixture swirl within its dark confines. I set it on the stove and let it boil well, then drain the red-tinted decoction into my dark violet mug. The last pear-shaped drops splutter fitfully into the mug, this prized possession of mine. Even in my 'communal living' experience, it hasn't been used by anyone except me, barring on one occasion when it was offered to a Guest of Honour. It carries a white Fort Siloso logo, a souvenir from a place of battle and imprisonment. Who makes money off the souvenirs now, the descendants of the deceased or a mercenary tourism board?

And while I make my coffee and wash spoons and cups, I realise that I've been describing these acts to myself all the while, letting words take over entirely and form pictures in my head, even though I see for myself all I do. The colour of my mug becomes more vivid when represented by a word, the milk pouring through the strainer and mixing with the dark decoction makes a brew whose richness is enhanced by the words describing it in my head.

It is Rohinton Mistry working his magic all over again. Reinforcing my faith in words. He describes every minute action with a simplicity that makes you want to linger on in your reading. You're borne forward gently on wings of ethereal beauty, words encompassing and soothing and unintrusive. There is a tussle going on in my head this very moment, because I have a sneaky suspicion that I'm beginning to like Mistry better than Ruskin Bond. Ring out the old, ring in the new? No. I'd rather try and let them live together, or live myself with this painful pleasure of having to choose between two master craftsmen.

I finished The English Patient yesterday, and discovered yet another stupendous writer in Michael Ondaatje. This weekend has in more ways than one obliterated the traumatic effects of The Slap, and with writers like Mistry, Bond, Ondaatje and JG Farrell at my disposal, I'm not too inclined to step into uncharted waters very soon.

Summer is sneaking in through the meshed window, and bright moonlight is casting a silver patch on the kitchen sink, where unwashed vessels are piled up high. On the detritus of a long, lazy Sunday. It is already too warm for mid-January, and soon the heat will be upon us, another season of nostalgia and memories, part of the irreversible cycle. Now, though, I'll let Thomas Newman play and bury myself into Mistry again, before Monday rears its ugly head.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Slap, or An Exercise in Futility

Cross-posted from the The Weed Joint

Please tell me that Christos Tsiolkas isn't writing 'The Sequel to The Slap, The Reverberations of an Uncalled-for Act in Civilised Society'. Put my fears of column inches and breath going waste over a clunky, plotless, ineffectual mass of drivel to rest. I wouldn't want to see trees destroyed and the earth endangered to put into circulation so much inanity, re-creating caricatures that already scream at you from your television screams in sexed-up soap operas.

With shallow characters proudly boasting weaknesses which Zeus and His entire Pantheon would quail at themselves, and writing that sounds like it has been ripped off an uninterested Class Seven student's English homework, The Slap is easily the most irritating book I've ever read. It beats England, England hands down and makes you wonder at the intelligence (or lack of it) of befeathered panels of judges who propose and extol the clumsiest pieces of writing as introspective studies into societal patterns- I seriously doubt even Tsiolkas ever thought his episodic mishmash of characters would ever be construed seriously. Well done, then, Christos, because you've managed to pull the wool over the eyes of quite a few people, and I hate myself for having fallen prey to the frenzy and the hype. I confess to my crime- I read two-thirds of the book. Persecute me in any Court of Law if you will, but please don't write a sequel. If you don't have any such ideas, I hope I'm not giving you some.

And to think this embarrassment of a book won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, something that was once sensibly awarded to the sublimely beautiful Lloyd Jones novel Mister Pip, shakes my faith in humanity and gravity and everything we're taught to believe in. The characters are extremely weak and you never have a chance to get into their skin and feel things the way they do. The attempt at threading together multicultural influences in Australian society isn't remarkable in any way, and the idea I take away from the book is that all immigrants stick together and seek flings with other immigrants when bored of their own lives (which is almost all the time). No one is happy, and life is one big frown between scrunched-up eyebrows. The only positive thing is that the book arouses your curiosity in a way- you keep reading, hoping you'll stumble upon some kind of plot. Right now, though, I think life is too short, and maybe even gloomy (I learn from my reading experiences) to keep plodding through the rest of the 'story'.

The blurb on the cover says the book is about how the lives of a group of middle-class people are affected after they become unwilling victims/witnesses of an ugly incident at a barbecue, where a man slaps a three-year-old child. (If, in the course of reading the book, which I sincerely wouldn't wish upon you, you are inclined to side with the 'wicked man', don't worry- Hugo is the most irritating child in the history of literature. Blame it on the parents- the most annoying ever, in their own right, so there you have it, a family of excellence.) Relationships suffer, affairs are ended or embarked upon, and whether or not they're all because of The Slap (my roommate likened it to the title of a cheap movie, and I wouldn't disagree, because this is a literary equivalent) I haven't been able to, or bothered to, figure out. Tsiolkas has an OCD-like fixation with carnal pleasures and four-letter expletives, and you can't go past two pages at a time without being treated to voyeuristic images and sounds of moaning and sighing. Christos, my man, too much of anything isn't good. Anything. That isn't half the problem, though, because you cannot write. Period. You've had your fifteen minutes of fame, so get yourself a beer and retire to the pleasures of the desert and the ocean, drive from Perth to Melbourne and back, play rugby if you will, but don't let us hear of you publishing a book ever again. Unless, of course, it's a manual of some sort.

PS: Those who know me will understand that I must have detested this book to spew so much venom against a poor individual. I might think differently tomorrow, but I don't want generosity to efface the truth.