December 28, 2008

"Slumdog Millionaire" - A Metaphor for India?

Slumdog Millionaire is a refreshingly different movie; perhaps an expose of sorts, but disguised under the soft nuances of a romance. The setting of the movie is again a surprise, as it's Mumbai 2008; the producer couldn't have imagined that Mumbai would hold spotlight, world-wide, just as his movie was to be released!

Danny Boyle, the director of the movie, has a reputation for making controversial movies, and this was no different as it elicited some extreme reactions from the audience. Some felt the movie was a misrepresentation of India, others had a problem with the myopic lens of the film maker whose depiction of India was apparently 'lopsided'; though the fact that the story writer is Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat, gets Danny Boyle off the hot seat. Then there were those viewers who were convinced the movie would be nominated for the Oscars for it's direction and screenplay. However, there was one thing all these viewers had in common: they were all of Indian origin. All of this made me want to see the movie and decide for myself!

Slumdog Millionaire turned out to be a very entertaining movie that showcased some stark scenarios in Mumbai like that of abject poverty leading to child abuse and prostitution. It also highlighted the Hindu Muslim divide in Mumbai leading to violence and oppression for the underprivileged. Having said this, one would imagine the movie to be a somber tale of struggle with little reprieve. However, that's where the movie surprises; the stark reality of Mumbai is so naturally embedded in the storyline that it ceases to be revolting. For instance the 7 year old protagonist being covered in human feces does not evoke shock or revulsion as much as it does laughter and empathy for the passionate young film lover. 7 year old Jamal is clearly determined to get his favorite Bollywood actor's autograph, even if that meant going through a hole in the ground which happened to be the slum dwellings public-toilet-facility! It is this, the master weaving of the somber amid the tender and the humorous, that allows the movie to get away with the shocking and inhuman scenarios it presents; all apparently happening in Mumbai.

The movie is about a young boy called Jamal who serves 'chai' (tea) to employees in a call center in Mumbai. He is suddenly thrown into the spotlight when he becomes the most unlikely finalist on a "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" TV game show which would earn him a million dollars if he were to win it. The movie glides smoothly between the the protagonist's past and present, by the end of which the viewer has a clearer picture of who the protagonist is and why he is so. The three actors who play his part through the different phases of his life do justice to the character as they provide him tremendous credibility; it is difficult to believe that the 19 year old Jamal of the movie is in reality a British actor, Dev Patel, who hardly knows Mumbai!

I would recommend this movie to anyone who believes art is but the artists perspective. As the audience, we don't have to be one with the perspective or with the vision that is born out of it, though we could appreciate the artist's passion for having created a piece for us to ponder upon. In fact I pondered on this particular one a trifle too long; I now see Jamal, the unlikely finalist wanting to be millionaire, as a metaphor for 21st century India, the surprise contender for being the top economic growth engine of the world.

Definitely a movie worth watching.

December 12, 2008

The Book of Troubles" by Ann Marlowe - A Memoir or a Delusional Romance?

It took me the longest time to post on this one - "The Book of Trouble" by Ann Marlowe. I can't think of a better reason for this other than the fact that I couldn't quite come to terms with the social conflicts as presented by Marlowe. She candidly states her stance in the prologue itself saying, " I don't want to have a relationship, much less a committed relationship. I want to meet someone and fall in love and live with him for the rest of my life." Yet the falling in love she captures in the book is jinxed from the word go. What is even stranger, Ms. Marlowe is aware of the tentative nature of her relationship, yet, she spends the next hundred some pages justifying this tentativeness!

Ann Marlowe, a widely traveled journalist with stellar academic credentials, appears to have written this book either when she was on a sentimental high, or else she was brooding on the boredom of single living as a forty year old American woman. It could also be that her extended stay in and around Afghanistan had impacted her deeply, and Afghanistan's exotic culture still had her in its grip.

The book shifts between Afghanistan and the USA and is ridden with conflicts of gender, age, ethnicity, traditions and religion, mostly within the realm of romance. Ms. Marlowe, who is at the center of it all, is constantly debating her stand on these conflicts, trying to assess the conflicts the Afghan way and then looks at them the American way. There are weak attempts at defending the American lifestyle and how it deals with these issues, but somehow Ms. Marlowe always appears to have an Afghan bias, to the point that she defends machismo saying it lets the man be chivalrous, a trait apparently the average American woman of today misses. On the same note, Marlowe even lends credence to arranged marriages and the covering of the female face with a 'chadar'. The examples and statistic for both of which are questionable. What is more, this memoir of Marlowe's has her, a Jewish woman in her 40s, in love with an Afghan man at least 10 years younger than her, and one who tells her outright, "The Western idea of romantic love is an illusion. I don't believe in it. I want to have an arranged marriage. I want to marry an Afghan girl. A seventeen-year-old virgin." This is where one wonders, "What was Marlowe thinking!" Was this the falling in love she was referring to in the prologue? As for the book being 'a Romance', well, it is one that has 'trouble' written all over it! "The Book of Trouble" is the memoir of a delusional 40 year old who so desperately wants to experience 'love' with a difference, that she willingly suspends disbelief and involves herself in an affair that clearly has no future from the onset.

However, there is a softer and saner side to the memoir as Marlowe unfolds to the reader an Afghanistan that is simple and very understandable. She takes us into the inner folds of family life in Afghanistan, and it is a most endearing picture that she reveals; one which could make an American reader like me uncomfortable. The simplicity of interaction within Afghan families makes that society very appealing to an American who has long lived in an individualistic society. Belonging to a tight knit Afghan group, in this case an extended family, eases the burdens that come with individualistic living where you are accountable for every action of yours. Marlowe has undoubtedly seen Afghanistan very closely and does its people and its culture justice, in that she is very accepting of differences, analyzes them impartially, and partakes of them with appreciation and gratitude. The Bush administration ought to have had her as an adviser before they went there to bring democracy to this 'third world nation'!

"The Book of Troubles' is an apt title for this memoir since I too am 'troubled' writing a recommendation for this book. Would I suggest you read it? Given that I've called Ms. Marlowe, the protagonist of this memoir, delusional, it would almost seem absurd for me to recommend it. However, this is also the book that I could hardly put down once I began reading it! So I suggest you delve into this 'troubled book' and see whether 'the troubles' were worth your read.

Thanks Saadia for recommending the book!

December 08, 2008

The Beatles Beat - "I'm not afraid, I'm shy!"

This piece was inspired by someone who said
"I'm not afraid, I'm shy!"

Words unsaid...
eyes unmet...
hands unheld...
...leave steps untaken!

A lidded glance
for a proffered hand.
A tentative gesture
with a somewhat smile.
The spoken silence
amid hushed replies.

A hurried exit
so obviously distraught.
A forlorn look
trailing tender thought.
A lingering hope
leaving sanity besot.

Fiercely though you care,
words you'll never say.
People'll never know
the warmth beneath the cold,
and even less...
the love you left untold.

December 01, 2008

Mehreen Jabbar's "Ramchand Pakistani" - A Truth, Touchingly Told!

It was ironic that I happened to watch the movie "Ramchand Pakistani" the evening before the tragic events unfolded in Mumbai last week. In the light of which, the following comment of Javed Jabbar, the movie's writer-producer, carried special meaning for me:“While the story is very sharply drawn in a political context of extreme polarisation, what it attempts to do is to project the unifying human dimension.” These words gain further significance when tensions appear to be escalating between the two nuclear nations in the aftermath of Mumbai's terrorist attack.

A year or so ago a visitor on my blog recommended the movie 'Ramchand Pakistani' as a must- see movie made by a Pakistani filmmaker, and I'm glad I took his advice. Mehreen Jabbar has made a movie that both warms and shocks the heart . Based on a real event, the movie captures the travails of an accidental and unusual intruder into 'enemy' territory. Jabbar manages to raise some essential questions about how and why national borders heighten and highlight individual differences which would otherwise go unnoticed. The land on this side of the border is no different from what lies on the other side, and accordingly the people living on either side of it have adapted to its peculiarities. This adaptation would normally make people connect, but in this case the border patrol and the white stone demarcations between India and Pakistan ensure that this connect never happens. It is against this backdrop that Jabbar's unusual protagonist steps in as the intruder who accidentally ventures onto the 'other side'. What unfolds is a series of events presented with utmost sincerity and simplicity, and it is to the credit of the cast, Rashid Farooqui, Nandita Das, Usmaan Abbasi, and Navaid Jabbar, that despite the matter-of-fact narrative, the viewer often has a catch in his throat watching helpless innocents fall prey to the senseless and insensitive mandates of politicking.

Watching this movie reminded me of a 20 minute documentary I had watched some time ago titled "The Little Terrorist", and I want to believe that both these movies are based on that same true life event that happened during the Kargil standoff. "The Little Terrorist" was a telling comment on the ludicrousness of border disputes between two countries that are home to a people sharing a long and glorious history together, and are therefore culturally akin in their lifestyles especially in their passion for Cricket. "Ramchand Pakistani", takes that affinity a step further and poignantly lays out that 'closeness' of the two people as Ramchand, the accidental intruder, finds himself imprisoned on the other side of the border.

November 11, 2008

Three Cups of Tea - Philanthropy with a difference.

"One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . .
One School at a Time."

"The first cup of tea, you're a stranger; the second cup, a friend; and the third cup, you're family," Mortenson says. "And for the family, they're prepared to do anything, even die."

The Karzais , the Musharrafs, and the Bushes may want to borrow a page from Mortenson's book Three Cups of Tea to see what it really takes to forge inroads into human hearts so apparently different in terms of their color, gender, nationality, language, and religion.

I have my friend Liz to thank for gifting me this novel before she set out on her undefined travels across Central America; what an apt book choice Liz. I'm sure Mortenson's pursuit for peace-without-borders will color your travels as well.

Three Cups of Tea is a popular buy at almost all major book stores across the USA as it has been on the NYT best seller list for the last 16 weeks and is currently heading that list. The novel has grabbed various literary awards in the last two years like the 2007 Kiriyama Prize and Time magazines Asia Book of the Year. It has also been called a publishing phenomenon because of its soaring sales in record time. The two authors, David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson, have their individual websites that provide interesting and accurate information about their adventurous work in various parts of Asia.I enjoyed this work of non-fiction as it unraveled some mysteries and misunderstandings that existed in my mind about people living in the so called Taliban- friendly area on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Misconceptions such as these, ones we often carry for a lifetime, filter down into our next generation, and the next, and thus borders are drawn and walls built. Human beings who essentially are the same, in that they care about their families and feel pain when they get hurt, end up perceiving each other as foreigners, with unbridgeable differences that are frequently negotiated with ammunition and deception. A novel such as this provides an alternative to the use of force to bridge this gap of misunderstanding.

Greg Mortenson, the narrator and the main character in this piece of non-fiction, is an ordinary man who takes upon himself to do the extraordinary; build grounds for peace in a 'foreign land' in the most unusual way: by providing education to the female child in a male dominated society, and in an area torn apart by violence and ethnic strife.

Three Cups of Tea speaks volumes for the indomitable human spirit, and is a must read for those of us who seek the silver lining to our 'clouded' world.

November 09, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Refugee Rights

Snow in October!

An unlikely fall

that bothered one'n all:

"Never happened before"
"Frozen down to skin"
"What! A white Halloween!"

How some 'firsts' bother us!


there are those we don't remember:
The Holocaust that needn't have happened
except that all those eyes had not opened

Look what happened in Darfur:

while world leaders humanity feigned

hell broke loose and barbarity reigned.

Will this be another shameful 'first':
The Congo nation's pitiful plight;

a people pleading in fearful flight.

How many 'firsts' will History reap?

How many 'firsts' until we see
that one man's home

can't be anothers to keep?

Is our planet to become a graveyard of displaced refugees?

November 04, 2008

Barack Obama - "A Change we Believe in"

the ultimate hope!

fears gone

tempers calmed

visions cleared
obstacles removed

threat disarmed
innocence harbored

poverty checked
hunger lessened

faith instilled
suspicions cleared

gunfire silenced
peace established

change is but a phase.

What will it take
in order to sustain
a '
change we believe in'?

Vote Obama
is the claim!

October 23, 2008

Singleton's 'Seduced by Memory'

"Jeremy Hightower enters Donna’s life and claims to have nurtured a forty-four-year love for her. Swept up by the fairy tale, she allows herself to fall in love, only to realize that Jeremy has a past that could interfere with their future together."

"Ollie Singleton's maiden novel "Seduced by Memory' came to me via an unusual route. iditis gave it to me saying "Tell me what you think of it." Not given to serious reading, I made sure this novel was not one of those that I'd abandon due to sheer exhaustion of having read and reread the same page many times over! Well, I was assured that was not the case, and that proved to be true. By the time I finished my first reading I was already a fourth of the way into the book. The main character was interesting, but became less complex as the story progressed. Though an easy novel to read, I'm not sure what made it so: it's simplicity of plot or its sheer readability.

As a first write, the novel holds promise for this author, and I would probably want to read her second novel if she were to write one."


October 12, 2008

Dewdrops on cobwebs

(Click on picture)

The finer things in life
that we often fail to see,
may carry cherished dreams
that never come to be.

The silky cobweb spine
hugs misty drops in twine
though wanting to comply
does nature's law defy.

The freshness caught my eye
such beauty couldn’t deny
of harmony so balanced
with dew that web enhanced.

Those drop would not be seen
if thunderous poured the rain;
the dewdrop would've drained
if weighty water rained.

The beauty captured thus
would only crystallize
if mist and fallen dew
fell gently from the skies.

Dewdrop on a cobweb
seems frailty ultimate
yet on that bush that morning
did my thinking complicate!

September 30, 2008

'Before the Rains' - A Role-Reversed Sequel to E. M. Forster's 'Passage to India'?

The storyline of Before the Rains did not enthrall, yet it isn’t a movie I could forget easily, and for two reasons: its surreptitiously sensuous setting and its obvious parallels with E. M. Forster’s Passage to India.

The movie is set during the British colonial period in India, sometime in the 1930s, and it is perhaps a low budget film which accounts for its cast and its low key marketing (if any at all). It is the rich and vibrant colors of Kerala, the setting of the movie, that hold the audience in complete awe. This rapture soon melts into a willing submission of the audience, almost a seduction, to the luscious landscape of South Western India. The photography in the film has opened up a new tourist haven - a tropical coastal paradise. I wouldn’t be surprised if this movie does to Kerala what Brokeback Mountain did to Wyoming.

Apparently, ‘Before the Rains’ is adapted from the story “Red Roofs” presented by Israeli director Dany Verete in his movie Yellow Asphalt; Red Roofs is about an illicit relationship between an Israeli Jewish farmer and his Bedouin maid. However, it was not this Israeli connection that I was constantly reminded of during the movie; it was E.M.Forster’s characters, Mrs. Moore and Mr. Fielding, from Passage to India that kept flashing in my mind. Director Sivan’s chief protagonist, TK (Rahul Bose), is the Indian counterpart of Forster’s Fielding in Passage to India. Both characters are intelligent and sensitive human beings, who though wishing to be loyal to their own, are bipartisan in thought and ultimately in their actions as well which ultimately leads to major changeovers in the plot. In Forster’s novel, it is the native Indian, Dr. Aziz, who is accused of a physical assault on a memsahib, whereas in Before the Rains it is Planter Moore who is under suspicion for having an affair with his married Indian housekeeper. The parallel does not end there; there is a Mrs. Moore in the movie, who, coincidentally, has the very name of her Forsterian counterpart. She, like the other Mrs. Moore from Passage to India, is aware of the real nature of the relationship between her husband and the maid, and yet decides to keep quiet about it. Mrs Moore in Passage to India cannot live with the guilt of having kept silent on the Malabar incident and dies on her way to England; the Mrs. Moore of this film knowing the truth, cannot voice it, but decides to go back to England after ending her marriage.

As I said at the beginning, I haven’t been able to forget the movie. I’m still trying to figure out whether the obvious parallels between Before the Rains and E.M. Forster’s Passage to India were a chance happening, or did Santosh Sivan plan this movie as a role-reversed sequel to E. M. Forster’s Passage to India to explore the power and volatility of forbidden/ illicit relationships within a charged socio-political setting.

I would watch this one, if only for its seductive setting – Kerala.

September 17, 2008

'Traitor' the Movie and 'Blind Faith' the Novel - Don't Make the Mark.

The two things I were better off not doing this past week were watching the movie 'Traitor' and reading Ghose's novel 'Blind Faith'!

The former, a movie starring Don Cheadle, had movie goers agog prior to its release. Alas, it had the brilliant Don Cheadle beat about the hackneyed theme of home grown terrorism! How long will it take Hollywood to realize that the audience has moved on...

'Sagarika Ghose's 'Blind Faith' can't be termed a disappointment since I had no grand expectations of it other than it be a decent story told in an engaging way, or then, an engaging story related in a decent way. Well, it proved to be neither of the two! The one redeeming feature of the novel was the character of Indi which lent an 'oomph' to the novel, but not enough to float it. Ms. Ghose has remarkable credentials, and that makes me believe this is not the last we'll see of her. However, "Blind Faith" will not work!

August 25, 2008

' Death at a Funeral ' - Great Situational Comedy!

It's been a while since I laughed so much! The movie 'Death at a Funeral' is a must-watch for anyone who likes situational comedy. Director Frank Oz put together the most bizarre characters in a most unlikely setting for comedy and yet the guffaws this interplay creates is to be seen! I would do a disservice to some of the characters by putting them all under the one label of bizarre; they are differently unique. Some of them could be termed dysfunctional, either at a social or physical level and yet they get the movie magic going and have the viewer in splits despite the somber funeral setting.

'Death at a Funeral', the least likely venue for two hours of pure fun! Frank Oz has done a splendid job with this British comedy released in 2007.

Don't miss this movie!

August 14, 2008

Kashmir Conflict - About to Boil Over?

This post on the Kashmir conflict makes a lot of sense to me!

Kashmir 'separatists', as they are called, cannot be 'home-grown'; for who would want to see one's homeland perpetually in the throes of joblessness, hunger, and communal violence!

The so called 'Kashmiriyat', "believed to be an expression of solidarity, resilience, patriotism... believed to embody an ethos of harmony and a determination of survival of the people and their heritage", has to surface, and soon, among both, the Kashmiri Muslims and the Kashmiri Hindus, for reason and hope to prevail in this beautiful Himalayan region that in the past was called 'a paradise on earth'!

August 13, 2008

Amulya Malladi's "The Sound of Language"- A 'Honeyed' Tale of Immigrant Experience in Denmark

"THE SOUND OF LANGUAGE is the story of a unique friendship. Every language has a sound and beyond that sound is acceptance and that's what my book is about. I hope that those who read it will re-evaluate any prejudices they have, and I hope very much that they will start to question how their governments treat refugees and immigrants." A. Malladi

Amulya Malladi came in recommended as 'has yet to disappoint' author and that is how I picked her "The Sound of Language" to carry with me as I traveled half way across the globe this summer. I must say the novel delivered; in that I finished it in less than a day! A light summer read that captures the travails of a recently widowed Afghani woman, who after escaping the clutches of the Taliban, finds herself in Denmark, a country which is not always immigrant friendly; especially to those who though forced out of their homeland, still carry the hope of returning there at some point in time.

Amulya Malladi, an Indian who lived in the US for a while, now writes out of Denmark where she lives with her Danish husband and has this to say about her country of residence: " Racism is rampant among Danish youth, and I'm not sure that boys like Anders and his friends (characters in this novel) are going to remain a minority in the not-so-very-distant future...the hardest part about living in Denmark is that as an immigrant you are expected to leave where you come from behind, completely, and become Danish...I rarely meet immigrants who say they love living in Denmark. It's a difficult country to immigrate to...hard for people who don't have my advantages." In the same breath she admits, " I miss the USA very, very much. I miss the friendly people, I miss the wide open spaces, I miss..."

Despite her mixed feelings for Denmark, Ms. Malladi, an immigrant herself, has in this novel, painted a Danish canvas that hosts some very likable Danes as also some delusional refugees who live out a lifetime on Danish welfare hoping to return to their homeland; a homeland that had so mercilessly forced them out not so long ago. Malladi's portrayal of the immigrant experience is very fair, and inspires the reader to believe that the milk of human kindness runs in every vein regardless of national identities.

An easy 'honeyed' summer read with the bees, the breeze et all!

August 07, 2008

'Olympic' Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in China

China 'allows' public protests during the Olympics provided the protest is:

- pre-registered
- conducted at the place assigned

"In terms of assembly and demonstrations, China has related laws and regulations," Sun, spokesman for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee, said, "and those rules - stringent in normal times - have been tightened further for the Olympics. Beijing has said it would allow applications for public protests in three designated areas... The government also has used its visa rules to try to keep out foreigners who might want to protest ...

Sun said the Tibet demonstrators were "persuaded to leave" by police and were not detained.

Foreigners who protest Beijing's human rights record or official policy of atheism on Chinese soil would normally face deportation. Chinese who demonstrate would face detention and hours of questioning by police, at least."

August 05, 2008

Divakaruni's 'Palace of Illusion' is in fact 'Draupadi's Mahabharata' and demands exclusive readership

I liked Divakaruni's short stories so when I saw The Palace of Illusions, her latest novel, I couldn't help reading it.

Divakaruni, a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Houston, has always had a penchant for the immigrant experience and for the role of women in society, and this novel caters to the latter; the role of women in Indian mythology. Given this context, did Divakaruni intend to exclude all of those readers not familiar with this exclusive context, namely the story of Draupadi as told in the Indian epic 'Mahabharata'?

I was fortunate in that I had read the Mahabharata so I was captivated by Draupadi's story in The palace of Illusions as told by Divakaruni, a modern woman who questions the legitimacy of Draupadi being wife to the five Pandava brothers, simultaneously and not out of choice. The character of Draupadi is colored in some stark hues and with some bold strokes that present her as a narrator with a mind of her known that she bares to the reader as also to Krishna ever so often. Krishna, the godly 'avatar' in the Mahabharat is Draupadi's mentor and an apparent saviour who conducts Socratic exchanges with her but in a benign sort of a way; something that might infuriate a modern day reader, perhaps what Divakaruni intended. A bold and intelligent Draupadi takes the reader through all the important happenings in her life that are pretty much brought upon her except for the one incident that she is destined to bring upon herself which would result in changing the course of History as predicted by the Sage Vyasa.

Did Divakaruni want to create a tragic figure out of Draupadi through this novel? Afterall she fulfills most of the Aristotelian requirements for a tragic hero: belongs to a royal family, suffers due to the flaw of excessive pride, experiences reversal of fortune, suffers extensively and her suffering is in excess of what she deserves. Having said that, as a reader I am not convinced that that was Divakaruni's intention because despite all the foretelling and all that happens to Draupadi, she never thinks of altering the prediction by opting for different choices. Instead she continues steadfast on the path she knows leads to devastation. Though strong and powerful, she chooses to go along with the dictates of fate. Her stoicism irrititates because it borders on masochism in a modern day context. You finish the book wondering why Draupadi couldn't have done better for herself and altered the course of history positively.

Fate is almighty! Is that the theme of Divakaruni's Palace of Illusions, and if so how is that any different from what the epic Mahabharat said? Nevertheless, Palace of Illusions is very readable if you are familiar with the Mahabharata, and its remoteness of context makes it ideal material for reading on a transatlantic flight.

August 04, 2008

Iain Banks's 'Post-scarcity civilization'

I've not read much of science fiction in the last decade or so; something I sincerely regret! As a result, whenever I come across an intriguing write up on a sci-fi novel I can't help recommending the read.

Folding the map, who is an avid reader of science fiction and a fan of Iain Banks' writings, has an interesting take on the viability of a post- scarcity culture.

Those of you wanting to know more about the Banksian alternative civilizations might want to read his novel "Matter" that presents 'a world where ships are sentient, humans live for half a millennium, and living on a planet is probably the most backward thing you can do'.

July 10, 2008

Roopa Farooki's 'Bitter Sweets' not a bitter read at all

Roopa Farooki's Bitter Sweets was a novel I picked up from the library for the lack of finding anything less 'lighter' to read, and what a perfect pick I made! It's an easy breezy read that you'd want to take on your next long flight.

Now here's a writer who spins simple yarns even if they transcend continents and generations. Apparently inspired by her " father, a charmingly unrepentant rogue who found telling the truth rather dull" and his colorful life, Ms. Farooki has written a charming novel about characters who test and eventually break many long held socio ethnic taboos. The story presents a breaking away from ones native land (Pakistan) and its traditions; willingly or otherwise. However, despite this serious theme of breaking away, Ms. Farooki's novel is not given to overt sentimentality or laden with maudlin characters; in fact she is able to weave humor, satire, and mockery in the most charmingly delectable way. The novel moves at a lethargic pace, which I perceive is deliberate as it takes away the pinch and the barbs out of every difficult situation; something that I enjoyed tremendously. There is nothing 'do or die' in or about the novel, and that lets the reader enjoy the feel and flavor of each of the many foibles that the characters indulge in.

Roopa Farooki's first novel is an easy and interesting read and has deservingly received good reviews.

July 06, 2008

Maureen Freely's "Enlightenment" - a labyrinth of unresolved mysteries?

"A dark Conradian drama, set in a beautifully illuminated Istanbul, where the past is always with us."- Orhan Pamuk

It is easy to guess what it was about Maureen Freely's novel, "Enlightenment", that drew me to it; it was Mr Pamuk's quote on the cover of the novel! However, if I'd only given the quote some more thought, I'd have figured that the quote was an observation and not a recommendation. To give the novel its due, the opening chapters are very gripping as they have the reader wanting for more while he embarks on a journey through the labyrinth that is Istanbul; into the semi revealed lives and psyches of those that inhabit this enigmatic city. The mental merengue that the reader experiences on this journey exhausts his very last grey cell, and by the end of it (that is if he ever reaches there) he simply gives up! When on that last page, I was thrilled that I saw light; that I was finally out of those convoluting plots and conspiracies that made for the Turkish identity of the 70s. However, a fraction of a moment later, it dawned on me that I was still carrying that ball of mysteries that had been handed out to me ever since I turned that first page of the novel; what was even more bothersome was that the ball had grown significantly in proportion; with every new character and each new twist in the plot the reader's bundle of mysteries had increased to the point that it had become burdensome! The reader's mind needed some off-loading before he could take on yet another twist in the tale. Alas, that was not to be, there was no respite from the burdening!

Was that Ms. Freely's intention to burden the reader such? It is one thing to have an open ending for a novel, one that leaves the reader seeking possible solutions, given that there are a few pointers provided for solving some of the mysteries presented. But when the entire novel is simply a complex intertwisting of innumerable mysteries, then the reader, at some point, just wants an out of his mental exhaustion, and that is exactly how I felt! There was no 'enlightenment' at the end of the novel in terms of its plot: what did happen to those young and bright minds during the 70's in Istanbul? Did the gruesome killing of the dynamic teacher really happen, and at the hands of the very students who revered every word of his? Alas, I will never know, and at this point I don't really care.

Maureen Freely, an American of Turkish origin, is a the translator of many of Orhan Pamuk's novels; the Nobel Prize winner with whom she attended Robert College in Istanbul. Ms. Freely has often been credited for being instrumental in promoting Pamuk's agenda for freedom of expression in Turkey and elsewhere. An ardent admirer of Pamuk and his writings she herself is an advocate of free expression of which there is a dearth in her home nation as "80 writers, scholars, artists, and activists have been prosecuted for insulting state, the judiciary, or Turkishness itself; there are 45 more cases set to go to trial before the end of the year."

I wouldn't write off 'Enlightenment' from my reading list if I were better informed on Turkey and its history because then the understanding of the novel may not pose as much of a problem. Besides there are some of us who might enjoy the reading challenge before arriving at that last page of "Enlightenment"!

June 26, 2008

"Mongol" and "Project Kashmir"

This last week I watched two very disappointing movies that I had awaited so expectantly: "Mongol" and
"Project Kashmir".

Bodrov's Academy Award Nominee "Mongol" came on the heels of my reading Weatherford's "Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World", and even though the movie was much acclaimed by the academy it failed to grip the audience like Weatherford's novel on the same subject did. The film dealt at length with the courtship and relationship thereafter between the legendary Genghis Khan and Borte, his wife who he lost multiple times during the course of the movie. This movie is but the first part of a trilogy portraying the life of Genghis Khan, but it is unlikely that I watch the latter two parts.
Then I watched "Project Kashmir" at the Lincoln Center some 100 miles away and in the middle of a high tension work week! Alas, it proved a complete waste of time as it had nothing new to offer both in terms of its factual content and in its perspective on the Kashmir issue. In fact there were points in the film and in the question-answer session with the movie-makers that followed, when the entire project seemed rather amateurish; two friends, one of Pakistani origin and the other of Indian origin embarking on a journey into the heart of Kashmir to figure out how a 'healing' could be brought about for the Hindu 'pundits' and the Kashmiri Muslims. I would any day recommend another documentary on Kashmir, "Crossing the Lines", that I saw a few years ago on the Princeton Campus; made by Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy and Dr. Zian Mian, it offered a more plausible perspective on the Kashmir issue and even had a semi-viable solution to offer at the end; diffusing the religiously volatile situation in Kashmir by luring its people with economic gains that would be independent of both India and Pakistan.

June 21, 2008

Kunal Basu's ' Racists' - Questioning the Validity of Scientific Experimentation?

Kunal Basu's 'Racists' unfolds in the early 19th century on a remote island in Africa. This island becomes the setting for an unusual experiment carried out by two European scientists of the pre-Darwin era, each trying to prove the validity of his hypothesis about racial superiority. The experiment is unusual in that it is carried out on two human 'samples', a white girl and a black boy, over an extended period of time, twelve years, without societal intervention except for the presence of Norah, the mute nurse. The two 'samples' are moved to this island as new born infants in the care of Norah whose job is simply to feed them and keep them alive; she is not to discipline them, teach them, or to reward them in any way.

Basu, a Professor of Management Studies at Said School of Business, Oxford, published this novel in 2006. A man given to crunching numbers and studying markets has created for himself a literary pallet out of which he has painted many a canvases with varying backdrops: China of the early 19th century in 'The Opium Clerk', India in the 16th century in 'The Miniaturist' during the reign of the Mughal emperor Akbar, and then a pre-Darwin Europe in 'Racists'. His choice of settings is remarkable since each one of them catapulted the world into a significantly different era of socio-scientific awareness.

This novel had been on my reading list on the recommendations of Eshuneutics, and perchance I happened to have read this novel just as I finished rereading the Island of Dr Moreau by H.G. Wells. Racial differences and their possible origins were on the minds of most thinking people in the early 1900s, and the likes of H.G. Wells made these subjects their literary fodder to create stories and novels that would forever document the pre-Darwin obsession with racial asymmetry. Basu followed suit but in the 21 st century, and in 'Racists' he has tried to capture the development/trend of scientific thought as it pertained to racial segregation then. Through the novel he forces his readers to revisit the various steps in evolutionary Biology that lead to Darwin's Origin of Species. Absurd and antiquated as some of the dialectic in the novel may sound to the modern reader, it indeed articulates the infancy of a scientific renaissance; 'craniology' as presented in the novel was perhaps a stepping stone/ a precursor to the establishment of modern evolutionary theories introduced by Darwin.

I enjoyed the novel as it was quite the page turner, but somehow I had to suspend my disbelief at numerous points simply because I wanted to see what Mr. Basu was leading up to. It was the overall idea of the novel that proved to be more appealing than its writing style, its characters, or even the unfolding of the plot itself. Having said that, it is still a novel worth reading if you are looking for something to stimulate the mind. It's almost as if Basu presents this complex situation amid a setting that is vibrant and explosive, but then he leaves it to the reader to make of it what he may because the conclusion Basu provides is rather unsatisfying and this leads the reader to find alternate explanations/ solutions/ conclusions to the story.

June 10, 2008

J. K. Rowling's 'Apology for Failure' and an 'Ode to Imagination' while Fleeing Down Classic Corridors of Harvard?

Not a Harry Potter fan myself, I could not help but enjoy this commencement address delivered by
J. K. Rowling at the Harvard Graduation a few days ago.
(please note the title of this post)

Here are some excerpts from her speech:

"... On this wonderful day when we are gathered together to celebrate your academic success, I have decided to talk to you about the benefits of failure. And as you stand on the threshold of what is sometimes called ‘real life’, I want to extol the crucial importance of imagination...

However, the fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well-acquainted with failure. You might be driven by a fear of failure quite as much as a desire for success. Indeed, your conception of failure might not be too far from the average person’s idea of success, so high have you already flown academically...

Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure, but the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it...

Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun...

So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential...

You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all - in which case, you fail by default...

Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above rubies...

Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the fount of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathise with humans whose experiences we have never shared...

Unlike any other creature on this planet, humans can learn and understand, without having experienced. They can think themselves into other people’s minds, imagine themselves into other people’s places...

Of course, this is a power, like my brand of fictional magic, that is morally neutral. One might use such an ability to manipulate, or control, just as much as to understand or sympathise...

And many prefer not to exercise their imaginations at all. They choose to remain comfortably within the bounds of their own experience, never troubling to wonder how it would feel to have been born other than they are...

One of the many things I learned at the end of that Classics corridor down which I ventured at the age of 18, in search of something I could not then define, was this, written by the Greek author Plutarch: 'What we achieve inwardly will change outer reality.'...

That is an astonishing statement and yet proven a thousand times every day of our lives. It expresses, in part, our inescapable connection with the outside world, the fact that we touch other people’s lives simply by existing...

We do not need magic to change the world, we carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better..."

J. K. Rowling's commencement address at the Harvard Alumni Association on June 5, 2008

June 09, 2008

"Khuda Ke Liye" or In the Name of God

I picked up a DVD of Khuda Ke Liye on a friends recommendation; a recommendation quite out of the ordinary since it came from an Indian, but for a movie made in Pakistan! Indians are a proud people, especially when it comes to their film industry popularly called Bollywood which apparently is competition in the reckoning for Hollywood due to Bollywood's mega earnings both in India and abroad. With a movie-crazy Indian diaspora, and an ever growing foreign fan following in Ethiopia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt and more, the Indian movie industry is coming of age on the world stage. However, the same is not true about Pakistan, India's neighbor and arch enemy since the partition in the late 1940s. Pakistani movies are still fledgling ventures and so Khuda Ke Liye is quite the surprise packet. Written and directed by Shoaib Mansoor, the movie has been highly acclaimed in Pakistan , and it also won the Best Picture at the 31st Cairo International film Festival in 2007.

The movie does not have the most original theme as it deals with the much furiously debated and discussed topic of modern day Islam and its role in defining social norms both within and outside of the Islamic world. The story unfolds across three countries, Pakistan, England, and the USA, and it takes the viewer on three separate journeys undertaken by the three protagonists in the movie: Sarmad, the younger of two siblings living in Lahore, Pakistan, undertakes a spiritual journey guided by a popular local Maulvi and has a complete physical and social makeover where he grows a beard, discards his western attire, and also gives up music an art form that he has ardently loved the past twenty years of his life; there's Mansoor, the older sibling, who besides being an ideal son and a caring and responsible brother, is also a music lover, and he travels to the USA in 2001 to study music at the University of Chicago; Maryam, their cousin and the third protagonist in the movie, is born and brought up in England, but she is now sent to Pakistan by her ex expatriate father under false pretenses to get her away from her British, non-Muslim boyfriend. The three journeys are embarked upon simultaneously, but it is the culmination of each of these three journeys that is a sort of a revelation for the audience; one which leads to a deeper understanding of what it means to be Muslim in the twenty first century.

The film is not a technical marvel, and neither does the photography or the music make an impression, but it is not a movie you can walk away from; the questions that the movie raises and even answers at times makes this movie a 'must watch'. Khuda Ke Liye makes for a restless and uncomfortable viewing and it is this quality of the movie that sets it apart from others made along similar themes and subjects. Khuda Ke Liye provides for three different perspectives on an Islamophobic world: where people lack the ability to interpret their faith (like Sarmad and the father of Maryam), where adults fear to take a stand on what they value and uphold in their religion ( like the boys' parents), and where the intelligentsia despairs over the ignorance of the masses and chooses to live in isolation (like Maulana Wali).

The movie deals with some fiery issues that are affecting Pakistan today and also the rest of the world such as racial profiling in the western world post 9/11, the effects of religious fundamentalism on the youth in Pakistan, and women's rights in Islam and in Pakistan. Shoaib Mansoor as writer director has captured a nation in the grip of turmoil trying to eke out an identity for itself amid a tempest of religious fundamentalism that it's trying to fight and control. The identity that is struggling to take shape is rather unique in that it's Islamic alright, but it's set in a liberal mold.

Pakistani cinema appears to have arrived and Shoaib Mansoor could be it's very first voice!

May 27, 2008

A Leader is ...

One who feels for the common man?
One who bolsters the economy?
One who strengthens the military to make us a powerful nation?
One who ensures equal opportunity to underprivileged minorities?
One who revives/reinforces faith and morality within the country?
One who quells civil unrest and maintains peace within the country?
One who funds research and academia to make ours a technologically advanced nation?

These are some of the questions an informed voter would ask himself before he casts his precious vote, and so I did, and I got some interesting but puzzling answers. As a result I changed my tactics and instead of asking those pertinent questions, I focused upon some world leaders who have made their mark and tried to figure out what was it that made/makes them tick. While doing this, I made an interesting discovery that sometimes there were two world leaders even three, sometimes from the same country, that shared various leadership traits, and so I bracketed them together:

John F. Kennedy( USA)/ Rajive Gandhi (India) (youthful appeal)
Idi Amin (Uganda)/ Pervez Musharraf (Pakistan) (might under duress)
Dmitry Medvedev(Russia)/ Anwar Sadat (Egypt) (groomed politicians)
Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt)/ Mikhail Gorbachov (USSR) (visionaries)
Ernesto Zedillo/Vincent Fox (Mexico) (supporters of a globalized economy)
Yasser Arafat/Mahmoud Abbas (Palestine) (empathetic leaders)
Che Guevara /Fidel Castro (Cuba) (revolutionary freedom fighters)
Ayatollah Khomeini/ Mahmoud Ahmadenijad (Iran) (moral/religious reformist)
Evo Morales (Bolivia)/ Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) (aggressive economic policies)
Nicolas Sarkozy (France)/Bill Clinton (USA) (charismatic)

These groupings and the cited characteristics are all purely subjective and may carry little weight. However, what is interesting is that these leaders, disparate as they may be, are still recognized as having made a distinct impact on the people they lead. We have a Nasser and a Sadat, both lead Egypt, yet how differently; a Clinton and a J. F. Kennedy, both picked by an American electorate, but stand worlds apart in what they brought to the plate as heads of state. The above mentioned are all illustrious individuals who rose to the occasion and delivered, yet each delivered a different package! What was relevant then may not apply now; the need of the hour then may not even be recognized as a need any more. Our world exists within a time continuum that produces some dynamic socio economic equations which need real time solutions in order for humanity to prosper and evolve. In the light of this realization it is not the leader who is important, but it is the specific need of the hour which is and thus needs to be profiled and then disseminated to make for an informed electorate which can then vote for a candidate who has the ability to provide the country with a solution to its specific socio economic equation. Does that imply that people will always find a leader who will deliver? Certainly not, and we have innumerable examples in history and in our recent past of leaders who unfortunately delivered a nation to disaster and despair. In the same breath we have had the Mandelas and the Gandhis who brought out the best in the millions they lead!

The finding of an apt leader will depend on how informed and free an electorate is to be able to determine its need of the hour! In fact it's not the ability of the leader that defines a period in history but the awareness levels of the people who he leads during his reign. In the light of that finding, my plans for a leader profile are aborted/abandoned!

Teachers of the world unite, we all have an electorate to inform, awaken, and empower to ensure the existence of peaceful and productive nations.

May 15, 2008

Bloggers Unite for Human Rights

"While the words might change from country to country and are sometimes taken for granted, human rights represent one of the universally agreed upon ideas — that all people are born with basic rights and freedoms that include life, liberty, and justice. This year marks the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations.

Bloggers Unite For Human Rights challenges bloggers everywhere to help elevate human rights by drawing attention to the challenges and successes of human rights issues on May 15. What those topics may include — the wrongful imprisonment of journalists covering assemblies, governments that ignore the plight of citizens, and censorship of the Internet. What is important is that on one day, thousands of bloggers unite and share their unified support of human rights everywhere."

...recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world

—Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 194


there is Censorship in China

Beijing Faults on Tibet

genocide is funded in Darfur

China's all-seeing eye
(courtesy Eccentric Optimism)

May 14, 2008

Writing a novel...

How is a novel born? What makes one decide to write such a lengthy composition? Why do writers write a work of fiction?

A colleague and friend of mine has recently written a novel, and I had the privilege of being the first one to read the final draft. That is when a barrage of questions started flooding my mind; questions that I had always carried within but never articulated thus far. Not being able to contain myself I asked my friend turned novelist some rather pointed questions about her new vocation. Her witty and wholesome answers but only whetted my curiosity about novel writers. Why do they write?

Does a writer start off knowing she is going to write a 500 page novel or does the novel simply grow out of what started as a short story? Do the pages of a novel grow to a plan or are they at the mercy of a character that breaks loose and takes the story hostage?

After pondering over these questions for the longest time and finding no palpable answers I turned to the big-wigs of Literature to see what they had to say about novelists and the writing of a novel... I'm not so sure that helped!

Toni Morrison put it this way: “If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Saul Bellow feels
" A novel is balanced between a few true impressions and the multitude of false ones"

Faulkner says
"every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can't and then tries the short story...failing that...takes up novel writing."

Camus defines the novel
"a philosophy put into images."

Chesterton says a "a good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author."

Hemingway believes a novel "should create living people; people not characters."

Henry James says "The only reason for the existence of a novel is that it does attempt to represent life."

April 26, 2008

A Master Artist!

Playful painter brandishing his brushes
Yellows, pale pinks, and grassy greens
Running amuck while nature preens

All eyes agog, where next the stroke
to basic brown ‘n mellow maroon
poised pink does prettily croon

Awakening alas, a master craftsman
stretching and flexing his moves so tender
lazily blending color into grandeur

Even the wanton yawn does bring
Hues and colors most sublime
The painter’s an artist, perhaps divine

(Click on pictures to enlarge)

April 11, 2008

Puppy Love

It comes back to rest on me,
a gaze that all ensnares.
Her presence all around me
with words that do caress.

Is it romance unsought?
My mind is all besot;
in rapture of a fleeting touch
imagination's caught.

Unwanting, I seek her out;
the strings of heart undone.
Softly I hear me sing
tunes long forbidden

How long until 'tis over?
They say it goes away.
This puppy love of mine
is perhaps here to stay.

March 26, 2008

Junot Diaz's - The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

I read about Junot Diaz sometime last year in the New York Times, and it was his Dominican heritage that caught my attention. Over the years I've befriended numerous Dominican immigrants who have always impressed me with their joie de vive at the same time surprised me with their machismo that they flaunt with such proud abandon. It was my dichotomous reaction to Dominicans that got me interested in reading Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I was curious to know what a Dominican writer had to say about the immigrant experience; something I'd read and heard extensively about from my Dominican friends, but never from a Dominican writer of Mr. Diaz's fame and caliber. Junot Diaz is perhaps the first ever Dominican writer to have hit the literary scene in such a big way with his debut novel, and is recognized as a contemporary writer with a very distinct writing style.

Diaz came to the US as a seven year old carrying memories of his homeland that he vividly brings alive in his writings. In this novel I was hoping to find a voice that was Diaz'z own. However, neither the womanizer narrator's nor the male protagonist's voice could be pinned down as the voice of Diaz. That may have been Diaz's strategy to have the reader guessing which of these two Dominican males was the typical one. It could also be that Diaz was trying to prove a point here that not all Dominican males are Yuniors, the narrator, who though madly in love with Lola, Oscar's sister, keeps his libido in full gear with other women. But then neither is Oscar the typical either as the overweight nerdy and serious romantic who is constantly involved in serious matters of the heart, unfortunately with women he can never have. Diaz has woven a web so wily where the reader hears the chronicles of a serious lovelorn Oscar from Yunior, a glib 'n easy college roommate of Oscar who is shocked by Oscar's depth of emotion and says he'd "never in... life met a Dominican like him...”

Diaz has produced a very humorous and gripping novel by providing a story that is both endearing and shocking. Oscar, the hero, and his encounters with love and relationships in general make for some humorous and touching reads. Meanwhile, the tapestry against which Oscar is presented is not only vast but also grim and sordid, and it has the capacity to shock. Oscar's story goes back two generations and across two countries to introduce us to his grandparents, the eminent Carbajals, and to his not so honorable parents, Belicia an unwed mother and his father a criminal in cahouts with Trujillo, one of the cruelest dictators in History. With an illustrious family tree such as this it is no surprise that the life of Oscar is both brief and wondrous, and it is to Mr. Diaz's credit that he spun into this 'wondrous' story a historic depth and meaning without alarming his reader. He kept the reader in easy suspended disbelief with his fluid sometimes raunchy language rife with colloquial spattering and identifiable contemporary references; even when he was taking the reader some eighty years back into the history of a small island once called Hispaniola.

Pure coincidence that this may be, but just before reading this novel, I read Amitav Ghosh's The Glass Palace which also spans across three generations and which includes a coming of age story of an individual within an immigrant family. What a contrast the two reading experiences proved to be! Where I finished Junot Diaz's novel over a weekend and in two sittings, Ghosh's novel took me all of three weeks and uncountable sittings to come to that last page. Storytelling is not an easy art, and writing is perhaps even more difficult, as the writer gets no immediate feedback like the story teller does, through eye contact and body language. Mr Diaz apparently sensed the pulse of his audience because The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao proved a riveting and delightful read.

There is one question though that I would pose to Mr. Diaz if I ever got a chance: how does a novel like this bring him closer to his goal of 'community activism'? What will make this delectable piece of literature irresistible to the majority of fellow Dominican Americans who
"never thought writing was interesting or viable"?