Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Bombay: urban planning basket case

I like to call Bombay the largest one-street town in the world. 'One street' is an exaggeration, of course, but first time visitors to the city are invariably surprised at how often they go up and down the same roads. Any time a north-south connector is shut for repairs, rush hour traffic goes from slothful to virtually stationary.
On Monday, north bound cars were diverted from Pedder Road so a drain pipe could be repaired. The blockage was supposed to be in place for 45 days. Instead it lasted exactly one evening, before the government took a U-turn on the repair idea. This, after waiting a decade to get all the permissions required. The southern end of Pedder road lies at the bottom of Walkeshwar - Malabar Hill, home to ministers and billionaires, people with direct lines to the highest echelons of power. A few calls from these folk count for more than protests by tens of thousands of common citizens. You can't fob them off saying, these are just teething pains; they'll sort themselves out once drivers and traffic policemen get used to the new route.
While this fiasco was playing itself out, roadworks on another north-south artery were postponed as well. The demolition of a flyover at Lalbaug was was put off citing traffic congestion caused by the Pedder Road drainpipe repairs.
Over a decade ago, the administration decided to build a bridge along the coast to take pressure off city roads. The bridge was supposed to span the distance from Bandra, the southernmost of Bombay's 'suburbs', to Nariman Point, a downtown precinct that, in the 1990s, was home to many of the nation's most prestigious firms. Though Nariman Point is no longer the rental magnet it once was, the southern tip of Bombay remains an office hub, making the Western Freeway Sea Link a worthwhile project.

The initial plan for the bridge included a massive viewing tower with a revolving restaurant at its apex. Not only was in unclear what viewers in the viewing tower were supposed to view (Bombay isn't the prettiest city on earth, after all), there was no provision in the plan for parking. Ultimately, somebody in the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), realised that building a parking lot in the middle of the sea was inadvisable, and having people swim to the tower even more so, and scrapped the viewing gallery idea.
The making and changing of plans cost hundreds of millions of rupees and many months.
The next challenge came from fishermen, who claimed the distance between the bridge's pillars was insufficient to allow them to navigate safely through. In rough weather, boats were likely to dash against the concrete, endangering lives. Personally, I have never seen any such rough weather in Bombay outside of the monsoon, when kolis don't go out to sea, but the state government took the fishermen at their word, shifted the alignment of the bridge and put in a half kilometer long cable-stay section.
This change of plans cost billions of rupees and many years.
Then there were Public Interest Litigations by citizens groups and environmentalist activists, stoppages for non-payment of dues, contracts cancelled, new bids announced, new contracts signed. At the end of ten years, the first of three planned stages remains incomplete, the second is still at the bidding stage and the third, well, that's an absolute zinger.
Let's stick to the second phase for the moment. It will extend the Sea Link from Worli to Haji Ali. After this, it is unclear where vehicles will go. The original plan involved building a flyover traversing Pedder Road, but that was shot down by the same powerful people who got the repairs halted yesterday. Currently, planners are thinking of an elevated road above the racecourse, which looks like a bridge from nowhere to nowhere.
The most priceless bit of plan modification involves the final stage of the project, between Haji Ali and Nariman Point. The sea link here has been shelved because it will block the view of the Shivaji statue in the bay. What Shivaji statue, you ask. Well, there's no such statue right now, but the government's announced plans to build an artificial island on which will stand an equestrian bronze of the Maratha warrior rising a few feet higher than the Statue of Liberty. Why decide to put a statue in a place where there's been a bridge planned for years? Well, when politicians make grand gestures, such trivialities are beneath their consideration. The statue and its island are budgeted at a billion rupees. Most analysts believe the project will cost much more, and that's without factoring in the realignment of the Sea Link. Since that rejigging is happening only because of the as-yet-unbuilt monument, surely the extra expense ought to be factored into Shivaji island' s cost.
The idea now is to blast a road under Malabar Hill, thus connecting Haji Ali and Chowpatty beach, and then dig a shallow tunnel below the sea bed, across the bay to Nariman Point. I'm willing to wager a substantial amount that this will never get off the ground, or, rather, under it. Politicians and billionaires who got drainage repairs halted for slowing their vehicles are hardly going to sit quietly while the rock beneath their feet is dynamited.
My guess is the artificial island will also be abandoned, once serious discussions about its viability begin.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Jail time for Varun

The Varun Gandhi case is getting entertaining. The VHP vigorously backs statements Varun says he never made. His mother claims what he said is mere common sense, tacitly admitting the footage is genuine. The man himself cancels an anticipatory bail application and decides to play martyr by spending a weekend in jail. Uttar Pradesh's Chief Minister sees an opportunity to keep him locked up till the election's over. She gets the police to invoke the National Security Act, which makes getting bail difficult. The BJP, which loves such laws, and refuses to accept they are routinely misused, insists the NSA is being misused. Prakash Karat of the CPM and the civil liberties activist Prashant Bhushan, usually vociferous in their denunciation of laws which allow long periods of detention without charge, strongly support the use of the NSA in this case.
Meanwhile, news comes from distant shores that Varun's degrees from LSE and SOAS are a figment of his imagination. Not only is he a bare faced liar, he's a perjurer as well.
There's a lot to be said for election season.

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Meltdown and Race Politics

Brazil's President, Lula da Silva has joined the list of world leaders making undiplomatic statements as the economic slowdown begins to bite. Addressing a press conference alongside Britain's Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Lula brought race into the equation: "This crisis was caused by no black man or woman, by no indigenous person, by no poor person," he said, "This was a crisis that was fostered and boosted by irrational behaviour of people that are white, blue-eyed, that before the crisis looked like they knew everything about economics."
There you have the third world, or postcolonial, view of the meltdown. Lula himself, it is worth mentioning, is white, though not blue eyed, continuing a Brazilian tradition of pale presidents leading a racially diverse population.

American right-wingers have a different take on the matter. They blame the crisis on the Community Reinvestment Act, signed by President Carter and strengthened by President Clinton, which encouraged banks to lend in low-income neighbourhoods. Although the legislation was colour blind, the neighbourhoods affected were frequently dominated by blacks or Hispanics, which has resulted in Republicans grumbling about 'minorities' in their analysis of the meltdown.
Republicans have also pointed fingers at the two quasi government companies, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, established during the Great Depression to facilitate mortgages for low-income workers. Among their main targets has been Franklin Raines, Bill Clinton's former budget director, who resigned as CEO of Fannie Mae back in 2004.

Raines was #2 on CNN's list of ten 'culprits of the collapse', right behind #1, which was 'You', meaning the American consumer. Clearly neither the Republicans nor CNN are going to buy Lula's 'no black man' claim.
The majority of experts reject the Republican contention that the Community Reinvestment Act played a central role in the crisis. A greater proportion blame banks which created and traded in complex derivatives that now go under the alias 'toxic assets'. Matt Taibbi recently published a strongly worded, well-researched screed titled The Big Takeover in Rolling Stone magazine, which includes this passage:
"The banks knew they were selling crap," says a London-based trader from one of the bailed-out companies. To get AAA ratings, the CDOs relied not on their actual underlying assets but on crazy mathematical formulas that the banks cooked up to make the investments look safer than they really were. "They had some back room somewhere where a bunch of Indian guys who'd been doing nothing but math for God knows how many years would come up with some kind of model saying that this or that combination of debtors would only default once every 10,000 years," says one young trader who sold CDOs for a major investment bank. "It was nuts."
OK, so we've blamed blue-eyed white guys; blacks and Hispanics; and now Indians. What about those usual suspects when dealing with matters financial, the Jews? Well, that's the big taboo in politics as well as media. Only crazy mullahs blame the Jews, right? So everybody's been pretty quiet on that front. One can't imagine Taibbi publishing, even as a quote, a line like, "They had some back room somewhere where a bunch of Jewish guys who'd been doing nothing but math for God knows how many years would come up with some kind of model..."
This didn't stop the Anti-Defamation League, a body that sniffs out anti-jewish sentiments wherever they exist and in a few places they don't, from conducting a survey and trumpeting their finding that a third of Europeans believe Jews are responsible for the financial crisis.
The Arabs and Chinese appear to have got away clean thus far.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Three Sculptors

For the moment, Bombay galleries continue to underwrite ambitious sculpture and sculptural installation. Three solos on view currently, at Chemould, Gallery Maskara and Sakshi respectively, fall in this category, all from artists who were born outside India's metropolitan centres. The best of them is L N Tallur's Placebo at Chemould. Tallur studied museology in Baroda, and his first show at Chemould back in 1999 reflected his learning. He constructed shelves with amusing displays inside, like one in which the top drawer contained what looked like fossil eggs, while the bottom one opened to reveal realistically moulded and painted fried eggs. After that, he dreamed up a number of mechanised pieces; one that was displayed for Chemould's 40th anniversary exhibition looked like clothes hanging on a line, but periodically filled with air and began to resemble intestines. Tallur's characteristic humour is visible in Placebo, but the work is weighed down by being too literal.

In Souvenir Maker, a massive barb wire fabricating machine occupies one half of a room while the other half is taken up by a long pedestal on which are placed glass tubes containing strands of gilded barb wire. The tubes are inscribed with the message: "Designed in America Conceptualized in India, Made in China, Sponsored by Korea .. ..Yes we are conditioned to think under flags...".
We are conditioned not only to "think under flags", but to think in symbols. It is a habit Indian artists should try harder to quit. My favourite work in Placebo was the least symbolic of the lot: a machine with spiral ducts in which toy animals circulated. The exterior was smothered by what looked like clotted resin.

Narendra Yadav's Pavlov's God at Gallery Maskara is his second solo exhibition. His first consisted of little quirky machines. This one has large quirky machines, reflecting, perhaps, the hubris of the era just ended. Unfortunately for Yadav, quirkiness works best on a small scale. One of the works currently on display, Paper Plane, has the object of the title crashing into a tall steel tower and cracking it open. The echo of the 9/11 attacks is impressive at first sight, but not a profound enough concept to keep one coming back. Even so, it is one of the two strongest pieces in Pavlov's God. The other, titled Celestial Bodies in Conversation, is a life-sized sidewalk of sleeping bodies lying under street lamps, while transistor sets play the music of the spheres, otherwise known as static.

Valay Shende's second solo at Sakshi is as unintentionally funny as his first. In the earlier exhibition he had, in complete seriousness, shown a work called Buddha Good, Marx Bad, in which a gilded Siddhartha makes a 'stop' gesture before a convertible embossed with names of well-known brands. The commies have been at the car hammer and sickle but failed to make much of a dent with their red weapons.

In this show, he pays homage to the lunch box deliverers of Bombay. Since the dabbawalas are renowned for their punctuality, Shende has decided to make their faceless figures out of watches.

Thinking about the violence around him, Shende concluded that humans have failed to evolve sufficiently. To convey this insight, he puts fibreglass nudes in cast aluminium prams pushed by apes made from brass discs, in a peculiar combination of Rameshwar Broota, Subodh Gupta and Ron Mueck.

As a tribute to farmers who have committed suicide, he displays an ornate dining table, on which stand salt and pepper shakers filled with soil and ashes.

The work, which has affinities with Tallur's glass tube souvenirs of golden barbed wire, is meant to critique the apathy of the rich, but threatens to become a critique of itself. For, if we ought not to eat off fancy tables while poor, indebted farmers are killing themselves, surely we ought not to buy, sell and display exorbitantly priced art either.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Road to Hell or Stairway to Heaven?

Barack Obama and Tim Geithner have had a tough couple of weeks, and criticism is pouring in from unlikely quarters. The Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said yesterday the US administration's stimulus plan is a "road to hell". President Obama might have expected warmer words in the run-up to his Prague visit scheduled for early April. Topolanek gave vent to his feelings at an EU meeting just after his government lost a vote of confidence. I doubt his successor will thump him on the back, saying: "thanks a bunch, Mirek, for telling it like it is".
Damage control operations have commenced. The Czechs now claim the translation was faulty: The suggestion wasn't that the US plan is bad, only that it would be catastrophic for the EU to follow that path. Which still indicates Americans aren't on a stairway to heaven.

And its whispered that soon
If we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn
For those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

With each passing day fewer people believe the piper's name is Barack. Chris Rea reflects the mood of the moment better than Led Zep:

And all the roads jam up with credit
And there’s nothing you can do
It’s all just bits of paper flying away from you
Oh look out world, take a good look
What comes down here
You must learn this lesson fast and learn it well
This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway
Oh no, this is the road to hell

Update March 28: I wasn't far off the mark. Mirek Topolanek today said his remark about Obama's 'road to hell' was subconsciously inspired by AC / DC's Highway to Hell, which the band played during their Prague gig a few days beforethe Czech PM made his gaffe. The song's words don't seem as prescient as the Chris Rea lyrics, but here's the opening stanza anyway:

Living easy, living free
Season ticket on a one-way ride
Asking nothing, leave me be
Taking everything in my stride
Dont need reason, dont need rhyme
Aint nothing I would rather do
Going down, party time
My friends are gonna be there too

Im on the highway to hell

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Varun Gandhi: Too Old to be Playing Doctor

"Those are not my words, this is not my voice. The CD has been doctored. I've been a victim of political conspiracy. This is a malicious attempt to brand me communal." That was Varun Gandhi's defence against the charge of delivering anti-Muslim speeches. Since then, he and his party, the BJP, have been doing a strange shuffle between denial and justification. After the Election Commission held him guilty, the party line is that the tape ought to have been sent for forensic analysis before any such decision was taken.
That's hogwash, and more TV presenters ought to be saying so. An impression has been created in the public's mind that video can be manipulated to turn any image into anything else. This is simply not the case. It is true that composite images can be put together with relative ease, but the superimpositions are usually easy to spot. In Varun Gandhi's case, though, it wasn't a matter of a flag or some other element being added to the frame. We saw the candidate in close-up, and the words we heard synchronised perfectly with his lip movements. That's something which is almost impossible to simulate. At the very least it would require dozens of people working for weeks with a budget of tens of lakhs to animate each frame (there are twenty five per second in the format used in India). Even after this, a careful viewing by producers of television news programmes would reveal the fakery.
I'm glad the Election Commission has assumed the video recording faithfully renders what was said in Pilibhit, and put the burden of disproof on the accused. The BJP complains this is unfair, but, had the footage been fake, would it be difficult to prove its inauthenticity? There were thousands of people at those meetings in Pilibhit. Why has no one come forward with a statement like, "I was at the rally, and Varun Gandhi said nothing against Muslims. In fact, he spoke only about the importance of peace and harmony being maintained between communities, which, in any case, is the principle that animates our party." The BJP counts among its ranks a number of gifted techies. Not a single one has attempted to reveal what has been tampered with in those images and how.
It is easy to see why the candidate and his party did nothing to back up their assertions. Such cases usually come up for hearing in court rather than before an election tribunal. After months of procedural delays, the evidence is sent for analysis to one of our forensic laboratories. These labs, as I've shown before, favour voodoo science over proper enquiry. They produce a result that convinces nobody and takes the case nowhere. A fine example of this was the Anara Gupta trial. A woman, said to be Gupta, had been filmed having sex with her boyfriend. Once the footage was leaked, the police charged Gupta with creating and distributing pornography. The victim, in other words, became the accused. Luckily, the inefficiency of the forensic investigators eventually crossed out the insensitivity of the cops. A lab in Hyderabad concluded the woman on tape was not Gupta, while another facility in Chandigarh came to the opposite conclusion.
It wouldn't surprise me if our forensic investigators, having examined the Varun Gandhi tapes, decided the the man in the frame was not Gandhi at all, but an impostor.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Food Exports and Carbon Footprints

At a wedding reception last evening I was seated next to a Danish journalist who looked at everything around him with an anthropologist's eye. Is this traditional wedding food? Is using forks and spoons traditional? Are these traditional dresses? Would you traditionally greet me with folded hands or a handshake?
Traditionally, shaking your hand would defile me, I considered saying. It would necessitate a long bath and a few extra prayers.
He told me he specialised in writing on food. Not reviews of new restaurants, but the impact of globalisation on eating habits and the environment. As if on cue, a waiter stopped by our table and offered us kiwifruit juice.
"Ten years ago, one couldn't get kiwifruit in India", I told him, "they only become available after food imports were liberalised".
He asked me where they were grown. I said I wasn't sure.
"New Zealand, perhaps?" he suggested.
"That's what the name indicates, but maybe it's from somewhere closer".
Back home after the reception, I looked it up, and found kiwifruit originated in China. They were was first planted in New Zealand about a hundred years ago by a returning missionary, and named Chinese gooseberries, though they are not berries. In the 1950s, an American company importing the fruit suggested a name change because anything Chinese was suspect in those days, and because there were high tariffs on importing berries. After one or two failed renamings, 'kiwifruit' was settled upon.
The Danish journalist did not like the idea of food travelling great distances before being consumed. He even expressed displeasure at butter cookies being exported out of his home country. I've come across this attitude often enough since the issue of food miles became a hot topic about five years ago. Brits in particular have gone bonkers over the idea that food transportation contributes massively to global warming and responsible individuals, therefore, are duty bound to eat local produce.
Studies published over the past twelve months reveal that the hue and cry over food miles is a lot of ado about nothing much. Christopher Weber and H Scott Matthews of Carnegie Mellon University found that, for American households, 83% of diet-related greenhouse gases were created during the production of food. Only 4% were emitted during the transport of foodstuff from producer to retailer.
Mere facts, of course, aren't going to turn devotees of local food away from a cause that offers them opportunity to feel morally superior.
But consider the Dane for a minute. If he is an average European gent, about 1.5 tons of CO2 will be spewed into the atmosphere to keep him fed for a year. Presuming the Webers-Matthews formula works for Europe, 60 kilos of this will involve shipping and trucking from place of origin to location of sale. Meanwhile, his personal CO2 account has been inflated by 1.5 tons solely as a result of a return flight to Bombay for a friend's wedding.
I am not arguing that food transport ought not to be an issue at all. There's been at least one instance in the past when the lengths the trade will go to shocked me. Eight or nine years ago, on a trip to Delhi on the Rajdhani, the last time I used that relatively environmentally friendly mode to get to the capital, I was in a compartment with three businessmen. One of them peddled Amway, the second was in real estate and the third, a kid, was partnering his uncle in an ice cream operation. The kid outlined his business plan: since tariffs on food products had just been revised downwards, he would import ice-cream from the US and sell it in India. Crazy idea, I said to myself, they'll never get it off the ground. A few months later, at the end of dinner at a friend's home, the host produced a tub of Blue Bunny ice-cream. That was the brand the kid had spoken of.
As we dug into dessert, I said, "Funny, they're actually managing to sell American ice-cream in India."
"Baskin Robbins is American too, that's been here for a while", the host replied.
"No no, Baskin Robbins manufactures ice cream locally, Blue Bunny is made in the US and shipped across in a giant freezer."
The laden spoon the host was directing to his mouth stopped in mid-air. With his other hand he picked up the tub and examined it. A label stuck on it said, Imported Feb 2001, or some date like that. Looking ill, he put the spoon back down. Both he and his wife are very environmentally conscious. In fact, she's recently left her job in software to run an organic food store. I'd just managed to ruin their evening.
Blue Bunny didn't last long in India. Priced at the top end of the market thanks to shipping costs, it never achieved the scale it needed to be viable. I'm happy about that. Food miles skeptic I may be, but I wouldn't buy ice-cream made half-way round the globe.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Osian's Auction

Just got back from the Osian's auction of art and craft. Neville Tuli, head of the auction house, started off the evening with one of his proselytising speeches about the need to build arts infrastructure, highlighting his own brave, pioneering efforts in that direction. Then the bidding started... except it didn't. Not a single work reached its high estimate, and it was easy to see why. Much of the art on offer was the Bengal rubbish that Osian's has taken to pushing these past few years: Bireshwar Sen, Sunil Madhav Sen, Gopal Ghose, Prokash Karmakar, Sajal Roy: utterly dreadful stuff. Or minor works by good artists like Benode Behari Mukherjee, Chittaprosad, Somnath Hore and Paritosh Sen. When the odd strong work by a major artist came up, the over-optimistic estimates proved a deterrent. The lots that did sell went mostly to proxy bids, only one or two were grabbed by people in the auction room.
Rajit Kapur did a valiant job as auctioneer, and finally began getting a response once bidding began on craft works from Paramparik Karigar's collection. A few of the sculptures, sarees and paintings sold for five to ten times their estimated price.
Then it was back to modern and contemporary art, and the same depressing combination of proxy bids around the low estimate, or else a complete absence of interest leading to the work being brought in.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Multiplex Next Door

One reason I've been blogging about films so much is that I've seen many more movies in the past couple of months than I usually do. There's a simple reason for this: PVR Phoenix, the seven-screen multiplex next door that opened around the time I inaugurated this blog. OK, it is next door only by Bombay standards, but, before it opened, the closest multi-screen options for me lay in Juhu and VT, an hour's drive from my home in Dadar. I refuse to count in the list of multiplexes that haven of black marketeers, the erstwhile Gaiety / Galaxy / Gemini in Khar, though it now calls itself G7 and has converted its preview theatres into ticketed auditoriums.
PVR Phoenix offers some great deals. Monday to Thursday, tickets are priced at 100 / 150 rupees, and the cheaper of these is perfectly adequate, since there are always back row seats available. If I'm interested in seeing a blockbuster on opening day, I can book online, a facility unavailable for single screeners in my extended neighbourhood like Star City, Suburbia and Globus. I'm so glad I never again have to travel to INOX, with its overpriced tickets and veggie-only food options.
Not everything about Phoenix PVR is great, it has to be said. There are problems with projector callibration, resulting in the frame being cut in some of the auditoriums. As Jabeen said while we sat through a crop-top screening of Gulaal, what's the point of spending crores on state of the art equipment and viewing facilities, if you're going to mess up this simple but crucial step?
Another bad experience I had involved a chicken tikka sandwich I bought before a screening of The Reader. I hit a huge sharp bone, about two centimetres square, in my second bite: luckily, I didn't lose any teeth to it. Afterwards, I went to the counter to show them the bone, expecting nothing, but demanding a refund. A manager was called in, who said, "Sir, since you have eaten the sandwich, I cannot offer you a refund". I replied, "If this was a restaurant, I'd have immediately asked for a replacement or my money back. But I'm watching a film. I can't leave the hall for an hour, and I'm desperately hungry. What d'you expect me to do?" He listened sympathetically enough, but maintained, "If you had even left half the sandwich...". I wonder what leaving the sandwich uneaten is really meant to accomplish? Prove that I didn't get my money's worth? Hitting a bone in a boneless snack is not proof enough, apparently.
Yes, I do hear herbivores chortling it serves me right for knocking the veggie menu at INOX.
The reason food becomes important in multiplexes is the weird timings of shows, without which far fewer patrons would buy the overpriced, calorie dense, flavour-free stuff on offer. In the old days, you had four shows per day in each large hall, usually starting at 12.30, 3.30. 6.30 and 9.30. Late eaters could come out of the penultimate screening and head for dinner, while those who preferred an early meal could finish up and catch the last show. This changed with the coming of late, late shows targetting affluent clients not dependent on public transport. The calculation then began to be made backwards. How late can we expect patrons to be willing to leave the final show? The answer was about 1 to 1.30am. This meant the last show would start somewhere between 10.30 and 11pm, and the penultimate screening, the one with the highest demand, would be scheduled for around 8pm. This shift has seriously messed up moviegoers' meal schedules. Few are willing to dine and get to the theatre by eight. Conversely, even in a late eating city like Bombay, most would want to have a proper bite before 10.30. This means people consume nachos or popcorn and a Coke inside the hall, ingesting at least 500 calories in the process, and then have a meal afterwards, often in a food court within the same mall that houses the multiplex. Absolute disaster for waistlines.
Right now, with exhibitors and distributors locked in one of their periodic battles over revenue sharing, it looks like I might have to take a break from the Phoenix routine. If that's the case, then, so be it, Jai Ho Piratebay.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Anurag Kashyap's Gulaal

In writing about a huge Jitish Kallat canvas a few weeks ago, I suggested artists ought to be careful while quoting classic works, lest their own creations pale in comparison. That's precisely what happens in Anurag Kashyap's Gulaal, where we are treated to a painful rehash of Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye, Sahir Ludhianvi's lament from Guru Dutt's Pyaasa, originally set to music by S.D. Burman and sung by Mohammad Rafi.
A more important failing of Gulaal, which it shares with many indie films, is that its supporting cast is far more interesting than the central character. In mainstream movies, the habit is to sacrifice everything at the altar of the main star's role. He gets the best lines, the best punches, the best tunes, the best love scenes. There is little or no detailing of smaller parts, and character actors are rarely provided roles with scene stealing potential. Indie films have reversed this tendency, Luck By Chance being a recent example.
The most compelling figure in Gulaal (spoilers ahead) is Rananjay Singh (Abhimanyu Singh), scion of Rajput royalty who has rejected that legacy for his own brand of freedom. He's always ready for a fight, or a laugh, or a large peg of whisky. Rananjay becomes mentor to the timid, studious Dilip Kumar Singh (Raj Singh Chaudhary), who discovers in his new law school a terrifying den of hazing and intimidation.
Rananjay Singh, however, is abruptly killed off midway through Gulaal, and the film's energy sags thereafter, lifting every so often in scenes involving Kay Kay Menon, Mahi Gill and Deepak Dobriyal, but never in a sustained manner. The trajectory is a bit like that of the Sensex in 2008. We come to the film from the high of Dev D, and though the trend line starts dropping off fairly soon, there are many flashes of hope providing short-lived rallies. After Rananjay dies, we begin to despair of reaching new highs, but nothing prepares us for the horrible collapse toward the end. The last half hour of the film isn't quite as dreadful as this analogy makes it sound, but it's pretty close.
For a more complimentary comparison, I'd point to Romeo and Juliet. The most attractive character in it is Mercutio, Romeo's reckless, free-spirited companion. Mercutio dies in the third act and, all too often, productions of the Shakespeare play never recover from his death.
Something similar happened in Vishal Bharadwaj's Macbeth adaptation Maqbool after the death of Pankaj Kapoor.
I bring up Shakespeare because Gulaal has pretensions to epic scope in its story of royal lineage, of illegitimate children determined to wrest their inheritance by hook or by crook, and of historical wrongs sought to be corrected by armed insurrection. This part of the narrative, never convincing in itself, is married with a story about student politics, elections for general secretary, and the organising of the annual festival. Two very different themes unsucessfully yoked together. The result is a film that is all of three hours long but feels like a fragment of a much longer tale. I'm not going to rush out to buy the director's cut.
Though Gulaal is something of a train wreck, its language, songs (aside from the Ludhianvi 'tribute'), characters, and visual style (patchy because of the long gaps between schedules, but hinting at something more coherent), convey a nation very different from the one we are served up in the multiplexes week after week, a nation that is crying out for representation and creative interpretation. It is a nation Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Bharadwaj understand intimately. They have crafted accomplished movies in Omkara and Dev D, and, with the access to resources that they now have, it may not be long before one of them directs the first truly world-class Hindi film in a generation.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Parsis, vultures, cows and dogs

Sooni Taraporevala's Little Zizou is a charming tale of two intricately connected Parsi families, the Khodaijis and the Pressvalas. The youngest Khodaiji, Xerxes, sees in Roxanne Pressvala a substitute for his own dead mother, to the annoyance of Liana, the Pressvalas' younger daughter. Liana's older sister Zenobia, meanwhile, is an unreachable object of desire for Xerxes's brother, Artaxerxes. Boman Presswala, father of Zenobia and Liana, is the liberal editor of a tabloid caught up in a battle against the born-again orthodoxy of Cyrus Khodaiji, faith healer, charlatan, and father to Xerxes and Atraxerxes.
The ideological dispute between the two fathers primarily revolves around giving mudbloods and half-bloods the same status as purebloods. Unfortunately, Khodaiji is a caricature who, as played by Sohrab Ardeshir, lacks the charisma required to be a convincing congregational head. Pressvala, on the other hand, is a nuanced character essayed with relish by the excellent Boman Irani. The imbalance between the two seriously weakens the central premise of the film.
Taraporevala obviously wanted to avoid steering too close to a figure like Khojeste Mistree, leader of the revivalist faction in the battle being played out in the community today. Among the many disputes between conservatives and liberals is the manner of disposing the dead. For centuries now, Parsis have built dakhmas or towers of silence, where corpses are placed to be consumed by vultures. Unfortunately, there aren't enough vultures left to do the eating, and corpses lie rotting for days on end, a prospect that horrifies many Parsis when they think of their own end or that of their kin. Solutions such as special mirrors to focus the sun's rays have been suggested, but conservatives resist the idea, proposing instead a breeding programme to augment the vulture population.
As a child, I liked spending holiday afternoons up on the terrace of my building gazing at vultures soaring in the sky. The woman who stayed on the top floor and kept the key to the terrace thought the habit weird, and looking back I sort of agree with her. Even after my vulture fascination dissipated, I was interested enough to look for the familiar circling flock of birds as I walked around the park or to the bus-stop . So I was probably one of the first to notice that the vulture population of Bombay was diminishing. Since other species, sparrows for example, were also disappearing from the metropolis in those years, I did not take the drop in vulture numbers to be a sign of a general decline, but that is precisely what it was.
In the late 1990s, I heard about massive falls in south Asian vulture numbers, and could see why it was so puzzling for experts seeking its cause. Vultures, after all, are hardy carrion eaters. They consume flesh that's been lying in the sun for hours. To digest that stuff, they need the strongest immune systems in the animal kingdom. Since there was no shortage of food in the subcontinent, and little likelihood of a deadly infection, why were they dying out?
By the time American and Pakistani scientists found the answer, south Asia's vulture population had fallen 95%. India contributed to the process of investigation only negatively. Not only did our scientists fail to come up with anything close to an answer, our government blocked foreign researchers from taking tissue samples back to their labs citing a law banning export of genetic material.
I was gobsmacked to hear the cause of the vulture decline. The culprit was diclofenac, an anti-inflammatory drug I, like millions of people across the world, took regularly to treat muscle pain. In the 1990s, diclofenac, known to damage kidneys, was introduced on a mass scale in south Asia as a cheap veterinary treatment. Farmers across the subcontinent jabbed their lame cattle with the drug to get a little more work on the land out of them. Milch cows, their knees affected by standing in one place for long periods of time, were similarly treated. When these bovines died, the diclofenac in their bodies was ingested by vultures whose kidneys were specially sensitive to the drug. Researchers estimated that only one dead cow or buffalo in 250 needed to have been treated with diclofenac in the week before its death to cause the observed 30% annual decline in vulture numbers.
Diclofenac is now prohibited for veterinary use and vulture numbers will hopefully pick up. The primary beneficiaries of the vulture decline, meanwhile, have been stray dogs. They are the main competition for the raptors in tearing out bits of dead cattle flesh. Parsis, incidentally, prize dogs as much as they do vultures. Before the practise of dakhmas was instituted, Zoroastrian corpses would be exposed to the elements on specially designated plots of land. Dogs and vultures would share in the feast. Even now (correct me if I'm wrong), a dog is brought to look at a corpse as part of Parsi funeral rituals.
Parsis can get very upset when the issue of dogs comes up, as the Brits in Bombay found out back in 1832. The administrators organised a cull of stray canines, only to have a riot on their hands. Of course, Britons, Europeans and Americans have their own peculiarities in this respect. Used to owning the animals as pets, they are repelled by the East and south-east Asian practice of putting dogs on menus. Aside from questions about the conditions in which the animals are reared, which apply to all species, there is no objective reason for considering the eating of cows and pigs civilised, but condemning as barbaric the consumption of dog flesh. But westerners have a habit of advancing their cultural prejudices as universal moral concerns.
Sorry if I digress, but this entire post is a series of digressions.
The data bear out the fact that stray dog numbers in India have risen as the vulture population declined. How much of the increase is a result of less competition for food is impossible to quantify. Unlike vultures, though, dogs frequently bite living human beings, and are the main carriers of an incurable disease with a mortality rate greater than that of any other affliction known to humankind. Over 80% of the world's rabies cases occur in the Indian subcontinent. About 40,000 cases per year, and therefore about 40,000 deaths. That, you will agree, is an astonishing figure.
When I was a child, alongside my fascination with vultures, I liked dogs very much. The closest I came to having one as a pet was to adopt an abandoned puppy along with galli friends. One day, the puppy-turned-dog went crazy and bit three of us. The injections were not pleasant. I'd have to stand in a long line at KEM hospital each day for a dose of the vaccine. That more or less killed my enthusiasm for dogs.
In Little Zizou, the young Liana Pressvala is a dog lover. Near the end of the movie, she is promised a pet puppy. There is no mention of vultures in the film.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Gandhis Hit Rock Bottom

Followers of this blog might recall that I am not a fan of Rahul Gandhi, nor of his late father Rajiv. If India has had one young, powerful politician worse than Rajiv, though, it was his brother Sanjay. It now appears there's one young politician more appalling than Rahul: his cousin Varun. I first heard of Varun Gandhi when he published a book of poems titled The Otherness of Self. I leafed through the execrable verse in a bookshop because many of India's top painters had contibuted images to the volume, proving our visual artists are not the rebels they sometimes present themselves as being. When it suits them they pander to politicians as willingly as members of any other group (I recall my shock, around the same time that The Otherness of Self was published, to learn that Sonia Gandhi had been invited to inaugurate an exhibition organised by Sahmat, a trust set up in memory of the communist activist Safdar Hasmhi who in 1989 was beaten to death by Congress hoodlums).
Varun Gandhi, you've probably heard, has been taped spouting vile hate speech at different venues in Pilibhit, the constituency in which he's running for parliament on a BJP ticket. He should have learned better the BJP's method of using sectarian language in ways that do not infringe the law, or at least leave more space for deniability. It's akin to Australian cricketers carefully keeping their language within prescribed limits, so they are rarely pulled up by umpires, though they sledge constantly. There's also the issue of sheer popularity. It ought not to be a factor in judging whether incitement deserves to be punished (the more popular politicians are, the more damaging their provocations will be) but, in practice, Bal Thackeray and Narendra Modi get away with saying things that would be penalised in less powerful leaders. Moreover, even Thackeray and Modi tone down their rhetoric once the strict election code of conduct comes into effect.
Varun Gandhi will claim, of course, that the footage seen on television has been tampered with as part of a conspiracy against him. But this is no sleazy sting, and it's going to be difficult for him to wriggle out of the spot in which he finds himself.
Speaking of sleaze, three decades ago Varun's mother Maneka, who edited Surya Magazine, published photographs of Suresh Ram -- son of the then Defence Minister Jagjivan Ram -- having sex with a woman of his acquaintance. Suresh Ram had taken the pictures himself, and they were stolen from him and copies mailed to dozens of publications. Most news outlets saw no story in images of consensual intercourse between two adults, but Maneka, seeking revenge for Jagjivan Ram's desertion of her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, gave them prominent space in her periodical. The scandal caused by those photographs ended Jagjivan Ram's bid for Prime Ministership, something his enormous and conspicuous accumulation of wealth while in office had failed to do.
Maneka didn't benefit from her activism on behalf of Indira Gandhi; she was estranged from her mother-in-law soon after Sanjay Gandhi died. Since then, it has been three decades of shouting, "we're Gandhis too". It is easy to believe Varun is the son of Sanjay and Maneka; he's inherited their extremism and retained it through years of studying at Rishi Valley School, LSE and SOAS, institutions where attempts must have been made to inculcate a liberal outlook in him.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Those Pesky Green Shoots

AFP: Bernanke sees 'green shoots' of US recovery. That's the headline of an article about network correspondent Scott Pelley's interview with Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. The main body of the AFP piece states, "The "green shoots" of economic revival are already evident, Bernanke told CBS program 60 Minutes in the interview broadcast late Sunday, which the network said was the first by any sitting Fed chairman in 20 years."
Green shoots entered the political lexicon during the recession of the early 1990s, after Norman Lamont, then Chancellor of the Exchequer said, during a speech at the Tory party conference of December 1991, "The green shoots of economic spring are appearing once again".

The winter of 1991 turned into the spring of 1992 without any green shoots of economic recovery flourishing, and the phrase came to haunt Lamont. His boss, John Major, led the conservatives to a miraculous general election victory that April despite a continuing downturn, but Lamont had to carry the can for the disastrous exit of the UK from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992. He was offered a demotion in May 1993, and chose to quit the cabinet altogether.
It has since become standard operating practice for reporters to ask about green shoots during recessions. If one turns to the transcript of the Ben Bernanke interview, one can see it was Pelley who prompted him with that phrase:
"Do you see green shoots?" Pelley asked.
"I do. I do see green shoots. And not everywhere, but certainly in some of the markets that we've been functioning in. And we've seen some improvement in the banks, as well," Bernanke said.
So the Fed chairman used a phrase not of his own choosing, which then became the headline of an AFP report. It won't matter much in the US, where few people know or care about Norman Lamont, but things are different in the UK. Two months ago, Shriti Vadera, Undersecretary for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, became a target for the opposition and media after falling into the 'green shoots' trap. Asked by ITV's Alastair Stewart, "You're a former banker and business person yourself and now a minister – when will we see the green shoots of recovery?", she replied, "Well, it's a very uncertain world right now globally but I wouldn't want to be the one predicting it. I am seeing a few green shoots but it's a little bit too early to say exactly how they'll grow."

As neutral an answer as one can imagine. But her use of Lamont's phrase under Stewart's prompting led to articles in the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times and other newspapers with headlines like "Green shoots: Shriti Vadera's economic optimism sparks outrage". Vadera had to apologise for her supposedly insensitive failure to sympathise with those losing jobs, and her irrational exuberance about the economy. That last phrase, 'irrational exuberance', was made famous by Ben Bernanke's predecessor as Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, who used it in a speech he gave at the American Enterprise Institute in 1996. The question Greenspan asked then was, "But how do we know when irrational exuberance has unduly escalated asset values...?" The term didn't come back to haunt him as quickly as 'green shoots' did Norman Lamont, but it is gradually doing so now that we know how Greenspan's enthusiasm for fancy derivatives helped create housing and financials bubbles, the bursting of which precipitated the present global crisis.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Saffronart's Spring Auction Disappoints

The art market is getting ugly. Saffronart's spring sale, which concluded two days ago, provided proof, if any was needed. Substantial works by M F Husain, S.H. Raza, F.N. Souza, Ram Kumar, Ganesh Pyne, Akbar Padamsee and Prabhakar Barwe among the moderns, and Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya, G R Iranna, Shibu Natesan (canvas pictured above) and Justin Ponmany among the contemporaries, failed to find bidders. It was a particularly disastrous auction for Raza, three of whose works were on offer, with high estimates of 20, 35 and 90 lakh rupees respectively. There was no interest anywhere close to those price points, and all three paintings had to be brought in.
Saffronart's December 2008 sale, the first major auction in India after the crash of September-October 2008, was seen as a test for the market. Though that sale didn't do spectacularly, failing to reach the low estimate in total value, there was something like a sigh of relief at the end. The predominant sentiment was it could have been much worse. Well, it is much worse now.
Consider these figures: In September 2006, Saffronart sold paintings and sculptures worth 15,964,190 dollars, or 68,64,60,170 rupees, with a high estimate for the sale pegged at 13,194,578 dollars, and a low estimate at 10,548,317 dollars. That was the biggest figure for a single sale it ever achieved. The market kept growing after that point, but the Bombay based auction house faced strong competition from Christie's and Sotheby's. In June 2008, when signs of a slowdown were visible, Saffronart garnered 9,721,241 dollars, or 38,88,49,620 rupees from its quarterly auction, still comfortably beating the low estimate of 6,759,000 dollars and high estimate of 8,343,125 dollars Three months later, just before the meltdown, the total value came down to 7,155,607 dollars, or 28,62,24,293 rupees, above the low estimate of 4,158,500 and high estimate of 5,298,000 dollars (these figures are not strictly comparable, because the auctions had a varying focus, sometimes concentrating on the moderns, at other times on a younger group of artists, but that's irrelevant to the main thrust of this post).
The figure for the just completed March 2009 sale? A total winning value, inclusive of buyer's premium, of 1,577,375 dollars, 7,88,68,725 rupees. In dollar terms, that's more than 90% below the gross of the September 2006 sale; the rupee total looks a little better, just a little, because the dollar is currently trading at historically high levels against the Indian currency.
On the positive side, 69% of lots sold in the March sale, up from 63% three months previously, and not precipitously lower than the 80% achieved in September 2008 just before Lehman Brothers went under. That 69% figure shows Saffronart is realistic about what collectors are willing to pay at the moment, and has modified its estimates and reserve prices accordingly.
The conventional thing to say at this point is that buyers are becoming more selective. I've never believed that sort of thing happens. Yes, a canvas by the late abstractionist V.S. Gaitonde beat its $100,000 high estimate by 30%, and an early Jitish Kallat climbed to its low estimate of 20 lakh rupees (these sale prices include the buyer's premium). But among the few high value lots that convincingly surpassed estimates were a B. Prabha and a Vaikuntam, proving that bad taste knows no recessions.

Friday, March 13, 2009


I've been reading an article by Steve Coll published in the New Yorker, which made news a fortnight ago by revealing that India and Pakistan were close to a deal on the future of Kashmir. I was struck by this relatively unimportant passage: "The Indian troops on occupation duty in Kashmir-- about five hundred thousand soldiers and paramilitaries--rarely speak the Kashmiri dialect. Locals resent them, and they return the attitude".
The New Yorker, world renowned for its obsessive fact checking, failed to recognise that Kashmiri is a language, not a dialect. The confusion between the two terms was a regular source of annoyance when I lived in England. Some well-meaning professor or fellow student would ask me, as standard small talk, "So which language do you speak at home?"
"English, mainly, though my mother tongue is Marathi".
"Marathi? Is that a dialect of Hindu"?
"Hindu refers to a member of of a religious group. The language is Hindi. But Marathi is a separate language. It has its own literary tradition going back nearly a thousand years. It's as different from Hindi as Portuguese is from French."
"So there are, what, a dozen or so languages spoken in India?"
"No, hundreds".
"Surely you're speaking of dialects."
Resisting the urge to point out that
I might know a bit more about these matters since I studied literature while he studied biochemistry, I'd say, merely, "I'm speaking of languages. If you count dialects, the figure would be much higher."At this point, the person would look away, unconvinced, then change the subject.
What was annoying was the racial division always implicit in such conversations. White people spoke languages. Dark people mainly spoke dialects. Just like dark people in white lands were immigrants, white people in dark lands were expatriates. It didn't matter if Arthur C Clarke had settled in Sri Lanka for life; he was always an expat.
Going back to the New Yorker's assertion about security forces in Kashmir: since most of those personnel come from outside the state, it is obvious they won't speak Kashmiri. But referring to Kashmiri as a dialect rather than a language makes it seem like the military men are unwilling rather than unable to speak to Kashmiris in their own tongue.
I'm quibbling, I know. It's been a slow week mentally.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The New Art India

I received in the mail a copy of the latest Art India, the magazine I used to edit a decade ago. It is supposedly a double issue, but no thicker than any normal volume, and is available at the usual price of Rs.150. What gives? Well, Art India has been appearing seriously behind schedule, and this will help it catch up somewhat. If I'm right, the current issue combines the October 2008 and January 2009 editions, which means the publication has only three months to cover now. The double issue is a neat trick except for subscribers who, I suppose, will receive three volumes for the price of four.
The double issue focuses on interviews, a good idea sunk by some ordinary question-and-answer sessions. Part of the problem is, I think, that many of the artists have been featured before in Art India and do not say anything new or revealing. Of those interviewed for the first time, Ranbir Kaleka is asked this opening question by Latika Gupta: "Do you think your paintings and videos have evolved over time?" How is an artist supposed to respond? "No, I think my practise has been static for decades"? Second question in the same interview: "Has the quality of your involvement with video art changed?" Third: "What do you think about the state of video art in India?" Seriously cookie cutter stuff. (Update: Latika has written to clarify matters, please read her two comments on this post).
Where the interviewer asks more probing questions, the length of the articles gets in the way. Most of the pieces are only about a thousand words long. That's just enough to get some basics sorted, stuff any newspaper would ask. The art magazine interview should really start from this point on. The editor Abhay Sardesai's chat with Sudhir Patwardhan works well, despite Patwardhan being a regular on Art India's pages, because it is allowed to proceed for a relatively long duration. I recall reading, in my mid-teens, a book called the Playboy Interview, which blew me away. Each piece was 10,000 words or so in length. Three of these exhaustive interviews I remember well even now: Fidel Castro, Germaine Greer and John Lennon. I hope someday to conduct an interview of that kind of quality.
I found the interviews with artists over 45 much more engaging than those with their younger counterparts, and this is something I've experienced repeatedly. There's a mix of personal experience and interpretation at play in the way Sudhir Patwardhan, Nataraj Sharma and (given a chance) Ranbir Kaleka, speak about their work which gives conversations with them a fine texture. Sharma constructs such marvellously modulated sentences, I'm inclined to believe he wrote rather than spoke his answers. For younger artists, concepts and politics take the place of introspection, and neither the concepts nor the politics are incisively thought through.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

All That Is Holi

Holi must be the oldest widely celebrated festival in the world. Indians are fond of tracing everything back to the Vedas, but I suspect the Holi rites were in place long before those texts were composed. Though the Holi bonfire has been connected with Hindu legend through the stories of Kamdeva being burned by Shiva's third eye, and Prahlad being saved from a fire in which the demoness Holika was consumed, these tales do little to explain the ritual as a whole.
It's pointless looking for godly explanations, actually, that's not what Holi is about. People gather round a bonfire under a spring full moon, sing obscene songs, and get drunk. The next morning, they gather to smear each other with pigment powders, get drenched in coloured water, and consume enough bhaang to be stoned for the rest of the day. What can be found of spiritual worth in any these activities?
What Holi needs for it to be enjoyable is a community. As soon as strangers come into the picture, the festival threatens to become predatory rather than participatory. That, unfortunately, is how it is in most cities. I foresee a time when there will be large-scale Holi celebrations conducted the way Navratri dances are organised now. I'm surprised nobody's taken the lead yet, I'm sure there's a substantial market out there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Times They Are a-Changin', Again

Just saw Revolutionary Road, a tale about the boredom of suburban life in 1950s America. The director, Sam Mendes, has also made a film about the boredom of suburban life in 1990s America, but I want to stick with the 1950s for now.
Through that decade, and into the mid '60s, the highest selling albums of the year in the United States were soundtracks or cast recordings of musicals. My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Camelot and Hello Dolly all achieved the top spot, but the run ended after 1965's Mary Poppins. By the end of the 1960s, a very different sound had grabbed possession of the charts. The best-selling record of 1968 was Are you Experienced? by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. The following year, the psychedelic rock of Iron Butterfly won with In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida. The only musical to head the annual charts in the next thirty years was 1971's Jesus Christ Superstar, banned in more than one country for its supposed irreligiosity and unusual take on Judas and Mary Magdalene.
How could Mary Poppins give way in just three years to Jimi Hendrix, musically and politically a world apart? The move from one to the other reveals, as effectively as any other bit of data, the cultural fracture that attended the coming of age of the baby boom generation.
Demographic / cultural changes in the US since then have been less drastic, but the results of a survey published yesterday show a clear shift in the nature of Americans' religious belief in the course of one generation. Identification with a single religious denomination, such as Baptist or Catholic, has dropped substantially; the number of non-denominational Christians has risen; and the percentage of people identifying themselves as non-religious has doubled in 18 years, to 15. New England is looking more like old England: an incredible 34% of Vermont residents now classify themselves as non-religious, and Boston's Catholic numbers are haemorrhaging.
The success of novels like The DaVinci Code obviously owes a lot to the movement in religious attitudes. Dan Brown offered more than a criticism of the Catholic church in that book: he proposed a multicultural, gender-sensitive spiritualism, which was bound to find a receptive readership in a nation in which 2.8 million citizens now identify themselves as pagan, Wiccan or Spiritualist
We've already witnessed the political impact of the change in religious habits with the election of Barack Obama to the presidency. In his inaugural speech, Obama acknowledged the demographic roots of his victory by mentioning a number of different faiths, as also agnostics / atheists. In a sense, the 2008 election represents a victory for the counterculture of the 1960s. The immediate political impact of that counterculture was to create a backlash among conservatives that gave right-wingers a virtual stranglehold on the Presidency. Ronald Reagan's vision of militarily assertiveness, socially conservatism and low taxation resonated strongly among working-class white Christians. Now the bedrock of the Reagan coalition has splintered, thanks to the incessant pressure of those 1960s cultural values, and not a moment too soon for the world.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Flight of the Lama

Fifty years ago an uprising in Tibet challenged Chinese rule. It was crushed and the head of the region's erstwhile theocracy, the Dalai Lama, fled across the Himalayas. What few realise is the consequences this had for India. Jawaharlal Nehru, being the perfect liberal, gave the Dalai Lama asylum above the protests of the Chinese. It was the first link in a chain of misunderstandings. The Chinese misread Nehru's gesture as an aggressive move against their political interests. Believing that India was bent on encouraging secession in China, the Chinese became more assertive about negotiating an end to a border dispute that had been left unresolved for a decade. After manoeuvres and counter manoeuvres in the region over the next three years, the People's Liberation Army invaded territory it believed was rightfully China's, defeated the Indian army, and then withdrew without annexing much of the land it had conquered, an act for which it gets no credit in India.
General Ayub Khan of Pakistan took India's loss as a sign that Pakistan's forces would be able to roll over those of its larger neighbour. Even as India strengthened its defense forces after the 1962 debacle, Ayub inititiated an aggressive policy of infiltration and confrontation in Kashmir. This led to the 1965 war which ended in a draw with India in a slightly favourable position.
So two wars were fought at least partly as a result of the flight into exile of a peace-loving man and the decision of a pacifist to offer him shelter.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Orhan Pamuk and Istanbul Scams

Orhan Pamuk is not one of my favourite authors, so I was in two minds about attending his reading and discussion at the British Council yesterday. I'm very glad I decided to go, because he read exceptionally well in English and spoke with candour, clarity and wit. His pragmatic views on writing, publication, translation and cultural influence were a refreshing change from the romantic platitudes one usually hears in India (The market is an enemy; self-expression is corrupted by thinking of readership; there's a conspiracy to value only those works which pander to western prejudice, and so on). Prodded by a questioner from the audience, he disclaimed sufficient knowledge to speak about issues related to Indians writing in English, but what he did offer went to the heart of the issue. He was glad, he said, to write in the same language which he spoke with his grandmother and the grocer, but its limitation was that the world at large knew nothing about it.
After being translated into 55 languages, the second of these is no longer a problem.
The passage Pamuk read reminded me of an incident from my visit to Turkey back in 2005. Before, I recount the incident, here's the relevant text, from the historical detective novel My Name Is Red. It is a version of assignments all of us wrote in school with titles like, 'Autobiography of a Rupee Coin'. The speaker is a counterfeit Ottoman gold coin minted in Venice and shipped to Istanbul:
"We were loaded into iron chests, hauled onto ships and pitching to and fro traveled from Venice to Istanbul. I found myself in a money changer’s shop, in the garlicky mouth of its proprietor. We waited for a while, and a simpleminded peasant entered, hoping to exchange some gold. The master money changer, who was a genuine trickster, declared that he needed to bite the gold piece to see if it was counterfeit. So he took the peasant’s coin and tossed it into his mouth. When we met inside his mouth, I realized that the peasant’s coin was a genuine Ottoman Sultani. He saw me within that stench of garlic and said, “You’re nothing but a counterfeit.” He was right, but his arrogant manner offended my pride and I lied to him: “Actually, my brother, you’re the one who’s counterfeit.” Meanwhile, the peasant was proudly insisting, “How could my gold coin possibly be counterfeit? I buried it in the ground twenty years ago, did a vice like counterfeiting exist back then?” I was wondering what the outcome would be when the money changer took me out of his mouth instead of the peasant’s gold coin. “Take your gold coin, I don’t want any vile Venetian infidel’s fake money,” he said, “have you no shame?” The peasant responded with some biting words of his own, then took me with him out the door. After hearing the same pronouncement from other money changers, the peasant’s spirit broke and he exchanged me as a debased coin for only ninety silver pieces. This is how my seven-year saga of endless wandering from hand to hand began."

As our taxi parked at Istanbul airport, I pulled out a 20 million lira note from my wallet and handed it to the driver. He gave it right back, signalling it wasn't the correct amount. It was a 250,000 lira note, the same colour as a 20 million, but smaller. All those zeroes were confusing, but how could I have mistaken the two? I looked in my wallet and found no Turkish money there, though I'd made sure I retained enough for the cab. I offered the driver Euros, he quoted an absurd rate. Better to find an ATM, but the closest one was in the arrivals hall, which was pretty far off. Who'd want to draw Turkish currency on the way out of the country? Since we were barely on time for our flight to Athens, I hurriedly changed some Euros in the departures terminal, paying the high commission always charged in such places, and ran back to give the driver his dues. I was completely bewildered through the five minute process, but something in his expression as he took the notes from me, a half-smirk, made an alarm go off in my head. He hit the accelerator as soon as he started his car, and, as he sped off, I realised I'd been duped. He'd had the smaller denomination note in his hand and pulled off a quick change before my eyes. It wasn't a huge amount of money we lost, about 1000 rupees in all, including the exchange commission, but it took the gloss off what had been a marvellous two weeks in Turkey.

Listening to Pamuk, I wondered if the swindle was a hoary tradition in his hometown, or if it had grown common off late, and he'd projected it back four centuries. But of course, these tricks are employed everywhere. I've been told that taxi drivers in Bombay do the switch when given 500 rupee notes by tipsy passengers at night. Two years ago, a local cab man tried to pull a fast one in broad daylight, handing me back a ten rupee note after I gave him a hundred. I realised what he was up to, and briefly thought of taking the matter further by baiting him into claiming I'd given him the wrong denomination. In the end, I merely said, "the fare is 70 rupees, you owe me twenty more." The anger in my voice, fuelled by an incident in a far off land he could know nothing about, made him reach into his pocket hastily and pull out two more ten rupee notes.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Indian Express Shoots Its Mouth Off

There's no distinction at all between news and editorials these days. The Reserve Bank cut interest rates last evening, and it made the top of the front page in this morning's Indian Express. The headline read, 'Alarm Bells Wake Up RBI, Rates Cut'. The implication being that the central bank was asleep all this time. The first sentence of the article expanded on the same idea: "It took a dramatic slide in growth to 5.3 per cent, inflation to 3.3 per cent, four consecutive months of deceleration in exports, a 2 per cent contraction in industrial output and finally a serious drop in non-food credit growth rate for the Reserve Bank of India to cut key policy rates — the repo and the reverse repo — by 50 points."
The chart published by the Express on its business page paints a rather different picture, and a more accurate one. It shows that the Reserve Bank has cut the Repo rate, the rate at which it lends to banks, five times in the past four months. On three of these occasions the cut was a full percentage point.

Maybe the 'economic bureau' of the Express, the chaps credited with the report, won't be satisfied until the nation's top central bankers emerge from their offices with sacks of money and throw about fistfuls of currency notes, shouting, "here, grab this, it's free".

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Girish Karnad's Flowers

Last evening we were at Prithvi for the opening of a six-day festival of plays produced by RAGE, a theatre group that currently comprises Rahul da Cunha, Rajit Kapoor and Shernaz Patel. The festival kicked off with Girish Karnad's Flowers, directed by Roysten Abel and featuring a virtuoso solo performance by Rajit Kapur.
Flowers follows a kind of formula established by Karnad, which involves taking an Indian folk tale or myth, and marrying it with acute psychological realism. This merger allows his kings, priests and courtesans to appear relevant and contemporary without any allegorical intrusion. Because nobody else employs this method, and because Karnad chooses tales judiciously and fleshes them out convincingly, his oeuvre is original and significant.
His welding of forms, however, has a major drawback. The disparate narrative traditions being blended tend to produce very different sorts of endings when left to themselves. Karnad has rarely, to my mind, dovetailed or fused the two in a satisfactory final scene. There are plays, like The Fire and the Rain, in which he finds some kind of equilibrium, but all too often the end seems like a cop-out, and Flowers is no exception. The play is the story of a priest obsessed with decorating the linga in his temple (spoilers ahead). He becomes equally obsessed with a local courtesan, and their affair leads to trouble with the region's chieftain. The priest's public shaming is averted by a miracle, but that results in a personal crisis, because he is now seen as a saint and wants none of that attention. He informs the audience that the courtesan has left town before commiting suicide. There weren't too many options left for Karnad after the miracle, but keeping the irony, pain and bitterness involved in the priest's situation alive and unresolved would have worked better for me than the precipitate suicide.
When I started writing for newspapers, one of my early commissions was a review of Karnad's Nagamandala, an English translation of which had just then been published. I liked the play a lot, aside from the cop-out ending, and said as much. A couple of months later, I applied for a scholarship to study in England, and who should be on the final interview panel but Girish Karnad. The first thing he said to me was that he had read my article. I don't know how he would have taken it if the piece had expressed an intense dislike of Nagamandala, or how that would have fed into his and the committee's opinion of my application, but I've never been gladder to have published a positive review.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lahore Memories

In January 2006, I travelled to Pakistan to watch the first match of a series between India and Pakistan. The cricket was just an excuse; for years I'd wanted to visit Lahore and the easing of visa restrictions during the test series gave me access to the city. I went first to Delhi to get the visa. In the morning, a crowd of us collected up at the Pakistan embassy in Chanakyapuri to hand in our documents. We were asked to return at 4pm to collect the stamped passports, which was cutting it fine, because my flight left at around 6.30. Till 4.30 that afternoon, there was no sign of any passports being given back. Then a small window opened in a giant door, and names began to be called out. By 5pm, I was sure I was going to miss my flight. I called Indian Airlines who told me there would be no problem. I learned later that the flight operated a bit like those buses which wait until they're full before leaving. My name was called at 5.15, and I got to the check-in counter at the airport 15 minutes before the scheduled departure for Lahore. As I'd been assured, it was no problem.
An acquaintance of mine, Quddus, had recommended a hotel near Lahore's museum and university, but I hadn't got written confirmation of my reservation because every Pakistani worker had taken the previous week off for Bakri Id. I'd had a telephone conversation with the manager, though, and that gave me confidence to head to the hotel, driven in a Ford taxi that was no more expensive than ones available outside Bombay airport, but offered a much smoother ride.
I'm glad cricket was not top of my agenda, because the pitch was the flattest imaginable, as docile as anything offered up during the current tour by the Sri Lankans which has been cut short cruelly this morning. Pakistan's batsmen butchered the Indian attack, putting pressure on the Indian line-up, which opened with Rahul Dravid and Sehwag because, controversially, only one specialist had been played at the top to make room for Saurav Ganguly in the middle order. Sehwag responded in his typical style, with which Pakistanis have become painfully familiar. He scored the fastest double century ever, Dravid supported him with a steady hundred, and they fell just three short of the world record opening stand. By the time Sehwag was first out, the match was virtually finished, because mist and drizzle allowed little more than 200 overs to be bowled in the entire game.
On my first morning in Lahore, I visited the museum, after stopping at a traffic island to view the cannon Zamzama which features in Kipling's Kim. The museum houses, among many fine artefacts, a startling fasting Buddha from the Gandhara period.

What photographs fail to capture is the impact made by the hollow sockets of the Buddha's eyes. In the story of Siddhartha, this represents a point before his enlightenment, when he fell in with yogis who believed in extreme austerities. He emerged with a comprehension of the Middle Path which rejects extremism of all kinds. Hmm.
At the museum's ticket counter, I paid the foreigners' rate, and was surprised by the surprised expression on the ticket seller's face. I had assumed everybody would realise I was an Indian as soon as I opened my mouth, but this was far from the case. Pakistanis simply are not geared to seeing Indians in their country, and so anybody who looks like I do is assumed to be a native. Also, there are great variations in the way Urdu is spoken, allowing my Anglicised Bambaiyya to pass with ease. For the rest of my trip, I quietly handed over the cheap local fee while entering monuments like the fort and Jehangir's tomb, saving a few hundred rupees. A pleasant change from being labelled a foreigner in many tourist sites in India because my shaved head, backpack, Lonely Planet and bottled water signal NRI.
That afternoon, I met Quddus for lunch at a restaurant on the Mall. I was surprised by the lack of beef on Lahore menus, and even more so by the absence of paneer. I knew paneer serves primarily as a meat substitute for vegetarian Punjabis, but wasn't prepared for its complete disappearance once the border had been crossed from one Punjab to another. For the rest, I didn't think the food was anything to blog extensively about. The stalls in Anarkali bazaar provided tasty fare, but nothing sublime, and the same was the case in top end restaurants. Two eating experiences stood out, the first being Cooco's Den at the edge of Lahore's red light district, known as Heera Mandi (Diamond Market). The Den is owned by a painter who grew up in the area because he was the son of a Heera Mandi prostitute. His paintings, many of which one sees on the way up to the terrace restaurant, are unexciting, glamourised portraits of local whores. The food, too, is standard Mughlai. What raises it above average is the excellent view of Badshahi mosque and an eccentric method of getting plates to tables. The kitchen is on the ground floor, and dishes are placed in baskets and hauled up by ropes.
On the third day of the test, I lunched at a restaurant near Gaddafi stadium, not far from where the shootout occurred this morning. The chef in charge, a man called Sajjad Mughal, initiated a long conversation after realising I was Indian. He was a Protestant, he said, and wanted to leave Pakistan. Were there good job opportunities for a chef in India? I suggested Canada or Europe were better destinations, if he could convince those countries to offer him asylum, which was very unlikely. He stuck with me through the meal, standing next to my table and asking me detailed questions about life in India.
That was a typical response even from Pakistanis who did not want to quit their homeland. Eyes would light up as soon as my nationality was revealed, and a flood of queries would follow. Almost all were friendly: the lone exception occurred in a dilapidated cybercafe where I was trying to finish a column before mosquitoes bites turned my skin into a mess of welts, while also answering the owner's questions about Sanjay Dutt and Shahrukh Khan. A loader who was sitting around waiting for his shift to begin, pushed a tabloid toward me and tapped meaningfully on its banner headline. "I can't read Urdu", I told him. "It says the Indian government wants to demolish every mosque in your country", he explained. "No, that's not the case", I said. He looked at me blankly, then went back to reading his tabloid.

On the fourth day, I headed for monuments in the suburbs: Shahjahan's Shalimar Gardens and the tombs of Nur Jahan and Jehangir. I wanted to climb to the roof of Jehangir's mausoleum to look for signs of a pavilion that was supposedly dismantled and taken away during Ranjit Singh's reign. The upper floors were off limits, but I was so comfortable in the city by then that I fearlessly slipped a hundred rupee note to a guard to let me up the stairs. The only persons inside the complex, aside from guards, were four students mugging for an exam, who gladly interrupted their work to chat about India and Pakistan and ask for souvenir currency. Indians going to Pakistan would be well served by a wad of their own ten rupee notes and plenty of small change.
That evening I wandered into the Badshahi mosque, more or less a replica of Delhi's Jama Masjid, aside for the exchange of some delicacy for sturdiness. If the two structures look similar, the atmosphere within could hardly be more different. Lahore's biggest mosque is almost a picnic spot, a place where families gather when prayers are not being said. Women walk around the couryard in salwar kameezes, many not even bothering to cover their heads with a dupatta. Delhi's Jama Masjid, in contrast, is very female unfriendly. The one time I visited it with my wife Jabeen, I, the kafir, was allowed in, while she, the Muslim, was forbidden to enter.
It wasn't the Badshahi mosque that became my favourite living monument in Lahore, however. That had to be the gorgeously decorated Wazir Khan Mosque in the innards of the old city. There's nothing in that style in India, as far as I know. The mosque is right in the middle of a crowded, dirty, narrow-laned precinct, but cross the threshold and you're suddenly transported into perfect tranquility. The morning I visited, an old maulana was tutoring two young boys, sitting on a carpet, reading off a low wooden table. But for the electric heater about ten feet from the group, the scene could have been taking place three hundred years ago.

The evening before I was to leave, Quddus and an artist named Rashid took me out for dinner to a hip place where the waiters were dressed as cowboys. The servers attempted to be gruff, banging mugs on the table while serving drinks, but their forced impoliteness was somewhat at odds with the spiffy decor which included monitors embedded in the wall next to each table, playing music videos. The drinks, moreover, were not alcoholic, further distancing the restaurant from the wild west. Since liquor is more or less prohibited in eating houses in Pakistan, outside of luxury hotels, the serious partying happens in private homes. Rashid said I had to visit for Basant, when there was kite flying during the day and revelry in the evening. I had found Lahore an extremely convivial town, and said I'd be happy to return some year in February or early March. Unfortunately, the Punjab government banned kite flying soon after, ostensibly on safety grounds.
Before we drove to the cowboy eatery, we had visited the home of two artists, one of whom was moving to Delhi later that year. She asked if I'd take some of her books over, and I readily agreed since I had little luggage of my own. On my way to the airport, I stopped at Beaconhouse university, where she taught in the art school. It was a different world, full of boys and girls in tight T-shirts and jeans, the sort of clothes never seen on Lahore's streets.
At the airport I was surprised (OK, shocked) to find luggage inspections being directed by two white men. My carton of books was suspicious enough for one of them to handle it personally. As he swirled a high tech form of litmus paper around the box, he asked questions in a Brit accent. After answering, I asked what people like him were doing in charge of Pakistani airport security? "It's a collaboration between our two governments", he said pleasantly. "Collaboration? So are a few Pakistanis flying out to take charge of security at Heathrow, then?" His expression darkened. We have a wise guy here, I could see him think. But he said nothing, just pointed me to a counter where my carton could be resealed.