Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Pulp Fiction, Morality Play

Not long after Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction was released, I wrote a piece for a small magazine arguing the film had a moral centre that was being missed. I elaborated on that idea years later in a lecture to a film club. In anticipation of the release of Django Unchained (which will, I hope, soon come to India as Django Uncensored), I'm putting a version of that talk on my blog. Christmas Day feels appropriate for it. I've cut the essay drastically, but it's still pretty long. However, since the film is now an established classic and nobody else appears to have written about it from this perspective, I believe it's worthwhile having it online in some form.

I argue in this essay that Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is a profound as well as subtle ethical exploration. The three main male characters represent three central tendencies in European moral thinking: the Christian, the Aristotelian and the Hedonistic. The film bridges the divide, highlighted by Nietzsche, between Greek and Christian ideas of virtue. While such a bridge is not unsual in itself, the film deviates from tradition in affirming the virtues of pride and sacrifice in individual characters, while denying those virtues any general or universal validity. Whereas the Hollywood tradition of virtuous heroes performing virtuous deeds is simplistic and politically fraught, Tarantino separates subjective from objective, allowing for the approval of noble impulses without a consequent approval of the actions which result from these impulses.
Since the making of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino’s moralism has become progressively more overt. Perhaps this is a result of the failure of critics to appreciate the moral basis of his most important film. His recent, obvious manifestations of moralism lack the power of his 1994 classic, which communicated itself to audiences even though they may not have be aware of its ethical roots.

The Critics
Quentin Tarantino’s first two films, Reservoir Dogs, made in 1992, and Pulp Fiction, released in 1994, quickly established him as the most influential director of the decade. As screenwriter or executive producer, he piloted a number of other films, such as True Romance and Killing Zoe, which, together with a host of similarly themed movies like The Usual Suspects created a popular new genre. Typically, these films were violent and funny, stylish and hip, and focused on criminals, often groups of them rather than individuals. It was called, by one biographer of Tarantino, ‘the cinema of cool’.
Tarantino’s films and their clones were appreciated by audiences and critics alike, but also came under attack for their perceived lack of substance, and their use of violence. Charles Taylor, film critic of the left-leaning web magazine Salon.com wrote, “For me, the effect of Pulp Fiction isn't much different than the effect of any big, impersonal action picture. The audience knows from the start that everything has been set up for effect and that there's nothing to believe in or care about.” At the other side of the political spectrum, John Gautereaux, of the conservative Christian organisation Neopolitique, excoriated Tarantino’s perceived nihilism in an essay titled This Dog Has No Reservoir. Gautereaux began by acknowledging the stylistic accomplishments of Pulp Fiction, but complained that “Today's movie audiences, although quite knowledgeable, seem intent on being entertained, not challenged.” He compared Tarantino’s characters unfavourably with those of Frank Capra, director of loveable screwball comedies from the 1930s: “While Capra's films are tagged as 'say-something' movies, Tarantino's have nothing redemptive to say, even to themselves.” About Tarantino’s characters, he wrote: “no matter how many humorous catch-phrases they utter, his characters say nothing transcendent. Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now.”
Mary Kenney of the left-wing British tabloid The Daily Mirror. Kenney wrote that Tarantino’s films were “disgusting, violent, repellent, dangerous to young and unformed minds, childish, irrational, horrible, agonising, and distressingly like something out of a Nazi nightmare where human beings are subjected to every degradation just for the hell of it."
A few critics had recognised that the tale of trust and betrayal in Tarantino’s first film, Reservoir Dogs, had a moral basis. The Christian overtones in the relationship between a robber (Harvey Keitel) and a cop pretending to be a robber (Tim Roth) were too obvious to be ignored completely. Moreover, these themes were already familiar in the work of two other Catholic, Italian-American directors who, like Tarantino, were preoccupied with tales of underworld violence: Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese. Scorcese had always been open about the Catholic underpinning of his stories. They aren’t propaganda for the Catholic cause, in the manner of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, but revolve around and question certain persistent issues in Christian myth and ethics. Since trust and betrayal are central themes in the story of Christ it was easy to incorporate Reservoir Dogs into the Italian-American gangster movie tradition of Scorcese and Coppola.
In which case, why not see Pulp Fiction in a Christian moral context as well? How could John Gautereaux claim that “Tarantino's characters are primarily interested in surviving the here and now”? Doesn’t one of the characters, played by Samuel Jackson, mouth lines from the Book of Ezekiel? (Mixed, Tarantino style, with a quote from a karate flick starring Sonny Chiba) Doesn’t he undergo a religious conversion which makes him rethink his entire way of living? And doesn’t he undertake the most elaborate exegetical exercise in the history of Hollywood, when, near the end of the film, he considers different interpretations of that paragraph from Ezekiel?
Somehow, the form of Pulp Fiction, its humour and many conscious absurdities, prevented critics from allowing Jackson’s character any significant moral purpose. The film’s title itself seemed to announce its lack of depth, referring as it did to a cheap paperback genre of the 1950s. Maximilian LeCain, an Irish film-maker and writer, one of the few to actually consider the Christian connotations of Pulp Fiction, quickly dismissed the whole thing as a sham: “The lazy, dishonestly moralistic about-turn that Tarantino makes with Samuel Jackson's 'redemption' in Pulp Fiction is ultimately of little consequence amid the self-satisfied posturing of that film because the full extent of its 'moral vision' is no more than immanent glibness.”

In my view, the character played by Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction represents the Greek virtue of pride, while Samuel Jackson represents the Christian virtue of sacrifice. Through these two characters, we feel a commonality between the opposed virtues of the two ethical systems underpinning European thought. I say opposed because, while Aristotle considered pride the greatest virtue, Christianity deemed it a deadly sin. For the Greeks, pride was an essential aspect of greatness, though it could cause a hero’s downfall if it became hubris. The qualities the Greeks valued, not just pride but courage, justice and honour, could be termed masculine virtues. In fact, the word virtue is derived from the Indo-European root ‘vir’ meaning, simply ‘man’. Virtue has the same root as words such as virile, and also werewolf. ‘Vir’ became ‘wer’ in Old English, so werewolf meant ‘man-wolf’. The Sanskrit word ‘vira’ meaning man as well as hero, is also derived from the same root.
 Consider the first time we see Bruce Willis, or Butch Coolidge as his character is named. He is being offered a packet to throw a fight. Marcellus Wallace, a gangleader who is fixing the fight, speaks a lot about pride (Starting 2.10 in this clip). He attempts to convince Bruce Willis that “pride never helps, it only hurts”, that Butch will have to forget his pride for material gain. In the event, Butch refuses to throw the fight, thuse re-asserting the power of pride. Later in the narrative, when he and Marcellus run into each other, he throws Marcellus's words back at him along with a few well-aimed punches, "You feel that sting? That's pride fucking with you" (1.40 in this clip).
It could be argued that pride has nothing to do with Willis’s actions. He makes a lot of money betting on himself at a minimum risk to his life. However, the narrative develops in ways that highlight pride over mercenary plotting. Though he knows Marcellus will be looking for him after being double-crossed, Butch returns to his home to retrieve the heirloom that is the source of his pride: a gold watch worn by his warrior father and his warrior grandfather before him, and originally purchased by his great-grandfather Erine Coolidge just before he set sail for Paris to fight in the First World War.
The way Tarantino deals with the story of the heirloom is crucial to my understanding of his moral innovation. The history of the artefact is related by an army officer who survived the Vietnamese POW camp that claimed the life of Butch’s father. The story begins conventionally, one may even feel emotionally involved in it at the start. But it rapidly becomes funny, ridiculous and finally scatological, with an account of Butch’s father hiding the watch in his rectum and then dying of diarrhoea. By this time, it has lost all pretensions to gravitas. The only person in the world who takes the heirloom seriously is Butch himself. This split between the audience’s view of the watch and Butch’s own is enhanced in a scene where Butch discovers his girlfriend has failed to pack the watch in preparing their getaway. He keeps repeating that the watch was, “beside the table drawer on the little kangaroo”. Though Butch himself is distraught, the audience is diverted by the absurd kangaroo. We feel Butch is doing a brave thing by going back, but feel no connection with the object of his quest, the watch next to the kangaroo. Tarantino divorces our attitude to Butch’s motivation from our attitude to his goal.

Exactly the same split takes place on the Christian side of the story. Jules (Samuel Jackson) undergoes a conversion after six bullets, which should have killed him and his friend Vincent (John Travolta), end up hitting the wall instead. Vincent sees it as happy chance, perhaps helped along by the extra heavy gun the shooter carried. He takes with a pinch of salt Jules' conclusion that God diverted the bullets from their fatal path. Later on, when they’re sitting in a diner, and Jules mentions he is thinking of the miracle they witnessed, Vincent responds; “The miracle you witnessed. I witnessed a freak accident.” Jules says, “You’re judging this the wrong way. You don’t judge stuff like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God’s touch.” In this exchange, quite explicitly, a distinction is made between subjective experience and objective reality. The moral worth of a subjective experience cannot, in Jules’ framework, be judged by objective standards. Just as the subjective value attached by Butch to his watch cannot be judged in objective terms. The decisions Butch and Jules make are absurd and heroic at the same time.
The decade before Tarantino’s emergence saw the emergence of a succession of violent movie franchises. There was Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Predator and Commando; and Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Lethal Weapon series. Bruce Willis himself topped the box-office charts with three installments of Die Hard. Each of these was a bad guys versus good guys story. The hero is a good guy who does good things. The villain is a bad guy who does bad things. In other words, heroes are both subjectively as well as objectively noble, and villains are subjectively as well as objectively nasty. We can see the political ramifications of this kind of thinking. Rambo fights the Vietcong, then goes to Afghanistan and battles on the side of the brave Mujahideen, (including, presumably, Osama Bin Laden). Rambo’s nobility is founded upon the audience’s sympathy with his actions as well as goals. Perhaps not coincidentally, all these heroes of action franchises, as well as the pioneer of the genre, Clint Eastwood, who played Dirty Harry, are supporters of the militaristic Republic Party, even as much of Hollywood prefers the Democrats.
My suggestion is that, by deliberately severing the connection between subjective and objective nobility, Tarantino finds a way to allow us to accept the idea of the heroic, even the proud, hyper-masculine warrior, without getting tangled in George Bush style ‘you’re either with us or against us’ kinds of ethical simplification. Precisely this innovation makes Pulp Fiction an extremely difficult film to read. We have grown so accustomed to seeing noble motivation matched with noble objectives that we find it hard to accommodate a new vision into our moral framework. The consistent conflation of the sublime and the ridiculous in Pulp Fiction makes it tempting to dismiss the film as entertaining sound and fury signifying virtually nothing.

Before concluding I’m going to briefly, and tentatively, extend this argument to the third major character in Pulp Fiction, Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta. If we try and place Travolta’s character within the great ethical systems, one would put him in the category hedonist-epicurian. He talks continually of material things, of drugs, and food, and fast cars, and clearly enjoys all of these. His storyline offers him the prospect of a night spent with the alluring Mia, played by Uma Thurman. But he backs away from the promised fulfillment of hedonistic desire. Talking himself out of sleeping with Mia, he uses moral terms, telling himself he shouldn’t do it because it would involve wronging a person who trusts him, namely Mia’s husband Marcellus. However, given his preoccupation with the story of Antwone (a Samoan who was thrown from the fourth floor by Marcellus, perhaps because he gave Mia a foot massage) we know that what stops Vincent from proceeding is not moral consideration but plain fear. He is being dishonest with himself. Vincent is the only one among the three main characters who fails to follow to its logical end the dictates of what one might term the governing philosophy underpinning his character.
Tarantino’s non-linear narrative is peculiarly suited to the employment of irony, and one of the most telling uses of it is in the final sequence, just before Samuel Jackson gives away all the cash in his wallet to a robber, in a manner reminiscent of such Christian classics as Hugo’s tale of the Bishop’s candlesticks from Les Miserables. Vincent has been arguing strenuously against Jules’ intention to to give up the criminal life to seek a deeper meaning in his earthly existence. Vincent repeatedly tells Jules he is going to up as a bum. Viewers have no idea what will become of Jules after completes his final task of delivering a briefcase to Marcellus; but they do know that Vincent ends up dead in a toilet, shot by Butch Coolidge. I am not suggesting we take Pulp Fiction as a film with a moral, rather than as a moral film. But the story of Vincent Vega certainly reminds us that just because you play safe doesn’t mean you stay safe.

A few more critics on the amorality and insubstantiality of Pulp Fiction.

“The way that [it] has been so widely ravened up and drooled over verges on the disgusting. Pulp Fiction nourishes, abets, cultural slumming”. Stanley Kaufmann, The New Republic

“The fact that Pulp Fiction is garnering more extravagant raves than Breathless ever did tells you plenty about which kind of cultural references are regarded as more fruitful—namely, the ones we already have and don't wish to expand”. Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader

“Tarantino represents the final triumph of postmodernism, which is to empty the artwork of all content, thus avoiding its capacity to do anything except helplessly represent our agonies.... Only in this age could a writer as talented as Tarantino produce artworks so vacuous, so entirely stripped of any politics, metaphysics, or moral interest”. James Wood, The Guardian

“A succulent guilty pleasure, beautifully made junk food for cineastes... Pulp Fiction is a terminally hip postmodern collage… the film's tone is buoyantly amoral”. Forster Hirsch

“That's why Pulp Fiction was so popular. Not because all audiences got all or any of its references to Scorsese and Kubrick, but because the narrative and spatial structure of the film never threatened to go beyond themselves into signification. The film's cycle of racist and homophobic jokes might threaten to break out into a quite nasty view of the world, but this nastiness keeps being laughed off—by the mock intensity of the action, the prowling, confronting, perverse, confined, and airless nastiness of the world Tarantino creates”. Robert Kolker

Friday, December 14, 2012

This morning's accident

A common morning story. A large Chevrolet is double parked in front of my building, leaving only one lane free for two-way traffic. A Maruti Dzire goes past the Chevy in a hurry, just as a taxi driver backs out of the driveway of the building opposite my home. The taximan, looking out for vehicles coming from his left, doesn’t see the Maruti driving in the right (ie. wrong) lane, and reverses into it. The Maruti is dented, the taxi, an old Premier, unmarked. The Maruti’s driver demands compensation, the taxi driver refuses, suggesting they go to a police station to sort everything out. In India, the person who suffers most in an accident is always a victim, the facts of the case don’t matter. Having seen close-up what happened, I explain to the people gathered below my balcony that the real culprit, the man who had double parked, has driven off. But that doesn’t stop a fight from breaking out.
The driver of the Maruti is Marathi, the taxiwalla from UP. The home state of the men becomes more important than the way the incident played out. A man on a motorcycle taking his young boy to school stops to figure out the language situation, and begins to abuse the taxi driver. Emboldened, the Maruti driver slaps the taxi man, something he’d never do in a one-on-one match up against his tall and well-built antagonist. The cab driver, knowing he’s in the Marathi manoos heartland, does not retaliate. He says, “How will beating me help. I have no money to pay you. Let’s go to the police station”. The man on the motorcycle continues shouting. “Speak in Marathi, motherfucker”, he says to the ‘bhaiyya’, though everybody present understands Hindi perfectly well. His boy shrinks away to the edge of the back seat, on the verge of tears.
The old Shivaji Park civility is not entirely dead. A gentleman in his late fifties intervenes, insisting the shouting and beating stop. A woman calls out from a balcony backing him up. I say again it wasn’t really the taxi driver’s fault. Had there been one or two more aggressive MNS types in the crowd, the safari-clad gentleman would’ve been told to shut up, and the fight would’ve escalated. But the scales happen to be evenly balanced, and the situation clams down. The drivers go off to the police station.
I think of the hundreds of insults that North Indians face in Bombay each day. By now, after years of this treatment, every poor or middle class person from UP and Bihar must feel unwelcome, and sometimes unsafe. The question is: if North Indians stop coming to this city, and if some of those already here leave, will it increase opportunities for Marathis? A Marathi rickshaw owner with cancer doesn’t think so, and his story is instructive. It’s not as if Marathis are actively seeking to drive autos and taxis, and being deprived because of an influx from the north. Protectionist laws and the assault on North Indians have only led to fewer taxis and autos plying, inconveniencing commuters.

Meanwhile, opposite Shiv Sena Bhavan, the largest towers ever built in Dadar are being sheathed in glass. The complex, now called Kohinoor Square, used to be Kohinoor Mills. The 4.8 acre plot was purchased by Raj Thackeray (who later sold his stake at a fat profit) and Unmesh Joshi (son of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi) in 2005 for 421 crore rupees (over 75 million USD). Nobody knows where Thackeray got that kind of money, but as long as he defines enemies for his followers to target, they won’t ask questions; and they won’t understand that, if this city is in many ways unlivable, it isn’t because of northerners coming here to work hard for a living, but because of builders who’ve corrupted politicians of all parties, and most bureaucrats, and subverted planning, infrastructure augmentation and public housing projects. You won’t hear Raj Thackeray say much against builders; after all, he’s a proud member of that fraternity.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Kali's temple and town

I just spent a day and a half in Calcutta, a city that always makes Bombay look good. The deficiencies of the capital of what was once India’s most industrialised state became apparent days before I got there, when I found all three-, four-, and five-star hotels booked out. Obviously, synchronising my visit with the start of the deciding test of the India-England cricket series didn’t help, but what kind of metropolis has so few upscale lodgings that the barmy army and maybe some suits attending conferences can take over every single room in town?
Plan B was to look at the B&B ratings on Tripadvisor. I found a room available at Relax Inn, which turned out to be perfectly satisfactory.
Ten minutes into my ride from Calcutta airport, I asked the driver for his mobile phone number. He told me he possessed no cellphone.
Me: No phone? But what if there’s no parking where I alight? How will I know where you are?
Driver: I’ll be around.
There was no parking outside Relax Inn. Having checked in, I came out to give the driver instructions, but he had already gone off to find a parking spot. When I was ready to leave for my first appointment after freshening up, I asked the doorman if the driver had returned to tell him where he was parked. He had not.
I called the car rental agency’s number on the receipt.
Me: I think the driver has left.
Him: No, he must be there.
Me: But how can I find him?
Him: Look around, I’m sure he’s there somewhere.
Luckily, autorickshaws are plentiful in Cal.
On my way back from the first meeting, I stopped at a chemist to buy a razor, toothpaste and stuff I’d forgotten in my hurried packing. It was an impressive looking branch of the chemists’ chain Frank Ross. Eight men were at the counters when I entered, each wearing a green jacket embroidered with the Frank Ross name, each sitting at a computer looking like he was doing work of national importance. I saw two customers, neither of whom was being served. When I asked if they could sell me a razor, one of the men gave me a can’t-you-see-I’m-busy look. Eventually, a ninth man appeared from the stock room, and I asked him for a disposable razor.
He said, “We only have packs of four. It’s a Buy 3, Get 1 Free promotion.”
He took a strip of Gillette Prestos off a hook and held them out.
Him: See, four for 54 rupees.
Me: I’m sure you can sell them individually as well. They must have individual prices.
Scrutinising the packaging, he found each razor was priced at 18 rupees. But then he shook his head.
Him: If I sell you one, then who will buy the remaining three?
Me: The same people who buy them when there is no special offer.
He looked at me with a pitying expression. Obviously, I was the only idiot in the world who would buy a single razor when four could be had for the price of three, but the man was generous enough not to say so. He told me, only, that he could not offer me the razor I desired.
A corner shop sold me a Gillette Presto without hassle. Back at Relax Inn, I found my driver had reparked next to the lodge, and was ready to ferry me around. He couldn’t understand why I hadn’t scoured the neighbouring streets looking for him.
The next day, I decided to begin at the Birla Academy, which was hosting an interesting show curated by Shaheen Merali. Getting there, I found the place opens only between 3 and 8 pm. I had consulted the website in advance, but the people who built the elaborate site obviously felt that stuff like opening timings, or even the address of the place, didn’t merit mention.
Next stop was the Kali temple at Kalighat. I’d never actually been inside, since I avoid functioning temples as far as possible, but with time on my hand, I braved the gauntlet of flower sellers, guides and touts. I lost count of the number of people who tried taking money off me between the gate and the sanctum. Every few steps somebody would insist shoes had to be removed at that spot. One man screeched as I passed him despite his warning, as if I’d broken a dreadful taboo. The temple has no official footwear storage, so one is forced to leave slippers and shoes in the care of shopkeepers. They refuse money for looking after the shoes, but ask you to buy a garland or some other item of worship, which I refused to do. Finally, I found a man willing to watch my shoes for five rupees. As I looked for the entry queue, a man asked if I wouldn’t rather pay 100 rupees and gain instant access to the sanctum. I said I’d wait in line.
“It will take three hours”, he said.
“Obviously your goddess has nothing against lying”, I wanted to reply, but ignored him. In the end, it took about forty minutes for me to get my five seconds in front of the startling icon with black face, red eyes and a massive golden tongue hanging out of its mouth. The Kali temple is relatively modern, having been built in the 19th century, and features a domed sanctum, which means it is a little larger and better ventilated than most garbhagrihas. The sanctum’s walls are painted yellow, stained with soot, clad with white tiles at the lower reaches, all of which gives it the feel of an old-style Irani restaurant kitchen. The idol is held in a cage in the centre, above which is a canopy shaped like the hood of a kitchen’s exhaust. As our line slowly wound around the room, pressing against the wall, priests went round thrusting flowers into hands, daubing and smearing stuff on vacant foreheads, and generally ensuring that every individual in line contributed to the temple kitty. Periodically, our line would stop as VIP guests, which meant anybody forking out extra dough, were thrust in from the exit point for an expedited darshan. In the brief time I was given to examine the idol, no fewer than five entreaties / demands for contributions rang in my ears.
“Give me fifty rupees. Ten rupees”
“Don’t give me anything, give it to the temple. Put it in the donation box”
“Put money in this box, in the box”
“You haven’t made a contribution. Give me something.”
It’s a pity that workers in businesses such as Frank Ross Pharmacy have a statist perspective. Rather than government employees, they ought to model themselves on the Kali temple’s priests, who are perfectly mercenary, single-minded in their determination to get some cash from each person who enters their domain. OK, I’d prefer it if businesses left out the cheating, the harangues, the stealing, but no business does that without proper regulation, and temples are among the least regulated commercial operations in the country.
I suppose the money-grabbing at the Kali temple was no worse than I’ve encountered at Puri Jagannath or the shrines that dot Pushkar lake. On the other hand, Kalighat offers neither the architectural delights of the former, nor the marvelous atmosphere of the latter.
As for the city as a whole, I'm amazed I’ve never disliked it. In fact, I’d even concede I am a little fond of Calcutta. It has character, a certain laid-back gentleness, and retains the core of a great city in its monuments, parks, and museums. It doesn't hurt that the place is cheap (everything in Bombay costs about 50% more), and the inhabitants fond of fish, red meat and liquor (though alcohol is reasonably priced, Calcuttans don't drink themselves under the table in the manner of Goans and Keralites). Also, there are plenty of smart, good-looking women around (so what if backcombing never went out of fashion here?). Right now, citizens are feeling pretty depressed, having hopped out of the frying pan of Communist rule and landed in the fire of Mamata Bannerjee’s lunacy. It’s always wrong to believe things can only get better. Like Iranians discovered when Khomeini took over from the Shah, things can always get worse. And yet, Calcutta does seem to be developing fast, particularly in areas close to the airport like Salt Lake and New Town. The development is very much in the Gurgaon mode, all tower blocks and malls, with none of the sense of community that still defines neighbourhoods in Calcutta proper; but that’s preferable to the dilapidation and decay whose depiction has provided lucrative careers for so many painters.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Vishy Anand fails the test

Yesterday, Viswanathan Anand capped a disappointing performance in his World Championship match against Boris Gelfand by playing out a draw that felt like a defeat. Vishy has been undisputed chess World Champion for five years. He won the title in 2007, defended it the following year against Vladimir Kramnik, and again two years ago in an exciting match against Veselin Topalov. In both those playoffs, Anand went into the match as an underdog or, at best, a very narrow favourite. His third defence was supposed to be easier, since he faced the relatively low-ranked Boris Gelfand. It hasn't turned out that way. The 12 match series started with six draws before Gelfand took the lead in the seventh. Vishy played brilliantly to equalise with white pieces in the eighth. Three more draws followed, leaving the players tied at 5.5 points with just one more game to play, a game in which Anand had the advantage of white.
The champion produced a novelty on the sixth move that put Gelfand in the tank for nearly an hour. Anand had given up a pawn, but gained compensation by messing up his opponent's position. None of Gelfand's pieces could move freely, his bishops were tied up behind doubled pawns, and Anand had all the initiative.
On his tenth move, Gelfand offered Anand two pawns in return for freedom of movement. It wasn't necessarily the best play available, but the challenger made it in the belief, correct as it turned out, that it would throw Anand off his prepared line. Between moves five and ten, Anand had been comfortably parlaying a line analysed carefully with his seconds in preparing for the world championship. He was banging out his moves instantly while his opponent had to improvise on the board. It was the equivalent of being in a section of a maze that Anand had traversed dozens of times, but which Gelfand was trying to figure out as he went along. After move ten, both players were in an unfamiliar section of the maze.
Gelfand had been put to a huge test, and had seemed for some time to be sinking into a mire of self-doubt and despondency,  but had emerged creditably.
He was, nevertheless, under some time pressure and a pawn down. He now had to simplify the position and hope his paired bishops would compensate for Anand's small material advantage. On his twelfth move. Gelfand offered an exchange of queens as part of his simplifying tactics. Anand had two options: the first was to take the queen and go into an endgame in which he couldn't lose, but had a very small chance of winning. The second was to reject the queen swap and instead push his queen sideways one square. That would create a double-edged position in which Anand had a far greater chance of winning, but could lose if he played a couple of sub-optimal moves.
The queen exchange was what a club class player like myself would choose almost every time. Not having the ability to think through every possible variation in complex positions, I would take the no risk - low reward option and try to press home that pawn advantage in a simple endgame. I would expect a World Champion to pick the slightly riskier move.
Anand played safe. He exchanged queens and, a few moves later, the consensus among experts was that there was about 95% chance of a draw and a 5% chance of Anand winning. That 5% chance, I figured, was sufficient for Anand to keep the pressure on Gelfand. It's difficult, psychologically, to play when you know your best hope is to draw. On move 20, Gelfand pushed a pawn and seemed immediately to regret it. Horrible blunders have been made under the pressure of playing in the World Championships, blunders no Grandmaster would make in less important games. It seemed possible the challenger would crack.

After playing move 22, though, Anand offered a draw. It left the commentators gobsmacked. Accepting a draw would have been bad enough, but offering a draw? Come on!
Chess etiquette demands players don't continue games when a draw is almost inevitable; but this was the final game of the World Championship, and the challenger was behind on material and in some time trouble. Nobody would have blamed Anand for pressing on at that stage. Offering a draw in that position was being Mr. Nice Guy to a ridiculous degree.
Maybe it wasn't just out of niceness. Anand, in the moments he spent at the table after the truce was signed, looked spent, almost dazed. Maybe he just ran out of steam. Which isn't a happy thought either.

There will now be a tie-breaker of four rapid games. Anand is generally considered among the two or three best players in this format in history, so everybody expects him to win. However, should he lose, I will not mourn, though I've been a fan of his for the longest time. To be a World Champion, after all, is not just about gaining a point more than your opponent, it's about courage, imagination and determination. I'm afraid Viswanathan Anand failed that test yesterday.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hugo and The Avengers: A kind of magic

They say Hollywood's a machine, but no machine would have greenlighted the 170 million dollar budget of Martin Scorsese's Hugo. The cast features no big box-office draws and, while Martin Scorsese might be the greatest living American film-maker, he has yet to deliver a blockbuster hit in forty years of making movies. Hugo is not only set in the past, but seems in some ways a throwback, filled with simplistic characters and stock situations, and adhering to a convention, questioned by Milos Forman's Amadeus and taken apart by Derek Jarman's Caravaggio, that period films set in continental Europe must be peopled by British accents. Reviews have said Hugo is Scorsese trying his hand at a children's film, and perhaps they've said this because of the simplicity of the storyline and the fact that the main character, Hugo Brevet, is a young orphan, but the film offers few thrills, and the mixture of history and fiction at its heart is hard for children to appreciate.
Who, then, is Hugo made for? It is made for people like me, adult bibliophiles and cinephiles. For people like myself, and there aren't all that many of us, as proven by the film's dismal box-office numbers, Hugo is magical. It takes us back to a time when entire new worlds opened up through books. The last time I felt that way was while reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude at age sixteen or seventeen. Hugo brings back that magical newness in combination with the most unchildlike of emotions, nostalgia. We feel like the food critic from Ratatouille who, on taking a bite of the dish of the film's title, finds himself, suddenly, unexpectedly, transported back in time to a precious memory from his rustic childhood. Scorsese orchestrates this play of magic and nostalgia by exploring more flamboyantly than anybody has so far the extravagant visual possibilities offered by 3-D 2.0 (the sweeping opening shots of Casino were impressive enough, but they don't hold a candle to Hugo's breathtaking aerial view of Paris that moves seamlessly into a bustling railway station before following the main character through a succession of intricate corridors leading to rooms leading to ladders leading to more corridors), while telling an intimate story made from an old-fashioned mix of sentiment, comedy and coincidence. It's a unique and unrepeatable melding of past and future.
Briefly, now, to the story itself (spoiler warning): In 1931, an orphan named Hugo Cabret lives in secret within the walls of  Paris's Gare Montparnasse. Hugo has taken over his uncle's job of keeping the giant clocks of the station ticking, in the hope nobody will realise the alcoholic uncle has vanished. He feeds himself by stealing, and also pinches widgets from a toy store in the station's concourse to repair an old automaton that his father was trying to fix before he died. Hugo is caught by the store owner, who turns out, in the end, to be a once-renowned film-maker named Georges Méliès.
Méliès is well-known to film buffs as the pioneer of cinema as fantasy. His most famous movie, made in 1902, involved a journey to the moon. By the time the first World War broke out, Méliès was out of fashion. He had to close down his studio, sell off his props and his beloved automatons, and even hawk his negatives for the silver that could be extracted from them. He ended up running a toy store much like that the one depicted in Hugo.
In the early days of cinema, the days of Méliès pomp, the medium enchanted adults, made them feel like children. Scorsese replicates some of that enchantment felt by early viewers of cinema. But in telling the story of Méliès after his downfall, he reminds us of the dangers inherent in using a technology that is improved constantly and makes what went before feel dated. Books don't date the way films do. Of course, language changes and literary fashions change, but we don't find Arthur Conan Doyle's fiction awkward in the way Méliès's films look awkward today. It's impossible to say which film will age badly and which film will stay vital: who would have predicted, around the time Scorsese made his first film, that Singin' In the Rain would still seem like a masterpiece in 2012 while My Fair Lady and West Side Story would be virtually unwatchable? There is a warning inherent in Hugo that not only will the magic we feel watching it today not be replicable by films until another radical breakthrough in technology is achieved, but it might not be experienced by succeeding generations watching this same film.

Had Méliès been alive, he'd probably have made a film like The Avengers rather than Hugo: a funny, action-packed, cutting-edge entertainer, an unabashed crowd pleaser. The budget for The Avengers, around USD 220 million, wasn't that much greater than the amount allotted to Hugo. For that money, we get an inter-galactic war; a proper good versus evil tale with the appropriate outcome after a frantic climax; a bunch of A- and B-list stars playing familiar comic book characters; and great 3-D, CGI and motion capture. Hardly surprising that The Avengers, like Avatar before it, will realise over ten times its budget. According to Holywood's rule of thumb, a film needs to take in twice its budget to show a profit. At the moment, Hugo has barely scraped past its production expenditure, and will probably never recover marketing costs. I'd like to thank all the people at Paramount Pictures who let their good taste over-ride their accounting skills.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Scam alert: Noise barriers

MMRDA has earmarked over 37 crore rupees this year for the construction of sound barriers on flyovers. The idea was mooted in 2010, and the following year, "Metropolitan Commissioner Rahul Asthana and former Municipal Commissioner Subodh Kumar went on a weeklong tour to Italy to study, among other infrastructure projects, sound barrier technology". Now that junkets are behind them, there will be a 'noise mapping exercise', from which MMRDA officials will receive a cut. Following this, the installation of the sound absorbers will provide an even bigger payoff. Once the barriers are in place, their dimpled surfaces will be leased out for advertising, as has happened on the J J flyover, the first in the city to be endowed with noise mitigating tech. Of course, sticking posters in front of sound absorbers renders them ineffectual, but their effectiveness isn't a real concern for the MMRDA anyway. The agency contracted to use that space for ads will also factor kickbacks to municipal employees in its budget.
Five years from now, the Suman Nagar and Navghar flyovers will be as noisy as ever, the city's visual clutter will have been augmented, and wallets of MMRDA executives and their favourite contractors will be considerably fatter.

Friday, May 4, 2012

The new Indian President: A matter of stature

The Congress is currently scrounging for votes from regional parties to ensure its candidate gets elected President without problems. Last time round, after negotiations with the Left, the party settled on Pratibha Patil, who is destined to go down as one of the least distinguished Presidents in India's history. After Ms. Patil, it is clear that moral or intellectual stature are not prerequisites for the post. Let me therefore suggest that physical stature should be a major consideration.
After all, the President's post is a ceremonial one; like British Royalty, Indian Presidents just have to turn up and look good. It's a pity, then, that we have chosen a succession of midgets for the job. Here is President Narayanan:

Bill Clinton looks like he might get a crick in the neck from looking down at our man. After Mr Narayanan came Abdul Kalam.

George W Bush isn't as tall as Bill Clinton, but that didn't stop him towering over the pint sized Mr. Kalam (whom Indians like to call Dr. Kalam, though he has no doctorate and has never published a single research paper in his life).
And now we have Ms.Patil:

President Obama's father was from Kenya and next to Pratibha Patil he looks like an especially lofty Masai. How's the weather up there, Barack?
So how do the two top candidates being considered by the Congress measure up? Hamid Ansari hasn't been photographed much with foreign dignitaries, but this picture of him standing next to Omar Abdullah inspires little confidence:

As for Pranab Mukherjee, I think it'll be great for the country if he were made President, mainly because it would remove him from the Finance Ministry, and prevent him from putting in place more ridiculous measures like the retrospective tax he introduced in his last budget. In the stature stakes, though, he is more or less in the Patil league. During his term as External Affairs Minister, it became apparent how vertically challenged he was when he met counterparts like Mr Qureshi from Paksitan:

Ms. Rice from the United States:

And Mr. Milliband from the United Kingdom:

For readers who have not met me, I'd like to clarify that I am short myself, and this post is not inspired by personal prejudice. But since we have a minimum height requirement for the military, why not apply it to the official head of our armed forces as well? There's no evidence that taller people make better soldiers, as the Vietnam war and General Giap make clear. But taller people do make better-looking Presidents, or at least less ridiculous-looking ones.

 Update: Chief Ministers Jayalalitha and Nitish Kumar have put forward the name of P A Sangma as their candidate for President. Mr Sangma is the guy on the extreme left in the photograph below.I'm beginning to scent a conspiracy.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tadao Ando at Godrej Culture Lab

Yesterday, at an event organised by the Godrej Culture Lab at Vikhroli, I had the pleasure of listening to a talk by Tadao Ando, one of the world's greatest living architects. Not having been to Japan, my knowledge of his work comes mainly from books, but what I've seen in photographs and read about him has impressed me greatly.
When I got to the venue half an hour before the talk was to start, there was a long queue of people waiting to get their copy of a big tome about Ando signed by the man himself. Each person bought a copy for 2500 rupees, wrote his or her name on a slip of paper, and handed these over once face to face with the master builder. He'd write down the name, make a little sketch, and sign. Architecture students obviously have much more money than art students. I can't imagine such a long queue to get a book signed by, say, Gerhard Richter, if he came to town. I could be wrong.
The hall filled quickly, and some, like my friends Deepika and Shireen, found that keeping a placeholder such as a handbag on a seat did not guarantee that the seat would actually remain vacant. The auditorium had some 300 chairs, and by the time Ando began speaking about fifty people were standing at the back. He spoke in Japanese, and was translated by an Indian assisted by a White man who appeared part of the Ando entourage. He was by turns funny, moving and incisive. He also dropped a few names, highlighted his own charitable contributions and made what seemed a strong sales pitch to the assembled Godrej brass.
Ando's approach is inherently modernist, but he imbues concrete with feeling and light and incorporates natural features into the complexes he builds. He balances needs of the market with a desire to preserve and reinvigorate nature; and employs art, culture and built heritage to attract people to locations and to make those who live and work in those locations feel emotionally connected to their surroundings.
Should the Godrejes greenlight a Tadao Ando build, it will be the most exciting architectural project the city has seen since Independence.
A bit about the Godrej land in Vikhroli: it is the biggest tract of its kind in the city and probably the most valuable privately-owned piece of earth anywhere in India. Back in the socialist days, during the Emergency to be specific, the Congress government passed a law called the Urban Land Ceiling Act. The idea was to take land from those who possessed more of it than they needed, and build on it homes for the poor and government employees. Nothing of the sort happened. Politicians made millions by not expropriating privately held plots, and by ignoring a provision that forced builders to turn over for public use 5% of all flats built on exempted land.
In the 30 years that the Land Ceiling Act was in the books, the government acquired just 260 odd acres of vacant land, and received less than 2500 flats from builders from the nearly 2000 acres exempted. The law was repealed five years ago, but there's a lot of litigation related to it still being heard by courts.
The Godrejes owned 3500 acres, and little of that has been taken over or sold. Despite a speeding up in construction, there's plenty left for an architectural landmark to be built.
Back in the socialist days, two films were made about slum residents, the first independent documentaries about the subject to be widely viewed: Uma Segal's Shelter and Anand Patwardhan's Hamara Shahar: Bombay, Our City. Both films contrasted the massive unused land the Godrejes were sitting on with the paltry dwellings available to those who couldn't afford flats. Shelter, if I recall correctly, used title cards that said, in rapid succession, Godrej and Hoardrej.
Having successfully kept the ULCRA demon at bay, will the Godrej clan now do something interesting with all that land, or will they follow every other developer in cramming it with malls, glass-front office towers and luxury residences? It's clear that a Tadao Ando project will not be as lucrative as one by Hafeez Contractor and his ilk. But hey, Parsis are different from Marwaris, Gujaratis, Sindhis, Marathis, Punjabis and all the rest, right? Parsis combine entrepreneurship with civic sense and good taste. They don't look solely at the bottom line. If Godrej will do nothing but build another Hiranandani complex, Indiabulls Centre or High Street Phoenix, there's truly no hope for this city.

Tadao Ando took a helicopter ride over Vikhroli and its surroundings and was excited by the mangrove forest, seeing it as an anchor around which an entire complex could be designed. Another proposal currently doing the rounds, directed at the government rather than private sector, also involves the use of mangroves and the city's coastline. It is currently on view at NGMA, and has been designed by P K Das with the backing of Shabana Azmi, who worked with Das on the beautification of Carter Road. If something like the P K Das plan actually makes it past the drawing board, and the Godrej family bites the Ando bait, Bombay could be substantially improved five years from now. Here's hoping against hope.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The deficit experiment: mid-term results are in

In October 2010, I wrote of divergent approaches to the economic crisis being followed in the United States and in the UK. Well, the mid-term results are in with the UK officially slipping back into recession.
It seems such a simple principle: in a slump raise spending, not taxes. Cut back on spending and raise taxes once the slump is decisively behind you. Yet, both in the UK and Europe, governments have chosen to focus on deficits, dooming prospects for growth, and scrambling deficit reduction targets as a consequence. It's inexplicable behaviour. I'm waiting for an investigation titled Chronicle of a Recession Foretold.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Jack Nicholson's best films

Jack Nicholson turned 75 two days ago. I've seen every film he has been in since Easy Rider, and some performances predating the road movie that brought him his first Oscar nomination. He was for years my favourite actor, though the many, many bad movies he's acted in have sapped my faith. He's had a weird career, starting with ten years of independent low-budget films of mostly indifferent quality and ending with a string of schmaltzy Hollywood productions. Then again, when was the last time you saw Robert de Niro in a good film?
On the positive side, there was a period in the 1970s when Nicholson produced a succession of stunning roles in superb films. My selection reveals my biases clearly. I'd rather watch an interesting failure like The Passenger than a well-constructed star vehicle like Terms of Endearment. And yes, I unapologetically prefer Michelangelo Anotinioni to James L. Brooks. So here are my top eight Jack Nicholson films:

8: Easy Rider. 1969. Director: Dennis Hopper
Nicholson's very good in it, and the movie's a cultural landmark, but it isn't a particularly good film as a film. One-dimensional and rather unsympathetic protagonists. I'm not surprised Dennis Hopper became fiercely right-wing later in his life. Apparently, the actors were stoned while shooting Nicholson's stirring monologue about civil rights, and the reason Jack stared into space throughout was that he'd burst into giggles every time his eyes met Hopper's or Fonda's.

7: The Shining. 1980. Director: Stanley Kubrick
Another one-dimensional film, but that one dimension's exceptional. The Shining changed Nicholson from an actor who imbued each character with complexity into a bit of a ham. It's a direct line from this role to the Joker in Batman.

6: The Passenger. 1975. Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
The final shot (technically the penultimate one, but it feels final) is legendary, and deservedly so. The extraordinarily complicated take isn't just Antonioni showing off, but mirrors, in its still-haven't-found-what-I'm-looking-for vibe, the emotional state of Nicholson's protagonist who chooses almost arbitrarily to give up his own identity and take on that of a stranger.

5: About Schmidt. 2002. Director: Alexander Payne
Payne and Nicholson maintain a fine balance between farce and seriousness throughout the film, endowing the relationship between the retired bean counter Schmidt and an orphan in Africa called Ndugu (who might not even exist) with a wonderful ambiguity.

4: Reds. 1981. Director: Warren Beatty
Warren Beatty as John Reed, Diane Keaton as Louise Bryant, Jack Nicholson as Eugene O'Neill, and over a dozen interviews with eminences born in the early twentieth century like Will Durant and Arthur Miller. Nicholson is a scene stealer in all his cameos but unlike, say, Broadcast News, Reds has enough substance to absorb the power of his performance and turn it into something beneficial for the film as a whole. Also, the romance at the film's centre holds its own against the epic historical backdrop. Apparently, Nicholson grew infatuated with Keaton during the shoot, but she was seeing Nicholson's best friend Beatty, so an off-screen love triangle mirrored the one on screen. The Beatty-Keaton relationship didn't survive the difficult creation of Reds.
Nicholson appears in this clip from 10.00 onwards:

3: Five Easy Pieces. 1970. Director: Bob Rafelson.
Nicholson manages to capture the angst and frustration of a generation in essaying the character of Bobby Dupea, classical pianist and oil rig worker. American films rarely touch on conflicts between high-brow culture and working class dreariness: it goes too much against the grain of the nation's self-image. 

2: Chinatown. 1974. Director: Roman Polanski
Probably the best film Nicholson's been in, but I've placed it second because his performance in Cuckoo's Nest is superlative. I've watched it six or seven times and could easily watch it six or seven times more.

1: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. 1975. Director: Milos Forman
I wonder how many people today would be sympathetic to Jack Nicholson's Randle McMurphy justifying statutory rape: "She was fifteen years old going on thirty-five, Doc, and she told me she was eighteen, she was very willing, I practically had to take to sewing my pants shut. Between you and me, uh, she might have been fifteen, but when you get that little red beaver right up there in front of you, I don't think it's crazy at all and I don't think you do either. No man alive could resist that, and that's why I got into jail to begin with."

Be that as it may, Cuckoo's Nest remains one of the great anti-authoritarian films, made by a Czech emigre who knew a thing or two about authoritarianism. And Nicholson is incendiary in it, volcanic, so one feels, when his rage boils over that it is just a fraction of the pent up anger within him.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Art, politics and genital mutilation

My friends' Facebook updates are full of shock and horror about Sweden's minister of culture cutting a 'genital mutilation cake'. The first story I read about the cake carried the image above. It struck me as odd that the minister appeared to be feeding the cake to the head of the cake, rather than eating it herself.
I later learned the occasion was a performance by a Swedish artist of African extraction named Makode Aj Linde; his real head was part of the cake installaion, and he screamed everytime a part of his 'torso' was cut.

Once I saw the video, the whole thing made sense to me. The piece is a protest against the history of imperialist racism and the custom of genital mutilation. It's strange to me that even those who've seen the video interpret the performance as racist in intent or effect. One Facebook friend linked to the video with the words, "This is utterly revolting. If this is “freedom of expression” as the article suggests it might be argued, then Sweden (and everyone) is doomed." I, on the other hand, think, "If this is viewed as racist, then art is doomed". OK, that's an exaggeration. I don't really think art is doomed. I only think it's doomed to be misunderstood through dissemination in the media. The way M.F.Husain's painting of Sita and Hanuman was framed in media discussions, for example, it was hard to defend except by reference to an ideal of free expression that neither the Indian constitution nor the majority of India's citizens support. It's weird to see friends who defended Husain expressing disgust at Makode Aj Linde. They still haven't understood how media coverage distorts art's meanings, which was for me the central lesson of the long years of Husain's vilification.
One reason a number of people are repelled by the video is that those cutting the cake, including the minister, laugh through the process. However, that's the way art openings work. There's the context of the event, which is convivial and celebratory. There's also the emotional context created by the art, which is often very different. Just because we sip wine and joke while standing next to images of barbarity doesn't mean those images have failed to convey their true import or that we are insensitive to it. If the art is good, it will stay with us, and our minds will return to it on many occasions in the future when we aren't sipping wine or chatting with friends. Those women cutting into the genital mutilation cake might be laughing, not only because of the event's context but because there's a kind of grotesque slapstick involved in the performance. But you can see some smiles turning uneasy even during the very short run of the video. I have no doubt the artist's screams, and the act of cutting into what seems at one level like a body, created a great deal of discomfiture among those who participated. It may not be evident from the video, but those who've experienced such performances know the slow-burn effect they produce.
So I have no complaints whatsoever about the ethical or political background to the cake cutting. My only objection is that the velvet sponge looks orange rather than blood red.

It's really a bad idea for politicians to get involved with contemporary art: I just don't see the upside. Years ago, the British Council organised a workshop with a group of British and Indian artists. The resulting show was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh. I was in the gallery when he arrived followed by dozens of photogs. On one side of the room hung a massive Subodh Gupta photo-portrait showing the artist nude, riding a horse. On the opposite wall hung an equally nude and equally large photo-portrait of a female British artist whose name I can't recall. I noticed Mr Deshmukh glance quickly around the room as he walked through the door, and immediately recognise the potential disaster awaiting him: his photograph splashed on the front page of the next morning's papers looking either at a naked man riding a horse or, much worse, a naked White woman splayed on a floor. Obviously, he couldn't glance at either wall even fleetingly as he passed those prints. He moved straight across the room to where the lamp lay waiting to be lit, without seeming deliberately to ignore the art. Once past the minefield, he pretended to take more interest in what was on the walls.
For those brief moments, I admired the man's presence of mind. It isn't easy being a politician in our age. Of course, as Vilasrao Deshmukh knows well, political power offers a number of compensations.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Conversations: Rashid Rana

An introduction to the work of Lahore-based Rashid Rana, which I wrote in 2010, and have uploaded to my blog, Conversations.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Public space, private space, public art, private art

Words extracted from an article published by The National, an Emirati newspaper: "Standing outside the gleaming tower of the Maker Maxity building in suburban Mumbai is a fire-engine-red double-decker bus ... This bus, however, sprouts two stainless steel wings ... A whimsical creation by Mumbai-based artist, Sudarshan Shetty, 50, at an estimated cost of US$250,000 (Dh920,000), this Flying Bus sculpture is arguably India's most significant public art project".
Shetty's Flying Bus has been called a public art work, or art in a public space, by Mumbai Boss, Tehelka and the Telegraph, among other publications. My friend Deepika wrote, in the Economic Times, about Manish Maker, the man who commissioned the Bus: "He has a plan in place for incorporating artworks in the upcoming mall and hotel that will replace the family-owned erstwhile drive-in cinema. These are all public spaces anyone could visit".
A preview of last month's Art Chennai in the Hindu began: "For nine days beginning March 10, art buffs in Chennai are in for a big treat. Teams of artists are likely to take people in public spaces such as shopping malls and railway stations by surprise".
The line introducing the Grand Hyatt's artworks on the hotel's Facebook page reads, "Grand Hyatt Mumbai, houses one of the finest collections of commissioned art in a public space".
I can see why people think of malls, hotels and the courtyards of office complexes as public spaces, and art placed in such locations as public art. These locations charge no entry fee, and are visited by thousands of people each week, unlike art galleries which get few footfalls outside of opening evenings. The Grand Hyatt, though, is no Shivaji Park. Or Millennium Park, since we're speaking of public art.

Sudarshan Shetty is among the finest artists of his generation, he is represented by an excellent gallery, and Manish Maker is a discerning collector. None of these things make the Flying Bus a public art project. I've been to Maker Maxity fairly often. It's one of the most expensive blocks of office space in the country. Alert securitymen at its gates make sure nobody gets in unless they have official business or want to eat overpriced pizza.
The confusion among journalists and affluent Indians about the nature of public space (the poor know very well that shopping malls and five-star hotels are privately owned and rigorously exclusionary) is sad. It means those among us best equipped to demand an expansion of public spaces and institutions are likely to believe the opening of a new mall actually constitutes such an expansion.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conversations: Sudhir Patwardhan

A conversation with one of my favourite artists, Sudhir Patwardhan, focussing on two canvases that are among the best things painted by an Indian in the 21st century. The interview was published in Art India magazine in late 2001 or early 2002.


Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Arundhati Roy, colonialism and the spectre of Marx

A number of respondents to my remarks on Arundhati Roy's Capitalism: A Ghost Story (see previous post) have accused me of not seeing the forest for the trees. No matter this or that error or mistaken detail, they say, her larger, abstract argument is valid. NGOs and charitable foundations have agendas (Hate using that word since, pedantically, agenda is plural of agendum, but 'NGOs have agenda' will come across as a typo. I have sworn, however, never to use criteria as a singular noun.) that are commonly determined by sponsors who are commonly anonymous and commonly fronts for governments.
I have no problem accepting the thesis outlined above, and neither, I believe, will anybody else reading it. It is verifiably, demonstrably true, but it is not what Arundhati Roy is claiming. She tries to knit a grand conspiracy in which governments, businesses and NGOs efficiently combine to serve the cause of Capital and Empire. The small errors in her argument are important because it is through these that she tries to weave in the ends of the fabric, and tugging at them causes the entire pattern to fall apart.
There were a couple of sentences from Roy's article that stuck in my mind, and I want to return to them as a starting point for a discussion about colonialism, postcolonial ideas and Marxism:

The era of the Privatisation of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals.
India’s new mega-corporations—Tatas, Jindals, Essar, Reliance, Sterlite—are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth.

Are minerals among India's main exports? The mining sector contributes only between 2 and 3% of GDP, so it's hardly central to the economy. Not quite what sugar was to the Caribbean or oil is to West Asia. We exported 128,000 crore rupees worth of minerals in 2009-10, and our total exports that year amounted to 845,000 crore rupees. OK, you say, that's a substantial percentage of total exports, but there's a catch. The biggest item in that export list is of diamonds, at 85,000 crore rupees. We also imported uncut diamonds worth 75,000 crore, and the same were then exported after being cut and polished. So, the export of minerals actually mined in India was a paltry 43,000 crore rupees, of which 28,000 crore rupees was iron ore. The second largest mineral export was granite at 5,000 crore rupees.
We imported 525,000 crore rupees worth of minerals in the same year, of which crude took a massive slice. But even leaving petroleum aside, India was comfortably a net importer of minerals, with coal and copper being our biggest buys. Now, does that still resemble "any good old-fashioned colony"?
Meanwhile, in the latest recorded year, India exported 290,000 crore rupees worth of software services, equaling nearly seven times our minerals exports (minus those re-exported diamonds) of 43,000 crore rupees. So much for us being a colony exploited for its raw materials. Not that today's major commodity exporters are akin to colonies in any case. Do Qatar, Russia, Australia, South Africa and Argentina seem like colonies to an impartial observer?

Roy hints at a widely accepted story about the economics of colonialism, a story told by my school history books and one seemingly accepted by Left, Right and Centre in Indian politics. It goes like this: India was a land famed for its artisans and manufacturing skills. The British discouraged indigenous Indian manufacturing and turned this country into a supplier of raw materials and a market for British finished goods. The textile industry is the paradigmatic example of this process: India's long-standing position as a world leader was undermined by imperial restrictions on sales, cotton was shipped from India to Lancashire and other British factory towns, and finished cloth produced in those places sold back to India.

Karl Marx was among the first to understand and condemn the process then underway. he wrote:
It was the British intruder who broke up the Indian hand-loom and destroyed the spinning-wheel. England began with driving the Indian cottons from the European market; it then introduced twist into Hindostan, and in the end inundated the very mother country of cotton with cottons. From 1818 to 1836 the export of twist from Great Britain to India rose in the proportion of 1 to 5,200. In 1824 the export of British muslins to India hardly amounted to 1,000,000 yards, while in 1837 it surpassed 64,000,000 of yards. But at the same time the population of Dacca decreased from 150,000 inhabitants to 20,000. This decline of Indian towns celebrated for their fabrics was by no means the worst consequence. British steam and science uprooted, over the whole surface of Hindostan, the union between agriculture and manufacturing industry.

Unlikely though it might seem, the writer of the Communist Manifesto was, between 1852 and 1863, the European correspondent of the New-York Tribune. His colleague Engels also contributed occasionally to the American rag. The passage quoted above, and most of Marx's other writing about India, appeared in columns written for the Tribune, which occasionally reveal a witty side to a man generally viewed as formidably stern (It's the facial hair does it):
That there is in India a permanent financial deficit, a regular over-supply of wars, and no supply at all of public works, an abominable system of taxation, and a no less abominable state of justice and law, that these five items constitute, as it were, the five points of the East Indian Charter, was settled beyond all doubt in the debates of 1853, as it had been in the debates of 1833, and in the debates of 1813, and in all former debates on India. The only thing never found out, was the party responsible for all this.
There exists, unquestionably, a Governor-General of India, holding the supreme power, but that Governor is governed in his turn by a home government. Who is that home government? Is it the Indian Minister, disguised under the modest title of President of the Board of Control, or is it the twenty-four Directors of the East India Company? On the threshold of the Indian religion we find a divine trinity, and thus we find a profane trinity on the threshold of the Indian Government.

Marx saw, as early as 1853, an emerging contradiction within Britain with respect to India. The extract below is long, but worth reading carefully, for it contains an analysis that has eluded most post-colonialists, and resulted in a skewed view not only of imperialism but of the relationship between Empire and Capital.
During the whole course of the 18th century the treasures transported from India to England were gained much less by comparatively insignificant commerce, than by the direct exploitation of that country, and by the colossal fortunes there extorted and transmitted to England. After the opening of the trade in 1813 the commerce with India more than trebled in a very short time. But this was not all. The whole character of the trade was changed. Till 1813 India had been chiefly an exporting country, while it now became an importing one; and in such a quick progression, that already in 1823 the rate of exchange, which had generally been 2/6 per rupee, sunk down to 2/ per rupee. India, the great workshop of cotton manufacture for the world, since immemorial times, became now inundated with English twists and cotton stuffs. After its own produce had been excluded from England, or only admitted on the most cruel terms, British manufactures were poured into it at a small and merely nominal duty, to the ruin of the native cotton fabrics once so celebrated. In 1780 the value of British produce and manufactures amounted only to £386;152, the bullion exported during the same year to £15,041, the total value of exports during 1780 being £12,648,616, so that the India trade amounted to only 1-32 of the entire foreign trade. In 1850 the total exports to India from Great Britain and Ireland were £8,024,000, of which cotton goods alone amounted to £5,220,000, so that it reached more than 1/8 of the whole export, and more than 1/4 of the foreign cotton trade. But the cotton manufacture also employed now 1/8 of the population of Britain, and contributed 1/12th of the whole national revenue. After each commercial crisis the East Indian trade grew of more paramount importance for the British cotton manufacturers, and the East India Continent became actually their best market. At the same rate at which the cotton manufactures became of vital interest for the whole social frame of Great Britain, East India became of vital interest for the British cotton manufacture.
Till then the interests of the moneyocracy which had converted India into its landed estates, of the oligarchy who had conquered it by their armies, and of the millocracy who had inundated it with their fabrics, had gone hand in hand. But the more the industrial interest became dependent on the Indian market, the more it fell the necessity of creating fresh productive powers in India, after having ruined her native industry. You cannot continue to inundate a country with your manufactures, unless you enable it to give you some produce in return. The industrial interest found that their trade declined instead of increasing. For the four years ending with 1846, the imports to India from Great Britain were to the amount of 261 million rupees; for the four years ending 1850 they were only 253 millions, while the exports for the former period 274 millions of rupees, and for the latter period 254 millions. They found out that the power of consuming their goods was contracted in India to the lowest possible point, that the consumption of their manufactures by the British West Indies, was of the value of about 14s. per head of the population per annum, by Chile, of 9s. 3d., by Brazil, of 6s. 5d., by Cuba, of 6s. 2d., by Peru, of 5s. 7d., by Central America, of 10d., while it amounted in India only to about 9d... Besides, they found that in all attempts to apply capital to India they met with impediments and chicanery on the part of the India authorities. Thus India became the battle-field in the contest of the industrial interest on the one side, and of the moneyocracy and oligarchy on the other. The manufacturers, conscious of their ascendancy in England, ask now for the annihilation of these antagonistic powers in India, for the destruction of the whole ancient fabric of Indian government, and for the final eclipse of the East India Company.

It's so obvious in retrospect, but till I read this passage in my late teens, I had swallowed the official story about the Raj lock, stock and barrel. If a nation's citizens are progressively impoverished, and the nation becomes merely a place to grow or dig out raw material to be exported for manufacture elsewhere, that nation and its citizens cannot simultaneously provide a flourishing market for finished goods.

You cannot continue to inundate a country with your manufactures, unless you enable it to give you some produce in return

Roy's vision of neo-imperialism, articulated in an article written a decade ago, mirrors the fallacy Indian history books perpetuate about the Raj:
Across the world as the 'free market' brazenly protects Western markets and forces developing countries to lift their trade barriers, the poor are getting poorer and the rich richer.

I have confronted this idea from a different perspective in an earlier blog post, but in the present context I want to underline the inherent contradiction within it, which Karl Marx's 159 year-old newspaper column exposes: if the poor keep getting poorer, lifting trade barriers is useless, since people on the other side of the divide will be incapable of buying any goods from those nasty Western neo-imperialists.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Annotating Arundhati

Arundhati Roy raises a number of vital issues in her latest polemic Capitalism: A Ghost Story. She's at her strongest when describing the condition of places like Chattisgarh, where corrupt administrations have given over large tracts of land to industrialists through secret agreements; herded sections of the population into concentration camps; and created pro-government militias while branding all protestors Naxalites. Her larger criticism relates to think-tanks, philanthropic foundations and NGOs creating and maintaining a consensus about the way the world's economy ought to be run. I don't believe she's convincingly made the connection between the micro and macro picture. In fact, I find a number of her arguments faulty, error-ridden or plain dishonest. Here's a small sampling of those, with quotes from her essay in italics and my comments below these in normal type.

India’s 100 richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of the GDP.

While the figure is shocking, it is also a misleading apples-and-oranges comparison, because 'assets' relate to total wealth, while 'GDP' measures production in a single year.

In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the new, post-IMF “reforms” middle class—the market—live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests; the ghosts of 2,50,000 debt-ridden farmers who have killed themselves, and of the 800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us.

It is amusing to have Arundhati Roy include herself in the 'middle-class'. She's rich by any standards, a dollar millionaire many times over. There is, of course, a persistent belief among rich Indians that they are only middle-class, and to that extent Roy comes through, for once, as typically Indian.
The passage describes a zero sum game in which 300 million Indians have won at the expense of 800 million losers. There is, however, no evidence that those who are impoverished were better off in the past. India has for millennia been a land where most citizens lived in misery.

The era of the Privatisation of Everything has made the Indian economy one of the fastest growing in the world. However, like any good old-fashioned colony, one of its main exports is its minerals. India’s new mega-corporations—Tatas, Jindals, Essar, Reliance, Sterlite—are those who have managed to muscle their way to the head of the spigot that is spewing money extracted from deep inside the earth. It’s a dream come true for businessmen—to be able to sell what they don’t have to buy.

Roy focuses on mining throughout the piece, and this passage exposes a major fault line in her argument. Groups like the Tatas and Jindals are not among India's biggest exporters of minerals. They want mining leases to assure themselves of supply to their steel plants. There is a constant tussle, reflected in the minister in charge of mining battling the one in charge of steel, between indigenous manufacturers who want exports restricted and exporters such as Sesa Goa who want license to sell anywhere in the world. Roy's erroneous view of Capitalism as an efficient and single-minded monster cannot capture these conflicts.

... by now we know that the connection between GDP growth and jobs is a myth. After 20 years of “growth”, 60 per cent of India’s workforce is self-employed, 90 per cent of India’s labour force works in the unorganised sector.

Non-sequitur. The first sentence speaks about job growth as a whole, and the second shifts to self-employed and unorganised jobs versus organised ones. Has she considered that GDP growth might create opportunities for self-employed and unorganised workers? Sure, it would be good to have more organised sector employment, but that's prevented as much by outdated labour laws and short-sighted unions as by any failure in the market's functioning.

In the summer of 2011, the 2G spectrum scandal broke. We learnt that corporations had siphoned away $40 billion of public money by installing a friendly soul as the Union minister of telecommunication who grossly underpriced the licences for 2G telecom spectrum and illegally parcelled it out to his buddies.

The CAG's voodoo arithmetic has led to a lot of confusion, and Roy happily takes her place among the befuddled. She says corporations "siphoned away" 40 billion dollars of public money. No, they didn't. The money didn't actually exist. It is an estimate of what the government, in the GAG's view, might have earned, had it auctioned 2G licenses and spectrum, instead of following a first-come-first-served policy. The calculation of presumptive loss is itself seriously apples-and-oranges, using 3G prices as a benchmark to estimate 2G income. What laypeople don't seem to realise is that any money accruing to the government eventually comes from our pockets. If the government 'lost' 40 billion dollars, it was money that the telecom firms would have made back by charging us higher prices. Frankly, I'm happy the money stayed in our pockets and tariffs plunged so low that India ended up with the cheapest calling rates in the world.

Of late, the main mining conglomerates have embraced the Arts—film, art installations and the rush of literary festivals that have replaced the ’90s obsession with beauty contests... The Jindal Group brings out a contemporary art magazine and supports some of India’s major artists (who naturally work with stainless steel).

I was for a couple of years the editor of the contemporary art magazine Roy mentions. It was established before the Jindals owned mines. The Sajjan Jindal Group neither was nor is a 'mining conglomerate', but primarily a steel manufacturing business with interests in power generation. It is also wrong to claim the Jindal Group 'supports some of India's major artists (who naturally work with stainless steel)'. The artist most identified with stainless steel, Subodh Gupta, was part of a workshop in Jindal Steel's Vasind campus a decade ago. He has also featured regularly in Art India magazine. But those are very minor entries in his CV. I don't believe the Jindals have patronised any major, or even minor, artist, in the way, say, Harsh Goenka of the RPG Group has done. The Sajjan Jindal Group, by the way, does not manufacture stainless steel. Jindal Stainless is run by a different branch of the family.

But which of us sinners was going to cast the first stone? Not me, who lives off royalties from corporate publishing houses.

Wow, a moment of self-reflection after a decade and a half of pointing fingers. Though she says she won't cast the first stone, Roy chucks a number of missiles in the course of this diatribe. Since she's in an introspective mood, though, she might consider how her international travel would be possible without steel and oil; and how her home could be lit and her PC booted up without power from either burning coal, building dams, or splitting atoms.

What better way for usurers to use a minuscule percentage of their profits to run the world? How else would Bill Gates, who admittedly knows a thing or two about computers, find himself designing education, health and agriculture policies, not just for the US government, but for governments all over the world?

Bill Gates, who has donated far more than a minuscule percentage of his wealth to his Foundation, was among the most powerful men in the world long before he turned to philanthropy. Just because his foundation designs a few policies doesn't mean he runs the world.

Mohammed Yunus and the Grameen Bank brought microcredit to starving peasants with disastrous consequences.

Some of the sheen has come off the microcredit miracle, no doubt, but to suggest Grameen Bank has been a disaster is surely a mistake. Many of those starving peasants stopped starving as a result of access to credit.

The Ford Foundation established a US-style economics course at the Indonesian University. Elite Indonesian students, trained in counter-insurgency by US army officers, played a crucial part in the 1965 CIA-backed coup in Indonesia that brought General Suharto to power. Gen Suharto repaid his mentors by slaughtering hundreds of thousands of Communist rebels.

These kinds of statements most clearly demonstrate Roy's dishonest mode of argument. There are some chaps studying a course in economics designed by the Ford Foundation in Indonesia. A completely different group of 'elite students' supposedly plays a part in a CIA-backed coup. The details of the coup of 1965 have never been sufficiently revealed, but it appears to have been one faction of the army trying to take over the country and failing. I haven't read anything that suggests 'elite students' played a significant role in the operation or in the slaughter that occurred later. But by bringing anti-insurgent students into the picture, Roy creates a sense in our minds that the economics students have something to do with the coup, and, by extension, that the Ford Foundation was somehow involved in the Indonesian massacres of 1965 and 1966. But all the Ford Foundation had done was set up an economics course. It didn't kill any Communists, nor train anybody to kill Communists, nor even, as far as we can tell, train anybody in economics who later killed Communists.

Eight years later, young Chilean students, who came to be known as the Chicago Boys, were taken to the US to be trained in neo-liberal economics by Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago (endowed by J.D. Rockefeller), in preparation for the 1973 CIA-backed coup that killed Salvador Allende, and brought in General Pinochet and a reign of death squads, disappearances and terror that lasted for seventeen years.

More false history. The programme to train Chileans at Chicago originated in the 1950s. Salvador Allende gained power in Chile in 1970. In no sense or form were students from Chile taken to the US 'in preparation' for the 1973 CIA-backed coup. The Ford Foundation had no more to do with the coup in Chile than it did with the coup in Indonesia.

A conservative estimate of the UID budget exceeds the Indian government’s annual public spending on education.

Apples-and-oranges again. Roy appears to be comparing the UID budget for its entire multi-year rollout to an annual budgetary outlay. To provide a more accurate comparison, here are estimates for 2012-13 announced in Pranab Mukherjee's recent budget:
UID: 14232 crore rupees
Education: 48,781 rupees
Education, moreover, is a State subject, which means the total Indian governmental contribution to schooling is far greater than the 48,781 crores allotted by the Centre.

As US universities opened their doors to international students, hundreds of thousands of students, children of the Third World elite, poured in. Those who could not afford the fees were given scholarships.

The whole point of scholarships is to ensure that deserving students don't get left out just because they aren't part of the elite. Roy manages to twist this honourable aim to make scholarships part of a grand Anglo-American conspiracy to brainwash Third Worlders. "Those who could not afford fees were given scholarships" makes the entire grants process seem so easy from the recipients' perspective.

Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation, ushering them in the direction of multi-culturalism, gender, community development—the discourse couched in the language of identity politics and human rights.

Actually, for decades the billions poured into education programmes and cultural grants by the American government and its proxies failed to turn potential revolutionaries away from the path of radical confrontation. The real problem was that regimes that tried to do away with the market created far more misery and perpetrated far greater atrocities than the system they set out to replace. Eventually, most intelligent people understood that the practical failures of anti-capitalist governments resulted not only from sanctions, embargoes and CIA-sponsored insurgencies, but also from deep-rooted in-built drawbacks. Roy never acknowledges that long and bitter history of failure, except insofar as she purges her writing of anything that could be construed as a positive alternate vision.

Update, April 2: A couple of friends have pointed out that I come across as condoning the corruption of A Raja, and I can see why they see it that way. The 2G scandal is rather complicated, but, briefly, Raja's corruption involved getting firms licenses that would otherwise not have qualified under the established criteria, and blocking a couple of firms who would have qualified. He needs to be punished for this. My objection is to the idea that his acts constituted one of the greatest scams in India's history, a belief fed by the absurd 40 billion dollar figure the CAG dreamt up. Had the licenses been handed out sticking to procedure, the policy would have been preferrable in many ways to the auctions that are now going to be held for anything from spectrum to mining, following a recent Supreme Court verdict. Auctions tend to drive up prices for licenses to irrational levels, and hurt consumers because the costs are inevitably passed on to them.