Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Book Review: Orfeo by Richard Powers

Richard Powers
Orfeo by Richard Powers is a novel that combines sci-fi with sheer mundane things like a hobby turning into an ordeal. Els is a chemistry man, a geneticist, and a life-long music addict, who plans to weave music into DNA strands in his hobby laboratory at home. He tinkers with genetic modification using equipment bought on internet sites. In addition, he composes music, and has done a few shows with his friend Richard. He is divorced, estranged from his only daughter, and lives the life of a recluse. The only thing that goes wrong in his sedate life is that he is found out when his dog dies and the police come to investigate. The policemen suspect him to be a bio terrorist and one day coming back from his morning walk, he discovers that his home has been broken into by the security agencies. He runs away, a fugitive now, sure that his genetic experiment will be viewed as being of grave security concerns by the agency, and he would be implicated.

Desperately, he runs away from home, drives through multiple states using a student's smart phone. He realises he lives in the hell that is the modern world where every phone call can be traced to the exact location. So, wary, he plods on from state to state, depending on cash transactions, as he knows his credit card usage will be monitored by the agencies. There are excellent passages in the novel that brings us closer to the character of Els, his genius, his knowledge of music, his understanding of modern technology. Also he pre-empts discovery and arrest by his vast knowledge of science and technology.

For example, "(Russia) crumbles into a dozen-plus countries. All the world's data weaves together into a web." The language is terse and therefore the author holds reader in thrall, imagining what the next revelatory sentence could be. "Els said 'do not invent simply discover.' One or two of them understood him." These are the sort of stray gems littered throughout the novel.

Els' journey takes him on a whirlwind tour of the states of the United States and his wry humour keeps us involved. He visits his estranged wife and daughter. However, in the end, when he is caught in his daughter's home, the narrative encounters its major stumbling block. There's too much of technical details, beyond the comprehension of the lay reader. That's the only drawback in this excellent novel. However, on the whole it's a novel that entertains with the sheer brilliance of the author's knowledge and innovative use of language and keeps us on the edge wanting to know more.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Trip to Kerala: September 2014


Just returned from a trip to Kerala yesterday. Writing a few words here about the experience: the beauty, the ugliness, the mental forbearance needed, and the agony of waiting.


First of all, Kerala is beautiful this time of the year. The monsoon has retreated so it's not warm or cold, and the bright sun shines on palm fronds and rubber leaves. Beautiful is also the entire Konkan coast. But Kerala promoted itself as a tourist paradise and the name stuck. However, this has ramifications for me, a frequent traveller to the state which is home, second to Bombay, that is. The trains are crowded, tickets aren't available, and I have to suffer the assault of many unknown languages. That's forgivable but what is not is the Indian – I mean general – tendency to litter. Spitting red pan spittle is a malaise in North India and not South India. However, this habit is catching on.


Every home, or, locality, has a resident pest. This is usually a mentally disturbed individual who speaks very loudly, under the influence of the liquor of the night before. My sister's neighbour is one such individual; my brother-in-law's (from my wife's side) has another such pest. They disturb the peace during day and night, talking loudly so that everyone can hear and generally behaving like a tyke. There is no logic in his talk and he claims to be a prophet of god and a god-fearing man. Then why this high-decibel hectoring? Why this boasting and disturbing the peace?


If you want to get anything done in Kerala you need a Bangla Deshi, a Bihari, or an Assamiya. Kerala men won't work even if they are able bodied and look like Salman Khan minus the cute looks. Here every working class man sports a six pack, but still he won't work for a living though the daily wage is Rs seven hundred. Yes, you heard right, seven hundred. Seven hundred plus two breaks for tea and one for lunch won't lure the lousy lout to pick up the hoe and spade. All my life, I slaved for much less. He would rather laze at home and live off his wife because he gets rice at Re one, a plot of land for free and a loan to build a house.


So imagine my surprise when I see the crowd of Bangla Deshis waiting for the Gauhati Express all along the route to Kochi. I am on my return trip and going for a brief stay at my brother's place in Kochi. They are paid only half the mandatory wages, but look prosperous and happy.


Gulf money has spoilt the countryside. There are unsightly bungalows dotting the verdant villages, painted in garish pink, yellow, shocking blue, and screaming violet. All of them have aluminium roofing to protect against the rain which adds to the ugliness. But architectural beauty is a subjective matter and I could be disputed on this. So, I will leave it.


Then the state doesn't have a viable garbage removal policy. Literally every little town reeks with the disgusting stench of refuse. A lot of junk food is consumed and the wrappers are thrown by the side of the street to rot with remains of food, meat, and fish. Even the city of Kochi – the premium city - doesn't have a proper garbage removal system in place. People pay to get their waste removed.  


These are some of the issues, I faced. More, if time permits. Meanwhile, I should run. Wifey has been announcing that lunch is ready.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Luke R.I.P.

Sept 20

Just as I am about to leave for Kerala today news comes that my friend Luke, handyman, friend, died. Hr fell down and just died. I whine in disbelief as my wife tells me this. Yesterday I had discussed some urgent repair work on the house with him. And here he is: no more. Gone from this world.

Luke, friend, partner, r.i.p

Luke was Sri Lankan and I have been wanting to write a short fiction about him, his English, his gentle personality, his lack if guile, his readiness to help any time. This was a series of short fiction I am planning on the South Asian diaspora living illegally in India. I have already written on a Bangladeshi migrant.

Why he left a comfortable life in Negombo, Sri Lanka, to work in a remote valley in a satellite city is beyond me. I had visited his native town of Negombo when I had gone on a visit. We discussed its beaches, its people. His brothers are business owners he tells me, placed highly in the island nation. They had come to India to take him back. At the airport he ran back, out of the terminal, away from where his brother waited for him, to the country he had no wish to leave, because he loved that country. He said many times that he loved India.

Now he is no more. He was walking on the street. He fell down and died. He had long greying hair, a bulky body used to working, and the softest expression in his eyes. I remember his face clearly from our meeting yesterday. He had said, "you come back no, then I do your work, little, little, money give me anytime, no worry, only you be satisfied wid my work."

Those were his parting words.

(Sent from my mobile phone.)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

How to Know the Difference between a Tamilian (Tamu) and a Malayali (Mallu)

The substantial and up-and-coming talent of the young Raamesh Gowri Raghavan (a Tamu, by the way) referred to one aspect of this post and the response was phenomenal on Facebook. I had posted this on Facebook first, not here, as I usually do. 

The point in question is "Not all people who speak fast “anda gundu” are Mallus" fifth in sequence below.


I have often been asked if I am a Tamu. When I say no, then they ask me if I am a Mallu. When they hear no, they ask me if I am from Andhra. I say I have spent most of my life in Bombay, so I think I am a half-Bombayite, but I was born in Kerala, so I am half-Mallu. I am a hybrid. Therefore I am essaying below a short treatise on how to make out who is a Tamu and who is a Mallu:

Not everyone with curly hair using coconut shampoo is a Mallu

Agreed Mallus use coconut oil in all their dishes, and also on themselves. So all shiny curly tops aren’t those of Mallus, some of them are Tamus also. The difference is Mallus apply coconut oil before bath and Tamus apply the oil after bath.

Not everyone with a dark skin is a Mallu

Yes, Mallus have dark skin but Tamus also have dark skin. Their degrees of darkness vary from district to district. Example: skin colour of a Mallu from Kasargod will be lighter than his cousin from Quilon. Likewise a Tamu from Nagarcoil would be darker than a Tamu from Erode.

Tamus make stars out of those from other states. Mallus like their stars home grown

MGR was a Mallu and Rajnikant is a Maharashtrian but both of them became big stars in Tamil Nadu. But Kerala’s stars are from their own soil – e.g. Mohan Lal and Mamooty. Kamalahasan made a brief foray into Malayalam cinema but didn’t succeed.

Tamus substitute “P” for “B” and Mallus substitude “B” for “P”

A Tamu will say “Pollywood” for “Bollywood” but a Mallu will say “Simble” for “Simple.”

Tamu: Pollywood poster
Mallu: Bollywood boster

Not all people who speak fast “anda gundu” are Mallus

Tamus speak very fast. That’s because the excitement of a Tamu meeting another is so great that they want to share as much as possible in the shortest time. Whereas Mallus are standoffish when confronted by other Mallus and would speak guardedly, meaning slowly.

The nurses in hospitals you have been admitted to are Mallus, however, the guy who designed your operating system will most likely be a Tamu

Because there are more nurses per square kilometre in Kerala than any other state in India. Also there are more programmers per square kilometre in Tamil Nadu than any other state in India.

Party affiliations

DMK, AIADMK, PMK, are parties in Tamil Nadu, ergo, Tamu while CPI, CPI (M), CPI (ML), Congress (I), Kerala Congress, Kerala Congress (Mani group), Kerala Congress (Joseph group) are parties in Kerala. I know, I know, Mallus are like protoplasm that divides and subdivides. When two Mallus get together there would be two political parties.

Hope the differences are abundantly clear. If you have any doubts please ask in the comments section. Hobe I have made the differences simble enough.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Hey, Young People, Want to Know What Life Was Like Then? - Part 1

I was just thinking: do young people know how difficult life was for us old timers? You would like to know? 

Imagine these vignettes from around thirty to forty years ago:

You had to go two kilometres to a shop having a telephone to make a call. So, you mostly used your office telephone to call friends and relatives. And, that too if there was an emergency. You had the round dial that would go "krrr... krr... krr..."

You still wrote letters to know what was going on in a person's life. If it was urgent a telegram would be sent. People used post offices to send money.

Movies were the only sort of entertainment and we would gather at the nearby theatre on a friday to catch a movie's first show. We used to call it "first day first show."

Matinees were movies shown in the first show of the day and "matinee queen or idol" meant a female star who is so sexy that we all wanted to catch the first show. Waheeda Rehman, Madhubala, Sadhana, were all matinee idols. Wonder why that term is no longer used. 

All our spare time was spent in playing, or, at home reading books. Friends would drop in and call us for the following games: marbles, gilli danda, lagori, tag (pakda pakdi), eyes prize (I don't know what this game is called except that you touched a spot and said "eyes prize"), langdi (hopping on one leg), et cetera. All these games have vanished. In addition cricket and football were our favorite games played at school and near home. 

There were tournaments - both football and cricket - where the local team was cheered. Since I am a Chembur boy we had the Chembur Challengers in football, the Ginnis were the favourite of the Kannadiga boys. KV was called "Pele" at that time and he was treated like a star.

Picnic meant going to Kanheri Caves or Elephanta Caves with our own food and water. We didn't have bottled water then.

In Tilak Nagar where I lived (where future star Anil Kapoor also lived, yes, we are contemporaries) we had screening of films during the festival season. Since we had 112 buildings there were a wide range of movies being shown with stars like Shammi Kapoor, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Manoj Kumar, et cetera. Music was also played before the film show, which was the only source of listening to music.

When television arrived around 1973, a house in the next building bought a black and white television. I remember it was kept on top of a cupboard so that everyone could see. We used to watch the Sunday movie standing outside, peeking in through the bars of the window. On wednesdays we watched Chitrahaar which was a compilation of songs. 

Since cricket matches were five-day affairs, shops used to keep a television in their windows facing outside and we used to watch kneeling on the sidewalk. It was good advertising for the shops.

News came through Siemens and Grundig radios. Newspapers and magazines were subscribed by the really educated and shared with neighbors. There were lending libraries that lent books and magazines for a price, Re one for a book and fifty paise for a magazine or comic.

(Got to go now. More to come.)

Friday, August 22, 2014

Treyvon Martin, Michael Brown, and now Kajieme Powell: Three Black Youth Shot by Police

Today I saw this gruesome video of the police shoot down an armed (yes, he had a knife on him) black man in St. Louis, US. This is the first time I saw someone being shot in real life on computer. It wasn’t a pretty sight. It’s stark and it’s disturbing, a man losing his life in front of you. There were several witnesses on the spot and one was capturing it all on movie camera. I hope it will be accepted as evidence of what happened.

This came closely after police gunned down Michael Brown in Ferguson, close to where the above unfortunate scene happened.

The above video shows a black man (Kajieme Powell) who has stolen an energy drink from a store waiting at the sidewalk. He isn’t drinking the frothy drink, just standing there, saying he is on Facebook etcetera. I cannot understand his argot, but I have a suspicion that he is talking about Michael Brown’s shooting. He seemed a disturbed young man. Then why didn’t the police use some harmless method to arrest him: spray or rubber bullet?

St Louis happens to have a majority black population though the police force is majorly white. It is alleged in this article that the police mostly stop and search innocent blacks than whites. The town council is also made up of white people, a majority, that is.

After Michael Brown’s shooting the town of Ferguson erupted into violence and looting. People poured into the streets and took the law into their own hands. The protestors should have shown restraint, but didn’t. The anger was evident.

In February this year Treyvon Martin was shot in Florida because he was wearing a hood when he returned after meeting his would-be step mother. A man suspected him to be an armed robber and shot him.

The issue in these three shootings is the same. Racial discrimination and hatred. Is it so rampant in the US, which as I understand guarantees freedoms to all races and is the most democratic of countries in the world? Can we expect some justice here?

True US has a black president, it is the policeman of the world (Iraq, Afganistan and now Syria). But incidents like this give it a bad name and give it the appearance of a helpless witness of race violence in its own backyard.

Does this mean that the efforts of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks (the gritty lady who refused to give her seat to a white man triggering the transport boycott) have gone in vain? Is US still a nation of freedom and equality for all races?

I guess only time will tell.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Robin Williams R.I.P.

(Sorry, the video that I posted here seems to have some copyright problems. So, I am removing it.)

I saw this video of Robin Williams' standup comedy (full performance, because it's an hour-long performance) and laughed and laughed. I checked Twitter in the morning after I woke up and found he was dead, a suicide. I went no, no, no, not him. I was devastated. Why does a comedian commit suicide? For what reason? He is so much loved, so much adored. He can say whatever he wants without being sued for libel. He has the world under his feet.

I watched the video and then wept. For him, the world, the way the world is ridding itself of talented people. Why does God take away such good people and leave the dregs behind? Why are comedians' lives so tragic? Is it because all our lives are tragic?

I loved his movies. I have seen quite a few of them and liked the way he made you laugh, the funny faces he made. I liked him a lot less than Jim Carey, but Jim Carey is Jim Carey. I don't like Chevvy Chase and Adam Sandler type of comedy acts. No. They are too stiff, while Robin can make things funny with his voice and his actions. Turns out he was shy as a boy and then picked up confidence doing plays. He did many stand up routines like the one above.

He ridicules everyone: Bill Clinton, Sarah Palin, Barack Obama, George Bush, Tony Blair, Jack Nicholson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, the whole lot. Doing comedy is not easy. It's tough. You have to work hard on your lines, act them out, be perfect, because there is no room for failure. And to act out in front of an audience (a packed auditorium as you see above) is even tougher.

It is said he liked to put people at ease and help people. He was also good to his fans and talked to them. In a world increasingly devoid of comedy he was one beacon of light that shined on us humourless people.

I hope - up there - you are making God chuckle with your cracks. Rest in peace Robin Williams.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Demise of Literary Criticism in India

 There's something frightening going on. Yes, it's fearsome, it's unprecedented, it's disturbing. It's the lack of literary criticism we are witnessing. Anybody can write anything and get away with it, provided it isn't communal, doesn't offend the majority community (or, the minority), outdoes the doodhi in blandness, and veers towards the occult and mythical figures in phantasmal settings.

Yes! Literary criticism is dead in India. Was it there in the first place? Did anyone venture to write a critical review of Nehru's Discovery of India and get published? But that was in the days of the independence euphoria. Hardly any English books were published. We thought criticism would become more mature. Today with around eighteen thousand English language books being published in an year, in India, the absence of literary criticism is worrying. That's more than a thousand books a month.

This total absence of literary criticism is disturbing. The newspapers have given up reviewing books, unless it makes news. They have included the really stinking tell-all memoirs into their breaking stories. A book makes it to breaking news when the subject of the memoir visits the author and requests (threaten, rather) to withdraw the book. And, they don't give space to a first-time novelist looking to hold on to some straws before his book sinks into oblivion. And they don't give a damn for those novelists as Maria Carey is divorcing husband Jermaine Dupri over poor album sales, which, for them, is breaking news.

The Times of India used to have book reviews, and then they stopped them. India's leading newspaper having a circulation in million doesn't think literature or literary criticism is important. So, no book reviews. Instead it reviews the colourless and tasteless books issuing from their own press. DNA used to have book reviews, which were also withdrawn.

So as expected, shit happens. A man appears on the collective conscience of us literary types, the dregs, that is. His name is Dinanath Batra and the organisation he spearheads called Shikshan Bachao Andolan Samiti (SBAS) specialises in book extremism (I didn't say terrorism, deliberately). Roughly translated his organisation means "Society for Saving Education through Revolution." How far-fetched can one be?

He is reported in the press as saying that Indian culture must be saved from external influences, however, erudite, however, well researched. We must do this and also uphold the concept of India being a Hindu nation. So he asks the publisher of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: an Alternative History to pulp the book. The publisher does. Another book On Hinduism by the same author is also likewise withdrawn. Now the literati types are aghast. The shock is tremendous. How did this come about? How can a published and distributed book be withdrawn from the shelves and made into pulp?

That's because the literary types didn't give shit when literary criticism itself was given a go-by by the media. They didn't raise a finger. Nada. If they had they could have pointed out to one or two reviews in newspapers praising the book. Then the publisher would have had a case if the matter went to court. In this case the publisher had not even the straw of literary criticism to fall back upon.

If we don't have a healthy literary community, criticising or praising a book, we give rise to the likes of Dinanath Batra and SBAS. If you don't like a well-researched book you pan it in the media, or, else, write a rebuttal. We, the literary types, have nothing, or, nobody to go to, we are in disarray and the foe is at the gate.

So, then, literary criticism is dead. Long live literary criticism! Welcome book extremism!  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Today's Maid: a Case of Reverse Exploitation

This is something I am writing with great reluctance. Cases of people abusing/overworking their maids are many. But our maid has been abusing us and taking advantage of our, well, erm, good nature. Today, we live in a smart world: a world without principles, loyalties, old-world bon homie. Therefore the concept of the household maid who comes, talks politely, does work, and leaves is no longer applicable. Or, so we feel.

We pay her the prevailing rate for sweeping and swabbing (floor only) and a bonus on festivals. The beginning, a few years ago, was encouraging. Then, insidiously, from coming every day she started coming every second day. We said okay because every time there was a valid excuse. Then it became every third day. The work also started deteriorating. She wouldn't sweep or swab the balcony and only passes the wipe perfunctorily over the floor. Some room she doesn't sweep, only swabs, assuming it will take care of the dust and fallen hair. (We are people in our fifties and a lot of shedding happens.) The whole job hardly takes ten minutes and she is out of the door after that.

Then, horror of horrors, she started coming once a week. The stories were the same: fever, chills, cough, back pain, and long wait at the local doctor's clinic. We realise we were being exploited. Cheated. In a month she comes only four times and takes full pay. Imagine!

We hold consultations - wife and I - about what to do. She is an old hand, and, being sentimentally attached, we don't want to be rude and ask her to leave. God forbid who comes as replacement. Stories abound about maids stealing gold, giving information about valuables to boyfriends, even killing house owners.

We are not decided about the exploiting maid, well, not so far. But she will have to go for the way she has been taking advantage of our leniency. And, before the once in a week visit becomes once in a month visit. Nice no? Go to place of work once a month and pick up your salary. Anyone said not done? I didn't know exploitation happens both way. Duh!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Some Progress! A Brief Note on the Magazines of the Seventies and Eighties.

There's some progress on the novel's side, at last. I am to glad to tell you that the painful sub-editing, copy editing (call it what you will) has finally reached the half-way mark. It has been slow progress because I could do hardly four pages a day, that too, not on all days. Some days, football came in the way. Yes, football. Other days, a lot of things: sundry maintenance work at home (e.g. protecting against the rain), poetry submissions (that don't bear fruit), Sangam House submission (a mystery), a short story submission to New Yorker (which they said would automatically not qualify for a reply). So that's understandable. With so many submission they must be tired. There are so many people writing, especially short stories, and all the markets have died out.

I remember those days - Illustrated Weekly, Youth Times, Mirror, Imprint, Eves Weekly, Sunday, Sunday Review, Debonair, Beautiful - all had space for short stories. Among the crop of magazines at that time I think Caravan and Frontline survive. The rest have been wiped out. Illustrated weekly and Youth Times had two pages for poems (Debonair too)! My God! Those were golden days for poetry and short fiction. Adil Jussawala's learned articles in Debonair were looked forward to. The late Santan Rodrigues' poems were read and appreciated. Salim Peeradina used to run poetry appreciation classes in St. Xaviers college. Kamla Das used to conduct poetry soirees at her residence in Bombay. None of these events or magazines exist today. I would send out short stories and poems to all these publications and keep a watch if they appeared, while waiting in the barber shop. Yes, barber shops then had quite a few of those magazines in their racks. Some of them were published. But, then I was a poor documenter of my successes. All of them got lost in the various movings I have done.

Today these magazines have been gobbled up by bigger media. The big newspapers shut down their smaller magazines, as they made no profit. These magazines were the hotbed of intellectual discourse in those days. People actually wrote letters to editors, bereting them for bad issues, congratulating them for good issues.

Where are those magazines? Where are those heated discussions? Football, anyone?