Friday, August 28, 2009

Material versus Style in Writing

Many aspiring writers are faced with this dilemma: material or style? What comes first, what comes after? Is one greater than the other, is one subsumed by the other? Many writers have excellent material but bad style; many have excellent style but bad material. I can name a lot of writers from both these categories, but I won’t. After all, I don’t want to set off some minefields, do I?

Matter is something about finding subjects, studying characters, knowing their habits, their dress, their haunts, their feelings, their fears and their strengths. To get matter a writer has to experience, live the life of a writer, read a lot, translate thoughts into words. I had a colleague, a very good sub-editor, who was explaining to me how one of my short stories lacked style. He showed me something he wrote that had a lot of style, but then he couldn’t go any further.

“Why?” I wanted to know.

“I didn’t have enough material.”

Well, to state the obvious, he was blocked. So is an advertising copywriter I know, a very good one, who is good with captions and engaging body copy. I know his weakness. He is thoroughly locked mentally when it comes to material. He has an excellent style, but can’t write a shred of imagined conversation, nor create a fictional situation. He has style, but no material.

In India, there are several clever word crafters: ad agency copywriters, sub-editors who are especially good at style, as it’s something they do on a daily basis, i.e., gather the dough of ideas, knead them, flatten them, and cook them on the skillet of commercialism. They draw six-figure salaries, too. However, when it comes to material (I mean the sort of material Marquez compresses into his humungous novels) they are lost, they just don’t know how to proceed the narrative, well, I will use the egregious cliché, to the next level. Nah!

The matter of style and material isn’t easy to choose for a writer. Should I go for style, or should I go for material? If it’s too much of style then material suffers and if it’s too much material style suffers. A balance needs to be struck between style and matter. How?

Read a lot. It sounds very elementary, at first. But to write you have to read a lot. I mean you should always be reading a novel, a collection of poems, articles, book reviews, anything. Also read writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Vladimir Nabakov. I know, I know, these writers are on the opposite poles of the spectrum but see how style merges in their novels with material, the effortless mixing and merging of style with the effusion of material. What a wonderful mixture!

The easiest way to be inspired to write is to find a place that’s conducive to writing. We all have our places where we write. Stephen King writes in his book “On Writing” about having a place, any nook: the attic, the space below the stairs, the little alcove on the top of the stairs, the corner of the bedroom, where one is unlikely to be disturbed to write. It’s this area, lacking in noise, pollution, and duties of a diurnal nature, which every writer needs. How do we find it in a teeming city where space is at a premium? If you are a city slicker and want to be a writer too, go outside city limits, live in a satellite city, New Bombay for instance, where cheaper accommodation is available and there’s plenty of space. You can develop your style and material there.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Layoffs Singapore Way!

A fire alarm rings at 4 p.m. when almost 5000 shift employees are in the office. The entire office is evacuated within 3 minutes and every employee gathers outside.

10 minutes... 15 minutes... 20 minutes....

There comes an announcement on the public address: “With a broken and melting heart I have to inform you that for some of you this will be your last evacuation drill. Due to recession we are laying off 50 per cent of employees. While re-entering, if your ID card doesn’t work, then you are among those laid off and all your belongings will be couriered to you tomorrow. We are doing this because we don’t want to fill email boxes with layoff mail and goodbyes. Also, to avoid fights.

“Hope and wish you a great career ahead. Please move in and try your luck.”

Michael Jackson, Peter Pan, You Should Have Stopped and Smelt the Flowers.

My obsession with Michael Jackson continues....

Come to think of it, Michael Jackson was the ultimate control freak. In his autobiography (which I have read, knowing son Ronnie’s obsession with him) he mentions how he was maniacal about little details. He also exhorts other to do the same. “Learn everything about what you are passionate about,” is his advice. I, somehow, keep thinking and always thought of him as a teenage icon, somebody of my son’s age, while the truth was, he and I are of the same age. He was, um, the ultimate Peter Pan.

The amount of control he wanted to exercise on his singing, performance, and looks was phenomenal. He kept experimenting with his appearance the way he kept experimenting with his lyrics and onstage persona. He even wanted to control the way his children looked. He made them wear masks, and kept them secluded from the public, didn’t allow them to play like normal children for fear of catching germs.

He also slept in an Oxygen tent, ate very little for fear of putting on weight, and kept away from his own parents and brothers. All this, I guess, to maintain his forever young Peter Pan appearance. Gradually his minders formed a strong cordon around him and stopped him from smelling the flowers.

Michael, man, wherever you are, it’s very important to stop and smell the flowers.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Another Ganeshotsav, Need Introspection.

Another Ganeshotsav; am in a reflective mood. Hm. Need introspection. Some "chintan baithak" such as the one the right wingers are doing. Guess introspection has gone sour. Now even Arun Shourie is aiming brickbats at the top brass. Does anyone know what went wrong? I feel Jaswant Singh has been wronged and that he has a right to his opinion. The very concept of democratic dissent is misunderstood in India. I guess the right to democratic dissent is the cornerstone of democracy. I also (rather pompously, after all, who am I in the BJP pecking order?) think the BJP top brass has acted unilaterally without doing much "chintan" in their "baithak."

The singing, the music, the air of festivities, the eating of modaks and sweetmeats, it’s infectious. Yesterday saw this rambunctious crowd throwing red powder, dancing to loud beats of the drums, clanging of cymbals, spilling over the road, stopping traffic, general revelry everywhere. Last Sunday spent the whole day writing in my eyrie on the second floor. What’s so great about that? From this space that is growing to be a favourite haunt I could hear sounds of aartis, songs, a lot of religious reverberations, so to speak. Wonder how everyone names their Ganesha as the area’s “Raja” or king. There’s a CBD cha Raja (CBD’s King) in my locality.

Now I am not against religious celebrations, I say, being a spiritual person myself, we need it for spiritual solace. But has the intensity increased? Colleagues in the office are fasting, keeping the vows made for “Shravan” and then “Shradh” and then “Nav Ratri” and then “Diwali” and then “Bhau Bheej” and then “Laxmi Poojan” and then, so on, and so forth.... (Whew!) How do they do all this? I am amazed. Judging by the money spent in such celebration I wonder how people manage to meet their expenses in these recessionary times. Well, that’s my only worry.

Monday, August 24, 2009

മലയാളികള്‍ക്ക് മാത്രം . Only for Mallus!

ട്രെയിനില്‍ അടുത്തിരുന്ന കതനയകന്‍ വളരെ രസകരമായ ഭാഷയില്‍ സംസാരിക്കുകായിരുന്നു:

പണി എടുത്തേ മുന്നേറാന്‍ പറ്റുള്ളൂ , എടൊ.
പാര്‍ട്ട്‌ ലോഡ് ചെയ്താല്‍ എന്റെ പകുതി ജീവന്‍ പോകും.
ഒരു പണ്ടാരമില്ലേയ് പശൂനേയ്‌ കൊണ്ട് നടക്കുന്ന? അവന്റെ തലയില്‍ പിടിചെല്പിക്കണം, എടൊ.
എന്ത് ചെറ്റത്തരം അനെടോ കാണിക്കുന്നത്?
ഇത് വരെ ലക്ഷ്യമില്ലതേ ചുറ്റി കറങ്ങി നടകുകയയിരുന്നല്ലോ? ഇനി മോന്‍ കുറച്ചു പണി എടുക്കു.

However sophisticated a Malayali might look, when it comes to picturesque speech, he goes back to the familiar idioms and inflections of his native land. He looked well dressed and sophisticated but from what he said I have my doubts.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Flaneur-ing in Bombay



The Colaba Causeway in the night is a fusion of multi-hued lights. It's where the rich and famous shop and where two of my favourite watering holes are situated - Mondegar and Leopold. Also Indigo is a stone's throw away, but I am a bit shy of Indigo as it has an uppity air about it.


The Leopold Cafe was targeted by terrorists in Nov '09 because that's where most foreigners go to fill their tanks (in a manner of speaking!).

In my peregrinations around the city, the city of my nurture (I wasn't born here but came here at the age of eight) I have caught some pictures of the city. See if you like them. All of them are landmarks of some sort, having withstood stormy monsoons, terrorist attacks, epidemics, water-power shortages, et cetera, et cetera.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Saffron Party's Obsession with Deifying Jinnah, and Their Foot-in-Mouth Obsession!


My friend and blog fan Manish Sadhwani says I should blog about the latest episode in the persistent Jinnah controversy which keeps dogging the Bharatiya Janata Party. I think it is a good idea.

Actually it's a case of a friend and colleague not returning a favour. Quid pro quo wasn't kept. It also is about a common disease prevalent in the saffron brigade. (I wonder why the Hindutva Bridgade's leaders suffer so much from this disease - of the foot in mouth variety. Whichever picture I see of Advani shows him with his mouth wide open. In an election speech he referred to Barack Obama as Barack Osama. Foot in mouth, again, you see.) In June 2005, Advani found himself in the centre of controversy when he, while on a visit to the Jinnah Mausoleum at Karachi - his home town - described Jinnah as a secular leader. This did not gell with the RSS leadership, and faced by pressure, Advani relinquished his post as BJP president. In a spectacular specimen of statecraft and wizardry, it transpires now, Jaswant Singh came to Advani's rescue when he persuaded his backroom pals to reinstate L.K.Advani. A favour was done, but not returned.

Now that Jaswant Singh, too, has put his foot into mouth, with his book "Jinnah India-Partition Independence" (What kind of title is that? Bad grammar and punctuation there. Didn't anyone notice? Didn't anyone proofread? [check picture alongside] Is the book self-published? Has anyone read the book beyond the title, the first page and a few inside pages?) Wherein he has stated that Jinnah was as saintly as, perhaps, St. Peter. (I don't know. I haven't read it.)

I don't know what's this obsession the saffron brigade has with deifying Jinnah - the father of Pakistan - a country that has consistently failed to acknowledge that terrorists had masterminded the Bombay terror attacks on November 26, 2009 from its soil, in spite of being provided with mountains of evidence. What kind of justice is this? Or, is this a news nationalism by a party that claims to be more nationalistic than the others?

The Video that Got Singer Dave Carroll 3.8 Million Hits on Youtube



Dave Carroll singer of the folk-rock band Sons of Maxwell was on a singing tour of the US state of Nebraska when he looked out from the window of his United Airlines jet to find baggage handlers throwing his expensive guitar around. Being an amateur musician (having tried, tried and tried to learn the guitar, I am now thinking of re-learning this beautiful instrument again) I can understand what he must have felt.

When he asked airline staff to intervene he found them cold and off-putting, and when he arrived in Nebraska he discovered that the guitar was damaged. Over the next year Carroll sought $1,200 in repair costs. The airline bounced him from one agent to the other, giving excuses such as: bring the now-repaired guitar to Chicago for inspection, and, to add insult to injury, ultimately denied his claim.

So, hm, Dave sat down and penned the above song, made a video “United Breaks Guitars” and posted it on Youtube.com. The video received 3.8 million views and United Airlines had to relent and decided to pay Carroll $ 3000, who, in turn, asked them to donate it to the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz. The End?

No. There’s more.

United is just recovering from this massive PR disaster and plans to use "United Breaks Guitars" for training (Though whether this is training for baggage handlers, customer service representatives, or marketing staff is unclear — maybe all three departments need a thorough overhaul.).

United's about turn has turned the heat on airlines, what with travellers and travelling musicians across US and the world specifically preparing to sue airlines for damaged luggage, lost luggage, and deficiency in airlines services. Some are being compensated, too. Not surprising since United or any other airlines doesn’t want to go through another PR nightmare. Let me hope, when I travel with my guitar (after I have mastered the art, that is) I won’t suffer the same fate as Dave Carroll.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stained Glass Windows at Victoria Terminus





Victoria Terminus (Or, VT, as it is known to many) has a new look. Most parts of the station – through which I have passed two times a day for the past nearly 20 years, that’s nearly 12,000 times, including the day on which terrorists killed nearly fifty people there half an hour after I passed through – has been cleaned, brushed, and washed to reveal palimpsests of beauty that has lain beneath the grime for centuries. I still call it VT with a reason, how can you change something which you have such a long association with? When I was in Delhi everyone referred to Connaught Place as Connaught Place (Or, CP) and not as Rajiv Chowk. I am one of those who hang on to tradition.

The station was designed by Frederick William Stevens, a consulting architect in 1887-1888. He received as payment 16.14 lakh rupees. Stevens earned the commission to construct the station after a masterpiece watercolour sketch by draughtsman Axel Haig. The final design bears some resemblance to St Pancras station in London. More here.

I caught these stained glass windows recently. Good, no?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

So, Writer, Hm, “Copy Paster,” Hahn? Writing-witing Eeji no?

When hoi polloi hear that I am a writer, or I try to write (in a kinda, sorta way), they say I am a “copy paster” not a writer. I count that as one of the egregious insults they heap on a writer in this country by a generation that is brought up to revere formulas of maths, physics and chemistry but, sadly enough, not that of writing, I mean, good writing. This is one of the challenges any writer has to meet in a country which doesn’t respect writers and the writing craft. “Kya, writing-biting, copy-paste kartha hai, sala.” My insides tear up, my heart pounds when I hear this allegation. What can I do? I am one miserable writer whose talents are doubted in this unlettered country. It’s the same feeling I get when India is defeated in cricket by Kenya. I am of the opinion that writing and literature should be taught at the professional level: in IITs, IIMs and even the specialised graduate courses.

Copy paste? From what? Of what? If I copy paste then I am not original at all. That would be an insult to my highfalutin creativity, originality and all that thingamajig.

A while ago a colleague, a very good designer told me he wanted to write creatively. He probably thought it was like going to one of those “English Speaking” classes that promise to make you fluent in three months. I said, keep writing. But tell me, he insisted, give me some tips, na? I said, to be a writer you have to want to be one from deep within, you have to read, maybe, tens of thousands of books, tens of millions of magazine and newspaper articles, tens of hundreds of “boring” poetry, and then if you still feel you can be a writer, go ahead and try.

Hehe. Actually it’s a very difficult profession, this writing-witing business, na? It requires discipline, imagination, good memory, good eye-head-hand co-ordination (for the thought to travel from the eye to the brain to the tips of the fingers) and a thick skin to take the insults such the one of being a “copy paster.” “What men, after it’s all a few words on a page only, no? What’s so great about that, men?” Anthonybhai buts in. Damn him. He has a habit of doing that, I should tell him. His “men” itself is bad grammar, being around him has spoilt my grammar too, man.

So I ask this colleague to write a few sentences in English and show me. Huh oh! As expected, not even one, not even one of the sentences is without huge grammar, consistency, redundancy issues, the size of galactic black holes. This co-worker mine can’t even write a word of acceptable primary school English, forget attempting literary oeuvres.

Hm, in Passing

So the following didn’t come as a surprise, eh, a good one. An uninitiated school teacher is supposedly writing this letter to the headmaster, apologising for reporting late for duty.

"Deer sur,

If small small mistakes getting inside my letter, I big you pardon, ass I am not a good englis speaker. This is my fist vijit to Bombai. Stickly speaking, I wanted to joint your school more fastly, but for the following region, too much time lost in getting slipper reservation in three-tyre compartment. I tolded I has head ache problem due to migration. Still the clerk rejected to give ticket to I and my sun.. I putted a complain on station masterji. He said I to go to the lady clerk. At first she also rejected. I then pressed for long time and finally with great difficulty she gave a birth to my sun. Anyway I thanked the station master also because he was phully responsible for getting birth of my sun. Ass a hole it was a bhery diphicult experiment in my hole life. I hope u will look into explain my hole story after, and late me joint first. I am now ending this fastly. I am a waiter for your responsement. May God blast you!"

Sunday, August 16, 2009

My Poem “The Cuckoo’s Call” to Be Published in Poetry Rivals 2009 Edition

Some good news for which I have been waiting for so long. My poem “The Cuckoo’s Call” has been selected from over 7000 poems to be featured in the Poetry Rivals 2009 edition published by Forward Press, United Kingdoms. The publication date, as informed to me, is 31st October 2009.

Another good news for fans/followers/worshippers (!) of this blog. This post marks the 1100th post on this blog, which is one of the first blogs in India, still growing from strength to strength with the introduction of new tools of online blogging and publishing. I promise to bring you more pictures as I carry a camera with me at all times.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Drug Addict, There Are 70 Million of Them


I saw this man yesterday being turned away by a sandwich seller, by whose stall I had stopped in Khau Galli (Food Street, near Fashion Street) when hunger pangs had struck after a hair-tearingly hectic day in the office. He was short, bearded, dark, and had hair like a halo around his not unattractive face. Somehow, I had the impression that he is a Malayali. I have given away money and food to such people, unfortunately trapped in the vicious mad race of a teeming and uncaring city, which doesn’t care a mite for its unfortunates, such as the one before me then. People have walked into the newspaper office where I used to work and I have emptied my heart and wallet to their stories. The stories were similar: duped by Persian Gulf recruitment agents, no money to go back, nowhere to sleep. I give them enough money for tickets and food for the way home. I can’t help it; I am impulsive with my money, which may be why I don’t have much.

Looking at him I felt he might be hungry. He was extending a one rupee coin and asking the shop owner for something. Poor chap, I thought, he doesn’t have enough money to buy something to eat! So I took out my wallet and gave a few notes to the vendor and asked him to give him a decent sandwich, “Can’t you see he is hungry?” But he refused. I was indignant and asked him, what the reason was.

“Actually he needs the foil used for wrapping sandwiches to heat his ganja (marijuana). He is not hungry. He is a drug addict.”

That was unexpected. Now I was in a dilemma. I couldn’t decide whether I should buy a sandwich and give him or turn him away because I would be encouraging him to be a drug addict and derelict for life.

I again looked at him and his entreating face and something he was saying which I couldn’t make out. By this time people were staring at me, you know, the sort of stare that is all too often common in India. I was sure people would gather around us to see something happen (devoid as they are of entertainment) as the shop’s employee had noisily tried to hit him and turn him away from the shop. But he kept coming back, his eyes wild, his words entreating me for something, which I couldn’t give. A small incipient crowd was gathering around us and I felt hot and embarrassed.

What should I do? What should I do? Few moments of indecision ensued as I quickly gulped down my sandwich (I was hungry, remember) and took a picture, unashamedly for this blogpost, and then I made a quick decision and decided not to sponsor his dinner/drug fix, whatever. I wouldn’t mind giving him a meal but would die before I encourage his drug habit.

Today I just typed “number of drug addicts in India” into Google search and find that there are 70 million hardcore drug addicts in India. What are we doing about them?

A Few Thoughts on Independence Day: Behram Contractor (Busybee) Style

Here are a few thoughts on Independence Day, all my own work, as Behram Contractor (a.k.a. Busybee) used to write in his colum “Round and About”. I am going to use his style for this post. Let me know if I am any match for him.

Like I can’t understand why the government and the media is creating such a scare about Swine Flu when they first of all don’t have the facts. Turns out most of the people who died had previous respiratory illnesses.

Like I can’t understand why newspapers have to devote their cover page, their city pages, the editorial, and, in some cases, their sports pages to Swine Flu.

Like with Swine Flu other issues like global warming, HIV, measles, TB, etc., which are claiming many more lives have been ignored, as if they are poor cousins.

I see people frantically holding hankies to their noses, covering it with their palm, looking around suspiciously at me (as I am neither wearing a mask nor a hanky around my nose), and making sputtering and choking sounds, which sound like, “Stay away from me, you idiot, where’s your mask?” Like I don’t see their point. Does the virus enter only through their noses?

Like the present crisis has made a few “mask-millionaires” out of mask manufacturers like my friend Anthonybhai. He says, “What you know men? I pay them hacks thousands of bucks to write about this flu-blue thing, and my maks (he can’t say “masks”) sell like bloody hot cakes, men.”

Like it’s Independence Day and I am supposed to feel free, but with all these difficult thoughts in my mind, I am not feeling free at all. What to do? Can someone with a perpetually jolly good disposition like former-President A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, or Bollywood villain Shakti Kapoor come and cheer me up, puhleeezeee! Even Bappi Lahiri-da would do, he too likes to act funny on camera, I heard.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Swin Flu Facts Gleaned from Epidemiologists, Not Over-enthusiastic Media Persons

These are some swine flu facts from Deepak Purohit, a Rotarian, through my langoti-yaar Sanjeevan (who is a media sidekick, by the way). It is the sort of information I was looking for:

Quote

These are few facts about swine flu which emerged when I discussed it with leading epidemiologists.

1) Swine flu, that is H1N1 flu is not new, it was first detected in 1987.

2) The infective stage of flue is 5 days, 1 day before and 4 days after onset of symptoms.

3) The best way to prevent it spreading is asking patient having symptoms of flu like fever cough and running nose to take rest at home for 4 days so he does not transmit it.

4) Masks are of limited value, if any. This disease can spread through droplets on your skin, through contact etc., and I have seen that the masks in Pune are worn as a fashion statement. In fact these masks shall act as a vehicle to carry the virus. Instead, avoiding crowded places or cinema halls or malls where air conditioners are on all the time. Air-conditioners re-circulated air, thereby acting as a multiplier of the virus.

5) Death after H1N1 flu is not common, in fact, is rare. Infections like measles are taking a toll of thousands more every year, and we are oblivious of the facts. Swine flu is being blown out of proportion by media trying to create hysteria among lay people.

6) Fever accompanied by respiratory distress, should be immediately notified which is likely to be a complication of H1N1 flu.

7) The mortality is less than .01 percent of those affected, that means may be one in 10,000 affected is likely to suffer from life loss.

8) If you remember, 2 years ago SARS was blown out of proportion, what happened then? Humans develop immunity to the virus. The same is going to happen in this case, we develop immunity in due course of time, the virus is in the air, you cannot stop it, our body is already developing immunity, so don’t panic. We need to take care of children and elderly who have less immunity and not let them go into crowded places.

Do not be afraid of this flu; continue with your daily routine, ordinary citizens do not need to wear masks. They are only for healthcare workers or those exposed to lot of crowded environments, but the benefits of masks are not proven.

Please spread this information, which comes from scientists.

Unquote

Economic meltdown? Ecological/medical disaster? Biological warfare? What?


I know, I know, flu is not to be dismissed lightly. So if the previous post lacks in levity, this post tries to make amends. I am contrite. Forgive me.

Today this is the scene inside the train running on the harbour line by which I commute. Yesterday a colleague vomited blood and this drove home a serious message. But still I feel there’s no cause for panic, the way the media is drumming up a panic.

I tie a handkerchief around my mouth on the train. Reason: we have very bad manners and do not sneeze into a handkerchief, preferring to do it on the other person’s body, face, whatever (yetch!). So, to be safe I mask myself.

It’s a bit scary when you see all those masks, as if people have lost their identity with everyone looking like a thief or an extremist. What’s the world coming to? The last few days were very hot, I was perspiring badly in the train, clothes stuck to my body, the people standing besides me were uncomfortable, I could see them fanning themselves as they read the papers, be-masked, eyes furtive and unable to concentrate.

Yes, I am asking, what’s happening in the world? Anyone has the answers? Global warming? Economic meltdown? Ecological/medical disaster? Biological warfare? What?

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

What’s All This Swine Whine? It’s Common Monsoon Flu, Son!


(At Victoria Terminus a majority of commuters don't wear masks)

Swine Flu, Swine Flu, Flu, Flu, Flu....

That done, buried, that’s what has been the latest obsession of papers and channels. I guess they have a vested interest in spreading fear and confusion. Guess they are scared themselves, the way the newscaster looks when he/she stares into the camera with those goggling eyes of theirs.

First, they don’t have a right to spread the half-baked information they have at their command, as something earth shaking. They are only after TRPs that the scare would bring. Glaring lacunae exists between the glossy colour charts and pictures they have broadcast. Where are hard figures showing how many were tested and how many released, how many had other medical complications, and city-wise breakup of cases? Instead they show scared people queueing up (because of the scare they themselves created) for tests, and the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities. No hard data, because they are too lazy to go and risk themselves collecting them.

Take this document on globalsecurity.org:

“Pandemic years are associated with many more cases of influenza and a higher case fatality rate than that seen in seasonal flu outbreaks. It is common to encounter clinical attack rate ranges for seasonal flu of 5% to 15% in the literature. For pandemic flu, clinical attack rates are reported in the range of 25% to 50%.”

Now consider the situation in India. Thirteen have died of the flu in Pune, national toll is at sixty-five. As stated above every monsoon there’s a flu epidemic in Bombay and hundreds die. These hundreds are either old people who have no immunity or people with other medical complications. There’s nothing that would point to Swine Flu.

The media has been very superficial in the treatment of this important news event. They didn’t provide hard-nosed analytical data about how many were tested what per cent were actually found with the flu. And even the tests are under a cloud of ignorance, read the following in New York Times (much more authoritative than local media):

“But the tests have a severe limitation: They may fail more than half the time to detect swine flu infections, according to newly published studies and to experts in medical testing.”

Various pompous people have grabbed the headlines saying irresponsible things. So what’s the real scenario? It’s this:

During monsoons there generally are flu epidemics in India. This time due to Swine Flu – we still don’t know if it is that flu or ordinary flu – a lot more have been admitted with complaints. Most of them have been treated, cured and sent home. A few who have died have had other medical complications. Those deaths are common in every monsoon season, not this alone! So where does that leave us?

Do we have to spread panic by wearing masks at home, office, trains, and other public places? Save the profits it would bring to manufacturers of medical kits and masks there’s nothing to warrant a scare. Am I going to wear a mask? No way!

A few days back when he had an attack of the cough and common cold my son was sure it was Swine Flu. I said don’t worry son, it’s the common monsoon flu, no swine, whine flu. He is fit and fine now and enjoying his holiday watching movies at home, college being closed. Even wife is having a nice holiday, school being closed.

Monday, August 10, 2009

An Evening of Fun and Nostalgia

Shakespeare & Company is a forum for die-hard lovers of literature. Click on this link to read more about them. I co-ordinate their meetings (small in numbers, but quite intimate for writers wanting to bond, afterall writing is a lonely business) in Bombay at the laid back Tea Centre in Churchgate.

It was a meeting full of Bollywood lore, reminiscence (of 4 oldies and a youngster) of the ancient city by the sea of the sixties and seventies and poetry as Shakespereans met at the new and refurbished Tea Centre, a Bombay landmark.

First to arrive was poet Sunil Kadawala. Sunil’s family has been the inventor (according to published accounts) of the Bhel Puri, which has been representative of Bombay’s cuisines for more than a century. His great grandfather was the first to start making Bhel Puris in a roadside stall in Fort, Bombay, which has now grown into the prestigious Vithal Bhelwala near New Empire Cinema. Serendipitously the scion of this hotelier family, besides managing the famous establishment, also writes poetry in his spare time.

Then came Jane Bhandari and Col. Kamlesh Puri. Jane is a well-known Bombay poet and her poetry has been published in various journals and in the chapbook format, which has won the acclaim of both poets and hoi polloi. Col. Puri is famously the son of the legendary Bollywood villain Madan Puri and is at present writing a book on his father, besides acting in a Bollywood movie. So the Bollywood glamour quotient was also present. Amen to that.

Then came Anil Siqueira, my former boss (chief sub-editor when I was a mere sub-editor of a fortnightly) and knowledgeable book lover and grammarian who is an editor for a prominent stock broking firm of Bombay.

The meet began with a discussion of how Tea Centre has changed from one which featured rexine chairs and dark spooky corners to its modern version. Kamlesh mentioned how there used to be quite a number of Jazz Clubs around the Flora Fountain area in the sixties and seventies where Jazz was played live and there used to be dancing in the nostalgic Casablanca-style. Goody Seervai was mentioned and so were other bands that played during the time, alas, no more. I too remember those days when the forward-looking Parsees, Anglo-Indians and Roman Catholics used to congregate in dance parlours playing Jazz and Soul, Rhythm and Blues numbers and sedately dance the night away. Later on with the advent of discos this fervour died down and Goody Seervai too died. Now the dancing is a wild orgy of flailing limbs and torsos accompanied by pulsating techno rhythms.

In a reminiscent mood Kamlesh began to read a very sentimental portion from his book on his father Madan Puri. A word about Madan Puri would be appropriate here. When I was a boy growing up watching him on screen murdering, raping, plotting and scheming with his malicious-looking eyes, I had thought, quite innocently I might add, that he was a bad guy in real life too. Such was the menace he portrayed with his eyes and voice.

But talking to Kamlesh over a few meetings removed this misconception. He tells me that he was a loving father, as the excerpt he read would reveal, and that since people took fair advantage of his generosity, his house was full of people most of the time, and Madan would stretch out on the carpet in the tiny flat’s living room leaving the bedroom to his visitors. So Kamlesh has titled his book “The Villain on the Carpet”.

In a film industry that remained fragmented into various camps such as: Manoj Kumar camp, Raj Kapoor camp, Dilip Kumar camp, Dev Anand camp; Madan Puri was the only actor who could work easily with all the camps as he was genuinely liked for his humour, which his son has inherited. Kamlesh tells us that over 70 leading actors of the time turned up for his father’s funeral and Manoj Kumar mentioned to Raj Kapoor, “Mandan-uncle is irreplaceable” or something to such effect.

Kamlesh read a portion from his book about an incident which happened when he was 10. He was told by his mother to post a letter in a nearby post box at 7 in the morning as it would reach Delhi the same day if posted at that time. But to do this Kamlesh had to pass a haunted house in the dark where, so the local lore went, ghosts were waiting to tear children up and in vampire-fashion drink their blood. Madan told him, “Yes go and post the letter, son, it’s urgent.”

So, fearful and apprehensive Kamlesh had no option but to dash all the way to the post box and back with the speed of an Olympic sprinter in the last lap. But as he was tremulously dashing back, around the corner he ran into someone, a man, his own father! Knowing his apprehension the loving father had come to see that his son was safe and not spirited away by the ghosts of the haunted house!

I have to admit that the mist of misconception I had around Madan Puri was suddenly lifted by his son’s account and I now think of him in the most favourable terms. It was quite childish of me think that way and I wondered at how we carry some of the biases of our childhood in our consciousness. Now, I look forward to reading the novel which, I am sure, will yield several such anecdotes.

Jane read a poem the title of which I scribbled in my notebook in a haze and now, as often happens, I can’t read my own writing! Next she read Cat II which is her observation about a cat, quite well written too. Next she read the poem Tiresius Reversed about a woman who becomes a man and marries another woman, but retains her sexual organs. Then the woman-man gives birth to a child as the woman she/he married can’t bear children. Bizarre, yes, but true. It was reported in the news, Jane tells us.

Next to read was Sunil Kadawala who reead a wonderful poem, one he wrote after he was surgically cured of Hyperopia. The magical 360 degree vision inspired him to write a poem that visualised the light and shade of the evening sun as a foreplay between day and night. Quite beautiful imagery this and I now look forward to more poetry from him.

The evening came to an end when we posed for pictures with Kamlesh's jokes and bon homie (hope I got this right) dominating the evening.

As I was leaving Jane joked about an Indian who stepped into a restaurant seeing the "OPEN" sign hung on the door. Once he was inside he looked back and saw the "CLOSED" sign and proceeded to leave. We had a good laugh! A wonderful time, as the cliche goes, was had.


Friday, August 07, 2009

Chandrahas Choudhury Reads from "Arzie the Dwarf"


Author and blogger Chandrahas Choudhury read from his just-published novel "Arzie the Dwarf" in a PEN event at the Theosophy Hall, yesterday, 7th August, 2009. I was present to record the event. I haven’t yet read the book but it has the imprint of Chandrahas’ delicate usage of words judging from the portion he read out. Will post my impressions here later. Watch this space, as they say.

The book is published by Harper Collins and is available online here.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Artiste Village Rich in Bio-diversity

(A view of the bio-diversity from my terrace.)

This document lists the ambitious Nature Park plan that the Maharashtra Government is envisaging for New Bombay in collaboration with Bombay Natural History Society. In Biodiversity Richness Artiste Village (where I live) is on top spot with a bio diversity score of 379 elements (including: amphibians, birds, reptiles, insects, plants, invertebrates, fishes, mammals, etc.) in the bio-diversity metre. Yay!

Does it mean I live in a forest? Yes, I am told I live inside a tropical rain forest. See picture.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Nightmarish Banking Experience. What’s the Purpose of All This?

I wrote this short story about how outsourcing is counter-productive to customer interests. It just doesn’t work for the customer, as it does for the seller, because the latter can get rid of a lot of staffing costs by outsourcing (i.e., save a lot on employee benefits by giving away work to an outside contractor, which is what, I presume, outsourcing is all about). But the customer gets whacked on his/her behind with a big stick, and gets nothing of value. High technology makes even the simplest of things complicated, this post tries, valiantly, I must add, to prove this point.

Now with ATM cards, online connectivity, funds transfer, and modern banking it’s proving to be a harrowing time for banking customers. For example I have to remember all the following numbers relating to my bank (No doubt, I have become forgetful these days. Why can’t they have one single reference number?):

ATM Pin number - (4 digits)

Account Number - (15 digits, or is it?)

Customer id - (10 digits)

Telebanking number - (4 digits)

Login id - (10 characters)

Password - (8 characters)

Helpline - (8 digits)

I challenge anyone including the hi-falutin pompous Chairman and Managing Director of the bank to remember all these numbers I have committed to memory with great difficulty. I am sure they can’t! As if that’s not enough, they went ahead and change my password and I have to go on a wild goose chase to do the following to access their helpline:

Accessing Helpline - (30 seconds)

Various helpline options (I have to hear all of them, and I go paranoid remembering each of them) - (10 seconds)

Choosing the right option – (10 seconds)

Listening to the bank’s ads as I wait – (10 seconds)

Entering my account number – (15 seconds, it’s a 15 digit number)

Entering my date of birth – (10 seconds)

Waiting... waiting... waiting... (180 seconds)


An operator comes at the other end, I tell her I need a new password. – (15 seconds).

She asks for my customer id – (20 seconds, I am racking my brain for the customer id).

Then she asks the impossible – she wants my date of birth.

We argue.

I say I have just entered it, doesn’t your computer remember?

She says the system is down, so, can I have your number, sir? – (120 seconds, I know, she is reading from a prepared script, so I give up).

I give her my date of birth – (10 seconds)

Waiting... waiting... waiting... – (180 seconds)

She is checking something.

She asks for my email address, I give it – (60 seconds)

Sir we have mailed you a form which you will have to fill up and give it to our nearest branch.

Huh? I could have done it in the first place.

How long since I submit the form to your branch?

Within four days sir, she says triumphantly.

I am a busy guy. So I will take at least 2 days to visit the bank, adding another 4 days that will take me to get my new password, it will be 6 days and 670 seconds (11 minutes I have wasted talking to the phone, actually much more) before I get my new password.

After doing all this hyper-active things I am frazzled. I am an easygoing guy who gets hassled easily. So I think: why do I need the password? Because I wanted to check a transaction online, right? But, who needs online banking? The bank’s online banking interface (this is their favourite word, I also use it often) is badly designed and programmed.

Why do I need online banking when I could just easily walk into the bank (like I used to do before these thingies crept into my beleaguered consciousness), ask a kind (also, beleaguered, but also smart and starchy South Indian) clerk to help me to check my account transaction and be done in 1 hour flat? We need more well-trained and courteous employees who can handle a customer face-to-face, not a lot of customer service executives sitting in some Kafkaesque tower in the industrial maze of Andheri East.

And to think that the bank has employed programmers, customer support executives, expensive computers, internet, high-tech telecom and cables, electricity, climate control, expensive urban office space to do all this. Just this? Billions of rupees, you say?

Just boggles the simple mind, doesn’t it?

An innocent and uncomplicated question: how about an old-fashioned visit to the bank to sort out such things? There’s a sensible bank in my area that is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., I guess I will do my banking there.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Viewing “Casablanca” at the American Centre

Now the American Centre Library at New Marine Lines is open also on Saturdays, why not Sundays, too? It would be a great boon to chained-to-the-workstation fellows like me who hardly get any access to American literature as the libraries are closed by the time I drag my tired limbs out of the work space. These days employers can be very demanding and the load of work quite, well, burdensome.

So here I was at the ceremony to celebrate the newfound freedom of browsing the library’s extensive collection of book and find that “ Casablanca” is showing there. I have wanted to see this trendsetting and hit (in an old-fashioned way) film for a long time now having a heard a lot about Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and the stories spun around this myth of a flick that has so much of a fin de siecle zeitgeist about it.

So I queue up at the American Centre to be frisked, cellphone off-ed, led to another queue at the first floor where I find that only those who had R.S.V.P.-ed are allowed inside. But there’s a positive side to it. In India people who have R.S.V.P.-ed never turn up and those who haven’t turn up in great numbers, and, so, I join this group to be informed by an official that there’re enough seats for everyone. (The solution is let them turn up and then issue them passes in the order they came, i.e., if you came earlier, better are your chances of getting a pass.)

So I stand with the popcorn munching crowd and there’s also the usual Indian deviousness at play here. One official has had a R.S.V.P. card filled for her so-and-so, though I doubt very much if he has bothered to call to confirm his attendance. What goes? Who cares?

A youth with a candy walks into the mini theatre and immediately someone cries, “he has a candy” and they go in hot pursuit of the “candyman” who has disappeared into the cool and dark interior. They succeed in nailing the “candyman” and triumphantly come out bearing their trophy in their hands. There are queer rules particular to every auditorium I have visited in Bombay, nothing standard. The allergy American Centre has for candy is manifest in Prithvi Theatres allergy for cameras. I was told in no uncertain terms that photography is strictly a no-no. Well, we have to obey rules, whatever rules they may be. So I obey all rules docilely while debating its merits internally. Prithvi’s rule makes sense because there’s peace in the audience and the American Centre’s rules for cellphones makes sense as there’s quiet in the auditorium and the library. But what about candy, I guess only the “candyman” knows. He must have been ticked off by two stridently feminine officials on the “danger of candy to movie viewing.”

Hm. So the R.S.V.P.s never show up though the film is well into five minutes of exhibition, so they decide to let us – intruders – enter into the sacred space where “Casablanca” is showing in all glory. I miss the beginning, which is where a movie should be viewed, to get the feel of its tone and mood. Never mind.

Half way through the movie several youngsters walk out. Reason: it’s in black and white and the story develops quite slowly (no dinchack-dinchak, tun-tun-turrrrn, excitement of Bollywood movies here). There are several fat, tall guys with broad shoulders that are blocking my view and I have to crane my neck: top, bottom, sides to have a view of the proceedings. A quick fight develops in the back row where two women fight loudly over a seat one has reserved for her friend. “Why do you have to yell?” one says at the top of her voice. They are hushed and peace returns.

“Casablanca” is all about self-less love, the sort the world has never seen since the days of, well, since those days. Bollywood movies show love triumphing in the end, but it’s the true love of errant lovers that triumphs. But this is a story about true love being sacrificed for the institution of marriage, which is what Rick Blaine (played by Humphrey Bogart), quite nobly, does in the end. I have never seen Ingrid Bergman act, and, man, is she is a beauty? “Top class, number one, men,” as Anthonybhai would say.

Just a thought: wish some Bollywood director would make a movie with a similar theme, I am sure it will be a hit.