Saturday, March 31, 2012

Damned: In Hell for an Eternity

When I read Fight Club, the first novel by Chuck Palahniuk, I felt that it was one smart modern novel. It entertains like a thriller, there is a superb climatic twist, and it makes one wonder about existence making it a worthwhile read for the time spent on it. That was the reason I picked up his latest novel titled Damned with much expectation. Damned, also like Fight club, is an irreverent take on the world but told with more humor and satire. It entertains as well as makes the reader think deeply about several small follies of our existence that we conveniently push below the rug.

Damned tells the story of a dead thirteen year old girl condemned to live in hell for an eternity. Spencer Madison is the child of a movie producer and an actress. Her parents travels around the world making movies and professing the green way of life and adopting poor kids from third world nations (no prize for guessing who they are!) . The novel starts when Madison wakes up in hell inside a cage. She supposes that she is dead due to marijuana overdose and that is why she ended up there. She befriends people around her, starts getting adjusted to the life there and ultimately becomes a popular figure there by acting as a bridge between living and dead. In between there are reminiscences about her life before death, her relation with her parents, classmates and her adopted brother Goran.

Though the novel deals with death and afterlife world, it is no way dark or depressing. Spencer Madison starts her life in hell as a teenager confused about her identity, frustrated about her death and irritated about abandoning her hopes. Every chapter starts with an address to Satan, where Spencer Madison introduces herself to Satan. It is actually a spoof of some teen novel where the girl speaks to God about her personal issues and problems.  But as the novel progress, she finds out that even in hell hope can still work. There are several ironic observations about life coming through Madison’s observations. Its irreverent sarcasm works in the favor of the novel, though at some points the story becomes dull and repetitive. Overall this novel will amuse if you do not have a problem with some obscenity included in it. But still it is a long way away from Fight Club.    

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Some Books to Read Again...

I had never thought seriously about re- reading the books that I read before. It may be because there are lots of books out there waiting for me, that I never read, and the thought never crossed my mind, when I am lost in a library to pick a book from my past and savor it again.  My subconscious may have considered reading a book a second time as wastage of precious time. But the last book I read, a very complex novel by Umberto Eco titled Foucault’s Pendulum, really initiated me to reconsider it. That novel as I told in my previous post was a labyrinth of information and subplots, and requires a very careful reading. Apart from that one, I found out that there are some other books that will be worth a re-read. 

The Autumn of the Patriarch by Gabriel Garcia Marquez definitely needs to be read again. I read it first when I was a teenager. It was a tough read, to say the least. The paragraph and sentence formation was complicated, like a poem. There were sentences so long that they covered many pages. When I started it, I was sure that I will leave it half way. But after some 50 pages I got a grip on the tempo of the story. From then on I enjoyed every sentence and every page of it till the end. This novel is about the life of a dictator, a life of unlimited power and immense solitude and the way it is written with long and intertwining sentences perfectly matches the ambiance of the novel. 

Another book that I read in the same period is Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera. It is about the life of a young poet in turbulent times of World War. I loved the book when I read it. But years later when I read an interview of Kundera, I came to realize that I have missed much in my first reading. I missed several references to historical incidents and many subtle ironical situations. So in light of these revelations, I feel a re-reading of Life is Elsewhere will do good.

The Good Soldier Svejk is a satirical novel by Czech novelist Jaroslav Hasek. It narrates the escapades of a soldier named Svejk during World War1. This was actually the first laugh out loud novel that I read. Svejk is such an incompetent soldier that he continuously manage to irritate his superiors with his idiocy. But many passages makes us suspect that this guy is just feigning his incompetence to escape from war. This is the best anti war novel that I have read and a perfect read when mind is disturbed. In no libraries, I was able to get this book yet, unfortunately. 

Another man who is wary of war and wants to escape is Yossarian, but finds it difficult due to a catch in the military rules. He is the hero of Joseph Heller’s novel Catch 22. I received several recommendations for this fabulous novel in connection with The Good Soldier Svejk. And it was worth reading. Last day I saw its sequel in my friendly neighborhood library. I considered reading the sequel but then decided to first read Catch 22 again.

So these are the books that I am planning to read again. There are many others also- Amerika by Kafka, Midnight’s Children by Rushdie, Autobiography of Pablo Neruda and of course Foucault’s pendulum. But they can wait.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Foucault's Pendulum: On Conspiracy Theories...

I like reading books those challenge me- books those alter my perception about society and life, books those need the kind of reading that is introspective as well, like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or The Argumentative Indian. I like those fiction books that require a certain amount of exercise from the reader’s side to comprehend them fully. Though reading those causes quite a bit of stress on the intellect, it happens in a good way, like the brain has done a workout session in gym. A recent book that had such an effect on me is Italian writer Umberto Eco’s novel Foucault’s Pendulum.

The first book of Umberto Eco that I read was titled ‘How toTravel With a Salmon and Other Essays’. It was a satirical collection written in the style of self help manual laden with a generous dose of irony. But before that I had acquainted myself with Eco’s work, through the movie version of his best seller debut novel ‘The Name of the Rose’ starring Sean Connery. I was planning to read it and had even located it in my library, but the tiny font size made me change my decision. That was when I saw Foucault’s pendulum and decided to give it a go.

This novel is structured like a maze, a labyrinth of plots and subplots spanning centuries, linked and interlinked with each other. Novel begins with an editor, Casaubon hiding inside a periscope in a Parisian museum anticipating some horrible events that are supposed to happen at midnight. The story is narrated by him in flash back. Casaubon and two of his friends, Belbo and Diotallevi, work as editors for a vanity publishing firm that caters to authors who want to publish their manuscripts by paying. After encountering countless manuscripts about several conspiracy theories, they decide to frame one of their own as a joke. Helping them is Belbo’s personal computer Abulafia that has a program which rearranges text to create new connections. The conspiracy theory they develop named The Plan is about Knights Templar’s secret plan to take over the world by 1944. They comb several manuscripts, combine, arrange and rearrange all known facts and form an irrefutable theory about a secret weapon for which the whole of Europe- magicians, alchemists, kings, knights, priests, engineers, scientists, rulers and writers, were searching for centuries. Slowly the story which they were framing for fun takes over their lives. On personal front they have troubles when they start to believe that The Plan is a real thing. All hell breaks loose when secret societies start to get involved in it thinking that finally they got what they were searching for centuries. 

The novel that was released decades before Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, poses a serious problem to readers who are enchanted with conspiracy theories. What Eco has done in this novel is to construct a conspiracy theory by combining all major conspiracy theories about secret societies and spoof the human tendency to complicate things. He establishes that erroneously connecting facts can make convincing fiction. Most of the secret societies known in Europe make an entry in the story- The Knights Templar, The Rosicrucians, Freemasons, Elders of Zion, Assassins, Jesuits… all contributing in making of The Plan. Several historical figures are also mentioned in connection with The Plan, from Napoleon to Francis Bacon and from Shakespeare to Hitler.  Several critics have called Foucault’s Pendulum as ‘Thinking person’s Dan Brown’. But Eco maintains that Dan Brown is one of the characters of his novel- someone who feeds on conspiracy theories.

A word of caution to those who plans to read this book. It is a tough path to take. The novel is ambiguous in many parts, crammed with lot of information and several passages require an additional reading of history. If you are hell bent on knowing about every secret societies, mysterious persons and happenings described in the book, it is going to be a tough task. I would ask not to go that much deep. Just go on reading and even if you find that things are getting complicated, ideas are going above your head, keep on reading. Give more emphasize on identifying with the turmoil characters than getting to discover every nuances of the story. That way the book will be more delightful. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The curious incident of dog

Curious incident of a dog in the night-time is an award winning debut novel by Mark Haddon. The story is told in the form of a book written by a fifteen year old special child, Christopher Boone (‘a mathematician with some behavioral difficulties’ in his own words) about the incidents following the murder of his neighbor’s pet dog. The boy shows autistic behavior though it is nowhere mentioned in the story. He has a unique talent with numbers, facts and figures, but has difficulty with fathoming emotions and normal social behavior.

Book starts when Christopher Boone finds his neighbor Mrs. Shears’ dog killed in her garden. He is arrested for hitting the police officer who tried to question him about it. Though he promises the cops and his father that he will forget the incident, he plans to investigate it. Christopher lives with his father and is told that his mother is dead two years back. He starts maintaining an investigative diary, which is actually the book that we are reading. His father is infuriated when he sees the book and confiscates it. While searching for the book in his father’s room he finds out some truths about his past and comes to know that he was kept in dark. He also suspects that all these are linked with the murder of the dog. This sets off a chain of events that causes much pain to all concerned with him.
Though the plot is predictable and a bit bland, the narration style is captivating. Christopher writes his story devoid of emotions in a matter- of- fact manner. But his inability to connect with other people’s mental situations touches a chord with readers. The book emphasize on this difficulty successfully. I would recommend this book for adults and readers in their late teens. There are certain parts were expletives are used. So reader discretion advised.

Other two books that I read recently but do not deserve a separate blog post are The Comedy Collection and Life Ever Laughter. The Comedy Collection is a collection of comic pieces compiled from different sources by acclaimed Academy award winning actor Peter Ustinov. The book is fine for light reading, but as I had read many of the better pieces in the book, I felt a bit bored by it. Life Ever laughter is an autobiographical book written by American comedian Jerry Clower. He Is a believing Christian who does standup comedy. The jokes in the book are pretty good and told cleverly and that’s it about this one.

Searching Karla: Realistic Espionage Novels..

George Smiley is no James Bond. The only common link between them is that both of them work for British secret service. Ian Fleming’s Bond is a ruthless, handsome and stylish super spy who globe trots, conducting missions for Her Majesty using highly advanced gadgets, splitting his leisure time between wine and women. The highly glamorous portrayal of Bond is no where similar to reality. John le Carre’s character George Smiley is an aged, overweight man, in thick spectacles and ‘dresses like a Bookie’. He is much unpopular with women folk unlike Bond. Rather Mrs. George Smiley is the one who is luckier with her men.

If we take the novels, Ian Fleming’s Bond novels being the most successful in espionage genre, we can find that they stand in extremes. Bond novels are largely escapist, have frantic pacing, happen in exotic locales and are glamorous to say the least. But the novels featuring George Smiley are more detailed needing careful reading and are more intellectual. Most of the action happens in offices, safe houses and such beurocratic settings. The heavy spy jargon gives it a realistic touch. Another difference lies in the importance given in psychological duels between characters. While in Bond novels the division of good and evil is a straight line, here it is more ambiguous. All principal characters have their own inner demons to fight with and all their actions in the outside world are just manifestations of these fights. Among them George Smiley stands tall because, though flawed, he still has some goodness left in him.

Movie poster
George Smiley appears in eight of le Carre novels, in minor and major roles. Three of the recent novels, written after 1970, are published in an omnibus edition titled The Quest for Karla. The main reason I got hold of the book was the glowing reviews for the film adaptation of the first novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. All reviewers praised the movie unanimously and after reading the synopsis of it I was sure this one is  better read than seen. Thus I sat with three of the most interesting novels, exhausting nevertheless, that I read in recent times.

The title Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is derived from a nursery song. It is suspected that there is a mole in the high ranks of British Secret Agency, Circus and George Smiley is called from forced retirement to unearth the mole as he is the only one above suspicion, thanks to his ousting. The primary suspects are the top four brasses of Circus, who reached there by ousting Control Smiley’s ex boss. Now without the knowledge of any of the suspects Smiley has to find out the mole, codenamed Gerald. Karla is the Russian agent suspected in installing Gerald.  Karla is a presence all through the trilogy coming out only in the climax of the last novel.

The second novel The Honorable Schoolboy happens just after Smiley finds out who is Gerald. (So I would advise any reader intending to read these novels, not to read this before the former novel as the suspense is revealed.) Smiley is the new in charge of Circus and in order to get a trail on Karla he tries to find out all those cases suppressed by Gerald. This leads his team to Vientine, Laos, to a trail of money paid from Russia. Smiley sends Jerry Westerby, nicknamed The Honorable Schoolboy to Hong Kong for the investigation. The novel narrates how they thwart the plan of Karla to extract a mole from Communist China and save the face of Circus. Jerry Westerby is a character that comes probably nearest to James Bond. The reader sympathizes with him when he almost sabotages the operation by mixing his personal interest in it.  

In Smiley’s People, Smiley is again called out of retirement to sweep the murder of a double agent beneath the cot. Instead of doing what was told to him Smiley looks deep into the matter, suspecting Karla’s hand. He finds for the first time a weakness in his opponent and taking full advantage, goes into offensive, employing Karla’s own methods to get the breakthrough.

If we watch closely we can see that the relation between Karla and Smiley reversing in the trilogy. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Karla is captured in a jail in Delhi and Smiley tries to bring him over to his side. Karla like a stone wall ignores him. Smiley had a framed picture of Karla in his office and many times his colleagues look into his obsession with Karla as a weakness in him. Many like Connie Sachs, proclaim they are similar men, the very thought Smiley revolts against. But by the end of third novel Smiley finds that they are similar. 


Saturday, March 17, 2012

Right Questions For Right Decisions..

One thing that I learned after working these many years is that, right questions are to be asked to take right decisions. There may be thousand urgencies around you that screams and screeches to do something that you may not be that sure of. Do not let these urgencies skip that exercise of mind, thought process, as my good friend put it in words some time back, where you collect the ideas, mull over them and finally the most important part, ask questions. Skipping this process will cause several troubles in future.
Recently there was a man power issue in my department. I needed around three people, all technicians. The problem was not affecting the performance in a large way as my team put up extra effort and hours, to run things as it was before. But still it was a strain for all and this arrangement could fall flat any day if it was allowed to continue for a longer time. Another issue was that after getting man power, we need at least a month’s time to prepare them for functioning. And with the year end nearing I could not afford to make a delay.

In our company, normally interviews only happen for employee level appointments. For contract employees, the procedure is to inform the HR department of the requirement and them allotting man power directly to the user department. Last day morning I got a mail from HR department that an ITI holder is allotted to my department. I immediately called him and had a conversation as I had to allot his work. When I asked what his trade was, he answered that he wasn’t an ITI holder. Then I told him that I will have to give him training for at least two months as he is not a technical person. Finally it was revealed that he has studied accountancy and as he never got any job, he came as a contract laborer.    

He insisted that he will do whatever job I tell him to do. I thought over it. There is a real problem facing me. The immediate solution is to train up this desperate man and make him do the work. Then I asked him that question which helped me decide. I told him that the work that I give him will be physical. He has to be in shop floor and do it. Suppose he gets an accountancy job in near future, will he go for it as it involves comfortably sitting in working hours or will he stay back here at least for a year? I asked him to go back to my department, i.e. tool room, see the kind of work that happens there, interact with other workers, decide and come back after an hour’s time.

He came back after an hour and agreed that if he gets an accountant job later, he will leave this one. If I had not asked him that question and decided to take him for work, he would have silently taken training and moved out when he get a job related to his trade. I will be stranded midway again and all my time wasted giving training to him which ultimately did not do any good for him. I talked to my colleague and gave him a job in packing department where he can perform without any training. 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Salman Rusdie's Jaguar Smile: A journey to Nicaragua

The Jaguar Smile is a travelogue by Salman Rushdie written after his trip to Nicaragua in 1987. A word of caution to anyone who picks up the book for reading: it would be netter to brush up your awareness of political situation in Nicaragua at the time because author does not bother to introduce us to it. I was lucky as I had read Nom Chomsky’s book Deterring Democracy some time back in which a whole chapter was dedicated to detail the struggle for power between Sandinistas and Contras.

Sandinistas were the group that formed government in Nicaragua under the leadership of Daniel Ortega after pushing the dictator Somoza out of power. They were at first supported by US and had a developmental outlook towards the country. Later US accused them for helping rebels in El Salvador and sanctions were imposed. A group of counter revolutionaries named Contra were formed, aided by CIA to oppose Sandinistas. Thus the war started between Sandinistas and Contras, who adopted guerilla warfare. Contras received financial and technological aid from CIA and there are proof that CIA instigated terrorist attack against civilians. Public outcry against the human right violations by Contras forced US government to stop aiding them, but lot of illegal funds from selling arms and drugs were channeled to the help of Contras. Bombing of Nicaraguan harbors by CIA caused Sandinistas to give a case against US in international court, which told US to give a hefty sum as compensation. It was never given.

Elections were run in Nicaragua which were deemed free and fair by United Nations and many other agencies of foreign governments except US.  Sandinistas ruled till 1990 when they announced election. By the time the economy and law and order in Nicaragua was totally collapsed due to sanctions. Contras promised stability in economy and law and order if they gain power. Though Sandinistas had majority in exit polls, after elections contras came into power. After many years Sandinistas were able to regain power and Ortega is still the President of Nicaragua.      

Rushdie went to Nicaragua with the invitation from Sandinistas. In this travelogue he writes about his experiences in the country and the political situation he faced there. Now, from the outset it is clear that Rushdie is sympathetic to Sandinista cause. At first he is little concerned about the lack of freedom of press and censorship he saw there. But gradually he gets convinced that in a country in war there has to be certain restrictions. Rushdie mentions about many important people who has contributed to the growth of Sandinistas, like Sandino on whose name Sandinistas was derived. He meet many Sandinista elite, most of them having strong literary inclinations, like novelist Sergio Ramirez, who was then Vice President. He interacted with people from many walks of life, from President Ortega to common peasants. He is impressed by the developmental works happening in the countryside, like land reforms.

The Jaguar Smile is a short travelogue cum political commentary written with a heartfelt conviction by Rushdie. The tone of the book is very poetic. The book was written after taking a break from writing his most controversial work The Satanic Verses. Probably this book and his support to Sandinistas may be the reason he never received any support from US government or the cultural fraternity there.

Buy the book :

The (Fake) Autobiography of an Artist by Kurt Vonnegut

The reason why I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Bluebeard: the Autobiography of Rabo Karabekian (1916-1988) to read is the high praise I heard of Slaughterhouse 65 written by him which is there in my must read list from sometime. Bluebeard looked much different from the kind of novel that I assumed Slaughterhouse 65 to be. That one was touted as a science fiction black comedy and this looked more of Roberto Bolano kind of stuff. Before picking it I even read a few pages, just to be sure. I was not sure as I couldn’t find any humor in those first pages like the book jacket shouted. Nevertheless I picked it and after reading the whole book, felt that it was the right thing to do.

Bluebeard is written in first person narrative, in the style of an autobiography by an artist. Rabo Karabekian is an arrogant old one eyed rich man, living a life of solitude in his big house in a beach. A failed novelist gives him company along with his cook and her teen daughter. He has the best collection of abstract expressionist art in his private gallery. One day he meets a mysterious lady on the beach and strikes a friendship. That is how Circe Berman, the widow of a doctor moves in his home. She turns out to be a manipulating kind of lady and makes Karabekian write his autobiography. There starts a love- hate relationship between them when she takes over his life totally.  The only place that Circe cannot enter however she tried is the potato barn, which Karabekian has locked as it is the home of his secret, one that should be revealed to the world only after his death, according to his will.

The reader gets an insight into his personality by reading accounts of his past, his talent to make lifelike paintings, his love affair with his master’s muse, his military experiences, his admiration to his master and his later hatred towards him. His master Dan Gregory hates modern art and may be that is the reason Rabo took to it strongly. He stops making paintings when all of his abstract paintings drawn by using Sateen Dura-Luxe wither away in different parts of the world leaving behind empty white canvas, causing him much embarrassment and humiliation. He collects paintings of his painter friends with the money he inherited from his second wife.

The novel has an ironic, dry style of prose, which complements the mechanical existence of Karabekian.  There is a liberal spread of humor throughout the book, though very subtle and mainly ironic. Well developed characters make a deep impression in the reader’s mind.  The best thing about the novel is its climax due to two aspects. Climax celebrates the importance of doing those things that appeals to us, when Rabo Karabekian sheds his inhibitions about art and life. It is inspiring. Second thing that I liked about climax is the revelation of the well guarded secret. So much of built up and importance is given throughout the book for the secret in potato barn that if it was anything ordinary, the whole plot would have collapsed. But Kurt Vonnegut shows off all his mastery in making images out of words in that one chapter and makes sure that when the reader closes his novel after reading, it is with a sense of fulfillment in the mind.   

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Inheritance of loss

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a novel majorly about conflicts- political, social, economic and emotional conflicts in post colonial India. The book narrates the life of Sai, a girl living with her grandfather, a retired judge in Darjeeling and that of Biju, the son of their cook who is an illegal immigrant in US, running from one job to another to make the ends meet. The story happens against the background of Nepali uprising of eighties in Darjeeling. In the first pages we find a bunch of young men breaking into the house of Sai and stealing things. They feels the Anglicized, Cambridge educated, retired judge and his family are outsiders. The same feeling is reciprocated back also. The same mood prevails throughout the novel between different characters. And in many subplots we can see the trust placed on outsiders broken irreversibly making us to doubt about a collaborative existence. 

Sai Is romantically involved with Gyan, her tutor. Gyan is a Gurkha descendent and he joins the uprising later. More than an ideological decision, this was for him a venue to bare his frustration and anger. Uprising causes irreversible socio political fissures between different classes and ethnicities. It develops a crack in their relation also and they decide to move apart. Sai was an orphan and send to live with her grandfather, who is a reclusive old man preferring solitude. The racial backwardness he experienced in Cambridge when he went to study there may be the starting point. This causes him to loath other Indians who still clung to their poor ways after he returned back and achieved success in India. His preference of solitude is told to be a result of strained relation with his wife whom he considered not worthy due to her backwardness. He is not even close to his granddaughter and considers her as a liability. Cook’s son Biju went to US illegally for making money and come out of poverty. But he ends up suffering and becomes one of the homeless in New York.

The Inheritance of Loss is the story of people who were destined to lose, as “certain moves made long ago had produced all of them.” The novel is lively in parts but depressing and serious otherwise. And most of the premise is obsolete after opening of Indian market to global market. Still I would recommend it for the insights made into the psyche of third world mentality.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Kahaani and The State Of Bollywood

Sunday I watched this delightful Hindi movie called Kahaani. The best thing about Kahaani is that it had a kahaani (story), something very rarely seen in mainstream Hindi movies these days. The second best thing is that the story is told in a technically competent way in a brisk pace with tight editing and without any loose threads hanging (as far as I could notice). Third best thing is the casting that is excellent. From the lead character of Vidya Balan to the minor characters, all are convincing. From last few years more such movies are being made and most importantly watched. We had movies like Bheja Fry, Tere Bin Laden, Udaan and DevD that were artistically and technically competent and at the same time appealing to common people.

If we observe the kind of movies that are made in Hindi, one thing that strikes is the extremes. On one side such small movies like Kahaani are being made and on other side we can see established movie directors and stars, sans a few like Bhansaali, Rajkumar Hirani or Aamir Khan going the commercial way spending huge amount for set piece actions, foreign locales, songs and dances. While the former turn out to be the delight of critics,  latter gets blasted by them. Still many of these movies go on to become huge money grosser making the same critics to swallow their words. The latest bench mark is Rs 100 crores, set in the style of 100 million line in Hollywood. In last few years many movies crossed this mark like Dabaang, Bodyguard, Ghajini, Singham and Ra-01 most of them hated by critics.  Long back such a thing had happened when the biggest money spinner of all times, Sholay was released. Critics predicted that the movie will be a colossal failure, but audience thought otherwise. But the recent trend seems to be the result of another reason- the entry of the concept of marketing into the movie world. 
Previously when a movie was released, the producers were the most anxious people because they had more to lose. The biggest chunk of investment is made by them and till the movie recovers the entire cost and makes profit, they have sleepless night. Now most of the movies are released by corporate, who hire specialized experts to see that all or at least most of the money is recovered before the movie hits the scene. This is done by selling the audio, overseas and satellite rights and by product placement in movies. Also maximum numbers of prints are distributed so that maximum profit can be squeezed out before any bad mouth publicity can affect the run. Then pressure is on releasers who use the promotion campaigns made along with producers to create the hype and sell it to exhibitors. Exhibitors take more risk in most of the cases, but the advent of multiplexes has reduced this also. At a time all the movies released are exhibited (with premium ticket rates) and the loss gets offset in most of the cases. So this is a win- win situation for all.

So the situation is like this. Whatever they make in the name of a movie, all involved are in profit. By the time the initial madness sets down and revelation comes to the movie goers that they have wasted their money on absolutely forgettable stuff, the profits are made. And this is the story behind many of the 100 crore movies made these days.

But there is a plus side also to this trend. As the risk is less, if a director is interested in making a good movie, he has all the opportunity to go on with it. Production houses will back novel ideas if the budget is in control, because they can make a small profit even if the movie runs for a week. So we also have a pack of young directors, mad about good movies, making what they like with minimum interference from the people financing the movie.  This is one reason why small, creative ventures like Kahaani are made these days.     

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Real Inspector Hound: Parodying Mystery

In my last post on Agatha Christie, I had mentioned about a play that parodies her immensely successful play The Mousetrap. The Real Inspector Hound, written by Tom Stoppard is the play that satirizes the conventions of crime and mystery dramas made popular by stalwarts like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. A few months back, an enactment of this play directed by Nayantara Kotian and Prashant Prakash and presented by Quaff Theatre, Mumbai was done at Ranga Shankara, Bangalore. The show was immensely funny and engaging. Though it was a satire on the whodunit genre, the suspense was tight throughout the play till the terrific convention breaking climax.  

The play breaks the fourth wall and is enacted as a play within a play. It floors the audience before the opening scene when across the audience, opposite to a carefully set stage; one of the characters sits and waits impatiently for the play to begin. Then it is revealed that it is the theatre critic Moon, who is just a second string guy called in to review the play in the absence of Higgs, the main critic. He is joined by Birdboot, another critic, a womanizer who praises the pretty actresses in his reviews in exchange of sexual favors.

The play inside the play happens in a country manor, surrounded by jungle, swamps and a cliff- a convenient claustrophobic setting where no one from outside can come in and the suspicion is only on  insiders. The characters are a widow, Cynthia, whose husband was dead in mysterious circumstances, her good lady friend, Felicity, the young man Simon who used to be in love with Cynthia but is trying to woo the hostess, the crippled brother of Cynthia’s dead husband, a maid servant and an unnoticed corpse. A radio message that a mad man prone to violent behavior is on lose is thrown in thereby causing frantic reactions. Inspector Hound, in search of the maniac killer enters the house and finds the corpse. He starts his investigation in the typical Holmes style.  Slowly the critics whose tragic lives are paralleled in the play get entangled with the play and they too get involved in the mess with tragic results.

The play works in many levels, as an absurd comedy, a spoof on mystery drama, a social satire on hierarchical set up and an attempt to break the difference between fantasy and reality. Stoppard also criticizes the double standards carried out by different people in society, thereby living a dual life, one which is real and another which they want to be.

Incidentally I happened to go through another experiment with mystery novels. The Curious Case of 221B is a novel by Partha Basu that tries to view Holmes canon in a different way. The author tries to make a story out of inconsistencies of Conan Doyle stories. But unfortunately the end result is an uninspiring, lazy collection of Holmes stories that does not connect with the reader. I could not go through more than three stories that in no way enrich your Holmes experience. So The Curious Case of 221B becomes the first book in decades that I abandoned halfway.   

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Queen of Crime

As we observed International Women’s day on 8th of this month, I felt I have to write about one lady whose books I read with same enthusiasm whenever I lay my hands on them from the last 18 years. The lady is Agatha Christie who entered the scene of crime fiction that was considered as a stronghold of men till then and was successful in an enormous way. It may be argued that her writing started out as an imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or the quality of her writing stands just a notch below the creator of Sherlock Holmes. But in quantity and popularity-wise Agatha Christie stands tall.

All her books are best sellers and in sales stand third only to Shakespeare plays and Bible. She is the most translated individual writer and her play The Mouse Trap holds the record for the longest running play. It is still running continuously after 50 years and has played more than 25000 times. Audience is asked not to reveal its twist ending after the play. (Quite recently I happened to watch another play that parodies the plots of detective stories generally and of this play particularly. More on that on a future post.)

Two of the great characters which Agatha Christie gifted the readers are Miss Marple, an old lady who lives alone and solves crimes in her spare time, and Hercule Poirot, the ego centric Belgian private detective who uses his “little grey cells” to enter the dark alleys of the criminal minds and expose them. The first Agatha Christie novel I read was Thirteen Problems, a Miss Marple mystery translated in Malayalam. By that time I had read a few novels of Holmes like Sign of Four and Hound of Baskerville. There was an English series aired in Doordarshan based on certain Poirot stories that I started watching. Fascinated by his antics, I started reading the novels where Poirot appears as central character, like The Mysterious affairs of Styles and The Big Four.

Agatha Christie never liked Poirot, who she felt was a “detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego-centric little creep”. But the public felt otherwise and wisely she never killed him off till her end unlike Doyle who bumped off Holmes to gain time for pursuing other interests and had to make him return from dead for the sake of public demand. Most of the Poirot books are strikingly similar to Holmes in their plotting. Like Dr Watson, there will be a narrator in majority of them who also serves as an assistant to the detective, the most repeated being Hastings. Another stock character is the police officer who starts investigation erroneously and later seeks help from him and finally takes the credit of the findings. If it is Lestrade in Holmes canon, here it is Inspector Japp.

But Mrs Marple was Agatha Christie’s favorite character. Her gentleness and other virtues may be the reason. Or it may be the stormy first marriage of Christie that caused her to like the solitary life of Miss Marple. Miss Marple novels are generally arm chair detective stories sans much action. She uses her huge experience of village life to see inside the minds of people and deduce their reasons for their deeds. There are stories which do not feature Marple or Poirot. One that I remember now is And Then There Were None. An Indian movie version (watered down) was made years before titled Gumnaam, famous for its haunting song Gumnaam hai koi… sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Recently I had one of the most comforting reading sessions in my life when, after months of reading several serious non- fiction books, I desperately wanted some light reads and found solace in an omnibus volume of four Poirot novels.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

An Economist, a Journalist and a Novelist on Indian Identity

In last couple of months I read a few books that were about India. These books were written by people with a varied background. One was by Nobel Laureate Economist Amarthya Sen, another by former BBC man Mark Tully and two more by Shashi Tharoor. If you have noticed the title, I have considered Mr Tharoor as a novelist, though he was a former Diplomat and at present, a leading politician. The reason is that when I read his books, more than his attempts to showcase Indian situation like how a Diplomat would do or confirm it to his political ideology as a politician would do, it is his artistic understanding of it that makes me appreciate him. These four books are in no way stand-alone works. Though the viewpoint of authors may differ in certain crossroads, on the most parts they are complementary. All the books appreciates the basic Indian quality which are spoon fed to us from the time we started studying Social Sciences- Unity in Diversity. All these books, along with trying to understand the issues that the nation is trying to grapple with, emphasize that the solution lies in cementing this Indian virtue further deep. 

In his collection of sixteen essays, The Argumentative Indian, Amarthya Sen tries to detail on the rich argumentative tradition of India, that he believes to be the reason for the past glory and the essential  requirement for future greatness. He finds the culture of discussion to be the thread that binds this heterodox nation with different religions, geographical peculiarities, many cultures, beliefs and languages. A detailed study of argumentative tradition from the times of Kautilya, Ashoka and Akbar to Tagore, Gandhi and Satyajith Ray can be found in these essays. The book also deals with present predicaments that the country finds itself in and how these can be resolved by using our rich tradition of discussion. 
Mark Tully was born in Calcutta to British parents. He had worked for BBC, Delhi for around 3 decades. In the book India's unending journey, Mark Tully emphasize the importance of religion in an Indian concept as the light that should lead the way. In this autobiographical book, he describes his spiritual journey from the certainty of Semitic religions to the uncertainty of Indian religious beliefs. This uncertainty, the belief in doubt, in his own words is one reason Indian society can tolerate pluralism and live together. It is this taking of middle path, finding the right balance between extremes that should be followed for living together. 
In his book The Elephant, The Tiger and The Cellphone, Shashi Tharoor equates India to an elephant, which is huge and gracious but slow and lazy, turning into a tiger with stripes after continuous taunting and teasing by other faster, efficient animals. A few decades back India was a poverty stricken nation, content of living in a glorious past. With the opening of doors by globalization, enormous leap in mass communication  and the end of license raaj, the situation is fast changing. This collection of essays, deals with these changes and its impact on India and the outside world. The range of subjects touched by the author is mind bogglingly varied. From changes in society to politics to cricket to art and entertainment, this book can be an introductory course to new India. 
Riot is another book by Shashi Tharoor that I decided to include in this list, because even if it is a novel, the subtle allegory it offers to the careful reader cannot be missed. In a small village, Tharoor masterfully recreates the whole Indian Panorama, thereby providing some insights into the working of the society that we live in. The novel crafted in a non linear time line, with newspaper clippings, excerpts from personal diaries and letters, tells the story of an American social worker who reaches an Indian village only to be killed in  riot. Her divorced parents comes from US to come in terms with the hard truth and the interactions with the people with whom their daughter interacted during her stay takes the story forward. This is a novel with various layers built in it. It tries to analyze the psyche of riots, of Indian way of dealing with things, of relations and sexuality in the sub continent.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Curious incident of a customer audit

There is a customer audit this Friday. For the uninitiated, it is when customer representatives come to the factory and check the procedures and processes followed by vendor. It may be before giving an order or a routine check periodically while project execution. An unwanted trouble... I mean, just imagine, when a new restaurant is opened, do we go there for customer audit? Imagine prospective customers walking into the restaurant kitchen and checking salt in curry, measuring the temperature of coffee or looking in the corners for ratholes. Ridiculous... Why don't these morons see it for themselves..?

When I saw the circular about audit, I was remembering the one that I attended during my previous job. I had come fully prepared for audit... shaved, wearing a washed uniform, shoes mirror polished... The auditor entered the cabin accompanied by the Quality manager of our firm. I don't remember much about him now. He was an average looking man with average height, average weight and not so average beer belly. I don't think I can ever recognize him now in a crowd, even by his belly. The only thing that I remember is the wrinkle on his forehead which resembled a question mark just after a query is forwarded. Was it really there? I sure felt like that then...

Quality Manager introduced him as the head of the Quality Department of that firm. He told that they were planning to give us quite a huge order, one that will make sure that all of us will be working double shift till we are sixty or die whichever happens first.(I am tempted to type 'fade into oblivion' instead of die. Wanted to use that phrase from some time.) Before committing that atrocracy, they wanted to make sure that we are all set and prepared for shouldering and executing it. So he would make some queries about the functioning of my department which I have to duly answer to his satisfaction. I wanted to ask him that restaurant question, but kept quite for good. 

The auditor looked around the section. As some of you may be knowing I work in a Tool room where they make tooling for producing the, ah what should I say.. products. This guy went around the place, poked his nose into every unwanted corner, came back with two lines made by black oil on his cheeks and sat opposite to me looking like a average looking John Rambo. 

"How do you make sure that your toolings are good?" The firing started. 

"Well, eh, for that you need to just take a look at them Sir. See the finish, the look, if you want just run your hands on that forming die... Just solid!"

"Trying grocery selling with me?.. I am not talking about aesthetics. How would you check the functionality?"

"Well, hm... about functionality... for that.. eh..we oils them every day twice and also..."

"No, no.. How do you check that the toolings that you manufacture are ok for production?"

"We release it for production. If it is ok, they run production with it, if not they send it back to Tool room with a sticker 'Better luck next time' pasted on it."

"Oh my goodness, you mean you don't inspect them?"

"What exactly did you mean by that?"

"You do not have Inspection reports here?"

"Inspection reports... Wait, I am sure I have seen them. Hey Raju... What is the name of the sheets that you make daily, on which you mark some ticks and crosses and all..? Aren't they the inspection reports that Sir here is asking?"

Raju, the Quality checker came running and confirmed those are the same.

"Oh you are really lucky Sir, we make Inspection reports here. This Raju makes me sign it once in a while. Why!Yesterday only I signed atleast a hundred of them.. What happened Sir, why are you tearing your hairs out? Why your face is contorted? Oh I know, dandruff or head ache? Sir, just try this XYZ brand hair oil, which relieves stress and then wash with H& S dandruff shampoo. You will surely feel better.."

(This is just a figment of my imagination. If anyone from my workplace see this, don't panic. I won't screw up the audit.... Well, atleast not this bad.. ;)