May 27, 2007

'Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?': Wounds that refuse to heal

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There are many incidents in Indian history that we would just like to forget. Anita Rau Badami, in her book Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, confronts many of them. It starts with the Partition, spans the two wars with Pakistan, the Emergency, the Sikh riots and the sabotage of Air India flight 182. Needless to say, this book is an overdose of human tragedy that leaves the reader with a heavy heart - it's almost too much to bear.

To be fair to Badami, she tries to do it differently, using the voice of the faintly-heard Indian women of those times. These women emerge from their tragedies in many ways - emboldened, disillusioned and paranoid.

So, we have the strong woman Bibi-ji with an open heart that believes in the equality of every Indian, until events around her trample that thought. Leela is a practical woman who knows what good opportunities await the Indian abroad, though she feels lost in a new country. Nimmo, back in India, only wants to hold on tight to her family for fear of losing everything, yet again.

The narrative is threaded around the stories of these women and their gains and losses, reinforcing the transiency of life's little joys.

The insurgency in Punjab which was active during the 70s and 80s gets ample mention - both from the point of view of the God-fearing Sikhs and the labelled militants:

And it is not just soldiers who desecrate with guns and bombs. Over our heads, on the roofs and under our feet in the storage rooms, our own brothers and sons and fathers, armed too, stamp as hard as demons.
I expected a gift of money or gold. Both would be used to buy us food and more guns and grenades. This was how we found the means to fight for a free country. After a while I didn't know what that meant anymore, really. Free country.
Like with almost every other Indian fiction coming out nowadays, this one too is strongly rooted in diaspora. It seems that the Indian writers living abroad are more interested in writing about India's past.

But what's the point if we don't learn from these lessons? Punjab recently staggered hurt from riots between two Sikh groups. People proclaiming to 'protect our culture' unleash more violence onto the country which won its freedom more peacefully than most.

May 13, 2007

In the end, what really matters?

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I have been observing something in the people around me (including myself) for quite some time now. People are trying to outdo themselves. Think about it, when was the last time you:
- sat calmly without thinking of something that needs to be done?
- told someone close to you how important they are to you?
- took a walk in the park (not a fitness exercise)?
- noticed the beauty of nature around you?
- sat down and spoke to your kids/spouse without TV in the background?

On the other hand, you might have:
- snapped back at someone who didn't deserve it?
- abused the driver of another car on the road?
- forgot a date that was important for your family?
- excused yourself from a non-business social occasion?
- delayed that medical check-up yet again?

I think the root of our stressed lives is that we forget to prioritise. We always give an unbalanced weightage to work, and completely forget to give time to ourselves. Everything revolves around work and we have to consciously take out time for 'leisure'. Time-outs have to be planned weeks/days in advance and we have to work harder to 'deserve' that break. And it's not as if this is the management's mentality, it's what we have come to expect ourselves.

We are never satisfied. We want more and more. We earn money to acquire material things, but we forget to enjoy them. Come to think of it, do we really need everything we covet in the first place? Fact is, we have come to equate happiness with more money, more material things. I think we have forgotten what happiness really feels like. Remember childhood, when little things used to make us elated? And they were not necessarily material...it could be a hug from mom or a good game with friends. No more do we think like that. Everything has to be material-ised. You fight with your wife, you buy her diamonds. You are not there for your kids, you give them cell phones/game consoles. You don't have time for your parents, you send them cheques.
In the end, we are actually losing a lot. We are losing time rapidly. We are playing havoc with our health. We are acquiring 'success' and 'status' at the cost of our happiness and contentment.

Upon closer observation, I noticed that the following people are most affected by this unending race:
  • High-flying executives - They are constantly overworked, at their own behest. They schedule time with their families. They are ready to lose their today for a better, richer tomorrow.
  • Working women - They don't really have a choice because they are unable to escape their traditional responsibilities. If they shirk, they are labelled bad mothers and wives.
  • Students - They have to pass brutal competitive exams in order to join this unending race and ultimately lose out on their childhood.

Our competitive society does not let us think differently. Few are encouraged to be artists or writers or musicians - unless they get a big break. In short, you cant stop until you have a Merc in the garage of your three-storey villa and a big farmhouse in the suburbs.

Capitalism is, of course, feeding the fire...the lust to own more...and we are blindly following. I confess, I am not completely unaffected by this either. But we have to draw a line somewhere. We have to learn to love and be happy. We have to stop this self-destructive rush to the top.

Take a deep breath and think about how you want to live your life. Do you wanted to be surrounded by status symbols or do you want to be truly happy? In the end, that's what matters. And that's all you will have left.

'Life in a...Metro': No surpises here!

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Life in a...Metro is a movie that is so obvious in the emerging India, that nothing about it surprises...or shocks. Director Anurag Basu has tried to do a Madhur Bhandarkar number, complete with the soulful music. In fact, it seems like a tribute to Page 3, even one of scenes featuring Konkona Sen is an exact copy! Yet, let's not dismiss it so easily.

Basu has done a good job identifying his characters. Anybody staying in a metro or a large town is familiar with them. There's the detached couple Ranjit and Shikha (Kay Kay Menon and Shilpa Shetty) which is such a common occurrence that you just expect things to go haywire. Kay Kay is, as usual, good, though underrated - but he's good at whatever he does. Yes, one of them is having an affair and the other is left loveless and lonely (yawn!). There's even the older couple, played by Nafisa Ali and Dharmendra, which doesn't add any substance to the movie. Firstly, because it's shoddily handled. What's missing the sobriety that both actors deserve.


Unfortunately, Shiney Ahuja (who I had expected to have a meatier role), for the nth time, plays a brooding lover. C'mon Shiney, you're great at brooding and screaming, but you are getting typecast - which is not good for an actor of your calibre.

Kangana Ranaut is typecast too, as the rebellious woman she loves playing. No, suprises here either, except that she's got a great makeover. Ditto for you, Kangana.

Sharman Joshi proves that he's a good actor - playing the common man in a metro who wants to make it big at any cost.

The one man who hardly disappoints in any movie is Irrfan Khan, and he is truly a surprise in Metro. It's hard to describe his often irritating character, but he has this great quality of morphing into any role. Konkona is good too, though in another of her oft-repeated independent-woman-with-a-mind-of-her-own roles.

Pritam's music is catchy, though I didn't enjoy the band appearing at every corner in the movie.

And I have a question for Bollywood, when will we stop doing that running-at-the-end sequences? You know, when the hero/heroines run to stop their counterparts like there's no tomorrow, or a second flight/train?

Well anyway, to its credit, the movie has some good moments. Like Kay Kay's clear-cut confrontation with his mistress. And Konkona's funny predicament. Won't give much away...go watch it!

Official site

May 10, 2007

'My Name is Red': The passion of the brush

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Pamuk is an intense writer, so much so that you begin to live the experiences of his characters. You enter his world which is passionate and colourful. Somehow, the 'red' in his book My Name is Red brings to my mind a dark, blood red.

The book is set in late sixteenth century Istanbul whose world-famous miniaturists are obsessively dedicated to their art. This is a world of dark workshops where the sunlight trickles in and the artists paint with hair-thin precision, slowly extinguishing their eyesight. Their dedication is so severe that a miniaturist considers himself lucky if he goes blind in old age, having given his sight to creating beautiful paintings.

As the master miniaturist Olive remarks:

To know is to remember that you've seen. To see is to know without remembering. Thus, painting is remembering the darkness.

Much like Turkish miniatures, Pamuk's characters are drawn in simple lines. Their names are irrelevant but their characters are clearly etched out. And the graveness of the situation comes to light when one of them is suspected of a gruesome murder.

What leads to the murder is a clash of ideologies. The miniaturists were increasingly under threat from the religious fanatics of Turkey, being Sufi themselves. The trigger is a secret book that is commissioned by the Sultan, rumoured to be blasphemous enough to attract the severest of punishment.

A distraught Enishte Effendi says:

In the end, our methods will die out, our colours will fade. No one will care about our books and our paintings...

The plot intensifies as the identity of the murderer slowly unravels as the narrator morphs into multiple voices - not all human. Along the way, we come to know of the darkest secrets buried in the hearts of beautiful Shekure, whom Black desires intensely.

It is hard to imagine that the delicate artists of Istanbul could hold so much venom in their hearts, to even go to the extent of killing to retain their status. But that's how they are, and we realise that, to them, their art is their very soul.

One of the most beautiful lines in the book is when Master Osman, the Head Illuminator, describes to Black a masterpiece:

Can you see the splendor in the leaves of the trees in the night-time darkness, appearing one by one as if illuminated from within like stars or spring flowers, the humble patience implied by the wall ornamentation, the refinement in the use of gold leaf and the delicate balance in the entire painting's composition?

It is with the same dedication that one must read My Name is Red. Like a journey along a grey road, one must stop to smell the flowers. One must ruminate over each phrase, hang on to every word.

Like his master miniaturists, Pamuk is a master writer - creating a fascinating work of art with his pen.

Related links:
Review of Istanbul
Article on Turkish miniatures