Saturday, July 22, 2006

On Gift Donkeys

I am not collecting cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam

- Saki, Reginald on Christmas Presents

The earliest known example in literature of a protest against gift donkeys.

What is it about Big Ben alarm clocks, melamine tea sets, porcelain Alpine maidens, glass eyed storks dipping beaks in purple water, paperweights with the logo Arun Pharma, wind chimes with a dolphin motif, posters of kittens / lovers on a sunsety bench / mountain vista with stream, plastic pen stands, plastic desktop messages from God, plastic photo stands, plastic Eiffel towers, plastic anything, miniature idols of sundry Gods, books by blow dried Arindams and above all Eagle thermos flasks that people find so irresistable as gift choices?

Take Eagle flasks. India’s premier wedding gift. The destiny of most Eagles is a corner of a Godrej cupboard. A bit like moth balls but without the smell. I have always imagined the flask, as it changes hands at the wedding reception, looking up despairingly at the moon a last time, before vanishing for ever and ever into the zenana of its fated Godrej. It can’t be entirely a coincidence that Godrejs when placed horizontally have a striking resemblance to coffins. As with many avian species, Eagles too have a tropical appearance. Ideal camouflage among the bright red lehengas, chrome yellow blouses and green Banarsis of cupboard ecosystems. Imagine living in such a space, the monotony occasionally broken by a dimly lit hand groping towards you like in Evil Dead II. The relief as it stops at the petticoat next to you.

Desktop items; please tell me there is no one out there who actually likes having plastic chicken soup messages on their 3 x 4. The "Dear Friend", "Dear God", "Psalm XXX", "Love is A, Love is B, Love is C, …." kinds that in their 49 rupees earnest inanity makes you realise that God exists. Imagine. First someone selects the quote from Reader’s Digest. Someone else looks at the art work and decides to make 2 million of them in China and other centres of plastic literature. A third distributes them to distant corners of the Indian empire. And a fourth, in fact, the fifth and the sixth as well, pay good money for them. Is that not a miracle? Your role in this cosmic process is to get it as a gift, and if your luck is really in, from the colleague at the next table. So it lies on your desk alongside snaps of your family and been-there-done-that mementos. Occasionally you hear your colleague chortle but maybe he is just snoring ….. Visitors to the Far East on the other hand, drench people with laughing Buddhas (5 Sing dollahs a dozen, each a different pose). And why are these always a dirty chocolatey brown?

Posters; Shah Rukh Khan ok. Beyonce yessss. Aishwarya Rai ok. Eminem ok. But fuzzy puppies nuzzling a fuzzy teat? Small girl peeking into small boy’s pants? Two writhing hearts in the missionary position with a poem by Donald Duck?

Infant clothes and toys. Grammatically challenged text, in general, is the thin red line through many donkeys but reach their acme of imperfection in baby material. Clearly the copy writers have damaged language centres in what passes for their brains. Either grammar not existed or The meaning jumped over clause. Or they need better translators from Cantonese. My daughter’s extensive wardrobe, almost entirely gifted, has the following communications.

Rabbit happies

Sweet children have sweet memories with sweet cake

Lion and Lamb Love

And the Koan-like

Smack, zzz, dance

Ribbit, meow, ribbit, meow

A final question. If someones brains are in their bottom, and it hurts, is it piles or a headache?

Whoever gives me the best answer can have my two remaining Eagles.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The emotional porn genre of story telling - e.g.- Raincoat

This is more a comment on a shtyle of film making and less review of a movie.

Raincoat, a national award winning movie by Rituparna Ghosh is a cinematic adaptation of O.Henry's Gift of the Magi. GOTM of course is the story of a couple who love each other really but being deeply broke, each sell their most prized possession to buy a Christmas present for the other. The sting is that the gift each purchases complements the prized possession of the other, that alas is now sold. Life.

RG breathes more Chowringhee Lane into this already sobby concoction and transforms it to emotional porn. What intrigues me is the recurrent Bengal connection with such works. Am I the only one who finds many Bengali authored or directed effusions wallowing in excessive sentiment and teeming with hugely self-indulgent, weak, loser characters?

Raincoat is also of this breed and the fact that it is done beautifully (The movie got the National Award in 2004) only intensifies the agony. Nuanced silences, beautiful camera work, authentic sets with the right number of creaky antique furniture, gloomy rooms with the right percentage of mildewed walls, stunningly evocative music, nauseatingly multi-layered dialogue and beautiful, soulful actors, all miscast to tell a soppy tale that makes you throw up (of course, in an artishtic way, not just one crude heave).

Others of the same genre are Choker Bali and Devdas. All those who have seen or read Devdas and felt that what the sot needed, really needed, was less women or booze and more a good whipping raise your hand. Parineeta the movie, almost joined the Raincoat brigade, but was rescued on the verge by Vidya Balan's eyes, Rekha's abs and the humour tipped Birla Cements ad ("Yeh deewaar toot tha kyu nahin hai?") in the dying throes of the movie.

Coming back to the Raincoat brand of storytelling, there's hope yet for RG. His undoubted cinematic gifts can be salvaged if he immediately inoculates himself with the works of Saki, the only known antidote to the disease of Overly Sentimentalis. One may then perhaps look forward to well directed deadpan humour and abrupt exciting ends to his cinematic characters. Imagine the audience delight if in Raincoat, instead of giving the expected ill affordable gift, the girl decides the best gift is to put the man out of his misery, shoves the body in one of the wardrobes littering her house and thoughtfully uses the money in the man's raincoat to pay overdue rent and buy much needed provisions. Why, RG might start a new cinematic genre (well, at least in Tollywood).

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Handbook of Indian cricketing exercises - Bulletin 1

We will be bringing you excerpts from the batting section of the fully revised classic Handbook of Indian Cricketing Exercises. A long line of illustrious Indian batsmen learnt the great art from this book and are now history.

Exercise #232 - Stretch and Touch, Stretch and Touch
Stand, bat in hand at the batsman's end, facing the bowler. If there's no bowler, stop what you are doing and try to get one. As soon as the bowler bowls a short pitched delivery, stretch on your toes, raise the bat and try to lightly touch the ball with the bat or failing that, the gloves so that it carries to the wicket keeper.

Did you succeed?

If not, keep practicing until you get it right. For tips on the fine art of doing this to perfection, contact Sourav da who may have time on his hands now, since he decided not to campaign for the CPM (Bhadralok faction).

If yes, congratulations. You may now be ready to join the Indian team as soon as Sehwag gets a back spasm, Tendulkar a shoulder injury or Dhoni, the hair-blowing-in-face syndrome.

Exercise #54 - Slash, Slash, Slash
Stand, as earlier specified. When bowler bowls a ball pitched wide of the off stump, slash and slash hard. Try to get a thick edge that carries at face height to third slip. If you cannot manage a thick edge, try to get a thin edge that carries to first slip.

To know how to do this properly, buy the VCD of Gautam Gambhir's batting, available at all video piracy outlets. There's only one VCD so study it well. Observe the classic stance, feet firmly esconced in the crease, body leaning way forward, bat towards silly point and head towards the dressing room. Keep the head perfectly still and your eye on the coach.

If you miss getting the edge, shake your head ruefully, walk a few steps down the pitch, pat the bat on the pitch a few times as if that was to blame and try, try again.

Remember, practice makes perfect. Robert Bruce of Scotland would not have been defeated so many times if he had not kept trying.

Exercise #666 - Cricket de la France
Stand in the batting crease. Keep both feet together at right angles to the pitch. Get the wicket keeper to draw a box figure just outside your feet to mark their outline. Your task now is that irrespective of where the bowler bowls, your feet must not move. Repeat, wherever the bowler bowls. Wide outside the off stump, yorker, down the leg side, bouncer, good length on middle, cutting in from off.

Playing on flat tracks requires you to conserve your energy so that you can play long, long innings. Moving your feet consumes energy so avoid it whenever possible. The continued success of Rahul Dravid who violates this cardinal principle is a mystery to all true cricket afficianados. So don't look at videos of Dravid. What does he know? Instead, watch the true Indian masters, Sourav, Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, the Great Gambhir and Dhoni.

Once you have mastered these initial exercises, you will be ready for the more advanced exercises:

- Thick inside edge that crashes into the stumps;
- Head before wicket; and

the very difficult

- Running your partner out.

We'll cover that and more in our next bulletin.

For now, keep practicing. Kiran More is watching you.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Chhatrapati Levi Maharaj ki jai

I had reported in an article in about the formation of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) by Raj Thackeray. In that article I conjectured on the new alliances that might come to be through this development.

Yesterday, Raj Thackeray had his first public rally after the formation of the MNS. In it, he made bold new statements that indicate that he may be willing to dump the old Sena idealogies and instead embrace a more secular, more modern, development oriented realpolitik. As reported in the Indian Express, "Raj Thackeray today shed the hardline Hindutva garb to project himself as a 'friend of Muslims and Dalits', an agrarian who wants farmers to ride tractors in 'jeans and T-shirts'".

Chhatrapati Levi Maharaj ki jai

If so, then it shows that Raj too has woken up to the urgent realities of today's Maharashtra. Maharashtra, once the only industrial engine behind India's growth is lagging behind the new IT powered states of Karnataka (Bangalore), Andhra Pradesh (Hyderabad) and the Delhi-Gurgaon NCR belt. Most of Maharashtra faces severe power cuts with even IT hubs like Pune facing 2 to 4 hours of power cuts on a daily basis. The situation in rural areas is far worse. The responsibility for this lies largely with the political establishment that has not invested in power generation while at the same time supporting populist but ineffective measures like free power to farmers.

If Maharashtra wants a bigger slice of the new economy and to get back to leadership status on the investment and industrial fronts, the principal political parties need to embrace a developmental agenda rather than a communal one. As long as the Sena kept the Hindutva pot boiling, no party could afford to ignore the issue. But with both Raj and Uddhav leaning towards the developmental agenda poll plank, the old industrial war horse Maharashtra might at long last, get back to doing what it did best, make money.

Raj's new plank also makes it an attractive alliance partner to the NCP and the Congress, either together or as I suspect, independently with one or the other. If the NCP wants to be a national force and most importantly not get sucked back into the Congress fold, it needs to carve out an independent path. By allying with the MNS, the NCP, at long last can come out of the Congress shadow and yet have sufficient vote bank power to win the state.

The Congress too has much to gain by allying with the MNS. Narayan Rane, Raj's close ally is already with the Congress. If Raj too allies with the Congress, the NCP might be left with no option to either allying with the BJP+Sena combine or eating humble crow and remerging into the Congress. As we said in the earlier article, a weakened NCP is not a bad thing for the Congress.

Whatever the combination, the good news is Maharashtra might finally, consensually, put all-round development back on the agenda rather than pursue non issues such as renaming airports after Shivaji and Universities after Ambedkar.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A call for bananafish

JD Salinger introduced the delectable bananafish in his short story, A perfect day for bananafish as a part of his Nine Stories collection. Bananafish according to Salinger were,

"... Well, they swim into a hole where there's a lot of bananas. They're very ordinary-looking fish when they swim in. But once they get in, they behave like pigs. Why, I've known some bananafish to swim into a banana hole and eat as many as seventy-eight bananas. Naturally, after that they're so fat they can't get out of the hole again. Can't fit through the door".

Wonderful creatures aren't they?

I propose a category of writing that I call bananafish in honour of JDS.

There will ever be wars, treaties, political revolutions, terrorist attacks, religious upheavals, paradigm changing state visits and other events of global and or temporal moment.

But far away from the blood and grime and high pitched sound bytes of such action, in the blissful backwaters of our minds swim shoals of elusive bananafish.

So WTF are bananafish?
Bananafish are stories, morsels of information, thoughts, experiences that are quirky and interestingly obscure. Bananafish are like the kind of stuff found under mossy rocks. Unlikely to solve the Kashmir problem but that, at their best, may open new doors of perception to .... well, something. Bananafish are jigsaw pieces that with others may form illuminating mental mosaics. Then again, they may not. Bananafish can be fiction (Salinger's story being a good example) or non-fiction (a recent personal favourite is the Doosri Radha episode and for more). My article of last week on Business letter writing circa 1910 is another non-fiction bananafish. Bananafish may be either quirky on their own account or be a new way of looking at a familiar thing.

So here's inviting all of you out there to contribute bananafish

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Everybody's letter writer - Time travel in the book world

Avid readers know the thrill in unearthing books she had not heard of but which turn out on further acquaintance to be great reads. The fact that the books might have been popular otherwise and you the last person on earth to know the fact is not pertinent. You discovered the book and its a kick that never goes away. I remember coming across a badly mauled copy of Tobias Wolff's This boy's life: A memoir at a used paper stand, purchasing it for about Rs. 10 and realising what a treasure I had.

The topic of this article however is different. Sometimes, just sometimes, you get the added pleasure of combining anthropology and archaeology in the book world and coming across a tome not only rare or obscure but one rooted in a different time and age. To paraphrase Bill Bryson in Notes from a small island, reading such books is a bit like time travel.

I have great pleasure in presenting the incomparable Everybody's letter writer - The complete letter writer for ladies and gentlemen, published in 1910 by the public spirited George Routledge & Sons, Ltd.

What a wonderful book and why didn't I have it last year when I had to condole a friend for a 'Disappointment in love'. If I had had this wonderful book by my side I could have written the following missive to my Friend.

103, Indrayani Apartments
Kondhwa, Pune 48

My dear Arjun,
You will excuse an old friend writing a line to say how grieved he is to hear of the breaking of the engagement. Of course, I knew from what you told me that all was not well, but I did hope that it might come right in the end. I know well what you must be feeling, and you have indeed my sincere sympathy. It is a terrible blow. I fear you must be quite prostrated but I am convinced you will bear it like a man. When can I see you?

Yours ever


Or let's say that I, a Gentleman had to propose to a Young Lady he had met only on a few occasions. The book recommends the following letter,

Dear Miss ....,
I fear this letter will surprise you very much, but I trust that the genuineness of my feelings will excuse me in your eyes. I met you first at Arjun's dance in September and since then I have seen and talked to you on three separate occasions only. But the impression you first created in my mind was so powerful that I have thought of nothing else since then, and each time I have been more and more assured that you and you alone are able to give me that happiness which is every man's goal. I will ask you straight out - Will you marry me? I implore you to think it over well. I cannot explain how passionately I love you, and with what joy I would dedicate my whole life to you. Although not rich, I am comfortably situated and quite in a position to support a wife. I want to come in person and urge my suit and wait therefore with profoundest anxiety an answer to this letter.

Yours devotedly


If my wife-could-be also had this book she could choose between a Favourable reply template, Unfavourable but friendly reply and alas, an Angry reply. This last would have read.

19 Kumar apartments
Kalina, Mumbai

I read your letter with the utmost astonishment. I consider it a gross impertinence. Please do not address me again in public or by correspondence. You have greatly misjudged me if you consider I will tolerate such liberties. I would have handed your letter to my father o answer if it had been for the trouble and annoyance it would have caused. But if you address me in any way again I shall not hesitate to lay the whole matter before my parents.

Yours truly


If these morsels haven't whetted your appetite, the book offers an additional 300 letter templates organised in 14 handy categories. We have Invitations (which has the useful template Letter inviting Family Solicitor to a Funeral), Congratulations and condolence, Asking favours, Love letters & letters in connection with engagement and marriage, Letters to, from, and about children at school, Letters about employment, Letters about travellers and tradesmen all the way through to Letters regarding loans and concluding with the not to be missed Letters to and from a Landlord.

What's wonderful about the book is not only the innumerable situations that are covered but the various flavours of each situation and the potential replies if you had to respond to such a letter.

A section at the end also advices on the honorifics to use when addressing clergy, nobility (from the King through to Marquesses and down to Knights and the humble Hons), legal luminaries such as the Lord Chancellor, government servants, defence personnel and of course wives of titled persons.

A glossary gives the meaning of terms such as Bottomry Bond which is naturally A bond given by the master of a ship for money advanced on the security of it's hull. Life is incomplete without knowing this.

Amazon does not have a copy since the book is labelled a rare book and is available only in antique book stores.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is Tendulkar the Indian Truman Show?

What is it about a short, stocky, high-pitch-voiced man that India has so taken to its heart?

Everyone who encounters Indian cricket is amazed at the Indian obsession with Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. It sometimes seems as if Indian cricket is Tendulkar and 10 others. Cricket personalities being interviewed are almost always asked a Tendulkar question. Only when the Kuladevata (family deity) has been pacified with phrases such as "Reaching 35 centuries is a mark of one of the all time greats" does the interview proceed along more conventional lines.

Why is this?

It cannot be mere cricketing records because while Sachin has an edge over his contemporaries, it is at best a thin edge. He does not tower over them as Donald Bradman did or dominate oppositions as more recent figures such as Viv Richards did. His career statistics are on par with contemporaries such as Brian Lara, Steve Waugh, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting. His cricket has been and still often is beautiful in its imperiousness but there are others such as VVS Laxman, Inzamam Ul Haq and even the much reviled Sourav Ganguly who produce beautiful cricket. Cricketing statistics or strokeplay alone therefore do not explain this phenomenon.

Is Tendulkar perhaps the Indian Truman show?

In the memorable 1998 film, The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, whose life is a prime time reality show. Audiences watch Truman's life played out on TV from the time he is a baby through his schooling, adolescence, adulthood and married life. A nation of TV watchers become Truman addicts, cheering his successes and sympathizing with him over his disappointments and failures.

India first drowsily woke up to Tendulkar on February 25th, 1988 when aged 13, he smashed 326 in the Bombay (now Mumbai) Inter School Cricket tournament, The Harris Shield Cricket Tournament. And watched in trepidation and growing pride as a 15 year old Sachin faced Pakistani pace bowler Waqar Younis at his fiery best in Pakistan, and came away bloody but unbowed, even managing to score 59 valuable runs.

With most prodigals, promise does not translate to performance. But with Sachin, the wonder years have gone on to become wonderful years. Promise has been amply fulfilled. He has broken many records, has the most One Day International (ODI) hundreds, the most ODI runs and now the most test hundreds. He is now 32. Through these 19 long years, India has watched the chubby boy grow to young man, become the most valuable player in the team, become captain, marry, have children, watched him single handedly take on and conquer the touring Australians, grieved with him when his father died and are now watching him transition from young Turk to team mentor.

The Sachin show is also greater than Truman. Truman was an ordinary man, Sachin a gifted genius, the chosen one that all of us somewhere wish we were. And yes, it is a true story.