Category Archives: Books

Before RED

Before <i>RED</i>

The best thing about the internet is that some amazing recommendations can come from the unlikeliest places, including random message boards. For instance, I recently found out that long before they made RED, which stands for Retired Extremely Dangerous in the 2010 movie of the graphic novel starring Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Morgan Freeman and Brian Cox as a quintet of international intelligence old-timers who take on a high-level conspiracy that threatens their lives, there was Hopscotch (1980).

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Brian Garfield, Hopscotch is about CIA operative Miles Kendig (Walter Matthau) who is REPRetired Extremely Pissed.

It all starts in Berlin, where Kendig, one of those older men in grey whom nobody notices, walks into a beer garden and laconically points out young spies to West German intelligence officers while conducting what appears to be an aria in his head. He leaves the main man alone – that is Yaskov (Herbert Lom), head of the KGB, well-known to Kendig for the past 20 years – so he can confront him alone in the street, remind him gently of West Germany’s great dislike of Soviet spies, and retrieve the sensitive information before sending him on his way.

Yaskov tells Kendig that he could make a run for it. As the thought of the two of them chasing each other all over Berlin comes to Kendig’s mind, he shakes his head: “We’d look like Laurel and Hardy!” he says in disgust. Yaskov agrees, hands it over and lives to fight another day.

Unfortunately for Kendig, things don’t go over as smoothly Stateside where his new boss Myerson (Ned Beatty) is the result of a regrettable internal promotion from the “Department of Dirty Tricks”. Clearly, they frowned at showing civility to a Soviet agent at the DDT, because Myerson turns Kendig into a glorified file clerk awaiting retirement for letting Yaskov go instead of bringing him in.

Or rather, Myerson tries. Kendig walks out of Myerson’s office, proudly decorated with photos of him doing manly things like shoot and fish as well shaking hands with Nixon, and coolly destroys his CIA file, hops on a flight to Salzburg, and arrives just in time to take part in a mysterious, extended conversation about the intricacies of wine with a foreign lady. This is Isobel (Glenda Jackson), a sort-of-former lover and definitely-former agent  who quit to marry well and is now a well-off widow with a fearsome German Shepherd for a companion.

Isobel knows Kendig’s unexpected visit can’t be a good sign. But even she’s surprised when she finds out Meyerson, a little man with an unpleasant expression who decorates his office with pictures of him shaking hands with Nixon, catching fish, and shooting the camera while cautioning his wife against renting their vacation home out to filthy Democrats, is now his boss:

“See-you-next-Tuesday Meyerson?” she asks.

Kendig isn’t quite sure what he’s supposed to do now that he’s out of a job (other than listen to all the opera he wants) but a visit of commiseration from Yaskov gives him an idea – he’s going to write his memoirs! Detailing every last, horrifying, gut-wrenching, underhanded operation he’s been involved with over the past 20 years. Of course, this comes with a side effect of possible assassination as Isobel points out (which leads him to make this face), so he decides to send it out, one chapter at a time, to all the major intelligence agencies of the world.

Myerson is incensed enough to launch a manhunt. Especially since the book is mainly interested in exposing his shortcomings, in more ways than one. “Hello, you short person,” Kendig says cheerfully to a photo of Meyerson before he starts on another chapter. “Pay attention, shorty!”

As the CIA and the KGB (Kendig is spilling quite a bit about them as well and Yaskov is naturally interested in the CIA material, recognizing a valuable source of information if only he can get his hands on him) search for him, much to the amusement of the rest of the world, Kendig has found a nice little hideaway in Myerson’s Democrat-free vacation home. One hilarious (seriously!) bout of bad Southern accents later, the local chapter of the FBI is trying to shoot him out.

“I now know what the FBI stands for,” Myerson says bitterly as his beautiful, expensive house goes up in smoke along with his quarry. “Fucking Ballbusting Imbeciles!”

With Matthau singing The Barber of Seville at the Spanish border, a re-engineered Belgian Tiger Moth that glides in a graceful ballet around an infuriated Myerson, dumb sidekicks, loyal attack dogs, and the always-delightful Sam Waterston as Kendig’s protege-cum-replacement, it’s leagues removed from the kind of spy movies we see today. Myerson clearly won the war as far as pop culture is concerned.

But it’s also the reason why Hopscotch is absolutely ageless. And now available on Criterion. So you really have no excuse.


Posted by on October 31, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Movies, Review, Video


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Spoiled for Good, not Evil

Back when I was a teenage asshole, I used have great fun yelling out important plot points at my extremely spoiler-averse BFF. I think she basically walked around with her hands plastered to her ears for a whole week after Gupt came out until she could see it too.

And then there was me – the girl who’d read Agatha Christie novels back to front because I always “like to know”. It’s earned me a number of puzzled frowns and blank stares over the years, even from fellow ending-addicts who prefer to leave at least their mysteries unspoiled, but it couldn’t be simpler for me: I derive very little satisfaction from figuring out whodunnit, I’m a lot more concerned with how and why. I’m not really looking for a two-in-one “Get a puzzle free with this story” deal.

I’m very specific about what I like.

The ends of things, especially a book, is often a good indicator of what the rest of the material is like. There’s a reason why the most famous line from Gone with the Wind is from the last chapter – that’s where authors often store their best work. A book that peters out or pulls its punches at the climax is not a recommendation, no matter how powerful the prose or sky-high the praise on the cover. I might still pick it up, but I’ll know how to manage my expectations.

Reading Matt Yglesias and Ta-Nehisi Coates on the subject, however, I was reminded of AMC’s Rubicon, which just wrapped up its freshman season this Sunday. I suppose you could call it a sort of bait-and-switch: you’d expect the story of Will Travers (James Badge Dale), an intelligence analyst and “pattern recognition expert” whose chance discovery of a mysterious code leads him down a deep, dark rabbit hole and soon endangers the lives of all those close to him as well as himself, to come with a lot more bells and whistles.

Instead Rubicon‘s the kind of show that the British still make, the ones that are put on a diet of speed and steroids when they decide to remake it for the American market. It’s a show unafraid to take its time, devoted to establishing not just the world in which its story unfolds but also its atmosphere.

Little things about Rubicon appear designed to evoke fleeting memories of uneasiness you might have experienced over the course of your life. I don’t have to be an analyst on the brink of a momentous, life-threatening discovery to understand that feeling of paranoia when you’re walking down a deserted street in the middle of the night and you start imagining that that guy who got off at the same stop as you might be following you home with evil on his mind. I don’t have to be planning catastrophic world events to recognize hushed conversations that fall silent at the sound of high heels clacking on the floor of a temple to modern architecture.

Half the season of Rubicon was seemingly devoted to building these little moments that might have made you impatient at the time but ultimately served to underscore later events. If you hadn’t heard Maggie’s sad observation to Will, “This is the closest we’ll ever come to that lunch date, isn’t it?” or glimpsed her face after her disastrous booty call, the scene where Will confronts her about her betrayal wouldn’t have landed with the punch it did.

But how many people stuck around to watch that take place? Not many if even reviewers needed to be lured back:

At one point, Rubicon was in prime position to set the world record for “slowest paced episodic television show.” I even joked that I wasn’t smart enough to understand Rubicon. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t particularly confusing, it was just boring. Through the first three episodes, no character ever seemed to turn on a light let alone say something interesting. Minutes of screen time would be spent watching a guy we barely knew sit alone in the dark. I’d think, wait, that’s what I’m doing right now; why would I want to watch someone else to that on television?
Somewhere, around the sixth episode, something happened. I mean that literally — something finally happened. But things kept happening and, most importantly, the characters started developing personalities. I’m not making this up, Kale Ingrim (Arliss Howard) just may be the best character on television right now.

I was hooked early on, but that little nugget about the 6th episode caught my attention since my general rule for a new series that I find interesting is 6 episodes: that’s how long I give it to reel me in, after which, 9 times out of 10, I’m as committed as I can be without a wedding ring. Just ask Bones – I even forgave it that all time low of a season 4 London-based premiere.

But not everybody hangs around as long as I do. Not even me, if I find it heavy going. It took me just three episodes to bid farewell to Boardwalk Empire although it’s apparently going through a renaissance of its own so I might have to revisit and stick around for the full six.

And that’s the point about getting spoiled – if somebody were to tell me “stick around because things improve at such-and-such point when this-and-that happens”, that only makes me more inclined to watch it. Unless those plot points don’t appeal to me at all, in which case I’d be grateful to save my time because the Lord knows there’s no dearth of quality television out there.

But I’m apparently the minority.


Posted by on October 19, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Movies, Personal, Review, Television, Video


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Prizes to be Won, etc

I feel like I really try to keep my mind open to new information – if not for anything else, then because it gives me something to write about – but every so often, the universe will lob a nugget my way that totally takes me aback. A recent example emerged in the weeks of hoopla and controversy surrounding the release of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, when I learned that men apparently don’t read books written by women.

Call me oblivious, but it had never occurred to me that gender played a role in determining readership. But this too makes sense statistically, since women read more books than men and as male authors continue to appear on bestseller lists, it’s a fair bet that women like myself must not mind reading books written by men.

Perhaps it’s also because I’m an Indian and I grew up in an environment where everyone read Enid Blyton when they were little, graduating to Alistair MacLean and Agatha Christie in their teens and hiding beat-up, much-shared Sidney Sheldon novels in their schoolbags when they got a little older. Content was king, the way I remember it, not the gender of the person who wrote it. I guess I do live in a bubble of my own as my mother has often observed. And I’m getting on a bit in years as my mirror now observes. Who knows what the crazy kids do nowadays. Look at J.K. Rowling, for god’s sake!

Anyhoo, all this is an elaborate setup to announce to you, dear readers, that Women’s Web is running a “My Favorite Female” competition. Now I know what you’re thinking and I just want to say, chee-chee!

Okay, cheap laughs aside, this is the deal:

Pick any female character from a novel, that made you sit up, that made you go wow, that made you laugh or cry, that got you angry, that got you thinking, that made you fall in love – in short, a character that made you feel, ‘I wish I had written that!’ Tell us what you liked about this character in a blog post. Your entry must be dated between 12th Oct and 22nd Oct, 2010.

Click here for more information on rules, prizes, word length, submission, etc. I know there are those of you here who don’t blog and they have a submission option for you too. Or I’ll host your entry as a guest post for you if you’re especially shy. Bottomline is that I can think of at least a few of you lovely people from the comment pool who ought to give this a shot. Men included.

I think this is a conversation I’d like to see, don’t you? In the light of this post, I think I’ll write about my favorite female character written by a man.

[Plus: The Female Character Flowchart & A. S. Byatt Interview]


Posted by on October 14, 2010 in Books, Life, News, Personal


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The Shame of Young Adults

Video NSFW

Auntie: What are you reading?
Child Amrita: Gone with the Wind. Have you read it?
Auntie: What?!
Child Amrita: I don’t really understand all of it but I think it’s great! The drama is out of this world! I think I’m addicted to good trash for life now. In fact, I’m gonna get the movie now and watch it.
Auntie: Stop it immediately or you will lose your childish innocence too soon!
Child Amrita: *grumble* When I grow up, nobody’s gonna tell me what I can read or not.

Teacher: What are you reading?
Tween Amrita: The Giant Book of Murder. It’s great.
Teacher: What?!
Tween Amrita: Look, it has sections devoted to axe murderers, serial killers and poisoners. I’m totally going to mine this for information that I will cunningly introduce into my English school essays to blow my competition out of the water!
Teacher: Stop it immediately! Or you will grow up into a psychopath.
Tween Amrita: *grumble* When I grow up, nobody will tell me what I can read or not!

Friend: What are you reading?
Teen Amrita: The Wheel of Time. It’s great!
Friend: What?!
Teen Amrita: Yeah, I’m really into fantasy fiction! It’s like science fiction but better! There’s parallel universes and alternate realities and magic and strange creatures and –
Friend: Stop!
Teen Amrita: Why?
Friend: I dunno. It sounds stupid and I’ve never read any. Here, read Chicken Soup like everybody else.
Teen Amrita: *grumble* When I grow up, nobody’s gonna tell me what I can read or not.

Internet: What are you reading?
Present Day Amrita: Young Adult fiction. It’s great!
Internet: What?!
Present Day Amrita: Yeah, I was too busy reading regular adult stuff when I was kid but now I find that there’s a lot of YA fiction out there that’s really good. So now I’m catching up.
Internet: Stop! Or at least have some shame! You’re reading stuff meant for children.
Present Day Amrita: *grumble* When I grow up…

I didn’t even know I was supposed to feel inferior about it. Should I cover my copy of Mockingjay with brown paper the way some women who read sexy romances on the subway do? What about graphic novels? Are those cool? Or is everybody sneering at me for choosing to read a comic like a little baby?

If only I read less and monitored the reactions of random strangers to my choice of reading material more, I bet I’d have the answers to all these pressing questions.


Posted by on September 2, 2010 in Books, Personal


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Kabul Disco by Nicolas Wild

This is an “educational comic book”, French illustrator Nicolas Wild informs us in an early panel. If so, then they should all be so lucky to be as hilariously poignant and smart as Kabul Disco.

The book begins in Paris in early 2005, where a broke Wild finds in himself a new and burning desire to take in the sights of strife-stricken Afghanistan when informed by his zealously productive roommate that he’s shortly about to become homeless. After an unexpected and caviar-filled break in the unfriendly heart of Azerbaijan, Wild arrives in Kabul and enters the mysterious world of NGOs that work in war-torn countries.

His brief: to explain the Afghan Constitution to the overwhelmingly illiterate population, especially children, through comic books featuring the adventures of a war orphan who learns about the rights and freedoms of the new republic through his life with the kind man who adopts him.

His problem(s): several. Some pretty entertaining, others not so much.

For one thing, he has about 24 hours to catch up on the history, politics, customs, problems and Constitution of Afghanistan – a country about which he knows nothing. Also, Kabul is kinda freaky – people get kidnapped, it’s cold as all hell, and the threat of violence is omnipresent (although Afghanistan in 2005 sounds much better than the Afghanistan of 2010).

Over the next few months, he learns about the expat life, living with war, adjusting to a wholly different culture, and how to rub along with people with whom you have very little in common like pretty young women responsible for getting George Bush elected President. The resulting vignettes are witty, sad, informative and downright giggle-worthy.

But what really struck me about Kabul Disco is Wild’s ambivalence about his role as a Westerner teaching Afghans about their new Afghan reality when he can’t quite grasp it either. The artificiality of its construct is painfully obvious in the sequence of panels in which he finds out that there is no actual Afghan parliament as of his employment in Kabul. He’s nonplussed.

“What do I draw?” he asks.

“Make it symbolic by representing the ethnic balance: 45% are Pushtuns, 36% are Tajiks, 12% are Uzbeks, 14% are Hazaras, And then there are a few Nuristanis, of course. Draw some wearing shalwar kamiz with turbans, patoos or pakols. Then others wearing three piece suits. Out of the 300 members, 25% are women.”

“Of course,” he says. Only: “I just wanted to know, what do Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, Nuristanisshalwar kamiz, patoos, pakols and women look like?”

Wild is particularly brilliant when he’s exploring the differences between the cultures of the people around him and his own. There is a screamingly funny dream about going back to France to find his mother and sisters in burkhas, for example. Or the the time he and his friends crash a celebration of Ashura and are all but certain they’re done for when one of them does the touristy thing and breaks out the camera flash, only to end up on a balcony drinking tea and musing on the differences between Christians with their Easter egg hunting and Muslims with their self-flagellation.

And yet, he understands the importance of his work, coming as it does after decades of unrest and violence. It might frequently be ridiculous and or even stomach turning as he finds his later work, creating propaganda to recruit Afghans into an iffy life in the national army, but it is a part of putting a country back on its feet. For good or for ill.

I don’t know if there exists an English translation of Kabul Disco Book 2: How I Didn’t Become an Opium Addict in Afghanistan, but if there is, sign me up! Kabul Disco is not the first book I’ve read about the challenges facing Afghanistan since the war began, but it is the first one that left me feeling something other depressed and hopeless. And that’s nothing to sneer at.

Highly recommended.


Posted by on March 2, 2010 in Books, Entertainment, Review


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The Englishman’s Cameo: An Interview

I’ve always considered historical detective fiction one of the hardest genres to pull off. Unlike historical romantic suspense, you can’t depend on the characters’ chemistry to take the heat off your plotting skills. Similarly, while historical fiction allows you to take interesting little detours into intriguing deadends as a writer, the “detective” part of this genre demands you hew to a certain pace that tends to cut out the excess bits, no matter how much you love them. It’s a bit like creating a whole another universe for a fantasy novel, complete with strange customs and languages, except you’re stuck with actual events and yet have to create a real feel for it in your reader.

I don’t know why anybody would ever sign on for such grief, but I’m always glad when they do. Especially when someone does it as well as Madhulika Liddle (filmblogistan knows her better as DustedOff)  in The Englishman’s Cameo.

In the book, Muzzafar Jang is a minor aristocrat in Emperor Shahjahan’s decadent, not to mention nearly bankrupt, court in Delhi. His taste for low company (read: commoners who do a bit more with their time than cultivate respectable vices like courtesans, opiates and pretty young boys) leads him deeper and deeper into the shadowy underbelly of a slowly rotting empire when he involves himself in the false arrest of a friend on charges of murder.

From its opening scenes at the Red Fort, or the Qila-i-Mubarak as it was called back then, to Jang’s hilariously furtive jonesing for a cup of coffee, Cameo had me hooked and didn’t let go until it was done. At the end, there were just so many things I wanted to know, I decided to ask Madhulika if she’d answer a few questions.

And she did! Thanks Madhulika:

Q. 1. What made you choose the last years of Shahjahan’s reign as the historical setting for The Englishman’s Cameo?

A. This was the result of a combination of interest and necessity—I’d decided I wanted to write a historical detective novel, so to make life easier for myself, I had to set it in a time period that I liked, and which wouldn’t be too difficult to research. Shahjahan’s reign in Delhi is ideal for this: it’s colourful and fascinating (the court at that time was probably the richest in the world), and thanks to contemporary travellers and diarists, there’s plenty of material available for research.

Q. 2. Was the research difficult?

A. Not for the broader aspects of the setting. The political background; how people lived; what they ate and drank and read—all of that isn’t difficult to find. The really tough bit was to figure out the obscure details. For instance, how much paperwork was prevalent in administration at that time (plenty. I discovered that the invention of paper was one of the technical advancements that enabled the Mughals, and the earlier medieval dynasties that ruled from Delhi, to control the administration of their empires). Other things that took me hours to unearth: how the Mughals drank coffee; what their boats looked like; what porcelain they used… and more.

Q. 3. In your acknowledgments you mention the historical walks you took with your sister. I grew up in Delhi and I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t even know there was such a thing! Do you have recommendations or a favorite part?

A. Yes, there are people in Delhi who conduct historical and heritage walks, usually for a very nominal sum. The Delhi Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), for example, does fixed-route walks on weekends in areas such as Shahjahanabad, Mehrauli, Nizamuddin and the Lodhi Gardens. So does the India Habitat Centre, though they tend to explore some very obscure places as well. Among my favourite walks are in Mehrauli (Delhi’s oldest continuously inhabited area), Shahjahanabad (especially Katra Khushal Rai, Naughara and Namakharam ki Haveli), and Nizamuddin: all very historic areas where many of the buildings are fairly well preserved.

Q. 4. What drew you towards historical detective fiction as a genre?

A. I have to confess I’m nuts about history. And about detective fiction. So the combination’s irresistible! I read my first historical detective novel (Robert van Gulik’s The Chinese Maze Murders) when I was a kid, and I’ve been fascinated by the genre ever since: the exotic nature of a historical novel—a way of life that’s alien, and often surprisingly similar to our own—combined with a socio-economic and political scenario that one’s (usually) read about only in school or college text books: I think that’s so amazing. Used as a backdrop for a good old-fashioned whodunit, I think a historical setting can be both informative as well as entertaining.

Q. 5. I know from your movie blog that you’re a fan of noir. And I thought I could see the influence in your work. Was I just imagining things?

A. No, I guess not! I love mysteries, noir or not. Personally, I don’t think The Englishman’s Cameo is as dark as a noir film would be, but some of the elements are definitely there. Unintentionally, I may add. It just so happened that after the first draft was written, I realised the plot and the main character needed spicing up. The first thing that came to mind was to include noir-ish elements (probably because I’m familiar with them?), and so that’s what happened.

Q. 6. Speaking of film noir, as a Joseph Cotten fan struggling against the Humphrey Bogart juggernaut, I have to ask – who’s your favorite? Or what are your favorite noir movies?

A. Frankly, I’m not much of a fan of Bogart (great actor, but not a favourite of mine!) or Joseph Cotten. But yes, I do like noir a lot. Some of Hitchcock’s darker films—Rebecca, Spellbound, Rope—are among my favourites. Also Gaslight, The Night of the Hunter, Pursued (though that’s noir crossover, Western + noir), Crossfire, and the unusual The Crimson Kimono, which is noir + romance + anti-racism. Two of my favourite Kurosawa films are superb noir: Stray Dog and High and Low.

Q. 7. There’s something charmingly mid-20th century pop-fiction about The Englishman’s Cameo (and I mean that as a complete compliment because I love that stuff and constantly bemoan the deterioration of talent that has made barely literate trash rocket to the top of bestseller lists these days), and one of the things that struck me about it, especially given its title, was the way it took the standard “white man in exotic climes gets caught up in shenanigans” story and flipped it. I’m so used to reading novels in which Muzaffar Jang would have been the brownie supporting character in the story of William Terry, ace English gunner on a personal quest. Was this deliberate or did the story just naturally evolve to that point?

A. Another confession: the book had no white characters to start off with. From the beginning, I’d decided my hero was going to be a Mughal nobleman. Then someone at a publishing house, to whom I narrated the plot, suggested I bring in a European—for a mundane reason: it would make the book more attractive for publishers abroad. I was initially hesitant, but after I did some research and discovered that there were a fair number of Europeans bumming about in India at the time, I decided to give it a try, mainly because I thought it would make the book more interesting, foreign markets or no. Thus William Terry (whose last name, by the way, is the same as that of an English traveller called Edward Terry who visited India in the 17th century).

Q. 8. Are we looking at the first of a series? (You should totally do a series.)

A. Thank you! And yes, this is going to be a series. Right now I’m writing a set of short stories, all of which feature Muzaffar Jang, the detective of The Englishman’s Cameo.

Q. 9. One of the things that made me laugh was Muzaffar’s addiction to coffee. Was that a sly take on detectives with bad habits like House with his Vicodin and Holmes with his cocaine?

A. What’s a detective without a vice?! Muzaffar started off being too goody-goody: he had to be given some weaknesses. I didn’t like the idea of a hero who was an opium addict or partial to pretty boys, so (since I’m a coffee addict too), coffee seemed like a good option.

Q. 10. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this! One last question for those who liked The Englishman’s Cameo and would like something in its vein while they’re waiting for your next book: any recommendations?

A. There are loads of historical detectives out there, and some of them are really, really good. For a sensitive, warm style of writing and a detective whom I instinctively liked a lot, I’d suggest any of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters. Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series, about an ancient Irish princess/lawyer/nun, are excellently plotted; and Robert van Gulik’s novels and short stories about the medieval Chinese magistrate Judge Dee are fabulously rich in detail—besides being superb whodunits. Also check out Lindsey Davis’s Falco books, a series featuring a detective in ancient Rome. Excellent, and very funny.

Other writers who mostly write historical detective fiction: C J Sansom, Ariana Franklin, PC Doherty, Boris Akunin (look out for his Sister Pelagia series, in which the detective is a nun in Czarist Russia), Giles Brandreth (his detective is Oscar Wilde) and Jason Goodwin. In India, I’ve rarely come across these in bookstores, but they’re easily available on Amazon.


Posted by on January 15, 2010 in Books, Desipundit, Entertainment, Review


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“When Will I Be Blown Up?”

This is not how I expected William Faulkner to sound. [Well, I didn’t expect that outfit either.] I thought he’d at least read a little better, you know? I guess I’m used to the modern day writers who hone their performance skills.

But then you read the text of his speech and realize that with words like that, it simply doesn’t matter. He could have croaked it out with a banjo and it’d still have had the same resonance.

Our tragedy today is a general and universal physical fear so long sustained by now that we can even bear it. There are no longer problems of the spirit. There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.

He must learn them again. He must teach himself that the basest of all things is to be afraid; and, teaching himself that, forget it forever, leaving no room in his workshop for anything but the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed – love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice. Until he does so, he labors under a curse. He writes not of love but of lust, of defeats in which nobody loses anything of value, of victories without hope and, worst of all, without pity or compassion. His griefs grieve on no universal bones, leaving no scars. He writes not of the heart but of the glands.

He said those words in December, 1950.

Whether you take it literally or metaphorically – and anyone who has ever written so much a comment on the internet can tell you they do so with one eye open for a flame war – the fear to express yourself remains by far the greatest one.

Whatever the context, be it a personal situation or a political one, the moment you put your thoughts into words is incredibly fraught. The vulnerability that comes with the knowledge that people now have a direct window into your brain is next to indescribable. They might not know that, but you do.

And yet, unless you can move past that moment, and express yourself honestly, all the words in the world mean nothing at all. There is nothing less satisfying than watering down your point of view for the sake of other people’s good opinion, than saying things you don’t really believe in because it’s easier, more convenient, safer, less risky.

You can hide your thoughts from other people, sure. But what are you going to do about yourself? With all those ideas rattling inside you?

[via James Fallows who really wants you to read the thing :mrgreen: ]


Posted by on December 12, 2009 in Books, Celebrity, Personal


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The Wisdom of Whores


“When people ask me what I do for a living,” writes Elizabeth Pisani in The Wisdom of Whores, “I say ‘Sex and drugs.'” Not only is it succinct, but it’s also a conversation starter as, she observes, “Everybody has something to say about sex and drugs.”

But seldom do people have anything as interesting, perspicacious and entertaining to say about these two things as Pisani in her book (and related website). As a bureau reporter turned epidemiologist, Pisani accidentally found herself in the right place at the right time just as an ominous new disease was spreading across the world – Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Others before her have discussed what it meant to live on the crest of that deadly wave in the 1980s – back when it was called GRIDS (Gay Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The Lancet called it the Gay Compromise Syndrome. The fear, stigma, judgment and ostracization; the horror of attending funerals of your friends every week. On an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Tom Hanks confessed that he still finds it traumatic to watch Philadelphia because so many of the people on screen have since died.

For Pisani, the impact was double – she witnessed its devastation first hand as a New Yorker in the early 1980s and she was just finishing up a degree as an epidemiologist in the mid 1990s when AIDS was finally becoming a matter of international public policy. The Wisdom of Whores is a fascinating account of those first few years when “AIDS” was no longer a dirty word (or at least, it had reached a point where politicians could actually say the word in public without fearing that its residual cooties might latch on to their pristine characters).

There is a sense of wonderment about the early pages as if Pisani still can’t believe that she and a bunch of other young punks were actually the ones calling the shots at UNAIDS as it set about trying to handle one of the greatest epidemics of our time with immense social consequences. You learn things about international bureaucracy and its functioning that makes you wonder: Is that really how the world is run?

It appears so. And it would be awesome if it didn’t leave you the teensiest bit queasy as you try to digest the implications. But the meat of the book comes later when Pisani sets down roots of a kind in Jakarta and begins to explore the local ground conditions. What she finds is that the theory she and her colleagues have spent all their time massaging to fit various governments (all at once, in that one-size-fits-all way of the United Nations) doesn’t always equal reality or as she puts it, “real people don’t have sex in boxes”.

The Indonesian man who brings about that realization is “a self-proclaimed heterosexual guy who has unpaid sex with a woman who sells sex to other men, while himself also selling sex to other men and buying sex from transgendered sex workers.” Does that sound like a person at risk for HIV? Can I have a “duh”? And yet, he didn’t fit a single one of the criteria on the questionnaire prepared by the Indonesian government to find out how many people in their country were at risk for the virus.

When it comes to AIDS, you quickly realize, it is not the disease itself that presents the biggest challenge – it is the baggage it brings with it. To mention just a few of her many examples:

– There are well-intentioned international church groups that block access to sex workers because NGOs that preach safe sex through condoms are messing with the church’s own plans to “re-educate” the women by teaching them vocations like baking. This in spite of the fact that the condoms save many more lives than the few converts who eventually start bakeries.

– Democracy is a wonderful thing but sometimes it brings religious fundamentalists into power like the Islamic political parties who tore down the centralized brothels sanctioned by the authoritarian government. That sent a strong statement about the new Indonesia, especially to the prostitutes who then had to move elsewhere without access to health clinics and the many benefits of living in a centralized neighborhood where the government kept a close watch on the activities.

– Morality says premarital sex is bad and is a sign of the West’s slutty influence. Except under the proper, puritanical ways of the old traditions, astonishing numbers of young men in Thailand were buying sex from workers with a high risk of AIDS who frequently sold sex without using condoms. As women began to get educated, they began to wait before getting married – but chose to have sex before. The young men who were now having sex with their girlfriends were still having sex without condoms but now their partners weren’t as likely to have sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS.

– In China, the government suppressed a painstakingly gathered report by international experts on the number of estimated Chinese citizens with AIDS. A massive Communist cover up in action? Sure. The Chinese didn’t want to kick off another round of international speculation about the validity of their methods due to possible draconian government interference when the estimated numbers came in below what an earlier, similarly controversial report sanctioned and carried out by the government had been published.

And if you think sex workers and horny young people from formerly cloistered societies have it hard, you should see the junkies. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, as the fairly kneejerk response to needle exchange programs prove, everybody’s cool with a junkie if he wants to die of AIDS.

The reasons governments around the world do what they do and the massive amounts of corruption and sheer bizarreness of the many groups that surround an easily and cheaply preventable disease, are legion. The Wisdom of Whores is part memoir, part expose about a significant event that’s taking place right now in your backyard. Perhaps even in your house.

At the same time it is also a witty, empathetic, fascinating window to a foreign world filled with characters so odd in circumstances so strange to most of us that they would strain credulity if presented as fiction. I couldn’t recommend it more.

[Pic via The Daily Dish. They ought to put these guys in charge of AIDS-awareness campaigns everywhere. If you think ol’ Saddam above is bad, check out Hitler. He even has a sex tape.]


Posted by on December 1, 2009 in Books, Entertainment, Life, Review, Video


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The Ugliness of the Indian Male

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With a title like The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions and an opening paragraph that reads,

Every English-speaking Indian man between twenty-five and sixty has written about the Hindi movies he has seen, the English books he has read, the foreign places he has travelled to, and the curse of communalism… Why did a bunch of grown men in the late twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries write about the same movies, novels, journeys, and riots? Why Naipaul? Why not nature? Or Napier? Or the nadeswaram? Why Bachchan? And not Burma? Or Bhojpuri? And, most weirdly, why pogroms and chauvinism? Why not programmes on television?

you’d expect author Mukul Kesavan’s own attempt at the four things he posits as integral to the Indian English-speaking male experience to be a fairly caustic effort. And so it is. Surprisingly, Ugliness is also a collection of essays that’s oddly sympathetic to and gentle in its understanding of the very subjects that he lampoons with such elan. It’s eclectic in its scope, interesting in its ideas, often hilarious in its wit, and occasionally uncomfortable in its truths.

The opening essays, for example, in which he meditates upon the Indian man’s ability to pull hot chicks while grabbing his junk on street corners, mining for boogers in public with “little oinking sounds of pleasure” and a generally careless disregard for all matters of appearance, are written in a style that takes no prisoners. And yet, they’re written as part of a series that explores a readily apparent truth: Indian film is populated by incredibly beautiful women who routinely fall for unfortunate-looking men… and this is just how we like it. What really made me appreciate that passage, more than its well-deployed snark (of which there is plenty), was that Kesavan managed to leave an essentially depressing idea on a lovely little note about gender relations.

It is a neat trick he deploys often.

Following the “Ugliness” chapters is one on sport in which he discusses the difficulty of finding a team to cheer on. Buried in witticisms about the sorry state of English cricket and the virtual invisibility of Indian sportsmanship, is a light exploration of race resentment that shouldn’t be comfortable reading.

In his chapter about Georgette Heyer (wherein he categorizes her as a “cloven-footed alien”), a gentle melancholy permeates the recognition of an anti-Semitic subplot in The Grand Sophy. It’s a rare moment of unlooked-for clarity that strikes close to the heart of any reader, especially those of a post-colonial bent who’ve long had to grapple with their love and affection for the work of various racists.

He’s equally adept in the use of whimsy, as in the case of a 1996 visit to the Ram Janmabhoomi. An insightful chapter about votebank politics in Uttar Pradesh that’s still relevant today for those who wish to understand why the Congress is so thoroughly screwed in the home state of its dynasty, it ends on a farcical note when Kesavan and his friend are “chased” back to Lucknow by L.K. Advani shouting political inanities in “a pink carriage with a pink loudspeaker”. I laughed out loud.

In between the fun and games, he talks about the newspaper business and the role of English in “translating the chaos of vernacular life”; the alien-ness of a rural India whose “title deeds were all in urban lockers”; the Madrasi man’s uncomplicated love of dance that embarrasses the more inhibited North Indian man; and a quite wonderful little passage on Istanbul and colonialism that notes almost in passing that relics are created when “things stop belonging to the worlds that made them” – a fate that has yet to befall the Sultanahmet but should be familiar to Indians.

Towards the end of the book, where the longer essays reside, he presents a chapter called “A New History of Indian Nationalism” that reads like a handy and intriguing companion piece to longer works on the same (it originally appeared in the book Contemporary Perspectives: History and Sociology of South Asia), before winding things up with “Secular Common Sense”, published (in expanded form?) as a book in 2001.

It is here, in its last third, that the one great flaw of Ugliness begins to overwhelm it. As a collection of essays written over a considerable period of time, it’s a book that must have required a fair amount of updating and editing. I can’t speak to the former (the essays mostly stand the test of time), but Kesavan must have blanked on the amount of repetition that pockmarks his book. By the time I finished reading it, I had to wonder if the original title was The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions for People Lacking Comprehension Skills.

On a more general note, it is not to be expected that a book that dares to be this frank and contrary about a variety of subjects Kesavan himself decrees of enormous interest to his presumed reading public will win universal favor. The English-speaking Indian male (and female) who picks up this book will find plenty within its pages to challenge, infuriate, and repudiate. But how can anyone resist at least a peek at a book that includes gems like this ditty from a Parsi play called Indersabha:

Raja hoon main quam ka, Inder mera naam,
Bin pariyon ke deed ke, mujhe nahin araam.
Suno re mere dev re, dil ko nahin karar,
Jaldi mere vaste, sabha karo taiyar.
Takht bichao jagmaga, jaldi se is aan,
Mujhko shab bhar bhaithna, mehfil ke darmyaan.

You’d have to be as humorless as those long ago Hindi playwrights who lost the battle for a paying audience to these cheerful Parsi writers to hate The Ugliness of the Indian Male and Other Propositions.


Posted by on September 18, 2009 in Books, Entertainment, Review


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Public Enemies

Bryan Burrough’s Public Enemies is an attention grabber. Far more so, in fact, than the Michael Mann movie it inspired.

The first thing that struck me were the names. In the handy chart up front is a family tree of sorts of the men and women who were the star players of what is known as the public enemy era in America. Here we meet people called Ma Barker, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, Jelly Nash, Shotgun George Zeigler – names so ridiculously evocative of Hollywood crime capers of a certain vintage that it’s hard to think of them as real people. Even the FBI agents who hunted them down have names like Pop Nathan and Buster Jones. Can you imagine getting busted by a Special Agent Pop?

It prompts Burrough to write:

In a world of pocket telephones, internet shopping, and laser-guided missile bombs, the notion of marauding gangs of bank robbers wreaking havoc across the country is almost too outlandish to grasp, a story one might hear of the Wild West. But it wasn’t the Wild West. It was America in 1933, eight years before Pearl Harbor, twelve years before Hiroshima, twenty-three years before Elvis, thirty-six before Woodstock.

Long ago to be sure, but not that long ago at all.

The second thing that caught my attention was a little detail in the maps that showed the routes taken across America by the six major gangs profiled in this book – in the timelines were little boxes marked “vacation”. I don’t know why it tickled my funny bone to think of gangsters on vacation but I nevertheless found myself grinning a bit at the thought of bank robbers and murderers taking a few days off from looting and shooting to chill by the pool in sunny Florida before going back to “work”.

This is the charm of Public Enemies. As emphatic as Burrough is in his foreword (“This book was not ‘imagined’… It was reported.”) about the provenance of the facts he presents, he nevertheless manages to write what can only be described as a hectic thriller set in an atmosphere strongly evocative of the period. It is the kind of story that underpins the sentiment “truth is stranger than fiction”.

Public Enemies is the tale of a country as well as a crime spree. In Depression-era America, the new administration under Franklin Delano Roosevelt is instituting major changes commensurate with the times. One of these new ideas is a Bureau of Investigation (the “Federal” part wouldn’t be added until later) under J. Edgar Hoover – a “short, fat, businesslike, [man who] walks with mincing step“. Nobody really likes Hoover, an officious if efficient bureaucrat inclined towards despotism, and his team of clean-cut, well-dressed, educated, unarmed agents (sneeringly nicknamed “College Boys” by well-armed local law enforcement everywhere) are a joke.

But when a perfect storm of corrupt policemen, idiot crooks and loquacious FBI agents comes together in a shocking incident termed the Kansas City Massacre, not only does it sound the death-knell of the public enemy era, it proves to be a turning point in the history of the FBI and federal law. The War on Crime has begun.

I’m saying it long after the fact, but you can see the cinematic potential of this story in the photographs that accompany the book. There’s a very un-Faye Dunaway-ish Bonnie Parker mugging for the camera in happier and more criminal times; there she is again, very definitely dead, a thin sheet carelessly thrown over her dead body (after her death, the men guarding her corpse allowed members of the public to cut off bits of her hair and clothing as souvenirs). There’s a cocky John Dillinger (Johnny Depp, who played him in the 2009 movie, looks nothing like him – in fact, Depp resembles an FBI agent by the name of Earl Conelly going by the photos) leaning against his prosecutor in a nonchalant pose that apparently drove J. Edgar Hoover mad with fury; there he is again, blood trickling down his cheek, looking more like a tired child fast asleep than a man shot dead.

The amount of death and the sheer variety of it is just as disturbing. As Tommy Carroll lies dying in an alley, for example, he has nothing to say to the law but asks the man who shot him to give the few hundred dollars on his person to his girlfriend: “Be sure the little girl gets it. She doesn’t know what it’s all about.”

At the other end of the scale is the almost farcical inefficiency of the FBI. They tell chance-met reporters their hush-hush plans, they drive right past the man they’re supposed to be hunting even though he is in front of his house, they write polite letters of inquiry for important and timely information they could have had in a telephone call, they arrest the wrong people, they routinely forget to keep an eye on the girlfriends and wives of the men they’re tracking even though they’re the only leads they have. If Hoover really modeled the FBI on Scotland Yard, you wonder what the Yard ever did to give him such a low opinion of themselves.

Not that the gangs are any better. Their depiction in popular fiction to the contrary, most of the real criminals weren’t exactly mental giants. Some of the most entertaining bits of the book come as Burrough takes us through some of their routines. To give you just one example, the man who revolutionized bank robberies in America was the guy who wrote out and taped a getaway plan to the dashboard of his car. It apparently occurred to him that things might work out better for him if he knew what to do once he walked out of the bank rather than just screeching away on a burst of adrenaline. So you can guess what the others were like.

It reminded me of that speech George Clooney’s character gives in Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight about the general stupidity of bank robbers. And no wonder really, because Hollywood did these guys a favor. Roger Ebert writes:

My friend Jay Robert Nash says 1930s gangsters copied their styles from the way Hollywood depicted them; screenwriters like Ben Hecht taught them how they spoke. Dillinger was a big movie fan; on the last night of his life, he went to see Clark Gable playing a man a lot like him.

But eventually, we arrive at a point when the gangs are still thinking like the good ol’ days when a robber could make a clean getaway in a stolen car with a new-fangled V8 engine while the local sheriff was cranking up his Model A, even as the FBI is learning from its mistakes. And their luck holds as they begin to capture and kill the public enemies one by one.

By the time Public Enemies and the War on Crime come to a close, America has changed forever. Your perception of that era and the stories it spawned will too.


Posted by on September 14, 2009 in Books, Entertainment, Review, Video


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