Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The Motivator (Flash Fiction)

The train left Mhow at 9:15 a.m. The 23 kilometres to Indore would take at least an hour if there were no chain-pulling. He had entered the compartment a few seconds before it left. He had had to rush to make it. I wish he had got into another compartment. As the train left Mhow he started talking loudly to nobody in particular. But the common man being the common man one or two passengers in the crowded compartment reacted to his words. That was oxygen to him. And he started blabbering away.

I felt he had read all the self-help books available in the market. And he was translating it into Hindi for the benefit of the passengers. I could see a young man holding his head in his hands and moaning silently as if the barrage of words were like a barrage of artillery shells.

As the train entered Indore station the motivator got up and told his captive audience in chaste Hindi, "You must dare to dream and you must act upon it. What is the use of living if you do not do what your heart wants?" No sooner had he finished the sentence that the young man got up and gave him a tight slap.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ghosh And Adiga in Man Booker Prize 2008 Shortlist

It always gives me a thrill to see an Indian name in the Man Booker Prize shortlist. Considering the size of the Commonwealth it shouldn't come as a surprise that an Indian figures in such a shortlist but then this has to do with creativity and there is no guarantee that a work by an Indian will be good enough to be in the shortlist. So I guess I am allowed the previlige of feeling a wee bit of patriotic thrill on such a non-nationalistic issue.

Of the six works in the shortlist this year two are by Indians. These are:

(1) Writer and novelist Amitav Ghosh for Sea of Poppies. (Indian Foreign Service officer Vikas Swarup had written a best selling novel titled Q & A a few years ago. He had mentioned in an interview that he was neither a Bengali nor from St. Stephens. Amitav Ghosh is both. And so is Upamanyu Chatterjee. But considering the large number of IFS officers who had started penning novels a wag had rechristened IFS as Indian Fiction Service!)

(2) Journalist (former India correspondent for TIME) and writer Aravind Adiga for his novel The White Tiger.

See the complete short list at the official website by clicking here.

Blogger Amit Varma of India Uncut fame whose novel Sancho My Friend is in the longlist of the Man Asian Literary Prize in a blogpost titled The Inside Story Of the Booker Prize had quoted James Wood who was a jury member of the Booker Prize in 1994:

"The absurdity of the process was soon apparent: it is almost impossible to persuade someone else of the quality or poverty of a selected novel (a useful lesson in the limits of literary criticism). In practice, judge A blathers on about his favourite novel for five minutes, and then judge B blathers on about her favourite novel for five minutes, and nothing changes: no one switches sides. That is when the horse-trading begins. I remember that one of the judges phoned me and said, in effect: “I know that you especially like novel X, and you know that I especially like novel Y. It would be good if both those books got on to the shortlist, yes? So if you vote for my novel, I’ll vote for yours, OK?....That is how our shortlist was patched together, and it is how our winner was chosen."

Ah well, choosing a winner had always involved some give and take. (Incidentally, the winner in 1994 was How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman.) Do I hear some of my compatriots shouting Jeetega Bhai Jeetega, India Jeetega! the way they shout before an India Pakistan match?

Added on Sept 12:

According to the bookies Sebastian Barry is the favourite to win. So I can celebrate a 'victory' by either Aravind or Amitav but I will put my money on Sebastian!!! The results will be out on October 10.

If I try to remember South Asians and/or WIOs (Writers of Indian Origin) who have won this prize I remember V.S. Naipaul (Trinidad - UK), Salman Rushdie (UK), Arundhati Roy (India), Michael Ondaatje (Sri Lanka), Kiran Desai (India) and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala - the Polish lady married to an Indian Parsi which qualified her as an Indian and hence a citizen of a Commonwealth nation. Have I missed any?

And in case you wish to learn how to write a Booker winning novel this article from BBC News could be of some use. The article says, "Martyn Goff, who ran the award for 35 years, says the key is literary tourism - taking the reader somewhere they are not familiar with."

Sept 24:
Some more gossip on the Booker. Not to be missed.
And The Booker Goes To... by Nandini Lal (Tehelka Sept 27 2008)

October 22: The winner is Aravind Adiga this year. The results were announced a week ago. Chennai rejoices for he was born there. Bangalore rejoices for he is a Kannadiga. Delhi rejoices for his novel is set there. Indians, whether they read books or not, rejoice because an Indian has won the Booker..... Adiga is the third debut novelist to win this award after DBC Pierre won it in 2003 for his novel Vernon God Little and Arundhati Roy won it in 1997 for The God of Small Things . Adiga has dedicated his novel to the people of Delhi. It is in Delhi that the protagonist of his novel Balram Halwai lives. "My criteria were 'does it knock my socks off?', and this one did," is how Michael Portillo the chairman of the judges described this book. According to Portillo the book's originality lay in its showing the "dark side of India," - could that be an algorithm to winning more Bookers? Adiga, a former TIME correspondent in India, will be in the limelight now and his book may well sell in lakhs if not millions. But what about the others who also made it to the shortlist on the basis of their excellence? They may well fade into oblivion as also-rans. That is the dark side of all literary prizes. Maybe someone can write a Booker winning novel about that.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Jeans - Indian And American

Travel writer (or travelling writer as he prefers to be called) Paul Theroux says "In Iran, in 1973, if you had blue jeans and a watch, people would follow you down the street, saying 'Please, sir, sell me your watch, sell me your jeans.' In Mashhad, I sold a pair of jeans for $15, quite a lot of money, because they were real American blue jeans and everyone wanted American blue jeans. It was cool. Hippies would go, and bring three or four pairs and sell them in Iran, in Afghanistan." All this, he observes, was "pre China and India making clothes. The price of clothes has gone down in the world. Clothes are cheaper everywhere. No one's naked any more."

I remember that during the mid seventies original second hand Levi and Wrangler jeans (made in U.S.A) sold in Bara Bazaar Shillong for around Rs 350 to Rs. 450. My father's salary as a senior major of the Indian Army was around Rs. 1500 per month. I was sixteen then. To be really hep in the westernised town of Shillong one had to wear American jeans. Indian ones just wouldn't do. "Don't eat food but save money and buy a pair of American jeans," a Naga classmate told me. A Mizo classmate also agreed. Thanks to the cold and damp, England like climate of Shillong one didn't have to wash one's jeans too. At least not for a month. And there was no question of ironing them. Shillong contributes immensely towards lessening global warming.

No self respecting son of an Indian Army officer wore American jeans in those days. We were more British than the British. Terrycotton bellbottoms, Corduroy trousers and Indian denim (neatly ironed) were supposed to be our uniform. No wonder we looked so odd in Shillong. I told Dad about the rates of second hand jeans in Bara Bazaar. I didn't ask him to buy me a pair. He laughed loudly. "Only a fool would buy worn clothes for such exorbitant prices," he said. I completed my Pre University Science in St. Edmunds' College Shillong wearing Indian terrycot and denim. Dad was against corduroy most probably because the British Army Officers whose dress code the Indian Army followed associated it with artists and bohemians in Paris and had frowned on its use by servicemen. Sigh. Maybe thats why that pretty girl in Nongrim Hills rejected me.

The pre-liberalisation (pre-1992 Narasimha Rao-Manmohan Singh years) created its own brand of deprivation and mental poverty. Indians died for anything remotely phoren. I remember reading an article about the auctions of household goods by foreign diplomats living in Chanakyapuri, New Delhi when they were posted out of India. They sold everything. Everything included used undergarments. There were enough affluent Indians willing to cough up good money to buy used undies. Make that used foreign undies.

Nowadays I see retired generals in Mhow wearing denim jeans. But then the denim is made in India. And the shock value is provided not by denim but by the low slung jeans worn by the daughters and young wives of army officers.

p.s. Click here to read the article on Theroux by Tunku Varadarajan in the online edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Chennai: Arrival

I arrived in Chennai at six in the morning, half an hour before schedule, to the city waking up to the chirps of birds and  bawls of the morning vendors. The ochre glow of the dawn had started trickling through the sky. The new CMBT bus stand was a remarkable improvement than my memories of the old Madras Bus stand. It was more spacious and better organised; the sign-boards were all well marked both in Tamil and English. And far importantly, the area was lot cleaner. So Chennai was learning its ways.

The lack of civic sense in Chennai was an unfortunate, and perhaps unintended consequence of the Dravidian movement. The movement started after the Indian Independence and gained further momentum both socially as well as in political circles. But in essence, it was a class struggle - where in the oppressed lower classes as they called themselves revolted against the upper classes of the region. By the midsixties when the power equations changed, populations of lower classes had become averse to the idea of purity (dearer to the upper Brahminical class)  and had developed a sense of antagonism towards any social activity that imposed an idea of cleanliness. The upper classes on the other hand became increasingly alienated and withdrew into their own circle of cleanliness.

Between the classes and their struggles, sadly and for no one’s fault, the civic sense  of the people went down the famous open drain of Chennai. Naturally, Madras, and to an extent Tamil Nadu in general developed a notorious reputation of lacking in cleanliness, of even being dirty.

It was only in the capitalist nineties, with the power balance somewhat settled, people started making concerted efforts to bring in the awareness of cleanliness in the city. One such successful initiative was Exnora which, as I learnt had become widely popular and well established now.   

I could see the results of these innovative endeavours as I travelled  to Mylapore in an autorickshaw from the Bus station. The roads were cleaner, without the usual Madras stink, even the civic spaces appeared well maintained by Indian Standards.  Chennai was undoubtedly catching up.

I felt hungry and a friend suggested over the phone a particular eating-place suitable for that time of the morning.  The rickshaw driver dropped me off at a small hotel of the same name, after repeatedly assuring me that it was indeed the place I sought.  As I had suspected it wasn’t. 

I found myself in a sort of a junction where two big roads with their flowing traffic intersected. Signboards overhead announced the directions to various localities of the city. There was a small newspaper stall at the corner bustling with people.  And behind me was a signboard that announced a wedding- the names of bride and groom designed in jasmines and roses. I was appreciating the work that had gone into the placard when someone asked me if I belonged to the bride or the groom side? For a brief moment I considered crashing into the wedding but later decided against it. I explained to the gentleman that I was only a visitor in my first hour in the city , just checking the flower work. My Tamil , with years of disuse was rusty and sounded very different to what I had thought I wanted to say. But, I guess the man got what I said.

Now I wanted to find out where exactly I was. I noticed a middle-aged man who had gotten down from the car and was making his way to the newspaper stall. He wore a cream T shirt, a white shorts (presumably of early morning round of Badminton) and sported a full bristly Indian moustache which I hadn’t seen for a while. I asked him what place it was? I thought I heard him say Lust Corner which needless to add got me excited. But I had to confirm what I  thought I had heard:
Lust corner?
No, No, No, LUZ corner,
he replied frantically as he walked on nodding his head in a forceful disapproval as though it was no just against me but against an entire generation who had achieved puberty on MTV.

I thanked him.

So there I was, desperately looking for an auto, in a LUZ corner of the Brits , within a Chennai of Indians.