Saturday, January 01, 2011

Best of 2010

Looking back at this year, given it is that time of the year, I realize that I have a written a lot. I admit that my blog or the ‘The Alternative’ doesn’t look like it. But I have – hundreds of pages; and I use “hundreds of pages” not as a figure of speech, but quite literally to refer to, well, hundreds of pages. It is not the type you will ever get to read – Actually it is the type of writing that friends and loved ones enquire about, ask you to send to make you believe that it is worth something. And save it for their post-retirement reading.

So, given that I have written a lot, I haven’t had much time this year to do anything else. Like read books (except for the odd, blockbuster Indian fiction) or watch movies (apart from the ones in HBO and Star movies that come with subtitles so that you can watch them in mute while your son is sleeping) or pen random thoughts as blogs (and pretend the entire world is reading). So, my best of 2010 list is made of two hobbies that was a favorite with every freshman the year I joined college – Listening to music and watching TV (Yes that is true – these were the hobbies of a lot of people in my batch not coincidentally because these were least prone to be ragged on).

Since there’s nothing new to be written about the music that I listen to (except retro in is quite a find), it is a show on TV that takes the sole spot in my best of 2010 (while you could argue that best isn’t quite right for a list of 1 item).

Cooking on TV is not a very engaging activity (No, Masterchef India is not my favorite show this year; but you are close). As I was saying, cooking is not very engaging especially for someone like me who doesn’t like to or want to cook. You cannot fill moments of cooking with suspense and there’s no way for you to enjoy what someone’s cooked on television. Plus, to be a cook is not an aspiration that we, Indians, can relate to. So, if you are not in it for the recipe, there is precious little that you get out of it. There are no SMS polls, celebratory shows in Malaysia or a chance that someone is going to sing or dance for your favorite numbers. All you have are a set of people cutting, chopping, frying and serving food in the end.

And I have never been easily pleased with shows like these. I haven’t watched even one entire episode of any reality show before – Not the wannabes on stage, celebrities in jungles or weirdoes in a house. But I was riveted to this show, this cooking show, every day of the week. I will make time at 9PM and watch it from beginning to end and if I did miss it, catch the re-runs the next day. I spent time reading about the people – contestants and the judges – on Wikipedia and other gossip websites. I had my favorites and when they lost, picked new ones I was sure will win.

So, why did I like Masterchef Australia so much?

Firstly (and when I start a paragraph like this, you know what I have been writing), thought. The show’s not just about cooking – it’s about cooking in the jungle for the army, in the flight for a CEO, a ship for a party, for the old women association, for government royalty, in London and in Paris. Every show had a new concept or situation that the people had to adapt to, something for them to learn from. And, there’s real learning – the best chefs in the business teach the participants how to cook; the participants go to the best restaurants in town as rewards for their accomplishments. And the feedback is specific and consistent. As someone watching the show, you could see them evolve as cooks, show after show. Finally, there are real people in the show. Real people who are nice to each other, watch each other’s backs and show honest camaraderie. The judges are firm but considerate, generous in praise and candid in criticism. Participants feel good when they perform well and the good vibe carries over to the rest of the show as well.

So, in the end you end up cheering for people who are doing something that you don’t really enjoy, aspire for a goal that you cannot relate to, through a medium that doesn’t lend itself to the show. But you still feel for them and make them a part of your daily lives. And like any wonderful work of art, the show changes you without you realizing it. Recently wife and I were at a restaurant to celebrate a day off – when they served us the dish we ordered, for the first time we appreciated the presentation of the dish and the thought that went in plating it for us.

And for making my life richer by giving me an eye to appreciate these finer pleasures of life, I am truly grateful. And that's enough reason why the show is the only one on my list of best of 2010.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Goan Sojourn

I am slowly trying to get back to writing regularly and am hoping, in the next few days to take time off and at least write small pieces. Over the last few months, I had some big, hairy audacious ideas for blogs but never could translate them into an actual post. Clearly because I was lazy to sit in one place for long enough to complete them. But I also believe it has to do with the medium - A blog, personally, gives you just one shot at getting it right. I have never re-written any of my blog posts or re-read old ones in an effort to make them better. Once they are written (after minor changes and re-writes, immediately afterwards), they are set in stone.

So, I am trying something different this time - ~P and I recently went on a trip to Goa for a week. Rather than making it a set of blog posts, I want to organize it as a website with different types of written content (Diary entries, reviews, snippets).

The site is here - As you can see, only the first few pages are up. And I want to regularly add some content to the site over the next few weeks. I will also constantly revise the content that is already there. Ideas, feedback are more than welcome (either on the site or here).

The photos from the trip are here -

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Imagination - Our passport to the real world

I acted in my first play when I was 9 (4th standard) - I was playing a Malayali traveling in a train as part of a skit on National Integration. One of these days, I will scan the picture from the play and post it here for all of you to have a hearty laugh on how silly boys with lipstick look and how terrible primary school teachers are in putting makeup. And fortunately for me, I have been doing at least one play every year ever since - through school, college, and ignoring a brief hiatus while I was in France, throughout my professional life as well (Incidentally, 2008 was the first year I didn't do a play since I landed in Bangalore). .
Last week - I, as part of Version One Dot Oh (VODO), finished my first set of shows for the play, Six Degrees of Separation. On 24th and 25th, the play was staged thrice at Alliance Francaise. And between 28th and 30th at Ranga Shankara (RS). And as with all plays, every show was unique. There were good days (like the last shows in RS and Alliance) and bad days. There were those who liked it, and those who felt it could have been better (like this review of the play) and those who couldn't relate to it at all.
And it wasn't an easy play to stage or watch - The play was entrenched in the context of a specific time (1989-90) and place (New York), replete with obscure cultural references that are lost on even the well-read audience. The narrative is not straight forward. All of us in the cast have local accents, and efforts to neutralize them made the accents come across as inconsistent. The scenes are verbose, and demand top notch performances to sustain interest (That the lead actors delivered). And most importantly, the protagonist (and a few key characters) is homosexual.
And it is especially the impact of the last point that we (or specifically, I) underestimated. During my monologue in the play (I have a minor role, 7-10 minutes of stage time in a 90 minute play), I share how the protagonist asked me if he could fuck me. I am a heterosexual but I succumb and let him violate my self. It is a beautifully written scene and - when it works - forces the audience to reexamine the impact the protagonist has on people's lives.
In every show, there were always a dozen who couldn't stop laughing at the scene (and all other scenes with references to homosexuality). The play is not about homosexuality. None of the gay characters are overtly effeminate or are played as a stereotype. They are played as who they are - Perfectly normal people. And you could 'get' the play even if you completely ignore the aspect of homosexuality. But for some (10 out of an audience of 200) since the lead character was gay, the whole play was a queer show and every line had a homosexual undertone.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I am not a great actor. So, it could have been something about the way I did the scene that prompted people to laugh (if you were there, saw me and have some feedback - I would love to hear from you). And though it was frustrating when I was on stage, I understand why those few laughed. How many of them have met a homosexual, known him as a friend or an acquaintance? A homosexual - like a Sardar, a Blonde - is a stereotype, a joke, a caricature. Case in point, the last gay movie that many could remember was Dostana.
After the first shows, we realized that it was a working assumption that we have to deal with. We made minor changes to expressions (especially mine) and dialogue delivery (we were clear that the script is how it was written by John Guarre, and we will not change it). Finally, during one of the shows at RS - the tittering took over the entire performance. I finished my role, defeated because all the laughter got under my skin and I gave a below par performance.
The next day, I asked the cast to be the audience and laugh through my entire monologue. Giggles, smirks and loud laughter. I failed the first time, I tried again and took my entire monologue, more honest than I had ever done it before. And when the scene ended, I slumped on stage and I wept, cried like a baby, loudly, my entire body shaking with every sob. (Confession - I have cried, loudly with tears streaming, thrice in the last 10 years. All three times after my scene in a play)
I have done the scene a dozen times before. I have thought about my character, Rick, in detail and concocted psychological motives for his actions. I created a father for him, a mother and built dreams of his childhood. If you asked me his back story, I could tell you the entire works to the last detail. But there was always, him the character and me the actor. And when the audience laughed earlier, I, Rathish, felt it was their problem, their insecurity in dealing with homosexuality.
But this time, acting in front of an empty gallery except from my fellow cast members, something clicked as I kept on with the monologue. I imagined that they weren't laughing at homosexuality, but at this small town boy with big dreams, who let himself be taken for a ride and lost all that he had. They laughed at Rick because he was a fool (Who wouldn't laugh at a man who let himself be fucked, because someone asked). And as I went on, I felt I was confessing to an ostracizing crowd. There is no way I could take that humiliation. And in that moment, I could have been him, violated and fatal.
That's probably why I love theater - I could never be an evangelist who is burnt to death, I could never be a homosexual rape victim, I don't think I would ever go as far as let myself be fucked by a man. But these are moments of true vulnerability - moments where you face death, loss and shame, emotions that our sanitized life keeps well under wraps. They say, one grows with experience. It would be presumptuous to compare being raped in real life, and acting as if you were. But there are moments, far and few and occasionally at the most unexpected of times, when a role takes you farther than you ever thought you could go, and opens a door to your own self.

Acting, they say, is cathartic. That is an understatement.

* The title of the post is from a line in the play, "I believe the imagination is the passport that we create to help take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Jung says, 'The greatest sin is to be unconscious.'". The play was made into a movie, with most of the lines from the original play.

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Saturday, December 06, 2008

2008 : A Retrospective : Books

For the whole of 2008, I have been over the clouds, on the rails, on bumpy roads far too often and far too long that I have managed to read far more than I have written.
Below are five of the best books that I have read this year. Not all of them are new (4 out of 5 were published this year). There is absolutely no science behind choosing these titles. At the end of the year, these are books that have stayed in my mind, that I have talked so often about and that I remember fondly.

5. Gang Leader for a day - Sudhir Venkatesh
An Indian American Sociology student goes to an all-black Chicago neighbourhood to interview young black gangsters. The first question in his questionnaire was "How does it feel to be young, black and poor?". The options in his questionnaire were "very bad, somewhat bad, neither bad nor good, somewhat good, very good". The answer he got was : Fuck You and a night in a dingy room with the gangsters.
A fantastically researched, first-hand account of how Sudhir Venkatesh spent days and months living with gangsters as one of them through gangfights, shoot-outs, deaths, celebrations and fallouts. I would have loved it even if it were a pure work of fiction. But to know that someone actually went through these experiences makes it much more engaging to read.
Some of you might have read about his work in Freakonomics, the book and the blog. But this one delves much deeper and creates characters out of a community that have long been glorified (by the arclights) or shunned (by the system).

4. Enchantress of Florence - Salman Rushdie
No one who has ever read Salman Rushdie has been indifferent to his work. My first work of Rushdie was "Moor's Last Sigh". I hated it. 3 years later, I read "Midnight's children", a book that fills every single sheet with as much imagination and magic as a paper can hold. But I could never truly come around to trust such a trickster - I gave all his other works a miss (including Shalimar the Clown). Until Enchantress of Florence.
I don't know if I have grown up to enjoy his works or whether he's aged and can finally hold the reins of his imagination firmly. But Enchantress is a true work of art - It is lucid (something I never thought I would say about Rushdie's work), poetic (as always) and vividly imaginative. True, it zigzags into little details, stays on a moment for longer than you would want and throws a lot more at you than what you can hold in your head. But there's a binding integrity and richness of prose that holds the book together.
The book is about how the line betwen imagination and reality is thread-bare, imperceptible and extremely subjective. And by picking characters that are real (Akbar) and those from the folds of his brain, Rushdie makes his point where one doesn't know where history ends and fiction begins. And how!

3. Vernon God Little - DBC Pierre
You should be pure evil to enjoy this - have malice oil the valves of your heart, and enjoy humour where sharp knives are dipped in a bowl of chilling sarcasm and pierced into people's backs. Oh, Devil be damned. I would love an extra helping of this.
Vernon God Little is wickedly funny. Every single page, every single paragraph is written by a man who is an anti-social and is a misfit. DBC Pierre is an evil man. He lures you with some jokes and engages you in a conversation. A few pages later you don't really know where he is going but follow him out of sheer curiosity. Half-way through, you know something is seriously wrong but you can't leave because you are strapped to the chair. And by the end, the jokes are still there but a deep, disturbing core unravels and as much as you wish you didn't have to deal with it, he doesn't leave you with much of a choice.
Vernon God Little is the "Dark Knight" of Fiction. The creation of man who is completely in control of his craft and knows exactly where he is needling you with the knife that is stuck firmly to your back.

2. Sea of Poppies - Amitav Ghosh
I like Amitav Ghosh - I read the Hungry tide through the night (and slept through most of the next day in office). I liked the The Glass Palace and got through the The Calcutta Chromosome as well (though I think it is one of his weaker works).
But nothing prepared me for the Sea of Poppies. Having read some of the other shortlisted novels for the Booker (including the eventual winner), this is my personal favorite of the list. I don't remember the last time I put down a book and for days after wished I had more of the book to read. And because it is a trilogy, the novel doesn't leave you with a sense of closure but is suspended at a point where the characters slip into darkness right in front of your eyes.
The research is so good and so well woven into the story that you sometimes wonder if someone could provide so much detail, without actuually having seen the farms of poppies, the ships for the trade, the people in the fields, in the harbours, on the docks. Every character has its own distinct voice, accents and vocabulary.
Sea of Poppies is brilliant. As much as I am wary of superlatives, it is one of the best works of fiction I have read in a long time (Right up there with Midnights Children, Never Let Me Go, Atonement and others).

1. The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein
A Psychologist in Canada in the sixties wanted to create 'Ideal people'. People without vices, malice and weaknesses. So, he experimented on his unsuspecting patients by putting them to extreme electric shock, sensory deprivation, hunger, thirst and absolute lack of human contact. He believed that if he could achieve an extreme state of shock, his patients would be so malleable that their brains would be blank slates where he could write what he wanted.
His research was a disaster and ruined many lives. But since then, this research has been used by Intelligence agencies (CIA) during investigations, International organizations (IMF, World bank) on developing countries, by first-world nations (the US) during wars and now by Governments during times of crisis (Hurricane Katrina, Iraq War, 9-11, Tsunami) - To exploit a crisis and get people to do things, forsake rights before the shock wears off.
And this is a book for the times.
I sat in front of the TV for two whole days non-stop and watched the live telecast of men and women stuck in hotels and screaming for help. I listened to all media channels telling us how India has been redefined forever. I watched the man from Gujarat who came all the way from his state to the site to make a point against the government, and to establish 'stringent terrorist laws'. I see the subtle change in the reports on how Pakistan 'is coerced' (and not agreed) into helping us, how ISI chief is 'summoned' (and not invited or asked).
In times like this, it is important to remember who we really are and what we stand for as a nation. Lest someone should use this as an opportunity to change this nation into something we dont want to be.
There are books you enjoy and there are books that change the way you see this world. Shock Doctrine has forever altered the way I see many things around me. Go read it.

Some other books that I have read and enjoyed this year (by no means exhaustive)
  • Hard-boiled Wonderland (Haruki Murakami) - Classic Murakami!
  • A case of Exploding Mangoes (Mohammad Hanif) - Intelligent piece of writing!
  • The White Tiger (Arvind Adiga) - Good. But Booker? Uh. hum. And I am not nationalistic. But this is way too much India bashing for my taste.
  • Winnie and Wolf (AN Wilson) - On Adolf Hitler's possible love affair. My usual weakness for history and fiction interlaced together.
  • Shantharam (G D Roberts) - Well-written but this is a story on steroids!
  • Purple Cow (Seth Godin) - If you have read his blog, you know what to expect
  • Amerika (Franz Kafka) - Depressing! And they tell me it is one of his happy books.
  • Mothsmoke (Mohsin Hamid) - The second pakistani author in my list. Guilty pleasure reading about streets in Karachi, a place I would never be able to visit.
  • A Walk in the Woods (Bill Bryson) - Good. But like the walk, a little too long.
  • A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (Marina Lewycka) - Amusing material! But I read it after too many recommendations. And so didn't enjoy it so much.
Books I wish I didn't waste my time on (again, by no means exhaustive)
  • Ignorance (Milan Kundera)
  • Merde Actually (Stephan Clarke)
  • How starbucks saved my life (Michael Gates Hill) - The worst book of my life!
Currently reading
  • Audacity of Hope (Barack Obama) - OK, if someone's going to be the most powerful man in the world, I'd like to know what he thinks. For one thing, this man can express himself very well. That we know is already a big bonus!
  • Empires of the Indus (Alice Albania),
  • Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell is on its way

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Somnambulist's Sonnet

I finally open my eyes.

I hate to see the watch to put a number on how many hours I have been sleeping. Not very long, I know. Sleeplessness is like a nagging thought. It gnaws the edges of your sleep with pointless detours and questions until the questions grow so loud inside that they wake you up. And once you are awake, the questions usually don’t matter. You are left with a feeling of incompleteness, with a half-formed answer to a fleeing question that was never meant to be. Like an orphaned fetus out of a wayward highwayman.

The drone of the fan falls on top of the grayscale setting of my room, which suddenly seems far bigger and spacious than its cramped self. The colors are stripped and every object exists purely out of its ability to reflect light - the fundamental laws of optics making everything into dark, shiny or just ambiguous gray matter.

I pick up a gray spherical bouncing piece of matter that is a ball in broad daylight and throw it at the wall – A quintessentially bachelor-ish artifact next to one’s bed.

I always believe that the only reason for sleeplessness is not enough water. Everything – guilt, bad sex, work and uncomfortable bed – is overridden by enough amounts of the ‘elixir of life’. Probably because mom always made me have a glass of water before I sleep – hot, pale green water with a sizeable chunk of boiled cumin settled right in the bottom of a bigger-than-usual tumbler. What joy it was to drink the water and put my little fingers to clumsily scoop the cumin and feel the strong taste of it in my mouth.

The cumin is gone, and it is never boiled. But water is what I reach out to in the middle of the night. Some never knew I was awake. And some mumble jumbled gibberish as I made my way to the kitchen. But few, very few, knew. And one – just one – remembered to leave a water bottle next to my bed every time she was home. I could have married her just for that.

I smile to myself at the thought. If only it was so simple.

I walk around the room with my lips wrapped around the open end of the bottle surveying what my house has become. When I had first moved in, I wanted the house to be barren – without character, without junk and without memories. It was to be Zen forest where I could retire at the end of the day with nothing, no one to haunt me. I never invited anyone home, never had a party and very occasionally let people sit in the drawing room for a few hours.

But soon they came. Not many of them. But they did. As room mates, friends, lovers, unnamed ambiguous relationships and strangers. And just as they do every time, they left a part of themselves when they left. And today, beyond the drone of the fan and the grayscale setting, I can hear muffled voices from the corners. Not loud enough to talk to, but loud enough to remind, to remember and to be written about.

I wondered if it was time to pack my bags and leave. Paraphernalia of daily life seem to be silently accumulating like flesh around the waistline – one day you wake up and you realize it’s there. And you cannot just shrug them off. While you can pack ‘stuff’ off in suitcases or just give them away to those who will value it more than you do, what do you do with memories? Which attic do you put them in? Which corners are you going to hide them – and for how long, until the next birthday of theirs arrive and you wish them and get a truckload of memories in return?

Or kill them. The memories I mean. But do you really want to? Do you believe that true happiness lies in basking under the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind? I don’t.

You could probably take a detour. A vacation. Drop your identity at the next milestone in the highway, strip and run away into the wild; for weeks. You will be a man without a name. And a mobile connection. Without a laptop slung over your broken back. Without love.

Do you want it too? How many times have you done it? I know of a guy who was a friend of friend who once ran away to Ladakh because he was sick of his work. It is always a friend of a friend. Always.

Soon, in a matter of hours, it will dawn and the chatter will start. Slowly at first and then transform itself into a full blown metal rock band singing the song of life, bereft of pitch or tone or melody. I will pretend to wake up and start my day until I am too tired and it’s too dark to see. Or I am awake now – this moment and in a few hours, I will tap dance around life, like every single day, with my eyes wide open. But asleep.

For this is who I am. A trapeze artist of lala land. A perfect ten on ten Somnambulist.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Version One dot Oh presents ...

My friends and Acquaintances from the group Version One dot Oh are doing a play. Having worked with the very same guys who are doing this play, a few things are given - it will not be amateurish, it will not be badly enacted, it will not stupid. And that's saying a lot about a play!

The play is happening at Alliance Francaise, Bangalore on Friday and Saturday. You can contact 99800 08278 for tickets.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

My trip to Dresden

21000 words on my trip to Dresden. There are a lot more verbal interludes - hopefully, I'll find sometime to pen them down. You can find the photos here - Watch it in slideshow and don't forget to read the captions :)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

So, which grade is your country?

When I was 12 or 13, one of my classmates suggested that we grade all our teachers (which seemed fair since they judge us all the time). If I remember right, it was on a scale of 1 - 10 (10 being the best) and we were doing it during one of those periods when the teacher doesn't turn up but sends someone else to make sure we don't turn the class upside down.

Incidentally, that 'someone' for the class in question caught us chattering and giggling our ways to glory and realized we were up to some mischief. To our credit, we were honest (we couldn't think of a appropriate lie that connects the teachers to the numbers).

For some strange reason, 'someone' didn't appreciate teachers being rated. She found the whole exercise presumptuous and threw us out of class.

Now that I am old, boring and wise, I think it is a bad idea to rate anything unless it is strictly based on quantifiable results. Because under all those numbers you are being plain judgmental.

Why am I reminded of this obscure incident now? Saw this link where the flags are rated as A, B, C and failed - link. The author has defined best practices for how flags should look like and listed some rules of aesthetics. What is missing is the historical context behind the design of the flag and what it conveys about the country.

India is B- (with a score of 65/100).

And to put things in perspective - Pakistan is A+ (88/100) ;-)

Photo courtesy - iStockPhoto


Saturday, January 19, 2008

How do you change the world?

We at Sattva are doing a quick survey this month. We are trying to find out little things that you do, however trivial it might seem, which you think makes a difference.

For example, I know a friend of mine who starts talking auto drivers whenever he gets in to an auto. And if by any chance if the auto driver has small kids, he buys a packet of gems for the driver's kids. He believes that this will brighten the auto driver's day and that will spread the joy to other people he meets.

My boss religiously switches off every appliance before he goes home from work including the tube lights, monitors, and chargers. Another friend of mine does not honk, unless absolutely necessary and yet another friend does not waste food and makes sure he does not fill his plate with anything he does not need.

Of course we can be cynical about this and say that all this small things would never have any measurable impact. But these people believe that the little difference these things make matters.

So we would like to know if there is this one small thing that you do, or you know a friend who does that you think counts. It might be the most trivial, or a habit that your friends and colleagues always get everyone's attention to. We are extremely interested in every story you have to tell, and every little thing you have to share.

We are planning to collate your response in the January issue of Sattva. And you can then read the list to pick up some of these as your new year Resolutions :)

*This was the mail that has been sent to all readers of Sattva for our January issue. I would love to hear from you all.


Star Gazing

No - it is not review, for I am sure you have heard enough and more about the movie. Everyone seems to have cried at some point in the movie (though, I should admit that I managed not to. Just about managed not to). Though, I should cynically admit that the movie does try too hard to achieve this objective .

The film is nice. The music is good. The boy is fantastic.

I think a film works for you when you can relate to any character in the movie. I saw this whole film through the eyes of the boy's elder brother (Disclaimer - my younger brother is the exact opposite of Ishaan Awasthi. He is a whiz with maths and cannot paint for nuts :-) And my dad was never too stuck with the achiever's label. He wanted me to become a Journalist!). But the whole image of him struggling to find his place in the world, gaining acceptance among peers and becoming a star is something that I can totally relate to. And every time I had a lump in my throat was when I could see my brother in that boy.

On an aside, My favorite scene in the movie is when the boy dresses up before dawn, walks up to the lake to see the sun rise. I don't remember the last time I saw the sun rise - There was this one time, when I was in college. Sitting on top of a scaffolding on a September morning, I saw the first shades of crimson spreading across the sky. There was this one moment both the sun and the moon take either sides of the crimson colored sky. You could get down the scaffolding, walk on the dew topped lawns and watch the first flowers bloom and convince yourself that you are in heaven.

It is all nice and fair to recognize the stars on earth. But when was the last time you stopped and stared at the stars in the sky?