18 January 2009

Film Review: The President is Coming

Irony Enters Soul


Adapted from a play by Anuvab Pal (who also co-wrote the endearingly loopy NRI comedy Loins of Punjab Presents), The President is Coming spins a ‘plot’ out of a one-line premise: George W Bush wishes to meet a ‘young Indian’. The US Consulate hands over the task of choosing one to a convent schoolteacher type called Samantha (Shernaz Patel) and her easily-cowed colleague Ritu (Shivani Tanksale), who conduct a series of increasingly bizarre tests — from ‘Body Flexibility’ to ‘Striking American Poses’ — to select the winner.

The President is certainly a kind of a first in Indian cinema. Besides positioning itself as the country’s first fake documentary, it is refreshing simply for being willing and able to poke fun at pretty much everything that populates the India Shining bubble and the new American order of which it’s a part. In one scene, the redoubtable Samantha announces that they’ll be choosing the final candidate “the American way”. “Through democratic voting?” asks someone. “Reality TV,” says Samantha. The six contestants, too, are deliberate caricatures, chosen to show up the weirdness of a universe that hogs the headlines every morning, masquerading as the face of post-liberalisation India: an airheaded Delhi heiress, a Gujarati stockbroker with eyes for nothing but the Sensex, a nerdy Bangalore techie, a supercilious Bengali authoress who clings to her Hamlet but doesn’t shake hands because “we’re Indian”, a cool dude who runs an accent-training institute in Gurgaon and an IIM-trained “traditionalist” who doesn’t deal with divorced women or non-Hindus.

The first clue that the filmmakers don’t really think this cast of characters represents ‘young India’ comes early, when the consulate guard, asked about the “big people” he sees daily, makes this deadpan comment: “Kya karein sahib, desh in logon ka hai. Ham toh bas reh rahein hain.” Before the film takes its inevitable left turn towards a socially-conscious denouement, though, there are lots of twists and turns — several characters turn out to have secret lives, some more interesting than others — and many laugh-out-loud moments. The quotable quote awards go to “Ritu, you play the person with the lowest status. Just be yourself,” and “Madam, if you were a stock, I would buy you”, but there are also gentler gems like “Al-Qaida Madam” and the Dharmendra episode. A witty film that isn’t without heart — what more can you ask from two hours in the cinema hall?

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Vol 6, Issue 3, Dated Jan 24, 2009

13 January 2009

Nanking Dimsum Buffet - Food Review

This gloriously decadent buffet is more an extended lazy lunch than a brunch. You don’t even need to serve yourself: just plonk down on the restaurant’s top floor, with the sun streaming in through the windows, and some 18-odd varieties of dim sum will make their way to your plate. We chose to ignore the temptations of Tiger beer and go straight for the first course. Our soup of the day was a light, flavourful broth with chicken and button mushrooms – just the thing to whet our tastebuds for the feast to follow.

We understand that you’d like to sustain the illusion of healthy eating, but don’t ignore the fried dim sums that arrive first: the chicken glutinous rice puff, Stalin’s beard (you’ll know it when you see it) and the exquisite lace-like yam puff. Don’t worry, most of what follows is steamed, often with the stuffing delicately encased in a translucent rice flour wrapping. The harkow (clear prawn dumpling) and the king dumpling (lobster) are joyful in their simplicity, though you might also like them dipped in soy sauce or the unusual lemon chilli coriander sauce. The folks at Nanking really know their pork: try the open-top pork-and-prawn sui mai, topped with pink fish roe, and the chee chung fan, a rice flour pancake with a delicious sweet-and-sour pork stuffing.

Two other highlights are the siew long pao, a juicy chicken dumpling that explodes in your mouth in a burst of flavour, and the stuffed chinese mushroom, which comes in a creamy crab meat sauce. Some of the most pleasant surprises are the ostensibly vegetarian options – the green-skinned coriander dumpling mixes moist pork with crunchy bits of water chestnut, while the radish cake gains in taste and texture from flecks of squid and pork in the dough. Then there are the classics: the steamed mutton ball, with just a hint of chives, and the fried spring chicken, perfectly complemented by the freshly ground black pepper that accompanies it. Clear your palate with the okayo, a bland home-style rice porridge that comes with a choice of fish or chicken, or end with a final new flavour by requesting the broad noodles with pork. If your stomach isn’t crying out for mercy by this time, finish up with sesame honey noodles and vanilla ice cream. Trisha Gupta
Plot C-6 Vasant Kunj, opposite Delhi Public School (2613-8936). Sat & Sun, 12.30-4pm. Rs 850 + tax per person, including one 650ml Tiger beer.

Time Out Delhi, Jan 2009

6 January 2009

AIDS Sutra - Book Review

A book review, for Biblio: 

AIDS Sutra: Untold Stories from India.
Edited by Negar Akhavi;
with a Foreword by Amartya Sen.

Photographs by Prashant Panjiar.
Random House India, New Delhi,
in collaboration with Avahan,
the India AIDS initiative of the Bill & Melinda
Gates Foundation, 2008, 340 pp., Rs 395.

ISBN 978-81-8400-039-9
An anthology should be, by definition, varied, but rarely does one come across one whose various parts complement each other with such élan. Aids Sutra contains pieces by sixteen writers of different ages and persuasions, each focusing on a different aspect of the HIV-AIDS epidemic and often, a different part of the country. So, for example, we have Jaspreet Singh’s quietly gutwrenching visit to a Delhi home for children with HIV, Sunil Gangopadhyay’s engaging take on Sonagachhi, replete with anecdotes both historical and autobiographical, Siddhartha Deb’s bleak but superb account of the conditions in which Manipur’s young people take to drugs, or Mukul Kesavan’s thoughtful elucidation of the world of Bangalore’s kothis.

Styles, too, vary enormously. CS Lakshmi’s ‘At Stake, The Body’ chooses anonymity as a haven for the voices of sex workers she inscribes with a kind of collective economy, while Nikita Lalwani’s ‘Mister X Versus Hospital Y’, whose very subject is the right to confidentiality, is anchored around a life story disclosed in a single conversation. In a book such as this, where much of the writing is based on specifically arranged encounters between the authors and the people they’re describing, observations need to be particularly fine-grained, and many of the authors recognize the need to abandon the conceit of objectivity. But there are those who cling to the illusion of old-style ethnography (or old-style documentary) – the narrator as a fly on the wall, seemingly observing people and place without recogiszing how his presence contributes to the nature of the scene, or alters it. William Dalrymple is one of those whose style gives away nothing of himself. The first two pages of his essay on devadasis, ‘The Daughters of Yellama’, for instance, form a stream of dialogue: first one woman speaks, then the other. There is precisely one sentence spoken by the author. But they are responding to some invisible third party. It is as if an interview had been transcribed without the questions asked.

In stark contrast is the piece by Shobhaa De, who takes it upon herself to describe, in admirably frank detail, her response to the discovery that her “children’s driver”, Shankar, had AIDS. She is frank, first of all, in admitting that she knew very little about a man who had worked for her for several years – and how normalized this ‘not knowing’ is for upper middle class people. “People who work in our homes, and who are an integral part of our lives, become almost invisible – their presence reduced to an almost shadowy figure at which we shout daily orders. ‘Go here. Get that. Be back on time… So you need leave? Again? Didn’t you just take a day off last fortnight? Why does there seem to be a weekly emergency in your village? How many times do your cousins die?’ All this is said briskly, everybody is so damn busy, so preoccupied. There are a thousand things to do. Who on earth looks up to notice boils on their driver’s scalp?” She is equally honest in admitting that the discovery forced her to confront a host of inner demons: “I imagined all kinds of unpleasant things. He must have got the virus from visiting prostitutes after this wife left him. Maybe he was gay, and had multiple relationships? Had he tricked his wife into marrying him? …Where was my liberal self when I needed it most?”

Vikram Seth also tells a quasi-personal story, of a poem he once wrote in the voice of a man dying of AIDS. But apart from gesturing to the way in which the fearful voice of the poem’s narrator echoes the ill-informed, panic-stricken reaction Seth remembers from California in the 1980s, the piece remains disappointingly slight – and impersonal. His account of reactions from readers then is interesting for the historical light it casts on the life of the disease. But Seth is so tightly focused on trying – and failing – to reconstruct the moment of the poem’s writing that he refuses the opportunity to meditate on wider questions, personal or political.

Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, like De and Seth, elects to tell a story whose origin lies in past personal experience, though in Shanghvi’s case it is not, strictly speaking, his own. ‘Hello Darling’, about a flamboyantly gay filmmaker called Murad, doesn’t do too bad a job of recreating the not-so-far-away world of 90s Bombay, in which Murad’s slick first film about homosexuality was enough to give him “a patina of notoriety” and a lot of press. But his asides about American “bug parties”, or discrimination against HIV positive patients in India – seem tacked on, and even Murad’s story never quite achieves the “darkly nostalgic” tone Shanghvi aims for. Perhaps the problem is Shanghvi’s amateurish prose, teetering perpetually on the brink of purple: “…the greatness he aspired to was one elusive eel. Unable to deal with fate’s tumult, Murad fled to New York… to live his life on high tilt – artistically, independently, hedonistically”, or worse, “Having given filmmaking his best shot, and failing nonetheless, the dark music of HIV played in the background as the echo of salvation”. What does emerge without a doubt, though, is that the stigma – and resultant secrecy – that surrounds HIV cuts across class: a publicly homosexual, glamorous, Page Three figure feels as compelled to keep his positive status secret as a middle-aged Marathi chauffeur.

The most rewarding pieces in the book are those where research is woven into a personal narrative, one that makes visible the layers through which perception is filtered. One such is Amit Chaudhuri’s careful account of the HIV wings of Bombay’s hospitals, and the doctors who run them. Chaudhuri is, as always, simultaneously reflective and detached. His memories of younger days may inform his experience of the city, but with Chaudhuri, memory is not nostalgia. His estimation of Bombay is clear-eyed (and at this moment when the city is the subject of so much impassioned prose, especially welcome): “As I walked with streams of happy people on Perry and Carter Roads, I sensed again this city’s reserves of optimism, which makes it unique among the world’s cities: but was reminded, too, from my own life here, of what I’d forgotten – its infantilism, its susceptibility to charm and excitement, a susceptibility that, in the early 21st century, has its own unforgiving momentum.”

Also clear-eyed is Chaudhuri’s unraveling of the various registers within which the history of AIDS treatment unfolded: partial information from abroad, professional rivalries, increasing but ill-informed media attention, issues of prejudice, sexual morality and secrecy. And at every juncture, he is attentive to the crucial question of class. For instance, visiting hospitals like GT (Gokuldas Tejpal) and JJ (Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy) for the first time, Chaudhuri recognizes that his “not knowing” such landmarks must be placed in the context of a classed urban geography, in which public hospitals do not need to figure for ‘people like us’. More importantly, within the hospital, class matters. Though it may no longer affect access to Anti Retroviral Treatment (ART) (JJ Hospital became the first to offer free ART in 2004, and others have followed), knowledge of and attitudes to healthcare have much to do with levels of class and education. Chaudhuri correctly points out that ART is “incomplete but, as of now, indispensable knowledge [that] partially removes HIV from the hysteria that surrounded it in the eighties and nineties”, but deaths continue to occur even among those who are diagnosed in time, often because working class patients stop the treatment when symptoms recede.

Class and social background are also important variables in Sonia Faleiro’s hard-hitting portrayal of the complex relationship between sex workers and the police. Faleiro’s piece is significant for its twin insights – first, that the police’s relationship with sex workers is not merely one of law enforcement, but of regular economic and sexual exploitation, and second, that it will not do to paint all policemen as agents of evil: they themselves are cogs in a larger, deeply flawed system. “Policemen’s attitudes mirror that (sic) of the society from which they are drawn. If the average policeman comes from a small town or village where people generally equate sex work with promiscuity, disease, and lawlessness, then he will, unless his training teaches him otherwise, carry those sentiments to work. What makes this mirror image dangerous is that the police have the power to act on their bias.” While this means that there are a large number of policemen like Madhav Rao, who tells Faleiro that sex workers are meant to be beaten, chased away (giving her the title of her piece, ‘Maarne ka, bhagane ka’), it does not preclude the possibility of there being others like Ram Naik, for whom the sex workers of the neighbourhood he patrols are the women he knows best.

Kiran Desai’s account of the Kalavanthalu women – a subcaste of “hereditary courtesans and temple dancers famous for their elegant beauty” – breezily builds up an image of a “normal” Andhra village, only to tear it down : “I notice an overabundance of beds”. Her sure-footed descriptions, of brothels with all the stuffiness of a middle class home, and others that are no more than hovels, are interspersed with statistics, local proverbs and all-female banter, expertly but gently rendered: ““And who likes the sex? Any of you girls?” And immediately they all jump on one woman… yelling, “She! She! She! She does!”

There are other pieces well worth reading that I haven’t mentioned for lack of space, and a measured introduction by Amartya Sen that deals with much more than the economics of HIV. The book also contains some exceptional -- albeit badly printed -- photographs by Prashant Panjiar, adding yet another layer to what is already a generous, nuanced introduction to one of the most complex issues of our time.

Published in Biblio: A Review of Books
Vol. XIII, Nos. 11 & 12, Nov - Dec 2008

To see this article as it originally appeared, with photographs, go here.

Column - Welling Up

Between the Lines

In the back of the Delhi Public Library is a garden. Or is it one? There is not much by way of grass, no benches to sit on, and even in this season, when the city’s roundabouts bloom with municipal vigour, no flowers. Sprawled across the non-existent lawn, like some swooning elephant, is a mammoth piece of machinery. I walk closer to inspect this strange beast. That’s when I finally see the faded foundation stone embedded in the wall behind – declaring the Open Air Reading Room now open. 1984.

The Delhi Public Library was set up under a UNESCO pilot project for public libraries. The iconic building with the arched pink façade is an uneasy receptacle for Nehruvian dreams of knowledge as freedom. The frayed old books are packed into their shelves, forced to stand up straight in their tired blue uniforms. Only the shiny covers of magazines announce newness. 1951.

Last week, walking into the Water Diviner, Sheba Chhachhi’s installation for the 48c public art ecology project, I enter a kind of vault below the library. There, in the bowels of the building, are more tired blue books… but no longer standing. Piled in dusty heaps on every level of this stepped well-like basement, they seem to have finally come to rest. As I descend through the cobwebbed half-light, there is a long rectangular light box with a map of Shahjahanbad on which water channels are marked in blue. It turns out this space was once a swimming pool for British officers. The lion’s head fountain at the entrance to this room is part of that avatar. 1905?

A man enters the installation with his friend and comes up to the white-uniformed 48c volunteer. Aap zara samjhayengi, yeh kya hai? The girl speaks of water, how our urban ancestors kept it close to their hearts, and how it has disappeared from our lives. She points out the blue strips in the lit-up map. The man nods sagely. Then his gaze travels down the steps to the screen at the bottom, on which you can see an elephant floating underwater. He blinks involuntarily. It’s dead.

Above, in the auditorium half an hour later, Sohail Hashmi tells us about a well not far from where we sit, from which he drank cool, sweet water, up until the late 1970s. One of some six hundred public wells that once supplied water to Shahjahan’s city. He speaks of the neher that ran through Chandni Chowk, shaded by trees that got chopped down after they were seen to have shielded the men who shot Lord Hardinge. And how Daryaganj got its name from the canal that used to run down its centre. This is the first time I’ve attended a talk about Delhi, in Delhi, that hasn’t been in English. There are several glimmers of recognition in the audience. That city gate, it no longer exists. Where does the name Farashkhana come from? How do I find that well you mentioned? Aisi koi kitab hai, jisse hamein knowledge mil sakti hai? People are asking about an inhabited place, not a mere space of history. Amid the dead water channels, above these entombed book chambers, something is beginning to flow.

This column appeared on the back page of Time Out Delhi, Vol. 2 Issue 20, Dec 26 - Jan 8, 2008.

The Great Kebab Factory - Food Review

Assembly dine
Trisha Gupta. Photograph by Cherian Thomas.

This Delhi institution has long been the favourite of those who want to eat fancy kababs at fairly fancy prices (admittedly, they’re very good kababs, and in unlimited quantities). The newly redecorated version, we’re happy to report, is likely to keep old-timers happy. The system remains the same: the set menu changes daily, you simply declare yourself non-vegetarian or vegetarian, and the food begins to arrive, course by wonderful course.

You’ll need to disregard the confused attempt at rustic chic (exposed brick walls and blue glass lamps that look like rolled-up umbrellas). And the slightly clueless hostesses – who, when making you wait for a table for 40 minutes, do not think to suggest that you sit inside, at the bar, even when you ask for a drinks menu. The drinks, when we did get them, were decent: a classic daiquiri (Rs 475) served by a considerate bartender who thought to ask whether this reviewer wanted her glass with salt on the rim or sugar – and offered extra lime juice of his own accord, and a smoky Lagavulin of 12-year vintage (Rs 625) from the long list of single malts. But after the drinks, there’s one final hurdle to cross – the cabbage and babycorn salad with the lurid, saccharine-sweet strawberry dressing. Once you’ve disregarded that, tuck in your napkins and let the feast begin.

We started with the classic galouti kabab, spiced roundels of minced mutton made tender with papaya. They were absolutely melt-in-the-mouth, and tasted sublime with the ulte tawe ki roti, a slightly sweet, lightly oiled chapatti apparently made on the back of the pan. We cannot recommend the combination highly enough. Next up were the peshawari chooza, a gently spiced, juicy bit of chicken, and a truly splendid version of another classic, the mutton barrah (translated by our waiter as “mutton chop”), which came with two kinds of rotis – sheermal (bread baked with milk, sugar and cardamom) and baqarkhani (a richer version of sheermal, here a little too bread-y in texture). Then came a rather standard murg tikka, a chicken seekh kabab, and the final standout kabab – saffron prawn. This last was a single delectable prawn skewered on a stick, marinated with a mixture of spices that certainly contained the signature saffron, but almost as certainly included some ground mustard seeds. Mustard, as every good Bengali knows, is a very good thing to add to fish or seafood, and it works beautifully here. Our waiter also agreed to let us sample a few of the veggie options, so we can recommend the sabz til ki seekh (a decent vegetable seekh kabab, made interesting by adding sesame) and the kachche kele aur kaju ke kabab, a delicious mix of ground raw banana and cashewnuts.

On the whole, though, you should save space for the wonderful mutton biryani which follows, and ignore the two very average dals, dal factory (boring old kali dal) and dal tadka (plain yellow dal). Look out, though, for the sabzi of the day. We got a rather good aloo hara pyaz, spicy potatoes with spring onions, which we mopped up with a final sinful morsel of garlic naan. A glassful of cooling chhaach, and we were ready for dessert. Refusing the chamcham and kalakand, we stuck to jalebi, only to find that it came with a bowl of creamy rabri which could not possibly be denied.

But don’t leave yet. After a meal such as this, you’ll need the paan.

The Great Kebab Factory, Radisson Hotel, National Highway 8 (2677-9191). Mon-Sun 7pm-midnight; Sun 12.30-2.45pm. Visa and Mastercard accepted. Alcohol available. Meal for two Rs 4,500 (Rs 2,700 + tax for two set meals, plus two drinks).