26 April 2009

Book Review - From Ghats to Gondolas

Geoff Dyer’s narratives about Venice and Varanasi are eerie and oddly moving, says TRISHA GUPTA

Geoff Dyer
Random House India
291 pp; Rs 395

TO ATTEMPT to write about a mythic place, a place only as real as the many representations of it, is ambitious. To attempt to write about two such places — and in the same book — seems almost foolhardy. But Geoff Dyer pulls off this impossible task with élan. His newest offering, the mischievously and memorably named Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, serves up both a perfect postmodern Venice (“the city that never disappointed and never surprised, the place that was exactly like it was meant to be… exactly synonymous with every tourist’s first impression of it”) and a strangely affecting tourist Banaras that is equally about commerce and death (“It was like arriving at the world’s first-ever seaside resort… in serious need of repair, but its popularity… undiminished. Whatever else had happened to Varanasi, it had never fallen into ruin — and never would…”)

In keeping with Dyer’s predilection for genre-defying books — seemingly nonchalant marriages of fiction and nonfiction (But Beautiful on jazz) or autobiography and cultural theory (Out of Sheer Rage on DH Lawrence) — what he gives us here is actually two novellas. The first revolves around a middle-aged British journalist called Jeff Atman who goes to Venice to cover the 2004 Biennale. The all-pervasive haze of cynicism around Junket Jeff (as one acquaintance addresses him) is punctured by falling in love-lust, on his first night in Venice, with the lovely Laura. This section is a highly tongue-in-cheek reworking of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. If Mann’s Aschenbach is austere, serious and overwrought by his work, Dyer’s Jeff is clever about and disparaging of everything — including himself (“However much he despised other people, when he did the math and added things up, Atman always found himself more despicable still”). The first thing we learn is that “the morning’s work had bored the crap out of him”; even his enthusiasm about the Biennale is reserved for the ceaseless bellinis and cocaine.

There is, however, a degree of selfawareness about Jeff (who is not Geoff, though one feels they might have stuff in common) that makes him almost endearing: “It was pathetic, it was unbelievably immature, but even now, aged 45 and counting, Jeff felt his heart sink when he heard that someone… had been having more fun than him”. Or when, transfixed by an exhibit, he is “glad that he’d seen it right at the beginning of his tour, before he became punch-drunk, sated and oblivious.” And his observations are often spot-on, as when he conjures up the cocktail of outrageousness and stark ambition that characterises the art world: “The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.”

The pleasures of the flesh that engorge the Venice section are replaced in the Varanasi section by the exact opposite — the sensory excess outside seems to result in an inner quiet, a contemplative emptiness, even a lack of desire. The central figure, also a journalist (nameless, he might or might not be Jeff Atman), arrives in Banaras for five days to do a piece for a London paper, but ends up staying for weeks, maybe months, settling into a rhythm of doing not very much except watching dead bodies burn and eating pancakes at the Lotus Lounge. Even with the ubiquitousness of the bizarre in Banaras, his transformation from baffled tourist to semi-permanent resident who shaves his head and dresses in a dhoti is both unexpected and eerie. As are the serendipitous connections, constantly evoked, between the cities. This is an arresting book, but not always an easy one. As the protagonist puts it when he first sees Banaras, “There was uncomprehended meaning everywhere…”

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 17, Dated May 02, 2009

19 April 2009

Book Review - The Diary Of A Man, Not Too Frank

An imagined travelogue seems underimagined and undertravelled, says Trisha Gupta

James A. Coghlan
Roman Books
104 pp; Rs 199

THIS IS an odd little book, in terms of both genre and style. Its origins lie in a box of photographic negatives that the author, James A. Coghlan happened to find after his great-uncle’s death. Coghlan’s attempt to recreate the voice of this great-uncle — a young Scottish soldier in the 1930s, who joined the British army as an escape from the poverty of his hometown, ending up in India and then in a British intelligence mission — is remarkably successful. John Coghlan — or Jackie — emerges as a sturdy, likeable young man: attached to family, loyal to colleagues, courageous but never foolhardy. The problem is that he tells us very little beyond this, either about himself or his surroundings.

The slightness of the narrative and the thinness of the descriptions — especially in an imagined travelogue such as this — can only be partially justified by the assumption that the narrator isn’t meant to be a chatty sort of chap. People often speak in Scottish dialect — to decipher which we are provided that quaint thing: a glossary. Then, though the blurb claims that the novella captures “a chunk of the 1930s”, 80-odd pages are devoted to a 30-day car journey, while seven years in India are telescoped into the first fifth of the book. The diary-like style is supremely unconvincing in this opening section, subjecting us to such gems as “After three years of relative quiet in Edinburgh, we travel overnight… to London,” or “An uneventful six months tour in Gibraltar, before we set sail for India.”

Even in the book’s main narrative — an account of a secret mission that takes six British soldiers from Rawalpindi to London by car — such fabled places as Istanbul or Teheran or Vienna receive short shrift. The purpose of the mission itself is never revealed. All storied detail is reserved for regimental anecdotes, or memories from Scotland.

Even the rare comments on places visited are made in terms of something from Jackie’s previous life: patrolling the hills near Lucknow reminds him of the Campsies near Glasgow; a barrier at the border of Afghanistan evokes fences in the tenements of Govan; even the experience of “hiding in plain view” on Nazi territory in Nuremberg reminds him of his brother hiding money right under his mother’s nose.

One swings between being amused at these rather droll comparisons and being grudgingly charmed by the domestication of unfamiliar terrain and improbable events thus achieved — a domestication that was probably a standard colonial technique of survival.

A few of the original photographs are reproduced in the book, and one wishes they were larger and clearer. Some in particular, like the one where the group is digging themselves out of a roadblock, one man jauntily carrying a shovel on his shoulder, provides just the sort of glimpse of character that the text fails to flesh out. The novella, like the photographs, leaves one unsatisfied and yearning for a closer look.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 16, Dated Apr 25, 2009

6 April 2009

Theatre Preview - Sarhad paar

A piece written for Time Out Delhi in 2007.

Usmaan Peerzada is bringing his nautanki-style play Patay Khan to Delhi this fortnight. Trisha Gupta finds him upbeat about Pakistani theatre.

Usmaan Peerzada’s Patay Khan is one of the most eagerly-awaited productions at this year’s Hungry Heart Festival. The play is a musical satire written by Imran Peerzada, Usmaan’s younger brother and another member of the family that Pakistani newspaper The Nation described as “thespian and puppeteering royalty in Pakistan”.

“It’s a story about small people, with small problems,” said director Peerzada in a telephone conversation from Lahore. Patay Khan, which he described as “a nautanki in the pure Punjabi form”, opens in a small village where people are awaiting the arrival of the king. Before the king can show up however, the bureaucrats start conniving to ensure that no real communication takes place between ruler and subjects.

“We took stock characters from traditional puppetry and wove them into a play. So there’s the Nawab, and Kalkatte ki Gohar Jaan – I don’t know whether the character derives from the famous singer Gauhar Jaan. Patay Khan is the name of a thanedar, a bureaucrat, a guy who runs the show on behalf of the government. If someone acts important, hamare yahan kehte hain, ‘bada Patay Khan bana phirta hai’,” Peerzada explained.

Patay Khan has been staged in India before, at the National School of Drama’s Bharat Rang Mahotsav in January 2005. The Peerzadas – five brothers and two sisters – are the children of the late Rafi Peer (1898-1996), a pioneer of modern theatre in the subcontinent. Peer led an eventful life in an eventful time. Sent to study law in Oxford at 18, he got into a fight with a racist Englishman, left England and ended up in Berlin, where he fell in love with the theatre, working with Bertolt Brecht and training with Max Reinhardt’s Theatre Ensemble. But this was 1920s Germany. “In 1932-33, when the Nazis came to power, my father was first rounded up by the Gestapo, then presented to Goebbels (Hitler’s Propaganda Minister), who offered him a job: running the Voice of Berlin India broadcast, to get Indians to rise up against the British. My father decided it was time to leave.”

Back in India, Rafi Peer taught acting and direction at the Indian Academy of Dramatic Arts in Mumbai, while also writing exceptional radio and stage plays in Urdu and Punjabi, like Akhin. “He was from aristocratic Punjabi stock, so it was difficult for the family to accept: ‘yeh kya bhaand-mirasi ka kaam kar raha hai,’” said Peerzada. “The thing is, today, in Lahore, you can choose from among 16 plays on one evening, but they are all descendants of the same crude bhaand-mirasi style. Either that, or there are those snobbish NGO plays on women’s issues. Theatre is not about shouting slogans. It’s about joy – entertainment which makes people think.”

Apart from their own productions, the Peer Group runs three massive festivals – the World Performing Arts Festival, the International Puppet Festival and the Sufi Music Festival – giving people in Pakistan an opportunity to see productions from places like Ukraine and France. Peerzada is optimistic about the future of theatre in Pakistan. “Good work is being done by young people. In our Youth Festival, you can see the influence of international exposure. Things have changed drastically for the better in the last 11 years. Media is booming. We have a man in uniform running the government, but he has allowed freedom of expression."

Time Out Delhi ISSUE 3 Friday, May 04, 2007

Triveni Tea Terrace

Adda - Where Dilliwalas go to eat, drink or just shoot the breeze.

The Triveni Kala Sangam is one of architect Joseph Allen Stein’s many contributions to the city of Delhi (the list includes the Ford Foundation and the India International Centre). Site of three art galleries, a lovely little bookshop called the Nook and a shop called Prakriti in the garden, filled with terracotta objects for sale, Triveni is also home to one of Delhi’s best-known, yet hidden, hangout cafés.

An idyllic locale in which to spend a lazy winter afternoon, the place is popular with a motley mix of jholawalas, lawyers and corporate types who work in the neighbourhood. Until recently, it was also the place for regular meetings of activist groups like the People’s Union for Democratic Rights. On my last visit, however, I noted with some bafflement a rather blunt sign on the verandah that declared, “No Meetings Allowed.”

For those in the know (and presumably now, not looking to hold a meeting), the Triveni café is the place to go for reasonably priced, home-style North Indian cooking – something surprisingly difficult to find when eating out in Delhi. The lightly spiced but delicious food often runs out by 2.30pm. Get there early, so that you can sample the wonderful shammi kababs, the vegetable pulao, zeera aloo, methi ke parathe and pakore wali kadhi. Do not miss the keema curry.

And if you’re on your own, take a book with you: you might not want to leave after lunch. Linger over a cup of tea in the leafy verandah and maybe in an hour you’ll be ready for the cheese-toast. Trisha Gupta

205 Tansen Marg, Mandi House (2371-8833). Mandi House. Mon-Sat 11am-7pm.

Time Out Delhi Issue 1 Friday, April 06, 2007

Cheap Dates, or Budget Nights in Delhi

Broke but still intrepid, Trisha Gupta finds an alternative to evenings spent on friends’ terraces. 

(Published in Time Out Delhi, Issue 2. Friday, April 20, 2007)

(A piece I wrote for Time Out Delhi as part of their cover story 'Night City' in 2007.)

The thirty-something couple at the Kolkata Hot Kathi Roll stall look utterly content. The man is tucking into his mutton biryani, while his salwar-kameezed companion munches happily on her single-anda-double-mutton roll. It’s 6.30pm and the 15-odd stalls are doing their usual brisk business at Chittaranjan Park’s Market No 1. Since the evening’s just beginning, we ignore the Rs 40 Bengali thali at Annapurna Hotel and instead sample some of the bread-crumbed delights that emerged from the combined Bengali and British culinary preference for food fried to a crisp. We are spoilt for choice: mochaar chop (made with banana flower), fish chops, mutton or prawn cutlets. We follow this up with some of the best real Bengali sweets in town at Kamala Sweets. To complete the Bengali culture-fest, we head over to Video Palace to drool over the Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak DVDs.

Having sated our senses with sights and smells Bengali, we take an auto to GK-II. Contrary to expectations, M Block Market is a haven for budget-bound drinking: there’s Soul Punjab, Flames and M-52. Tonight, we’re headed to 4S Bar & Restaurant, which lays claim to the longest happy hours in Delhi – from noon to 10.45pm. There are few tables and not the most exciting décor (unless you count the Punjabi “village scenes” on the walls), but at Rs 75 for a bottle of Kingfisher, we’re not complaining.

If you’re in the mood for a movie and don’t want to shell out Rs 150 at a multiplex, head over to nearby Paras cinema at Nehru Place. Settle into a balcony seat (Rs 60) and watch the latest Hindi blockbuster with middle class families from neighbouring colonies. (And if you ever get to Paras on an empty stomach, there’s a little dhaba with red plastic tables to the left of the hall. And there’s a government liquor shop next door. No, we’re not suggesting anything.)

Tonight, however, we’re not in movie mode. Our next stop is a bit further away; Main Bazaar, Paharganj. As we come to a stop in front of New Delhi Railway Station, there can be no doubt: this is where the action really is. All manner of touts, hotel-finders, restaurant waiters and drug-pushers are waiting to sell you your heart’s desire. (And you must desire something, surely, since you’re here?) But it takes all of seven minutes for them to realise we’re not potential customers. Then we’re free to wander down Main Bazaar’s main street, still buzzing at 10.15pm. The place is a treasure trove for silver jewellery, slinky clothes for budget tourists and fashionable but cheap footwear: kolhapuri chappals and embroidered juttis are available at half the Janpath rates. We bought some pretty neat strappy sandals for Rs 150.

We peep into the enticingly relaxed Everest Café where pony-tailed tourists are browsing through their Lonely Planets over coffee. The friendly woman behind the counter offers us chicken momos. But there isn’t a table free, so we move on, only to stop and browse at Jackson’s Books, a tiny stall with an incredible stock of second-hand books left behind by departing tourists.

Heading in the direction of Chuna Mandi, we find the famous Malhotra Restaurant, “highly recommended by Lonely Planet, Rough, Routard and Let’s Go Guide Books”. But we give it a miss tonight, in favour of the surprisingly pleasant rooftop restaurant at Metropolis. We think we’re the only Indians there until we notice the godman (straggly beard, orange kurta, tilak on forehead) who’s here with a firang couple. Stray bits of the conversation waft our way – “Kali is a very angry goddess. How you say, bloodthirsty?” “Did he just say ‘hungry goddess’?” asks my companion mildly. “That’s me,” I say happily, attacking my minute steak.

After dinner, we figure the 9.30pm film at nearby Imperial Cinema should be ending, but no post-film crowd emerges. It turns out the hall screens Bollywood reruns for the princely sum of Rs 20. It’s past 12.30 now, and all the bars have shut shop. So we head to the first “open 24 hours” sign we see – the lobby at Ajay Guesthouse has a billiards table and a German bakery that stays open all night. But you can linger only so long over a slice of date and walnut cake (Rs 35), however large it may be. So at 1am, we finally call it a night.

4S Bar & Restaurant: M-31 GK-II, M Block Market (4166-4317).

Ajay Guesthouse: 5084-A Main Bazaar, Paharganj (2358-3125). Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Everest Café: 824 Multani Dhanda, Arakashan Road, Paharganj (4166-4317). Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Flames: First floor, M-61 GK-II, M Block Market (4163-7000).

M-52: M-52 GK-II, M Block Market (2922-5252).

Malhotra Restaurant: Lok Narayan Street, Paharganj, opposite Imperial Cinema (2358-9371). Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Metropolis: 1634, Main Bazaar, Paharganj, near Imperial cinema (2356-1782). Metro New Delhi Railway Station.

Soul Punjab: M-6 GK-II, M Block Market (6660-6666).

5 April 2009

Book Review - Day Trips Into Sincerity

MG Vassanji’s travel essays skim the surface but charm quietly, says TRISHA GUPTA

IT’S NOT IMMEDIATELY clear who this book’s intended readership is. If it’s meant to be an introduction to India for people who don’t know it, then why an Indian edition? Why must we, who live here, be subjected to another India travelogue by yet another outsider? It’s not that the outsider’s perspective has no value — it has long been given a preeminent position in cultural anthropology. The outsider is one who makes the familiar strange and open for analysis. But anthropologists make up for their newness to the terrain by intensive fieldwork in a particular area; they do not (at least not these days) assume a command over all aspects of a large, extremely complex society.

Which is what this book ends up doing the author travels to places as different as Kerala, Delhi and Gujarat, meets hundreds of people, and feels obliged to touch on every ‘burning issue’. Sometimes a topic is addressed, through potted histories and experiential accounts (such as Hindu-Muslim violence, which Vassanji is clearly deeply affected by), but often only tangentially (such as caste-based reservation, which gets a cursory airing via a disagreement between Bhishm Sahni and his wife). So the book skims the surface — the United Coffee House in Delhi’s Connaught Place is dismissed as ‘a den of the affluent’, but with no sense of why and when it became one; there are references to Gandhi’s irrelevance in contemporary India, but none that go beyond the trite; there are misnomers like ‘Chitli Qabar Marg’ and odd theories stated as fact, such as the idea that pre-liberalisation Delhi (barring Shahjahanbad) was somehow vegetarian.

And yet the book has its charms. The often overwhelmed puzzlement gives way in places to a quiet understanding. Also, Vassanji’s unusual heritage — a Canada-based Khoja Muslim whose ancestors left Gujarat for East Africa — means that his juxtapositions are both uncommon and revealing, even when the connections appear slim. But his rarest trait is his ability to give everyone he meets a patient hearing: unlike so many travel writers, he seems to place thoughtful engagement above clever repartee, and actually listen — whether to an aged, tone-deaf Mulk Raj Anand, a Hindu fundamentalist in Gujarat, or a hesitant Malayali academic in Varkala. This is a sometimes predictable, often plodding elephant of a book, but it has a quiet sincerity that makes it impossible to dismiss.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 6, Issue 14, Dated Apr 11, 2009