24 October 2012

Post Facto: His Story - Narayanbhai’s katha brings Gandhi to life

My Sunday Guardian column this week:

The thin old man in a white kurta is seated on an elevated platform with a white sheet stretched over it. Behind him is a single white bolster; in front of him sprouts a bunch of microphones. He is reading, but in a marvellous informal manner that makes it seem he is speaking extempore. His voice is comforting, but thin. It is, after all, the voice of an 87-year-old. But it does not quiver. When he pauses for breath between passages, the small mandli to his left begins to sing. Now his lips are pursed gently in concentration, eyes closed beneath his spectacles. He sways gently to the music, and his narrow, bald head gleams when it catches the light. To his right, in a large wooden frame, is the familiar painted image of another old man: also bald, and with his eyes closed behind his round spectacles.
The resonance is unintended, but unmistakeable.

Narayanbhai Desai is the son of Mahadev Desai, Gandhi's longtime personal secretary. He spent the first 23 years of his life at Sabarmati and Sewagram, both ashrams established by Gandhi. For the last few years, he has been the Vice Chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapeeth, the university started by Gandhi in 1920. The highly respected Gandhi scholar Tridip Suhrud considers Desai's four volume work Maru Jivan Ej Mari Vani the most complete biography of Gandhi in Gujarati, and translated it into English under the title My Life is My Message.

At the age of 77, having published a four-volume work of repute, one might think that a man would feel he had done the work he had to. And it is possible that Narayanbhai would have settled into quiet retirement if Godhra had not happened. But Godhra happened, and Narayanbhai felt that he had to do something in response. His sense of what he should do was clear: to recharge the memory of Gandhi's message in a Gujarat which seemed to have turned sharply away from it. This was also his aim in writing the biography, but he had come to recognise that most people would not pick up a four volume work. It was then that he arrived at the idea of storytelling.

He held his first Gandhi Katha in 2004. Since then, he has travelled with it across 12 Indian states, as well as Canada, the USA and the UK. The katha I attended was the 106th, held from 4th to 8th October 2012 at Birla House in Delhi, the site of Gandhi's assassination. The 107th katha will be held at Vadodara Central Jail. The 108th, with which he plans to bring the process to a close in January 2013, will be at Sadra, a village in Gandhinagar district of Gujarat, where the Mahadev Desai College of Social Work, run by Gujarat Vidyapeeth, is located.

Each katha is held over five days, with Narayanbhai speaking for three hours every evening, recounting the events of Gandhi's life, broadly in chronological sequence. His anecdotes give the audience the privilege of hearing directly from someone who knew the Mahatma – of hearing history live. He does not leave out anything that would be considered major in the history books – so everything from Champaran to Direct Action Day gets its due. But it is his ability to weave in the smallest of incidents and characters that makes his katha come alive. It is ordinary people who are at the centre of this narrative – ordinary people who made Gandhi what he was.

So we hear the story of Kasturba's encounter with a family in an Andhra village who refused to open the door of their hut, finally agreeing to speak to her from inside. Aren't you coming to the sabha, she asked? Don't you want to hear Bapu? We would come, they answered, but there are three of us and only one proper dhoti between us. "Bapu did not say anything when Kasturba told him this story," says Narayanbhai. "But later he took to wearing just a dhoti. He said, 'How can I speak, wearing all these clothes, to people who don't even have a single garment to call their own?'"

When we hear how lawyers who came to assist him in Champaran with their individual caste cooks were persuaded to eat from a common rasoi, or how the potential rioter in pre-Partition Calcutta laid down his grenade at Gandhi's feet because his ginni (wife) was refusing to eat until Gandhi did, perhaps we are hearing the kind of exemplary moral tale that might usually be told about an epic hero, like Ram. The portrait with a garland around it, the large brass diya, the musicians' yellow saris and white kurtas: these certainly have all the familiarity of our Hindu style of national ritual. The stage is decorated, as stages are, with strings of marigold.

But there is a simplicity here, a quiet refusal of plushness. The marigolds from the first day remain until the fifth, transforming slowly from fiery goldenness to a muted ochre. Desai has taken a traditional form of subcontinental storytelling and made of it an informative, affecting form of remembrance, a form that perfectly fits the man at its centre. The final evening, after a brief reference to Gandhi's death, ends with a song, followed by a request for silence and no jaijaikaar. One wishes we had more rituals like these.
Read the whole column here

20 October 2012

Film Review: Student of the Year

Karan Johar’s Student of the Year (2012) is a love triangle set in a completely unreal boarding school called St. Teresa’s. His debut film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998) was a love triangle set in a completely unreal college called St. Xavier’s.

Not much has changed in the intervening 14 years. Karan Johar’s candyfloss aesthetic is certainly pretty much the same as it was when he began to make films. The American-style basketball courts and the branded clothes with which he sought to seduce his audiences in 1998 have simply been amplified several-fold to match our now much higher standards of consumption and display. So the young people at St. Teresa’s prance about in a haze of fast cars, discotheques and Louis Vuitton handbags, where they don’t need to bother their pretty little heads about such things as exams – and remember this is meant to be a boarding school, not a college.

Even though you can’t tell the difference by looking at them, the St. Teresa’s demographic is supposedly divided into the Tata bachche and the Bata bachcheTata note de ke admission lete hain, aur Bata notes ratt ke. Joining St. Teresa’s, it seems, quickly needs you to pick one of the two camps: either you join the ABCs – Ameer bachche aur unke chamche (Rich kids and their sycophants) – or else you relegate yourself to the so-called ‘Pappu bachche’. And therein lies this film’s bare sliver of a plot: the arrival of a sports scholarship student called Abhimanyu (Siddharth Malhotra) who ought to be a Pappu or a chamcha, but refuses to be either. Which catapults him into battle with the school’s existing hero, wannabe rockstar Rohan (Varun Dhawan): a bade baap ke beta who drives a Ferrari and has managed to reserve both the school’s most prized parking space and its most sought-after girl.

Johar’s notion of what’s appealing in young women hasn’t changed much either: he’s still into spoilt, head-tossing brats obsessed with their looks. It isn’t a long trek from the impossibly annoying ‘Poo’ of Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham to the designer-obsessed Shanaya of Student of the Year. Only, in retrospect, Kareena made Poo kind of memorable. As for Alia Bhatt’s Shanaya, one might not remember her at all but for the red lipstick mouth that jumps out from her alarmingly white face.

But Bhatt can’t entirely be blamed, saddled as she is with a role as tragically muddled as this. The basketball court of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in which Kajol played her ‘tomboy’ part has made way for a football field in which a girl has no role but to watch while the boys battle it out for the trophy. And if she’s lucky, the trophy might be hers. Shanaya’s teary outburst about not being the prize in some competition rings utterly false—because the whole of the rest of the film is set up to make us see her as exactly that. Girls in SOTY are allowed to compete, but mostly all they’re competing for is the boys.

What has changed from Kuch Kuch to Hota Hai to Student of the Year is Karan Johar’s idea of time. In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, eight years after college was enough time for a marriage, a death, an eight-year-old child. The Shahrukh and Kajol who met after eight years were altered versions of themselves—more mature, transformed by life, whether in happy or unhappy ways.

In SOTY, the schoolmates who reunite ten years after school still seem frozen in their old school avatars. Everyone is just a slightly older version of who they were then. The hierarchies that propped up that artificial universe are entirely in place in the real world: the nerdy fat boy is still nerdy and fat – and single, the philanderer-brat and wannabe rockstar is now a philanderer-brat and actual rockstar, the uber-competitive middle class boy has become an investment banker, the trophy girlfriend has become a trophy wife. (The sole smart competitive girl in school, though, has had her comeuppance: she is now ‘merely’ a housewife and mother.)

But perhaps there’s nothing to be surprised about. In a world in which Yash Johar’s son creates a star vehicle for Mahesh Bhatt’s daughter and David Dhawan’s son, it’s probably natural for life to seem preordained. I wish another world were possible.

Read this review on the Firstpost site, here.

16 October 2012

An Insider's View: Richard Bartholomew's writings on Indian art

Richard Bartholomew, as a compilation of his writings reveals, was an art critic who didn’t let his friendships with the top artists of his time suppress his voice

A Burmese émigré who had arrived in India in 1942, Richard Bartholomew entered the literary-cultural scene when studying English literature at St Stephen’s College, and then as a teacher of English at Delhi’s Modern School from 1951 to 1958. A poet and a photographer himself, he started writing and publishing as an art critic in 1955. From the late 1950s until his tragic and sudden death from a stroke in 1985, Bartholomew’s was the most important critical voice on the Delhi art scene, and he among the most important art critics in India. From 1977 till 1985, he took on, in addition, the onerous task of institution building as secretary of the Lalit Kala Akademi.

And yet, until 2009, when his son Pablo Bartholomew, himself a photographer, put his photographs together in a show and a book called 
The Critic’s Eye, Richard Bartholomew’s was not a name I knew. The Art Critic, self-published by Pablo after a difficult, muddled, often painful process that ended up taking 27 years (and which he gives partial voice to in a remarkably honest afterword), finally brings to a contemporary readership a definitive collection of Richard Bartholomew’s critical writings. Voluminous at roughly 200,000 words (edited down from the original 300,000), this is an ‘art book’ like no other. Opinionated, often provocative, but always thoughtful, Bartholomew’s writing has the rare virtue of combining the survey and the longue durée with a marvellous immediacy, giving the present-day reader a privileged sense of modern Indian art ‘as it happened’.
The liveliness of his prose is also based on his ability to straddle worlds: while treating art with all the seriousness of a national mission, he constantly strives to translate what is essentially high culture into something that ordinary people—middle and upper middle-class readers of The Indian Express or The Times of India or Thought magazine—ought to be able to connect with, enjoy, and even if possible own. Sample: ‘The best thing about… ‘Graphic Workshop 1974’, organized in Baroda, is that each print has been brought out in a small edition of 50… [enabling work to be priced] at Rs 50 which is the price of a whiskey bottle or a cotton sari.’
It is a sensibility that can only have come from a critic who was on familiar, if not intimate, terms with many players in the art world—and yet wrote about it not for the coffee-table book or the rarefied academic volume but for the educated layperson. And also, perhaps, only from an art world still un-feted (and un-buffeted) by the market; Richard’s writing, writes Geeta Kapur, ‘matured on a typewriter in modest dwellings that neighboured the artists’ equally modest studio-apartments’.
Bartholomew himself saw his role with fierce clarity. ‘The critic who wishes to be articulate must be prepared to discuss reviews with artists; he must be at home in the artist’s studio and he must be an integral part of the art movement. If there is no art movement, he must try to foster one,’ he wrote in Cultural Forum in 1959. ‘It is imperative that he should have the respect of three institutions: (1) the public; (2) the artist; (3) the editor. This triple test disqualifies many for the vocation of criticism, for criticism is a supreme test of integrity.’
The book provides ample evidence that Richard held himself to these standards. He was close to several of the painters he wrote about—Ram Kumar, whom Richard and his wife Rati (then Batra) befriended at St Stephen’s College; Kanwal Krishna, having taught alongside him at Modern School (where Geeta Kapur first encountered the two of them as teachers and whose art room Krishna ‘treated for all the world like an artist’s atelier and evening hub’), and his wife, the artist and printmaker Devyani Krishna; A Ramachandran, who remembers Richard and Rati arriving at his barsati door to invite him and wife for dinner at their place, also in Jangpura; MF Husain; and Satish Gujral. And yet these are artists whose work received Richard’s most scrupulous honesty. Sample three statements on Husain’s paintings: in 1961 Richard can write, ‘As my acquaintance with Husain grows I begin to marvel at his virtuosity. Husain is a careless painter often; he is a facile painter sometimes; but Husain is a painter with a carefully selected repertoire, always.’ In 1965, he can write, ‘The 23 Husain drawings in this exhibition are good drawing-room pieces.’ And in a long essay on Husain published in a 1972 volume, he can make the following marvellous observation: ‘Men put so much energy into words, even if they do not believe all that is said. Husain puts that energy into paint.’

The integrity that Bartholomew brought to his work drew reactions in kind from the artists themselves. Here is Richard writing about Satish Gujral: ‘And when I criticised him for the want of finesse and conviction in the lettering and the slogans of his terracotta pieces of 1969-70, he had the heart and the good sense to take it in his stride, though it hurt. “A man doesn’t do what he has succeeded in doing all the time,” [he said].’

He draws analogies and references from far afield, from literature and poetry most of all, but also in vivid prose, from the natural and cultural environment of his adoptive country. Here he is on Raza’s Indian palette: ‘His colours are those of the Banaras brocade, the Gujarati manuscript, the blazing intensity of the Indian summer with its glory of the gulmohur and the laburnum.’ Reading Richard’s writing, in fact, one has not the slightest sense of the outsider’s trepidation, or desire not to offend. On the contrary, one is pleasantly surprised by the forthright way in which he broaches, for instance, such presumably sensitive subjects as Bengali dominance. In a 1959 piece called ‘Art in the Shadow of Official Patronage’, he took the Lalit Kala Akademi to task for several things, including its institution of a tripartite division of art submissions for a prize into ‘oriental, academic-realistic, and modern’. ‘Manifestly this is a move to provide sanction to the decadent and dying Bengal School, for which Mr Barada Ukil, the Secretary, and Mr DP Roy Chowdhury, the Chairman, must necessarily have much sentimental attachment… it is pertinent to point out that three centres of art instruction in this country are being managed by Bengali artists, by Mr BC Sanyal in Delhi, Mr Bishwanath Mukerji in Hyderabad, and by Mr Chintamani Kar in Calcutta. The Curator of the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mr Pradosh Das Gupta, is also a Bengali. For better or for worse, there is the influence of Bengalis at the top official places in Indian art today. The general ambivalence, therefore, is understandable.’

And yet, there is no slanderous gossip here, no personal slurs. What there is is a deep-rooted, not always rational, distaste for the ‘nostalgia’ and ‘romanticism’ of the Bengal School. But even this avowed critical disdain for nostalgia and romanticism is never allowed to swamp his instinctively positive response to a body of work. About Amrita Sher-Gil, for example, he writes with empathy rather than dismissal: ‘The pensively stanced figures of the countryside in a Sher-Gil painting breathe a romanticism that is born of the regret that these things were passing away.’

It is impossible to do justice to this vast volume in a short review. But suffice it to say that Bartholomew is attentive to the smallest detail in a work of art, writing passionately about colour and light and form, the stroke that creates the hunch of a back—while never shying away from the big picture questions that you almost rarely hear asked anymore: Is modern Indian art merely imitative of Western art? What does its Indianness consist of? What is the role of State patronage? You may or may not agree with his answers, but it is more than sufficient pleasure to discover so fine an interlocutor—and one you did not know existed.

13 October 2012

Film Review: Aiyyaa

Aiyyaa is an ambitious film. Director Sachin Kundalkar self-consciously attempts a sensual magic realism, a half-dream, half-reality world with a film-crazed heroine at its centre.

When we first see Rani Mukherjee’s Meenaxi, she is wearing a white and blue dress of a certain vintage and large sunglasses with white frames, and dancing to a Vividh Bharti prastuti which is somehow not just one song but a medley of 80s greatest hits. TejaabMera BalmaMr. India! Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak! says the announcer, following up with “Sridevi, Madhuri aur Juhi, kabhi aise toh kabhi yunhi”, a line delivered in a deadpan radio voice that somehow also manages to contain the barest hint of lascivious enjoyment. Then Rani’s fretful dream is interrupted by the arrival of two stinking garbage trucks, and we supposedly wake with her into reality.

But it turns out reality is a Vividh Bharti prastuti, too. Now it is her goggle-eyed younger brother Nana reading out a matrimonial ad put out for Meenaxi by her adoring if slightly nutty Aai: “Brahman parivaar ki ladki, umra 22 sharmeeli (shayad mawaali likhna tha!)”, and a crazed grandmother zooming around the house on a wheelchair. And soon enough the deadpan All India Radio voice is back, announcing an “Ashleel Geetmala” (“Obscene Song Programme”) whose first offering of the day is Emosanal Atyachar requested by “Pune se Nana Deshpande aur unke chaar kutte”…

There’s a fair amount of oddball cleverness here, what with Emosanal Atyachar being the biggest song from Dev D, which was directed by Anurag Kashyap whose AKFPL is a co-producer for Aiyyaa, and then the radio reference to Nana’s “ati-uttejit mataji aur ati-visarjit pitaji” —ati-visarjit translates to “deeply immersed”, and the father happens to be called Ganesh—a god immersed literally, in water, every year. Or the voiceover that tells us that the grandmother’s shiny gold teeth have been set aside for Meenaxi to inherit.

But it takes very little for oddball cleverness to teeter over into madness. It begins early, when Meenaxi gets herself a job as a librarian in a beautiful old Pune art institute, sharing her gorgeous wood-panelled “office ambience” with a crazed, buck-toothed, hot pants-and-leather-boots-clad character called Maina.

The nasal-voiced, oversexed, John-Abraham-obsessed Maina is bizarrely over-the-top – so much so that I spent a long time telling myself that she was meant to be a figment of Meenaxi’s fevered imagination: the suppressed sexuality of the good Brahmin girl emerging into the film’s dreamworld in this grotesque person form. But unfortunately the film refuses to indulge its fantasy all the way through (as you will see when you get to the end and discover that Maina must, sadly, be understood to be as human as Meenaxi).

And then there’s the film central premise: Meenaxi’s obsession with the arrogantly good-looking, deliberately scruffy art student Suriya (Prithviraj). Lust-at-first-sight is not an emotion that has hitherto been allowed to the Hindi movie heroine, and Aiyyaa’s unapologetic embrace of female sensual (rather than exactly sexual) fantasies is heartwarming. Rani as Meenaxi, torn between the reality of the practical but humdrum “husband material” Madhav, and the dreamworld represented by the attractive but impossible Suriya—red-eyed, taciturn and South Indian to boot—perfectly embodies a certain kind of everywoman whose troubles are not new, but whose secret fantasies have not been allowed onto our screens before.

But this idea, that could have provided fun and frisson in equal measure, is killed by tedious, repetitive execution. It’s enjoyable the first time we see Meenaxi close her eyes and inhale blissfully when the majestically unseeing Suriya passes her by, leaving behind a cloud of apparently heavenly body odour. It’s sort of entertaining the second time, perhaps even the third time – but when it gets to be pretty much all she ever does, whether in a song-haze which is supposed to gesture to dream-time, or in ostensibly real-world-time, it gets a bit much.

The sensory overload is unrelenting and incoherent – filmi dreams that don’t connect up in any way with Meenaxi’s daytime behaviour, blue paint thrown on canvas and  dissolving into constantly into water, a series of ‘fantasy’ song sequences stitched together by overacted ‘humour’. And the drug-acquiring interlude – with the brother and sister arriving under a flyover inexplicably in their nightclothes, apparently set off by Meenaxi’s belief that her man’s fragrance might be caused by his consumption of an expensive narcotic substance – takes the film’s magic realist ambitions into desperately unmagical terrain.

There is still much here that is interesting and artful. Rani Mukherjee does over-the-top more believably than almost any other contemporary Hindi film actress, and she succeeds in making Meenaxi both enjoyably fantastic and attractively real. No film has probably ever captured with as much humour-pathos as Aiyyaa the unintentional but unremitting rushing of the lower-middle-class Indian girl into marriage—“Sagai ke baare mein tum sagaai ke baad sochna,” says Meenaxi’s mother in complete seriousness—or admitted that the same girl’s object of fantasy, even when it is the forbidden flesh of the “dark” South Indian, exists eventually within the framework of marriage.

But it’s not at all clear that the grandmother’s fantasies of flight transferred onto her granddaughter—“Hawa mein tairti plastic ki khali thaili hai Meenaxi! Ud gayi!”—are consistent with any of this. I understand that there is dream and there is reality, and sometimes one is the other. But the trouble with Aiyyaa is that it doesn’t know when to wake up.

Published in Firstpost.

Film Review: Chittagong

Chittagong released in theatres yesterday. Here's a bit from my review:

 "What Pain’s film manages to capture is the remarkable passion and commitment that forged a ragtag group of ordinary school and college-going youngsters into a revolutionary force, a force that was willing to risk everything for what was really an exemplary, one-time, act of daring. And it does this by choosing to tell us its story not, as Ashutosh Gowarikar’s 2010 Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Se did, through the eyes of its most famous protagonist, Surjya Sen – but instead from the viewpoint of its youngest participant. It is the 14-year-old Subodh Roy, better known as Jhunku, who makes this narrative special: the bright teenaged son of a lawyer who must decide between the glittering career path virtually promised to him by a British education – and the much more uncertain revolutionary road opened up by his beloved Master-da."

Read the whole review on Firstpost, here.

7 October 2012

Post Facto: Hierarchies of Intelligence and Other Schoolboy Fictions

Today's Sunday Guardian column:

"I'm not very interested in my schooldays, and don't feel any nostalgia for them," begins Julian Barnes' narrator Tony Webster in The Sense of an Ending. "But school is where it all began."

But a narrator in his 60s who describes certain events from his schooldays over 54 pages, while managing to sum up his working life, his marriage, his daughter's birth and childhood, his divorce, his daughter's marriage and his post-retirement life in two and a half, can scarcely be believed when he says he's "not very interested" in his schooldays. The years of his adolescence seem, in fact, to be the part of his life that Tony Webster is most interested in. It's as if nothing that has happened since can ever match up to the excitement of those years: the newness, the sense of discovery, of impending doom or greatness.

Of course, Barnes' – Tony Webster's – version of adolescence is a very particular one: smartalecky boys in a London public school in the '60s, where young teachers came down from Cambridge. "[W]e were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic," says Webster of his clique of four, before going on to list the philosophers they had each read, and closing with the almost-charming disclamer: "Yes, of course we were pretentious—what else is youth for?"

But what really struck me about Webster's narrative is the degree to which he remains in thrall to the idea of intelligence he developed at the time. Four and a half decades later, he is convinced that if psychologists were to make "a graph of pure intelligence" measured against age, ""it would show that most of us peak between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five".

It seems a strange way to measure the value of our lives, or our selves: a scale in which "wisdom, pragmatism, organisational skill, tactical nous" can be dismissed as "things which, over time, blur our understanding of the matter." And yet, as a middle class Indian reader, there is something utterly and disturbingly familiar about this idea of a hierarchy of competing intelligences. For what else is the competitive exam but a graded map of the world in which the place you assign yourself as a teenager feels like one you must occupy for ever?

I have grown up listening to my father discuss school and college mates (and be discussed by them, if they happen to gather) in terms of how they fared in examinations—recounting with precision the marks each of them got, or the paper someone topped, more than four decades after the fact. I have gently and affectionately made fun of this form of reminiscence, and wondered whether this obsession with bhalo chhatros was a particularly Bengali mode of being: do Bengalis, for some reason, place a greater premium on academic success than other communities in India? And if they do, is the reason contained in Bengal's longer history of colonial education, in which success in examinations was established swiftly as the only way in which the middle class could guarantee its economic security?

This is speculation. But reading the sociologist Andre Beteille's marvelous, precise memoir of childhood and youth, Sunlight on the Garden, I was struck by the ways in which his descriptions of a Calcutta adolescence resonate with my father's. Professor Beteille is about 15 years my father's senior, and their family backgrounds are very different. But the Calcutta world they both inhabited in school and college does not seem to have changed a great deal between the late 1940s and the early 1960s, at least not in its preoccupation with examinations and star pupils. Beteille is forthright about being shaped by this. "Truth to tell," he writes, "I had at that phase in my life a fascination, not to say an obsession, with star pupils, and deep down inside me I wanted to be one myself." Within the University, there was also the hierarchy of subjects, with physics at the top. Beteille attributes this glamour to Raman, Bose and Saha, who had all worked at the University College of Science, and describes with disarming frankness his own tryst with undergraduate physics.

Beteille, of course, left physics for sociology, and in his thoughtful account of that transition we hear something of his slow unlearning of childhood hierarchies. But we live in a world in which hierarchies of intelligence still reign, and even those of us who ought to know better, seem unwilling – or unable – to quite abandon the unilateral measures of it that we've been brainwashed into believing are true.

In The Illicit Happiness of Other People, set in Madras in the 1980s, Manu Joseph describes an intensely anxious world of teenaged middle class boys, solving sample problems on colony evening walks and waiting for their fates to be decided by the boards, followed by "the toughest exam in the world". (Clue: it's not physics.) Joseph speaks of this world of conformists with barely disguised scorn, and yet, as a writer friend said sadly to me the other day, his novel's smartest, most forthright characters are either boys who've 'cracked' the system, or those who've decided to have no stake in it. In Barnes' novel, the boy who'd cracked the system commits suicide. In Joseph's novel, the boy who thinks he's smarter than the system commits suicide. The system is still winning.

The Case of the Punjabi Detective

My Asian Age piece on the mystery writer Tarquin Hall and his wonderful creation: the portly Delhi detective, Vish Puri. 

When the father of a Pakistani cricketer dies of poisoning during a post-match VVIP dinner in New Delhi, the trail seems to lead to an illegal cricket betting syndicate that has bookies in every town on the subcontinent and is headed by an underworld kingpin believed to reside in Pakistan. But because The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken (2012) is the third mystery featuring Vish Puri, the portly and wonderfully entertaining Punjabi detective, we know that sooner or later his Mummy is going to get involved. And the plot will thicken.

Vish Puri, “India’s Most Private Investigator”, first appeared on the literary stage in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Missing Servant (2009), complete with waxed moustache, safari suit, signature Sandown cap and an irresistible weakness for chilli pakoras. Having traversed Jaipur morgues and police stations and the uranium mines of Jadugoda in search of a missing maid in the first book, Puri has since solved The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing (2010), a marvellously entertaining take on rationalists, magicians and fake godmen that remains my favourite of the series.

Hall’s long globetrotting career as a journalist has included stints in the United States, Pakistan, India, Kenya and Turkey. He has earlier published several non-fiction books, including To the Elephant Graveyard (2000), an account of a search for a killer elephant in Assam and Salaam Brick Lane (2005), a memoir about a year spent living above a Bangladeshi sweatshop in London’s East End. But Vish Puri is his first fictional creation.

Hall describes Martin Amis and Rushdie as “unreadably pretentious” and prefers “a good story that you can follow, simply written” — though “simple”, he’s quick to add, “doesn’t mean easy”. When he decided to try his hand at fiction, he was only sure of one thing — he wasn’t going to write “terribly worthy” novels. He began writing a book set in a motel in India, but abandoned it when his agent “said it was rubbish”.

The idea for a detective series came, fittingly, out of a journalistic piece. And the idea for that piece came from a conversation with his wife Anu Anand’s cousin. “I was teasing Shikha — she’s from Jammu — about how she wasn’t married, and she started telling me about how she had discovered that she was being investigated by a detective,” Hall remembers. The prospective groom’s family wanted to find out if she drank, smoked, had a boyfriend. Private investigators, it seemed, were doing booming business in India, with more and more people hiring them to inquire into prospective arranged matches. The whole thing seemed superbly story-worthy to Hall, and his interviews with several private investigators led to a long reported piece.

Later, when he was scouting about for fiction ideas, the detectives he’d met came back to him. But what really helped him visualise his rotund, opinionated, middle-aged Punjabi investigator was his wife’s uncles. “They have a certain size to them, they’ve become the seniors in their families,” Hall says. “They sit around drinking Scotch and making fairly bad jokes, but they’re very wily. At the same time they have a sense that there ought to be certain standards in society.” Vish Puri is very much this sort of combination of streetsmartness and pomposity: a pugnacious Punjabi man of a certain age who is used to “telling everybody what to do”.

“In the West, everyone would just tell them to shut up. The age hierarchy was thrown out of the window there long ago,” says Hall. “That has its benefits, but it’s also a bit of a shame — people with a certain amount of experience in teaching, say, or politics, aren’t necessarily given their due.” In the Indian universe that Vish Puri occupies, in contrast, young people tend to respect their parents’ wishes; daughters studying in a different city check with fathers about whether it’s okay to take a low-cost flight back home on Diwali; grandfathers have no qualms getting their granddaughters’ prospective husbands secretly investigated. (This was an important subplot in Missing Servant).

Hall’s narratives are punctuated by stable, wholesome family gatherings where any deep, dark rifts or family secrets are kept out of sight — unless, as in Butter Chicken, they turn out to be crucial in solving the mystery. There’s entertainment provided by mild friction between Puri and his slightly foolish brother-in-law Baggaji, or more integral to plot, between Puri and his redoubtable Mummy — but on the whole, Hall’s version of the North Indian family is a genial one. Whether it’s a grandchild’s mundan ceremony or a family Diwali, everyone seems to basically get along. “Yes, well, I like that side of India,” says Hall. “There aren’t a lot of pleasantries between people who don’t know each other otherwise, which is jarring as a foreigner. So I like it when you go to someone’s house in India and they’re all very cordial.”

Some of this affection for the ways of his adoptive country emerges from an implicit comparison with the one he grew up in. “The family structure in Britain is a mess,” Hall says. “Here, all familial relationships may not be smooth sailing, but everyone recognises that keeping the bond alive is important.”

Hall’s relationship with the Indian city seems more conflicted. The vivid, non-stop action is clearly something he finds attractive. The everyday buzz we take for granted in a city like Delhi, he points out, can’t be matched by a Western city even at its most eventful: London during the Olympics, when there is supposedly so much going on—“everywhere you go there are announcements,” — is actually “really quiet and predictable”. But the brashness and loudness of public behaviour in Delhi still seems to affect him — he mentions with a tinge of quiet despair that he has “a driver who never says sorry or thank you”, and confesses that living in the leafy, quiet, uber-genteel neighbourhood of Nizamuddin East is a way to keep the everyday onslaught of Delhi life slightly at bay.

Vish Puri, not unlike Hall, is happy to avail of the cushion that upper middle-class life in Delhi can provide: he is hands-on when he needs to be, but is driven everywhere by his driver, and cannot live without airconditioning. But he is also positioned as somewhat old-school: he may live in Gurgaon, but his car is still the trusty Ambassador, and the stolid 1980s décor of his Khan Market office is sans glass partitions. The old-school-ness extends to Puri’s family life. Domestic help is aplenty, but his wife Rumpi insists on waking at five in the morning to supervise the running of the house (“No doubt she was downstairs now churning fresh butter for his double-roti”) and keep up traditional homestyle beauty treatments (“Or she was in the second bedroom rubbing mustard oil into her long auburn hair”).

As is apparent, Hall caters happily to a romantic vision of India, strewing the books with references that a British readership would recognise, from the Gymkhana Club and cricket to the Partition, and adding swatches of local colour that might appear in a Did-You-Know type travel show: the diamond-transporting Angadiyas of Surat, or the genealogy-keeping Pandas of Hardwar. And you will either be amused or irritated by the ceaseless “Indianisms” squeezed in to every conversation. The reversed word order of “So engrossed I become” or “He kept all these things where exactly?” is common enough in Indian English to feel accurate. But when Mummy tells a gathering of drivers — with whom she would definitely speak in Hindi in real life — that “Some goondas have done armed robbery of our kitty party”, it seems like we’re in a Delhi-set version of Mind Your Language.

But what is nice about Hall’s books is that his gaze is never sneering. His affection for India — unlike say, William Dalrymple in City of Djinns — transcends the nostalgia-inducing stuff. His clear-eyed look at the contemporary is delivered in a non-judgmental, even-handed tone. Puri’s scandalised thoughts on immoral youngsters may seem a caricature, but there’s always detail when it matters most. We’re told what a young urban professional shells out to a personal trainer versus what he pays his car-washer. In Missing Servant, which has plenty to say about the maltreatment of domestic servants, we also hear a maid bargaining with a potential employer. There’s no shying away from the compulsions of poverty or powerlessness — but there is no weepy sensationalising of them either.

These books are fiction — and enjoyably plotted fiction, too — but Hall takes a sharp-eyed pleasure in the facts that can only be described as journalistic. In the best possible way.

(A version of this piece appeared in today's Asian Age.)

6 October 2012

Film Review: English Vinglish

My review of English-Vinglish:

“My wife, she was born to make laddoos!” says the grinning husband to the white boy who’s being inducted into the family. The white boy, whose name is Kevin, has just taken his first-ever bite of a moist, delicious little globe of motichur goodness produced by the aforementioned wife, Shashi, and he looks suitably overwhelmed with delight. Then the camera moves across to Shashi, and that single fluid moment, as we watch her face silently transform from happy to tremulous to brave, encapsulates everything that the film wants to show us.
But eventually, it is Sridevi, with her trademark winsome girlishness of old now beautifully balanced by a new quiet dignity, who makes us experience each of these triumphs as her own. Go, cheer her on.

What Gauri Shinde’s debut film insists on showing us is so deliberately unspectacular, so quiet and dull and taken-for-granted, that when we see it in real life (and we see it all the time), we merely avert our eyes. It is the predicament of the person whose personhood is summarily dismissed by a refusal to value the work they do—casually, perhaps without malice—but resulting in no less cruelty than if it were intentional.

Because English-Vinglish, despite its name, is not just about English. English here is a placeholder. Being fluent in English, in the sadly skewed universe of contemporary India, automatically codes you as modern, fashionable, worthy of respect. Not being fluent in it relegates you to the back room: a second-class citizen unworthy of display.

Dibakar Banerjee’s films – Oye Lucky most of all, but also Pitobash Tripathy’s character in Shanghai­ ­– have given us what are perhaps Hindi cinema’s most nuanced commentaries on English as a marker of social class. What Shinde does in English-Vinglish is very different, not just because her style involves broader strokes and a happier, more feel-good mood— but because the domain she chooses to set her film in is the family.

Shashi is, first and foremost, a wife and mother, and Shinde’s masterstroke is to create a character whose fears and conflicts and insecurities are almost never a consequence of direct assaults made by the wider social world. Her experience of the world comes to her filtered through her husband and children.

So it is Shashi’s own daughter who is embarrassed and angry at Shashi’s inability to understand her classmate’s English-speaking mother—the classmate’s mother seems, at worst, oblivious. It is the same daughter who sulks for hours because Shashi speaks to her teacher in Hindi while the Malayali Christian teacher himself seems quite charmed by this woman who unselfconsciously talks to him about banana chips and wants to know if her daughter is not just a good student but also a popular one. The loyal clients she’s built up for her high-quality home-made laddoos are glad to have a friendly chat when she makes her delivery rounds in person. It is her husband’s lackadaisical dismissal of her excitement about the day’s sales that silences her.

So it makes complete sense when Shashi, at the film’s end, describes her view of family as a little world within the wider world, a space in which you ought to be held safe from the judgements and cruelties of the wider world. It is as close to a statement of worldview as a Hindi film heroine has ever been allowed to come, and whether you think of it as beautifully hopeful, or sadly, simplistically delusional, it is unlikely that you will come away unmoved.

Because in the deliberate simplicity of its canvas—and its protagonist—lies the strength of Gauri Shinde’s film. By refusing to situate the vexed question of English in a larger socio-political context, by focusing its attention on the home, it does simplify the issue—but it also holds up a mirror to what must be the most mundane, most neglected aspects of our social lives: how we treat our mothers.

And yet, the reason why English-Vinglish is so successful is because it is careful not to underline its chosen subject too heavily. Shashi is not above the occasional well-aimed barb—“Oh, main bhool gayi, important baatein toh sirf English mein hi hoti hain na?”—but her deepest wounds are ones she hugs tightly to herself. Our sense of Shashi’s intense privacy, her shyness, helps the film steer clear of melodrama, and lends itself rather beautifully to the few moments when she does open up. It seems entirely fitting that she speaks her heart out only to a man who does not understand her words.

That besotted Frenchman (Mehdi Nebbou) is one of the people in Shashi’s English class, a cheerfully updated version of Mind Your Language that provides the film with most of its lighter moments, via a slightly caricatured but affectionately drawn collection of immigrants—a Pakistani cab driver, a Tamilian techie, a Spanish-speaking nanny, a young Chinese girl, a largely silent African man—all struggling to improve their English.

The New York segment is necessarily shot with the eyes of the dazzled outsider—all skyscrapers and downtown views— but Shinde also manages to fill it with nicely-observed moments that anyone who has ever negotiated the terrifying newness of any (Western) city will immediately identify with: the minor but life-altering trials—and triumphs—of making Metrocards work, finding your way to an interview, placing an order in a café without holding up the queue.

Published in Firstpost, here.