26 August 2013

Book review: The Weight Loss Club

A book review published in yesterday's Asian Age.:

One of my favourite books when I was young was called Songberd’s Grove. Written in 1957, Anne Barrett’s book is about a bespectacled 12-year-old boy called Martin who manages to bring a fun bunch of characters together to save his post-war London neighbourhood from the ravages of the local teenage bully. It’s intended as a children’s book, and I was 12 and bespectacled myself when I first read it. But it remains in my list of most satisfying books — I still re-read it sometimes, back in my old room in my parents’ house, revelling in its cast of feisty children and eccentric adults, its lightly-worn but infectious London-love, and the joyful machinations of plot by which all the knotty problems of the neighbourhood are untangled, fortuitously and collectively.

The Weight Loss Club:
The Curious Adventures of Nancy Housing Cooperative
Rupa, 2013. Rs. 250
Devapriya Roy’s second novel, though definitely not a children’s book, gave me something of that sense of satisfaction. Perhaps the pleasure lies in the creation of community where all that existed before was a dysfunctional urban vacuum. Though The Weight Loss Club starts out with the beginnings — or is the remnants — of a community already in place: in contemporary Kolkata, unlike in ’50s London, there are still middle-class ladies who send extra bedding to neighbours upon whom relatives are known to have descended, college-going youngsters are still asked to go borrow sugar from the neighbours and certain mashimas can still be depended on to hold up the annual Durga Puja festivities, sturdy as pandal scaffolding. 

Roy’s is by no means the first Indian English novel to attempt an urban neighbourhood. And in line with most such previous attempts, Roy’s setting is not exactly a neighbourhood — would that be too large, too variegated, too divided by class? — but a building society, a place whose occupants can be assumed to share a middle-class lifestyle. Plenty of recent high-profile novels have been set in building societies — Aravind Adiga’s Last Man in Tower used a Mumbai housing cooperative called Vishram as a locale from which to think about money and the new Indian middle class; Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, though focused on the Chacko family in particular, recreated with elan the wider dysfunctional milieu represented by the ’80s Madras building they live in. Less talked about but equally interesting are Amitabha Bagchi’s layered recreation of a Mayur Vihar housing society in ’90s Delhi (Above Average, 2007), or the comings and goings of domestic help, watchmen, waiters and residents in the Chennai apartment building of C.K. Meena’s feminist murder mystery (Dreams for the Dying, 2008).

The Weight Loss Club, while thankfully not tagged as chicklit, takes itself slightly less seriously than all these books — it is written chattily, and makes gentle fun of several of its characters: a match-making aunt, a crushing college boy and several colony aunties. Yet, it is more deeply invested than all of them in the potential of community — especially (but not only) in the possibilities of redemption provided by female bonding. 

It is a bit of an idealised world, where the Mukherjees’ MA-PhD daughter bonds effortlessly with the Sahais’ barely-graduate daughter-in-law, where the Mukherjees make no superior-sounding bitchy remarks about the Sahais for being Sahais, and every element of multi-cultural Kolkata is pulled into the party — the Mukherjee son’s best friend is Marwari, the Mukherjee daughter’s closest colleague is Muslim, and no one rolls out the expected stereotypes about the sole Anglo-Indian couple in the building. One has the niggling feeling that real life is more like Eunice D’Souza’s slyly acerbic Dangerlok (2001): the protagonist Rina just about says hello to her neighbour, who comes from “what a BBC newscaster called Utter Pradesh” — and whom she then proceeds to refer to for the length of the book, as “Utter”. 

But the book’s hopefulness does not condemn us to an entirely rose-tinted view — there are crisp, effective descriptions of depressingly recognisable Kolkata types, none of whom I’ve met in a book before. The classic college rockstar-shmuck, the NRB who eats only at five-star-hotels while declaring his love of Kolkata, the school-gate mom obsessed with her son’s marks, the self-aggrandising tuition teacher — they all get my vote. As do almost all the principal characters: the socially-inept philosophy lecturer, the girl on a marriageability diet dreaming of biryani, two very different depressed housewives. But not so much the person who’s meant to string it all together — the mysterious yogini lady, Brahmacharini Sandhya. Her 'real-life' memoir punctuates the book, but it seemed to me eminently skippable.

This is an affectionate look at reasonably real women with all-too-real problems — did we really need a totally unreal door-desh-ki visionary to come and solve them? Roy is more at ease being chatty and observant, but there are moments when she displays an ability to etch quiet grief: “The dark here was familiar to John, more familiar than any other dark, anywhere else in the world”. It’s not clear why she felt the need to lay it on so thick with Sandhya — her Caribbean-London roots, her cancer-survivor narrative, her tragically aborted love story all seem unfortunately tacked on to a leaner, cleaner book. In fact, there’s something strangely tacked on about the weight loss theme itself — as if the publishers think women these days will only buy a novel if it’s dressed up as self-help. The revelation is that this is a sort of self-help book — but what it might help you shed is the weight of the world.

25 August 2013

Film review: Madras Cafe

My review of Madras Cafe is up:

"In the first frames of Shoojit Sircar’s new film Madras Café, we are somewhere in Sri Lanka, where armed men in trucks make their way through a stunning green landscape. They kill a busload of people in cold blood, singling out the last remaining child in a striking act of brutality. Cut to Kasauli, India, in 1993, with the whirr of a helicopter being used to transition between past and present. A man with an unkempt beard wakes with a start from his black-and-white nightmares of those same events, only to hear on television the announcement that the Sri Lankan president has been assassinated. It’s a good, taut beginning, especially for a thriller that will unfold in flashback.

But unfortunately, our hero – for it is John Abraham under that beard – has other plans for the audience. He goes and buys himself a believable half-bottle of rum, arrives drunkenly at Kasauli’s old Anglican church and starts – in time-honoured filmi fashion – to tell his life story to the priest."

Read the full review on the Firstpost site, here.

14 August 2013

Post Facto - Life in pictures: Tales from photo albums old and new

My Sunday Guardian column for this fortnight:

Lately I've been looking at photographs a lot. Some of them are old, and many are new. The old ones are pictures from my grandparents' house in Calcutta, most of them in black and white. You know those large hard-bound albums made up of sheets of thick, dull-black chartpaper, into which the photos are pasted using those stiff gummed triangles referred to a long time ago as photo-corners? Well, anyway, the photos I've been looking at are the ones that somehow escaped being pasted into one of those albums. Or perhaps they're the ones that have, over the last few years, been picked out of many different such albums by my aunt (my grandmother died in 1998; the house is now my aunt's). In any case, they're a mixed-up bunch of pictures, spilling out of some four different envelopes that are beginning to tear at the edges, but more or less ensconced in the large brown folder my aunt has chosen for them.

I spent my first hour with the folder thumbing through the pictures slowly, absorbing the faded edges of the one, the ageing blacks of another. I looked at my aunts and uncles and parents and cousins as they were 30-odd-years ago, versions of them that I had grown up with but blotted out slowly, replacing them with inevitable older ones. I discovered moments in the lives of my grandparents that I had heard about in family stories, but didn't know there were pictures of. And of course, each photograph is a story.

There is the first trip to Kashmir in 1946, my nana and nani framed for the first time as a couple — he looking young and slightly bemused, wearing a sleeveless sweater a little too tight for him, ending at his waist to reveal loose pleated trousers; she attempting a tentative smile, in a collared woollen coat tightly buttoned over her sari. There is nothing in the background that might establish the locale — an electric switchboard, and the fragment of an arch. Only the warm clothes indicate where they might be — my grandparents were married in mid-April, and even if they went a week or a month later, the weather in Kashmir must still have been cool. Nani's too-warm coat speaks of the first-time traveller expecting the worst, but her happily windswept hair and the huge bunches of wildflowers reveal a young Calcuttan gladly surprised by spring in Sonamarg.
At the bottom of this picture, staring frankly out at us is a little boy. My mama: the seven-year-old child of my grandfather's late first wife. My nana was a widower and a nationalist reformer who had vowed that if he married again, it would be a widow: he practiced the widow remarriage he campaigned for so avidly. My nani was a child widow who had managed to return to her parents' home and thence to school. When they married, my uncle was brought back from his grandparental home in Jaipur to live with them. It is a photograph that captures the gauche, idealistic beginning of a life experiment together.

There are other pictures of my grandparents: another one taken in Kashmir looks like it is a few years later, with my nana now gravely filling out a black sherwani. My nani no longer looks young and dishevelled, caught unawares: her new smile is quietly confident, and her sari pallu emerges out of a new coat, draping itself lightly over her head like a scarf. There are freshly-cut flowers in this picture, too, but a tidier, smaller bunch, held dignifiedly at waist-level. Seen alongside the previous picture, everything here signals a transition into mature domesticity.

The pictures in the folder feel like signposts, marking points along my grandparents' journey together, as well as moments of individual achievement for both — a trip to the Acropolis, a meeting with Nehru, a political speech, a commemorative function, a family reunion.
Looking at them got me thinking about how clearly photographs once demarcated experience. The camera was still rare enough that using it involved choosing in advance which moments out of the flow of everyday life were deemed worthy of stillness, of capturing in perpetuity. Of course, that process of decision-making also edited out many things: the serious and the important were usually chosen over the playful, the normal.

Now the camera is so ubiquitous that we take photographs of everything all the time: not just marriages and meetings, children and pets and ourselves on holiday, but restaurant food and meals cooked oneself, shop signs, new flowers in the garden. And then we put them on Facebook.

But no matter how much the context has changed, that desire to reflect experience back onto ourselves is left over from the old idea of photographs as signposts. It's as if the more photos we take, the more eventful our lives will themselves become. But of course, the opposite happens. Pictures lose their value as signposts. They cease to mark eventfulness. Italo Calvino cottoned onto the profound, disturbing irony of it all as far back as 1958. "The line between the reality that is photographed because it seems beautiful to us and the reality that seems beautiful because it has been photographed is very narrow."

Now, as I look through another folder — this time a virtual one — of my own photographs from a summer in Kashmir, I think about Calvino and try to decide which is which. As I bring my many hundreds of images down to a shareable fifty, I arrive at the terrible truth: earlier we edited our lives to take pictures. Now we edit pictures to create our lives.

5 August 2013

Film Review: BA Pass

My review of BA Pass. An edited version of this review is up on Firstpost.

Ajay Bahl’s debut film is a treat. Bahl has taken Mohan Sikka’s spare, salacious short story from the 2009 anthology Delhi Noir and filled out its silences just so, creating a film that somehow fulfills our expectations from noir – shadowy urban spaces, a femme fatale whose allure is tied to a deliberate air of mystery, a doomed male protagonist entwined in an ever-tightening plot – while also taking us beyond them.
The tale of how the orphaned, college-going Mukesh (Shadaab Kamal, making an absolutely stellar debut) is entrapped by sultry older woman Sarika (Shilpa Shukla, brazenly sexual in a deliberately stylised performance) is most certainly noir, but it showcases none of the regular Bollywood pitstops on the urban darkness tour.
There is no lowlife dance bar, no small-time gambling den, no grimy brothel reeking of desperation. Instead it reserves much of its screen-time for seemingly innocuous spaces: the faded ennui of Delhi’s government quarters, their musty drawing rooms and leaky service lanes now filled with an uncanny sense of foreboding. Even when we do enter classic noir terrain – Bahl shot on location in the grimy, neon-lit, cheap tourist hub of Paharganj – that dark, gaping maw of the under-city is not pressed upon us. Instead, Bahl’s film is most effective as a ghoulish rendition of middle class fears of that nightmarish underworld into which a single misstep can catapult the careless — an open sewer, waiting to swallow you up. Almost until the very end, the film works by hinting at the existence of that under-city, growing gradually more sinister, until the middle class home seems to dangle over the precipice, its attempts at wholesomeness crumbling before our eyes.
What makes BA Pass remarkable is that is full of stock characters who could easily have been the stuff of porn – the bored housewife; the neglectful, violent husband; the young man seduced from timidity into addiction – but the dense web it weaves around them is rich and resonant enough to capture our imaginations completely.
Ritesh Shah’s screenplay takes Sikka’s original bare-bones narrative and adds the requisite flesh, rounding out characters and situations to fullest potential. Mukesh’s suspicious, penny-pinching aunt Pammi Buaji (beautifully underplayed by Geeta Agarwal Sharma), for instance, acquires a makkhan-demanding, sly son (Amit Sharma) who grudges his poor cousin every meal he eats and is quick to cotton on to a locked drawer. His helpless younger sisters transition from the relative safety of their grandfather’s house to the menacing half-light of a girls’ ‘home’, where they are left to the wheedling mercies of a corrupt female warden. The character of Sarika’s husband (the always consummate Rajesh Sharma) transforms from “Mr Khanna” to the far more resonant “Khannaji”: from merely angry cuckold who “will make trouble” to a senior official who has real power over Pammi’s husband’s job.
Shah and Bahl also supplement the original story with new twists: one that provides a nice little cameo for Deepti Naval, another that conjures up the horrors of the Delhi streets — prefaced with a remark of devastating irony by a hijra: “Mard ko bhi dard hota hai”.
The dialogue, in fact, is near-perfect. Sikka’s original English lines acquire richness in Ritesh Shah’s precise Delhi Hindi — “Ghane hain. Ladkiyon jaise. Theek se comb kiya karo, nahi toh katwa lo” contains a quiet taunt to Mukesh’s masculinity that rings louder in Hindi. The senile Beeji sounds much more convincing warning Mukesh off her daughter-in-law in Punjabi Hindi than she did in English – daayan just rolls more easily off the tongue than “demon’s daughter”. Mukesh’s sole friend, the cemetery caretaker Johnny (played by the always dependable Dibyendu Bhattacharya) gets a whole bunch of new one-liners – some he delivers in annoyingly mannered fashion, but others seem so terrifyingly apposite that one wants to adopt them for life: “Dopeher mein sona hai kismat pe rona”.
Sarika’s stagey sexuality may seem excessive to some, but it seemed to me exactly right for a woman self-consciously playing a part. Sarika is the quintessential femme fatale – all Chinese silk robes and many coloured bras, she leavens the film’s fatalistic mood with provocative banter in classic noir fashion. Bahl even has her first appear smoking a cigarette. Her treatment of Mukesh is meant to leave him – and us – in no doubt about who’s in control. And yet the film consistently underlines Sarika’s own sense of trappedness. “Pati hai tu mera jo bahane se naraazgi dikhaungi?” she sneers at the younger man, that single line managing to convey that she would have to use excuses with her husband. Even the cigarette so nonchalantly snuffed out is a performance only for Mukesh's eyes – she can smoke as stylishly as she likes in the secrecy of Pammi's bathroom, but not in the drawing room where the railway colony ladies are cooing annoyingly at Mukesh over their tea and samosas. Perhaps, in the end, BA Pass’s most singular achievement is its acute grasp of Sarika’s fate – the uncomplicated possibility of vampishness vanishes into a knotted skein of defiance and compulsion.
Paharganj made a glamorous debut in Bombay cinema with Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, but Ajay Bahl – a cinematographer making his directorial debut here – has an eye for the seemingly dissimilar worlds that live cheek-by-jowl in Delhi neighbourhoods like this one. The shadowy blues of train stations, desolate by night, coexist with the tawdry hubbub of the street outside; Johnny’s dank, dark cell of a room is surreally lit by the crimson glow of Paharganj hotel hoardings. The neighbourly banter and gruffly genial landladies who populate a whole recent parade of cinematic homages to Delhi Punjabi life are allowed to make an appearance, but the film successfully conspires to make nothing seem harmless. I will never look again at one of those photocopied ‘Home Tutor’ signs that dot the city’s walls without imagining a backstory for it.
Shadaab Kamal’s pitch-perfect combination of vulnerability and hopeful slyness is put to marvelous use by Bahl. There is the occasional filmic device here that might seem obvious — Mukesh’s chess games with Johnny juxtaposed with the sex games he plays with Sarika – but Bahl keeps it from being heavy-handed, even as he lets his dialogue writer enjoy himself with a throwaway innuendo or two (Saali kanwaari, raand ban gayi haan? Johnny says to Mukesh as his chess prowess grows). The film’s title, too, plays with brittle irony on the image of the eager but naive pupil – stuck in Delhi University’s dead-end khichdi” course, desperate to propel himself out of the tunnel by learning whatever tricks anyone will teach him. When Mukesh is pronounced “First class first”, we know endgame is coming.

4 August 2013

Talking Pictures: a report on graphic storytelling

As graphic storytelling gains momentum in the world of Indian English literature, a slew of indie publishers become the champions of a new visual culture.

First published in Elle India, July 2013.

A page from Blaft's Times New Roman and Countrymen
The Obliterary Journal is a compendium of comics, typography and all sorts of visual pleasures, brought out by Blaft in 2012. It opens with a graphic foreword in which a bunch of symbols declare a war on text. “Obliterate literature!” says one angry pictogram. “Down with novels! Long live comics with publications of remarkable variety. And picture books and graffiti and wacky art!” “Alphabets are stupid!” pronounces another annoyed glyph. “Unless you handpaint them with a lot of style...” 

There couldn’t be a better illustration of the exciting new climate for visual storytelling in Indian English publishing than this mock-serious manifesto. Of course, even such a whimsical call-to-arms recognises that books with “lengthy passages of unadorned text” aren’t going away anytime soon. But more and more publishers are beginning to see that there are other ways to tell stories than just through text. There is a realisation that the visual book can often do things that the purely verbal might find difficult. They can bridge the imagined gulf between children and grown-ups, serious and non-serious, and subvert the common perception of the picture book as necessarily lightweight. Conversely, they can leaven even the most serious subjects with a joie de vivre that can only come from images.

Mainstream publishers like Penguin and Harpercollins have used this medium to bring physicality and dynamism to subjects as varied as 
our gated cities, the Mahabharata and the emergency through writer-illustrators like Sarnath Banerjee, Amruta Patil and Vishwajyoti Ghosh. But it is the smaller, independent publishing houses that are really altering the Indian literary landscape. And they are the ones pushing the image to centrestage with publications of remarkable variety. 

Manta Ray (MaRa)

The publishing collective’s self-proclaimed goal is to move away from escapist fantasy and superheroes to tell real stories about young people in India – their target readership. Their first book Hush (2010) told a tale of child sexual abuse in beautifully hand-drawn black-and- white sketched panels. Stark as its subject was, Hush was also striking for sticking absolutely to the suggestion of its title: it used no words. “I didn’t think I had the right to express what the girl is going through. I didn’t want to put words in her mouth,” says Prateek Thomas, one of MaRa’s founders, who wrote the detailed script on which the book is based. “Also, as a writer, I avoid declamation, exposition. I try to keep brevity. I like the art to do the talking.” Their more recent publications – an anthology of four stories called Mixtape and Twelve, a series of 12 character-driven narratives united only by the theme of choice – don’t steer as completely clear of words. But what they do share is Hush’s distinctive quality of not spelling out everything. That puzzle-like effect is deliberate, says Thomas: “not to make it hard on the reader, but to make you pick the book up again... to see things you didn’t see the first time.”


A page from Blaft's Kumari Loves a Monster

For this publisher, the visual is often an end in itself. From tear-out ‘postcard books’ that reproduce Hindi pulp fiction covers (Heroes, Goondas, Vamps and Good Girls [2009]) or juxtapose contemporary newspaper classifieds with retro images from Hindi cinema and Raja Ravi Varma (Times New Roman and Countrymen [2009]), to the tongue-in- cheek, hard-to-explain subversive madness of Kumari Loves a Monster (2010), Blaft revels in the goofy, kitschy, off-the-wall worlds of Indian art. As Blaft founder Rakesh Khanna says, this is art that cannot be packaged either as “tourist coffee-table book [or in] a white cube gallery with wine and cheese”. Their devotion to typography and pulp cover art can sometimes junk narrative preoccupations in favour of a celebratory visual anthropology. 

Tara Books

The cover of I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail
A love of Indian visual traditions is also enshrined in the work of Tara Books, whose originary question when they started out in 1998 was, “Can different visual cultures survive in a rapidly homogenising world?” Since then, they have blazed a trail, working with indigenous artists from Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Bengal. They adapt artisanal traditions of bookmaking – handmade paper manufacturers, silkscreen printers and hand binders – to produce handmade books on an astounding scale. Tara’s innovative design practice has created playful, stunning books. 

Whether it’s turning the vertical Patua scroll into a horizontal accordion book (The Enduring Ark [2013]), adapting Patua imagery into a Western-style panelled graphic narrative (Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana [2011]), or even matching up the marvellous micros and macros of Gond artist Ram Singh Urveti’s imagination with a 17th- century English trick poem (I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail [2012]) – Tara Books fuse the contemporary with the traditional. Their books travel to the US, the UK, Brazil and Mexico via handmade book collectives and children’s book publishers, reversing the usual flow of visual communication from west to east. “What we take from our immediate visual context, it goes all over the world,” says V Geetha, editorial director at Tara.


A page from Bhimayana
Also working with traditional Indian artists is Navayana. Its hard-hitting work on caste and marginalisation includes two visual books – A Gardener in the Wasteland (2011)a cheeky, unstintingly graphic interpretation of Jotiba Phule’s Gulamgiri, and Bhimayana (2011), in which Gond artists Durgabai and Subhash Vyam recreated experiences of untouchability from Bhimrao Ambedkar’s life. The ecology of Gond art is filtered through the individual readings of the Vyams and their textual collaborators, Srividya Natarajan and Navayana founder, S Anand, to create a work that is unique and often profound. Traditional digna floor patterns are used as page dividers instead of panels, the thirsty young Bhim is imagined as a fish, and when Ambedkar finds himself homeless and takes shelter in a park, he becomes the park.

Did you believe that reading takes time, and pictures can be looked at in a jiffy? But images can be more multifarious than text, unfurling new meanings with each reading. “You can spend two minutes with each panel in Bhimayana, or two hours. Or two days,” says Anand.

While one finger constantly hovers on the page down button, these are books that can make us hit pause. The picture speaks, and we cannot help but listen.