January 2, 2018 § Leave a comment
I hold Tina Fey in extremely high esteem. I think she is intelligent, incredibly funny, very creative, competent, sarcastic and self-deprecating in equal measure, and beautiful in a non-classical yet entirely pleasant way; and she never fails to remind me of a favorite cousin. She is everything one could ask for from a face on TV.
Bossypants is an autobiographical funny book, largely detailing her life growing up as an awkward girl, her initial break in Saturday Night Live, her successful stint at 30 Rock, and her celebrated return to SNL sketches in the guise of Governor Sarah Palin, all interwoven with large patches of angst and advice about parenting, work-life balance, relationships and feminism.
I have to admit, though, that I enjoyed the book as a studio audience would during the recording of an SNL episode. I landed up because I knew Tina was performing, I snickered spontaneously whenever it was expected of me, and I was sorry when it was over. But all along, I knew that the performance was not really meant for me. It was meant for a completely different audience. She was performing for people who understood the entertainment industry and its cast of characters, for awkward girls from Greek origin or other immigrant communities in small town America, for people who went to acting school, for comedians and improv artists, for dedicated fans of Saturday Night Live and/or 30 Rock, for career women racked with the guilt of in-absentia parenting, for mothers of only children, and for women holding their own in largely male-dominated professions. That is not a net cast narrowly, yet while I am positively disposed toward each of these constituencies, I fail to personally check any of the boxes. That said, I came away with more respect for her brand of intelligent humor than I had before, and that was substantial.
When I titled this post ‘A Fey Sense of Humor’, I meant the humor was uniquely and distinctly Tina Fey’s. With the capital F. The word “fey” (I had to look it up) means morbid, vague, unworldly and eccentric. Be assured: there is nothing fey about Tina’s sense of humor. She is as full of life and worldly-wise as anyone I’ve seen in New York, she is crisp as biscotti and clear as vodka; and as for eccentricity, fuggeddaboudit! Whaddaya want? She’s a New Yorker, for crying out aloud: even our tax accountants are eccentric.
December 2, 2017 § 2 Comments
The Art of Bollywood (Rajesh Devraj/ Paul Duncan)
For a lot of people around the world, Bollywood is a metaphor for India itself. It has vast numbers, and compensates for a lack of thematic unity with bold colors, wall-to-wall music, and a confused cocktail of glamour, soul and melodrama. (Both stereotypes are misleading, but that is beside the point).
When I think fondly of Bollywood, I think mostly of its 20th century golden years, not its slightly more sophisticated present avatar. I think of the larger than life film-stars: the mighty Khans, whose names was on every vendor’s lips from China to Peru (when they spot an Indian tourist, that is), the glowering Amitabh Bachchan, the romantic Dev Anand, the self-deprecating Raj Kapoor, the poignant Dilip Kumar, the impossibly beautiful Madhubala, the tragic Meena Kumari, the Madhuri Dixit of my tormented teenage sighs. And then I recall the music – composers who were poets of the highest caliber, music directors who synthesized classical Indian themes with folk tunes, Arabian melodies, classical western pieces, jazz, hip-hop, and rock music, to create the first and most popular experiment in cultural fusion ever. Long before the iPod or the Walkman, people from Jhumri Tilaiya to Irinyalakuda walked around with ears glued to transistor radios out of which crackled the latest hits of Lata, Rafi and Kishore. Much media attention has been focused on the big film-makers too: the Chopras, the Sippys, the Johars, Nasir Hussain, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, whose annual offerings were as eagerly awaited by Indians as the annual monsoon.
When I think of Bollywood I think of the triumph of personality over talent. It isn’t that talent doesn’t exist. It is that personality shouts louder. Observe this poster, for instance.
There’s a lot going on here: at least three main male stars, at least two big villains, a fight, women being harassed, romanced and hugged – every actor instantly recognizable from the image. The producer, music director and composer are prominently named. It is a cult film, the biggest blockbuster of 1977: if you are a Bollywood buff, you can probably recite the dialogues, hum the lyrics, discuss in depth that scene where lightning miraculously restores a blind woman’s sight… so here’s a pop quiz for you.
Who designed this poster?
November 29, 2017 § 2 Comments
(Readers of my blog who aren’t interested in Indian cinema, history and folklore may safely ignore this post and avoid bemusement)
In the legend of Padmavati (to resurrect a dying controversy but move beyond the controversial dream sequence), her husband Ratansen is captured by Allauddin Khilji, who demands Padmavati as ransom for releasing the king. Instead of Padmavati, some brave Rajput soldiers led by the heroes Gora and Badal dress up as Padmavati and her maidens, and are carried into the Khilji camp in veiled palanquins. Once inside, they take the guards by surprise, rescue Ratansen and flee the camp, though a few of them die in the attempt. It’s a very unique story, you’d think, until you hear another story that is startlingly similar, one that supposedly took place 920 years earlier, a story we know purely as legend. It makes you wonder about repeating themes in legend and history, and what they mean.
Once upon a time (the legend goes), there sat on the throne of Magadha a weak king called Ramagupta. His father had left behind a huge empire, but Ramagupta was both insipid and insecure. He married a princess called Dhruvadevi who was reputed to be the most beautiful woman in the land. Yet he felt he wasn’t respected as much as his father had been.
So, Ramagupta decided to pick a fight with the mighty Saka king Rudrasimha III, who ruled on his western borders. His younger brother and his ministers tried to dissuade him, but Ramagupta was adamant and went ahead.
Now the Sakas were brutal and lawless warriors whose domain stretched from the Hindukush mountains to Gujarat. They were kin to the Scythians and the Messegetae nomadic tribes that ranged across Asia from the Caspian Sea to China. They were also at the time, without a doubt, the best horsemen in the world. As the lumbering Magadha army, with the entire royal family in tow, made its ponderous advance, the fleet-footed Saka cavalry whirled around Ramagupta’s troops and encircled his camp quickly. The battle was over before it began.
Rudrasimha sent his terms into the Magadha camp.
He said, “My ancestors and cousins fought Cyrus and Darius, Alexander and the Yellow Horde. Even your father, who was a mighty general, had the good sense to leave us alone. And yet you had the temerity to provoke us to battle.
“We cannot allow this to go unpunished. We need to set an example. We have to kill every man, woman and child in this camp, starting with you, and we will hang your head on a pole at our borders as a warning for puppies like you that play at being soldiers.”
Ramagupta asked for mercy, promising never to make such a mistake again.
Rudrasimha hesitated. The Gangetic plains were too hot and humid for the Sakas. He wanted not territory but security: and security came from fear. He had to humiliate the nervous, stupid man standing in front of him so utterly that no other king would dare violate Saka borders again.
“Your father was a wise man,” said Rudrasimha. “I grieve for him that he had an utter nincompoop for a son. However, for the sake of his memory, I will spare all your lives, on one condition.”
“Accepted,” gasped Ramagupta gratefully. “Tell me the condition.”
“I heard you have married a very beautiful woman,” said Rudrasimha. “She deserves better, just as your father’s throne does. I am told she is in the camp now. Send her to be my wife, and I will let you go.”
When Ramagupta saw that there was no other option except death, he ordered a messenger to tell Dhruvadevi to get ready to go over to the Saka king. His courtiers sat in shocked silence, unable to believe their ears. The messenger returned, and said, “My lord, the Queen refuses.”
“What do you mean she refuses?”blustered the king. “I am her lord and master, and I command her.”
But Dhruvadevi had strode boldly into the room by then.
“You may have no self-respect, but I remain the Queen of Magadha,”she said contemptuously, “and the daughter-in-law of the Lichchavi princess Kumaradevi. What you suggest is an affront to my honour and the honour of these royal houses.”
Ramagupta’s voice turned whiny. He begged her tearfully for his life: she held it in her hands, he said. He wept. She refused to move.
Ramagupta then turned to his younger brother.
“Brother,” he said, “Rudrasimha hasn’t seen Dhruvadevi. He doesn’t know what she looks like. I know you have a lover, who is a common court dancer. I order you to dress her in the queen’s finery, and send her out to the Saka brute. I am your older brother and your king: you cannot disobey my command.”
The younger brother spoke. “It is against my honor to do this, and I will not obey.”
Ramagupta said, “You have to obey! Will you get me killed? Have you not sworn to protect me and the kingdom, you traitor?”
“I HAVE sworn to protect you,” said the brother, thoughtfully,”and this I will do.”
So a single palanquin left the Magadha camp that evening, carried by four bearers, and was allowed into the Saka camp. It was conveyed directly to the tent of Rudrasimha, where the bearers set it down and left the tent.
Rudrasimha asked the lady to come out, but there was no movement from inside. Impatient, he leaned over and poked his face through the palanquin screen to catch a glimpse of the reputed beauty.
They say the silly leer didn’t leave his face even after his head was sliced off its neck.
Ramagupta’s younger brother emerged from the palanquin, drenched in Rudrasimha’s hot blood. With a terrible look on his face, the head of the Saka king in one hand and a sword in the other, he strode out of the Saka camp. The Saka soldiers saw the head, and the face of the man carrying it, and parted like the Yamuna on the night Krishna was born, and didn’t dare challenge him. Soon, the army retreated in confusion.
When he entered Ramagupta’s tent, every eye was rivetted on him.
Ramagupta panicked. “Look what you’ve done now!” he cried in fear. “Now we will definitely get slaughtered by these Saka monsters. How is this protection!”
But the brother walked past him, and dropped the head at the feet of Dhruvadevi, who stopped it rolling with her foot.
“I have avenged you,” said the man, looking her in the face for the first time ever. “The honor of this family is intact.”
“You have indeed avenged me,” she said, a strange look in her eyes. “Yet the honor of this royal house is still defiled.”
“I am now beholden for my life and honor to a man who is not my husband,” she said. “This is an intolerable shame, and I cannot live with it. Kill me immediately with the same sword.”
“This I cannot do,” said the brother.
Something like anger flashed across her face.
“Then as your queen, I order you to kill yourself. You are the source of my shame, and you may not live.”
“This I refuse to do,” he said.
They stood in silence.
“Then,” she said, finally, “there is only one other solution. I am sure the Queen mother agrees.”
The brother turned and looked at his mother, the proud Lichchavi queen Kumaradevi, who was standing stone-faced in the corner.
“The queen is right,” said Kumaradevi. “There is only one other way to remove this stain from this royal family.”
The brother nodded, walked towards her to seek her blessing. On the way, as he passed the bewildered Ramagupta, he buried his still dripping sword into the king’s belly. He was stooping down to touch his mother’s feet when Ramagupta’s body fell with a thud, but he didn’t even look behind.
“Rise, king of Magadha,” said his mother, firmly. The entire court roared in approval.
And thus came to the throne of Magadha the man we know as Chandragupta Vikramaditya, second son of the illustrious Samudragupta, and second husband of the beautiful queen Dhruvadevi, and quite possibly the owner of the biggest empire in India before Allauddin Khilji.
- The Sakas retreated then, but they did come back in force. Chandragupta was more than equal to the situation. Wisely, he had made peace with the powerful Vakatakas to his south before taking the Sakas on. As a result, the Saka backbone was conclusively broken in the north-west, and most of India was under the Gupta-Vakataka alliance. This was good, though India lost a powerful buffer against the Huns, who came in waves in the next few generations and eventually wiped out the Guptas themselves
- While Dhruvadevi, Chandragupta, Ramagupta and Rudrasimha III were undoubtedly historical, the events are entirely legendary. A poet called Vishakhadatta wrote the legend down in a play called Devichandraguptam, only fragments of which are extant today. The play was referenced briefly by Bana Bhatta a few centuries later. The legend went to Sri Lanka, and then on wings of trade to Arabia, where it became known as the story of the brothers Rawwal and Barkamaris. A Persian translation (Mujmal-ut-Tawarikh) from the Arabic is how the story comes down to us. Who knows? Malik Mohammed Jayasi might have read this book, too, before he wrote the Padmavat.
- The theme wasn’t original to this story, either. It contains traces of the Mahabharata story relating to the Virataparva, when the powerful general Keechaka asks Sairandri, who is Draupadi in disguise, to meet him at midnight. Her seniormost husband Yudhisthira is unwilling to help, but Bhima dresses up as a woman and beats Keechaka to pulp. I speculate that at the mythic origins of this theme is the matriarchal custom described in the Golden Bough where the queen of the tribe changed husband frequently. Perhaps it indicates a sacrificial ritual where the new husband dressed up in women’s clothes and killed his predecessor. It is interesting to speculate on how a highly matriarchal legend could have progressively become more and more patriarchal in nature, from firebrand Draupadi through Dhruvadevi, until finally we get the tame and passive Padmavati of medieval times, when women were worshipped for subservient suicide.
November 20, 2017 § 3 Comments
The composition of the Iliad and the Odyssey has generated much scholarly curiosity over the centuries. How could one individual (Homer) have written such long and majestic poems? How could he have used words from different dialects and periods? Why were there inconsistencies and logical errors in the plot? Was Homer the genius whose original spark was refined by others over time, or was he the genius who edited and refined the work of others into a work of brilliance at the end of that line? Which was the original version of the story, the “Ur-Text”? Did people of Homer’s time even know how to write? If not, how could poems of that length be passed on verbatim from generation to generation?
These questions led to much armchair-based pontification until a young American academic, Milman Parry, decided to try something different. In 1935, he arrived in Yugoslavia, armed with an even younger assistant (Albert Lord), and some recording machines. He wished to study first-hand the oral story-telling traditions in the Balkans, understand the fundamental principles of oral tradition – how songs are composed, sung, re-learnt, re-composed and sung again. From these principles he wished to identify the tell-tale signs that oral processes leave on the form and content of epics. Finally, he would survey the text of the Iliad and the Odyssey for those signs. If he found them, he would be able to demonstrate powerfully exactly how they had been composed.
Parry and Lord found illiterate singers in the villages of Bosnia and Serbia, in coffee shops or at social occasions. They would strum on a gusle, or a tambura, and entertain villagers with legendary stories of heroic valor, tempestuous love and battles long ago. They learnt these songs as children learn their mother tongue: not by rote. They began by absorbing acceptable usages, the ‘formulae’ of their profession: meters, techniques for quickening or slowing down the pace, or for evoking every kind of emotion, ways to embellish specific themes. When they heard the stories, they made mental notes of the formulaic options appropriate at each stage.
When it was their turn to retell the story, they would judge (with a shrewd eye on the audience) if they needed to drag out or cut short each part of the tale, or to take a scenic detour exploring a side-character’s back-story. If they needed time to think, they’d employ stock situations, like a listing of all the heroes lined up in an assembly or a battlefield, which they could recite while planning the next bit of narration. Literary aesthetics, the Aristotelian unity of action, wordplay, consistency of characterization…these were not the big concerns. They only sought to tell a story that would transfix their audience and move them in that moment.
October 23, 2017 § 3 Comments
When my marriage was less than a year old, I had this brilliant idea for the funniest gag ever. My wife’s birthday was coming up, and I thought it would be hilarious if I got her a couple of books titled “Men Are from Mars, Women Are From Venus”, and “Mars and Venus Together Forever”, as her birthday gift. “You’re married now, honey,” I remembering quipping. “You’ll need these.” I was mystified when my gift got a cold and distant reception: apparently the joke wasn’t as funny it sounded in my head. She never told me exactly what she thought of the presents, but I gathered that she was expecting something slightly more romantic than self-help books on relationships. Perhaps I needed the books more than she did, but I didn’t read them at the time.
Flash forward twenty years to the present day. I finally got around to reading the first of my abortive attempts at humor: Men Are from Mars. I’m not afraid to admit it. I boldly went where no man – or woman – need ever go again.
It’s utter rubbish.
It isn’t that John Gray gets everything wrong. Some of the advice is even sane, for instance, where he tells his readers not to get upset when their partner points out a mistake or omission, or when he says nobody is ever upset for the reason they think. His basic thesis, based on which he has whipped up this little book (and possibly his entire career), isn’t to be sneezed at either:
We mistakenly assume that if our partners love us, they will react and behave in certain ways – the ways we react and behave when we love someone
In other words, we often do unto others as we would they do unto us, but sometimes they’d rather be done unto in a different way than we would they do. Unto us, I mean. If they’d been the doers and we’d been done unto. Instead of the other way around.
It’s as simple as that!
Yet, out of this patently self-evident statement, Gray derives an elaborate, poorly researched, and profoundly erroneous theory that ALL men behave and think in one way, and ALL women behave in a totally different way, and this, he says, is the reason men and women find it hard to understand each other. Just how different? It’s as if, we are told, all men came from a strong, cool, masculine planet like Mars, while all women hailed from a sizzling hot feminine planet like Venus, and they pretty much fell in love with the first individual of the other species that they set eyes on.
How exactly are they different? We are assured that unlike the goal-oriented men, women are relationship-oriented and “more concerned with expressing their goodness, love, and caring.” For instance, men who go to a restaurant with a male buddy do so to eat food; the women at the next table, on the other hand, are there “to nurture a relationship”. Men come home from work and want to unwind in silence; women want to yak annoyingly about how their day went. Men have a win/lose attitude: they need to win, but they don’t care who loses. Women have a win/lose attitude too: they don’t mind losing as long as their men can win. And on it goes.
But fear not: Gray has you covered. His “list of 101 little ways a man can keep his partner’s love tank full” include such gems as “#1: Upon returning home, find her first before doing anything else, and give her a hug”, “#24: Give her four hugs a day”, and my personal favorite, “#25: Call her from work to ask how she is or to share something exciting or to tell her ‘I love you’.”
By the time I got to Chapter Six (“Men Are Like Rubber Bands”), this particular rubber band was ready to SNAP.
You see, I work from home, while my wife is a busy executive who works really hard in a city office so that she can make it back home at a reasonable hour. Since she’s the one in and out of meetings all day, she calls me when she has a few minutes to spare: usually to discuss weekend plans or the kid’s play dates. She comes home to me. It used to be the other way around, and when that changed, our behavior changed in subtle ways and remained the same in other subtle ways. We both enjoy hugs, and always did: sometimes more than four a day. All this works for us, and I’m sure we’re not the only ones.
Look: there is no “All Men are This”, or “All Women are That” any more than there is an “All Indians are Socially Awkward Tech Support Nerds“: but that’s really OK, because in order to make a relationship work, you don’t need to understand what all members of the opposite sex are like: you need to learn (and VERY quickly) what that ONE person is like that you want a relationship with.
There is some irony in a man named Gray seeing people in black and white categories, and in none of the shades in between. Many men are relationship-oriented, some women don’t like to talk about their workday, many women like to solve problems, some men are great listeners. What a person is like depends on a number of factors: how they were brought up, where they live, who their role models and influences are, how they are treated at work, how well they are paid, and so on. Their gender is probably a factor, but nowhere close to being the only one. When you overlay the gender-based differences with all the other factors, you will find that most men are more Venusian than Gray gives them credit for, while most women are more Martian than he believes. In fact, I suspect most people are somewhere in between these two stereotypes.
Somewhere between Mars and Venus? Why, we might even be on Earth. Who’d have thought, huh.
October 7, 2017 § 5 Comments
As even the most desultory browser of these pages must have deduced by now, I don’t read much fiction. The last book of non-non-fiction that I read was a collection of James Thurber’s humorous pieces, back in June 2016. The last NOVEL I read was in January 2016, when I read James Morier’s early 19th century Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan. For my most recent book of fiction by an Indian writer, I’d have to go back over five years, to May 2012: which was when I read a translation of Kalidasa’s Avignana Sakuntalam. Why do I read so few books of fiction? Or books by Indian authors? Or books written in the 21st century? No particular reason, really: there was always something else that I wanted to read more urgently.
Whichever way you look at it, Othappu, a contemporary novel translated from its original Malayalam, is a pretty big departure from the norm for me. I found it very readable: the book is mercifully short, the story simple, the characters very credible. But while I can understand the central crisis in the story at an intellectual level, it doesn’t hit me hard at an emotional level. But that’s because of who I am, or more precisely, of what I am not.
Othappu is set in Kerala, the southern Indian state affectionately referred to by its natives as God’s Own Country, perhaps in acknowledgment of the sheer diversity of gods worshipped in the state. Large populations of Hindus, Muslims and Christians manage to live there in harmony (or in as close to harmony as it is possible for Indians to live). While Christians are the smallest of the three groups, there are over 6 million of them, and Kerala is home to more Christians than any other state in India. Christianity in Kerala accommodates several denominations, but chiefly, there are the Syrian Christians and the Catholics. The protagonists of the book, Sister Margalitha and Father Roy Francis Karikkan, are Catholics.
Margalitha comes from a wealthy and influential family: her father was a pillar of the community; her brother is the mayor. It is appropriate for such a leading family to send a daughter to the convent; Margalitha becoming a nun is a family act, a way of giving thanks, or giving back to society. It enhances the prestige of the family. Roy Francis, on the other hand, comes from a much humbler background: his father is a day laborer. About the only escape Roy has from a life of drudgery is to join the church. He works scrupulously and tirelessly to save his own soul and those of the community he services; the day he is promoted to the position of a vicar is the proudest one of his father’s life, and the making of his family.
The horror, the stigma, the scandal, the utter and irredeemable humiliation felt by their families, when Sister Margalitha renounces her vows and Father Roy Francis takes off his cassock, constitute the central crisis I referred to earlier: the one that I can possibly understand, but struggle to feel. As Paul Zacharia says in his commentary on the book, to feel its full emotional impact, I should have to be brought up as a believer in one of the Abrahamic religions, ideally in a devout Catholic family. To me, celibacy is a personal thing, between an individual and their god if they believed in one. Raised in India, I instinctively understand the deep social respect for renunciation, but its flip side, the renunciation of renunciation, means nothing more to me than a return to social life. One just becomes “normal” again, like everyone else, one comes back to society.
Yet, at that precise point, Catholic society ostracizes Margalitha. Her family disowns and shuns her as soon as she leaves the convent, well before her romantic relationship with Roy Francis begins. Her resultant pregnancy is a scarcely noticed lesser crime that no-one is particularly concerned about. Then her vacillating lover deserts her when she is pregnant and destitute – and that I do find shocking – but nobody else in the book seems to, including Margalitha herself. All this I find hard to comprehend, but perhaps, as Zachariah also says, it is as much to do with Catholicism as with the fact that female celibates are held to higher standards than male ones.
Sarah Joseph zooms back and forth between a very intimate close-up of the personal crisis of two individuals, its effect on their families, and how the Christian society beyond relates and reacts to it. There is the worldly, calculating Bishop, the atheistic rationalist, the church-approved faith healer, the heretical lady preacher, the Franciscan recluse with a gun, the ‘low-caste Christian’ who can never be a priest, the Syrian Christian priest with a Catholic wife, and others. Each of them has his or her own concept of faith, of the Church, of responsibilities to family and society, of love and of God. And yet, the sum of all these contradictory crises and concepts of faith, is one society, and one religion, in one small part of the world.
Sarah Joseph is brave. She has written a book that is frankly critical of organized religion, of social standards and morals, while living in that society. As a Catholic woman from a conservative background, she has written of a nun’s exploration of her own sexuality and faith. This cannot have been easy, or without risk of a social backlash of some sort, even if it isn’t as drastic as the one her heroine received. Yet I am not aware of any recriminations or adverse repercussions to her. This speaks well of the Christian community in Kerala. There are plenty of communities I know that would be far less forgiving of a frank appraisal of their morals and religious practices, even from within.
September 17, 2017 § 4 Comments
I was on vacation in China earlier this summer. It was a unique experience. Not only did Mandarin have no words in common with any of the languages I understood, even my gestures met with blank incomprehension. I also found the Chinese formal, regimented and inscrutable. I’ve been to 30 countries around the world, but China was… different.
And yet, once I looked closer, I found Chinese culture very familiar, in some unexpected ways. Their family values seemed identical to the ones I was raised with. The crowded market in Xi’an looked, smelt and felt like crowded markets anywhere. As our boat wound its way around the Three Gorges, the monotony of mist-wrapped cliffs was broken ever so often by the spires of countless tiny pagodas, just as boat rides through Indian rivers are punctuated by the relentless pealing of temple bells.
I visited some of these pagodas. Some were shrines to local deities: to river or mountain gods, for example. I wondered next about the mythology of these people: would every rock and temple have a legend attached to it, as it does in India? How I wished I could communicate with the locals, to find out! I found a few books of Chinese legends, but the English was terrible, and the stories sounded censored and artificial.
It was then that I discovered this wonderful book, in the boat’s tiny ‘library’.
Victoria Cass is an expert in Chinese culture – you can read all about her here. Her book is scholarly and researched, yet playful. It has literary merit, yet the magnificent photographs on every other page make it a great coffee table book too. It shrewdly and satisfactorily fills a void, by introducing English speakers to Chinese legends in smooth, idiomatic prose, while demonstrating a nuanced understanding of Chinese culture, history and geography.