Monday, October 26, 2009

Book | A Thousand Years of Good Prayers - 3

The more you get, the more you are left wanting. Such is her art. Such is her power. An enchantress, words her weapon.

What started off as livid descriptions of old Chinese people, is now slowly turning out to be this motley collection of people and relationships. Actually, come to think of it, it is more about people than relationships. It seems to be a concentrated effort to concentrate on people, than the relationships they share. And therein lies the beauty. The next two stories Love in the Marketplace (Story.5) and Son (Story.6) are both about a mother and her child, a girl who has lost her first love in the former and a son who is gay in the latter. In either of the stories, Yiyun spends words generously in establishing characters and people. Their thought process is exposed. Their words are told. Their persona is defined through their actions. And the mothers in their own ways, in both the stories are searching for a child lost in the body that shares space with them. Yiyun's central characters are prominent, either by their strength or weakness, dominance or vulnerability. But every character changes. It is either an incident, or an action by another person. But they change, leaving us wondering about the strength and self-belief portrayed till that point.

In Love in a Marketplace, the protag, Sansan, has lost her love, and it is her own doing. She is unapologetic about it. Doesn't regret it. She has accepted it and now, her mother wants her to reverse her emotions. Ma asks Sansan to go back to Tu (her lost love who married her best friend, Min, on her insistence) because she has waited for her. Ma assumes Sansan has waited for Tu, because in the 10 years since Tu and Min went to America, she hasn't married or met another man. Tu has 'had her' and Sansan would marry only him, Ma assumes. Sansan insists on her 'cleanliness' and has promised herself never to go back to Tu.

"Why do you want to be the best egg seller in the world, ma?"
"I tell the people I sell the best eggs, I have to keep my promise."
"Nobody cares ma, you are keeping a promise that only matters to you. I have my promise to keep", she asserts again.

A promise is a promise, a vow remains a vow she reminisces capturing the essence of the movie Casablanca - which has defined life for her. And then, in a moment of insanity she meets her match, right there at the marketplace. She meets a person who keeps his promise, and she gives him a cut from shoulder to elbow - just as he promised.

The next story 'Son' on the other hand, is about a son who is gay and works in America. He comes, only to spend some time with his mother and they disagree right from the time they leave the airport. Yiyun deviates from her usual style. All character description is done through dialogues. In her earlier stories, her characters reveal themselves in their thoughts and dreams. Not in dialogue. So, here the narration transforms to a movie. We hear constant discussions, arguments and the son talks in punch lines.

"... What I am saying is many things are circulated and recycled. Language is one of them. Faith is another. They are like bills in our wallet. You can buy things with them, but they themselves hold no meaning"

He says, pointing out to Ma's converted faith from communism to church. Talking about either at the time of the other was blasphemous. Ma is hurt - but as soon as they reach home she forgives. No, forgets. Ma has to accept her son for what he is. The son is living an underground life. A life of anonymous identities on the internet. And then she takes him to the church. An incident involving two young beggars changes the son's outlook. He shares his little secret with his Ma. She accepts him for what he is and assures that

'God loves you for what you are, not for what others expect you to be'

He wants to make a joke on her god, but his eyes meet her eyes that are so loving and hopeful. He turns his eyes away.

PS: More on A Thousand Years of Good Prayers here: Part 1, Part 2


I am back in Hyderabad. I have mixed emotions about this place. But this post ain’t about that. There was some problem with my desk phone, and hence my network as the two are connected. So, I called for help to the local network support team at 9:40 am and finally got a response at 11:10. But this post ain’t about that neither. This help was in the form of a newly joined feller who came to me with a Vendor tag. I asked him why he isn’t wearing a temporary ID card, to which he replied he would be getting one today; his 7th day in the organization. And as you guessed, this post ain’t about this incident either. So, I went with the network support guy and was waiting outside the network support room in for about 15 minutes where he was animatedly discussing something with an adapter in his hand.

And I was just outside the room, staring at a poster from a Technology group which I did not know existed in my organization ...

It was an advertisement of MS Office Communicator 2007 (and this is 2009!). In huge letters, the poster read Instant! That caught my attention in an instant alright. So, close your eyes and what comes to mind with the word instant?

Noodles? Coffee?

Ok. Good. Same here. So, they have these photos of instant noodles and a dip-tea (subs. to coffee). And the caption below says something to the effect of ‘Faster than you can make tea or noodles. Redefining Instant.’ It sort of tickled me. I mean, I understand that designing a poster for advertisement is painful. And also that most bad ads are a result of stringent deadlines, and not bad designers as is popularly believed. But, I deviate.

So, how much time do you take to make instant noodles. Maggi claims 2 mins - but every time I have tried I have spent a least of 5 minutes. The cup noodles, whose picture was displayed on the poster, also takes about 2 mins and 40 secs, if you are not too mindful of having it in a saucy condition. So, does the poster claim that if I use MS Office Communicator 2007 (in 2009) I can ping a person sitting across the room in less than 2 mins and 40 secs? Is that what Instant supposed to mean? Redefined and all that? No, I mean. We are talking electrons here and all those electronic signals that travel at crazy, zany speeds nearing the velocity of light. I could mail a person half way across this globe and get an out of office in less than 15 seconds (depending on the auto-send receive settings, of course). I mean, c’mon yaar.

Coming to the dip tea (not Dipti), the fastest I have seen a chai-wallah make dip tea is about 35 seconds. And the tea doesn’t taste good, if you know what I mean.

I mean, what is the poster trying to advertise - that I can ping a person and before he receives it, rush to the vending machine and get myself a cup of tea? Or cup noodles on a really bad day? If Microsoft were to see the ad and interpret as crazily as I have, they would be boiling. Boiling enough to make that cup noodle ready withing a second. And then all would make sense.

Anyway. No offense, of course. This is what happens if we have such posters in an IT company, especially when there are troubled souls standing outside network support rooms.

It wasn't me...

… seems to be world’s favorite game. Not literally, but in spirit everyone’s pointing to everyone else but themselves.

First Arundhati says that the War against the Maoist is a corporate doing, then Indian intel says that LTTE is supporting Maoists and then some guy in Pakistan says India is funding Talibs in Pakistan.

And it’s everywhere, even when Thane’s bridge was to be fixed people were sending each other letters (not even e-mails). At least 2 lives could have been saved. But such is life. And death.

No, I mean what’s going on? Why this blame game? Sometimes I just feel like the whole of mankind needs a restart. You know the good ol’ Ctrl+Alt+Del . I knew Microsoft had the solution to every problem in the world. They are the panacea, not Google. Or Apple.

Hail Windows.

Ok. Whatever.

Book | A Thousand Years of Good Prayers – 2

The more you read Yiyun the more she entrances you into her world of little Chinese people. I am just only done with the next 2 stories (3&4) in her book; Immortality (Story.3) and The Princess of Nebraska (Story.4). If the first 2 stories Extra (Story.1) and After a Life (Story.2) capture the silent lives of the old, the succeeding two stories venture out further.

Immortality tries to deal with many things – all in one sway. Here too, a changing China is in the grind of things. And amidst this grind, we are shown only this one unfortunate son who resembles the dictator. The story starts with the legends of the Great Papa (eunuchs) during imperial times and jump cuts into a small town in modern day China. It is from here on that Yiyun traces the life of this unfortunate son. His life is juxtaposed with the rise, dominance and fall of a communist country; only the small town doesn’t want to let go. For all the guilt and repression that they carry of being fooled by the dictator, they do not want to loosen their grip on their legacy – the unfortunate son who resembled the dictator. Yiyun paints all this in a single stroke of her brush, lifting only to weave the imperial past to the transient present.

Like in Extra, where an old lady finds an unlikely friend in a little boy and almost makes us relive her youth by play of words and phrases; in The Princess of Nebraska a girl (Sasha) is pregnant from an homosexual (gay, Yang). So, from the elderly in the first two stories, to almost an uncannily sketchy biography in Immortality – Yiyun takes us to the world of Chinese youth oppressed by the conservatism in China. The lives and emotions of 3 people (2 homosexual men and a straight woman) lay bare in front of us. Yang, ironically named, has played a woman in his School Opera all his life. They even had a feminine name for him. Yiyun, as a passing comment, has Yang mention about girls

“We didn’t talk. They played handmaids and nannies, background roles.”

And Sasha reaffirms asking if Yang played the princess. Not only are we told about Yang and his operatic history, but the conservative practice of not having the girls play prominent public roles is being subtly underlined. And in the same stroke she presents Yang, the name representing the essence of male – opposite of Yin, as a boy who is now in a seeming disadvantage due to his own sexual preferences. This storyline is interwoven in the narrative which is actually set in America, where Sasha is waiting to have an abortion done with the help of Boshen, Yang’s lover back in China! Yiyun uses characters as devices to elucidate the plot. We end up relating with the people – all the three leads, imperfect in their own ways, and as if to ascertain human nature, we end up sympathizing with Sasha – the one who is having a baby inside and awaiting an abortion, the one with all the troubles in the world.
And the story ends with a flourish, with an absolute beauty of a line that reads:

“Being a mother must be the saddest yet the most hopeful thing in the world, falling into a love that, once started, never ends”

More as I read on…

PS: More on Yiyun | A Thousand Years of Good Prayers: Part 1

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Chetan Bhagat | What's he got that I ain't got?

I enter Crossword and am greeted by a mountain, and I am not joking, of red colored books stacked right at the entrance. Bang in the middle. I am wondering, who is this John Grisham who has launched a book, ‘cause I swear Rainmaker is the only other book I have seen stacked this way; and that too in a seconds only shop. And then on closer inspection, my wonderment is relieved – of course; it had to be him – Chetan Bhagat. Wonderment didn’t cease yet, one more made its way through: how come there was no hype about his new book?

Not that I am a fan, but this dude deserves a mention; don’t you think? While he is not Chef de Cuisine for connoisseurs with the literary buds he is certainly more than the average Commis when it comes to dishing out desi dishes to suit the masses; and pleasingly affordable at that. I mean, a McDonald’s a McDonald – but ask any Bombay-ite worth his salt and he would still prefer the vada-pav worth Rs. 5 than hog on to the more elite, high-soc and hygienic McVeggie for Rs. 22. Now, Chetan Bhagat hasn’t a repertoire that would make Bernard Shaw tremble in his grave, but he has sold probably more copies than all other non-award winning Indian authors put together – just like the roadside vada pav stall who sells thousands of vada pavs every day as compared to the feeble hundreds sold by McDonalds.

So, what is it that makes him sell, while the other Indian authors at best get a shelf space in Crosswords’ Best Sellers. He hasn’t the wit of a PG Wodehouse, not the zaniness of Douglas Adams, he isn’t half as gripping as Agatha Christie nor a master of thrillers like Robin Cook. He doesn’t even have the ability to write a page turner like Sidney Sheldon or John Grisham. Neither does he have the imagination of Tolkien nor the profundity of Rand. He is, at best, an average Joe when it comes to writing a novel. He was (is?) an investment banker in Wall Street, New York for heaven’s sake which would ideally take him as far away as writing as Shah Rukh Khan is from method acting. But he strikes gold. That is probably what he knows best, striking gold. What he has done is not excelled in writing, but he has excelled in positioning his books. He has got his basics of marketing right where it matters – Target Audience. He doesn’t muddle himself up with thoughts of awards and literary fame. He is modest – he wants to make money. So, he sits down and zeroes in on his audience. Students who have entered junior college, school students who are getting bored of Tinkle and find Hardy Boys too old fashioned, housewives who are yet to pick up a novel of any kind and a hundred other middle class people who find John Grisham’s novels second only to books of law and Jefferey Archer too difficult to follow. Now that he has the audience in mind, he has to price it so that they will buy it. He prices his books at one-half of the rate of any book worth its paperback cover: @ Rs. 95/- a piece. So, he has the audience and the price in place – now for content…

He has four books to his credit: his record breaking debut novel and also easily his best outing Five Point Someone (FPS), the hype of which was so much that the wave carried his next very average One Night @ the Call Center (ON@CC) to the best seller list. His third novel which tried to bring in India’s top 3 items on the ‘Things we are crazy about’ list; Religion, Politics and Cricket, together in one interwoven desi masala ‘The 3 Mistakes of my Life’ (3MML) sold lesser than the previous two – but IMO was much more fun than his ‘One Night..’. His most recent novel – the one that I picked from the mountain mentioned in the opening lines, is titled ‘2 States’ (2S) and is about how cross-state (love) marriages happen in India, IMO the worst book of his lot.

But focus on the topics he deals with – it isn’t individuality: Indians don’t know what that is, it isn’t murder mysteries: we would rather watch an Abbas Mastan movie, it isn’t history: who wants another controversy anyway, and in fact – it isn’t hardcore anything at all. Each of his books is a ‘love story’ ‘cause that is numero uno when it comes to selling entertainment. Right from Yash Chopra to Karan Johar, everyone has used this device with varying backdrops and they have sold movies (and how!) for more than 5 decades. So there is no arguing or denying that fact. Now, adorn a love story with backdrops: these have to be something that the middle class Indian desires every day – a better education (IIT in FPS, IIM in 2S), a job at the call center (ON@CC), a group of friends to hang out with (ON@CC), cricket, religion and politics (3MML) and a cross lingual marriage/ marrying the love of your life (2S again). At the core, there is a love story in each of his books which is painted on a canvas that carries one of the above mentioned backdrops which try to put up a fa├žade so that the book doesn’t go down as yet another love story; now you wouldn’t want that, would you? So, there you are Chetan Bhagat deconstructed, you could write a best seller like you make one of those dishes Sanjeev Kapoor shows you every Sunday on Zee TV, can’t you?

1. Scan the book stores and see which section of the audience has been grossly ignored

2. Price your end product competitively, come what may

3. Write a love story, it maybe your own, your friends’, or even a one you have seen on TV

4. Create a background: choose one from cricket, education, poverty, politics – or to be on the safer side, have a little bit of everything

5. Interweave the love story in such a way that the focus is always on the backdrop – while ensuring that you are having the reader wish that the hero and the heroine get together

6. Tadaaa! You have a bestseller

So, jokes apart. Is it just that? Nope. It is much more. It lies in the narration – simple, uncomplicated and very, very ordinary. None, let me stress, not one of his words would make you go to the dictionary. Not one of his lines would make you read it again. Not one of his paragraphs would make the average reader want to put the book down. It is right there – simple and uncomplicated. You would feel like you are reading a story out of the 6th grade English textbook. But you aren’t – because he is also talking contemporary social issues - today’s issues. He is talking about making love in college dorms, he is talking, with rather political improperness, about Tamil-ians being dark-skinned and Punjabis wanting little more than Hyundai Santros for wedding qualification. He is talking about incorrect politicians in a riot torn Gujarat and ties cricket to religion. He does all this while pretending to be writing a love story. He talks about taboo and also about the taboo. But he checks himself. He doesn’t want controversies. He writes page long disclaimers pretending to be forewords. He doesn’t get too ambitious with his words or content.

He is happy playing a dumbed down writer. He doesn’t want to be in the Booker’s List. He would much rather go stale on the cover page of the book in the book shelves of a million Indian households. He is making a million readers who wouldn’t read, read. He is making housewives read. He peppers his books with his own sensibilities of the socio-economic conditions in India. He might just educate these readers in his own little way. Maybe this is the way he is doing his bit.

And writing not more than what he wants to tell, dancing his way to the banks. The middle-class writer.

This dude, doesn’t he deserve the mention?

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Three Little Movies

Just a random post. No reviews or anything - caught this movie called Freedom Writers today afternoon on HBO (It's not just TV. It's HBO) :P. And, I was reminded of 2 other such movies which I had liked. Both not too popular but within the small circle that has indeed seen the movie, you will find nods of approval.

One such movie is October Sky. Directed by Joe Johnston (Honey, I shrunk the Kids! and Jumanji), this little movie is about Rocket Boys; a bunch of school kids in a mining town determined to make their own rocket. Supported by a really supportive teacher Miss Reily (brilliantly played by Laura Dem), Homer Hickam, who after watching Sputnik vanish 'forever' into space on TV is inspired to build his own rocket. He forms a team, and starts off on his mission to launch his rocket; much against the wishes of his coal-mining father. Some trials and a lot of errors later, the team does launch it's own rocket. Based on a true life story, this is a real hope affirming, smile inducing movie that hopes to restore hope and optimism back to life. Homer and his team, after having erroneously launched their first rocket now have to perfect the craft if they were to enter the national science fair. Needless to say, they do enter it and the film ends well - with white letters on the screen telling us that Homer goes on to become an engineer with NASA.

The other movie is Pay It Forward. Another small movie which boasts of Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt in significant roles. However, the movie is about Trevor McKinney (Haley Osment, of AI fame; son of Arelene, Helen Hunt) - a 12 year old kid, who despite a troubled family has hope in the goodness of the world. So, when his Social Sciences teacher Eugene (Kevin Spacey, looks stuck w/o a taut character sketch) gives the class a project that has the potential to change the world through direct action - Trevor sets himself onto the task. He meets a homeless guy and wants to help him, enroute which he formulates his concept of 'Paying it Forward'. There are 3 rules: (1) It should directly help a person (2) Something the person can otherwise not manage to do (3) You should do it for the person. And then, once done, the person receiving the help is supposed to help 3 others. It is simple. And before we know, we are drawn in by the films goodness. And though not really saddened by the tragic ending, the movie leaves behind a lingering feeling of us having the power of being able to change the world. Or at least some part of it.

The third movie, Freedom Writers, is again a movie which tells us anything is possible.Set in early 90s, in a racism-torn Los Angeles, the story revolves around Ms Erin (Hillary Swank, endearing in her role) who takes on her job as a teacher in a school which has launched an integration program to get students of all races in a class. She realizes on her first day at school that the set of students known as 'unteachables' are indeed so who need to be kept in class by security guards. There is an unfortunate accident which sort of anchors one of the girls in the class as the narrator and centerpiece. Slowly, but surely, Ms Erin earns the trust of all the students. She gives each one of them a copy of 'The Diary of Anne Frank' and encourages each to record their own past of abuses and victimization. The class slowly becomes a closely knit family. Students who barely attended school, now had hopes of graduating from their sophomore year to junior high. As a final year project, Erin has every student convert their diary into a book and calls the project ' The Freedom Writer's Diaries'.

There is nothing exceptional about any of these movies. The direction and acting is just about 'enough' to carry the movie through. The music isn't soaring, the photography isn't gripping. But each of the three are sincere movies, and by words or by action - the sincerity comes through. You feel good at the end of the movie. There is a lightness about the heart and a sense to do good. Not overtly inspirational, but it lingers on.

For quite some time.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Book | A Thousand Years of Good Prayers

Given to me by a friend at 12:45 am after a nice dinner and some home made tea, this book is written by a Chinese author; Yiyun Li. This friend of mine is a fan of unknown little authors writing vague books. This particular one is a collection of 10 short stories, all set in China. I have read just 2 of them and am in love with the book. Focus of both the short stories have been common people in a changing China; and in both cases the protags are elderly people who are adapting themselves to a change from Marxism to Capitalism.

Stories revolve around everyday incidents in the lives of seemingly insignificant people. The narration is simple and doesn't build up to anything. The sweetness lies in the thought of the author - simple and stuff that we can relate to. In one of the stories, this old man finds a friend at the newly opened stock exchange. And to quote from the book,

"But perhaps this was what made old age a second childhood - friendship came out of companionship easily, with less self-interest, fewer social judgments."

That encapsulates today's times with such beauty; finding friends only to enrich your network. Social judgment is seen as an attribute.

Well, I haven't read the whole book to do a full fledged review; just wanted to share this. Will keep sharing such stuff as I go about the book.