Unbearable Heaviness of Being – Life in the New Web

Umberto Eco, that brilliant Italian intellectual who writes medieval whodunnit (or rather whytheeffdidtheydoit) mysteries on weekends, when he is not teaching, or writing papers/books on semiotics, or cultural commentary, or non-fiction books on some obscure subjects, once said in an interview:

I have a secret. Did you know what will happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.

Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming over to my place. You are in an elevator and while you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces. While waiting for your elevator to come up from the first to the third floor, I have already written an article!

Okay, so we’re not exactly Umberto Eco. And even before we begin, we should forget about writing an article while waiting for an elevator, but surely, there is something to take away from those words. Time, the currency that we can’t buy, is precious. But if we use those empty spaces well, maybe, just maybe, we won’t need to buy it. Right?

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Enter web 2.0, and the onslaught of claims on our time. There is facebook with notifications — a friend has commented on your status, another friend has just posted her vacation pics, another intellectual friend has that insightful article from New Yorker maybe; there is Twitter — the latest #hashtag, the news you lived without for all of your life before twitter was born (you didn’t even know about that for a long time), or some mention by someone; there is WhatsApp, with never ending jokes and forwards, telling you you have a hundred unread messages; there is gmail, that long time darling we ditched the moment facebook dazzled us with all the attention; there is tumblr, instagram, quora, foursquare …

Then you have the ever-increasing list of things-to-do in some app, articles to read in Pocket, watch-later list of youtube videos, wants-to-read list in goodreads, nevermind the pinterest boards that are a visual representation of probably-never-to-be-realized-aspirations …

Those interstices that Eco talks about are fast filling up. We’ve given it a nice name: social. Somehow it seems better than to sit in a room, alone. “Go out, do something”, our moms used to say when we did that. Now moms are busy liking the social exploits of their sons and daughters. But I digress (Maybe Nicholas Negroponte  can write “Being Social”, as a followup to his excellent book: Being Digital).

Those interstices …

Some years back, I used to ruminate when I walked or drove or sat waiting for someone to turn up somewhere. Most of that was actually quite banal. Okay, maybe all of it. But then I should be pardoned to think, that somewhere in those thoughts, were the germs of some of the creative writing I did back then, definitely at a rate far surpassing the current, and possibly quality (the non-existent can’t have a quality, so definitely-maybe?).

Now, I have audiobooks with me for such instances. I consume. Yes, probably the world is better off without more mediocre writing. But imagine Eco filling up those interstices with Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, or audiobooks.

Slowly, and surely, many of us are turning into full time consumers of media. When blogs came on the scene, everyone turned producers. For a brief period, the web seemed like turning us into a society of (albeit virtual) prosumers. The mirage was too good to last. Now we consume each other’s vacation photos. And yes, produce those, too. So maybe, fundamentally, nothing’s changed.

Those interstices …

They are filling up. And maybe it’s not such a great thing, after all.

We need those empty spaces.

——

PS: I did write this piece (I don’t know what else to call it?) in an elevator. While it was stuck and jammed. And there was no data signal. Okay, maybe I just dreamed it. Still …

PS2: I don’t know about the revolution, but this will be tweeted. And it will fill up those interstices. For you and me.

Review of Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows

There is something instantly likable about Kamila Shamsie’s characters. Hell, it’s even easy to fall in love with the central characters, like Raheen in Kartography, or Aasmani in Broken Verses (or for that matter Samina). But it’s one thing coming up with such characters, and another to actually weave a story around them that does justice to them, and to paint the canvas of their thoughts and emotions with intricate colors. With Shamsie, though, even that seems to come naturally.

It’s her third book that I have now read, and while the first two were rooted mostly in Pakistan, or more specifically, in the urban Pakistan, Burnt Shadows starts during second world war in Japan, and takes us around the globe, to India, Pakistan, America, and Afghanistan, with the story spanning three generations, and many nationalities.

Undoubtedly, this is her most challenging book, because of the scope of the canvas, and in parts it does seem to be weighed by those challenges. The story moves a little jerkily, unlike the ever smooth Cartography, and slow but sure Broken Verses — especially when the story moves away from India/Pakistan. But plot wise it still works overall. And after seeming like it’s going to drag and disappoint, it picks up again, and even as you’re anticipating this ending or that, Shamsie delivers. And in the hindsight, the most logical ending to this fascinating saga.

At the heart of it, though, is not the story, but relationships, and thoughts. The ideas of nationality, of belonging, of race, and prejudices. Of capacity to forgive, to understand the other, across borders, religions, races.

Going by the body count, it’s saddest of Shamsie’s books I’ve read so far, with death lurking around to take away the characters you’ve finally got to know, and love, but Shamsie does not let the reader or the characters to linger on in those losses, and keeps on moving, although, truly neither gets over them. It’s to the credit of the book, that despite all the sorrow, it’s not melancholic. Well not entirely, anyways.

Looks like, I can never have enough of Shamsie.

Verdict: Loved it. 4/5 stars.

I am Happy, Mr. Superman (a not-quite-review of Bombay Velvet)

In Ayn Rand’s teen favorite book, The Fountainhead, the uncompromising hero Howard Roark is looking at the Enright House, a building he has designed, when a young photographer notices him, or more precisely the look on his face.

[H]e had always wondered why the sensations one felt in dreams were so much more intense than anything one could experience in waking reality–why the horror was so total and the ecstasy so complete–and what was that extra quality which could never be recaptured afterward; the quality of what he felt when he walked down a path through tangled green leaves in a dream, in an air full of expectation, of causeless, utter rapture–and when he awakened he could not explain it, it had been just a path through some woods. He thought of that because he saw that extra quality for the first time in waking existence, he saw it in Roark’s face lifted to the building.

It’s not surprising that I should be reminded of Ayn Rand while talking about Anurag Kashyap’s movie. Yes, Kashyap is no Roark (no one is Roark, is what teens, who idolize Rand realize when they get their taste of the real world — no I don’t say this in a judgmental way, only through the hindsight of experience). But he is as Roarkish as anyone can be, outside the reel life, that is.

To continue the story, for those who haven’t read the book, that photograph of Roark (mentioned in the above quote) makes it to the tabloid years later, when Roark builds an unconventional temple and gets sued by the client for building a non-temple/sacrilege. The photo runs with a caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Yes I repeat, Anurag Kashyap is no Howard Roark. And Bombay Velvet is no Stoddard Temple. It’s not even Aquitania even — a hotel in the novel built by Roark that gets stalled, and known derisively as “unfinished symphony”, till it finally gets built.

But what strikes me about the movie is how the critics received it, going after it lock, stock, and smoking barrel, as if they wouldn’t get another chance. When all they needed to do was to publish a photograph of Anurag Kashyap, with his oblivious-of-the-existence-of-the-world smile with the caption: “Are you happy, Mr. Superman?”

Are you happy, Mr. Superman?

I watched Bombay Velvet on the doomed first weekend. On a Sunday, the theater was nowhere close to filled. I got a ticket despite reaching five minutes before the start. I went in having deliberately not read any review, although I knew it was already panned by the popular critics (yeah, we have such a thing in India).

On the outset, Bombay Velvet is the story of Johnny Balraj, and Rosie. Both grown up used by people, and abused by life in general, but wanting entirely different things. Balraj, who later on takes the name Johnny to suite a new persona lent to him by Kaizad Khambatta (a parsi businessman — with all the connotations of the word in Bombay of then, and even now — played decently by Karan Johar, against my expectations, although his dialog delivery does make you squirm at times), as the owner of a club — a symbol of the Bombay’s aspirations; Jazzy, and coveted (everyone who is worth anything comes here, says a side character of the club) — is basically a hustler, trying to set his own price, has no compunction  about being used. He’s looking to be a big-shot. He’s ready to pay the price for that. Any price. Rosie, a Jazz singer with amazing voice, and a painful past, and present, is a looking for survival, and love. Yes, it’s love at first sight for Balraj, while a cautious and curious one for Rosie, who’s very much used to being used by men. She’s ready to pay that price for being alive. (Spoiler: when Balraj is in danger, Rosie is even ready to leave it all. Love is good enough for her. But Balraj is already mired into his “big-shot” hunt, and his personal scores, to take a heed. Do you know what is outside Bombay, he asks. And answers: India. Starving, naked India. He will take no less than Bombay).

But as their love story moves ahead, at languid place, the real story emerges in the background — the story of the growth/decay of Bombay. The story of reclamation, of greed, or politics, of class. The Bombay of those who owned it, and the Bombay of those who wanted to be among them, the Bombay of Bollywood movies, of CID inspectors, and union leaders, and editors of tabloids, and smugglers, and prostitutes, and politicians, and businessmen cozying up to them, of refugees, and street fighters …

The problem with Bombay Velvet is that it tries to be everything. The dream is too big to be harnessed, too risky to be pulled off. Kashyap should have just named it Bombay Dream, because that’s what it is. It’s not an authentic history, or a period drama, it is not a love story, it is not a gangster movie, it is not a thriller, it is not an art film, and alas, it is not a commercial film, while trying to be all of it. Embellished by amazing cinematography, endearing recreation (albeit too glamorous, one suspects) of the city we all secretly love, and all the technical proficiency you come to expect from a Kashyap movie, that dream is a worthwhile retreat for the 149 odd minutes that it lasts.  For me anyways.

One thing Anurag Kashyap has delivered in every movie (with the exception of The Girl in Yellow Boots, because there was just no scope) is a fantastic, even haunting music, irrespective of the music directors. But the best music score to survive outside the context of his movies is probably Dev D. It’s been a long time since they paired up, and Amit Trivedi doesn’t disappoint. Only the soundtrack is very contextual, and hard to survive by itself. But once you have watched the movie, tracks like Dhadaam Dhadaam really light up, and refuse to go away. The peppy Jata Kahaan Hai Deewane (cover of O.P’s song from CID) picturized flawlessly, keeps making you go back to it. The unconventional Sylvia reminds of the inimitable Usha Uthup. The only non-retro song, Behroopiya is a kind of masterpiece that you expect from Trivedi, but the way it’s shot brings the best of Bollywood love songs tradition to the screen. And then there is Mahobbat Buri Bimari. Three distinctly lovely versions in the official soundtrack. Even the relatively benign Naak Pe Gussa is still very very good. The soundtrack is a labor of love, and I pity Amit Trivedi that its launchpad went up smoke.

The performances are pretty much what one expects from Kashyap movie. Anushka, not known for her acting abilities, is fabulous as the public Rosie — while the private Rosie, restrained and fragile is also played very competitively by her. Ranbir’s Johnny seems effortlessly done, although, it’s obvious a lot of effort has gone in. Kay Kay is somewhat wasted, playing a Bollywood CID caricature of sorts, something he can play sleepwalking. Manish Chowdhary, Siddharth Basu, and Satyadeep Misra are more than competent.

It’s the scale which hurt the movie in the end, because unlike Kashyap’s other ventures that never seem to overwhelm the story with other elements (although present for sure), Bombay Velvet seems to have done the mortal sin of letting the story be flooded by the effects. And yet, what has remained with me the day after and later, is still the story, with all its flaws. And I’m very much ready to forgive Kashyap that sin, for the end product, for me, was still worth savoring. The now infamous Tommy gun sequence included. Give me more  of this any day, over the senseless multi-hundred-crore grossers from the khan-club, or the insipid light-hearted comedies made from Bhagat’s books, or it’s equivalents like Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Kashyap’s still my man.

 

Piku: A Few Random Thoughts

Yes, I’m late to party. And yes I’m going to be a party pooper, although the party is pretty much about poop, so actually I’m not really pooping it, am I?

Yes, coming from a family where dinner table conversations/jokes about everything shit are not just kosher, but even mandatory, I didn’t find much of the pooping humor all that impressive (sic!). But that’s a minor crib. The major I will save for Bhaskor.

From the promos, to the reviews, I had been prepared for a quirky but sweet, even “supportive” father, but all I found was a hypocritical patriarch using the system to the hilt, mouthing feminist ideas to suit his selfish ends. Throughout the film Bhaskor keeps on talking about “low IQ decisions” of women throwing away their careers for a man, while in reality, he is the cause of one having to throw it away (near the end, Piku in an outburst talks about how her mother he made it impossible for her to do anything else), while the other women in his life, Piku, is throwing away chance of intimacy, companionship, and love, just to take care of his motions. Oh, yeah, not e-motions, we’re still in the pre-internet era.

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The trouble with Piku is, it tries to sell us this quirky/garrulous but sweet and different father, even supportive of Piku’s independence (both financial and sexual as he insists, to one possible, even if a long shot, suitor, in the first few minutes), and wanting only the best for her. Really? All I can see him wanting is the best for him, to hell with everything. And this, this worse-than-regressive, this manipulative, demanding, self-centered, pain-in-the-ass character is presented as somehow likeable, even some kind of post-feminist icon because he is ready to accept his daughter’s sexual independence, and criticizes his wife (and other women) — not for being independent, but for not being independent. But really, it’s a charade. Case in point? He wouldn’t even let her drive! Or have a conversation with men, when he’s around. Or have a life.

Yes, it’s a charade.

Initially, it reminds us of the misanthropic, misogynist Melvin Udall from As Good As It Gets, but by then end, there is nothing redeeming about him, not even by a mile, unlike Melvin. The only redeeming thing he does is that he mercifully dies.

That said, the movie is still worth a watch for the performances. Just stop all that non-sense about such a different father. Different doesn’t cut it. He’s still a jerk.

End Note: What’s with Deepika and road trips? Especially with an assortment of grumpy old people? That’s two in a row now. Not to mention dysfunctional families? Not that I’m complaining. She’s doing all the right motions. Err pun entirely not required, but intended.

Friends, Forever

Forever is long time.

Actually I kind of lifted it off from an old Roxette song that never quite fades from my head (“Never is a long time”). But that’s not the point. Nothing about this post is original. Even that is not the point.

I just returned from a trip to Mumbai, meeting a few people after a gap of years. One has been my closest friend for last twenty odd years. I have met him perhaps five times in last fifteen years (although we never stayed more than a few hours of journey away from each other in that time, except for an year). We met for just a few hours every time. I have probably talked to him about twice an year on average for this time. He is not active on FB, or any social media, or chats. We have almost never written a mail to the other. Less said the better about letters. But there was one year, a sort of gap year both of us had for different reason, when we practically met every single day, and let the competitive/busy/purposeful world pass by us, as we sat next to a railroad track for hours, our degrees and our dreams temporarily shelved, as we pondered the nothing, or almost nothing; and shared everything, or almost everything.

The other person is my M-Tech guide, whom I’ve met next to never in the last fifteen years. We never shared anything with each other. No long discussions over long walks (I think he positively hates them), or coffee (he doesn’t drink it), or beer (ditto). No heart to hearts. I had talked to him maybe thrice since I left the institute.

The test of friendship is not longevity. Longevity can be accidental. It can be the result of sustained deception — white deception, if there is such a thing. Call me opinionated, but I think most of the time what we think of as true friendships are successful mutual deceptions.

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The real test of friendship, or real test of friendship, is how it survives the empty spaces. They say that a friend is someone with whom you can be comfortably alone, or together alone. I’d not contest that. Sometimes life affords us the luxury of being around our friends — so much that silence is an option. But a lot of times, it’s how we manage the absence of a friend that underlines a friendship. Of course it has to be mutual. Like mutual deception, only a lot more positive, maybe. Or maybe it’s just mutual laziness, assured that if we make that phone call tomorrow it would be fine, we don’t have to do it today. Day after day.

Maybe it is all that combined. But when I walked into those two homes that day, last week, it was as if those “days after days” really didn’t register on the timeline of those relationships. The empty spaces, if anything, were just redundant punctuation. The semantics of friendship doesn’t heed them. They just are. Waiting for the meaning to be found again, and again.

Begin Again

No it’s not a post about blogging — as has become the habit of the blog writer here –although the title would have been very apt for a post like that. Too perfect, in fact. It’s been dormant (again) for a while.

The post is about this charming movie, a feel-good movie about music, and relationships, flirting with the usual Hollywood fetishes such as redemption, with a generous dosage of cliches and archetypal characters (remember the once-famous, fallen-from grace, turned loser of a mid-aged man, hit rock-bottom, so only way to go is up, or a love-lorn, and believing in authenticity and something for-the-sake-of-it — as only young would —  hence struggling to take the world as it is, romantic at heart girl), and still managing to tell a story of all that your typical Hollywood drama is all about — in a way that would make you want to willfully go along with the characters, because despite being archetypal,  they’re still real, and lovable.

Begin Again, is a story of Gretta (Keira Knightly), a singer/song-writer who comes to New York, tagging along, as she says, with her singer boyfriend who’s just got a deal with a major record label, and Dan (Mark Ruffalo) a now wasted record-label exec with broken family, who come to a stage where he’s about to end it all. Gretta’s boyfriend is sucked into the big bag world of music industry, has an affair, and heartbroken she’s considering moving back to her hometown when her friend makes her sing in front of a small club crowd, one of who is Dan having possibly the worst day of his life. Dan, few drinks too many in his system, listens to Gretta with violins, and drums, etc. added in his head, hearing her music as it could sound, believes he’s found the “voice” again after all these years, offers to pitch for her with his, now ex, records label, with predictable results.

What happens next is pure Hollywood magic, where two struggling souls help each other turn a (rather unpleasant) page in their life, and be connected in the process, not in the romantic sense. The chemistry between the lead actors is lovely. Both really bring their otherwise typical characters to life with contrasting styles, one with grace, the other with cool underplay. The side characters are obviously much less developed, and pretty much are there for the benefit of the rather linear and simple story.

And still, I enjoyed it immensely. The music, the love affair with the city, and delightful on-screen chemistry of the lead actors lift the movie into a dreamy league where you just want to hang around. Be there. And that it’s done with no melodrama, but a rather subdued treatment does play a large part in it. Worth a watch, but not at the cost of the Birdmans of the world. Not by a stretch.

Why Are You So …

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Why are you so offensive?
Why are you so stubborn?
Why are you so angry?
Why are you so emotional?
Why are you so intellectual?
Why are you so restless?
Why are you so sulky?
Why are you so verbal?
Why are you so silent?
Why are you so sarcastic?
Why are you so cynical?
Why are you so trusting?
Why are you so self-satisfied?
Why are you so unconcerned?
Why are you so concerned?

Why are you?

Condescendingly Yours

Language is not just a tool of communication and thoughts. It’s also a record of prevalent attitudes of society. Recently, after years of deliberation, I picked  up Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. The decision seems vindicated, about three fourths into the book, but that’s a different subject than what I had in mind while starting this post (not blog — as rightly condescended (sic) by Atul in his blog-post Mind the gap). The subject is the word condescending itself.

Back to Pride and Prejudice — one of Ms. Austen’s character Mr. Collins repeatedly compliments another character, one  Lady Catherine De Bourgh for her “affability and condescension”. Not many modern speakers of English, will use these two words in the same sentence, except when trying to be ironic, maybe. And yet, Ms. Austen (actually just her character) seems to have been using the word condescend in borderline — if not completely — positive sense. So I decided to go after the other or older meanings of the word.

After all, I’m sure Jane Austen is no Humpty Dumpty saying ‘when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean’

So here is its etymology from: http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/condescend#English

From Middle English condescenden, from Old French condescendre, from Late Latin condescendere (to let one’s self down, stoop, condescend), from Latin com-(together) + descendere (to come down); see descend.

There is one clue, alright. For you really have to believe that some people are above others for them to descend down to their level — for if the former is believed, then the latter would be indeed a noble, and laudable act! So in post-liberal world (yes, the irony is intended, but we’d let it go at that) it’s no wonder that the word has lost its positive connotation. And it’s equally less surprising that in the 19th Century’s class conscious English society, it had a positive connotation indeed.

And while I was looking for these things, I hit upon another post which pretty much talks of the same thing: http://www.grammarphobia.com/blog/2010/05/lady-catherines-condescension.html. Funny thing is, the author says “By its very nature, condescension now implies that the recipient is inferior and is being patronized” — probably not realizing that patronize might well have gone through same fate!

Then again, another thing that strikes me is that Ms. Austen has only Mr. Collins use the word at all, and for a character who is shown to be vein, patronizing and overbearing, and not really respected much by the central character, with whom, we can safely assume, lie the author’s sympathies and sensibilities. So I guess even in early nineteenth society the word and the attitudes had started losing their sheen? I don’t know if Ms. Austen was ahead of her time, or behind, or with the times, but it looks like for a Victorian novel, the book has many modern ethos, even borderline feminist themes. So all in all, usage of one word cannot be made a complete guide to times. What it can do, is to get you thinking about them. That’s half the battle won, right?

Unbidden We Live On

Unbidden we live on
seeking beauty
meaning
belonging
achievement
containtement
happiness
connection
comfort
power
glory

we pick an excuse
and then another,
sometimes
just serendipitously,
sometimes doggedly,
because it seems
impossible
to live on
without one

yet
when we look back
we see
we can go on living
without this, or that,
or all of
this and that, even

and we question
if it was really
unbidden —
the living on