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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

My daughter's new blog

I am happier than I can say to announce that I have very recently succeeded in persuading my daughter, who is now thirteen and a half, to start up a blog of her own. It is linked on my blogroll (The Bootle Bum Trinket).

At just about her age, something I wrote first saw the light of day in a Bangla literary little magazine called Chetanik. It was a little essay called Shohorer Surjasto (Sunset in the City). My father had sent it to the editor, a friend of his, for publication in case he liked it. The erudite elderly gentleman wrote back very courteously, saying it was quite obvious that it was my father who had actually written it (‘it is not just the grasp of language but the maturity born of long and well-digested experience evident in this essay that makes it highly unlikely that a 13-year old could write it’, he wrote – I am translating verbatim, with his letter in front of me). My father shot back a letter, insisting that it was my work, and requesting him to come over and look into my school essays to put his doubts at rest, and the man actually sent someone – his nephew it was, I think – to do just that! Afterwards he not only published my essay but appended the entire correspondence with my dad, and added a most handsome apology and a blessing for me.

My parents rarely talked about what they would like me to do as a career, but I remember my mother saying nothing would please her more than to see me acquire a writer’s reputation. It took me many years after that to find out – the very hard way – that no one could make a living out of writing alone in India, and even to become a well established writer (albeit still a poor man, as most of our writers are, unless they are doing something lucrative on the side), one has to wear out one’s shoes and grovel before frequently incompetent editors with swollen egos and grease palms and cultivate ‘contacts’ and see one’s work being hijacked by others and other grossly demeaning stuff like that… happily, I lost the rather childish thrill that comes from seeing my name in print after getting several hundred bylines in a national daily when I was still a boy. So I decided that I would never take up writing for a living, but do it for personal pleasure alone. And I have stuck to that resolution all along. God has been kind in ensuring that I found other ways to make a living, while keeping the flame alive.

Now the wheel has turned full circle. My daughter started picking up language skills very early on, and began to experiment with writing when she was a mere child. Today, she is poised on the threshold of what I hope would be a long and happy adventure. And, thanks to modern-day tools like the internet and blogger, she never has to see an editor in her life to see her work being published and read by hundreds or even thousands of people around the globe. My blessings go with her – that she may be luckier than I was, but unfortunately, it is already evident (from her experience in school) that the family curse goes with her too: whenever she writes something good (she has had little things published in newspapers already), not only her friends and their parents but her teachers say ‘Oh, her father writes for her!’ She will have to cope with that as best as she can.

I hope some of my most ardent readers will visit her blog here and give her a few words of encouragement, constructive criticism, and tips on what to write about next. Just remember, though, what you were like at her age!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Sahibs to rescue our cinema too?

There was a news item in today’s edition of The Telegraph (top of p.4 – I couldn’t find the link on the net: if someone discovers it by chance, please send it to me) titled ‘Hey, hero, Brando’s school is coming to Bollywood’. The gist of the story was this: mainstream Hindi cinema has always been high on melodrama, burlesque, slapstick and suchlike stuff (a package they call ‘nautanki’ in the vernacular) and low on acting; so Bollywood stars have specialized and taken pride in being good at dancing, mock-fighting, hyperemoting, in-your-face tomfoolery, lip-synching with background music and so forth, and have never bothered much about acting proper. But now those days may be over: in response to a supposed change (‘maturation’?) in audience tastes, they will soon have to learn what real acting means and how it is done. To help them along, the Stella Adler Studio of Acting (founded in New York, 1949) is setting up shop in Mumbai soon. This famous school supposedly brought about a sea change in Hollywood following the lead given by the ‘immersive, psychological acting technique’ based on the work of Konstantin Stanislavsky, actor and sometime director of the Moscow Arts School. The school claims to have Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, besides other stellar Hollywood actors, among its alumni.

Now that might be welcome news to some, but I am not too sure. First, I don’t know whether the above names are the only greats among Hollywood actors, and whether great Hollywood actors, generally speaking, really learnt their skills from European pioneers. Secondly, if mainstream Bollywood cinema rarely rises above pedestrian levels, isn’t it because our producers, directors and actors have to make a living like everybody else, so they have to keep dishing out the sort of stuff the great majority (which, unfortunately,  includes not just the vast unwashed masses but even the children and wives of the rich and supposedly educated public, with few exceptions) wants? If their tastes require that movies never be more subtle and aesthetically demanding than Hum Aapke Hai Kaun or Dhoom in order to succeed at the box office, is it the fault of those who make cinema in this country, and can it be cured by a foreign school of acting?

Besides, is it true that our actors cannot act when they want to, when they are given a chance to? I can  think offhand of dozens of fairly good-to-excellent movies made even within the suffocating limitations of mainstream Bollywood cinema within just the last decade or so: Dor, Aamir, Black Friday, A Wednesday, Cheeni Kum, Black, Swades, Parzania, Rocket Singh, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Taarey Zameen Par, Guru, Paa, Johnny Gaddar, Omkara, Yuva, Dev D, Kaminey, Ishquiya… and if you bothered to look at regional cinema in at least half a dozen languages, you would find a much bigger pool of proven talent: talent which was home-grown, talent which, if it could not do as well as it might have, was only restricted by what the audience was prepared to take, in terms of both story-line and acting methods (Raj Kapoor said long ago that the commercial failure of Mera Naam Joker had taught him a bitter lesson he'd never forgotten, much more recently Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, in expiation of Devdas, that he could do much better films than Black, but the audience wouldn’t pay for them, Ayesha Takia has gone on record saying that if she only acted in movies like Dor, she would starve, Nagesh Kukunoor has trouble getting new projects funded, Shah Rukh Khan has wasted a life in singleminded pursuit of pelf, and Aamir Khan had to stoop to juvenile clowning and teenage mooning to make a hit of as important a movie as 3 Idiots). How is a ‘phoren’ school of acting likely to make a difference in a country where actors as talented as Om Puri and Utpal Dutt have been reduced to what is basically rustic jatra  to pay their bills?

I’d like comments from serious cinema buffs here: not those who presume to write 'reviews' by hamhandedly copy-pasting stuff they get from IMDB, Rotten Tomatoes, wikipedia and other such sites on the net…

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Auld lang syne

college days (seems like yesterday)

there was a little sister...

holding a new born

when we were very young...

one year old

back to the past, in reverse order

A moment's halt, a momentary taste
Of Being, from the well amid the waste
And lo! - the phantom caravan has reach'd
The Nothing it set out from: Oh, make haste!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Four years old!

Come July 8th, this blog is going to be four years old; and this is the 180th post. I hardly wrote much in 2006, the first year: the tempo picked up only in late 2007, but I am happy to say that I have maintained it ever since, and not by constantly repeating myself either: I have written about everything from aeroplanes to religion to economics to literature and movies, environmental issues and politics and education and ethical concerns and little travelogues and personal reminiscences and what have you.

I am glad that the number of people enrolling as ‘followers’ has begun to rise fast since mid-2009. At this rate, I might have a thousand of them well before I die! A big thank you to all who have joined, and boo to all those who ‘follow privately’, and those who have vanished after I ticked them off in no uncertain manner.

I shall entreat first-time visitors not to make up their minds about me before they have read at least fifty posts, including the seven labelled ‘earliest posts’ (see right sidebar) and the essay titled What sort of person am I, the link to which is a permanent fixture on top of this page.

To comment-writers – except those who are old friends already, and therefore always welcome to say whatever they like – I shall only say ‘Please do write, but not unless you have something substantial and relevant to say, or something to draw my attention to, or something to ask’. I have this urge to reply to everybody (except the very banal and vulgar, of course), because I regard it as essential courtesy, but I get tired of answering people who really have nothing to say, only a desire (often subconscious, maybe) to quarrel based on a) a dislike they have taken to me, b) strong opinions backed by poor knowledge and little reason and c) an urge to get noticed! To all such, I must repeat: just because you have written a comment does not mean that it is going to be published or answered. I am perfectly within my rights there, I should think.

Another request: please do follow the basic universal rules of courtesy. An address is absolutely necessary (Dear Sir/Dear Mr. Chatterjee), and that according to my admittedly old-fashioned notions of civility, which means no one addresses me as Suvro or Suvroda unless s/he is a senior, a close friend, or a favourite ex-student. There are many things about being old-fashioned that I like much more than I want to make new ‘friends’ or keep old ones. If that last sentence brands me as elitist and misanthropic, I don’t mind. I have been around long enough to have been able to make up my mind on a subject like that. And I bring to the internet the same self that I am in the brick and mortar world.

It tickles me to note that whenever I write things that are in the nature of unpleasant truths – as in the immediately previous post, or the one I wrote about fatherhood a short while ago – the flow of comments suddenly dries up. Nothing makes me feel more vindicated!

An apology is in order next – to all those who have very kindly requested me to write on this or that subject they were interested in, and I couldn’t oblige, either because I didn’t consider myself competent to comment (I hate know-alls, and am the first to admit that I am not one), or simply because I forgot! An old man’s failing, and I am getting old, no matter how indignant that makes some people who love me…

That’s all for now. Maybe I shall add a few lines here if something else occurs to me. You might want to read what I wrote exactly a year ago: that post is titled 'Looking back again'. Do say ‘Happy birthday’ to my blog, unless you are feeling particularly uncharitable. You don't have to wait till July 8!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

A guilty conscience, helpless...

All kinds of people without whom we couldn't do stay invisible all around us. Not just ordinary people like us, but even very wise and worldly-wise people, as well as political personages across the entire spectrum of ideologies from left to right, seem to be unaware or unconcerned about their existence and their plight, or stop at paying lip-service to their interests, or pass over by promising them their dues when the messianic time dawns - which, of course, never happens! I am thinking of traffic policemen (every time I go out in this blazing heat, and with the airconditioner in the car going full speed), and about maidservants who work seven days a week for a pittance, and vendors who hawk fresh vegetables and fish from door to door, and railway gangmen and men who work in underground mines and beside open furnaces, and waiters at cheap roadside eateries, and the men they call 'khalasis' who travel with truck drivers across the country... and I can only count my blessings, and feel slightly ashamed, though I have never been able to figure out exactly why. You could certainly think of many more. Together these people number in the hundreds of million, and nobody does a thing to better their condition, and little has improved in their lives under either so-called communist dispensations or during times of rapid capitalist expansion. 

I suddenly remembered a book titled The Long March of Everyman (I have forgotten the name of the author), a British publication of the 1960s, I think, which recounted in glowing terms how conditions have improved vastly for the proverbial 'common man' - at least in the most 'developed' western countries - over the last 200 years. Well, maybe so, maybe not: given the kind of socio-economic data about the plight of the underprivileged in most advanced western economies right now that I have with me, I am no longer too sure. And when I turn my eyes to look at India, it makes me weep. Particularly because my own social class is so drunk on the ongoing 'success story' of this country...

I have never believed in revolutions (in any case, these days the word is most commonly applied to new lines of cosmetics). But it would make me happy if our government could soon find the political and financial wherewithal to make the Right to a minimum livelihood effective for all (while simultaneously ensuring strict birth control, of course), and pass the bill in parliament that mandates decent pay and perks for domestic workers, and ensure that every traffic policeman has a sunshade over his head, and cool water near at hand, and not more than four-hour stretches on his feet. If that makes me sound like a bleeding heart, it's much, much better than having a stone where one's heart should be. I have never thought that bombs and bullets really solve problems, but when I see scrawny and ragged children fighting over scraps of leftovers thrown into garbage vats after lavish wedding feasts (and some people holding endless seminars in five-star comfort to discuss the issue, and others demanding that we be more sympathetic to the 'sufferings' of the obese), I feel only murderous rage. It's getting worse as I grow old.

[I was thinking of what to write on World Environment Day. I am convinced beyond argument that the natural environment cannot stay healthy when the social environment has become so sick.]

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

New old Penguins!

I am writing about this newly-reprinted 1928 book for a variety of reasons.

It reminds me very feelingly, but without rancour, how tough the lot of women has always been, until very recently, especially women who were ‘cursed’ with the divine spark (Virginia Woolf herself was led by recurrent and increasingly deep depression to suicide).

It also led me to ponder over how much has changed – and not changed – both in the west and in India – since Woolf delivered this lecture at Girton College, Oxford, in the very early days of higher education for women. I look forward to the day when womankind will finally produce the equivalent of Shakespeare (Woolf had expected the signs to become visible in a hundred years’ time!)

It told me how difficult really good ‘stream of consciousness’ writing is, and how sad it is that it has been ruined by countless incompetent emulators since Woolf’s time.

It was Woolf’s thesis that the most fundamental reason why women have never had the time and opportunity to write great literature was that they were bound in fetters of absolute poverty, and hence absolute dependence upon male-folk, and confinement to the domestic hearth, and lifelong grinding menial servitude. So every aspiring woman writer needs a room of her own and ‘five hundred pounds a year’ in order to spread her wings. Why, then, now that women’s material condition has vastly improved – even in India, at least among the urban educated liberal elite, whose numbers must certainly be greater than that of the whole of Britain today – do we still not find great creative (and independent-minded) folks among our women in good enough numbers? And if material poverty and sexual bondage are quite adequate explanations, how do we explain phenomena like Joan of Arc, Florence Nightingale and Marie Curie?... read the book.

Above all, I bought this little volume at Crosswords in Kolkata because it had the old, original Penguin look. My grandfather’s book-case was filled with books with the selfsame look, but then, as I grew up, they apparently went out of fashion, when Penguin started publishing books with covers as garish and commonplace as every other publisher was doing, in the belief, I suppose, that it was important to draw customers who were not really readers, who could not help judging (whatever their judgment was worth!) a book by its cover… it was an indescribably happy moment for me to find that they had started re-publishing books in the old, plain, familiar format again. Apparently sufficient numbers of readers with my kind of tastes still exist to justify it: a heartening thought. They are calling the series Penguin Red Classics. Only, in my grandpa’s day, the typical price of a book was one or two rupees (and it was often printed in terms of shillings): I bought this reprint for Rs. 199. But I am looking forward to buying many more.

P.S., June 02: Please do note, before dashing off a comment, that this post is not merely (or even mainly) about feminist issues but about good writing, and about genius, and about the (rather rare thing these days) love of books.