Friday, December 31, 2010

a year in reading, 2010, part one-ish.

In no particular order, here are some of my favourite disquisitions of the year. The political biases in this highly biased list should be unsurprising. So also some of the writers, many of whom have been beloved and admired for some time, and many of whom wrote more than one great piece this year. In the case of Tony Judt, for example, I picked a singularly brilliant interview he gave, instead of one of the many spectacular essays he composed for the NYRB and elsewhere, or the NY Magazine piece that profiled him beautifully.

Things missing from this list include, Kasparov excepted, reviews of single books or films (and if you're thinking of that Zadie Smith essay on The Social Network, let me assure you it is on my list of least favourite essays this year). Profiles of people: otherwise it would be all Obama and Berlusconi and Shashi Tharoor.

Also interviews other than Tony Judt's; listicles other than Common Roman Polanski Defenses Refuted (which drifted back to the top of my consciousness in the wake of the corrupted debate over Julian Assange's rape accusation); writing from publications with which I am or have been formally associated (The Run of Play did not, for example, contract my labour in signatures of blood before accepting my blog posts, nor, as an all-round and upfront gratis Portal of Fun, are they dragging their feet on payments - you know who you are, you weasels). A couple of exceptions to this rule are mentioned at the end of this post.

Also great shorter writing, including several Tumblelogs; great rants; great fanfiction involving one or more characters from the DC Comics Universe; great photography, great YouTube videos, and so on.

Also missing is any writing about Mumbai, which deserves its own post.

If this list overrepresents some publications, it is because I enjoyed and was moved by their contents disproportionately. This in spite of not being able to afford a subscription to LRB yet, which is quite an achievement on their part, in every sense.

Recap: Reads of the Year, 2010

Susie Linfield, Living With The Enemy
On the living limits of reconciliation as a political ideal.

Rahul Bhattacharya, Cricket, Tennis, the Loss of Immersion
As the nature of broadcasts change, so does the narrative of a game.

Amanda Hess, Common Roman Polanski Defenses, Refuted
Washington City Paper
How to talk to people who defend Roman Polanski's crime.

Ross McKibbin, Time to Repent
London Review of Books
Britain's new political settlement, and where the fuck Labour went.

Garry Kasparov, The Chess Master and the Computer
New York Review of Books
Can the computer change the way a very human game is played? Not unless it can change the way a very human game is thought.

Daisy Rockwell as Lapata, The Reluctant Feudalist
Chapati Mystery
Can what is said of Sadat Hasan Manto also be said of Daniyal Mueenuddin? A literary investigation.

Dibussi Tande, Undermining African Intellectual and Artistic Rights; Shakira, Zangalewa and the World Cup Anthem
Scribbles from the Den
A brief history of the double standard of artistic property for African artists.

Alma Guillermoprieto, The Murderers of Mexico
New York Review of Books
War as theatre.

Corey Robin, Garbage and Gravitas
The Nation
The life and legacy of Ayn Rand.

Basharat Peer, Tear Gas Over Batamaloo
The National Interest
What is at play, and what at stake, in Kashmir this year.

Brian Phillips, Pelé as a Comedian
The Run of Play
Perhaps David Foster Wallace's notion of the delight we take in sport as religious experience undermines itself.

Aaron Bady, Julian Assange and the Computer Conspiracy
Why does Assange do what he does?

Amitava Kumar, Birth of a Salesman
In the War on Terror, an FBI informant's doppelganger is the terrorist suspect.

Mohammed Hanif, Pakistan flood victims 'have no concept of terrorism'
BBC Online

They belong to that forgotten part of humanity that has quietly tilled the land for centuries, the small farmers, the peasants, the farmhands, generations of people who are born and work and die on the same small piece of land.

And this time there are 20 million of them.

Kristina Božič in conversation with Tony Judt, The Way Things Are and How They Might Be
London Review of Books
Tony Judt, magnificent on social democracy, Europe, America and much else.

Charlie LeDuff, What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?
Mother Jones

People my mother's age like to tell me about Detroit's good old days of soda fountains and shopping markets and lazy Saturday night drives. But the fact is Detroit and its suburbs were dying 40 years ago. The whole country knew it, and the whole country laughed. A bunch of lazy, uneducated blue-collar incompetents. The Rust Belt. Forget about it.

Mukul Kesavan, Is Murali the greatest spinner ever?
What Muttiah Muralitharan has meant to cricket, to Sri Lanka, and to sport.

Rafia Zakaria, Muslim Grrrls
A lawyer investigates how Sharia and feminism go hand-in-hand.

Jacqueline Rose, 'J'accuse;' Dreyfus in our times
London Review of Books
Possibly my favourite this year. Justice is an infinite affair.

Some more stuff I liked:

Kamila Shamsie's Pop Idols on a generation of Pakistani pop music in Granta's Pakistan issue;
Umair Muhajir's Reflections on masala cinema and Dabanng at his blog, Qalandar;
Mihir Sharma's Calcutta is the city of second chances after the Park Street fire earlier this year, in The Indian Express;
P Sainath's The Colour of Water on two continuous years of drought in Vidarbha, in India Together;
Nathaniel Popper's A Conscious Pariah on Raul Hillberg and Hannah Arendt, in The Nation;
Nilanjana Roy's Getting Around Your City; A User's Guide for Women, at her blog Akhond of Swat and elsewhere;

and several others.

Finally, to some writers and journalists whom I drop everything to read, every time they write: Samar Halarnkar; Kuzhali Manickavel; Andrew Guest; Alan Jacobs;
Shoma Chaudhury; Chandrahas Choudhury;
Manan Ahmed; Lilia M Schwarcz; Ingrid D Rowland; cheers and thank you all. May your wordcounts ever increase.

Happy new year.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

a mature response to the end of the year

While I gather up my courage for a 'Year in Reading' post, a Q&A meme in which I was tagged months ago by Aisha. All answers calibrated to reflect reading/re-reading between January-December this year.

1. Favourite childhood book?

Anne of Green Gables, by LM Montgomery.

2. What are you reading right now?

Freedarko's The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History and Madhusree Mukherjee's Churchill's Secret War.

3. Bad book habit?

Refusing to revere books like a good Hindu, the cornerstone of childhood Dussehra observances and longstanding family fights about reading while otherwise occupied (in eating, or lying in bed, or grating coconut, for example; I was on the losing side of all these quarrels). Respecting books as wealth is one thing, but respecting them as wisdom is quite another.

4. Do you have an e-reader?

I will next year, if I can decide between impoverishment via Kindle, or impoverishment via subscriptions to expensive American magazines.

5. Do you prefer to read one book at a time or several at once?

One at a time, although it rarely works out that way.

6. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog?

This year, particularly so, thanks to Book Munch. I read much more seriously.

7. Least favorite book you read this year (so far)?

Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hill.

8. Favorite book you’ve read this year?

In non-fiction, probably Gyan Prakash's Mumbai Fables (my Mint story on the book) and Barbara Demick's Nothing to Envy. Mumbai Fables is an intriguing look at Bombay as a palimpsest of narratives; Demick's book is a reconstruction of social life in the city of Chongjin, North Korea, based on the testimonies of refugees.

My favourite fiction this year was not a new release but Khalid Hasan's gigantic book of Manto translations, Bitter Fruit. A great opportunity to rediscover many things.

9. How often do you read out of your comfort zone?


10. What is your reading comfort zone?


11. Can you read on the bus?


12. Favorite place to read?

The train.

13. What is your policy on book lending?

Be generous; have a good memory.

14. Do you ever dog-ear books?

Yes, this is useful practice when reviewing.

15. Do you ever write in the margins of your books?

No; I usually read on the move.

16. Not even with text books?

That's what five-subject notebooks are for.

17. What is your favorite language to read in?


18. What makes you love a book?


19. What will inspire you to recommend a book?

Delight. Ref. introducing Brian to The Count of Monte Cristo.

20. Favorite genre?


21. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did?)

Not a genre; graphic literature.

22. Favorite biography?

This year, it was Ram Guha's mostly-out-of-print biog of Verrier Elwin, Savaging the Civilised - a very fond and readable, but rigorous look at a key figure in independent India. I believe Guha is putting out a new edition soon, with an introduction that triangulates Elwin's studies with the political-economic crisis in tribal districts in Central India, which is exciting. The old one can still be found in a collection of Guha's early work called The Ramachandra Guha Omnibus, if anyone wants to read it.

23. Have you ever read a self-help book?


24. Most inspirational book you’ve read this year (fiction or non-fiction)?

Weirdly, I'd say Roberto Saviano's Gomorrah. The book clearly complicates the romantic notion of risking life and limb to get a story. It also complicates the relationship between narrative and reportage. But at a time when the only major alternative to the embedded journalist seems to be the foreign gonzo/undercover figure, Saviano manages to forward the question of how to write about being victimised, and being complicit, in a war in your own home. I don't think I've read a more high-stakes book this year.

In fiction, as always, Penelope Fitzgerald remains an idol.

25. Favorite reading snack?


26. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience.

Not exactly hype; I was disappointed to discover that I just wasn't into Roberto Bolano. I feel like everyone else is reading The Quibbler and I'm stuck with The Daily Prophet.

7. How often do you agree with critics about a book?

Not often with US/UK critics about American/British books, a little more often with desi critics about desi ones.

28. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews?

More cavalier as a blogger than as a newspaper reviewer. Same goes for glowers, though.

29. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you chose?

I don't know, I like translations quite a lot. Probably Italian for the newspapers.

30. Most intimidating book you’ve ever read?

I don't think I've ever read an intimidating book in my life.

31. Most intimidating book you’re too nervous to begin?

Very high degree of trepidation on being confronted with Mark Twain's Autobiography.

32. Favorite Poet?

Faiz Ahmed Faiz, as translated by Agha Shahid Ali.

33. Favorite fictional character?

Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

34. Favorite fictional villain?

I have a very good answer. It is Dmitri Belikov, the nice-guy-turned-bloodthirsty-vampire in Richelle Mead's glorious/atrocious Vampire Academy series. I just know you can change him, Rose!

35. Books I’m most likely to bring on vacation?

Oh no, I did not have a vacation this year. Usually big fat ones.

36. The longest I’ve gone without reading

I've finished reading maybe four books this month, which is the year's low point.

37. Name a book that you could/would not finish?

I've been stuck on page 3 of Eshkol Nevo's Homesick for maybe six months now, for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with this unexceptionable book.

38. What distracts you easily when you’re reading?


39. Favorite film adaptation of a novel?

n/a for this year.

40. Most disappointing film adaptation?

also n/a. I didn't even see the new Harry Potter film.

41. The most money I’ve ever spent in the bookstore at one time?

Not even going there.

42. How often do you skim a book before reading it?

I skip to the end, but not otherwise.

43. What would cause you to stop reading a book half-way through?


44. Do you like to keep your books organized?

I also like my football team to win all the time.

45. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once you’ve read them?

Do you give a chair away once you've sat in it?

46. Are there any books you’ve been avoiding?


47. Name a book that made you angry

Oh god, Raffles. Also the early parts of John Stuart Mill's Autobiography which essentially describe what a gigantic creep James Mill was and it's all you can do to stop yourself from flailing through space-time to give poor lamb JS a hug.

48. A book you didn’t expect to like but did?

The Leopard. Marvellous, moving, possibly timeless dead white male literature.

49. A book that you expected to like but didn’t?

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest. I mean, seriously? And in a lesser way, Naomi Novik's Tongues of Serpents, the newest in a series I've otherwise really liked.

50. Favorite guilt-free, pleasure reading?

Jane Austen.

Monday, December 20, 2010

the year in marriage proposals

“Good-bye,” said Eve. “Thank you for being so hospitable and lavish. I’ll try and find some cushions and muslin and stuff to brighten up this place.”

“Your presence does that adequately,” said Psmith, accompanying her to the door. “By the way, returning to the subject we were discussing last night, I forgot to mention, when asking you to marry me, that I can do card-tricks.”


“And also a passable imitation of a cat calling to her young. Has this no weight with you? Think! These things come in very handy in the long winter evenings.”

“But I shan’t be there when you are imitating cats in the long winter evenings.”

“I think you are wrong. As I visualize my little home, I can see you there very clearly, sitting before the fire. Your maid has put you into something loose. The light of the flickering flames reflects itself in your lovely eyes. You are pleasantly tired after an afternoon’s shopping, but not so tired as to be unable to select a card - any card – from the pack which I offer…”

-- from Leave It To Psmith, PG Wodehouse.

Monday, November 22, 2010

gyan prakash: mumbai fables

I would have loved to write a more detailed review of this book, which I recommend unreservedly. Instead, this is a piece I wrote for Mint Lounge earlier this month on the writing of the book itself. You can read it in newspaper version here.

Publishers often invite Bollywood celebrities to the Mumbai launches of their books, perhaps assuming that people in the city are more likely to come to literary events for movie glamour than out of bookish interest. But Anurag Kashyap was not exactly providing showbiz gloss to the book reception for Gyan Prakash's 'Mumbai Fables,' held late last month in Churchgate's storied old Astoria Hotel: he was there to celebrate a friend and collaborator. Prakash also happens to be the scriptwriter of Kashyap's own mysterious but oddly well-known future project, the film 'Bombay Velvet.' The Dayton-Stockton Professor of History at Princeton University may seem like an unlikely fount of creativity for Kashyap's famously punk sensibilities. But then his new book, even with its impeccable [meticulousness] and impressive depth of research, is an unlikely book for a historian to write.

Its nine chapters each deal with an element of Mumbai's history through the prism of the texts and myths they have created and sustained. This high literary approach relies on everything from long-buried archival records of land scams and back issues of Bal Thackeray's early mouthpiece, Marmik, to 19th century Parsi detective novels and Hindi comic books. Perhaps it was easier than it seems, given the sheer drama of this multitude of sources, for Prakash to unearth a Bollywood script in the material as a serious academic work.

"To write the history of Mumbai at this level required, in my view, strong story telling without dumbing it all down," Prakash explains in an email conversation. "Indeed, my critique of Bollywood is that they don't take their storytelling seriously. Plots are often full of holes, the characters lack compelling motivations, and the context lacks richness. In my case, strong storytelling in Mumbai Fables and writing Bombay Velvet came naturally since I took both to be serious ventures."

Bombay Velvet, as Kashyap and Prakash said at the book reception, draws from material from 'several chapters in the book.' "I was able to go back and forth," says Prakash, "making the script rich with actual details from Mumbai's history, and turning the book cinematic." It is set in a nightclub: an inspiration drawn from a chapter of history that doesn't make it into Mumbai Fables, but is part of another collaboration: between Prakash and Mumbai journalist and author Naresh Fernandes, who has written extensively on Mumbai's 'Jazz Age' between the 1930s and '60's, when a local jazz culture flourished in Mumbai's nightclubs thanks to talented musicians, many of Goan Catholic origin, and an enthusiastic audience. Many of these musicians doubled up as Bollywood sessions players, or Konkani pop stars. Fernandes' essay about them in the [2002] anthology of Mumbai writing, 'Bombay, Meri Jaan,' caught Prakash's attention, and subsequently inspired him to write, in 2005, 'A Bombay Story.' "Anurag immediately liked its noir quality. I went to Anurag because I had seen his unreleased film "Paanch," and thought that he had the sensibility and the visual imagination to turn this into a film." Along the way, the title changed to Bombay Velvet, and finally, Prakash wrote the first draft of the script in early 2009 while also writing Mumbai Fables."

A double-pronged creative feat of that scope cannot be easy, but it reflects Prakash's own interest in the multiplicity of narratives, and the way they inform the the grand narrative of Mumbai's development as India's city of dreams. 'My goal,’ he writes in an early chapter, ‘is not to strip fact from fiction…I am interested in uncovering the backstories of Mumbai’s history bercause they reveal its experience as a modern city, as a society built up from scratch.’ Along the way, he unearths the counternarrative of that experience, the inseparable other half of Mumbai's self-image: that of a cruel, corrupt city, full of despair and destruction. Perhaps nowhere is this aspect of Mumbai's narrative more starkly realised than in Prakash's chapter on Doga, the Hindi comic-book superhero who protects the city's marginalised and helpless by ruthlessly eliminating criminals. His vigilantism is so angry and bloody that it can make Batman seem like a flower child. But this raw, wish-fulfilling hero who seems to have fought every major city problem over the last two decades is not a Mumbai creation: he was been imagined being by a team at Delhi-based Raj Comics, a large and extremely popular publisher of Hindi-language comics and paperbacks.

"I found it fascinating that the people who came up with the idea were located in Delhi, not Mumbai," Prakash explains. "There are many reasons for it, including the fact that Mumbai doesn't have a strong comic book publisher. But also important is the fact that Doga himself is an outsider in two senses. He is an outsider who comes to Mumbai from the Chambal Valley. But as a masked superhero, he is also an outsider, an estranged, angst-ridden character, outside society and its norms."

Sanjay Gupta, studio head at Raj Comics, explains that they wanted a particular setting for the superhero they created in 1989 - a time when larger-than-life gang wars and balletic violence seemed to be Mumbai's sole preserve. "We have superheroes set in other cities too, and Mumbai was fascinating in this respect. We keep up with newspapers and TV news for fresh news of the city, and while we sell all over India, readers in Mumbai do have a particular attachment to Doga." And it isn't just the young adults who buy out new Doga issues at railway stations the minute they are out. Doga piqued Kashyap's own interest when Prakash introduced him to the comic, and the Doga film, written and directed by Kashyap, is due to go on the floors early next year.

Fernandes, who has himself written about another Raj Comics hero - the Goan musician-turned-zombie Anthony Gonsalves - in connection with Mumbai and Goa's musical history, was the other guest of honour at Prakash's reception. His work is one of Bombay Velvet’s underpinnings: a rare instance of a Hindi film consciously informed by a specific historical narrative. Indeed, conscious evocations of city history are relatively rare in most forms of Mumbai’s popular culture.

"There is no dearth of cultural histories or Mumbai books at all," he says, when I ask him about whether Prakash's book is a rare phenomenon. "We've always produced a lot of material examining and questioning ourselves. But we're not always concerned with the results.” While Mumbai has a long history of citizens thinking it gets worse all the time, he says, “there really has been a rupture of the cultural continuum since the ‘90s: the new economy seems to blow up the old sense of what it means to be a Bombayite.”

In the Mumbai of the imagination that Prakash writes of, contradictions are part of how the Mumbai story continues to tell itself: it holds out both love and indifference, despair and promise. By bringing history to an often stubbornly ahistorical city, Prakash seems to indicate that Mumbai's past is still connected with its future.

anuja chauhan: battle for bittora

A version of this review appeared in Mint Lounge on November 20, here.

Two of India’s youngest candidates for election to Parliament are fighting it out in their home constituency of Bittora in ‘Pavit Pradesh.’ Zain Altaf Khan has a number of posh degrees and a ticket as token Muslim from rightwing hardliners IJP. Our protagonist, Sarojini Pande, is contesting her seat on behalf of the Pragati Party, the ‘politically correct Noah’s Ark,’ and her grandmother, a corrupt old veteran politician fighting one last poll battle. From her cosy, low-profile urban yuppie lifestyle, Jinni (‘Mohammedan sa name hai,’ her grandmother frostily dismisses the nickname) must overcome opposition schemes, a generation gap the size of Pavit Pradesh with her grandmother, the byzantine inner workings of the Party, and her own attitude to the whole deal, which is two parts skepticism and one part well-intentioned naivété. The gorgeous Zain, of course, happens to be just another hurdle.

With its thinly-veiled grounding in real-life Indian politics, popular culture references that will almost certainly age badly and its flippancy about some of India’s electoral diseases, Anuja Chauhan’s Battle for Bittora really shouldn’t be so amusing. In fact, it is not only funny, but also warm-hearted, well-paced and a little sexy. Literary quirks that would be annoying in less capable hands – a relaxed attitude to Hinglish, an overreliance on italics – become inconsequential quirks in her writing, easier to brush aside than ‘mosquitoes bhinn bhinnaoeing,’ to quote just one of Jinni’s improbable feats of multilingual verbing. What often grates on the ear in you-go-girl novels set in Delhi’s party circuit or Mumbai’s media studios seems perfectly in keeping with the tribulations of a character trying hard to balance her roles as genuine Pavit Pradeshi and hip world citizen at once.

Chauhan is able to strike the urbane, confessional-blogger tone of chick lit effortlessly. Indeed, we make much of Indian publishing trends towards genre-based reading, but Battle for Bittora makes it clear how far ahead of her field she is. Dialogue is effortless in the classic romantic comedy style, sentiment is sharply controlled, and characters with deep, real flaws turn out nonetheless to be likeable, and more importantly, relatable.

The world she creates for Jinni and Zain is key to this experience. The book plays out on a large canvas, but Chauhan paints it deftly. She describes the nitty-gritties of electoral drama in rural India with the aplomb of someone who really has her ear to the ground (Chauhan’s mother-in-law, Margaret Alva, is a senior Congress politician and five-time MP). As Jinni is dragged into vote-bank politics, graft accepting and thoroughly unparliamentary practices, her disgust with the system is matched only by her glee at stepping out of an air-conditioned Mumbai office and finding herself immersed in the most reality-soaked bits of the Real India. If Jinni’s inner monologue is the sort manages to encompass anxieties about the itchiness of a khadi blouse and her constituency’s water supply at once, how can her readers judge her? Self-absorbed, flawed, but ultimately charming: the stuff electoral candidates are made of.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

protesting the protesters

A version of this post appeared on the Mint website today.

I spent this Monday afternoon hanging on the edge of a capacity crowd at the Mumbai Press Club, at a reading of Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey organized by the Citizens’ Initiative for Peace. Interspersed with the readings, people stood up to speak variously about the unravelling political fabric of the city and the country, the sanctity of the academic process, the creeping fascism of the majority, the mendaciousness of the Shiv Sena in general and Aditya Thackeray in particular, the declining respect for the rule of law and the dubious qualifications of University Vice-Chancellor Ranjan Welukar – “or whatever his name is,” as one speaker said irritably. Someone quoted Beckett.

The discreet and utterly predictable charm of the bourgeoisie? Someone encroaches on our constitutional right to expression and the only people who turn up to protest are greying Gandhians and earnest college students. Since the capacity of the Press Club terrace is about eighty on a cold day, and it is shaded by the trees on the edge of the Oval Maidan, it’s not hard to feel a little self-righteous, hemmed in and apparently cut off from the currents of the city at large, as though we are forced by virtue of our beliefs to confine ourselves to this shrinking Anglophile circle of light in an ocean of unreason.

This was far from the truth, of course. My fellow audience was made up of fine upstanding public – in the Mumbai sense of the word – many of whom have fought hard to break out of the sort of imposed elitism that various bastions of Indian leadership have been great at leveraging against its critics. How else to describe the predicament of Anand Patwardhan, a filmmaker whose Ayodhya documentary, Ram Ke Naam, has shown exactly once on cable TV in the last 18 years, because it has been banned, or channels too scared to run it? Patwardhan and artistes like him are not alien ideologues who pop into public life expressly to endanger people’s interests. Their mandate, in a broad sense, is to reflect, and comment on, public sentiment. Not exactly the work of the bon-bon eating classes.

Patwardhan was there to read out the statement Rohinton Mistry mailed in from Canada, reproduced extensively across Mumbai papers on Tuesday morning. Mistry harangues Welukar and the University with a very resonant moral seriousness. Paternalistically, he ended with some recommended reading for Aditya Thackeray, Mistry’s fellow-Xavierite and Mumbai University-kar. Even the book-burning fraternity can quote Tagore by heart, but Mistry’s other piece of advice was Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, never easily taught in post-colonial academic circles. Did he particularly remember the book’s history, as one recast from sacrosanct classic to questionable, even hurtful object lesson, thanks to Chinua Achebe’s magnificent excoriation? If he did, I salute him for making the recommendation.

It’s not hard to see why Such A Long Journey offends people who haven’t read it. Quoted out of context, that stuff about Marathas and bhaiyyas can give anyone a headache. It is the sort of book that should ignite debate, that calls for public polemic about the faultlines of a city that, call it Bombay or Mumbai, has always and tragically accommodated as many variants of disunity as it has of solidarity. It invites comment on why those whose real grievances at real linguistic and cultural divisions are represented via bizarre political theatre, instead of finding voices in lecture halls and newspaper editorials.

It is, in short, an apt cornerstone for questions that crop up endlessly and in different languages outside the Press Club terrace, questions perhaps too broad and too complex to be covered over the debate – such as it is – over one circus of faux-Falangists and their minions. But there are cracks in every wall. I was sitting behind a crowd of the earnest college students I mentioned earlier. Several turned up in spite of ongoing midterms, and I recognised more than one as part of the same group who has been instrumental in drafting and publicising this online petition, a document as sober and serious as Mistry himself might have wrought. They are waiting, they told me, to get through exams before they can reach out to organise their fellow students. They sat politely through the readings and initial speeches, all conducted by people several decades older than them. As the event wore on, they leaned forward, tapped their chins, mumbled, muttered, rolled their eyes, and, once the third or fourth deploration of the ideology of the Sena had occurred, began to mutter amongst themselves.

‘This is not the point,’ I heard more than one of them say. ‘This is really not helping.’ ‘Say something!’ ‘Why isn’t someone saying something?’ ‘Were you going to make the same point?’ ‘Why aren’t you saying something?’

Finally, one girl stood up and marched to the front of the terrace. “If we’re going to go off into discussions of the book’s literary merit or whatever, this is never going to end,” she said. “This is a procedural issue. If we don’t treat it like that, we’ll never get anything done.”

Amazingly, she had the last word. I liked her and her fellow students, who applauded her unequivocally. They know their outrage legitimises nothing. Perhaps they agree with their opponents that the forums of debate afforded them are already skewed. They are not the ones drawing the battle lines in a fake battle. They can only claim their rightful place as part of the public, as much as their sword-carrying classmates. They know they have to get stuff done, the way Patwardhan did for Ram Ke Naam, court by court and channel by channel. I wish them luck. This is not the time to keel over rasping ‘The horror, the horror.’

Friday, October 08, 2010

on leela naidu

I wrote this for Verve's Annual Best-Dressed Issue, which is this October 2010's issue currently on stands, as a consideration of Leela Naidu's aesthetic influence. Since I read this book earlier this year and failed to review it, I'm also cheating and marking this as a Book Munch entry.

#84 Leela: A Patchwork Life, Leela Naidu and Jerry Pinto

It happens all too rarely, but sometimes, when you are reading a book on your daily commute in a packed Mumbai local, someone will detach themselves from the hive of bodies to ask you about it. The cause will generally be a book that has made you laugh out loud, or weep in public, or the latest Chetan Bhagat. The pleasures of Leela Naidu's biography, Leela: A Patchwork Life, published earlier this year, are more refined; but all the same, it caused more than one lady to lean over, examine the cover, and then ask me how I had procured it, and how much it cost, and did I – visibly from a giddy generation of the post-Sush-and-Ash era – know who Leela Naidu had really been?

Who, indeed? Leela Naidu remained famous in India long after the siege engines of PR machines and the dissolving limits of the news cycle captured celebrity culture. To the post-pageant public, she was always the Miss India (1954) who had made it to a definitive list of the ten most beautiful women in the world, back in an age when the Indian woman came somewhere above elephants and snake charmers, and perhaps ranked a little below bejewelled maharajahs and austere freedom fighters, as exotic representatives of their country to the West at large.

Her appeal to her compatriots was, in all likelihood, touched a little by the same ideas of foreignness, too. She was a biracial woman, as much at home in Europe (her mother was an Irish Indologist, with Franco-Swiss roots) as she was in India. Her career spanned a multitude of roles. From making documentary films for JRD Tata, to dubbing for Chinese martial arts films in Hong Kong and acting as unpaid secretary – her words – to husband Dom Moraes, to being the muse on whom Salvador Dali's Madonna was modelled, to acting in the handful of films that established her legend as one of the loveliest women ever to grace the Indian screen.

For a woman less serenely honest and less elegant, the word 'dilettante' may have come to mind. How else to explain someone who had started out at more or less the same time as Madhubala and Waheeda Rahman, but whose body of work was a mere fraction of theirs: a woman who, according to her biography, was spotted by Raj Kapoor and lined up to be a marquee name for his RK banner – only to turn him down? It may be impossible today to imagine a beautiful woman becoming an icon for seeking less attention, rather than more. But Naidu was only being true to her sense of aesthetics, which found little common ground with commercial cinema.

She was a woman truly at home in the world, and her photographs from the time confirm it. In the simple drapes of her saris, free of make-up travelled through the country with poet-writer Moraes, whether she was taking dictation from Indira Gandhi or protesting on behalf of landless Dalits, she was the consummate face of an enlightened, independent India, still fired by the ideals of independence, impatient with consumerism and wary of social exhibitionism. The same appeal was evident in those films of hers, chosen judiciously across the decades – Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha, Merchant-Ivory's The Householder, and Shyam Benegal's 1985 classic, Trikaal. Years later, Benegal would say that she 'breathed innocence and tranquility' into her performance. It was a succinct description of what she represents in those black-and-white frames of her early life.

But she was equally at home in couture. The 1960s and 70s, the decades of the birth of cool, were portended in the casual grace with which she carried herself in the fashions of Europe and the USA. There were compliments from Ingrid Bergman and salutes from Jean Renoir and David Lean. It wasn't about switching cultural codes: in the girlish frocks and evening gowns of her modelling shots, she was as Indian as she was in saris, and that was the beauty of it. Writing after her death, Vikram Doctor said, 'Naidu was one of a group of beautiful Indian women who, from the Forties to the early Sixties, helped create an idea of a beautiful, elegant and accomplished new nation. This included Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, the other name that people remember from that '10 most beautiful women' list and Nayantara Sahgal .... All these women shared a certain style. While unmistakably Indian and nearly always dressed in saris, there was also a Western air to them as well. They all had Western connections ... and they presented themselves in a mix of Indian and European styles.' The mix, in Naidu's case, was pitch-perfect. She rose beyond the traditional definitions of signature style as a single classic look or a set of influences. Her style was not about fashion; it was about feeling.

The very thought of a woman in rayon saris and flared skirts rising to the top of a list of classical beauties seems idiosyncratic today. We are used to seeing beautiful women who are not only icons of taste, but also of accomplishment. They are women who act in films and walk the ramp; they work as designers and news channel pundits and high-profile entrepreneurs; they head famous families and corporations; they are photographed at parties; they define the labels they wear. If Naidu did any of those things over the last decade, she managed to avoid all attention to it.

We don't think of the starry radiance of Gayatri Devi or Audrey Hepburn when we think of her, nor yet the sun-drenched charm of Madhubala or Sophia Loren. Hers is a cool, chameleonic appeal: gracious, reserved and supremely unruffled. The cover photo of her biography, taken in her youth, is a shot overflowing with joie de vivre – gamine grin, jaunty bob, and all. Her legend had, in later years, taken on the air of melancholy that affects the image of so many people who guard the secrets of their private lives. But her parting shot, as she said, was not going to be 'a narrative of feminine pain.' The narrative, packed with anecdotes and wry asides, lives up to its title: it is assembled like the dazzling patchwork of things and events that made up her life, career and style. It is an alternate iconography of beauty, and it is her legacy to Indian women and their modernity. The films, the labels and the corporations are there for us to define, but our identities can be independent of their existence, too. In Leela Naidu's legend, as in the MacLeish poem, beauty does not need to mean, but be.

on coke studio

This is the full draft of a story I wrote about Coke Studio for Open Magazine last month; a version of it appeared here. My thanks to many fellow bloggers and Tweeters who helped with it, including Ahmer Naqvi, Ahsan Butt, Manan Ahmed, Omar Bilal Akhtar, and Venkat Ananth, from whose tweets I first learned of the show.


In the call-and-response flow of abuse that makes up the majority of comments on that bedrock of the Internet, YouTube, few battles are more depressing and vacuous than the long-running flamewar between Indian and Pakistani users. The shared popular culture and social history of the two countries covers vast quantities of desi-generated content – films, cricket highlights, news shows, Atif Aslam superhits – that find their way, only sometimes legitimately, on to the video sharing site. These videos go on to form the incidental background to the sort of foam-flecked rage, expressed in a multitude of – also shared – languages, that approximates the level of discourse usually achieved at a Shiv Sena block party.

But in this seemingly endless deadlock of trolls, a détente is achieved in the comment threads under the videos of one particular phenomenon. Against the spectacularly-viewed and keenly-discussed music of the Karachi-based TV show Coke Studio, they put down their cudgels, shake hands across the aisle, and find themselves united in love and admiration – and even, on the Indian side, a wistful envy. The most common refrain after variations of 'Wow, I love this' is not the inevitable YouTube corollary of 'Wow, this sucks,' but 'Why can't we do this in India?'

The Coke Studio juggernaut rolled out of the blocks in a Karachi studio in the summer of 2008. Its visionary and executive producer Rohail Hyatt was one of Pakistani pop's early legends, an U-19 Rawalpindi cricketer turned singer turned impresario. "It had been done before," says producer-filmmaker Nofil Naqvi, who worked with Hyatt and his wife Umber, "In a couple of other places, but never on such a large scale." The show, similar in spirit to the British performance series Live from Abbey Road, was a meticulously curated series of live sets featuring combinations of musical acts – sometimes unlikely – reinventing old songs, sampling other genres, melding two or more distinct styles, and putting out an altogether new work. The five episodes of its first season, shot over four days in February 2008, became a hit, featuring collaborations of unprecedented quality, such as the raga-rock fusion of Garaj Baras between Ali Azmat – former frontman of the enormously popular Junoon – and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who had sung the original in Bollywood for 2007's Paap. Under Hyatt's supervision, the band Strings remodelled the melody of their chiming, high-tension megahit Duur in collaboration with classical vocalist Ustad Hussein Baksh Gullo. Rahat's voice soaring on ambient retakes of hits like Shaman Paiyan and Dildara electrified audiences, and the charming, more lightweight sets by acts like Sajid and Zeeshan or the band Mauj, were glimpses into the generally high standards of Pakistan's pop scene.

And then Season Two rolled around.

"2009 was a dark time for artistes," Naqvi explains. "Safety concerns within the country were rising – it was a very different atmosphere from the one during the last military dictatorship, when security was easier to handle for concert venues and live acts. Business in India had dried up in the aftermath of the November 2008 attacks, which was an even more serious financial hit." Catastrophe was looming. It was in this situation that Coke Studio pulled out all the stops. After the success of Season One, the show secured a deal that allowed them to air simultaneously on every – yes, every – major TV networks and radio channels. This may have seemed like a puzzlingly large-scale gamble on the success of what was, after all, a volatile format: but Hyatt and his backers knew it was going to be special.

"Back during Season One, the only other friend who knew about it was an RJ," remembers blogger and Coke Studio enthusiast Ahmer Naqvi. "But I vividly remember the first episode of the second season. My wife and I were driving and we didn't know what show was on, but when we started listening to it, we were ecstatic." The episode featured some of Coke Studio's biggest hits, including, Naqvi remembers, "eclectic covers by reigning pop kings - Ali Zafar and Atif Aslam. Memorable for the shock value among other things, as no one really could imagine either of them doing such versatile stuff." Aslam is a genuine subcontinental superstar - his songs for Ajab Prem Ki Ghazab Kahani in late 2009 were among the year's biggest hits, and had the India embargo for lunch. Like most superstars, his appeal is nonexistent to the bon-bon eating classes on both sides of the border. "That was also why a lot of my friends who were very serious about their music immediately abhorred Coke Studio," Ahmer says. "The presence of a corporate logo, plus teeny-bopper singers, put many purists off."

But the lid had blown off the phenomenon. On the same episode as Zafar and Aslam, the show also featured arguably its flat-out finest production, the reworking of a Bulleh Shah kalam, Aik Alif, by the veteran Sufi musician Saeein Zahoor and the rock band Noori. Cynicism was clearly going to be difficult. High expectations were repeatedly met an surpassed. Aslam covered Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Zafar sang Punjabi folk, a far cry from their fan demographic's usual staples. For many Pakistanis, it was a reaffirmation of a long-held belief: their country made kickass music. "Music is perhaps the only area in the arts where Pakistan produces world-class stuff regularly and which gets local appreciation," Ahmer says. "Coke Studio got the kind of response that authors, filmmakers, and drama serial producers would die for."

It's true that Daniyal Mueenuddin or Mohammed Hanif would be hard-pressed to do with their material what Coke Studio did with theirs. In addition to blanket broadcast coverage, their music and videos were instantly and legally downloadable for free on the Coke Studio website. In a country where returns on recorded music were even less dependable than concert revenues, it was a smart move. Coke Studio became irresistible in cities and along the highways, constantly on replay via mobiles, in vehicle stereos and on the radio. Crucially, it also became available to the diaspora, an influential demographic on social networks and blogs. Word spread. The official Coke Studio fan page on Facebook has just under 300,000 fans, and the official YouTube channel – the videos, of course, proliferate via other IDs too, often with value-added services such as English subtitles, or portfolio shots of the stars interspersed with the broadcast – counts about 8.5 million views. The numbers may not seem like much in comparison to successes in fully digitised media cultures like the USA, or massive markets like India, but they represent a unique force for Pakistani music. And unlike, say, the aggregate Twitter following for a Bollywood star, this population contained a large number of those serious fans not put off by the dubious sponsorship and ice-lolly pop quotients. Writing in the Financial Times shortly after news of this monsoon's floods started to bubble up in worldwide media, the novelist Mohsin Hamid earnestly examined of the possibilities of hope for Pakistan.

'Hope takes many small forms. One of these is Coke Studio, a televised jam session that throws together unexpected musical combinations … It is part of a vast and downloadable music scene ... I have heard its songs as the ringtones of people ranging from bankers and shopkeepers to carpenters.'

Now three seasons down, Coke Studio has dealt with extremes of popularity and backlash. Some of those inveterate downloaders and caller-tune aficionados have excoriated the last season, which aired this July, for a variety of reasons, ranging from esotericism – with more folk and experimental sets than the last two seasons – to a certain feeling of pedestrianism after the unusual achievements of Season 2. Not even the appearances of Sufi legend Abida Parveen has shielded the show from criticism. But the music industry seems content to be philosophical. Omar Bilal Akhtar, vocalist of season 3 rock performers Aunty Disco Project, says, "Obviously with such massive exposure we get some pretty extreme reactions, but we've made more new fans than we could ever have imagined. Being on Coke Studio also lends a degree of credibility to being a musician in Pakistan. Before CS, if you told someone you were in a desi rock band, you got sympathy or condescension. We actually get people calling us back now."

It's not hard to extrapolate a future of eventual doom for such a monolith of cultural capital. How long before artistes who don't get a chance to establish their credentials via the show start to look for alternatives? How long before networks start to feel the tyranny of the show's distribution model? How long before the murmurs of more-of-the-sameness that circulated last month grow into ennui? Akhtar offers an insider's perspective of the benefits that offset these questions. "First, it's definitely raised the bar in terms of quality. We have artistes really pushing themselves to capture the audience's attention. CS has paved the way for experimentation. Popstars can sing with folk musicians, young female rockers can cover classic folk songs, song lengths can be greater than 3.5 mins. Second: it's improved standards for artistes themselves. I have never encountered the kind of professionalism nor seen the kind of equipment that was used in CS anywhere in Pakistan. Having worked with the best, the mainstream artistes in CS can now demand higher standards from the people around them, whether it's media promotion or audio engineering or recording."

Third, and perhaps most significantly in the short term, "there has been a resurgence in ethnic, Pakistani music. It's always been one of Rohail's goals to promote indigenous music. He's introduced my generation to our own country's music in a non-demagogical, refreshing way. It's cool to like folk and qawwali music now."

Akhtar and Aunty Disco Project may enjoy the cult status that all good rock acts aspire to – their Coke Studio song, Sultanat, is outrageously catchy – but as in the rest of the subcontinent, this is at some distance from the mainstream. The real revolution occurred in Hyatt's successfully bringing genuine fusion into the spotlight. It is by no means unheard of or unsuccessful in the subcontinent, particularly in A R Rahman-era Bollywood. But no matter how edgy film music gets, it is always grounded in its context: it is meant to be a background score for a movie and for its stars. By its very nature, fusion in film music is a metaphor for palatability, and the success of Rahman and his colleagues rests unabashedly on that. To imagine the effect of, say, that Strings-Ustad Gullo collaboration, Indians cannot rely on the sound of the movies. They will have to refer to their own live scene and its longtime experimenters like Shubha Mudgal or Ustad Sultan Khan, Indian Ocean and Mrigya. That platform is fortunately vibrant, but also limited in its reach.

By putting fusion front and centre on Pakistani prime-time television, Coke Studio changed the rules of engagement with an older tradition of subcontinental indie. Hyatt and his swanky studio equipment may have rearranged their framework, but the voices of Sindhi fakirs like Fakir Juman Shah, the words of Waris Shah and Bulleh Shah, and restylings of the tradition from vocalists Tina Sani and Arieb Azhar, wafted out of speakers louder and clearer than they ever had before.

And it is this sound that has repeatedly transfixed the YouTube trolls, and sustained a muted but anecdotally significant conversation in India since last year's breakout season. Rabbi Shergill's 2004 version of the Bulleh Shah poem Bulla ki Jaana was a genuine crossover hit, and perhaps one of the few recent instances where pop fusion achieved overwhelming mainstream acceptance, but it came with little context of its history for the vast numbers of the uninitiated, and remained a one-off. By contrast, Coke Studio's music hints at a vast shared context. At last year's TED India conference in Mysore, Pakistani delegates handed out Coke Studio CDs to Indian Fellows. Fans discover and re-discover individual sets through exchanges on Facebook and Twitter, joining in the largely English-language Pakistani chatter to geek out over the music. This networked population is partially deaf to the sound of televised musical contests produced in Mumbai, sceptical of MTV, and critically demanding of the output of Bollywood and urban indie alike. Coke Studio's folk throwback opens up new vistas for these Indian listeners, in much the same way that an array of bands from Junoon to Strings put Indian fans in touch with the astonishing range and accomplishments of the Pak-rock scene over the years.

"The show allows many Pakistanis to present an image of themselves to the rest of the world," Ahmer comments, "One which is simultaneously modern enough to be admitted into the pantheon of international-standard productions, and yet also fiercely embraces local music and tolerant, peace-loving lyrics, so that those nagging questions about identity can be put to bed by both secularists and Islamists, and everyone in between."

It is possible to stumble on a gem of a YouTube video that records Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's rendition of the Kalam-e-bahu and be enraptured by an artefact from a notionally common past. But to hear part of the same text in a glitzy, rocked-out performance of Alif Allah, Chambey di Booti by Arif Lohar and Meesha Shafi (the folkster and ex-model of Hamid's writing) is to clearly relate to that commonality in a language that is still mutually understood. It is not the equivalent of Pakistanis watching Hindi films, or the two countries meeting on the cricket field – it is an awareness that predates both those forms. It may make the question of 'why we don't have this' in India seem urgent, but it also simultaneously makes it banal and self-involved, and a little irrelevant.

anosh irani, dahanu road

A version of this review first appeared on, here

#83 Dahanu Road, Anosh Irani

To many residents of Mumbai, Dahanu is an area slightly more of a cypher than parts of Delhi or Chennai. It is a fruit-growing, amenity-inhibited outpost that will someday be swallowed up by the city, an exurb connected to the metropolis at the very last stop on the suburban Western line. Nothing could seem further flung from the diverse, super-urbane neighbourhoods in South and Southwest Mumbai built and occupied by the city's venerated Zoroastrian community. Yet, Dahanu is also a Zoroastrian enclave. As Indo-Canadian author Anosh Irani explains to his readers, it is the settler colony of a more recent diaspora of Persian exiles: the Iranis who fled Arab persecution in the 20th rather than the 10th century, and followed their ancestors to India's west coast. The history of their diaspora is distinct from that of the Parsis of urban Mumbai, and the conflict of those identities flickers in and out of the book in a string of bright, unsteady backstories for the Iranis who populate its pages.

But the Dahanu of Dahanu Road, with its sun-warmed orchards and open sea can also be stifling, a soil that can only sustain one kind of growth. Like the chickoo trees they farm, the Iranis have flourished here. In doing so, they have disenfranchised the Warli tribals who are the land's original inhabitants. The result is a proto-feudal society in which the Warlis provide labour to their prosperous Irani landlords, and receive little pay, less security and no social justice for their troubles. This is the background against which Anosh Irani sets his story, a history in which his clan of fictional Iranis assume the position of chief actors, as well as observers. The protagonist Zairos is a charming young man whose days are spent biking around the farmlands he stands to inherit, shuttling from family home to family home, and spending the day in the company of other charming men who have presumably never worked a collective day in their lives. The Iranis may have their differences with the Parsis, but the author's character sketches evoke the familiar figures of other fictional Zoroastrians - a community that occupies no small part in the canon of cinema and writing about Mumbai - in their dissolute, self-avowedly eccentric personae. Zairos' friends and relations are aware of their detachment from the currents of community life in the big city, and the glowing Parsi record of social and economic achievement. To characters like Zairos' father Aspi, this becomes the cornerstone of a perverse joy in the rough edges of Irani life out in the mofussil. To those like his grandfather Shapur, a first-generation immigrant from Iran, it is a shadow over his primal connection with Dahanu, the first land he is able to possess and call his own. Shapur marries a Parsi woman, Banu, and brings her to live out in the wilds where his chickoo orchards are taking root. Banu dies a young woman, under mysterious circumstances, leaving Shapur with a lifelong grief, and the beginnings of a dynasty.

Zairos, the youngest of that line, is the keeper of the stories an aged Shapur recounts to him on the family verandah. The Iranis' history of oppressing the Warlis may not stretch beyond a few decades, but it carries with it all the heft and consequence of colonial atrocity, sanctioned by law where law exists, and assuming the grim outlines of cowboys-and-Indians narratives where it doesn't. Few of these stories stir Zairos, though, until he sets eyes on Kusum, the daughter of an old labourer and the wife of an abusive husband. Their growing relationship involves a negotiation of boundaries Zairos has never sought to breach before. Through its fulfillment, the novel suggests, change may come to Dahanu.

Irani operates in a register that should be familiar to regular readers of the South Asian saga. Dahanu Road tells a big, messy story about a small place, covering some fresh ground in the process. The novel strikes the reader as a rare experiment in mapping the space between India's urban and rural communities; so also the overlap between communities that are popularly considered to be made up of fundamentally urban or rural people. There is a wide gap between the Irani and Warli stories, and the novel attempts to address this. But in attempting to write a Warli story, the author is on far shakier ground than when he sticks with his Irani protagonists. For an earnest shot at fictionalising a history of Warli oppression, there are few moments in which the writing presents the Warli characters with any sort of directness. For most of them – and especially all the Warli men – there is little existence outside a vicious cycle of poverty, bondage, alcoholism and unemployment. In looking at Irani-Warli relations through, among other things, the lens of gender, the narrative is gendered, too. It falls into several familiar traps. In attempting to portray a society destroyed by outside greed and prejudice, we revisit a scenario excused all too readily in fiction because it is easy to presume that it conforms to reality: the only characters with voices are the ones who serve to further the protagonists' narratives. Even Kusum, the female protagonist, appears to us so largely through Zairos' point of view, that her own inner life - revealed when the authorial voice occasionally switches points of view away from Shapur or Zairos - appears tangential.

No doubt this narrative, and others like it, are important, but they are also incomplete. By staying so close to the perspectives of its oppressors -- the Dahanu equivalent of nice guys though they may be -- Dahanu Road constructs itself explicitly as a narrative of guilt, for familial crimes as well as social ones. A narrative of guilt is also a narrative of redemption, and that is ultimately what Dahanu Road seeks to bestow on its central characters. Unfortunately, redemption is not a literary commodity that is easy to control. We live in days when we are continually reminded that the arc of the moral universe is long, but bends towards justice. Perhaps the gendering in Dahanu Road is meant to remind us that as in life, justice and redemption are neither available equally to all, nor able to erase the gap between the unequal. Shapur and Zairos are the focal points of the story, but the women, Banu and Kusum, are its axes. They are divided by a deep and poisoned gulf of class and history, but it is remarkable how alike their fates are. At the end of the novel, Zairos climbs the hill of Bahrot, sacred to the history of Indian Zoroastrianism, to make peace with his legacies. His forbidden bond with Kusum - the link to his future - is legitimised as he revisits the past. For Kusum herself, as for the wistful shade of his Parsi grandmother, no such redemption is readily available. There are some lights in which the distance between eras seem very short indeed.

an announcement, a review

So that joblessness thing did not work out very well. Not only did I NOT have a chance to write a single book update for this blog, I did not have the chance to READ more than a couple of books all the way through last month. But now that I have a new job, I should get my time management completely wrong all over again, and updates should be frequent! Yay! Right?

Anyway. I did write a couple of reviews for the books section of CNN-IBN's website, last month. Here's one of them.

#82 Tiger Hills, Sarita Mandanna

There are several characteristics of the Indian novel in English that Sarita Mandanna's Tiger Hills commandeers in all seriousness, perhaps aiming for their reinvention among the hills and plantations of Coorg. If there are readers who have never before read a novel full of lush Indian crops, rained-on Indian villages and sprawling Indian houses inhabited by agonised but fecund Indian families, they should have no trouble knowing them by heart, as it were, within pages of Tiger Hills. Mandanna treats the reader to a reiteration of the Great Indian Novel, many of whose norms are now so familiar that they have passed into the realm of parody. Yet, if she is aware that omens of foreboding, floral analogies for sex, far-sighted grandmothers and illicit affairs with white people are a bit 1990s, she writes in defiance of that awareness.

So the birth of Devi, the tempestuous and beautiful heroine, is heralded by the circling of a flock of herons, who will make their appearance repeatedly through the book at moments of especial doom in her life. Her love affairs are conducted in bowers of laburnum flowers. Devanna – her best friend and eventually the architect of her destiny – is mentored by a kindly German missionary who is secretly a tortured gay man. The bald facts of narrative do not occur in a vacuum: every repetition of a familiar image is an anchor of its overall effect, and Tiger Hills aims for nothing more than unreconstructed nostalgia, and unexamined, heaving-bosom notions of grand passions.

And of what? The book's publicists explicitly drew a connection between Tiger Hills and Gone With The Wind, which is a popular classic because, not in spite of, the sterotypes of place and race that it perpetuates. There are glancing familiarities between the two: both feature strong-willed, unsympathetic heroines, tempestuous love triangles, and multi-generational consequences for the mistakes of a few. But more pervasive yet is the presence of a stifling, objectifying point of view that reduces the landscape and history of a place under the guise of authorial love, an emotional investment that, at least in Tiger Hills, succeeds only in being overwrought and essentialising. Early in the book, the German missionary Gundert, writing on the Coorgs, is quoted:

"They constitute a highland clan, free from the trammels of caste, with the manly bearing and independent spirit natural in those who have been, from time immemorial, true lords of the soil...I have often been approached by them, demonstrating a frank, open curiosity in my antecendents and in a refreshing departure from the obsequiousness so readily found elsewhere, with no hesitation in taking my hand in a grip as firm as any I have experienced."

Tiger Hills upholds this imagined positivism. The Coorgs of the novel are passionate, sexualised beings, with speech full of local colour, destinies predicated on violence and solemn vows, and little inner life that does not relate to any of the above. As sprawling and elaborate as the plots of the novel are, it also mirrors Gone With The Wind in its romanticisation of rape – nowhere near as egregious as the 'Rhett Butler, Animal Lover' moment of Mitchell's novel, but in its elided use as a tool of coincidence, to further the narrative and even, laughably, to elicit post-facto sympathy for the suffering rapist.

Writers – particularly in the Great Indian Novel tradition – are often accused of exoticising India for foreign audiences, but perhaps it's time to look at Mandanna's book not merely as another instance of the 'mango-motifs' narratives which are produced and presumably read in the West, but as a product of a late Indian obsession with self-consciousness. Tiger Hills is just as reminiscent of ironic self-parodies of old Hindi films in nu-age Bollywood, or the indefatigable reproduction of everything from dabbawaalas to autorickshaws in popular art. Its appeal is the appeal of kitsch, in both form and content. Its invocation of, and affection for history go so far, but no further. It may recall Gone With The Wind without the overt racism; but it also does recall Om Shanti Om without the comedy track.

A version of this review first appeared on, here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

riordan: the percy jackson series, books 1-5

#77 Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief
#78 Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters
#79 Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse
#80 Percy Jackson and the Battle of the Labyrinth
#81 Percy Jackson and the Last Olympian
Rick Riordan

Because lay readers like me assume an understanding of the characters of the Homeric epics and the Attic plays, and because we have some measure of their audiences, we also presume to understand the anthropomorphised gods, who directed the morality of these texts and in whose honour they were created and performed, as literary phenomena. The Iliad becomes a living, breathing equivalent (or superior) to the ruins of the Parthenon in that sense. But as with the architecture of the Hellenic age, so much of the cultural plunder carried out with impunity by the British Empire in the last 250 years incorporated these texts into one narrow view of the linearity of Western civilisation, that it is also made available to us largely through that particular context. Although the Empire's relationship with Greek and Latin history is somewhat complicated - for reasons which uber-fantasist of Leithien, JRR Tolkien, knew very well - it was not enough to prevent the appropriation of a crucial chunk of historic culture, not as a philosophical inheritance, already disseminated by the Renaissance (itself famously made possible only through long centuries of Islamic/Judaic salvagepunk in North Africa and West Asia), but in a continuum of dominance. If Christian social justice was a formative element of the Empire's self-justification, then the Hellenic spirit, as understood in the prep rooms of Eton, was its elegant, secular ego.

The Percy Jackson books may render this history arcane through sheer innocuousness, but their fundamental premise threw me off precisely because it is another reiteration of how this appropriation continues to influence the self-image of the Anglo-American West, and the construction of its history as essentially imperial or militarist. The ghosts of ancient Rome have long dogged the USA's footsteps, so maybe it was just a matter of time before someone once again vaporised the oppositions between Rome and Athens and did it. The time came: someone was Rick Riordan. Rick Riordan relocates the Greek pantheon in the only place where they can truly belong in the unipolar world: at the top of the Empire State Building. The gods are the keepers of the flame of Western civilisation - where its centre goes, so they go: from Greece to Rome, to Britain, to the USA. (I won't ask uncomfortable questions about where they went during Byzantium's magnificent stint as the cultural capital of the 'West,' or how they felt about Jerusalem - but I wonder if this means they had a bad case of whiplash during the first few centuries of Modern Europe? France! Venice! Spain! Holland! Austro-Hungary - no, France again! Damnit, Western civilisation, HOLD STILL!) They meddle in the lives of human beings, like always, and this results in the production of a veritable army of demigods, born of part-human, part-godly parentage. The complication is that after World War II, an escalation of a conflict of the children of Hades versus the offspring of the other two elder siblings of the pantheon, Zeus and Poseidon, the Big Three shake on a pact to produce no more mortal offspring, as they are clearly detrimental to Western civilisation, and prophesied to bring further destruction. Alas! As flies are to small boys, so promises to the gods, etc. There are some slip-ups, and demigods occur. Of particular interest to us is Perseus Jackson, the product of a summer fling on a beach vacation between the smart, lovely Sally Jackson and the god of the sea. Percy is not just evidence of that post-war breach of promise, but also the possible subject of that oracular warning of destruction. Who are the others who might fulfil this prophecy? Who will side with Percy in the oncoming celestial war? And just what are the Titans getting up to, stirring in the pits of the world?

A hero Percy becomes, and remains. Riordan is meticulous about building a narrative to scale up, within individual books as well as the series arc, and its pays off in a consistently arresting way. The final battle takes place in a New York City - Percy's hometown and a place of great warmth and attachment for him - frozen in time, spread out over much of the last book. Saving New York, and protecting his family, becomes the focus of Percy's war. It is a war of belonging, and an acknowledgment of the continual sacrifices demanded of the condition of belonging. It is the loneliness of not attaining your rightful place that decays proud individualism into outright villainny, after all. Even the gods are paranoid about it; how can an antagonist, whether he is a disaffected teen demigod, or (to make the most obvious comparison) Voldemort, be any different?

The series is most like trend rajah Harry Potter in the character of Percy himself: in him we see all the early promise of Harry, the socially shunned, 'different' kid (among other things, Percy struggles with dyslexia and ADHD, which we later discover to be symptoms of demigod DNA) who half-inherits, half-earns the mantle of Saviour of A Way Of Life. He too is remarkably suited to heroism because of his personal bravery and loyalty. (Alas, we know those very qualities earn Harry the right to be insufferable somewhere midway through the Potter series and continue in that vein all the way to the end. Percy's development is also unhelpfully self-aggrandising, but I will say it for him and Riordan - he is never a lost cause. His world is uniquely American in its resemblance to 'verses like Buffy the Vampire Slayer: wisecracking, playfully bathetic, individualistic, and even tender, in a very unclassical way.

What is truly interesting is how well this elides, in Riordan's stories, with the violent, un-Romantic, individual -independent mythology of the Greek pantheon. Homer does not survive among us simply because of academic conspiracies, after all; there is something we thrill to, in era after era, about what he has to say about the violatory nature of power, its abiding capacity to self-perpetuate in cycles of randomness and cruelty, and its shameless and joyous corruption. It is a truth we hold to be self-evident, and that no amount of New Testament hegemony can reverse or erase. In a deadpan way, Percy chronicles just how random, violatory, etc. the divine will can be, and how ill-equipped human beings are to behave any differently. Percy and the Olympians are nominally on the same side, fighting for Western civilisation - Olympian civilisation - against the destructive reawakening of the Titans, but Percy is pretty open-eyed about the dubious good in it for the mortal world. The Olympians are forgetful, neglectful parents, after all, and cruel, favouritist, selfish creatures - in fact, in these very qualities are the seeds of their downfall. But their love for their children, when it does manifest, makes them in the human image more successfully than anything else they could possibly do, and as Percy could do much worse than Poseidon, so also the world.

The revolutionary potential of these ideas deserves a moment of consideration. If a battle need not be between Good and Evil - then need it be a battle at all? If a hero's brief is to survive and preserve, rather than destroy and perish, then does he have to be a warrior at all? In its final pages, The Last Olympian provides such a thoughtful and, yes, tender reversal of the heroic trajectory that you see the series' potential for reverse-engineering a great deal of the conventions of the heroic narrative itself. Alas, aside from the last book's dramatic denouement, no imaginative reconfiguring of Homeric regret seems possible. Uncap his sword - otherwise concealed in his pocket as a ballpoint pen - Percy must; rally the forces of demigods at Camp Half-Blood (Hogwarts as summer camp, divided into twelve houses on the basis of parentage) he must; rely on the wits of his Athene-born friend Annabeth, the bloodthirstiness of the Ares camp, the healing abilities and crack shots of the Apollo house, etc etc he must. After all, the pantheon is not a prescriptive body. They cannot teach the human race how to live: they can only oblige us to be heroes, and extract the price continually.

eta. Neglected at first writing to compare it with the small industry of Classics retellings in literature -- pointless because it is not a retelling or engagement with Classical texts, but rather classic YA fantasy narrative, where Greek gods take the place of wizards/vampires/other worldview-altering supernatural beings. But if you are looking to compare it with retakes of Homer or the dramatists in any form, you must brace yourself for a comfortingly hackneyed spin on Greek mythology, one for which a familiarity with the Wikipedia article rather than the primary texts is more than enough. I suppose the whole 'Olympus on Empire State Building' bit is as good an indication as any of what to expect.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

stepchild of time indeed

Sorry, updates have been a bit thin on the ground over the last couple of weeks, haven't they? August has been somewhat cray cray, but I can pretty much guarantee that September will be different: starting when, I will be an unemployed person! Well, mostly. I will be writing here and there to keep the Blackberry bills paid and so on, but this is a Major Life Change. I am so excited about the prospect of being a gigantic hipster that it can only end in tears. Or the baking of cupcakes.

While we wait for that, and I collect my thoughts and energies re. several fantasy novels that have been awaiting review for, oh, months now (cripes), I just thought I'd clue you in to a couple of things I wrote over the last week: over at august blog The Run Of Play, a freewheeling consideration of what Pelé means to football history, called "Stepchild of Time". It involves Tolkien, cricket, and Moti Nandy, among other things: any feedback would be cherished.

I also went to watch a bunch of movies over August - three, which is more than I've seen over the last year combined - but I chose to write a short note about the one I liked least, Aisha. You can read it here, which is where I generally write short notes about things. I know, I should really get a website.

Anyway, see you in a week or so. Maybe before! I am, of course, embroiled in Twitter over here, so if you want some of that fishhook/open eye stuff, get in.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

gentleman's sextet

Some men's writing I read over the last couple of months, notes on.

#71 The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

One-line summary: The newspaper industry is failing, even in Rome.

A highly polished string of stories about various individuals working for an eccentric American newspaper based out of Rome. Well-told, without much range in emotional tenor and structure. So studiously twentieth-century in its tone that the title seems unbearably twee in retrospect; maybe The Hacks would have worked better.

#72 Patna Roughcut, Siddharth Chowdhury

One-line summary: A chip on the shoulder made manifest in pen and ink.

A small, evocative novel about growing up smart in Patna. Characters universally recognised in the personal histories of most urban Indians of a certain generation come to life in tender, elegiac portraits, and a self-conscious, sometimes sardonic voice does not mask the furious affection for, and alienation from the home city, experienced most keenly when you have returned to it.

#73 Freedom for Sale, John Kampfner

One-line summary: Less provocative than it says on the tin.

Kampfner travels to eight countries to analyse the failure of the democratic experiment, particularly with regards to the trade-off between free speech, capitalism and governance. His central argument - all over the world, ostensibly democratic or democratising nations are colluding in the destruction of their own public freedoms for the sake of private freedoms - is a sound one; especially resonant in the context of debates wherein the fur flew thick and furious in India after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai (a situation to which Kampfner devotes a chapter). However, his reportage leaves much to be desired, rather obvious to me in the case of countries like the UAE, or China, which also come under his scrutiny for reasons not fully explained.

#74 Following Fish, Samanth Subramanian

One-line summary: Fish are better than you.

A charming collection of essays about Subramanian's delightful travels down and up the length of the Indian coastline, from Kolkata to Mumbai, reporting on the cultures and cuisines of the pescatarian communities that are some of India's oldest as well as its most dynamic. An easy wit and an enthusiasm for Indian seafood make most essays in this collection shine, although one often gets the sense that the author tries to leave his narratives as unclouded as possible by not delving too deep into the politics of class and environmentalism that his stories circle around again and again.

#75 A Country Doctor's Notebook, Mikhail Bulgakov, trans. Michael Glenny

One-line summary: Fictionalised Bulgakov recounts stories of his medical residency in a rural Russian hamlet; remains sexy while doing so.

Mikhail, Mikhail, Mikhail. If you wrote Anna Karenina I would not have put it off to read until after I am retired. This is classic comfort reading of a certain sort: mordant, organised around self-doubt and an almost elemental dread of nature, shot through with early 20th century European manpain and enlightement (manlightenment?), but the muted Bulgakovness is ever a joy. Be mine, Mikhail Bulgakov. Be mine.

#76 Amulet, Roberto Bolano, trans. Chris Andrews

One-line summary: The mother of Mexican poetry recounts the pain and madness of a magical-realist Mexico City.

I don't like magical realism and this slim book did not change my views. To be fair, I have read no Bolano before this, and picked it for the basest of reasons - I wanted to carry an extra book on a flight and this was slimmer than The Savage Detectives and 2666. I realised in retrospect that the central character of this book is connected to 2666, and perhaps I would have approached it with more humility had I known as much. As it is, I'm willing to praise Bolano's poetic vision and his fantastic ability to write set pieces, while feeling totally unmoved by the book on the whole.

trapido, fitzgerald, oksanen

Backlog-clearing restarted with a vengeance, but none of these reviews, curtailed as they are, obliged me by confining themselves to a line each.

#68 Sex and Stravinsky, Barbara Trapido

One-line summary: Star-crossed couples, lonely daughters, the long arm of art.

Curiously half-hearted: even the title seems like a gimmicky ploy to capture airport readers who know not of the wonders of La Trapido. The bright-eyed, velvet-suckerpunch fatalism of her other books plays out astonishingly like bitterness here, which is not a bad thing in itself, but combines poorly with Trapido's uncharacteristic failure to pull off her usual narrative coup, infusing modern-day fairy stories with the grandeur and terror of classic grand narratives. There's so much possibility here, as the story criss-crosses hemispheres and continents; Trapido's return to South Africa is accompanied as ever by her delightful ability to paint real, lovable characters with quick, sharp strokes, and her musical ear for dialogue and voice. But her deprecatory sense of humour serves the big tragedies (bigger than the usual Trapido tragedies, even) of this book only partially; the glimmering of her wit and intelligence inconsistent, if lovely and fulfilling in their flashes. An interesting, thorny sort of specimen for Trapido enthusiasts, perhaps, but not, I think, a book for first-time readers.

(More on Trapido in Book Munch here.)

#69 The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald

One-line summary: Florence Green opens a bookstore in a slumbering English hamlet.

I was going to say, 'even the classic Fitzgerald wit is unable to mask the what a great tragic novel this is,' but the classic Fitzgerald wit is never meant to mask tragedy, only to co-exist with it, as a Donne-esque rein to its pride. Perhaps The Bookshop is meant to caution humour in its turn: life goes on, sure, but so does grief, and so, perhaps, does shame. Everything about this book is small: a small town, a small idea, small people. (Quite literally, two of its most vibrant characters are also children). In that smallness is the big, seemingly implacable tragedy of Fitzgerald's story. The quiet, almost comforting elegance of her voice masks a fierceness and impatience with the language of ruefulness. But there is no cleansing of the poisoned gulf of human habit in this story, only the acknowledgment that a hero, even an unlikely one, cannot always win; a hero cannot even always be a hero.

(My review of Fitzgerald's delightful Human Voices earlier on Book Munch, here.)

#70 Purge, Sofi Oksanen, trans. Lola Rogers

One-line summary: The tragedies of the nation-state played out in the lives and on the bodies of its women, across generations.

Terrifying and very good if you have access to a cup of tea and a chaise-longue after. Not sunny, not redemptive, not concerned in the least with sunniness or redemption, but resolutely free of all the self-aggrandising trappings of tragedy (I seem to be giving tragedy a hard time in this post) as well. Secrets are bound up in the lives of people here: from the days of Estonia in World War II, to its Communist generations, to the unlikely and unpremeditated return of a Russian citizen who is Not What She Seems, silence is a historical imperative. How this is bound up with the secrets that accompany birth and survival is a story told through the complicated history of Aliide, of the violently damaged Zara who lands up at her doorstep one day, and the occasional glimpse of written records from another time. Readers who find Stieg Larsson's pamphleteering use of graphic sexual violence against women questionable will find Oksanen's forthright use of the same tactic both less grotesque and less bearable. Oksanen also uses gender hatred as a means to talk about the betrayals of the state's responsibilities, but her narrative is a revisitation of a country's history, not a musing over its future as Larsson's books are; it can accuse, but it cannot pass sentence.

Next backlog update will be a special one for Teh Menz: Tom Rachman, Siddharth Chowdhury, John Kampfner, Samanth Subramanian, and Roberto Bolano.

Monday, August 02, 2010

on a r rahman

This short essay grew out of a brief to think about A R Rahman and his music as a catalyst in India's changing relationship with the world. A version of it appears in Verve's August 2010 issue, which is on stands now.

The Alchemist

The search for the emblematic global Indian should be long over. It should have ended the moment we heard the words ‘Mere paas maa hai’ from the stage of the Kodak Theatre on a spring evening in 2009. ‘I may have nothing -- but I have a mother.’ That was our man, speaking our language, quoting a line we have long accepted and parodied as one of our definitive homilies, from Bollywood’s mouth to India’s heart. Could anything be more us?

There are two major reasons why the verdict on that search – a verdict that says, ‘This is the One True Indian, the face of the nation to all the world’s intents and purposes’ – hasn’t been signed, sealed and delivered yet. One reason is the global inconvenience of constricting the idea of India to the stereotype of a single achievement on a single stage. The other, more compelling one, is our candidate himself. From the very outset of his career, A R Rahman –elusive, publicly shy, even somewhat aloof – has resisted every notion of his ever delivering a definitive product, whether it is of his music, or of himself. Lazy media pegs of the emblematic devout Muslim are circumvented offhand: orthodox expectations haven’t hampered the creation some of the last decade’s most memorable bhajans (as an unauthorised biography carelessly suggests it had) – or working with those paragons of impropriety, the Pussycat Dolls and Akon. Rubber-stamping Rahman is no longer an option. But not for him the chameleonic reinventions of other pop icons; not, either, the cosmetic applications of ‘versatility’ that we use for other artistes who play with genres and disciplines.

The truth is that Rahman can never stand outside that ongoing story of the Indian transformation long enough for us to stop and pin him down to any single moment of change, any simple notion of a presiding icon. You have to have a pedestal on which to put an icon, and this one has always been a work in progress. "He can only ever raise the bar for us," says composer Amit Trivedi (Dev D., Aisha) of his effect on film music. "His music brought in a technological revolution. It changed the way he we listen to Hindi film music, the way we respond to it, maybe even the way we buy it, forever."

This is widely, if not always openly acknowledged in an industry where, as Trivedi says, "everyone wants to get the Rahman sound." Like the rest of India, Trivedi first heard the maestro on Roja (1992), then Thiruda Thiruda (Mani Ratnam’s almost-simultaneous Tamil release, dubbed in Hindi as Chor Chor), and Kaadhalan/Humse Hai Muqabla (1994). "The way the tracks were laid down, the arrangements – they were totally new. And the music totally engrossed and engaged you. It made you think: yeh asli cheez hai. This is real; real like nothing else."

Mr Synthesiser, known and even briefly derided for his extensive use of what laymen called ‘computer music,’ was to have this effect on all of India. This was one transformation for which the time was right. Rahman’s music, instead of falling through the crack of that age-old tension in the film music industry between ‘melody’ and ‘technology,’ bridged the gap with all the ease of someone producing, well, a jingle.

Film critic Baradwaj Rangan, who has also written extensively on Rahman’s music, believes that the composer’s sound is the confluence of his genius with the vision of those who have mounted an appropriate stage for his talents. “If another composer had a project comparable to Lagaan or Rang De Basanti to work with, then we’d have a proper basis for comparison,” he says. But there isn’t. Trivedi, a composer whose smash-hit debut album Dev D. was forged in creative partnership with another Bollywood visionary, Anurag Kashyap, also emphasises that collaboration “plays a major role, if you share a certain vibe with the director. Creative freedom always shows.”

But if Rahman has an unprecedented share in the creative vision of his directors, it is because he has repaid their confidence in his genius many times over. It becomes difficult to tell whether the multiplex mentality of the 2000s – the unified, complex, subtle narrative – came before the Rahman era of music, or whether the music influences the way we respond to these new modes of filmmaking. Can Rahman’s sound be pinned down to the requirements and advantages of the multiplex era of film music? Veteran writer on Hindi cinema, Nasreen Munni Kabir, who is currently working on Rahman’s official biography, finds this a fallacy. “All this is very well. But if the music doesn’t deliver, nothing else would matter. I don’t believe his recent music is less accessible to the Indian moviegoer. Simpler tunes may have their place, but they come and go. Think of SD Burman, Roshan, Naushad. Sophistication and layering in music is what lasts.”

“If you read the script, for example, of Delhi-6,” says filmmaker Vijayeta Kumar, who doubles up as Rahman’s stylist, “what’s on the page might make you hear something very traditional, very typical of old Delhi.” Let the record show that the soundtrack Rahman produced was anything but typical. Trivedi thinks it’s one of the best albums he has ever done, and a fitting answer to the ‘multiplex’ accusation; Rangan hears echoes of ‘Sting-meets-Steely-Dan’ in it; Kumar hears house and funk. And all this of the album that caused Rekha Bhardwaj, the vocalist on its biggest hit Genda Phool, to once remark, ‘Rahman is one of those composers who is bringing the traditional sound of India, the folk sound, back into the mainstream.’ Whew.

It’s alright if listeners have lost track after all these years, of the wellspring of the Rahman sound. There’s a sense, more so in recent times than ever, that it’s okay to give up, to be led by the hand into the musical discoveries every subsequent Rahman score leads us to make. It started out in his early work as the buzz of an almost physical energy. When he reinvented the earthy sound of folk (in songs like Rukmini Rukmini in Roja) or created insta-pop hits (the delightful Chikku Bukku Raile from Gentleman, dubbed in Hindi as Chika Pika Rika – a distant early echo of the locomotive rhythms of Dil Se’s Chaiyya Chaiyya) it was inadequately but conveniently explained as the ‘dance’ sound, keyed in to the new, lo-fi vibe of the 1990s, which fed into the thumping basslines and atmospheric funk of our digital present. Rahman didn’t just bring the CD into that piping, treble-ish tape-recorder world of ours – he brought the iPod, too.

In many ways, rethinking music has always been the film industry’s job, both in the South and in Bollywood. Our popular music has always been mongrel, assimilating both the grand classical traditions of the subcontinent, and alien, inaccessible genres from other parts of the world, to transmute them into a unique Indian film vocabulary. But Rahman’s was no one-way tracking of the present into the future. As his career progressed, his enormously complex talent annexed and revamped not just one sound, but whole traditions of popular music. At first, his use of non-standard playback voices took us aback, but eventually taught us to appreciate the pleasures of hearing songs in the voices – to take just a random sample – of old ladies, children, singers without classical educations, and folk artistes otherwise relegated to the margins of the typical Bollywood number to provide regional colour. The film song, in Rahman’s hands, was still a creation of magic, beaming across celestial frequencies in the voices of angels. It’s just that the angels now warbled in different keys.

It’s instructive to remember Rahman’s unlikely predecessor in the innovation stakes in Hindi cinema. For decades, RD Burman’s effortless, cheeky genius made him a sort of Petrucchio to Bollywood’s Katherina, simultaneously harassing and liberating, eventually wholly irresistible. His vocal stylings and experimentation, his free-handed borrowing of rock ’n’ roll and cabaret, his ability to pull off the purest raga-based melody as well as the aching grooviness of the Western dance number, made him the last man to stamp Bollywood so indelibly. The Rahman oeuvre can be described in similar terms, but the breadth and depth of his work have already saved him from any notional assumption of an ‘inheritance,’ whether from Burman or anyone else. Who in the days of carelessly racist ‘tribal noises’ endlessly reproduced in Bollywood’s nightclub and kidnapping scenarios would have dreamed of the world of ‘jungle’ rhythms, African percussion and folk choruses Rahman incorporated into his work? Who, indeed, might have imagined that a day would arrive when Bollywood’s signature orchestral arrangements would allow room for the light-filled, almost Baroque waltz scores in Lagaan and Guru?

Rangan says that the true departure from the past is one of atmosphere. “The old songs had great singers like Lata Mangeshkar carrying you through the melody with the force of their voice. In Rahman’s work, the stridency of an instrument, or the force of a great vocal, will come through filtered, in a way that makes it very pleasing to hear. That ambient sound – whether you want to call it the ‘multiplex’ sound or not – is consistent through his work.”

Take that cherished old staple of Hindi cinema, the fusty, reliable, instantly stereotypical movie qawwali. Before Rahman, the definitive image of the Bollywood qawwali was Rishi Kapoor in a parrot-green silk churidar, surrounded by clapping musicians and flying scarves. Today, the ‘Sufi’ sound, as it is broadly defined, is very much Bollywood’s go-to flavour, embraced and celebrated in everything from the thumping popular hits of Himesh Reshammiya and Pritam, to the brighter, more resonant sounds of Salim-Sulaiman. But it is in the work of Rahman that this most powerful of subcontinental musical modes has attained true postmodernity. Spurred by the cross-border resurgence of popular Sufi music in the 90s, influenced by his own spiritual inquiry, Rahman has produced some of the most astonishing pieces of Hindi film music of the last decade in this form. Thanks to him, the film qawwali does not signify any one narrow cultural context: it sounds, not in the key of earthly celebration, but in that of contemplation and discovery.

And perhaps this is the best way to understand how Rahman is India’s resident alchemist. He is a man whose work functions as a two-way conversation between this country and the rest of the world because the brass tacks of musical transformation – of technology, genre, even tradition – are simply the bases for his artistic experiments. Rahman’s music doesn’t simply offer us change: it offers us transcendence. “People in the West, right since 2002’s Bombay Dreams musical, hear fabulous melodies and spiritual energy in his music. That’s why they like it,” says Kabir. “My favourite of all of Rahman’s modes is his soulful one,” Trivedi concurs. “It’s when he comes closest, quite literally, to divine inspiration.”

For a country who thinks its time has arrived, India is sometimes accused of being too invested in its cultural successes abroad - cricket records, Nobel Prizes, Oscars for films set in our slums. Rahman is one of the very few whose crossover has been so successful that he rises above those dubious spurts of patriotic adrenalin. When his work is performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, or British Prime Minister David Cameron signs up to felicitate him with an Asian Award for his musical achievements, we now shrug – it’s no longer out of the ordinary. The legendary Milos Forman film about Mozart’s life was called after the maestro’s second name, ‘Amadeus,’ Latin for ‘beloved of God.’ It’s a moniker that Indians would thrill to, in a country where music, both in its high classical forms as well as its rustic, earthy registers is so extensively dedicated to praising deities across forms and religions. It is incredible, but true, that Rahman, the product of these decades of change, was never really the architect of a schism between the old and the new – he turned out to be the evangelist of an ultimate union, the evangelist of a new, sublime dialect. Perhaps it’s time to give the ‘Mozart of Madras’ a more fitting name, and start calling him India’s Amadeus.