Saturday, December 24, 2011

where are the greeks among you?

Draw your lots and enter.

It's been a small year in many ways. It's been a year of bylines and second dates, brief meetings with old friends and a slow accumulation of new ones. For the first time this year more people asked me, "When are you writing a book?" than "When are you getting married?," a fact that becomes almost totally irrelevant when you count the number of days I spent at literature festivals versus the number of days I spent at my ancestral home in Kerala.

I have provided no proof of life here in spite of the fact that I am not writing a book. I'm not sure if I don't want to write a book at all, or whether I'm deathly afraid of what it's going to be about. In either case, the complementary truth is that this year I have really enjoyed being a journalist. If I had updated this blog at all, it is too likely that I would have been re-posting something I had written for the paper.

In case anyone is still reading this, let's write it off. I'll add them to the archive at some point. In their place, here is a short round-up of the things that went into the making of 2011.

As with 2010, I read a lot, both on and off the job, although perhaps not as much as last year. Looking through those book blog entries from '10, I find myself missing the excitement of spontaneous and informal criticism. I've reviewed some books in the paper this year, (mostly) plugging in for when I couldn't find a real critic for the books pages. So much of that writing has been a learning process that I completely forgot the joy of keeping a book journal for the fun of it. It will be quite impossible for me to write such a thing AND continue to review in print, so I'm afraid there are no New Year's resolutions to be made there.

My favourite book published this year was probably Aman Sethi's A Free Man (link to my review). Aman did something that needed doing, in as much as any situation really needs a book written about it, and he did it brilliantly. I've thought a lot about long-form journalism and the trade-offs of fact and narrative. Aman's book created an emotional truth with a journalism of fact that was both pyrotechnic and intensely personal; these are two things I usually dislike in newspapers, but am growing to trust in longer stories. My favourite fiction was probably Hanan al-Shaykh's One Thousand and One Nights, a transcreation to adore and cherish.

The book I read this year that had the greatest impact on me was Neera Adarkar and Meena Menon's One Hundred Years, One Hundred Voices, which was published in 2005 and thankfully hasn't gone out of print yet, in spite of humanity's general unworthiness. Adarkar produced my other favourite book of 2011, an anthology of multidisciplinary writing about chawls called Galleries of Life: The Chawls of Mumbai. One Hundred Years is a collection of oral histories from the workers, residents, artists and politicians of Bombay's mill district, by two writers who have worked closely with political and social movements in the area for years. It is careful, scrupulous and utterly absorbing. Parts of it are devastating and moving. And almost all of it (apparently closely translated and brilliantly introduced by none other than Rajnarayan Chandavarkar) is in the voice of the people who made it happen.

The worst book I read this year was probably Jeffrey Eugenides' The Marriage Plot. (I reviewed it but honestly can't be bothered). The author I read most was either Susan Elizabeth Phillips, who writes very good contemporary romance novels, usually involving golfers, or Loretta Chase, who writes brilliant Regency romances, which always involve the aristocracy: I offer my close attention to their work in spite of these repellent aspects as evidence of their genius.

Two books I read almost simultaneously were beautiful spins on classic European literature. Ursula Le Guin's Lavinia (2006, I think) is a novel about the woman who marries Aeneas in the final books of the Virgil, and has no speaking lines at all. Le Guin conducts a magnificent feminist rescue, a powerful meta-narrative to the Aeneid, and a mesmerising portrait of Italy before Rome. AS Byatt's The End of the Gods was a short, strange retelling of Norse myth that was in its own quiet way, almost as dazzling as Hanan al-Shaykh's book.

The two books I wanted to read most this year are Dave Zirin's The John Carlos Story and Jonathan Wilson's Brian Clough biography. I guess we'll talk about them next year.

I will remember this year as the one in which I watched almost nothing except for action movies from Hong Kong. I could happily give up every other kind of film for the rest of my life, with the exception of Amar Akbar Anthony. I watched so much Chinese cinema that when I finally started to watch something else (the first season of the HBO series Rome, which I'd always meant to get around to) it took me a little while to adjust to all the white people. One of the things I want to do in 2012 is start to keep a movie log, which will allow me to reflect and marvel on everything I see at more length. This probably means I will have to rewatch all the Donnie Yen films I saw this year which, oh, okay, I won't COMPLAIN.

The worst film I watched this year was Rockstar, which was also in a weird, disturbing way, the most unforgettable.

I listened to a lot of Hindi film music this year. There's a story there that will probably be out sometime early next year. The greatest soundtrack, without peer for me, was indubitably Rockstar, which was opaque on first listen and then resounded with meaning after the film was out. One of the few successes of the film was Imtiaz Ali's use of the music, and everything came together -- the situational nature of each song, the reason Rahman chose Mohit Chauhan to be the voice of the lead character, the background score. I kiss his hands and the hem of his robe. It's not his greatest work but it may be the best-used of any of his music in Hindi cinema in the last eight or nine years.

I went to NH7, briefly. For five beautiful hours it was like being a fish who had been thrown back into the water. I listened to a lot of old Hindi film music, maybe not co-incidentally in the year of the deaths of Shammi Kapoor and Dev Anand, and began towards the end to rediscover the recordings of the Buena Vista Social Club. (A lot of this was the effect of reading Alma Guillermoprieto's painful but riveting memoir of her year teaching dance in Havana, Dancing with Cuba. I recommend the book.)

Cricket and football
The 'no time' effect was most impactful here. I shunned cricket after the World Cup for obvious reasons, but football has always been a more demanding interest. I wrote fitfully (VERY fitfully) at The Run of Play, my favourite website in the world. In spite of a busy year for Brian (among other things, his writing for Grantland has been excellent), he's been a great editor, and RoP will be a big reason to stay awake for the Euros.

In spite of this low-density year, some exciting things have happened. I wrote a cover story for the paper about the Mohun Bagan victory of 1911, which was a big deal for me. I participated in this podcast by New Books in Sports, (a big discovery for me -- seriously, look at that gloriousness) where I spoke to academic and broadcaster extraordinaire Bruce Berglund about favourite sports books*, and later discovered that I was followed, on the final tape, by Robert Lipsyte. (Brian: "Just another afternoon in the world.")

One of my RoP posts featured on Quickish's year end list of best sportswriting. And excitingly, Tom Dunmore has just put out a first anthology of pieces from the landmark Pitch Invasion website that he runs, and one of my World Cup blog posts from last year is in it! You can buy it in e- and paper formats, so have a look and think of someone to whom you want to gift a copy or fifteen. The Very Best of Pitch Invasion.

I wrote this a day after the World Cup victory.

* - I picked Beyond a Boundary and King of the World.

It's been a difficult year, and a sobering one. People are used to articulating extremes of optimism and pessimism about their cities, but neither have been appropriate to daily life in my hometown, for me. This year has been full of quieter reckonings with past and future. My interest is not in systemic narratives or predictions of the future: maybe that's because there seem to be so few people who can do those well, so there are few examples to follow. It has been a year of learning to wait, to think before asking questions, and -- perhaps this is a failure -- to refrain from answers.

So what have I been doing in Bombay? Commuting and writing, mostly. And how closely linked the two are: as the writer Teju Cole just said at the Goa literature festival, public transportation is the book of the city. Certainly. Over the year, trains, buses and footpaths have explained some things to me, and mystified some others. For the first time, I wrote regularly about life here: about Urdu newspapers and salt pans, safety for women, Mehboob Studios, the Opera House and the NCPA, Pali Hill and Lalbaug. A shoutout here to Abhijit Bhatlekar, my colleague who's taken many of the A+ photographs that have gone with some of the stories, and possibly my favourite city photographer MS Gopal, who runs Mumbai Paused and graciously agreed to take pictures for some of the others.

We had a briefer summer than usual, and a long and torrential monsoon, which I found delightful. I don't mind having given up winter for it. There is something very comforting about rain in Bombay, as long as you don't break a limb trying to evade it.

We also had a bombing on July 13. It's difficult to write about this in a public forum without inviting conversation -- which I don't want -- but I want to write about it because I hate the paralysis of muteness. Thinking about July 13 and days like it has the power to trigger an oppressively personal grief. I understand why people mock us for feeling bad about one day out of the year when we remember what it feels like to be relatively powerless. I understand the acceptance of that mockery as fairer payback than compassion, out of guilt. I understand that there is a way to dissolve mockery, too: to be honest about tragedy, to see more than just one of its dimensions, to be honest about the fact that a public history can be deeply private, and to ask for respect for its private dimensions. I understand that demanding visibility for grief is a symptom of guilt, and that it is good and human to acknowledge public grief when it is someone else's.

But that's not very comforting.

There are stories for these occasions. I wrote one the week after the attack. But to be totally honest, I don't see how journalism has the tools to tell these stories adequately. I don't think the coping mechanisms of fact -- of keeping records, of repeatedly asking 'How do you feel?', of listening patiently for the moment when the thread of a story emerges from a witness' testimony -- are sufficient. There are threads that it is not possible to grasp. And if journalism can't do it, how can literature? How can we impose the authority of a story on something that should not be one?

Days like this are an overloaded fuse. They explode in your eye. Isn't that what the bombers want? Doesn't that mean they win? Have they stopped winning if we stop remembering all the other tragedies that make up this one?

I feel like this is a question that I refuse to answer on every other day of the year, absorbed in the effort of moving away, out of the ambit of this terrible thing. On days like this there is nothing -- not even the sense of shame that there are other people who have to live with their bombing days, every day. Humility is for the Lalbaug day, the Borivali day, the Dadar footbridge day and the Mankhurd day and the 7:57 Churchgate fast day, when everything around you looks like an act of repair -- a patched-up neighbourhood, a patched-up set of limbs, a face or a story with its cracks papered over, when you see bravery and emptiness and think, if everyone else can, then I can too.

Those are the days of the year when you remember that you have work here. Maybe those are the days that I keep trying to roll over the bombing days, like a speed bump in a road that will eventually wear down. They say time heals. I suppose the bombing days are the days when you remember that you cannot outrun it. Not even in the 7.57.

My honest love and respect to those who lost people and property on July 13, and to those for whom every day has been, or will be, a kind of July 13.

Of the raft of legendary old men who have been taken off to Valhalla (along with the few sacred and righteous old women, who were famous before famous women were invented, I guess) I will miss Ustad Sultan Khan the most. I wrote a very short note about him here.

The other person who meant the world to me was Christopher Logue. I will quote from his War Music.

King Agamemnon calls:

'Silent and still for Hector of the soaring war-cry,
The irreplaceable Trojan.'

Then hands removed his shield, his spear,
And all Greece saw his massive frame, historical
In his own time, a giant on the sand. Who said:

'Greek King: I speak for Ilium.
We have not burned you in your ships.
You have not taken Troy. Ten years have passed.

Therefore I say that we declare a truce,
And, having sworn before the depths of Heaven to keep our word,
Here, in God's name, between our multitudes,
I will fight any one of you to death.
And if I die,' (this said within an inch of where he will)
'My corpse belongs to Troy and to Andromache;
My body-bronze to him who takes my life;
And to you all, Helen, your property, who was no prisoner,
with her gold.

And if I live: my victim's plate shall hang
Between the columns of Apollo's porch on our Acropolis,
But you may bear his body to the coast
And crown it with a shaft before you sail
Home in your ships to your beloved land
With nothing more than what you brought to mine.

Pick your best man. Commit yourselves to him.
Be sure that I am big enough to kill him,
And that I cannot wait to see him die.
Then in their turn, faring from world to world across our sea,
Passengers who come after us will remark:
"That shaft was raised for one as brave and strong
As any man who came to fight at Troy,
Saving its Prince, Hector,
Superb on earth until our earth grows cold,
Who slaughtered him." Now who will that Greek be?'

Thanks to Logue's death and a novel set during the Trojan War which I reviewed in October, I've tentatively started to re-read classical translations. I say tentatively because, like the books of Penelope Fitzgerald and the films of Wong Kar-wai, it is impossible for me to start a good translation of the Iliad without exposing myself to serious emotional upheaval. I'm currently (very slowly) reading Robert Fagles' translation of the Aeneid, which is a better than any translation of the Aeneid I've read before.

I also finally acquired Agha Shahid Ali's translations of Faiz, The Rebel's Silhouette, and read it from end to end. It as been a hundred years since Faiz was born and ten since Shahid passed away, but they both speak from these pages in living voices. In a different way, so does does Arun Kolatkar in the Collected Poems, edited by Arvind Krishna Mehrotra. Kolatkar is a surefire cure for sentimentality and a massive igniter of literary doubt. His poetry gets better and better every year.

We've just come out with a 'Slow Down' issue, so in keeping with the spirit I would like to sit down and make this next year a year of projects. I'm thinking: movie blog, or; Indian Blogger Looking At Jet Li Films. I'm thinking a year of re-reads. I already know one big re-read I'm going to effect, and hopefully that will be in the newspapers by and by, but as a personal project, I'm considering a Shakespeare re-read. The compelling reason both for and against this is that there is never a bad time to re-read Shakespeare. I'm thinking of doing more with music: writing more, attending more concerts, and maybe going back to learning. I would also like to write more about sports, and more stories in the MMR beyond the island city.

And justice for all.

And a worldwide theatrical release for The Grandmasters.

I'm on Twitter and Tumblr, same as always, so you know, hey girl. Have a happy new year.


  1. A very happy new year to you too. You have made 2011 a year of pleasurable reading and even if there is no book, all these projects sound exciting and things to look forward to.


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  3. Anonymous2:32 am

    Hi Supriya,

    Have missed reading you here, although your Mint articles make up somewhat more than adequately :-) Wanted to ask about the the big re-read you mentioned that might be in the newspapers. Did that happen?

    Thanks, and look forward to reading more of you.