Thursday, December 01, 2011

Making friends. Or not.

Scum usually does rise to the top, often by sticking close to more solid stuff that floats.

I was in a little rowing boat, observing this phenomenon in a water body on the IIM Joka campus, when a half-brick splashed into the water a few feet away. A half-brick, not a pebble, not a stone. Two more followed. My friend and I were more concerned about getting brained than getting drenched, so we rapidly rowed to the other side of the pond. Got out, ran around to get the psychotic half-wit who was chucking the bricks. Of course, by the time our feet were on land again, the brick-chucker was a rapidly retreating blob in the middle distance.

That was in 1986. I still don’t know WHY he threw those bricks at us. It’s quite possible even HE didn’t know. (Incidentally, his hair was not so curly then. But the rest of him was about the same shape as it is now.)

Cut to 31st December 2002 (or was it 2003?). Calcutta had a new hotel and they’d thrown a party for the formal launch. I walked in late (as usual) and went to get a Coke for my wife. As I turned from the bar I saw … you know how some memories stay with you visually, like a freeze-frame? This was one of those moments, a mental photograph that has stayed with me. What I saw was this - about twenty feet away, the man-with-friends was keeling over to one side, one hand pressed to his jaw, obviously the effect of a close encounter with somebody’s fist. I confess I was actually happy that the guy had got his come-uppance (college hates tend to stay with you, don’t they?). I called to my wife – “***** **** just got punched in the face!”

Five COMPLETE strangers in the vicinity turned towards me and practically chorused – “WHO is the guy who punched him?! I want to get him a drink!”

Obviously the man-with-friends was as popular as he had been in our college days.


So Mihir Sharma has spent a lot of time going through this awesome self-help (?) book, then dissected it in some detail, and even published the resulting article in “Caravan”. The article has almost “gone viral” on the Interwebs - it’s trended on Twitter, been discussed on Facebook, inspired blog-posts, telephone conversations, reminiscences (yes, I KNOW this post is in the same category!). In the process, it has ensured wide publicity for a book written by a man who believes that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Sort of winning a battle and losing a war, surely?

Why bother spending so much time on a person whom you obviously dislike, Mr. Sharma? You’re just giving him the kind of importance HE thinks he deserves. A self-defeating exercise. You’re surprised that he’s made a lot of money by sucking up to the right people? You still wonder at the levels of hypocrisy that famous people are capable of? You find it worthy of comment that people put up with each other in hopes of making money? You secretly believe that our public figures are the spiritual descendants of MK Gandhi, Gautama Buddha and the Good Samaritan? You were on an extended holiday to Mars when the Radia tapes became news?

Lose your naivete, Mr. Sharma. Your diatribe is not going to make an iota of difference to this man everybody seems to hate (whether secretly or openly). People associate with him despite being told he is shallow, scheming, sociopathic, sycophantic (selectively?), grating and utterly obnoxious. Unless you can establish that associating with him will cause financial loss or imprisonment, a donkey’s amours will have more value to his associates than your article ever will.

Consider this. When, some years ago, IIPM was being generally loveable and altruistic to Rashmi Bansal and Gaurav Sabnis, I spoke to the head honchos of both the major English newspapers in Calcutta about the reality behind IIPM’s claims (e.g. Stiglitz as visiting faculty). They nodded gravely, looked uneasy, then wandered away. The mainstream media never published the data that emerged, they mentioned the issue only in passing. Very strange. Of course, the fact that IIPM were India’s biggest advertisers in print media during those months of July and August was completely irrelevant.

So wisen up, Mr. Sharma. You are an alumnus of a university that (creditably) states openly that one of the biggest gains from studying there is the social network. Yet you’re surprised that the object of your dislike has succeeded through networking? You will notice that I have not named the man here; I don’t want to face a civil suit filed in Dimapur or Jammu. I’m playing safe, while you have the guts to call a spade a bloody shovel several times over. All credit to Caravan and to you for your honesty in publishing an article that could invite retribution. But sadly, your article won’t make any difference to its subject. He will still be available as a motor-mouth to make up the numbers for TV “debates”. He will remain on contract for an incredibly insensitive and stupid weekly agony column. He will still be famous for being famous. And he will still make oodles of money as a front-man and lobbyist. So what’s the point?

Please get a life, Mr. Sharma. Don’t waste your intellect and talent on stupid trivialities. And oh - do try and write shorter sentences. It would make your point of view so much clearer to non-intellectuals like me.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Existential. Very.

5 in the morning. My TEETH ache with sleep. The laptop shirks, slows down, offers me irrelevant updates. Top of my inbox is a (believe this!) “state of the blogosphere” survey. The coffee seems to have suspicious clots. My innards refuse to co-operate with my plan of going for a run.

Let’s face it, I’m built for greed, not speed.

But we shall persevere.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Getting warmer

Writing has become a bit of a … well, not a pain, not quite, since even a pain is a tangible state. More like mental constipation. One of the nicest guys I know has been asking me for a YEAR to write something for him. On one of my favourite subjects. And despite several attempts, I have produced nothing. Like a toddler who’s coaxed to sit upon the pot in hopes that SOMEthing will emerge, but fails to perform.

As you can see, nothing but wind so far. Not even sound and fury. Just … nothing.

There was a blog I used to read because it was interesting. The Bouncer’s Blog. Then it palled upon me. But – and here’s the secret – the Bouncer summed up the only way to become a writer (and of course I’ve mentioned it before, when moaning in a similar vein). To read, then write. Then read and write some more. And then again. Eventually something will emerge that’s worth reading.

John Steinbeck, for a while, worked as regular correspondent for the San Francisco News. The gentleman in the next cubicle – whose name, of course, I forget – recalled that Steinbeck would come in and spend an hour writing on foolscap paper with a pencil, then throw it away. When asked why, he said “Oh, those are just my warm-ups”. Warm-ups. The first thing that occurs to you, gentle reader, is of course the amount of money that could be made today if those warm-ups had been preserved. The next thought that comes to me is that writing, like any other sport, requires warm-ups.

The problem with being totally out of shape is that by the time one is warmed up, one is also utterly exhausted.

Monday, February 28, 2011

Leave them alone ...

Long, long ago (which is another way of saying 1995 or thereabouts), there used to be people who took a conscious decision to drop out of society. They wanted to seek the ultimate truths in life, or maybe just hated the society of their fellow men. (There’s a third category of people who seem to disappear from normal society –engineering students. But they don’t really qualify because they eventually build their own worlds.) In India, this used to be a commonplace occurrence. Having led a full life, raised children and performed his duties towards his family and ancestors, the Indian man was expected to become a kind of sedate hippie and head for the hills to contemplate the eternal mysteries (such as, what is the right answer to a woman who asks “Does this make me look fat?” Have you noticed that there weren’t too many stories about women who pushed off for the Himalayas? Why should they, they’re the ones asking the questions, it’s the men who have to come up with answers!) This renunciation is not entirely unknown in modern India. Some men still close up their rooms, shave their heads, don the simplest robes and set out on the spiritual quest. Whereupon wise neighbours nod to each other and say “I knew his credit card bills were too high.”

The Western world has its share of recluses. Paradoxically, we only know about the ones who are famous, such as Greta Garbo who “just wanted to be left alone”. A recluse who is not already famous is by definition invisible, at least until he buys a 72-ton Abrams tank over the counter in, say, Wisconsin and goes on a shooting spree. Especially in the USA, some of the most famous authors have chosen to stay out of the public eye. J.D. Salinger, who died a year ago at the age of 91, had not allowed himself to be photographed or interviewed since the 1950s. He went even further in that he did not publish any of his works after 1953, though he continued writing throughout his life. In effect, he removed not only himself but also his defining talent from public view. This, I must confess, is entirely beyond my comprehension. A latter-day literary lion, Thomas Pynchon, also chooses to keep his life private, but at least he continues to publish novels. He has this option because his work is highly valued; a newly published author has to give up her anonymity during the book launch tour, the interviews, the Page 3 appearances.

Fame can be a bitter addiction, but there are some very public examples of stars who went private. If Hollywood (or more correctly, New York, where she lived for 40 years) had Greta Garbo, Ballygunge Circular Road has its own mystery. Roma Dasgupta’s last screen appearance was “Datta” in 1976. Forty years on, her mystique obviously has not waned; all of Bengal’s media ran amuk when she was admitted to Woodlands in 2009 even though nobody outside her family really knows what she looks like now. Of course, inaccessibility makes a star’s aura more enduring. But let’s be clear about one thing – whether it’s Garbo or Salinger or Suchitra Sen, none of these celebrities has abjured modern civilisation or even the urban milieu. (Garbo, for example, was known to go shopping and take long walks in Central Park, safely hidden behind oversized sunglasses.) All they have done is severely limit their social interactions so as to protect their privacy. They are still islands in the stream, just very inaccessible islands.

In fact, they reinforce John Donne’s most famous line. They cannot survive without the support systems of modern civilisation. It’s a question of economics, not philosophy. Getting away from it all is very tempting (No Rakhi Sawant! No ICC World Cup!) until you realise it also means doing without home delivery, pedicures and group mails. This brings out the difference between (a) recluses, who limit their social interactions e.g Howard Hughes, who spent most of his last years in a curtain-enclosed penthouse in Las Vegas (b) hermits, who go off into the wilds and survive on their own without a phone, laptop or ATM card (I’m not sure which of these two categories would include Bobby Fischer) and (c) exiles, who want to live in society but for some reason cannot, such as most women’s mothers-in-law or Robinson Crusoe. Boo Radley, the mysterious neighbour in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, is probably more of an exile, forced to withdraw from society. His creator, Harper Lee, is closer to being a recluse, since she did not choose to become a public figure despite the acknowledged brilliance of her only novel.

We should also be clear that a recluse or a hermit is not always a misanthrope. They may not bear any hatred for the human race, just dislike its company. We all have days like that, when we’d rather be just left alone. Not because we want to wipe out the neighbourhood, but because we want to enjoy the weather. Or soak in some music. Or just spend the day with a book and a thermos of tea. The recluse just wants this state of affairs to last forever. This may seem strange at first, but remember within every extrovert there’s an introvert screaming to get out.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The sincerest form of flattery

I could start with Shakespeare, but frankly, it’s a lot more fun to pull out “Tezaab”. Remember 1988 and “Ek do teen”? Rake the ashes of your memory a little more and you’ll find Anil Kapoor as Munna, sitting at a plank table with his knife stuck into it. Did we find it unusual that he gestured with his left hand? He, along with a couple dozen other aspiring stars of the day, (some of whom still hover on the fringes of our TV screens – Sudesh Berry, Mukesh Khanna et al) spent his screen time delivering killer lines with slightly pursed lips, waving his left hand about, standing with his hands on his hips, dancing stiff-legged like a racehorse with stiff fetlocks. All punched out of one mould and torn apart by the critics for it. You can’t blame them; they grew up watching the “one-man industry”, the ultimate superstar, they didn’t know stardom could come in any other form. Their ultimate accolade was “Tu toh Bachchan ban gaya!”

But here’s the rub. In 1982, a bootleg video from Pakistan did the rounds. It was called “Copy Cat” and it consisted of scenes featuring Yusuf Khan aka Dilip Kumar inter-cut with footage of … three guesses? Yes, got it in one – Amitabh Bachchan. The similarities were unmistakable. Dilip Kumar was to Bachchan as the Big B was to an entire generation. But Yusuf Saab was not the only “inspiration”. The 1971 cult film “Dirty Harry”, and Clint Eastwood’s gait as he walks towards the bank robbers to deliver the most famous line of the ‘70s. Very familiar, if you play it in split-screen with Vijay Kumar walking across a smoke-filled mining site, lighting dynamite fuses from his beedi. Yes, “Trishul”. Or even the inspired riff on Chaplin, talking to his mirror image after getting beaten up in “Amar Akbar Anthony”.

So do we dismiss the most enduring star of Indian cinema because he borrowed from all over? Or do we give him credit for a graceful synthesis of the most striking features he found? If we take the former view, the Big B is no more than a screen version of Kavya Vishwanathan. (Remember “Opal Mehta” in 2006, when we briefly basked in the reflected glory of an Indian origin girl not only getting into Harvard but writing a bestseller before she was 18? And the subsequent disappointment when she was labelled a plagiarist?) For that matter, Aamir Khan, now a byword for versatility, spent the first 12 years of his career subtly copying Rajesh Khanna. Who in turn blatantly copied Dev Anand. Who spent 30 years trying to be Gregory Peck …

Where is the fine line between “inspiration” and “imitation”? Or, in the recorded arts, outright plagiarism? One of my favourite stories is the row that Vishwa Bharati University created over the tune of “Chhnoo kar mere man ko”, a Hindi song from a Hindi film where the song sequence was coincidentally shot in Calcutta. Of course it was a direct lift from “Tomaar holo shuru” and Vishwa Bharati, as the guardians of the tradition, went all huffy about it, even threatening to sue Rajesh Roshan. Only to be deflated by an interview where RD Burman ingenuously mentioned that the Great Bearded Bard had taken the tune from an old Scottish folk song.

RDB knew what he was talking about. His genius lay not only in his creativity but in the way he hungrily devoured music from all over the world. Consider this eclectic list of songs that he copied or adapted from – “Tera mujhse hai pahle ka nata koi” from “The Yellow Rose of Texas”, “Tum ho mere dil ki dhadkan” from Procol Harum’s “A whiter shade of pale”, Sholay’s “Mehbooba” from a Greek hit by Dennis Rousso, the title song in “Kasme Vaade” from “Sesiya Hamba” by Ipi Ntombi. Would I then agree that that very modest musician Anu Malik is, as he claims, every bit as great as RD Burman? Excuse me while I die laughing!

And now for the Bald Bard who recreated the English language. What’s common to “Love’s Labour Lost”, “The Merry Wives of Windsor”, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “The Tempest”? They are the only plays that Awld Will wrote with his own original plots! Every other one of his 37 plays – that means the other 33 – is based on someone else’s story. Shakespeare, after all, was writing the jatra of his day and milieu. He followed the same reasoning as Bollywood directors today – if you “adapt” something that’s already successful, you’re not guaranteed a hit, but you stand a better chance of making some money.

There are some cases where perceived plagiarism may be no more than the persistence of memory. After all, given the 5000 years of recorded history, of musical traditions, of poetry and myth, the chances are low that we can come up with a creation that is altogether new. Why, even our beloved Guv’nor, Thomas Stearns Eliot, has been accused of lifting the refrain of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” from a line by Madison Cawein (the “Keats of Kentucky”). Should we believe it? And if we do, where is the difference between TS Eliot and Kavya Vishwanathan (or for that matter Dan Brown)?

In the translation. In making something new from something familiar. In adding one’s own special bits of genius to a piece of gold until it sparkles like a solitaire. In the final analysis, have you added more than you’ve borrowed, have you given more than you took? The truth, my friends, lies in the telling.