Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It's only an award!

The hype about Slumdog Millionaire can be blamed on many things, but the reality is that we in India are pathetically anxious about international recognition. So today the first five pages of the Hindustan Times are dedicated exclusively to this movie's Oscar performance (with a little space going to "Smile, Pinki").

My (unsolicited) advice to bloggers and assorted talkers is this. If you didn't like Slumdog Millionaire, don't feel bad about it. If you did like Slumdog Millionaire, don't feel bad about it. It's only a movie, and only an award, and we are all free to hold our opinions.

I personally did like the movie a lot. I am dazzled by Danny Boyle's directorial style and was first dazzled by it many years ago when I saw his 1996 movie Trainspotting. As I recently pointed out on Rahul Basu's blog, the jumping-in-shit scene in Slumdog is similar to the jumping-into-a-vomity-toilet scene from Trainspotting and clearly Boyle is using it as a metaphor (this comment of mine provoked Rahul to respond that "Hanging a label on a scene does not redeem it in any way."). As I said, people are free to have their own views.

I was particularly amused, though, by Sonia Gandhi's quote for the Oscar occasion. My interpretation could be wrong but I see it as delicately understating her evident dislike for the movie, coupled with her compulsion as a leader to say something good about India's success. Here are her words:

"I am delighted that A.R. Rahman and Resool Pookutty have won the year's much-coveted Oscars for music and sound editing. They have done India proud, as have all the Indian actors, technicians and support staff who participated in the making of Slumdog Millionaire".

Like the movie or not, it's hard to disagree with this statement. Now if only all our politicians could express their opinions so neatly.

I can't resist pointing out that the movie has achieved something rather striking and unusual. An Indian upper-middle-class hungry (desperate?) for international recognition has finally achieved it via a movie directed by a non-Indian (and whose "Trainspotting" clearly shows it is not India per se or slums per se but human degradation and the human response to it that fascinates him). Moreover whether we like it or not, it has thrust slums into the limelight, somewhat messing with years of our callousness, hostility and downright hatred towards slum dwellers. For causing such acute social discomfort in our evolving country, the movie deserves a special plaudit.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Lodger

In 1994 or thereabouts, I arrived in Khajuraho with two friends for a vacation and we sought out a relatively inexpensive but pleasant hotel (I think it was called "Sunset Lodge") recommended by the Lonely Planet guide. The hotel manager was not around, but a boy who worked there came up to us and explained, in Hindi, that this hotel was not open to Indians. Only foreigners could stay here.

I realise this may be inexplicable to non-Indians. Would a hotel in France refuse to let its rooms to the French? Could something like this happen in Japan? China? Iran? Actually, I know of a few hotels in Thailand that are exclusively open to Thais, which is the converse phenomenon. What happened in Khajuraho, though, was perfectly real and perfectly Indian.

Back to the story - when I tried to make a fuss, the hotel manager came up and smoothly denied what the boy had told us, adding that the boy knew nothing and didn't have the authority to talk to us (the latter was clearly true but the former was false, that boy obviously knew everything!). So could we have a room then? No, sorry, the hotel is full. Can you prove that you keep Indian guests? Sure, please take a look at the guest book. We did, but the only Indian names signed in were accompanied by manifestly foreign (i.e. European/American) spouses. Not having infinite time to spare, we then gave up and stayed in a different hotel.

Many years later, in 2003, I was in Kerala, strolling on the beach in Varkala, when a man came up and told me a certain part of the beach (towards which I was heading) was "off limits" to Indians. Only foreigners were allowed there. I asked him who the hell said so. "The police" he replied, at which point a cop came up to us. Quickly noticing the smoke rising from me, the policeman looked me in the eye and said there was no problem, I was welcome to go where I pleased. When I asked what the other man's "off limits" story was all about, he gave this candid reply: "We don't allow local men here. They just harass the foreign women". Having observed young Malayali males in action elsewhere in Kerala, I have to admit he had a point there. But of course that doesn't justify a blanket ban on "Indians", to be temporarily lifted when defiant middle-class people show up.

I could make a long list of shocking racist incidents in India, shocking only because the racism was directed against Indians by other Indians. But before my friend Rahul Basu posts a comment to the effect that I should grow up and get over it, we all know these things happen etc etc, let me move on to my main point. Which is that recently I found myself looking for a tenant for a flat I had bought in Bombay.

The first thing my agent told me was that he would try to get me a "foreigner" (I correctly guessed he had a definite skin colour in mind). Apparently my flat was upto the standard deemed acceptable for foreigners. And here were the advantages, according to the agent: (i) they would leave eventually so I didn't have to worry about the eternal lodger, (ii) they would keep the place clean, (iii) the society of the building would be happy to have white people on the premises.

Of the above "virtues", (i) is perfectly reasonable and objective, but I cringed upon hearing (ii) and (iii). I was tempted to stipulate that as a proud Indian I would only rent to Indians, but quickly caught myself on the verge of committing hypocrisy. So I decided to watch and wait. And here is where it gets interesting. The very first candidate tenant was an AFCP (Asshole From Cuffe Parade). Having grown up in Malabar Hill, I knew a number of AFMH's but had not yet met an AFCP up close, certainly not a recent version. Well Mr Asshole thought he was the cat's whiskers, did not bother to greet me, swaggered into the place as if only the agent was present, looked around with a disinterested air, spoke on his mobile while doing so, and left without saying goodbye. I narrowly prevented myself sending an SMS to the agent saying "Will not rent to this creature under any circumstances". The next candidate was an Indian woman and she was quite similar. She looked around with a scowl on her face as if my place was a repository of dead rats, and did not have the decency to acknowledge my existence.

I have to admit I was slowly taking on the point of view of the Sunset Lodge in Khajuraho. But the third candidate, who I took to be an Indian, surprised me. This young fellow was polite and friendly, shook my hand on entering and praised my flat and particularly its bathroom. Could an Indian be this polite? No, it turned out he only looked Indian, but was actually Malaysian.

The Malaysian did not make an offer, though. And so it went on, until finally a few offers started to come in. The first person to meet the minimum price that my agent and I had fixed was accepted, and I signed a contract with him yesterday. Turns out, he's French. He appreciated everything about the flat and had only the mildest of requests (he pleaded with me to get the gas connection, since his attempts to do so had failed due to language problems.) And he gave me a nice box of French chocolates after the contract was signed.

So what does all this prove? Nothing very much, perhaps. But I do think it's nice to have a tenant from a major chocolate-producing country.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Letter to the President

Her Excellency Smt. Pratibha Patil, President of India, delivered a lengthy Address to Parliament dated Feb 12 (today), which you can read here. It covers much of what's been happening in India in recent months. However, despite scanning it a few times I could not find any mention of the recent spate of disgraceful attacks on women in India by fringe right-wing groups who would like to deny women their personal freedom. A recent horrific incident is reported in The Hindu today.

Since Her Excellency is quoted on her website as follows: "Empowerment of women is particularly important to me as I believe this leads to the empowerment of the nation", I feel it would be appropriate and desirable for her to issue a strong statement on what's been happening. As her website invites people to email her at: presidentofindia@rb.nic.in, I sent her the following mail today.


Your Excellency Smt. Patil,

I wish to express to you my anguish at the attacks being carried out on women by right-wing hooligans in our country. In a recent case (reported in The Hindu, see below) a 15-year old Hindu schoolgirl was allegedly harrassed because of her friendship with a Muslim boy and subsequently committed suicide.

It is very disturbing that as per the report, the police were apparently sympathetic to the hooligans.

As a scientist who has worked in service of his country for over 25 years, I am greatly saddened at such developments. I request you to personally issue a statement that our country will not remain silent in the face of attacks on the freedom of women and to press the concerned agencies to ensure that attackers will be severely punished.

Such a statement coming from Your Excellency would convey a very important message to the nation at this time.


Prof. Sunil Mukhi

Professor of Physics
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research

From: THE HINDU, FEB 12 2009.

Schoolgirl commits suicide

Sudipto Mondal

MANGALORE: A 15-year-old schoolgirl hanged herself to death at Mulky in Dakshina Kannada on Wednesday morning after she was publicly humiliated by a suspected Hindutva fringe group, according to eyewitness accounts. Superintendent of Police N. Sathish Kumar, however, denied the involvement of any group in her death.

According to Rafique, a helper in a bus, the victim and another girl boarded the bus at Kinnigoli village at 12 noon on Tuesday. The girls, both students of the Aikala PU College, got off at Moodbidri along with Abdul Salim, with whom one of the girls was friendly. As they were walking towards Venoor, a group of suspected Hindutva youths allegedly accosted them. The girls were berated for being friendly with someone from another religion and all the three were beaten up. The bus, on its return journey, was stopped by another group that dragged Rafique out and thrashed him. He was taken to the place where Salim and the girls were held.

The captors then called Moodbidri SI Bharathi G., who took the four to the police station. The parents of one of the girls were summoned and Salim was allegedly forced to write a letter of apology. The girl and her family were said to have been humiliated at the station by a mob.

The next morning, the girl committed suicide. After her death, Salim was arrested following a complaint by her father of rape and abetting in the suicide of a minor.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Music for this chameleon

Having just returned from Canada a couple of days ago, I'm experiencing a phenomenon that I thoroughly enjoy even if I don't have time for it. Briefly the story goes like this.

I love music, but unlike many (most) people I know, I don't really have a single favourite genre. Indian Classical, Western Classical, Rock and Jazz (not in order) are my four big favourites, though I enjoy many other kinds of music off and on (and I greatly enjoy selected Bollywood songs, both new and old).

The problem is that I don't really have the time to indulge this obsession. In these days it's easy to do a count. I added up all the music I possess in various forms (CD, cassette, LP, mp3 files on several different hard disks) and it adds up to more hours than I have left to live, even by a very optimistic estimate. And, for whatever it's worth, I do have a career of some not totally negligible value. And friends and relatives. Plus I love to sleep at night. So what's a person to do?

Inevitably I focus on one genre and neglect all the others over a long period. But in this, like the chameleon in the title of this posting, I take on the hue of my surroundings. A few weeks ago I was in Pondicherry and heard an excellent concert of the violinists Ganesh and Kumaresh. That revived my interest in Carnatic music, dormant since a few decades. I dug out from my cassette collection a recording of a concert by Chitravina maestro N. Ravikiran which, remarkably, took place in my own studio apartment on the TIFR campus in the mid 1980's. I particularly enjoyed his rendition of Purandaradasa's "Jagadodharana" which in turn led to the extraction of a K.V. Narayanaswamy cassette where he has performed a truly moving rendition of this piece. And so on. I should mention that every time I dig out a cassette, I listen to it and simultaneously convert it into mp3 format on my hard disk so is preserved (for ever? I wonder).

Then I went to Beijing. That was a short trip and I didn't hear any music there - so nothing happened. I focused on my lectures.

A few months earlier I spent a month at CERN, living in the countryside outside Geneva. During this period I listened endlessly to the music of Chopin.

But this posting is about Canada, from where I returned a couple of days ago. Now here is an interesting case. Many famous rock musicians, including Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, hail from Canada (though they are usually thought of just as "American"). So the radio stations there play more of their music. I am a great admirer of both these talented musicians and on previous visits to Canada have acquired some recordings that I didn't previously have.

This time it was different. I can't tell exactly when it happened, but a rock band called simply "The Band" came back into my consciousness after ages. This is a band with a difference - superb musicians in a highly visible field who from the outset eschewed visibility in favour of high art and fine craftsmanship. From their early beginnings as a backing band (notably for Bob Dylan) they went on to establish an independent reputation for a kind of music that simply doesn't exist anywhere else. And yes, four of the five members hailed from Canada.

I refer you to this website, remarkably hosted in Norway, for more information about them than you'll ever need. But let me briefly say my piece. Robbie Robertson was the main composer and lead guitarist. His guitar style was an eye-opener for me. Not for him the self-indulgent antics and lengthy solos of other guitarists. Though he was one of the two front-men on stage (side-by-side with Rick Danko) he would always play an understated role, mostly confined to rhythm, and then underline his presence in mid-song with the briefest and most Zen-like solo, a perfect summary of everything in just four or five seconds. The Band boasted three different vocalists, Richard Manuel (who also played piano), Levon Helm (who also played drums) and Rick Danko, the bassist, each one with voices of a different tonal colour. Helm was the lone American. And finally Garth Hudson, on organ, accordion and other keyboards, lent a bent, atonal colour to the music that had one wondering whether it qualified as folk (the origins of this band) or hard rock, or even something synthesiser-based and Pink-Floydish.

The greatest hit song of The Band (they didn't really do hits, though) was "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down", an anthem of the American Civil War that sounds as if it surely must have been written just after that war and in remembrance of it, rather than in 1969 by the Canadian Robbie Robertson. (Predictably the song was publicised - and murdered - by the insufferable Joan Baez). But this is for sure not a one-song band. Each of their studio albums is a masterpiece and every single song is worth listening to.

They recorded seven such albums before falling into, sadly, the chaotic decline typical of so many rock bands. Manuel committed suicide following a long bout of alcoholism, Danko dropped dead after a similar period of drug and alcohol issues, and Helm and Robertson were (and perhaps still are) at war over credit. I haven't listened to their last three, post-Manuel and minus-Robertson, albums but they have received good reviews and my next three days are earmarked for them.

For newcomers to The Band, there is the Martin Scorsese movie "The Last Waltz", based on their "final" concert in San Francisco in 1976. At this concert The Band were accompanied by their many friends including Paul Butterfield, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, Ronnie Hawkins, Dr. John, Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Muddy Waters, Ronnie Wood and Neil Young. Unless you're living on a faraway planet, you might have heard of some or all of them.

My fixation with The Band will last a few more days, but in their memory I will quote Dylan, who sang during the Last Waltz concert: "May God bless and keep you always".