Friday, June 24, 2011
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Monday, June 20, 2011
Sunday, June 19, 2011
The World That Never Was - A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents by Alex Butterworth
“Chez May was easy to spot, a 1970s brick-built fake Edwardian cottage that had been carriage-lamped and pebble-dashed within an inch of its life. The front door was flanked on one side by a hanging basket full of blue flowers and on the other by the house number inscribed on a ceramic plate in the shape of a sailing yacht. I paused and checked the garden; there were gnomes loitering near the ornamental birdbath.”
“Between the end of the beach huts and the open-air swimming pool was a strip of grass and a shelter where we finally got to sit down. Constructed in the 1930s when people had realistic expectations of the British climate, it was brick-built and solid enough to serve as a tank trap.”
“His house was a two-story Edwardian terrace on the “right” side of Tooting Bec Road.”
“I grew up in Kentish Town, which as an area would count as a leafy suburb if it was leafier and more suburban. And if it had fewer council estates. One such is the Peckwater Estate, my ancestral seat, which had been built just as architects were coming to terms with the idea that proles might enjoy indoor plumbing and the occasional bath but before they realized that said proles might like to have more than one child per family. Perhaps they thought three bedrooms would only encourage breeding among the working class.”
“Fortunately, the Folly had been built in the Regency-style when it had become fashionable to build a separate mews at the back of a grand house, so that the horses and the smellier servants could be housed downwind of their masters.”
“Jason Dunlop lived in the half-basement flat of a converted early-Victorian terrace on Barnsbury Road. In previous eras the servants’ quarters would be fully underground, but the Victorians, being the great social improvers they were, had decided that even the lowly should be able to see the feet of the people walking past the grand houses of their masters—hence the half basement. That and the increased daylight saved on candles, a penny saved is a penny earned and all that. The interior walls had been painted estate-agent white and were devoid of decoration, no framed photographs, no reproduction Manets, Klimts, or poker-playing dogs. The kitchen units were low-end and brand-new. I smelled buy-for-lease and recently too.”
“I’d been expecting something Gothic but this was more like a Regency terrace that had escaped to the countryside and had shot out in all directions before some cruel architect could round it up and pen it back into its original narrow frontage.”
“It’s another typical outer London village that acquired, in short order, a railway station, some posh detached villas in the late-Victorian style, and finally a smothering blanket of mock-Tudor semis built in the 1930s... Chez Adjayi was a big detached Edwardian villa along a road lined with variations on that theme. Apart from a token oval of greenery, the front garden had been paved with concrete, the better to park a couple of big German cars conveniently in front of the house.”
“Simone led me up a third flight of stairs that doglegged around some bizarre retrofit put in back in the 1950s when this was a flat for French maids and ‘Ring top bell for models.’”
“The bungalow was a hideous redbrick structure built, if I had to guess, in the early 1980s by some hack architect who’d been aiming at art deco and hit Tracey Emin instead. The interior was as characterless as the exterior, World of Leather sofa, generic flat-pack furniture, fitted kitchen. There were three separate bedrooms, which surprised me.”
“In the 1950s and ’60s property in Soho was cheap. After all, who wanted to live in the middle of smoky old London? The middle classes were all heading for the leafy suburbs and the working classes were being packed off to brand-new towns built in the wilds of Essex and Hertfordshire. They were called New Towns only because the term Bantustan hadn’t been invented yet. The Regency terraces that made up the bulk of the surviving housing stock were subdivided into flats and shopfronts, basements were expanded to form clubs and bars. As property prices started rising, developers snatched up bomb sites and derelict buildings and erected the shapeless concrete lumps that have made the ’70s the shining beacon of architectural splendour that it is. Unfortunately for the proponents of futurism, Soho was not to be overwhelmed so easily. A tangle of ownership, good old-fashioned stubbornness, and outright corruption held development at bay until the strange urge to turn the historic centre of British cities into gigantic outdoor toilets had ebbed. Still, developers are a wily bunch and one scam, if you can afford it, is to leave the property vacant until it falls derelict and thus has to be demolished.”
It does seem a tad improbable that a book like Move Over Soho should have social commentary pertaining to urban architecture and town planning. The premise of the book is very silly. Honestly, jazz vampires? But, it is a lot of fun and I finished it one sitting. I need more books like Move over Soho in my life; stress-free, humorous, entertaining and most importantly fast-paced. I have to admit though that Aaronovitch's publisher is going for a bit of an overkill; two books released in the same year and one more's expected before the end of 2011. Still, as long as they're enjoyable.
You can read my review of Rivers of London here.
Saturday, June 18, 2011
Reading through these preliminary chapters that assert Connelly’s admiration for Burma’s people, it seemed as though the sub-text – A Love Story – on the cover naively declared the author’s infatuation with the country. I couldn’t help wondering if this was going to be a sycophantic travelogue, one written like a pensive novel. How wrong I was. I was missing context which unfortunately the book’s prologue doesn’t provide. Connelly is a well-known Canadian writer and poet. As a 17-year old, she lived in provincial Thailand as part of a rotary exchange program. She returned to Thailand in her mid-twenties and from there on to Burma and then lingered on the Thai-Burma border. The experience she gained during this time enabled her to write The Lizard Cage, a novel about an imprisoned Burmese dissident. But, it was only years later that she willed herself to write a memoir, a back-story to The Lizard Cage – an all embracing love story from Connelly’s love for the Burmese in general to her love for one Burmese man in particular.
Connelly goes to Burma to collect information about an imprisoned writer, Ma Thida. At times, she plays the part of the tourist, going up north to Pagan where perched on a ruined temple, she observes the plain below transformed into a “red and gold fire, the mist burned away to reveal the land’s bounty: more than two thousand white-and-gold-tipped stupas, crumbling pagodas, sister and brother temples, lines of toddy palms, the immense gray Irrawaddy River, wide as a small lake.” But, she’s keenly aware that her purpose for coming to Burma ought to be far greater than merely sightseeing – “When I got here, I was a tourist, and I enjoyed being one, revelling in the beauty and strangeness of this new world, confident, too, that I was not merely a tourist because I was aware of the dire political situation.”
She attempts to do this by reaching out to wary dissidents and by crashing demonstrations. At one such protest in the middle of the night, the oppressive force with which the authorities respond compels her to take refuge in the flat of a Good Samaritan. The next morning, she steps out and discovers that “It is a normal day. People cross the intersection. Smoke-belching buses hurtle over the spot where the protesters kneeled, reciting Buddhist sutras. Walking away from Hledan Junction, I pass a woman whose plastic baskets are packed with green leafy stuff and mangoes. She has just been to market. As though nothing happened here last night. As though no one was taken away.” More than anything, Connelly wants to connect with the situation in Burma in a genuine way. She thinks her writing will help her do this but she is full of doubt. Her apprehensions are amplified by those around her who ask “Don’t you think you will contaminate your writing if you become political? Art in the service of politics can only be propaganda.”
Connelly’s time in Burma is cut short by an expired visa and a perceived threat from the junta. She returns to Thailand where she meets Western women involved in the Burma struggle. She is curious about why they would choose such a path and one response in particular gets her thinking, “I decided I didn’t want to be an observer anymore. I wanted to be a participant, whatever that meant. The Burmese struggle is … remarkable. It made me think about human solidarity. Does that sound out of date? I suppose it is. But I guess I came to the point where I didn’t want to just watch the struggle. I wanted to struggle with them. And so, in a way, I do.” I do. Two small, fateful words.” Connelly, too, yearns to contribute, but she doesn't know how. At a party in Chiang Mai, she meets Maung, the head of an armed group of insurgents fighting the Myanmar army on the Thai-Burma border. She falls in love with him. The rest of this book is chiefly concerned with the intertwining branches of their unlikely relationship and Connelly’s travels through the refugee camps on the border.
I savoured Burmese Lessons. Connelly is thoughtful and articulate. She shares her deepest insecurities with us and as a consequence there’s an unexpected sense of intimacy running through the book. If you read Burmese Lessons hoping to discover more about Burma and the struggle against the junta, you’d be disappointed. Burmese Lessons is about a personal journey and it’s an exceedingly poignant one.
P.S. The snoring old man in the quote in the first paragraph of this post is U Tin Moe, one of Burma’s most celebrated poets. He too spent many years in prison. His bitter poem, Desert Years, contemplates the state of his country.
a strand of grey hair
a decade gone
In those years
the honey wasn’t sweet
mushrooms wouldn’t sprout
farmlands were parched
The mist hung low
the skies were gloomy
Clouds of dust
on the cart tracks
Acacia and creepers
and thorn-spiral blossoms
But it never rained
and when it did rain,
it never poured
At the village front monastery
no bells rang
no music for the ear
no novice monks
no voices reading aloud
Only the old servant with a shaved head
sprawled among the posts
And the earth
like fruit too shy to emerge
in shame and sorrow
glances at me
When will the tears change and
the bells ring sweet?
by U Tin Moe (1933-2007)
Wednesday, June 15, 2011
Monday, June 13, 2011
Sunday, June 12, 2011
The area is also famous for its African sausage trees (Kigelia africana) and there were loads.
Saturday, June 11, 2011
Stories in a Song was unexpectedly delightful. The play was thought up by Shubha Mudgal and comprises 7 pieces built around obscure or fading musical traditions from northern India. As I sat, waiting for the show to begin, I observed at length the small orchestral arrangement to the side. A harmonium, a tabla, a dhol and what I supposed was an electronic tanpura – all of these I noted with a sinking feeling. What had I dragged myself across waterlogged roads and testy weather for? Thankfully, Stories in a Song disproved my cynicism in the most wonderful way.
The first piece, Songs of the Nuns, was the most melancholic among the seven and also somewhat inadequate. Sourced from the Therigatha, an anthology of poems by Buddhist nuns (the earliest known example of women’s literature in India), their interpretation in song failed to capture the power or mood of the poems. The poems themselves, however, are fascinating and worth a revisit. Quite suddenly, we are taken away from this India of antiquity to an upmarket brothel in Mahatma Gandhi and the Tawaif Sabha. Ketki Thatte was superb as the tawaif who recounts, in speech and song, an encounter between the tawaifs of Benares and Gandhi. The third piece is adapted from Chandni Begum, an Urdu novel by Qurrat-ul-Ain Haider. In Chandni Begum, a struggling family of folk singers attempt to persuade an influential newspaper editor to print some promotional material. Nishi Doshi was particularly riveting as the coquettish Bela, the family’s winsome protégé, in her 1950s sari and flower-pinned chignon, enchanting the audience completely with her old fashioned singing.
The fact that all the actors were such talented singers made it an exceptional experience. I laughed so much that I forgot that I would have to walk out into a squelchy, smelly city. Some things are definitely worth a trip through muck and Stories in a Song is among them. You can view a Youtube promo here.
Monday, June 06, 2011
Sunday, June 05, 2011
Three friends, Kath, Ruth and Tommy live at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school in rural England. The story is narrated in characteristic Ishiguro style by a thirty-something year old Kath in a series of reminiscences. Hailsham and the students who live there seem enigmatic. They don’t refer to their parents or the outside world. They are watched over by guardians who encourage them to be creative and produce works of art. Some of this art is taken by a mysterious visitor who the students call Madame. They postulate that the best of their work is exhibited in a gallery but they don’t discuss this with their guardians. Kath closely observes her friends as they enter intimate relationships but she herself never participates in these budding romances. Despite her close bond with Tommy who is often scorned by other students for being different, she watches resignedly as he and Ruth start dating. The dynamics of the relationship between these three friends sets a tone of regret which is typical of Ishiguro’s work. In the background to all this is the eerie purpose for which the students of Hailsham are being reared.
I enjoyed the Ishiguro’s distinctive style immensely in Never Let Me Go. I wasn’t expecting an action packed plot, yet I did feel that it was a little too brooding and draggy. I think Ishiguro could have created the mood he wanted without so much procrastination in his plot. And as with all his books, Never Let Me Go ends with Kath’s despondent acceptance of her life and destiny, leaving many questions unanswered.
Nailer, works on the light crew, stripping ships for wire and small parts before the heavy crew move in to salvage larger pieces. His crewmates like him are all children whose small bodies enable them to crawl into the crevices and ducts of rusting hulls. They are children who crawl through rusty pipes each day and go to sleep hungry every night. They fear growing too big because Bapi, their avaricious boss will kick them off the crew. Nailer also has to worry about Richard Lopez, his perpetually junked-up father who when not lounging about, is probably beating his son. Fortunately, Nailer does have some friends who care about him like his crew’s team leader Pima and her mother Sadna. The coast is regularly battered by savage storms called city killers. After one such storm, Nailer and Pima discover a wrecked clipper ship, a modern wonder that skims the oceans using high altitude winds. Hoping to strike it rich with the potential salvage on the ship, Nailer and Pima find a survivor among the dead crew. The girl, Nita Chaudhury, turns out to be the daughter of a super-important shipping clan, caught in some sort of corporate insurrection. And Nailer takes on the challenge of delivering Nita into safe hands by making the difficult journey to Orleans, a follower city to drowned New Orleans, but located in Mississippi which forms the new coastline. It’s a pretty despondent vision of our future but pretty credible, could even be a realistic description of post-Katrina New Orleans.
“The great drowned city of New Orleans didn’t come all at once, it came in portions: the sagging backs of shacks ripped open by banyan trees and cypress. Crumbling edges of concrete and brick undermined by sinkholes. Kudzu-swamped clusters of old abandoned buildings shadowed under the loom of swamp trees.”
As in The Windup Girl, Bacigalupi paints a bleak, changed world. The polar caps have melted and sleek clippers harness the power of high altitude winds to sail over the pole to Japan, hazarding attacks by Inuit and Siberia pirates who turn to piracy after losing all means of sustenance. The only currency that holds any value comes from China. Capitalist enterprise, however, is thriving. Large companies buy scrap metal from the ship breakers at low prices. These trades are the only time the ‘swanks’ stop by the malarial coast, guarded by packs of half-men, genetically engineered creatures possessing attributes of humans, dogs and tigers.
The first half of Ship Breaker was excellent. I didn’t really get the feeling that this book wasn’t really meant for my age group. Bacigalupi doesn’t short-change us on the brutal, filthy lives of the ship breakers. However, when Nailer finds Nita and then goes off on a quest to return her to her family, everything falls far too neatly into place. I was a little disappointed with the execution of the climatic chase scene and its subsequent resolution. I suppose it would to be unreasonable to expect a more ‘grown-up’ ending like in The Windup Girl. A constant message in Ship Breaker is about doing the right thing, almost Bhagvad Gita-like. “Killing isn’t free. It takes something out of you every time you do it. You get their life; they get a piece of your soul. It’s always a trade” is advice that Nailer gets from his friend’s mother. This theme, like the book won’t appeal to everyone but you can’t argue against its relevance in these ecological unsound times.
Saturday, June 04, 2011
Bossypants is one of those books which is much better heard than read. Fey’s voice amplifies the wit in all those one-liners in a way that boring old text could never do, particularly the way her voice drops to deliver her sarcastic asides and afterthoughts. There is a longish rant about Photoshop that’s quite funny:
“A lot of women are outraged by the use of Photoshop in magazine photos. I say a lot of women because I have yet to meet one man who could give a fat turd about the topic. Not even a gay man. I feel about Photoshop the way some people feel about abortion. It is appalling and a tragic reflection on the moral decay of our society… unless I need it, in which case, everybody be cool. Do I think Photoshop is being used excessively? Yes. I saw Madonna’s Louis Vuitton ad and honestly, at first glance, I thought it was Gwen Stefani’s baby. Do I worry about overly retouched photos giving women unrealistic expectations and body image issues? I do. I think that we will soon see a rise in anorexia in women over seventy. Because only people over seventy are fooled by Photoshop. Only your great-aunt forwards you an image of Sarah Palin holding a rifle and wearing an American-flag bikini and thinks it’s real. Only your uncle Vic sends a photo of Barack Obama wearing a hammer and sickle T-shirt and has to have it explained to him that somebody faked that with the computer. People have learned how to spot it.”
And some useful advice on photo shoots because “In case you ever find yourself at a magazine cover shoot (and you might, because Snooki and I have, so anything can happen!), let me tell you what to expect.” Bossypants has strong feminist leanings but it’s so hilarious that I reckon that even a misogynist won’t mind some of the polemics. But, just like 30 Rock, Bossypants tends to be little over-the-top and the jokes are ever so slightly repetitive. Ergo, Bossypants is best enjoyed in small, regular doses.
Friday, June 03, 2011
Thursday, June 02, 2011
"Palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss"
R&J, William Shakespeare
According to Dr. Almeida (of The Trees of Mumbai fame), Hiranandani Gardens, Powai has the greatest variety of palm trees in the city, perhaps in the country, with more than 200 species! It seems so unlikely because I work in this surreal neighbourhood which for all practical purposes in an exclave in the city with its greco-punjabi architecture and bronze animals. Sure, I see palms every morning (and evening) on my ride up the hill to my office - but 200 species? This is a mystery worth investigating. Please bear with my poor photography as I attempt to catalogue the palms of Hiranandani Gardens.Flickr cc image Palm Trees by astronomy_blog
Wednesday, June 01, 2011
There are few things as trying as an Indian summer and by that I'm not referring to a wussy period of mild unseasonal warmth. I'm talking about the real deal. Fortunately, there are some things that make an Indian summer worthwhile and nothing affirms that better than my most favourite fruit - Jamun (syzygium cumini). Pavements are littered with purple splotches, birds, monkeys and squirrels go gaga over it, it stains your teeth lilac and lingers on your tongue for hours. I love it, especially the plateful I'm savouring tonight - delectably fat and juicy.