Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Testament of Gideon Mack - some thoughts

A couple of weeks ago I finished The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson. This book was one of the longlisted for Booker 2006. When I read reviews of this book last September, in preparation for the post linked above, I knew that I wanted to read this book soon. And I must say I wasn't in the least disappointed.

Reverend Gideon Mack, a Church of Scotland Minister, vanishes from Monimaskit under mysterious circumstances. A few months later, his body is recovered at Ben Alder. Meanwhile, the innkeeper at his last lodging discovers a manuscript, a testament actually, which Mack seems to have left behind, on his last walk to death, in the hope that it will be discovered sometime. This manuscript finds its way to a publisher who decides to publish it with due disclaimers. The structure of the book is very interesting, a prologue by the said publisher, PW, an epilogue by the journalist, HC, who got the manuscript into PW's hands and the testament by Gideon Mack.

The book makes excellent reading. Certainly one of those books one is bound to like better on re-reading. Gideon Mack is a minister who doesn't believe in God, a few months before he vanishes he also claims to have met and conversed with the Devil (on surviving an accident at Black Jaws). He never loved his parents, he also realizes he never loved his wife, he loves his best friend's wife, he sees a Stone that no one else sees, he befriends a rickety old historian whom everyone holds in awe, he runs marathons and finally, he throws it all away at a Sunday mass. I won't say more because the whole joy of the book is not so much in its story (though it interests) but in the way it is told.


And now, for some Sting

In recent years, the husband and I have stayed away from Sting's new albums. I guess Brand New Day marked the start of the unfaithfulness. And All this Time was so bad that we decided Sacred Love is best ignored. So we've been out of touch with any of his new releases, having lost the interest to keep tabs on the man who seemed intent on tailoring himself for pure commercial success.

Among the many things that the husband has passed on to me, one that I really appreciate is a taste for the old Sting. Nothing like the Sun is such a charm. Soul Cages and Ten Summoner's Tales have many nice numbers. Fields of Gold is a good collection of the best of Sting. And these are CDs that have been put to tremendous use in our household. Forever flavouring the background.

So much for flashback, wistfulness and gripe.

This morning, I came across a review of Sting's new album in the New Republic. The review is hardly flattering,
With Songs From the Labyrinth, Sting has given in fully to his critics' worst charges. Perhaps becoming a minstrel of Elizabethan lute songs will liberate him and free, free, set Sting (and us) free from his labyrinthine pretensions. Then again, Sting may well feel perfectly at ease with Dowland's grandiloquent bids for favor with the aristocracy of his day. Songs From the Labyrinth has earned Sting an invitation to sing and play his lute for the present-day Queen Elizabeth. If some admirers of his early rock records have felt betrayed by Sting in recent years, one reason consistent with the coldness and pretense of his music is a sense, magnified by images of him luting for the queen, that he would like to abandon rock royalty for the real thing.
But the review has gotten me curious enough to give Songs From The Labyrinth a fair chance. At least a few times of listening for him having taken the pain to rescue John Dowland from the sixteenth - seventeenth century.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Lewis Carroll, 175 and going strong

Today is Lewis Carroll's one hundred and seventy-fifth birth anniversary.

Some facts of interest:
Lewis Carroll is, ofcourse, the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. But how did he hit upon Lewis Carroll?
This pseudonym was a play on his real name; Lewis was the anglicised form of Ludovicus, which was the Latin for Lutwidge, and Carroll being an anglicised version of Carolus, the Latin for Charles (source)
Carroll was an accomplished photographer. Among his sitters were most of the Pre-Raphaelites.

He was reading Pilgrim's Progress at the age of seven (source)

Do you know the Carroll Myth?

This year, Lewis Carroll is on my reading list (specifically because a friend wrote about his re-reading of Through the Looking Glass and I was very taken with that view). I've never read Carroll as an adult reader and I am very curious to see how I perceive Alice as well as Looking Glass now.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Translated as Lost?

A week ago, I put up the guest post Lost in Translation. Krithiga (Ms.K), the author of that subject matter had a few reasons why she did not consider Indian Writing worthy of being read. I am going to try and work my way through some of her reasons here.

She said that Indian Writing confines itself to a narrow frame of reference, namely the immigrant experience (written largely for the emigrant population from Lady India, I guess, so that it would validate their choices. Yes, yes, you are okay). Firstly, there is the problem of the label Indian Writing. For purposes of convenience, to facilitate my reading choices, I always interpret this label as writing of an Indian. Because if the label Indian Writing were considered as anything less inclusive, it becomes awfully confusing. And the way it is presently bandied about in conversation (and I care to mention that these are the common conversations between people who like to read, not to be assumed as literary conversations, given that literary is an equally contentious descriptor), Indian Writing acquires the narrow meaning of works in English written by an Indian, living abroad at least some part of the year! Therefore the perception that the frame of reference is narrow. Also to blame, in part, are the displays in Indian bookstores where the prominent titles under the Indian Writing category consist of 300-paged books all similarly clothed in the fabric of the exotic. Sometimes, at such sights, there is a strong instinct to disown spices and run away from snake charmers. But, of course, there is more to Indian Writing than all that. Surely, it is the least you can expect from a country that understood civilization much before most of the world.

K also said that the structure and flow of the writing is at fault. At least, it is not as smooth as that of a native English writer. Isn't that but natural? Isn't that also an advantage? If a language were used in the same way by everyone (theoretically), then its possibilities of opening up vistas of the mind would be confined to the way such new ideas are shaped into the cultured form of the native writer. However, when a writer uses a foreign language, the narrative offers itself up to be shaped by a culture and a language that have met in the lush ground of the writer's experiences and observations. The result is bound to be unexpected. Indeed the unexpected would eventually become the object of populist copying and lo, a genre would have worked its way out from the ether. Then it will be time for K and I and others like us to scream in horror at the deluge and run.

So K, I am tempted to offer names and say this is what is good Indian Writing. But, reading choices don't work that way. You are K and I am the letter that follows - close enough, yet not quite. And my good will differ from your good. I shall point you to two books, both anthologies, both on India centred writing: History of Indian Literature in English and The Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature . I think that they offer a good sample of this country's literature. Take your pick. Maybe then, ambivalent will be an adjective you will agree to.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A Conversation with Vinod Joseph

A couple of weeks ago, I had a very interesting conversation with Vinod. We spoke for well over an hour and touched upon many subjects. During the course of that conversation, I asked him a few questions about The Hitchhiker, his first novel, as well as about his reading tastes. I wanted to share those parts of the conversation here. And oh, bear in mind, what is below is a transcribed version of an audio conversation:

Lavanya: One of the questions I like to ask people when I talk to them for the first time is about their reading taste. I'd like to ask you the same, Vinod. What kind of books do you read?

Vinod: Well, I agree. It is a good way to understand what sort of a person you are talking to. I too like to ask people about their reading preferences. I read a lot of classics and mostly books that have a historical background/setting. As far as classics go, Tolstoy's War & Peace, Anna Karenina and similar books are favourites. I enjoy Graham Greene, A.J.Cronin, James Michener. Among the Indians, R.K.Narayan is a favourite. I particularly like Nadine Gordimer.
L: In Hitchhiker, you use an neutral narrator. I was wondering why you did not narrate the story from Ebenezer's point of view.

V: If you notice, Hitchhiker has several small characters and their stories in addition to the story of Ebenezer. For instance, Ebenezer has no idea of knowing what happens in the UK in the Narendra Shah part of the story. I did toy with the idea of a first person narrative but the multiple stories necessitated a neutral narrator.

L: Right, I forgot about the multiple stories. Also, on a related note, I wanted to ask you about the functional style of the prose. In Chenthil's review of your book, he had mentioned that the author sounds like someone who thinks in Tamil and then translates it into English. When I read your book, I felt that you wanted the narrator of your story also to sound like someone from a Southern Tamilnadu background and that the sparse style and the Tamil-native-like English construction were deliberate. In a sense, Chenthil was right about the prose sounding like it were written by a Tamilian thinking in his mother tongue and translating it to English. However that Tamilian is supposed to be the narrator and not the author. Am I right?

V: Yes the sparse Tamil like prose style was consciously done. In Southern Tamilnadu, that is the way you would hear people speak. I wanted to give my readers a flavour of way people speak over there.

L: Your choice of places - Aaroor, Thenpatti - are they really around in Tamilnadu? They seem very familiar and authentic but I don't think I've heard of these names.

V: They are fictional. And yes, I wanted to make them as authentic as possible. Let us just say that Aaroor is a fictional place an hour or so away from Salem.

L: Why did you set the book in Tamilnadu?

V: Well, I grew up in a place called Virudhunagar - lived there till I was 18 - until a few years ago my parents used to live there (now they've retired and settled at our ancestral home in Kerala). So, I am very familiar with Southern Tamilnadu and could easily recreate the environment from memory.

L: You wrote this book when doing your Masters at the LSE isn't it? How long did it take you to write the book?

V: It took me around 8 months to write the first draft - of which I wrote full time for a month and around two or three hours a day otherwise. Then, after my LLM exams at the LSE got over, it took me 3 more months to find a job and start working. I used that time to revise what I had written. When I started my first job in the UK in January 2004, I had completed Hitchhiker.

L: I have read a lot of Indian writers mention that physical distance away from India provides them with the perspective to view and write about India in a way that they can never imagine doing had they lived in India. You wrote The Hitchhiker in London. Did your location matter to you, help you, in writing your novel? Or would home in India have made no difference to the perspective that you hold in the book?

V: In my case it didn't make a difference since I had just got to the UK. I guess, it would make a difference if one has lived away for many years.

L: Why the title The Hitchhiker? Is it just a straightforward use of the free rider kind of meaning or does the choice run deeper?

V: Ebenezer hitchhikes his way through life - first piggybacking on the GEC and later for a short while as a Hindu convert.

L: Are you working on a book now?

V: Yes. I am working on a collection of ten stories, set in Kerala.

L: How did you come across my blog?

V: I was searching for reviews of Robert Edric's Gathering the Water and came upon what you wrote. I was pleasantly surprised to find that people still read books like these.

L: You bet they do! Do you blog or have you ever considered blogging?

V: I don't blog but I have considered it. It is very addictive isn't it? And it requires a good investment of time and effort. I don't think I can manage that along with my work and the writing.
Related Links:
My thoughts on The Hitchhiker
The Hitchhiker at Books for Change
Other Reviews

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Milk Biki gets a Makeover

After ages, I bought a pack of Britannia Milk Bikis at the supermarket last week and opened it this morning on being attacked by a curious mix of hunger as well as nostalgia.

Holidays are particularly conducive to bouts of flashback and the mention of some cousins got me started on the story of how, as children, we would eat the Milk Biki in such a way that there was the smallest perfect rectangle enclosing the word Britannia. Then after comparing each other's biting finesse, we would proceed to eat off the remaining biscuit letter by letter. The one that got to the B with least damage won.

When I opened the pack this morning, I was in for a surprise. Britannia Milk Bikis has had a drastic makeover. She looks like a waffle clone now and I pity the children who must now devise games to bite off the tiny squares. Maybe the mouse-teethed one will win!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Go on, buy good CARMA

CARMA, which plays on quite a few meanings, Car-ma, Karma, and my own version (Ray + Anand + MAC + Abracadabra = CARMA), is the first full-length feature film to be created, polished and presented entirely via the digital medium. As its press release says,
CARMA is also the first film in history to be shot, edited, produced and distributed entirely digitally. (Silicon Valley-based director Ray Arthur Wang wrote the film on his Palm Pilot and edited it entirely on a notebook PC -- and now film viewers can watch the film via the Internet as an instantantaneous pay per view.
The makers of the movie:
The filmmakers, both based in Silicon Valley, chose to bypass traditional distribution offers for the daring Internet distribution deal because of their technical backgrounds: Director Ray Arthur Wang holds a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford and Executive Producer Anand Chandrasekaran holds a M.S. in Electrical Engineering from Stanford and is co-founder of Aeroprise, a hot wireless company in Silicon Valley. Despite the hype about Internet video, most filmmakers still shy away from launching films on the web because they fear that it will prevent them from getting a "real" distribution deal in theatres.Wang felt that Internet distribution would enable him to reach his target audience, 18-30 year olds, more effectively. He is betting that this new generation that spends more time on the Internet than watching TV will embrace watching pay per view film delivered instantaneously on the web.
Chilling would be a good adjective to describe the movie (via):
The story is about an abandoned car haunted by a psychopath’s dead mother and the inevitability of fate (Get it? Car-Ma). Imagine Quentin Tarantino meets Steven King, with a good helping of Alfred Hitchcock and No Exit thrown into the mix with an appropriately creepy soundtrack. Karen Black, who starred in Five Easy Pieces and Alfred Hitchcock’s last movie, Family Plot, provides the voice of the demonic mom.
All it takes is a few clicks and $4.99 to watch CARMA from the comfort of your own home. Take a look at the related links below and enjoy a good movie!

Oh, oh, oh, in case all of this sounds like Lady L is trying to market something to you, hold on. Anand is a friend of mine, I've known him for several years, and I am merely the proud tom-tomer of a friend's fantastic new creation.

Related Links:
Be Afraid, Steven Spielberg, Be Very Afraid
CARMA streams into Film History...
More Press
Preview CARMA
CARMA eh? What's the story like?

Buy the movie
Spread the Good Word

Bharathiyar in English

Great pals of mine, Agnibarathi and JAB, have created a new blog with a very lofty ideal - that of translating Bharathiyar's Tamil poems into English. Instead of a mere English rendering, they attempt an interesting format, which you can read about here. The blog, Bharathiyaar, has considerable material already, downloadable in pdf. My favourite so far is this extract from the post, Suttum Vizi Cudar Than:

Of rules do thee to me speak
Do rules stand for passion's peak?
Later I shall do the laws elders seek.
How shall I wait? Here, a kiss on thy cheek.

Rules you speak to me kaNNammA
wherefore do we need rules?
Those who are impatient kaNNammA
What do they have as rules?

If the elders agree kaNNammA
Later we will rites marriage seek
Shall I wait more? Look
Here, a kiss on your cheek

Another translation:
Speak not to me of rules or tradition,
I have no need for them.
My heart that flies with the
tempestous winds of passion,
Can I bind it down,
With ties of convention?

Later, by rules we shall each other wed...

For now-
Let me just kiss your cheek..."

Saturday, January 06, 2007

AR Rahman, birthday, music, memories

Yet another Rahman birthday.

The blogs are buzzing with wishes.

Prabhu's post has a list of his favourite songs of Rahman.

I have my own list of favourites too and I find that some keep changing over time. For instance, Khalbali was a recent favourite. Minnale has been an all-time favourite. And so on. But there are some songs that weave themselves into your memory through the people you care about. So when Chaiyya Chaiyya plays, I think of J, G and myself, packed together in an overflowing suburban train from Tambaram, J singing exactly like Sapna Awasti and singing in perfect beat to the chug of the train.

Whenever I hear Kannamoochi Yenada, I am reminded of the three friends I was with, in a car flying over the 315 in Columbus, OH, on a late Friday night, my silly self whining that I could never reach my fiance on the phone for he was always travelling, S suddenly bursting out in laughter when this song played because the lyrics were such an echo of my whine, everyone else joining in and singing it so loud that I had to laugh too.

Pachai Nirame is the clear water, the ducks and the green of Sharon Woods. Yeh Jo Des Hai Tera brings to mind the friend who spent one of his birthdays playing this song on repeat. Poo Pookum Osai is tied to a college dorm, with me walking on the corridor singing endlessly bhoomi oru veenai, adhai kaatrin kaigal meetudhe. Chinna Chinna Aasai will always be that special 1992 Oliyum Oliyum, Kaadhal Rojave will be Arvindswamy's red sweater, Khamosh Raat will probably be the song most repeated over the years, and one is still pulling off the oil paper protecting the memories.

That is why when Rahman celebrates his birthday, it seems such a fitting occasion to celebrate one's own memories. For the best gifts will always be from him to us. I look forward to making new memories over new tracks. Happy Birthday Rahman!

Rahman's Tamil numbers

Rahman's Hindi numbers

Thursday, January 04, 2007

The Linking Excuse...

If you want to get an idea of how many books Edith Wharton may have written, I suggest you read this post. Make sure you take a look at the pictures. And while you are at that excellent blog, also look at the Thomas Hardy biography, The Time-Torn Man. I am memorizing a couple of Hardy poems (one of them, of course, on death) this week and the next and I find them brilliant. For someone who started on The Mayor of Casterbridge (bad bad book to start with, especially in your early teens) and swore to stay away from Hardy ever after, I am reforming quite well.

Jason's best links of 2006, always enjoyable and some of them are phenomenally good.

Lotus recommends Eat, Pray, Love. The book has a wow cover and sounds somewhat like The Yoga School Dropout, but one point really caught my eye - that the essence of a city can be condensed to a word. Nice. Very nice.

Sometimes verses are nice. Very nice.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Ever since the Chennai Metblogs happened, I've started looking at cities differently. Not out of necessity but out of a certain attentiveness, which I did not possess earlier, to a city's dailiness. That is why, when I came across Arunachala Grace, a blog about the town of Tiruvannamalai, I was moved by the author's warmth towards Arunachala and the town around it.

Arunachala Grace is best viewed in IE (standard range of versions). It does not load properly in Firefox.

A Book Printing Machine

that offers 2.5 million titles and can print and bind a copy for you in seven minutes. Hmm...
A machine that electronically stores 2.5 million books that can then be printed and bound in less than seven minutes is to be launched early next year. It prints in any language and has an upper limit of 550 pages. The 'Espresso' will be launched first in several US libraries. The company behind the project - On Demand Books - predicts that, within five years, it will be able to reproduce every book ever published.