On bad writing

Beryl Bainbridge, in the course of a sparkling interview by Sarah Kinson, is asked, “Do you find writing easy?” She replies:

It was easier when I was young because I had no standards – I would just write. It was wonderful. I wouldn’t bother whether it was any good. It gets worse the more you know – your standards go up and up and you realise you can’t reach them.

Indeed, I know many aspiring writers around me, and the ones who find it easiest to write, who turn out thousands of words a week, are invariably the worst. Good writing is not just a question of ability, but of sensibility, and the more you immerse yourself in literature, the more likely you are to be aware of your own shortcomings, and the more critical you will be of your own writing. And I’m not sure which way the causality goes between writers reading little and writing crud. Perhaps they write badly because they are not well-read enough to know what is good; or maybe they do not read much because subconsciously they know that reading good writers could threaten their self-delusion about their own abilities.

Of course, you will be quite justified in asking why I am making such pompous statements: after all, I blog more frequently than most other bloggers, so perhaps I write crud as well. That’s entirely possible (though you can’t compare blogging to literature), but then, I have a question to ask of you in return: why are you reading this? Hmm?

Ok now, I’m off to read something, see ya later. [Aside: where’s today’s Mid-Day?]

Such modesty

Jessica Simpson says:

I’m the kind of girl who always puts my hand between my legs when I’m getting out of a car if I’m wearing a short skirt. I always wear underwear. It’s a personal rule.

Aren’t you relieved? Now you can take her home to momma.

(Link via email from, naturally, Manish Vij.)

Update: It seems underwear isn’t necessary if you know how to get out of a car. Reader Aparna sends me a delightful link to an article titled “How to Get out of a Car Gracefully Without Showing Your Underwear.

I’m so glad men don’t have this problem.

But then again, maybe it’s not a problem.

Loving poetry again

Do you find poetry intimidating? I do. I don’t understand most of the poems I read these days, or the ones I listen to at literary gatherings like the Kitab Fest that I’ve been attending this weekend. Sometimes I feel bewildered, sometimes I feel sleepy, and often I feel inadequate. I’ve told myself that perhaps I just don’t get it, like some people are tone deaf or colour blind.

But some poetry does give me pleasure. The work of Philip Larkin, for example, or Vikram Seth. And at the Jaipur Lit fest last month, I thoroughly enjoyed Jeet Thayil’s reading. I landed up at his reading at Prithvi Theater a few hours ago, thus, duly prepared to shoot it with my cellphone video recorder, and upload it later for your enjoyment. There was no electricity, and the reading happened in torchlight, so my recording hasn’t come out too good. Most importantly, the sound volume is just too low, and I have no idea of how to make it louder. So I won’t upload that, but I’ll simply ask you, if you ever hear that Thayil is reading in your city, to go over and ask for the “how to” poems and the ghazal about Malayalam. Even if you’ve never liked a poem in your life, you’ll love these.

What kind of a scoundrel would I be if I didn’t leave with some nice poetry now? So here, check out Billy Collins reading The Dead:

Rakhi Sawant and J LO

Rakhi Sawant cannot be non-entertaining. I was flipping through TV channels yesterday and there she was, speaking about how she saw herself.

You know Jay Low. Jay Low! Woh Jennifer! [Long pause.] Kya hai, log usay Jay Low kehte hai, aur jog mujhe Jhay Low kehte hai. Log usay enjoy karte hai, aur mujhe jhelte hai.

I know it sounds odd, but even her immensely artifical self-deprecation has a candid charm about it. And one knows now: she thinks of J Lo!

And what on earth was she up to here, trying to gift computers to the inmates of some jail with her Bigg Boss prize money? Wouldn’t they be of greater use to poor schoolchildren or something? Immense goofiness.

(More on Rakhi: 1. And some posts on Bigg Boss: 1, 2, 3, 4. And on the Mika/Rakhi episode: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

On literature and bestsellers

Early this morning when I was creating today’s edition of Extrowords, on The Booker Prize, I took a break in between to read a bit of Fay Weldon’s wonderful book, “What Makes Women Happy.” How apt, then, that I should now stumble upon these words by Weldon:

As the sequels and prequels take over — if they liked that one, surely they’ll like this one — the creative imagination withers. The advent of the Booker, the Whitbread and others was oddly pernicious in the public perception of what the writer does for a living — that the aim of the literary writer is to win the Prize. That the pursuit of excellence is yesterday’s preoccupation: the writer’s skill now lies in how he or she conducts the race to the finish, the race to celebrity. The camera fixes on six faces, and then whips the cheque away from all but one of them.

Indeed, this is especially true in India, where people seem to find it hard to fathom literature outside of commerce. What prizes has a book got? How much advance did the writer get? Which page 3 parties has the writer been seen at with the glitterati? These are the things that decide how many column inches writers get. I suppose that’s fair enough—supply and demand, after all—and we serious readers are just unlucky that there aren’t enough of us.

Anna Nicole Smith and America

Tunku Varadarajan writes in the Wall Street Journal:

[Anna Nicole] Smith was the object of a fierce popular fascination. It could be said—and said not entirely as metaphor—that Anna Nicole Smith embodied America. She embodied its bounty as well as its overabundance; its exploitability, and its propensity to exploit. She embodied, also, its litigiousness, its enterprise, its universal offer of the chance to remake oneself (Gatsby did it one way, Anna Nicole Smith did it another). And to many foreigners—particularly foreign men—she embodied America in a literal way, too: in a brassy blondeness that people in repressed cultures marvel at.

The thing is, the USA stands for a lot of things—you could replace Smith’s name in the above quote with that of vitually any American celebrity, and find that they ‘embody’ their country in as many ways as she does.

And what of India? I’d argue that Mallika Sherawat and Rakhi Sawant embody our country as much as Narendra Modi and Pratibha Naithani do. Do not shudder at the thought—perhaps you embody India too. To use a cliched expression, countries contain multitudes—and so do you.

The magic of Shruti Nelson

The partner, as some of you may know, curates and organises art shows. A show she’s put together is running in New York at the moment, but I’m far more excited about a show that opens today in Mumbai: it features works by Shruti Nelson, a painter from Baroda, and while I’ve long been a fan of hers, some of this work is way beyond even my expectations.

You can check out some of the paintings featured in the exhibition here. My favourites: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Heck, they’re all good, and they’re much better close up, so visit the exhibition if you’re in Mumbai and check them out.

Bollywood hails the free market

A version of my piece below was published on January 19, 2007 in the Wall Street Journal as “Bollywood’s New Capitalist Hero.” (Subscription link.) It was also posted on India Uncut. It isn’t meant to be a review of “Guru”, towards which I have mixed feelings, but a comment on one aspect of it.

Who would ever have thought that one of the villains of a Bollywood film could be import duty? “Guru”, the latest Bollywood blockbuster by the respected director Mani Ratnam, is that rare film—perhaps Bollywood’s first—in which free markets are lauded as a force for good. Aliens emerging from the Taj Mahal would be less surprising.

“Guru” stars Abhishek Bachchan as Gurukant Desai, a character inspired by Dhirubhai Ambani. Ambani was that rare tycoon who went from rags to riches during the worst years of India’s license raj, building Reliance Industries, which today is India’s largest private sector company. In the era in which Ambani flourished, the state throttled private enterprise with licenses, regulations and sundry restrictions that had at their core Jawaharlal Nehru’s pithy sentiment: “Profit is a dirty word.” Ambani built an empire in spite of this system, enriching millions of middle-class shareholders in the process, for whom he became a folk hero well before his death in 2002.

Ambani’s means were sometimes controversial, and the film reflects this. Towards the end,  Desai is on trial for economic offences that have much to do with import duty and the like. He stands up to make his final statement, and is asked if he is going to speak standing up. In a memorable moment, he thunders, “Do I need a license to stand?”

Desai then evokes the name of Mahatma Gandhi, and implicitly compares Gandhi’s freedom struggle against imperialism to his own struggle with the forces of economic oppression. It is an apt comparison, stated with all the drama and flourish that Bollywood is famous for, but it is almost unbelievable that it is being made in a Hindi film.

In Bollywood, over the ages, one of the template villains has been the businessman. He will look suitably sinister, will alienate his own children, and will either deal in drugs or arms on the side, or spend his time evicting slum dwellers. Anything for profit, especially murder and rape. Most Bollywood businessman villains were classic caricatures of “the evil capitalist,” exploiting the workers and growing rich on their blood and toil. They often freelanced as mafia dons or were crony capitalists, but when the hero raged against their greed, this distinction was lost: business—and the profit motive—were itself painted as twisted, and the rare benevolent businessman stood out starkly as an exception to the rule.

Indeed, Abhishek Bachchan’s father, the screen legend Amitabh Bachchan, himself acted in many films as the angry young man who speaks up for the poor against big business. The senior Bachchan’s best years were in the 1970s, when the Soviets were idolized and America and free enterprise were reviled. Times have changed, and for the first time, Bollywood has acknowledged that change.