Tacky loopiness and bravura singing


Title: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007

By: Zee TV

A lot of people like batsmen who step out to the bowlers and hit huge sixes. I, for one, am highly entertained by batsmen who do the same but get caught in the deep. I love robust ambition constrained by mediocrity of execution – it’s my type of entertainment.

Despite sharing Amit’s fondness for Indian Idol 3, I love the potent mixture of tacky loopiness and bravura singing on Zee TV’s Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007.

Let’s take Bappi Lahiri for instance. He covers himself with bling, itraos constantly, breaks into song at random moments, gets embroiled in hilarious controversies and pronounces singers as the Britney Spears and Shakira of India. And we’re still on the guru who barely gets out of his seat.

While Indian Idol 3 focuses on the competitive camaraderie of its contestants, SRGMP is powered by hierarchical and relational interactions that reflect traditional Indian social values. All of this staged on a set that looks like the adda of a sworn Sith nemesis of 007.

And lest you think it’s all a hoot, SRGMP is lined with excellent singers. How good? Only Emon and Amit from Indian Idol could go toe to toe with any one of their best 10. But it would have to be on their best day. And their competing singer from SRGMP would have to make a particularly bad song choice. Then they’d be in with a chance.

Disembodied Japanese heads etc


Title: Hellboy: The Right Hand of Doom

By: Mike Mignola

Anung Un Rama is the virtually indestructible creation of Beelzebub himself. He has red-skin, wears a goatee, a tiny ponytail and has blank yellow eyes. His head bears two sawed-off horns. He is the Beast of Apocalypse – his fate, to plunge the world into chaos. There is only one problem: Anung Un Rama – or Hellboy as he is readily known – doesn’t seem to think much of this plan.

Turning his back on his destiny, Hellboy spends most of his time investigating paranormal events and battling myriad demons and monsters. Often he gets horrifically trashed, but he’s always game for a challenge.

The most enjoyable collection of Hellboy stories can be found in the graphic novel Hellboy Vol 4: The Right Hand of Doom. Not only does writer-illustrator Mike Mignola address several origin curiosities but he also includes one of my favorite Hellboy tales – a bunch of disembodied Japanese heads trying to get a bite of Hellboy in a forest.

Mignola’s drawing has been called impressionist, even inspired by German Expressionism. I can vouch that it’s pretty darn cool. At the end of the novel Mignola presents his sketches – done (from what I could gather) with a thin lead holder, 0.5 ink gel pen and a medium sharpie. It’s a revealing exhibition of his talent and flexibility.

Challenging the bounds of poetry


Title: Glass, Irony & God

By: Anne Carson

If the function of the poet is to push the limits of language, then few poets writing today do it as splendidly as Anne Carson. In her verse novels (Autobiography of Red, The Beauty of the Husband) and her collections of essays and verse (Men in the Off Hours, Plainwater) Carson consistently challenges the bounds of what we call poetry, blending the classical with the modern, the surreal with the mundane, creating a tough-minded oeuvre of rigorous yet revelatory power.

Nothing exemplifies the range of Carson’s style as well as her book Glass, Irony and God. It begins with ‘The Glass Essay’ a long poem of shattering force that combines the narrator’s experience of heartbreak with her musings on the life and work of Emily Bronte. Carson blends vivid imagery with elegant erudition, slipping in the occasional touch of the everyday; but her real gift is for palimpsest, for describing (in her words) “that other day running underneath this one…like a glass slide under a drop of blood”.

‘The Glass Essay’ is followed by ‘The Truth About God’ a collection of pithy, ironic poems about God and religion that I can only compare to Ted Hughes’ Crow. We then get ‘TV Men’, featuring portraits of Hector and Socrates located in the age of television; ‘The Fall of Rome: A Traveler’s Guide’, which portrays tourism in an inner landscape of nightmare and insecurity; and perhaps most memorably of all, ‘Book of Isaiah’, a visionary / revisionary take on Old Testament myth that can only be described as lyrical mysticism with attitude. Finally (for so bravura a performance surely deserves an encore) Carson gives us ‘The Gender of Sound’ – a feminist essay that looks at the way patriarchy suppresses female expression by portraying high-pitched or shrill voices as silly, hysterical or plain evil.  As poetry collections go, it’s hard to think of one that’s more varied and more incendiary.

All about Deep Throat


Title: The Secret Man

By: Bob Woodward

Bob Woodward’s The Secret Man can be termed as the concluding part of the trilogy (Parts 1 & 2) on the Watergate scandal. Mark Felt, the No.2 man in the FBI was identified as Deep Throat in 2005. The book reveals the gory details of the author’s trysts with Felt.

The book is a must-read for aspiring investigative journalists. Not only because it details the risks and accompanying paranoia that hangs over the heads of the reporters, but because of the mechanics of developing sources, getting information, and the challenges faced by them to get it published. In recent times, Felt is revealed as an ordinary man, living in anonymity with his grown-up daughter and her family, a victim of Alzheimers, who barely remembers Woodward and Watergate. It does seem rather tragic to read about the sunset years of this once-powerful bureaucrat. 

On the periphery of Indian history


Title: Burma Boy

By: Biyi Bandele

There is a Nigerian renaissance in writing, it seems. Helon Habila won the Caine Prize last year, and Helen Oyeyemi, 22, has written two novels about ghosts and spirits of the kind Wole Soyinka alludes to in “Ake”. But to see how global African writing is, try Biyi Bandele‘s “Burma Boy.”

Growing up in Bombay, I learnt how Subhas Chandra Bose reached Hitler’s Berlin, seeking his support to overthrow the British from India. Hitler was preoccupied – he had millions of Jews to kill, Britain to bomb, and Russia to swallow, so he asked Bose to try Japan. Bose went east, and in Singapore he took over the Indian National Army, formed earlier by Mohan Singh. The Japanese offered words, and not much else, to the INA, and its march towards India began late – by then the Japanese were stretched, and Wingate’s Chindits succeeded in halting the INA: its sole incursions in India restricted to a few surreptitious flag-hoisting ceremonies on Indian soil.

Burma excites novelists: Melvyn Bragg, in “The Soldier’s Return”, told a nice story about the British soldier in Burma. Amitava Ghosh, in “The Glass Palace,” brought to life the men who joined the INA. But what we don’t learn in either is the role of Africans – boys like Ali Banana, who was 14, and modeled on Bandeye’s father.

These soldiers, yanked from tropical Africa, suffered humiliation, racism, and were scarred for life. Their stories have remained hidden. Bandele’s writing is important precisely for casting light on that periphery of Indian history, to show how complex and global the world already was in the 1940s.

Timeless satire


Title: Selected Stories

By: Parashuram

Had the satirical Bengali writer Parashuram (1880-1960) been alive today, one can imagine him writing brilliant pieces about the attempt to prove Pratibha Patil worthy of the presidency, on our attitudes to foreigners revealed by matters like the Greg Chappell controversy, or the love of Indian housewives for saas-bahu serials. But as Parashuram cannot come to us, the only other option is for us to go to Parashuram, and this can be done by picking up the wonderful edition of his Selected Stories published last year by Penguin.

The new translations of Parashuram by Sukanta Chaudhuri and Palash Baran Pal cast his witty, wise and digressive stories into fluent, chatty English. Among the seventeen pieces included here two are, in my judgment, amongst the greatest stories in Indian literature. These are “The Scripture Read Backward”, which imagines a world in which Bengal has colonised Britain instead of the other way round, and “On Bhushandi’s Plain”, about an unhappy householder who dies and turns into a ghost, and whose story comes to an end with a spectacular “twofold concurrence of a threefold conjunction” (Parashuram loved complicated plots).

More on Parashuram here.

Like a convention of water bugs


Title: Comedy’s Greatest Era

By: James Agee

How little we know about the silent comedy of Hollywood becomes clear when we recall having seen only one or two Buster Keaton films and dimly remember the name Harold Lloyd. We know silent comedy because we know Chaplin.

If we remember the era as an era at all, it is because of James Agee’s masterly tribute to silent comedy, published as ‘Comedy’s Greatest Era’ in the September 5, 1949 issue of Life magazine. In it he says:

All these people zipped and caromed about the pristine world of the screen as jazzily as a convention of water bugs. Words can hardly suggest how energetically they collided and bounced apart, meeting in full gallop around the house; how hard and how often they fell on their backsides; or with what fantastically adroit clumsiness they got themselves fouled up in folding ladders, garden hoses, tethered animals and each others’ headlong cross-purposes. The gestures were ferociously emphatic; not a line or motion of the body was wasted or inarticulate.

‘Words can hardly suggest’ he says; but it is because of Agee’s words, laid out with the much-rehearsed precision of anarchic comedy, that the era lives on in our memories. In fact, Agee’s essay is a masterpiece of construction with one perfect sentence following another until you feel not only nostalgic for the cinema he writes about, but also for the kind of writing that used to describe it – one that we no longer see except in such long-ago essays.

‘Comedy’s Great Era’ can be found in the collection Agee on Film.

Sleepless in Seattle


Title: Surveillance

By: Jonathan Raban

I have just finished reading Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance. I recommend it highly not because it is a political novel (which it is), not because it is a smart novel (which it is), not also because as a political novel its smartness lies in throwing open the question of politics as well as representation (which it does, unlike say, Jay McInerney writing about 9/11). Not because here’s a major writer who blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction (a line that reveals goosebumps if you touch it right). And not even because the protagonist has a bright, young daughter (which she does, and I’m all for bright daughters and the joy that they bring), but because, living as I do in a world that is marked not only by the war on terror but also by little, irritating stuff like readers’ reviews on Amazon, I’m delighted to find that Raban has much to say about the former and also a little about the latter.

Read the book to get a sense of the first. But for the second, here’s a sample: “It seemed to be a part of the house rules at Amazon that to praise a book you had to manifest an exaggerated physiological response—laughing till you cried, cracking up, weeping buckets, or, as a woman from Akron, Ohio, claimed, wetting yourself, choking for breath, depriving yourself of sleep, as if readers were competing for some emotional dysfunction award.”

Timbaland goes dissin’


Title: Timbaland Presents Shock Value

By: Timbaland

In American music today, no producer is bigger than Timbaland. He has charted numerous careers, recently propelling Justin Timberlake into the top drawer and putting Nelly Furtado’s career back on the rails.

I’ve been massively enjoying his much awaited solo album – Shock Value. Despite the fact that through the course of the album you keep tripping through a list of marquee artists, it is very much a producer’s album – full of delightful little sonic pleasures and brainy-rapper attitude.

“Kill Yourself” (featuring Sebastian & Attitude) is a personal favorite. But the juiciest song is the first single – “Give It To Me” – featuring Timberlake and Furtado, both of whom enjoy a coveted seat in Timbaland’s inner circle of friends. Each sings a verse (Furtado anchors the song) and goes dissin on a personal nemesis.

Furtado starts by responding to Fergie, who rolled her eyes at the title of Furtado’s “Promiscuous” on her frilly-thump single “Fergilicious”.

Timbaland pulls the pants off producer Scott Storch who he co-wrote Timberlake’s breaking hit “Cry me a River” with and which resulted in a credits feud.

Timberlake, however, does the best hatchet job, going after (reportedly) Prince for taking a swipe at Timberlake’s “Sexyback” – widely (and reluctantly by the artist himself) regarded as an iconic song.

Lyrics for the joyously bitchy track here.

The charmingly callow Azhar


Title: Azhar

By: Harsha Bhogle

One of the greatest cataclysms of my teenage years was the day I discovered that an army of termites, nibbling and burrowing away out of sight, had laid waste to the wooden bookshelf that housed all my cricket books. Some of the books themselves, having after all been wood in a past life, had also not survived the attack. Out of the ruined city of cricket literature I fished out my prized copy of Harsha Bhogle’s Azhar, which I diligently read every year. I was not to know it then, but in a couple of years the reputation of the book’s subject was to be similarly in tatters.

That is not to take away from Bhogle’s book, which chronicles not just the career of one of the greatest batting geniuses of all time (perhaps only Brian Lara amongst batsmen after Azhar has given such pleasure) but indeed a different age of cricket. Even by the time he reached the highest stage, Azhar was remarkably, even charmingly, callow – for his Test debut he borrowed a close friend’s helmet, having never worn one before. Captaincy later made a different man of him, and the enigma of his batting was echoed in the meandering routes of his personal life and his dealings with bookies. Still well worth reading, though you may want to fill in some blanks yourself.