Song of the Road

Soft-spoken, unobtrusive, unassuming. That pretty much describes the poet-songwriter whose lyrics for the recently released Autograph seem set to start a movement. With phrases such as ‘chol rastay’ and ‘gia nostal’ rapidly gaining ground among the young brigade, Srijato is a name you’ll be hearing more of in future, a fact the poet himself typically tries to play down.

“The first soundtrack I wrote for was (Birsa Dasgupta’s film) 033,” he says, over a cup of coffee. “I was convinced I would fail, but Birsa wanted to try me. And once I found out I could actually write songs, it became easier to say yes to (director) Srijit (Mukherjee) and Debuda (composer Debojyoti Mishra) when they approached me for Autograph.

Watching his lyrics turn into Chol Rastay Saji Tramline, he says, was like watching straw turn into an idol. During our entire conversation, that’s about as poetic as he gets. His words are measured, his gestures minimal, his voice controlled, his humour wry. The impression is of a firmly grounded man, a man who focuses on the lyricism and romanticism of life’s ordinary, everyday realities, and expresses them in language accessible to everyone.

But that is what Gulzar has been doing for years for Hindi films, hasn’t he? Mention of the legendary poet-lyricist’s name moves Srijato to a state that actually resembles excitement. “How do I put this? Gulzar, for me, is a combination of Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan,” he says. “Quietly, entirely on his own, he has redefined film song writing.”

The other icon of Srijato’s life, evidently, is Kabir Suman. “His appearance was the Big Bang of Bengali music,” he says. “All creative efforts in Bengal since then owe him in some way.”

There’s something endearing about the way Srijato constantly negates his own rising fame, or the growing popularity of his edgy, irreverent, yet heartfelt poetry. Now in his mid-30s, he’s been writing poetry since his early teens, and despite close to 10 published volumes of poetry, one senses that he still feels a sense of surprise at the fact that publishers actually approach him for his works, or that his poetry actually finds readers.

“Of course, writing for films, one reaches a far wider audience,” he concedes. “But that’s about it. I never hang on to my works. The moment I handed over Chol Rastay to Debuda, I forgot about it. I wouldn’t want to be one of those people who change with fame. I’ve seen it happen too many times.”

As he talks, however, one realises that for all his seeming sensibleness, there’s a streak of eccentricity somewhere. From joking about how the ‘tramlines’ of his song are rapidly becoming history to describing how, on the eve of his BA Part II Geography examination, he ran away from home, there is an inherent quirkiness about him that constantly belies his appearance and demeanour.

“I’ve never believed in self-assessment,” he muses, as our interview draws to a close. “As I have grown older, my poetry has become more complicated, perhaps, and a little harder for me to get hold of, but, as (poet) Shankha Ghosh once said, ‘We have no history’.”

But he certainly has a future, with films like Parambrata Chatterjee’s Jiyo Kaka and a few others coming up. The tramlines may be vanishing, but the rasta (road) is getting wider.

This article first appeared in the Hindustan Times on November 20, 2010

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Where Have I Read This Before?

Manju Kapur
Random House India
Price: R 450, Pages: 415 (hardcover)

Familiarity can sometimes be comforting, they say. Which is why all of us seek familiar faces, voices, and spaces in the absence of other sources of comfort. The trouble is, for a writer, the thin red line between familiarity and repetition often becomes invisible, so what you get is one big sigh of having seen it all — or at least major chunks of it — before.

Manju Kapur does not repeat herself throughout this, her fifth book, but she does rely on certain old faithfuls who enhance our sense of déjà vu. Her award-winning debut, Difficult Daughters (1998), was a thoughtful study of the bourgeois, newly awakened Indian middle class, and the novels that followed, such as The Immigrant, followed suit, in placing the characters in posh, wannabe Delhi locales.

And so we come to Custody, where Raman, complete with degrees from IIT and IIM, works for a multinational. At home, his beautiful wife Shagun and two children, Arjun and Roohi, are models of perfection, until Shagun begins an affair with Raman’s boss Ashok. As she and Raman head for divorce, Kapur draws attention to the plight of the two children and their parents’ sordid battle for their custody.

Along the way, there are the mandatory aunty jis, and there is Ishita, another divorcee, who Raman is drawn to and eventually marries. However, as we are drawn slowly into their world of separation, pain, betrayal, anger, et al, a vital element that we miss out on is sympathy.

Apart from the children, whose pain we feel mostly indirectly, it is hard to be sorry for any of the others involved. Shagun is as petty and lifeless as she is beautiful, Raman seems capable of fusty self-pity and little else, Ashok is inexplicably unbearable, and Ishita, who starts out believably enough, becomes something of a cardboard cutout towards the end.

What Kapur does with these characters is endlessly balance and counterbalance, so we aren’t allowed to come to conclusions about any situation or character. More damagingly, perhaps, it also causes her to repeat situations and lapse into cliché-ridden dialogue that the book could well do without. The children draw attention, yes, but Kapur finds little that is new in describing the first awkward interactions between children and potential step-parents, or the signs of emotional disturbance that they exhibit.

It doesn’t help that most of the supporting cast are almost caricatures rather than real people. This is where you get the feeling that Kapur is overdoing her ‘focusing-on-a-small-section-of-upwardly-mobile-India-with-all-its-idiosyncrasies’ a bit. And she does with an obviousness that mars much of the pleasure of what could have been an engrossing read.

This book review first appeared in the Hindustan Times

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William Dalrymple: Going Native

Photo courtesy Penguin India, so it's Dalrymple at his best

After nearly two decades in India, which he now calls home, it seems rather obvious to ask William Dalrymple if he has ‘gone native’ and become an Indophile. But one needs a conversation opener, so one goes ahead and asks the obvious. Sitting by the pool at Taj Bengal, Dalrymple smiles wryly and says, “I should think so.”

The boy who grew up near the Firth of Forth in Scotland has raised his three children in this country, and clearly, India has finally, and firmly, taken to him. His latest book Nine Lives (Bloomsbury, Rs 499, hardcover) has, in his own words, sold 35,000 copies in India within two weeks of its release and “gone straight to the top of the charts”. He says this quite nonchalantly, but adds, with a certain quiet pride, that this is his first book to sell more copies in India than it has in Britain.

The relative brevity of this work may have contributed to its popularity. “I was very clear that I wanted to write a shorter book after the last two monsters,” he says. The monsters in question are White Mughals and The Last Mughal, which boosted Dalrymple’s credentials as a historian, but drew him away from the kind of ‘travel writing’ that most of his readers have come to expect. “I think those two were too much for a lot of people,” he laughs. “And I had to get out after 10 years in the National Archives.”

With Nine Lives, Dalrymple is back to talking about people and places, but with an underlying theme. These are nine people who represent different religious faiths or paths, and most of them have found these paths through deeply moving personal experiences. The people themselves tell the stories, with Dalrymple acting largely as a medium to transmit them to the world.

How difficult was it not to become involved with these people? “I think there’s a difference between being moved and being involved. At the end of the day, I’m no more involved than you are, but I was certainly moved,” Dalrymple explains, and then laughs, “Until April, there was a lot of me in the book.” Indeed, in the initial stages, Nine Lives ran into nearly double the 300-odd pages that it does now. “I cut and polished, cut and polished,” Dalrymple sighs.

Helping him in his efforts was wife Olivia Fraser, his “best and most vicious” critic who has, as usual, done some of the illustrations for the book. As for the ‘real’ critics, who would have liked Nine Lives to be a more comprehensive account of modern religion, Dalrymple says, “This is not about kar sevaks or jihadis, or about politics of any kind. It’s about individual lives.” It’s also about Dalrymple’s love for Chola bronzes, rural West Bengal and baul music, and about experiences like watching naga sadhus rushing to the sangam like “a herd of wildebeest, ash-smeared, c**ks hanging”.

Along the way, Dalrymple has realised that India’s rural-urban divide really isn’t that difficult to bridge, though he does get the occasional query like, ‘Why only religious faiths? What’s wrong with writing about computer engineers in Gurgaon?’ He has also, gleefully, observed a growing revival of the market for non-fiction books in India. “The non-fiction XI teams has some killer batsmen and bowlers now, like VS Naipaul and Suketu Mehta,” he says gravely. Let’s just call Dalrymple the all-rounder, then?

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Nadine Gordimer: 30 Minutes With

A life less ordinary

A life less ordinary

Her tiny, birdlike frame seems lost in the embrace of a large, plush sofa in an anteroom of the business centre at the Oberoi Grand. But Nadine Gordimer still spells personality with a capital P. At 84, she is a beautiful woman, her delicate face framed by silver grey hair, her eyes a clear blue-black. I have been warned that she may terminate the interview if she doesn’t like the questions (she hates interviews anyway), so of course my list of questions seems totally inadequate.
Besides, she has fixed me with a firm stare and announced that she refuses interviews that aren’t recorded. “I want you to write what I have said,” she tells me softly but clearly, with just a trace of her South African lilt. “Not what you think I’ve said, and I talk quickly, too.” I assure her I will faithfully write down every word, and she looks doubtful for a moment before compressing her lips and signalling me to get on with it.
So I nervously do. Because Nadine Gordimer the anti-apartheid activist is so much part of Nadine Gordimer the writer, I start off asking her about the battles she has fought, and continues to fight. “I played a small role. I didn’t go to jail, as many of my comrades did. I went as far as my courage would allow,” she says. “You see, I am first of all a writer, I was born that way, but I am also a human being.” In a lecture delivered in Kolkata the previous evening, Gordimer has alluded to the moral and social responsibility of the writer, and when the question comes up again, now, she carefully dissociates such responsibility from “propaganda”.
She categorises her writings alongside those of Athol Fugard and Andre Brink and Es’kia Mphahlele (which she pronounces ‘Empashlele’, and when I imitate her correctly, I earn the verbal equivalent of a pat on the back). “We were living at a time when we had to write the truth, the bits that were never reported in the newspapers. But then, governments never listen to writers.” Evidently they do, considering the bans imposed on three of her novels by the apartheid government. “I’m glad they were banned. No bans would have been worrying,” she says wryly.
By now, Gordimer has unbent enough to discuss any possible crisis of faith that she may have faced, and I feel I am allowed to ask who she turned to during those crises. She agrees she is an atheist with left-wing sympathies, explains that the source of her faith is “our responsibility to each other”, and quotes her favourite poet WB Yeats: “What do we know but that we face/ One another in this lonely place?”
The question of ‘responsibility’ is evidently a significant one in her life. It is the single most important reason why she never really considered leaving South Africa. Her late husband, Reinhardt Cassirer, belonged to a notable family of Berlin Jews. He arrived in South Africa as a refugee from Nazi Germany, and studied in London and Heidelberg. “He wasn’t Africa born and bred like me, and he had a nostalgic love for London, I suppose, so we did toy with the idea of living there for a while, but in the end I realised I was too attached to Africa,” she smiles.
As a white South African who established deeply personal bonds with the anti-apartheid movement, Gordimer nevertheless remains reserved and unsentimental about the risks she must have run as a supporter of the once outlawed African National Congress. But her face lights up in a rare smile when she recalls the experience of standing in a mixed-race queue to vote in her country’s first post-apartheid election. “It was the best experience of my life,” she says. Better than the Nobel Prize? “Yes it was, really.”
Mixed race brings us to the question of Indians in South Africa, who, Gordimer notes approvingly, did not flee the country as those in Kenya did. “They stayed and went to prison,” she smiles again. And Kenya, the home of Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul’s forefathers, naturally brings us to why she has called his Bend in the River “a racist book”. I point out that her remark is likely to be quoted out of context to indicate the man rather than his book. “You think so?” she replies. “I’m sorry to hear that. He’s a great writer, which is why the book disappointed me.” And then she adds, with no real remorse, “Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I did, then.”
It’s nearing the end of my allotted time, and Gordimer hasn’t glanced at her watch more than once, purely out of habit, I assume. We’ve covered a lot of ground, talking about the small but growing Black South African middle class with particular reference to the software industry, the Indian middle class too (“I loved Mr Varma’s Great Indian Middle Class”), the shanties outside Kolkata airport, the plight of poor, unemployed young people who take to violence (not least in South Africa), why the South African cricket team may never have the required share of Black players, and why South African president in waiting Jacob Zuma’s motto is: Bring Me My AK-47 (“he doesn’t say it much now, though”). She has shown me a sketch her granddaughter made in Mumbai (“she sketches beautifully”), and a newspaper clipping about parallels between India’s long-standing democracy and South Africa’s still-nascent one.
I try to introduce Taslima Nasreen into the conversation, considering Gordimer has been on various anti-censorship boards, but she doesn’t respond, as I had hoped she would, with a brief tirade. Instead, her face aglow, she holds forth on how South Africa no longer has censorship, “except if someone actively preaches violence”. The pride on her face as she says this is proof enough, one feels, of a life less ordinary. Thank God she liked the questions.

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Terry Pratchett Rah Rah Rah!!!

Seems incredible that I began reading Terry Pratchett only a year or so ago. Methodical soul that I am, I have now nearly completed the Discworld series. Having bored everyone witless by tom-tomming Pratchett’s virtues from the rooftops, little wonder that a friend recently took malicious pleasure in informing me that my current author no. 1 has been diagnosed with a very rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

But I am not going to talk about that at all. I want this post to be about the joy of a Discworld book. And why I haven’t laughed out loud this often while reading, since my Wodehouse days (too long ago to count).

And that’s curious, because Pratchett relies overwhelmingly on anti-climax to keep things funny, as Wodehouse did on situational comedy. One would have thought that the repeated use of a single technique would begin to pall, but of course it does no such thing.

The thing about Pratchett is that he brings so much more to the table than Wodehouse or any other comic writer I’ve read. There’s his satire, for one thing, and very acerbic he can be. I’ve always wondered why he is called a fantasy writer when he obviously isn’t one. It’s like calling Gulliver’s Travels a work of fantasy. Like Jonathan Swift, a fantasy world is simply a handy tool for Pratchett to give vent to his satire.

And, of course, there’s the genuine humour. As illustration, sample some of my favourite Discworld passages:

“Vimes pounded through the fog after the fleeing figure. It wasn’t quite so fast as him, despite the twinges in his legs and one or two warning stabs from his left knee, but whenever he came close to it some muffled pedestrian got in the way, or a cart pulled out of a cross street. This always happens in any police chase anywhere. A heavily laden lorry will always pull out of a side alley in front of the pursuit. If vehicles aren’t involved, then it’ll be a man with a rack of garments. Or two men with a large sheet of glass. There’s probably some kind of secret society behind this.” (Feet of Clay)

“Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote.” (Mort)

“The vermine is a small black and white relative of the lemming, found in the cold Hublandish regions. Its skin is rare and highly valued, especially by the vermine itself; the selfish little bastard will do anything rather than let go of it. (Sourcery)

“A number of religions in Ankh-Morpork still practiced human sacrifice, except that they didn’t really need to practice any more because they had got so good at it.” (Guards! Guards!)

“In retrospect, Victor was always a little unclear about those next few minutes. That’s the way it goes. The moments that change your life are the ones that happen suddenly, like the one where you die.” (Moving Pictures)

And so on.

And here’s the official website of Paul Kidby, with all the Discworld covers, which for me are almost as fascinating as the books themselves.

Finally, I have read all about Discworld conventions, but they wouldn’t admit a prosaic soul like me. I need to work on my acerbic tongue (or lack thereof), I’m sure.

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