Thursday, February 28, 2008

Flow of Passion

I read the book, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and would recommend it to all those who love romance or literature or both. The book's a masterpiece. It's racier than Marquez's phenomenal One Hundred Years of Solitude. As much as I appreciate Marquez's creative genius, I would like to make a special mention of Edith Grossman who translate this book from Spanish to English and brought to life Marquez's characters. The book has also been made into a movie.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Love In The Time Of Cholera, with its interlocked love stories on the various kinds of relationships of love between men and women, set in an unnamed Caribbean seaport in the backdrop of the ravaging civil wars and the cholera epidemic (in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century) spans a period of fifty one years, is a perfect example of Marquez's willingness to experiment and adds to his stylistic repertoire. This story encapsulates love, desire, jealousy, death, chaos, passion, eroticism and the undying spirit of the place.

The story revolves around Florentino Ariza, who is overwhelmed by Fermina Daza, (her teenage beauty and her gait). Exchange of love letters under the supervision of Fermina?s Aunt Escolastica results in a disaster as Fermina?s father, Lorenzo Daza discovers them and decides to take his daughter away from the port and Florentino because of his class.

After years of travel when Fermina finally returns to the port, with broadened horizons, she inexplicably tells Florentino to forget it and agrees to matrimonial ties with the Paris-returned Dr. Juvenal Urbino, well known for his innovative methods to curb the spread of the epidemic of Cholera. A devastated Florentino turns to his six hundred and twenty-two erotic assignations with prostitutes, widows and aged women, but still considers himself a virgin untouched by anything but his undying love for Fermina. Florentino's love relationships might bear a close resemblance to the legendary Casanova, in number and kind, the only difference being that Florentino maintains throughout those 50-odd years that he is a virgin. Marquez does bring out the essence of love.

After fifty-one years, Florentino's wait is finally over. Dr. Urbino dies an accidental death while chasing a parrot at the age of eighty-two culminating the 'marriage of convenience'. He never loved Fermina but always believed that the seed of true love would germinate in their marriage. It never did. What did exist was dependency that one had on the other.

Florentino, who by now has climbed up the social ladder, does not want to ruin this opportunity. His love letters this time are more precise and he manages to convince Fermina to accompany him on a steamboat voyage down the River Magdalena in the midst of yet another civil war, much to the disgust of her daughter and bewilderment of her son. At the fag end of their life, they finally manage to fall in love with each other all over again and find togetherness amidst the epidemic of cholera, as Florentino Ariza remarks, "Love becomes greater and nobler in calamity amidst the nauseating stench of corpses floating down the river, and the vast silence of a ravaged land."

Love In The Time Of cholera, unlike Marquez's other novels including One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch maintains a folktale quality, with a feel of everyday gossip. The story moves back and forth in time. This ploy of Marquez's to maintain the reader's interest succeeds without much effort on the behalf of the reader. The story embodies the two starkly contrasting elements, the sacredness of pure love as well as the horror of reality, depicted by the epidemic of cholera and the civil wars.

The reader wishes to sympathise with Florentino's plight of a dejected lover waiting for his loved one but his evil thoughts of seeing Dr. Urbino dead, so that he can have Fermina for himself, makes the reader think otherwise. Though it is human to be pained, is it justified on his behalf to wish for the death of a man especially one who had done so much for his people (Dr. Urbino had founded the Medical Society, had organised the construction of the first aqueduct and the first sewer system and served as president of two academies and is conferred with honorary titles of other organizations during his lifetime).

At the end of the story, when the couple finally gets together after half a century, the reader is filled with mixed emotions. After the first reading, the reader is thoroughly confused, unable to figure out why the story ends in this way. True to his unique style of writing, (which is full of contradictions) Gabriel Garcia Marquez manages to get the reader to read the book over and over again.

In this novel Marquez describes, the development of love and its various aspects in the rather profane environments of convenience. All the meaningless forays of everyday life shared by two people thus bound together -- all the rather unpleasant smells, degrading tasks, and dulling routines; all the unspoken bitterness and rancor; all the sullenness and gloom of unlived possibilities - are here unmercifully catalogued.

Along with the personal signs of decay that arise with the aging process and which are experienced in the lives of Florentino and Fermina, one simultaneously witnesses the aging of Latin America and the world-at-large, as evident in the following lines: - The passengers are unnerved not only by such vivid, horrific images but are sadly haunted as well by all that is forever lost: the alligators ate the last buttery and the maternal manatees were gone, the parrots, the monkeys, the villages were gone: everything was gone.

A friend, who hadn't read any of his novels before, described Marquez's style as rather unusual and very interesting, but claimed that the book is too voluminous and would have been better if certain portions would have been edited. Love In The Time Of Cholera is not the average romantic novel with a couple of protagonists and their experiences and passions. It may have been set in a distant land by the Caribbean a long time ago but it is as relevant in this part of the world at present when the world is being torn apart by wars. Everlasting love in the times of war and disease is still possible, no matter however cynical one is.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Tid-bits from Kolkata

Kolkata means football. There are several football clubs in Kolkata out of which the most prominent ones are East Bengal, Mohammedan Sporting and Mohun Bagan. Mohammedan Sporting owns the largest football stadium in Kolkata, right next to the famed Eden Gardens. Each club has its loyal support-group. The in Kolkata root for Mohammedan Sporting, those who hail from East Bengal/Bangladesh (aka Baangaals) cheer for the strikers of the East Bengl Club, while Mohun Bagan finds support among ethnic Kolkatans. Club wars are very common here (much like Manchester United vs Arsenal) and even the riot police is called in when there is a major clash between the giants.

Want a pair of patent-leather custom-made Chinese boots? Head to Bentick Street in Kolkata. I bought my flat-soled dark-tan, patent-leather, ankle-high boots from Fook Soon Hin - High Class Shoe Manufacturers at 38, Bentick Street. It's located right opposite the Tipu Sultan Shahi Masjid. And it cost me just Rs 550. (I saw a similar pair at Linking Road, Bandra that had a price-tag of Rs 2,500.

Milk is scarce in Kolkata and in parts of South 24 Paraganas district. Till a few years ago, you had to stand in a queue (similar to that outside the ration-store) to get milk from the milkman. The milkman would confess to diluting the milk by at least 60 per cent to make it available to so many people. Housewives in rural Bengal use milk judiciously to:
1.make tea
2. give it to infants or the sick. Women actually add more water to the milk to aid digestion. Probably milkmen got the cue from them and started doing it themselves.
3. make mishti doi


People often asked me whether I liked fish, I answered in the affirmative only to discover hilsa or rohu (carp) on my plate. I had to explain my preference for seafood that no true-blooded Kolkatan Bengali will even want to taste.

While sabziwalas (vegetable vendors) and machchwalas (fishmongers) do the rounds of Kolkatan neighbourhoods every morning, there are some uncommon door-to-door businesses that thrive too.
  • Boot-silaiwala (literal translation: the guy who stitches your boots) He'll mend your boots for Rs 2.
  • Choolwala - The guy goes door-to-door, buying hair). Lots of people suffer from hair-fall in Kolkata (the combined effect of poor genes and water quality). So what do they do? While they invest in herbal remedies, they also collect the 'felled' hair and sell it off to the choolwala at the end of every month. It's almost like selling the raddi (old newspapers). Besides, it helps that Kolkata has a thriving wig-making business.
  • Kabuliwala - Immortalised by Rabindranath Tagore, the Kabuliwalas have now become rare in Kolkata, gthanks to the Taliban and the US War on Terror in Afghanistan. Most of those who come down to Kolkata from Kabul, along the Grand Trunk Road, are moneylenders and no longer trade in dry-fruits.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A piece on Peace

I was deleting some mails when I chanced upon this piece I had written. I never thought I could become a writer, till I actually wrote this piece in October 2004. I had sent it to the Youth for Peace Essay Contest organised by Act Now for Harmony and Democracy (Anhad) that is headed by activist Shabnam Hashmi. It was much appreciated and even won a prize. Moreover, it instilled the confidence in me to write publicly that eventually got me to become a journalist.

A piece on peace!

I am not quite sure why I am writing this piece of prose. I happened to come across this poster that screamed, Youth for peace" and in a moment , I had made up my mind to write something on peace (one of the many topics offered), as a part of this project. I am rather surprised by the spontaneity of making this decision for I usually do take a long time to make up my mind. What surprises me even more is that it never really occured to me whether I had even a clue of what peace is. I was more concerned about the fact that I may not be able to give enough time to fulfill this commitment of mine. However, as it so happens, I indeed do.

Now that I am sitting in front of my computer, I can't really figure out what to write. I repeatedly look at a rather interesting picture of Michael Jackson and Macauley Caulkin together on my desktop's wallpaper. MJ - the guy who sang 'We are the world' and the 'Earth Song'. He sure stood for peace. I wonder where he has gone now.

Coming back to my essay. Peace certainly is an interesting topic to write on. Everyone knows what peace is. I have oftenput forth my views on the devastation caused by wars and the necessity for peace in our world during coffee-table discussions with my friends. Like any other 21-year old inhabitant of this planet, I wish for the world to be a better place to live in. I hate wars and war-mongers too. That quite explains why I sincerly want Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to win the Oscar this year and am watching the US Presidential elections with keen interest.

In this current state of introspection I delve into what peace means to me? Sadly, I don't come up with any answers. Is it because I have never known what war is? I've seen it all on TV and sadly most of it was non-fiction. I have often been reduced to tears when I've seen images of women wailing for their lost ones in Iraq or Palestine or Chechnya or even Kashmir. Does that mean that I stand for peace? And if I do what am I doing about it? Am I the onlyone out here who doesn't know the answer to these questions? The thought itself makes me insecure. They say insecurity breeds violence or aggression. People do it. Even countries do. Can I be a potential hazard to the beings around me because of my insecurity? What if someone wants to exploit my insecurity for his/her own reasons? Help! I'm scared.

I've never really feel strongly for peace till I hear of some violence. Does that mean that the concept of peace can exist only if there is violence? Are they the two sides of the same coin? Maybe they are. Or even if they are not, I don't know why I haven't cared so much about it till now. I've always believed in the 'Live and Let Live' dictat and I can't figure out why everyone else can do the same. Even in a country like ours where communities have 'peacefully coexisted' with each other for centuries down the line, I don't see the reason why they should fight now. It's probably because I don't understand the complexity of the problem or it's just that I have been too ignorant about the fact that there has never really been a case of 'peaceful coexistence' in our history.

So why is someone as ignorant as me bothered about the concept of a nuclear war? I get jittery each time I hear about the testing of long range missiles with nuclear capabilities both in our country and our neighbour's. Why should I bother about it now? Why can't I just shove the thought aside as I have done in the past and continue with my life saying, "We'll see what to do when it happens." When what happens? A nuclear war. I maybe an ignorant fool who has no business to write on peace, but I would shudder to think what the world would be like if thereis one. A scarred planet is not the Earth I would want to be a citizen of.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Jodhaa Akbar: Unintentionally Funny

Jalaluddin Mohammed Akbar was a short, fat (he had a paunch), dark, bow-legged and ill-tempered man who ruled Hindustan (the description comes from his biography - Akbarnama). How on earth does Hrithik Roshan fit the bill to play the character? But then, who would want to splurge Rs 250 on a movie ticket to see an 'ordinary-looking' Akbar. Hence, Mr Roshan had to step in. He had to swagger like he did in Dhoom 2, jump onto an elephant a la Krrish and even fight the bad guy single-handedly like Brad Pitt did in Troy (Hrithik wore stockings while Brad had donned the mini-skirt). Akbar was bow-legged, so he couldn't ride a horse, but Hrithik does. He also fights elephants as Akbar would, but looks mortally terrified while facing the beast.
But hey, this ain't a chapter from history but Gowarikar's creation. So what id Jodhaa was never Malika-e-Hindustan or Akbar's wife but a concubine in his harem! Never mind. Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan looks pretty as a queen as she flaunts jewellery created by Tanishq. Watch her during the glycerine scenes when the white of her eye turns a shade of red that matches that of her outfit as well as the walls.
The picturisation of the song, Marhaba Marhaba reminds me of the Jan 26 Republic Day Procession at Rajpath. Gowarikar's narrative reminds me of Sanjay Leela Bhansali's in Devdas.
Nitin Desai's sets actually look like sets. You can tell the PoP. Worse, Gowarikar has shot some portions of the film at the Amer Fort while some others have been shot at his studio at Kalyan. You can tell the difference between the two. What's the point of using the fakes when the real one is so beautiful?
The dialogues are in Persianised Urdu. Hrithik tried hard to mouth those words, but his efforts are very visible. The audience kept groping, "What did he say? What does it mean?" Lagaan too had a lot of Avadhi, but Lagaan was fast-paced. Jodhaa Akbar relies on dramatisation and dialogues. The dialogues are beautiful but what is the point if the audience doesn't understand them?
There's not much of a story there. Akbar's expanding his empire. The Rajputs want to put up fight. But the Maharaja of Amer wants peace and gives his daughter, Jodhaa's hand to Akbar. Jodhaa's not happy; Akbar can't consummate his marriage (it takes him six months in the film to finally do it. During his reign he would have married six times in that period). Akbar's nurse Maham Anga (Ila Arun) is jealous of Jodha and wants to separate the two. Throw in Soojamal (Sonu Sood) who plays Jodhaa's brother and Sharifuddin, Akbar's bro-in-law and you have melodrama, revenge, action and the final justice is delivered. Watch the movie for the songs, their picturisation, fight sequences and two actors - Sonu Sood and the guy who plays Behram Khan (young Akbar's guardian) - i haven't seen a scarier face in my life!

Tribal Cultural Society, Sonari, Jamshedpur

The Tribal Cultural Society (TCS) at Sonari, Jamshedpur was my gateway to a culture that few urban-dwellers know of. TCS (not to be mistaken with Tata Consultancy Services) started in 1993 and presided by Mr AN Singh of Tata Steel with an aim to deliver a sense of self-respect and dignity to the lives of those who belong to the weaker (I think the superlative would do more justice to the description) sections of the community by providing basic education (in some cases achieving even functional literacy is a very commendable task), clinics and preservation of tribal heritage that is almost on the brink of extinction.
The bust of Bhagwan Birsa Munda, the famed tribal leader who took part in the Revolt of 1857 against the British greets visitors to the entrance of the TCS museum. In the midst of marigolds stand two mammoth statues of Sidhu-Kanhu, the tibal brothers who fought the British during India's Independence struggle. While most of us readily acknowledge the roles of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel and Nehru in their struggle for independent India, the TCS highlights the role of less 'visible' heroes and their significant contribution to nation-building. Anniversaries of Baba Tilka Majhi, Bhagwan Birsa Munda, Pandit Raghunath Murmu (he composed the script for the Ho dialect), Guru Kol Lako Bodra and Sidhu-Kanhu are observed with great reverence.
Enter through the ornate door painted with elephant-heads and colourful parrots and you come to the Heritage Hall that showcases the lifestyles of the various tribal communities. There are 30 different tribes in Jharkhand, out of which only five are 'visible'. (If they were 'visible' to the right people, they wouldn't have been in such a pitiful state.) The four main tribes of the region are Santhals (remember the famed Santhal outbreak of Bihar that led Gandhi to start the Non-cooperation Movement in the 1920s), Ho, Birhor and Munda.
The TCS museum houses a range of tribal artefacts - from totkos that are used to harness oxen to wind instruments that make music when they are deftly moved like swords to even a Birhor hut made of leaves (Birhor is a primitive tribe that inhabits the jungles of southern Jharkhand bordering with Orissa) to terracotta figurines of tribal gods and goddesses to even a jacket made of bamboo shoots. Most of these tribes such as banjara are nomadic. Also present are ornate masks that people wear when they perform the famed Chhau dance (Italian dancers come down all the way from Florence to Serai Kela to learn this rare dance form at the Chhau Dance Centre.)
While the society makes a great effort to bridge the vast gap between tribal culture and modern civilisation by providing healthcare (women even go to remote villages to distribute sanitary napkins) to conducting workshops where tribals are shown how to make soapstone sculptures that are commonly sold on the streets of Puri, Bhubhaneshwar and even Kolkata, it helps preserve tribal heritage. It even conducts two-day workshops where traditional healers share their knowledge with youngsters and document and patent their practices.
Though it works with a relatively small budget of Rs 1.4 crore (small when you compare the number of people it impacts), the society's attempts to bring forth mutual co-existence with modernity is slowly effecting a change in these primitive communities.

Monday, February 18, 2008


Johar is the ethnic equivalent of 'namaste' or 'hello'. Traditional tribal welcome ceremonies are pretty elaborate giving the visitor the feel of warmth and affection. In earlier days, when people walked from one village to another (no buses then!), the hosts would seat the visitor and wash his feet. Mustard oil and turmeric was then applied not only to soothe the tired muscles but also to disinfect...a logical, scientific, humble gesture.

Tribal Instincts

Though tribals account for nearly 50 per cent of the population of Jharkand, I found it difficult to find people who could throw some light on tribal art and culture. Tribals living near the industrial townships of Jamshedpur, Jadugoda, Bokaro, Mosani and the capital city of Ranchi are so removed from their tribal roots that barring their facial features or a bit of adivasi twang in their Hindi accent, there's no way you can distinguish them from the commonfolk. Their integration into the so-called 'modern' society has come from sustained efforts by these industrial giants. As JRD Tata put it during a speech at the Oxford University, UK in 1956, "We have in India, a special problem...of integrating some 20 million primitive tribal people...largely and perhaps fortunately untouched by modern civilisation. They are by and large...people with special virtues as well as deficiencies. Their poverty is immense and their economic life is cruelly uncertain. Their integration obviously needs special care and sympathetic concern."


Maoists, tribals, naxalites - all seem to be a part of a different world. Often, most of us urban-dwellers who claim to be a part of the new India that shines. The India, we call free, liberal, globalised, democratic, secular (the most ambiguous of the lot), the India that claims to be worthy enough to no longer be counted as among the nations of the Third World, can't compete with issues such as deprivation, poverty, erosion of primitive tribes and suicides of farmers.
Like most awe-struck foreigners in Mumbai who take tours into the slums of Mumbai only to see thriving industries operating out of shanties, I too took the tour into India's hinterland. Jamshedpur in Jharkhand has been the centre for India's development plans. Steel forms the backbone of any kind of industrial development in the country. Yet, it doesn't find much of a mention in 'India Shining' reports as much as Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Hyderabad and even Pune (there's not much mention of Chennai and Kolkata either, though there are quite a few MPs from these two cities). Even when Tata Steel took over Corus, Jamshedpur didn't get a mention but Mumbai's Taj Mahal Hotel did (it was where the deal was sealed by Ratan Tata).
Still, I wanted to be a part of this city. I wanted to be a part of a different culture.