June 15, 2015

Movie Review: Almanya - Wilkommen in Deutschland

Almanya - Welcome to Germany, is a 2011 German comedy directed by Yasemin Samdereli.

The movie starts with Canan, a young woman, describing her extended family, and how all of them are having problems. She is dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, with a non-Turkish boyfriend her family knows nothing about. Cenk, her cousin, can't be placed in his school's place of origin map as the map shows only Europe, stopping at Istanbul...and his grandfather is from Anatolia, in eastern Turkey. From where Huseyin Yilmaz came to Germany, leaving his wife and two sons and his baby daughter behind, in search of better paying work.

Their immigration story is told really well, serving to distract Cenk at various points in the movie: while the family meets for a meal and the grandfather, upset about his newly acquired German citizenship, announces his intention to take them all to Turkey for a vacation, and on their way to this holiday with the whole family. The backstory narration by Canan interacts with Cenk, for instance when he doesn't understand when people speak Turkish and he asks, can everyone please speak in German, and the scene moves forward with Turkish villages speaking German.

Cenk's dad was the first German in their family, and his wife is German. During the family meeting when Cenk wants to know if he is German or Turkish, as he can't play in both football teams, he needs to pick one, his mom says "German" at the same time as his dad responds with "Turkish".

The culture-clash, the un-belongingness in either country after you live away for a while, the confusion, identity crisis and longing on the grandfather's face, the happiness on the grandmother's face when she receives her German passport are only too well understood by scores around the world that move in search of a better life for themselves and their families.

However, this is a story that ends in tragedy. The million and oneth worker in Germany dies before he can give his speech in front of Chancellor Angela Merkel. So Cenk, his grandson gives it, making his entire family proud, and tells the audience that his grandfather wanted to say that he was happy.

The speech ends with a saying which is incredibly profound and so very true:

A wise man once gave an answer to the question of who or what we are.
We are the sum of everything which has happened before us,
everything that has happened under our eyes, everything that has happened to us.
We are everyone and everything that has influenced us, or that we have influenced.
We are everything which happens after we no longer exist, 
and everything which would not have happened, had we not existed.

All in all, a movie you will not regret watching. If you are wondering: Cenk brings a map of Turkey to his class, and finds out something about his friend.

PS: If you are having trouble finding English subtitles for the movie, leave me a comment.

September 20, 2014

Art Beat: Political Mother

So I went to this performance this week, which came highly recommended by my husband's friend. 

The performance was by a London based dance group called Hofesh Schecter company. They had live music, and dance. The piece is called Political Mother.

The thing that stood out right away was that the music was edgy, and modern. The dance movements, jerky, almost as if people were being pulled by strings at times. The lighting was impeccably coordinated, showing different things at different times...Dancers for a bit...then a guy who sounded like a dictator speaking different (almost garbled) languages would appear in the middle (on a raised platform set at the back). Then you would see modern guitarists, again on different raised platforms, strumming away as if at a rock concert. And then it would cut to men in military uniform, drumming away as if leading a marching band. In the middle, there was beautiful piano music as well. The story, at least what I got from it, was that people who were in different peasant/ prison uniforms were always controlled by one dictator or other (dictator's costumes kept changing, as well as the dancers). There was a time when the dancers were running around in a circle, and I thought - it looks like we are all hamsters in the circle of life, falling sometimes, but inevitably getting back on the run, perhaps in vain, but always running. 

There were people that would walk across the stage, in both directions, as if to show migration, or as if in no man's land. I thought of the middle east then. Then there was a guy who threw powder-like substance in the air, as though people were being controlled by pot and forced into labour. There were scenes indicative of torture...and couples that were either kept apart or forced apart, sometimes under gun point. 

And then at one point (this is closer to the end) the dictator removed his shirt..as if he was appearing naked, finally, to the people below him..who stop, then become unshackled and don't listen to him anymore...he fades out...and then slowly they start dancing, each a different way, then slowly with peer pressure they start following each other's movements...and the line appears in the middle of the stage "where there is pressure..." half a minute later, it fills out "...there is folk dance"

Then the thing starts rewinding itself for two minutes...back to jerky movements, and now the dictator is back...but with a suit, i thought - maybe this is wall street?

The song in the end, the only piece that was clearly audible, was Joni Mitchell's "Both sides now".

It was brilliant. And completely up to your own interpretation. I am sure even if it didn't make sense to anyone, they would have loved the experience of it. You feel something, and it is whatever you make of it. 

(Note - not a review, it is basically an email with a summary of what I told friends about the show)

July 15, 2014

A short story, of a journey

This was a journey for the soul. I wanted to see if I can walk across the country, an experiment in survival, so to speak, on just $100. I never thought it would be easy. And as I suspected, it was possible.

My name is Nick. The last name doesn’t matter. I never knew my parents. After being shuffled between several foster homes, I got into college. And graduated without a job. I never thought of myself as a storyteller. Yet, here I am, telling you about how I decided to travel in the year after college. I walked a lot, and hitchhiked whenever I could. The most important thing I found was that people always surprise you.

Food wasn’t hard to come by. Choice was, perhaps, but people would always offer me food. With some people, especially on the Appalachian trail, I worked in exchange for food, and those farmers had tales to tell!

I think the best meal I had was in the company of a woman, her father and two of her kids. She had served fried eggs for breakfast with pancakes, hash-browns, corn fritters and a sausage. Talk about a hearty meal. I had walked 20 miles the previous day, and had taken shelter in their shed when it started raining. In the morning, when I went over to explain and apologize, she welcomed me in for a meal. Susan had a husband in jail, and she took care of the farm with her sons and her father. When they heard I was doing a road trip on foot, they had plenty of questions. They wanted to know if the journey was difficult when it snowed. If people in the north were as busy and snooty as those down south imagine them to be.

In the last year, I have traveled across the country. As you can imagine, there are all kinds of people, but very few will turn down a hungry man with an interesting story. I will let you listen to my recordings over a meal.

July 14, 2014

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I am going to keep this very short so I don't make the same mistake as I did with Omar. The husband dismisses my movie choices as "artsy" but after checking the Rotten Tomatoes rating, he decided to watch it as well, and loved it!


Wes Anderson's latest, The Grand Budapest Hotel, is one of the most visually appealing and delightful movies I have seen. Each frame is brilliantly composed, and the camera moves with precision whenever it does. A flashback within a flashback,it reverentially tells the tale of Monsieur Gustave (R. Fiennes), a concierge at the Grand Budapest Hotel in fictional Zubrowka, in a time of war. He loved all of his guests, and took good care of them. One such rich guest, who we later find out is the owner of the hotel, is Madame D, who dies under mysterious circumstances a month after leaving the hotel. Because she willed a priceless painting to Gustave, her family frame him for the murder, and send an assassin to kill him. Aided by Zero, the lobby boy, Gustave escapes prison and manages to clear his name, with help from Zero's girlfriend Agatha, but is not able to enjoy his newly inherited fortune. With an ensemble cast consisting of Tilda Swinton, Jeff Goldblum, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe to name a few, this picturesque comedy is one you cannot miss! 

July 09, 2014

Movie Review: Omar

Please note: This ended up being a plot-line instead of a review - my apologies. Spoiler Alert! You have been warned.


This 2013 Oscar nominee was written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad and stars Adam Bakri in the titular role. Omar, with his childhood friends Tarek and Amjad, is plotting to kill Israeli soldiers. They train under Tarek's leadership, taking near perfect shots at the practice target. Right after drinking tea served by Nadia, while Omar and Nadia exchanged love letters unbeknownst to Tarek.

They are in love with each other, and Omar is waiting for the right time to tell Tarek and get his permission. The plot intertwines both the narratives of Omar's love for Nadia and his quest for freedom seamlessly. Amjad jokes about receiving love letters from Nadia, which should have been a warning sign for Omar, but he has known Amjad from his childhood, and perhaps knows about his tendency to exaggerate.

His family consists of his parents, a younger sister who criticizes Mourinho's coaching of Real Madrid at the dinner table, and a younger brother who titters at her. Omar works at a local Arabic bread bakery, and visits Nadia after school, or at her job as a seamstress to exchange letters. To meet her, he has to go over a wall, which he does by scaling it with the help of a knotted rope. One day, on his way back, an Israeli soldier in a jeep spots him and as he is walking away, he is stopped by the soldiers, talking to him on a loudspeaker.

They do not believe his story about visiting his girlfriend, especially after he gives them lip. He is asked to stand on a shaky piece of stone, with his hands held to his head. After a while, loud music is playing from the jeep, and Omar is still standing in the sun, hands held to his head. When a mosquito starts buzzing near his face, he loses his cool and tells the soldiers to drop their weapons and fight him like a man if they want something. He gets a broken nose in answer, and is told to go back to the stone, and now stand on one leg.

It is too cruel at times, and whichever side of the conflict you are on, this is not easy to watch.

Omar tells Tarek they have to take the operation forward that night. Tarek plans the operation, Omar steals the car, Amjad is to shoot. After hesitating, Amjad does the deed. They kill one soldier, run and Omar sets the getaway car on fire at a junkyard. The next day, he is working up the nerve to tell Tarek about Nadia while they drink tea with Amjad, when someone shouts "Undercover agents" and the three of them split. Running through the narrow streets between houses, it appears as though the streets keep getting narrower, and in the end he is captured.

Hung naked, while his torturer asks him who killed the soldier, Omar says nothing, but to tell the man he should wipe his nose out of snot. He steps away to clean up, and comes after him with a lighter. He says nothing, but at lunch the next day, someone at prison offers him advice on how prisoners are turned into informants when they confess. Omar says "I will never confess", which becomes an admission of guilt as the man was Agent Rami, wearing a wire. Agent Rami speaks perfect Arabic, and Omar doesn't know he is Arabic until he hears him speak Hebrew on the phone with his mom, where the only words he recognized were "Ma" and "Spiderman". He is given to understand that his only way out, to be able to make a life with Nadia, is to turn informant. He has to give up Tarek within a month.

Nadia tells Omar she heard rumours that he might be a traitor. Omar goes to Tarek and tells him how he got out, by agreeing to be an informant. Tarek tells him they have to find the source for the leak. They find a comrade, who says he ratted them out in exchange for a New Zealand visa. Omar shows Nadia the place he has bought for her, so they can have a place to live in. He tells Tarek about his love for Nadia, and Tarek says he will help them after they ambush Agent Rami with Omar's help. Omar lives this life of a double agent, not knowing whom to trust.

He has good reason. At the ambush, they are surprised again - the Israelis knew and they haul Omar in for questioning again. He begs for one more chance, and they let him out but with a tracking device on him. Rami says they have secrets on Nadia that they can use. Nadia refuses to talk to him, having heard everyone tell her he is a traitor - how else could he have gotten out so quickly? She walks away when he won't answer if he was a traitor. The next day, he sees Nadia hand over a letter to Amjad when he spies on her school yard. He follows Amjad, and when he threatens to kill him, Amjad says he was the one that gave away information, because he got Nadia pregnant, which the Israelis knew and were using the information to blackmail. Omar, thinking this must be Nadia's secret, is clearly upset about this betrayal but tells Amjad he will help him talk to Tarek.

During this talk which turns into a scuffle, Amjad kills Tarek, and they handover the body to Rami, who says they are both free now. Omar requests Nadia's father to give her hand in marriage to Amjad. Tarek's body is found much later as it was in a freezer for two months on Omar's request to Rami for time.

Two years later, Rami appears on his doorstep again, saying he can help him deal with the leader of a resistance unit who was asking questions about Tarek's death. Omar goes to meet Amjad for the first time since Tarek's funeral. Nadia greets him at the door, with a kid in her arms. She invites him in to wait for Amjad. When he asks for the age of the kids, he realizes Nadia was not pregnant until much after the wedding, Amjad had lied to him about everything. The letter Nadia had given Amjad, was meant for Omar, apologizing for calling him a traitor, but Amjad didn't deliver the letter. She is still in love with Omar.

He writes Nadia a letter. Omar then asks Rami for a gun, and tells him Amjad was the one that killed the soldier.

Who do you think he will use the gun on?

A fabulously made movie with gripping chase scenes, compact editing, and great performances from the cast of what I understand is mostly debutante actors.


November 03, 2013

Movie Review: Amour

No one dreams about death. But secretly, we all do. We hope we are visited by him in the middle of the night, that we barely notice, and that we trouble no one. Wishes however, aren't granted.

Amour, a French movie by Austrian film-maker Michael Haneke, is a movie about love and death. More specifically, the progress to death.

The movie starts with firemen breaking into an apartment in Paris. It carries the clear stench of death, and they find a room taped up from the outside. No one has seen the inhabitants in a while, and in the room they find an old woman on the bed, with flowers laid out carefully around her head.

It is clear that everything else from this point onward, would lead up to this moment in the movie. We start at a concert hall, with music, an appreciative audience, and no other details until an old couple, Anne and Georges return to their apartment from the concert. At breakfast the next morning, Anne stares off into space for a while, and does not respond even when Georges places a damp cloth on her. He goes inside to get ready to call for help, when he hears the tap he had absently left running, being turned off. When he gets back into the kitchen, Anne says he forgot to turn the tap off, and doesn't remember that she was in a state. But when she can barely lift the teapot to pour herself some tea, they figure out Georges was right to be worried. She had a stroke, and the 'safe' surgery to mend her, was one of the 5% that do go wrong, as Georges tells his daughter Eva.

The movie reveals information only as and when required. We find out Anne and Georges are piano teachers only when Alexandre, a former student, visits them and thanks them for everything they have done. But when he sees Anne's condition and offers his sympathies, you can tell Anne is a very proud woman and offended to be at the receiving end of any sympathy. She doesn't listen to the CD Alexandre sends them, which they were so keen on buying the morning after the concert, just before the stroke.

Anne is in a wheelchair, and she makes Georges promise never to send her back to the hospital. He does. Being a frail man himself, it is touching to see how well he takes care of her. He tells her stories from his youth, and she wonders why he has never told them to her before. The camera doesn't shy away from showing you the indignities of being dependent on someone. To take a shower, to go to the loo, and her brave face when Anne clearly doesn't like being dependent on anyone. She looks almost thrilled when she figures out how to operate the wheelchair on her own.

There are times when she gives Georges hints. One day, she tells him she has had a good life. What do you mean, he asks her. And on another, while he is having breakfast, she requests that he bring her the photo albums. Flipping through them, while Georges is eating, she remarks, what a full life.

Just when it looks like she is getting better, getting so far as trying to walk with Georges help, she suffers from another stroke. This time, it is much worse. She can barely get words out, which upsets her daughter Eva so much. Eva comes with Geoff, who she lives with in the US, the wayward boyfriend she mentions to Georges when we first see her. She tries telling Georges that he cannot take care of Anne by himself. He reiterates his promise and says he has hired help, two part-time nurses.

One of the nurses is abusive, and Georges fires her when he finds out. When she protests, he says, I hope someone gives you the same care that you give your patients. She says something unbloggable to him as she leaves.

Anne is in a lot of pain, while being bathed by a nurse, sometimes even as she is lying down. She refuses to eat much, taking just a few spoonfuls at a time. And not even much water. Once, when she refuses, Georges threatens to put her in a nursing home where they would force-feed her if she refuses. She takes a mouthful after that. But when she refuses again, he slaps her, and immediately appalled and sorry that he had done so.

It is clear that both of them are suffering. Eva visits again, and complains that Georges is not answering her calls or replying to her voicemails. She says she is worried about how they are doing. Georges tells her quite frankly - your worries are no help to me. I do not have the time to think about your worries. She is even more upset to see the state her mother is now in. Georges makes her a cup of tea to make her feel better.

One day, as he hear Anne call out in pain, he goes in, strokes her hand as usual while telling a story, and calms her down. When it appears that she might have gone back to sleep, he takes a pillow, and snuffs the life out of her.

He then methodically tapes the doors, closes the windows, buys some flowers. Then he writes a letter. To whom, it is not clear. The only thing we know is that he describes the adventure he then has, while trying to catch a pigeon that flew in to the apartment. He only says that he released the pigeon after catching it.

He goes to bed, and the next morning, he wakes up to the noise of plates being cleaned in the kitchen. He goes in, only to find Anne, fully dressed, cleaning the dishes. She says they have to leave soon, and as he follows her out after helping her with her coat, she asks him to wear his coat as well for it is cold out. He complies, and shuts the door as he walks out.

Both of them, hopefully at peace.

Eva is shown in the living room of the empty apartment later.

The movie tugs at your heart strings. I watched it with my dad, and I must say he was quite moved by the story. I reminded him it was only a movie when he remarked that it must have been awful for Georges to kill Anne. He said, but imagine, for someone somewhere, this is life!

C'est la vie.

September 19, 2013

Ahmedabad Diaries

I have taken quite a hiatus!


I went to Ahmedabad recently for a brief work visit.

My first impressions: So clean! Most of the roads look spruced up, and well maintained. I even saw a Gaudi-imitation structure at a circle/roundabout, with stones of different colors perched in patterns. One divider was uneven, reminding me of Casa Mila's facade.

It was also incredibly hot. The Weather Channel app showed, unhelpfully, that the temperature was 37 degree Celsius, with a RealFeel of 47. So hot, that women cover their heads and upper arms in a huge bandini material scarf, allowing only their eyes to be exposed. I quickly adopted this approach, but my scarf wasn't big enough to cover arms. In addition, they wore hand gloves a-la Hepburn did along with that famous LBD in Breakfast at Tiffany's. But not in black, of course. I even saw a man wear a similar thing on his legs, peeking out of his shorts and covering his knees. Looked quite awful, but given how hot it was, I reserved all judgement.

The dhokla at Bikaner's was delicious, easily better than any dhokla I have ever eaten. I didn't get to eat much other local fare, unfortunately.

Somewhere during the course of my first day I saw a fairly young woman, maybe in her 30s, ride a two-wheeler, covered completely in white. It took me a few seconds to realize she was a widow, so uncommon that sight is in my part of the world. I spotted more later. It looks like Gujarat is fairly conservative, and widows are expected to wear only white, and whatever else might go along with that.

Someone I met as part of work, asked me what my impressions of the city were. I mentioned the cleanliness bit, and he said, did you know, most women can walk about at 1AM quite safely? I doubt this can happen in any other part of India. He also said you will find eateries open through the night, again, a rare sight in my city! I wish I could have asked some women if they did indeed feel safe late at night, but didn't get the chance to.

I did however, meet one of the most bigoted people I have ever met! He is a customer, so I guess I was part of an audience that couldn't really offend him, which took quite a bit of restraint. The conversation started innocuously enough, and this person was perhaps in his early thirties, and was mentioning something about women falling into two categories - affluent that are aware of health risks and the poor, who simply can't afford to care.

The conversation moved on to how the percentage of women smoking appears to have gone up, and proportion of women drinking as well. He also went off on a tangent about kids not receiving enough discipline from parents or their teachers, so they end up growing up with a lot of love and no discipline, and one day, they are in college and drinking. At this point, a colleague of mine, also Gujarati, says "That is true, we should not give women too much liberties".

I might have looked at him with my jaw open - WTF! As if a council of men can sit and decide how much liberties women can get. As I typed that, I remembered the Taliban.

Anyway, I tried my best to keep a sympathetic smile on my face while this man rattled off in Gujarati, either because he couldn't talk continuously in Hindi/English despite attempting to, or simply didn't want to. There were pauses where he tried speaking a line so I could follow along.

He then proceeded to add that women are the ones that are getting raped, not men. So it is OK for men to drink because no one is trying to rape them, but women shouldn't. I do not understand how the woman always gets the blame for getting raped. As if the act wasn't horrible enough. Of course, I would have loved to explain 'causation' to this guy but I do not think his brain would have processed logic.

He then spoke of an educated, engineer female friend of his wife telling her that she should go get eye-drops from a baba to ensure that her five month old fetus is born male. He then might have added that it doesn't matter whether it is a boy or a girl - which might have been a positive note, except he went on to give his brother who lived in the US as an example, so far away that it doesn't matter whether the expat brother is dead or alive as he cannot take care of his parents anyway.

And he meandered on to the topic of my city. Where apparently, anyone who is not local to the city will be stopped by any city dweller and robbed.

Again, WTF.

He quoted the example of the infamous auto-drivers in the city asking for Rs 30 or 50 over the meter.

I couldn't take it anymore. I said, "Do you know, most of the people in the city are not local to the city. And the auto drivers ask for more money from me as well, I just tell them No and carry on".

No one can accuse these auto drivers of discrimination, they are equally rude with EVERYBODY!

I wonder, do most people here think like this? Shouldn't we be worried then that a future PM candidate is from here?

On the way back to the airport, I saw Ganpati Visarjan in full swing. The locals were walking around/traveling in motorized vehicles or small bi-cycles, playing with pink holi colors and spraying water once in a while, presumably to keep cool.

Ganpati came in all sizes and shapes. It was great to see dancing Ganpathis, blue ones and in different poses. Some were small enough to be clutched in one hand on a bike, and others big enough to require tractors.

Ganpathi, is for everyone. 

September 09, 2012

Shades of blood

Palette #4 was composed of these 5 bars: Black-Brown-Orange-Red-Black. Writing exercise was that the story had to be based on the Palette (#4) given to me. This is a fictionalized account of what happened in Dos Erres,which is something you will never forget. I imagined Dos Erres to be composed entirely of Palette #4. Story told from Oscar's point of view. Apologies to Oscar.     

As I enter the village of Dos Erres, I only think of the bloodshed this village has seen. I have been told that nearly 200 people were pulled out of their uniformly colored houses in this now-empty town one fine morning. The military persecuted its own people, wiping out villages. Dos Erres still carries that smell of death, so far removed from the cheerful hope in the streets of my Boston suburb. Now that I am here, I struggle to remember what spring looks like in Boston. Thinking of bright flowers seems too disrespectful of the dead.

When I first got the call that I may have been one of two survivors of the brutality of decades past, I insisted that the prosecutor fighting for justice was mistaken. But Sara had shown us that she was right. And they need me to continue the fight.

A simple DNA test proved that my family lay buried in this well in the forest. All the skeletons have been moved and now wait for their day in court, while the well still carries faint imprints of bone and the walls are the color of dried blood.

I could have been here, but my ex-father had been one of the few soldiers to take home a three year old boy to make me his own. I had never gotten to know him for he died soon after, but this well needs me to confront the happy stories of my grandmother's brave soldier with the reality of a brute who enjoyed obeying the orders to kill.

My real father puts his hand on my shoulder. I feel nothing, no recognition comes from within.

I met him an hour ago. He has not stopped crying. He looks the part of a man that turned to alcohol to bury the feelings of guilt that he was in another village when his family perished. The warm liquid in his glass did not dim his cold, painful existence. And now he had me.

Should I be grateful that my adoptive father saved me while killing the rest of my family?

My unasked question echoes through the well while the stranger next to me sobs softly. 

August 19, 2012

Movie Review: Monsieur Lazhar

I have been meaning to watch the movie since I heard about it on NPR. Finally, I did. With a 97% rating on rotten tomatoes and Oscar nomination, Monsieur Lazhar, written and directed by Philippe Falardeau, it certainly sounded promising. 

It begins with a school in Montreal, where a boy, Simon, gets milk for the class because it is his turn. The classroom doesn't open, and when he peers inside he sees that Martine Lachance, his teacher, has hung herself. Alice, one of the most charming children in the movie, also peers in and sees her even as the kids are herded out of the school. When school reopens, the principal assures the distraught parents that the school's psychologist can handle their collective grief. 

Bachir Lazhar presents himself to the principal who still hasn't found a replacement, and he begins soon after. An Algerian immigrant, there are some cultural changes he will have to get used to. The movie questions the way education has evolved via Bachir's learning of the new system. When he lightly cuffs Simon on the head, he is reminded by a student that he isn't allowed to touch them. Not even a hug to comfort a crying child is permissible. This in fact, is why Simon, and Alice think Simon is responsible for Martine's death. Simon was going through trouble at home and was crying when Martine comforted him with a hug. He proceeded to complain that Martine had kissed him. While this is not why Martine killed herself, it is easy to see that the children would have thought they were somehow responsible. 

Another child remarks that the parents seem to be more traumatized at the death than them, refusing to discuss the matter and handling them with kid gloves. The curriculum also is something that Bachir will have to get used to, when his children cannot write down the dictation of Balzac. Alice gives him a few book recommendations for dictation that she thinks will work better. She also looks up Algeria and thinks it is really pretty. Her mom works for an airline so a babysitter spends the most time with her at home. 

When Bachir wants the school to address the childrens' grief by talking about the death, the principal refuses to even bringing it up. Even when a picture of Martine is found on Simon - who has drawn a rope around her neck to the ceiling and angel wings on her. In class, Alice blames Simon for her death while Bachir comforts the boy, reassuring him that it was not his fault. 

All through the movie, it becomes apparent that Bachir is dealing with a personal tragedy of his own. His family died in an attack the night before they were set to leave to join him in Canada, persecuted because of a provocative book written by his wife, who was in fact the teacher in the family, while he worked as a civil servant and later ran a restaurant. The principal who had kept him on despite knowing that he was a refugee and not the Permanent Resident he had claimed to be, but cannot do so much longer. 

The movie confronts the rules we have set about the education that children receive, and whether they actually help or hinder their progress. I love movies that say a lot without saying it - and this requires brilliant acting. All the actors in the movie are exceptional, the children included, and give nuanced performances while the excellent cinematography and editing does the rest, to tell a great story. Original music is by Martin Leon and he keeps it understated. 

I have given away a lot of the film without intending to, and for that, I apologize. 

July 22, 2012

Dark Summer

The writing exercise was to use two of the below sentences in the piece, one at the beginning, and one at the end. Ten sentences, 20 minutes. Brevity was key. 

It was a long time ago
Who would have ever thought?
I couldn't help staring
I broke her heart
The guts spilled at my feet
The darkness stared back at me

Who would have ever thought that Adriana would be the embodiment of evil? Picasso's muse, the Dark Knight's nemesis.

I recognize the fallen field, the Steelers jerseys. The God-forsaken bridges, and the traffic logged Fort Pitt Bridge. Fifth Avenue looks prettier in High Definition. Like in real life, Liberty Avenue makes for a great place to shoot an action scene.

Legend has it that no one ever climbed out of the hell-hole where Bruce Wayne is now held by Bane, save one.

I imagine Pittsburgh as Gotham, bridges locked in.

Will the Dark Knight rise again to rescue the Robber baron's city?

The darkness stares back at me.

July 01, 2012


Today's writing exercises included one in which we had to write acrostic poems. I have seen examples of it before, but have never attempted one. The pieces were to have a theme for the acrostic, based on an image that was shown. The image I got was one of the golden sky at dusk, with a couple of tree tops, two lights and electric wires just above the trees. 

The theme I picked was "Golden Glow".

Gone are the days of 
Old, where we stopped to stare
Look at the blazing sky and
Dream of the unknown
Entire forests now lie bare
No one seems to care

Gently the sun sets in the West
Life goes on as the city lights take
Over. The trees are few, electric wires block my view.
When will we stop to care? 

May 26, 2012

Love in the basement

The love of my life is missing. I have looked everywhere but I can't find him. My wife and I went looking for him all day yesterday. We looked in the park, the woods behind our house and at the bus station. The last time I saw him, he appeared peacefully asleep under the influence of our favorite drug, NyQuil.

I had taken a few too many shots of vodka that night. I was woken up in the morning by my sobbing wife.

"His chain was undone. Nick is missing."

I woke up instantly. This was the first time that anyone had tried leaving us. They usually loved us. Whatever we asked them to do, they would do so willingly, smiling, hoping to please me.

I thought Nick loved me too. True, he had been here only four months. But he had replaced Nikita in my affections. Nikita did not take it lightly. She had been in the basement for four years and thought she should get preference for my attention.

To pacify Nick, I had tried explaining to Nikita, but she wouldn't listen to me. Angry, I cradled her soft, nimble neck and strangled her.

Nick understood me now. That he was now my favorite. He helped me bury Nikita's body in the woods. My wife, Nick and I had enjoyed a celebratory meal afterward, in the basement.

But now he was missing. I am so worried for Nick. He can't bear to be away from me.

I waited for two more days. My wife thought we should move. "But what if Nick comes back?" I asked her. "I don't want him to think that I abandoned him."

The next day, Nick didn't come. But the sheriff did. And he brought dogs. They found Nikita. And Nick's bed.

I am famous now.

But I only want Nick.

Wrote this for a writing exercise on 'Unreliable Narrator'. 

May 05, 2012

What lies beneath

Sharoo flies to a stop and perches on a window sill. 

"This is the story of an eagle" says a loud voice.

Sharoo turns his head and looks for the source. A bald man wearing glasses is speaking to a group of young boys and one girl. 

"Detention" says the sign on the door. A presentation is being beamed on one of the walls.

"The Eagle can live up to 70 years... " starts the man.

"But to reach this age, the eagle must make a hard decision. In its 40th year its long and flexible talons can no longer grab prey which serves as food. Its long and sharp beak becomes bent. Its old and heavy wings, due to their thick feathers, sticks to its chest and makes it difficult to fly"

Sharoo looks on in shock. No one had ever told him about this before! The little children are engrossed in the tale. 

"Then, the eagle is left with only two options: DIE or go through a painful process of CHANGE which lasts 150 days. The process requires that the eagle fly to a mountain top and sit on a rock. There the eagle knocks its beak against a rock until it plucks it out. Then the eagle will wait for a new beak to grow back and then it will pluck out its talons. When its new talons grow back, the eagle starts plucking its feathers. And after 5 months, the eagle takes its famous flight of rebirth and lives for 30 more years"

Sharoo blinks away tears. It sounds too painful. 

The man is not done yet. "Why is change needed? Many times, in order to survive we have to start a change process. We sometimes need to get rid of old memories, habits and other past traditions. Only freed from past burdens, can we take advantage of the present."

"Now, will you promise me that you will change?" says the man, looking quite gravely at the aberrant students. 

"Yes", they promise solemnly.

"Louder", urges the man.

"YES", comes the resounding reply. And they turn around as if in surprise at the squawk. Sharoo had chimed in. 

He was nearly 30 years old. He could feel the weariness creeping into his bones. The next morning, he went in search of the nearest mountain. 

Sitting on a cliff, he thought of the story again, his resolve unshaken. It was time. He started to hit his beak against a cliff. He could see eagle feathers in the distance, on the ground. Sharoo took a closer look. The bones and feathers seemed to spell out something. 

"IT IS A L" 

That doesn't make any sense, thought Sharoo.

Unperturbed, he went on gnashing his beak against the unmoving rock. It hurt worse than anything he could imagine - even more than the thought of the insides of his talons scraping against a bed of thorns. 

A few days later, he was hungry, his beak was half gone, and Sharoo was ready to die instead of living through hell. 

His beak lay around him in smithereens. 

He waited for what seemed like eternity, but didn't feel a new beak growing on him. 

The message below seemed to beckon to him, like an unsolved puzzle. That night, wondering if and when the beak would start to grow, it struck him.

By the time the sun came up, Sharoo knew what he had to do.

He stood on the edge of the cliff, looked below to a precise spot, and went over.

As he approached the carcasses around him, he felt a momentary sense of bliss, knowing he was doing the right thing. 


The puzzle below now began to spell out "IT IS A LI.."

February 26, 2012

Movie Review: The Artist

Its Oscar season, so this review seems fitting.

Released just over a year ago, in time for Cannes, this little gem has gone on to win at major cinematic award shows. Made in the mould of the silent film era, it follows the life of Hollywood star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) from 1927 to the Great Depression. Georve is charismatic, appealing and loves to be the center of attention. He has huge portraits of himself hanging at his house. His wife, who he doesn't talk to very much, is fairly one dimensional, and mostly stays mad at him. The depiction for their relationship is just about perfect - you don't need voices when you can show George and his wife at the breakfast table, with only their clothes changing everyday, while the lack of conversation and intimacy is consistent.

Berenice Bejo stars as Peppy Miller, a bright young star wannabe that captures George's attention. The progression of their interest in each other is shown with exceptional treatment. George's career appears to be a series of similarly themed movies: A Russian Affair, A German Affair...you get the drift. When Zimmer, the studio boss, tells George that sound's coming to movies, he is dismissive. George is left behind while Zimmer moves on to the talkies with "fresh meat". As George leaves Zimmer's office, he is shown walking down the staircase when he meets Peppy. They exchange notes, while the scene is symbolic of her rise and his swift downfall. He goes on to make his own silent movie which bombs at the box office - the same day Peppy shoots to fame with her movie. George cannot recover from his losses in time before the crash of the stock market - and he is forced to auction everything he owns after his wife kicks him out. He sets fire to his films, and is rescued when his dog Uggie finds help. Peppy takes him to her house from the hospital and he discovers that she had bought all his belongings from his auction house. Clifton, his former valet tells him Peppy is a good person, but he is upset and comes back to his burnt apartment to kill himself. Peppy arrives back in time, and they are reconciled. She tells Zimmer she will leave unless he takes George back - and they go on to make a musical. The only spoken lines in the movie are uttered right at the very end, when Zimmer is thrilled with their dancing and asks for an encore, and George Valentin replies, in accented English, "With Pleasure".

His dog, Uggie, steals the show with his splendid acting, displays a wide array of tricks and shares superb chemistry with George. George and Peppy are amazing in their roles, and carry the film with their exaggerated performances, necessitated by this being a silent movie. The music is reminiscent of the silent film era as well.

There are some things that nag you though: George's refusal to do a silent film is not explained - why didn't he want to speak? The characters are very predictable, and do nothing surprising. But the movie is very well made, with some great acting, and is worth a watch just for that. Its been a long time since you would have watched anything in black-and-white, almost entirely devoid of voices and yet get its story across.

December 31, 2011

Movie Review: A Separation

Slated to be one of the best films to come out in 2011, A Separation, fits its billing. The opening scene sets up the plot right away: Nader and Simin are at divorce court. Simin says her husband is fault-less, decent and a very nice man in fact, but he is unwilling to leave Iran to go abroad and seek a better life. Simin has visas for the family, which includes 13 year old Termeh. But Nader does not want to leave his ailing Alzheimer's afflicted father. And Termeh wants to stay with her dad, safe in the knowledge that her mother wouldn't leave her behind. The judge says he cannot do anything when the husband cannot be faulted and does not want the divorce, to boot.

Every scene that follows is action packed - and important to the movie. So don't forget to pay attention. Simin and Nader hire a woman to help take care of the grandfather when no one is at home. Simin goes away to live with her parents. The woman who comes in to help, Razieh, comes from an orthodox background. On the very first day, she is torn when she sees that the grandpa has soiled himself. She is on the phone to someone, evidently an expert on customs, and explains the situation: an old man who is 70 or 80 cannot change his pants. Is it alright for her to change him? No, she tried telling him to do it himself, he doesn't understand and is helpless. It can't be a sin, right?

She changes him, but tells Nader she cannot do the job anymore, especially if it involved touching another man. Nader is perturbed, as his father always told them if he wanted to go to the bathroom. His condition must be getting worse. Razieh asks if her husband can come and work the same job, but Nader is not to tell him anything about her working here. Her husband doesn't know, and presumably would not have permitted to come and work for a single man.

The next day Razieh loses the grandfather when she is distracted by her 4 year old daughter Somayeh while she was cleaning up the house. She goes in search of the grandfather. After a few panic stricken minutes, she sees him at a shop, and he starts to move away and begins to walk toward the road. Vehicles keep crossing, but we don't know what happens next. Not yet anyway. Razieh and the grandfather are safely back at home in the next scene, while Nader, Termeh and Somayeh play foosball together. Razieh's husband has still not turned up for work instead of her. She says its because he is in jail and she had to beg the lenders to get him out of there, but she will come to work until her husband can. Termeh's teacher is seen giving Razieh the number of a gynecologist to check on her pregnancy.

There are scenes where Nader teaches Termeh Farsi, and even gets her to fill up at a gas station. She comes back in and says, but everyone was watching me. The scene clearly shows cultural nuances, but also that Nader is broad minded enough to want his daughter to be independent and stand up for herself. He makes her go back to the attendant when he sees that Termeh didn't get back any change for the 40. Termeh says but the remaining 3.5 was his tip! Well, when he works the pump he gets a tip, don't let yourself be taken in...go get back the change, says Nader. Termeh goes back, and Nader watches in the rear view mirror as his daughter talks to the attendant and convinces him to give her the change back. When she hands him the change, he tells her its hers.

When Nader and Termeh come back on the third day, they can't get into the house. After fetching his keys from the car, he goes in, and Termeh finds her grandfather on the floor of his room, hands tied to armrests. Thankfully he isn't dead. But he doesn't speak a word. When Razieh comes back, Nader is mad. There is money missing in the kitchen. After a blow out, he asks her to leave. When Razieh asks to be paid for the day, he refuses, saying she has taken her due. After a minor scuffle at the door, Nader pushes her hand and shuts the door.

Simin tells Nader later that evening that Razieh is in the hospital. Both of them rush to the hospital. The nurse at the reception says that Razieh had a miscarriage. Razieh's husband Houjat finds out that his wife was working in another man's house - and that he may have caused the miscarriage. An angry man, he gets violent and gets into a scuffle.

They go to court. And the accusation is murder, as the aborted foetus was 4.5 months old and hence considered a fully formed person. Nader says he doesn't know that she was pregnant. This detail is important. If he knows, and yet pushed Razieh, its willful murder. Its the difference between going scot-free and spending 1-3 years in jail.

What follows is a close examination of everyone's moralities, class differences, Termeh's questioning of her father, and Razieh's doubts. "I cannot speak as well as him, but that doesn't mean he can get away with murdering my child" says Houjat in one scene. He has been unemployed for a year and is on anti-depressants. The little child Somayeh, even with a few lines, adds to the story line and the intimate portrayal of each character, interpretations and relationships. Is Nader guilty? Is the relationship between Nader and Simin beyond repair? Who will Termeh choose to stay with?

"The law sees everything as absolute" explains Nader to Termeh, when the ever watchful girl asks him a question about his motivations and examines his guilt while trying to understand.

A Separation is a complex and layered movie, with brilliant acting and editing, and gives you great insight into Iranian culture. In the end though, we all have more in common than we think: we are afflicted with similar concerns, relationships and conflicting moralities. And if you find a ton of Farsi words (mushkil, har roz, zindagi, mard etc) that are common to Hindi, don't be surprised.

December 25, 2011

Chapter Five: Oleanders

After meeting Manoj I left the building needing to smoke. Maybe if I went home earlier than Shefali and cleaned up she wouldn’t find out right away. But she has great instincts and it won’t be long before she knows that the addiction has taken me in its vice-like grip. The only person who will be thrilled would be my colleague Das knowing that he can bum fags* off of me until I stop smoking again.

The letter stays in my pocket weighing more than a ton of bricks. But before I deal with that I have to go to the police station to make sure the cops have an FIR registered for Khan’s death.

As I walk a little girl comes and grabs hold of my leg. She is just over a foot tall, and very thin, her clothes are the same hue of brown as the earth beneath. I reach into my shirt pocket for change and hand it over. She closes her fist around the money, lets go of me and clutches someone else’s pants. He quickly brushes past her without looking down.

“Welcome back to Traffic Jam. I am Atosha, and I have caller Rajiv on the line. So Rajiv, tell us what song you would like to dedicate today” says the radio from the tea shop on the corner. It is a busy traffic light but people always have time for some tea.

“Thanks Atosha, I can’t believe I am on air. Can you please play Landslide by Fleetwood Mac? I would like to dedicate it to my cousin Radha.”

I wonder again if Abhaya had noticed my odd behaviour.

She had but she also had other pressing questions to think of, thinks Khan to himself, remembering the conversation between Abhaya and Vittala.

“And can you tell us why you are making this dedication?” Atosha asks with a smile in her voice.

“Haha, sure thing. Radha is leaving on a trek to the Himalayas tomorrow. I know it’s not exactly a good luck song, but it is appropriate.”

“Wow, the Himalayas? It’s a good time of the year to go there. I went last year. Ha ha, interesting choice of song indeed. Well, I hope Radha comes back safe and sound, and you should call us to let us know! Landslide by Fleetwood Mac coming right up, and don’t forget to sms 4242 with your dedications.”

“....And I saw my reflection…” plays on the radio. I head to the sink with my nail clipper and think back to my conversation with Vittala.

“How do you know the Shetty brothers?” I had repeated quietly.

“I don’t really know them” he had said, surprised, the dimples disappearing to be replaced by a frown on his forehead. “Why do you ask?”

“You know how I edit the ‘On this day’ column by publishing stories from the same day a few years ago? Well, I was looking through 2008’s paper when I saw a picture of you with one of the Shettys.”

Vittala scrunches up his face as he thinks, making wrinkle lines appear. Abhaya steels herself, wondering how she would react to his explanation. If there was one.
“Hmm May 2008? That would have been the first Sangama Utsava at Bellary. The local temple there received a huge donation from the Shetty brothers and decided to renovate and reopen the temple with a bang. They had a weeklong celebration, ending with a Yakshagana performance every night. My entire troupe was there. We were asked to go and thank the Shetty brothers for making such a spectacle happen. I don’t think I have met them since. Bellary called us back for performances, but the Shettys have gotten too busy to stay for the entire performance apparently. I don’t think I met them again.”

Satisfied, I had left it at that.

I open the tap to let the nail clippings wash down. Mom hated it when I did that. She used to ask me to carefully cut my nails over a newspaper spread out on the floor, pick up any stray pieces, and then go outside to throw it in the bin. When someone close to you dies, their presence and words never leave you.

Walking back down to the study, I tear paper out of my little journal and begin to write.

I need you to
Erase my scars and make me heal
Wipe away my dried up tears
Remain silent while I scream
Piece together the broken shards
Tell me I can breathe again
Steady my world and suspend belief
Bring back the sun on the morrow
Warm the chill in my bones
Let the wind muss my hair once more
Stay when I want you to go away

“Oleanders” I then write on top, where the title must be.

She turns around in her chair to look at one of the books on the second shelf behind her desk. “Red Oleanders” it says. She smiles, and leaves the study to put the paper up on the board in the stairwell, next to Vittala’s poem.

Taking her phone out of her right jeans pocket she called a retired judge, “Uncle, remember the MCOCA case?”

She agreed with his reply, and promised to visit him in person soon. Given that she had just conveyed her suspicion that their phones were being wire-tapped, a visit was necessary if they wanted to discuss any sensitive information.

She climbs the remaining stairs to her room.

“Welcome back to Traffic Jam, and I am your host Atosha. Our listeners are advising you against going on MG Road, there has been an accident and you will be stuck for quite a while. If you spot any other trouble spots, do sms 4242 and keep us informed. Alright then, we have Sheela on the line. Sheela, what song would you like to listen to today?”

“Hi Atosha! Can you please play Pee Loon? I would like to dedicate it to my dance instructor Aru. We have been rehearsing the choreography for that song for SDIPA’s Summer Funk show and she has been phenomenal.”

“That’s wonderful! When is the show?”

“Next weekend. We are all excited!”

“I am sure you are! Well, have fun dancing. Pee Loon, dedicated to Aru, will be coming up after a short commercial break. Don’t forget to sms your requests to 4242.”

Rishab listens to the song on his iPod’s radio as he enters his house. Shefali had messaged him saying she had taken their daughter Mridula to the park. He has time for a quick shower.

But he sits down on the divan instead, and takes out the letter from his pocket. He uses his keys to open the envelope and pulls the letter out. The ‘From’ address on the envelope is empty. On the stamp there is a red seal on it, the only indication of its source.

“Chinnu” it says, with each letter carefully written in a child-like handwriting. “When you coming? I miss you. Hug Mridula. Bye.” Rishab blinks back tears of love, guilt and regret. Mridula doesn’t know that she has an uncle. He wonders if he will ever introduce Hemanth to his wife and daughter. In the beginning, it was easier not to share his story and now it has become too difficult to bring it up. Where should he even begin? Abhaya’s face swims before his eyes. He pictures her smiling, a playful smile showing her upper teeth while her hand ran through her short hair. She laughed the same way more than a decade ago when he last saw her, and she still had the same high cheekbones. If her dad had not helped his family in the midst of the scandal wrought by Hemanth, who knows how different his life would have been right now.

He straightens up and folds the letter into its envelope.


"Red Oleanders" is one of Rabindranath Tagore's most famous plays.


* - note by author: no disrespect meant by the word used.

Find Chapter One here.

September 01, 2011

Chapter Four: You Said It!

Do you ever feel like we live in an increasingly noisy world? I have been around a long while, so I can attest to it. Open up your newspaper, switch on the TV, everyone is jostling to get your attention. And I am fairly certain that it has been getting hotter. It is hard for me to actually feel these things, admittedly, but I am very perceptive.

But we are not here to talk about me. So where were we? Ah yes, the world is getting noisier and hotter. No wonder then that people don’t pay attention anymore to anything that is not about them! As you may have construed by now, those that pay attention and notice a pattern get killed or are very close to being so.

I saw the people that took Khan’s life. Clearly the surface layer in the cesspool of evil, they are the nobodies that do the dirty work for someone else. You have to wade deeper into murkier waters to find the perpetrators, but they are the smart ones with power and money. A woeful combination if there ever was any. Woeful for others, of course. Khan would agree. He was helping Abhaya piece a story together, and paid for it. In this Kali Yuga, there is no reward for good or charity, is there? But I am getting distracted into a theological discussion. I will have to rely on you to keep me on topic. With old age comes a tendency to generously part with wisdom unasked.

You know, I don’t think I will ever understand how people can be so desensitized to killing. There was no emotion when Khan was killed. It was a job to them, and it was done. He could have been a chicken for all they cared. Maybe they would have showed more emotion for the chicken? After a koli’s head has been sliced apart, it still walks around in a distressing circle for a few long minutes before it collapses. Men can be killed without a show like that.

So Khan is dead, as are two more of Abhaya’s sources. I like her, I think she is a plucky child. And her Appa is from Mysore, just as I am. There are those that say it doesn’t matter where you are from. Don’t listen to them. That is just youthful foolishness talking. A place binds you together in its roots and etches its mark on you. There is someone I know that I say this of “you can take a person out of the gutter, but you cannot take the gutter out of the person”. Don’t you agree?

I am intrigued by what we have seen so far. If you knew me, you would already know that I see a lot of things. Such is my fortune. Or fate, you ask? That is your interpretation to make, isn’t it?

I think Abhaya will do well. I am not sure we will need to learn too much about Vittala, one cannot learn everything about everyone in the telling of a story. We may not need to know much about Manoj, the lawyer, either. They are both seemingly good and decent people and we will have to leave it at that. For now. I hope Vittala’s entanglements with the Shetty brothers will be explained by him. Rishab Yadav seems to be someone we have to learn more about, wouldn’t you say? He appears to genuinely care for Khan, but he may be hiding something. As for Khan, he is experiencing life anew as a ghost now. Is he real? That sounds like an oxymoron.

In all of this, however, consider what separates the good from the evil. Is it parenting, economic considerations or the individual state of being? Remember these lines from a popular movie:
"You see, their morals, their code...it's a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these...these civilized people...they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster. I'm just ahead of the curve."

Let me show you a poem, of my own making, do indulge me.

We cuff their dirty hands
Throw them in jail
Hang them by the neck
Cower in disgust at the evil
Appalled, we point and ask
We are human, decent and good,
Wherefrom sprang this specter?
Power gives it life,
Power over another.
Be it the torture at Abu Ghraib
The diamond mine bosses at Marange
Or the local school bully
Power over another.
At heart you wonder in fear
Wherefrom sprang this specter?
Perhaps, perhaps --The monster is within.

It is part of us I am sure, much like the rainbow hues on your skin when you raise your arm to sunlight. How well we hide it is the difference.

The Shetty brothers started out innocuously enough. Their grandfather had been a lowly mine worker. He worked deep within the mines, in the heyday of the Kolar Gold Fields. Well, I suppose that can be disputed, given that gold has been mined in Kolar for well near two millennia. Alright, the past century then, after the British brought in equipment for large scale drilling. Their father was a shrewd man.

He was sitting near the Kalyani in front of the temple, lost in contemplation when the idea struck him. Now I must tell you about the temple. The Kashi Vishweshwara temple is about 4 kms from Kolar and you have to climb a few hundred steps to reach the top of the mountain, which is nestled in the Antaragange mountain range. Antaragange means ganga within, and is an obvious reference to the holy river of Ganga thousands of kilometers to the north. Most Indian temples have water near them, which is allowed to conveniently collect in a pond, also called Kalyani. The water for the Kalyani at this temple comes from the mouth of a stone bull. No one knows the exact source of this underground stream, but water flows throughout the year. If you ask nicely, the poojari will let you drink the water from the stone bull, and it is as sweet as they say it is. Watch out for the monkeys, they are quite notorious for prying food away from unsuspecting hands.

One day, as Ramanna sat at the temple surrounded by the smell of fresh flowers adorning the deities, he contemplated the coming liberation. He had been married the year before at the tender age of 14, his bride a few years younger than him. His father was exhibiting signs of what would later be defined at Kolar for the first time in the world: silicosis. He did not want to work in the mines all his life like his father had done. Nor did he have the desire to toil knee-deep in the earth as was the norm in the agricultural belt. The British were readying themselves for an exit; everyone knew that long sought after day was near.

To some people freedom meant a period of birthing joys of bravely struggled for ideals come to fruition that presented itself through new governance, to some it changed nothing: they barely noticed, and for some others, it meant a period of painful disruption. The Brits had until 1956 to transfer rights over to the Indian government, and they did what you would reasonably expect them to do: exploit the hell out of it. This may have been where the expression “it’s a freaking goldmine” was born. I jest. I seem to have learnt a few phrases from RKL’s grandchildren.

Of Ramanna Shetty, we may return to his exploits another day. Suffice to say that shortly after that day by the temple pond, Ramanna Shetty left town, and the next we hear of him is a little over a decade later, as a man of means, in another town that was fast becoming a center for iron ore mining. When those from unprivileged backgrounds emerge from the shackles of their circumstances, there are whispers of wrongdoing.

“Did you know, he horded away temple jewellery and artifacts, sold them to foreign buyers for a lot of money…that’s how he got started”
“He hid some of the gold that he had mined for the concessionaire”
“He lied on his permit forms”

The tales go on like a game of Chinese whispers. The version at the end of the chain has perhaps a modicum of truth, if at all. But no one has any doubt that for someone to rise to miraculous heights within a lifetime, some misdeeds remain hidden.

“The misdemeanours of the parents visit their children” they say, hope and fear mingling in their envious voices. It is an important tenet of Karma. If it were not so, everything they had believed all their lives would have been false, wouldn’t it? They follow the rules of dharma because they are told to do so or suffer the consequences. When the spawn of the Ramannas of the world seem to lead carefree lives, they watch carefully for misfortune, and pounce on it to say “Aha! It had to be thus!”

But when there are no apparent calamities that befall that next generation, they begin to wonder. Was Tolkien right when he said “History became legend? Legend became myth?”. Maybe our gods are merely aggrandized stories of extraordinary people. What if there are no supernatural powers watching over us to ensure our happiness? They question: do we have a creator? Does He have a plan for us? Do we exist? Maybe we are all part of someone’s imagination and none of us really exist!

I asked you to keep me on topic! I don’t think I have any more time today to talk about the Shetty brothers. But I will leave you with an anecdote that is reflective of how they turned out. There is so much of a nexus between government and crime that kids these days say they want to get into organized crime when they grow up and the parents in turn ask, “Government or private sector?”

Now that I have given you some background, you are probably wondering what my role in all this is. My friend, I will tell you who I am. I am always on the fringe. Like the extras in a movie scene or like the hairdresser that gives you a haircut while you chat animatedly with your friend. No one notices that I am there. People discuss their secrets in front of me because in their eyes, people like me do not matter.

I am one of those people that watched the Times of India go from a respected institution to a trashy tabloid not worthy of the paper it is printed on. Who am I, you ask?

I am that befuddled spectacled creature, The Common Man.


Find Chapter Five here.

July 30, 2011

Chapter Three: The Sixth Tarot

I have always been good at reading people. Trying to understand their motivations and raison d’être.

Rishab seemed a bit put off when Manoj introduced me, but he recovered his composure very quickly. I wonder if it was because he recognized me, or if he disliked all journalists.

In an interview with a women’s journal recently, I was asked if being born with a silver spoon made life a bit easier.

“A silver spoon can be a choking hazard” I had said. My troubles with my siblings were very much in the public realm, so there was no need to elaborate.

My father started his paper, Kempooru Patrike, when he was in his 30s, because he was disgusted by the mainstream reporting of his time that didn’t ask the questions that needed to be asked. His paper acquired something of a cult following, a rarity especially for a non-English publication and is one of the most respected journalists in this bustling metropolis of the red earth and red gulmohars. Kempooru. The Mysore-born writer-turned-filmmaker became a journalist with the launch of his paper named after his adopted city.

Coming to work for him was the most natural and the most difficult decision of my life. But I have never regretted it. Sometimes I look at my friends’ lives – or for that matter, my siblings, with their growing families, and feel like life has moved on, leaving me behind. But the sacrifice has been worth it and I have learnt so much from working with my father. My first story was about cutbacks in infrastructure projects. All road projects were granted with the unspoken understanding that 30% of the winning bid amount went to line the pocket of the person accepting the bid. This usually meant that the contractors would adulterate and use low quality materials to pave the roads. When the rains came, they washed away and left potholes behind. Goondas followed me around for two days after that story, which was a bit unnerving. I had quietly pulled out my .32 Browning from my boot and aimed it at one of them. I didn’t see them again. For good measure, my father told one of his sources who had connections with the politicians, that he had accumulated a lot of evidence of wrongdoing over the years as a protective action. That took care of the problem. Well, I thought it had. The events of the past few days have given me pause.

I know that he would like me to take over the paper someday. But he struggles with the same questions that he had asked: will appointing his own daughter reek of the same nepotism that he had accused the politicians of?

“Everything in this country is ever-changing.. including morals and principles” says my current lover, his cheeks dimpling, when I bring the topic up. “It is quite alright for your dad to appoint you even though he had vehemently opposed politicians appointing family members to positions of power. No one will say a word. After all, we still cling so tightly to our castes, which essentially came about because children were unquestioningly apprenticed to the same professions as their parents.”

I love watching him speak. A Yakshagana artist, his face is poetry in motion. I don’t even have to listen to his words, I can tell what he wants to say just by looking at his beautiful, expressive face. The dulcet tones of his voice, an attractive distraction. I met him when I was sent to report on last year’s Yakshagana Sammelana. We are so different. I am religious, Vittala is not. And yet he takes on God-roles and plays them with conviction. My hair is close-cropped, just a couple of inches from my skull. His wavy mane reaches down to his shoulders. I grew up in the city, he, Vittala Hegde of Mangalooru, grew up on the coast.

As I open the gate that leads to my house, I notice that the drishti bombe that my mom used to hang above her door is missing. I smile. He’s home. The Yakshagana touring season ends in May, but he tries to visit when his troupe is near the city. And when he does, he removes the drishti bombe, saying ‘you don’t need the demon face to ward off the evil eye, I am here now’. He puts it back when he leaves.

I had wondered what my father would make of him. Since my mother’s death he has become very protective. I had taken Vittala over to the family house and disappeared into the kitchen to make tea. When I returned both of them were talking amicably, with my father asking questions and listening intently. A few days later, he wrote an editorial lamenting the state of Yakshagana - ignored by the masses that is necessary for the art form to survive, and incorporated Vittala’s ideas on what should be done to address the situation. I knew then that he approved.

I open the door to my house and step in. I hear music: my Chanson collection. Brel’s Marieke is playing. I look through the glass doors of my study. It is my favourite room, and I always keep it locked. My breath catches in my throat. My papers are in a disarray.

She doesn’t see Khan look up from the papers, smile and stand, and then realizing that she cannot see him, go back to reading her case files.

I think back to the case. Three of my contacts are dead. I try to make a mental list of all the people that have access and could have leaked information. I start walking up the stairs to the first floor. I find a new paper stuck to the small wooden board by the stairwell, where I put up clippings.

They shed the skins of their past
And snake far away, to a new life
Lands unknown they make their own
The strings to their skins unravel
Yet never break
Invisible, underneath the surface
They don’t see, or care to understand
The past follows, battered, bruised, always behind
Never forgotten, yet held at bay
I want to begin afresh
Join the seemingly past-less blissful swarm
But my skin stays firmly on me

Vittala’s new piece has no name yet. Marieke ends and Le Gorille comes on next. As the song starts I hear Vittala singing “Kadagola tarenna chinnave”, his clear voice loud over Georges Brassens’.

There was something else that was puzzling. When we were leaving Manoj’s office earlier today, Rishab had asked me which paper I worked for.

“Kempooru Patrike”, Manoj had said before I could answer, “She is the daughter of Mr L Prakash.”

His face went pale when he heard my father’s name, and he left immediately, without saying anything. I could have sworn that there was a glimmer of recognition, closely followed by fear. Manoj had just shrugged it off. “Bihari”, he had added, smiling.

I walk into my room and turn off the music. Vittala is facing the windows and is on the other side of the bed. He jumps happily and crosses over to me.

“What’s wrong?” he asks immediately.

It never ceases to surprise me how in tune we are with each other.

I push a lock of his hair behind his right ear, look into his eyes.

“How do you know the Shetty brothers?”


Find Chapter Four here

July 28, 2011

Spain Vignettes: Comida es la vida

“Tengo Hambre” was one of the first Spanish phrases that I learnt, and more importantly, never forgot, because of how important it is – “I am so hungry”. When I asked Ash about planning a trip to Spain, Ash, who has been to Spain twice, wrote me a detailed reply. At the end of the email, he said simply, scratch all I said, just go for the food.

We were ready to be gastronomically delighted. And we were. Right from our first meal in Madrid. By the time we got out at Anton Martin station, we were hungry. As we walked down the street we saw a restaurant sign, we didn’t need much more invitation than that. I had read somewhere that the a-OK gesture (circle with index finger and thumb, other three straight out) was an offensive gesture in Spain, so we tried our best to use our middle three fingers while saying ‘tres’ while asking for a table or asking for coffee.

One of the dishes was pollo, the other was tortilla with patatas y jamon. We may have ordered a third, I don’t remember now. I noticed that Attu was eating quite slowly. And because Neeto and I were wolfing down food, I was quite concerned Attu wouldn’t have anything to eat at her pace. So I broke off bits of the chicken leg and tried to make sure she was eating. That courtesy lasted that one meal, probably because I hadn’t seen her in years. By the end of the trip I was wolfing down her food before she got to it.

Anyway, this is a food post, so I will keep it short and picture-friendly. I may not remember the names of most of the dishes, so feel free to help me out.

Our first dinner in Madrid, somewhere near Puerta del Sol.

This was the restaurant. Well, as you can see above, we had to have a second dinner a few hours later, of which we don't have any pictures of. Of note, at the second dinner we were introduced to croquettas and aceitunas. We probably tried to have them at nearly every meal after that. YUM!

We only had coffee here...but look at the display!

Lunch, near Plaza de Oriente, next to Palacio Real de Madrid. As Toni informs us in the comments below, this dish is called Pulpo a la Gallega.

Dinner at Mercado de San Miguel. Highly recommended. You will see a lot more locals than tourists too. They were really friendly and offered to take our pictures when they saw us take out our cameras. One of the skewers was 'chicken tikka', delicious.


Tres Cafe Con Leche, Barcelona. I am not generally a coffee drinker, but loved the coffee in Spain! Given our packed schedule and how little sleep we were getting, the cafe visits were a necessity. This particular cafe was run by an old man. It looked like a house converted to a cafe. Near the ceiling, you could see what looked like solid white window-doors, painted the same colour of the walls.

After a visit to La Sagrada Familia, we went to a cafe nearby. There were three sections, in the first we saw two old men playing chess. We walked to the second section, with painted red walls, a love-seat and two antique cushion chairs. There was a young woman running the show, and she spoke to us entirely in English. We realized people in Barcelona were more likely to speak in English and was the only city where we began speaking in English, instead of attempting Spanish.

Lunch at a restaurant by the sea in Barcelona. We were told at the hostel to head to this area to find the best food. This shellfish is called Navajas.

Two kinds of paella, the one on the left is made entirely of verduras.

And a closer look at one of the little guys in the paella on the right...

In Granada, we were hurrying from the walking tour to Alhambra so we could make it in time to the allotted hour on our tickets. We ate at a cafe-restaurant inside, there were only cold foods available. The gazpacho was quite memorable, but we were too hungry to think about taking pics. Also, our cameras had given out by then. Aric, our tour guide had recommended a place for dinner. Lamb kebabs,gambas al ajillo and calamari were on the menu.

I had read that churros con chocolate was not to be missed in Spain. Don Pepe in Cordoba is quite famous for its churros, at least according to the restaurant where we had our lunch. This restaurant still had a poster of the World cup winning team pasted on its wall, now somewhat faded, in just a year. I took a picture of it too. The churros:

The menu at a tapas place by the road.

In Sevilla, we had lunch with a few others from our hostel, and forgot to take pictures. Here we tried the menu del dia option. The sopa de arroz that was placed in front of Attu was delicious. We had dinner at the public casetas at Fiera de Abril, and we definitely had plenty of croquettas.

Full circle. Before we left to drop Attu at the Barajas airport in Madrid, we ate lunch at the same place by Anton Martin station where we had our first meal in Spain.

Chocolateria San Gines. Chocolate con churros. Enough said.

These are pics from my camera, I will update the post later with pics from the other two.

Update: Attu sent me these photos from her camera. Our meal in Cordoba, at a little cafe-restaurant where the waitress later recommended Don Pepe when we asked about a churros place.

The only food worries I had were beef-related, as I wanted to make sure I didn't consume any. So I tried learning the words that can be used for beef in Spanish. Thankfully there are a lot of the dishes in Spain with pescado and/or jamon, so this wasn't too much of a problem. It helped that I had tried learning basic words (arroz, pollo, et al) prior to the trip. A little research goes a long way!

Tengo hambre amigos?


Title: Well, I am deviating from my song-themed spain posts for this one.