Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Self-indulgent rambling that leads to no conclusive argument

Recently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the question of quality and context in matters of art. Since I spend much of my time reading or writing or watching films and plays, there's plenty of food for thought these days.

What really makes a piece of art good? Perhaps, art is the wrong word to use. People have funny ideas about what constitutes 'art' and what doesn't. It's a much bracketed and parentheticized word and the issue has been debated up and down the ages, right across borders and time zones. Perhaps, it might be more reasonable to say 'creative enterprise'.

What makes any creative enterprise wonderful (again, I hesitate to say 'great') or even worthwhile?

To me, personally, this has always meant that it ought to involve the audience. Make me laugh, make me cry, make me empathise, perhaps make me think too. It should draw me into itself. It should sink its teeth into my memory. Above all, it shouldn't bore me. It shouldn't make me look at the watch, or wonder about lunch, or flip the cover to see how many more pages still remain.

Sometimes, things are just cut and dried and obvious. The artists leave no room for doubt.

For instance, there is no doubt in my mind that some of the Renaissance masters really were masters. Michelangelo's Pieta is, well, it just works! So does Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters. And so does Emily Dickinson's Success Is Counted Sweetest, and Shakespeare's Hamlet. And so does Shaw's Pygmalion and the movie version, My Fair Lady. And so does Mandi.

To me, these are examples of creative processes that were wholly successful. Similarly, I have absolutely no doubt about certain creative undertakings either just went very wrong, or they failed to even register long enough to puzzle over.

Bal Brahmachari belongs to the former category (I'm usually cautious with criticism in public, but I have to confess that this was the worst Hindi movie I saw over a period of almost fourteen years. Kambakkht Ishq, however, more than matches up to it and perhaps deserves to wear the wobbly crown now on. But more on this on another post). Several of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays belong to the latter category. I read his collected works as an adolescent but many of them didn't strike me as anything to write home about. Just so, some abstract modern art leaves me untouched.

There is, of course, subjectivity to account for. When people ask me for my all-time favourite book or movie or author or artist, I usually get irritated. But if the annoying questioner persists, I name 'Sholay' in the film segment. It is not the best movie I've seen but it is the only one I've seen so many times and am willing to watch yet again.

Similarly, Shakespeare is probably not the most brilliant writer down the ages, but something makes me return to him, makes me willing to look at him from different angles, listen to or watch other people's wild interpretations of his work.

In the same vein, I liked Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games a whole lot. I found it compelling and insightful. Not everybody agrees with me. And I actually enjoyed Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and No Smoking. Almost nobody agrees with me. But that's okay. I am content to like creative work for my own sake.

The tricky bit, as always, lurks in the grey. I am bothered by the ones on the margins. The ones I cannot slot into 'awesome' or 'ugh' or 'I should be interested, because...?'. The ones that make me argue for them. Or the ones that I am unable to dismiss.

For instance, The Burning Train. I use it as an example because I caught it television, again. It certainly isn't on my list of favourites. But I saw it as a kid and remembered having enjoyed it tremendously. Several scenes stayed stuck in my head for over a decade - scenes of tenderness, or extreme passion, or public sacrifice, or just plain visual drama. I thought that it may have captured my imagination because because we travelled so much by train. But then I saw the film again a couple of years ago. And I still found it a decent watch.

Today, I saw it yet again. My mother was watching and I plonked down beside her on the sofa, and found myself getting sucked into the story. I knew what was going to happen, but the details were still shiny. At some point, the twists and turns and overladen crisis settled down into a pattern and I left.

But I had to think about what kept me on that sofa for over an hour and a half, annoying ad breaks and all. I still responded warmly to the emotional bits, laughed at the funny bits, clung to the pace. I still wanted these characters to live. But I could also spot bits that were just there, not doing anything. I could spot bits that raised feminist hackles. I could think of ways to make it tighter, to toss out the social tokenism. I wasn't bored. But I wasn't sitting back admiring either.

Perhaps, I was just more grown up. Grown up a certain way - looking for craft in any form, struggling to hone my own craft, learning to critique in such a way that you take the craft apart, not the artist. But having said that, how is one to decide on the merit of a creative piece? Does the value of a film diminish in proportion to your experience and evaluation of it? Yet, it is you who changed, not the creative enterprise. How is the artist to be held to account then? Does any review or response or critique make sense?

Another odd example is a book of short stories that has made me uncomfortable because I couldn't find the right mental space for it. The writing was not structured like most speculative or science fiction stories. And these were also not 'realistic' stories that have a bit of science or math or astronomy forming the backdrop. Most of the stories in the collection tread a heavy line, a blurry line. And I found this was testing my patience. I found myself wishing the stories were more focussed, less sprawly and wiggly.

Now this is the worst sort of criticism that can come from one writer to another - this accusation of being all over the place, not on account of your craft, but on account of not fitting neatly into a box. I would baulk if it was my writing in question. So I thought it through, and decided that my discomfort with the stories was actually symptomatic of a problem: a pre-conditioned approach to reading. We expect genres to unfold in certain ways. Because they often do. Because too many authors have begun to write inside the margins.

However, my reading isn't severely limited by genre. I read whatever makes me curious. I especially try to read contemporary work. And I have liked fantasy, speculative or otherwise experimental fiction.

But yet, these stories... It was bothering me: the fact that the book failed to connect with me. So I did yet another rethink and finally came to the conclusion that I was dissatisfied with the stories. Not with the way their everyday bodies slipped into magic realism and fantasy and sci-fi without warning, but with the distance of the characters. I wanted more from them - more explanation, more meat, more flesh, more imagination, more light, more dark. Just more. More to remember them by.

And there is also a suspicion that I might have enjoyed them more if I was older, except I would have to be older right now to enjoy them. Ten years later, my tastes will have moved a bit further off. I cannot explain it, but there it is.

None of this answers the question I set out for myself when I began writing this post. What makes a book a good read, disallowing individual preferences of genre or form?

I think the only question I have resolved is that it has a lot to do with timing. I feel that way about books or movies or even buildings. They appeal to different people at different ages. The fortresses we'd visited as kids seemed completely overwhelming, once. When I grew older, a low-ceiled monastries or loosely defined meditation caves cut out of rock left more striking impressions. Delicate filigrees and carved marble awed me when I was little. Naturally-formed coloured/precious stone leave me shaken and silent now. And I saw the Taj Mahal as a thinking, travelling adult, and was a little surprised that I was touched by its elegance. Not awed. Just moved.

I found James Joyce and Virginia Woolf boring and entirely lacking in texture when I was a teenager. But I returned to them a decade later and was forced to change my opinion. And there was a time I used to think that Ernest Hemingway was a simple, short read but not substantial enough for long train journeys (don't say a word; it is taking a lot for me to admit to ever having thought of Hemingway as insubstantial). In my early twenties, I confess I found some of Adoor Gopalakrishnan's films a bit of a yawn. And frankly, I am afraid to watch them now, worried about what that might reveal about me and my intellect.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Speaking of speaking

"Four hours and 29 minutes is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest speech in front of the General Assembly, given in September 1960 by Fidel Castro. The former Cuban leader is known for his interminable speeches - his longest on record in Cuba clocking up seven hours and 10 minutes at the 1986 Communist Party Congress.

Even that was topped, when at the UN Security Council in 1957, the Indian politician VK Krishna Menon talked for nearly eight hours defending India's position on Kashmir."

You can read the rest of it here, but what I want to know is: Did Mr Menon accomplish this considerable task without taking bathroom breaks? If he did, somebody please given him a posthumous medal right now!

For managing that feat alone, he's totally my hero. I mean, could you do that for your country?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Eid Mubarak/ a.k.a New auto maton insanity

Took an auto to come home last ight, like every other night. The auto driver started driving, then pulled over to the side and cursed beneath his breath. He just sat there, one finger poked into his ear.
I asked him why he'd stopped.

He said, "Eid. All these people walking on the roads. It is impossible to drive."

I looked ahead. The road was empty. Well, as empty as most other days. There were a couple of kids standing nearby. A second later, a firecracker went off. The driver took his finger out of his, started up the engine again and said, "The road will be bad today."

Five minutes later, we reached the gate of my building complex. I told the auto driver to drive right upto our building. But the gates were, surprisingly, shut. But of course, I realised why. Navratri was also on. There is a pandal and a music system put up around a central pillar. Dandiya music blared out. Kids and teenagers were dancing in small, scattered groups.

I told the auto driver it was okay, I'd get down at the gates, and began to pay him.

He said, "Eid really messes things up. Everything blocked..."

I thought, 'What the...??' and hesitated for a moment, wondering if I ought to ask him what he meant. But I didn't after all. I walked past the crowd, the music, the kids, reached home, let myself in, and tried to forget about what he meant.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Remembering silence

People forget. Easily. Newspapers, magazines, television crews forgot, until we have a dry news day and we begin to think of what was left unfinished, unremembered. We mourn what can be mourned, perhaps: fallen tower that led to a war that led to an impossible geopolity that none of us know what to do with, even now. Or a fallen dome that changed our soul. Or a savage little battle that hasn't stopped mattering, or shaping identities which continue to battle.

There are dates we remember, because we are not allowed to forget.

But whenever we bow our heads to let grief come slithering into our everyday, then let us also mourn all the rest of it. All of it. Every little snatch of bad, depressing news that we'd rather forget. Let us mourn invasions into our own heartlands. Let us mourn our falsehoods for they allow all corruption to exist. Let us mourn our access to the 'system' for that is precisely what allows it to exist. Let us mourn our inability to dream each other's dreams or wake from each other's nightmares. Let us mourn because, like someone has said:

Let your silence begin

at the beginning of crime

Because, in the name of justice and humanity, you can never mourn for just one tragedy. Begin, if you must, at the beginning.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Oh, how I love the buffaloes!

International literacy day came and went. And somebody out there did this.

Don't know who holds copyright etc, but since it says 'janhit mein jaari' (issued in the public interest), it makes sense to spread the word and make the public aware of buffaloes.

GDP for nine-year-olds.

And godowns on the moon.

Great new blog. Go see. Go argue. Go smile.

Monday, September 07, 2009

A sad and lengthy saga of communication people who aren't so good at listening

Dear Reliance

Our telephonic association goes back a long way. I don't even remember how long. You do have a reputation for not listening and not caring about people who give you their money, and in a limited measure, their trust. But I'll try telling you anyway. Perhaps, you will learn.

I got my first cell phone about nine years ago. Back then, it was an Orange connection. It was a reasonably good service. It wasn't cheap, but I never had any horrid customer-relationship experiences.

Then there was a big hoo-haa about Reliance offering the best rates in the market. Everybody was getting a cheap phone. So when I moved to Delhi, I got myself a Reliance connection. It was a nightmare.

My biggest problem at that time was that bills would not arrive. Apparently, because I moved house. I asked you to make that change in your billing information records. It would not happen. I asked why. I was told you needed a new proof of address. I told you I did not have proof because I was renting or sub-letting. You shrugged. I asked you to change the address to my office address. You told me to get a letter from my office, certifying bonafides etc. I did so. The bills still did not arrive, at least, not on time.

I made a telephonic complaint, took down a complaint number. But, nothing.

I made it clear that I required a paper bill so I could get reimbursed at work. That was part of my deal at work. But to no avail.

This process would be repeated every month. Every month, I would get reminders from you to pay my bill on time. I would protest that I have not got my bill. You would shrug and ask me to come collect a copy from the nearest Reliance service center. In effect, this commute added between Rs 40 and Rs 60 to my monthly telephonic expenses. (Don't even get me started on the time wasted on this extra commute, and energy spent being mad at you.)

Your managers would nod, look at me blankly, give me one more complaint number on a scrap of entirely unofficial paper.

Once, I got into a raging fight with your tele-calling person. The lady - and later, another gentleman - kept insisting that I had to pay 'on time' while it was not yet time to pay up. Messages and phone calls would arrive at all hours of day, including weekends. When I tried to demand a paper bill, I would be told, 'We are just the call center', that I would have to go to Reliance headquarters if I wanted to take this further.

I decided that if the bill did not arrive yet again, I would switch to another service. Coincidentally, my mother wanted to gift me a new phone that month. We went looking for new handsets. At a Reliance outlet in Delhi, we were confronted with rude salespeople who did not have any of the designs we liked on the brochure.

As if to add insult to injury, that month, not only did I have to trek to the service center for the privilege of being able to pay the bill - on time! - I was also told that the systems were down and that they could not tell me how much I owed. When I pointed out that I did not know either because no bill was sent, your staff told me I should return the next day.

It meant yet another Rs 60. But I took a deep breath and went. This time, the printer was not working. I was told I could come back later at night or the next day if I wanted a paper bill. Another Rs 60 spent, just to get a valid printout.

The staff just stared at me dumbly when I protested, as if they could not see what the fuss was about.

I had had it with you. So I went to an Airtel store instead and bought a new handset and connection.

Then I called you, Reliance, and asked that our relationship be terminated. Your call center people umm-ed and ahem-ed and asked me why I wanted to discontinue the service. I told them. In detail.

The person said, 'Oh okay... but why do you wish to stop?'

As you can imagine, I had to take several deep breaths. That phone conversation must have lasted over 20 minutes, with me trying to say, 'Look, let's just end this. I want my phone to stop functioning tomorrow onwards. I shall pay the final bill and that's that.'

Your people would not allow me to even let go of the connection with any degree of civility. They insisted that I HAD to give them a reason. I said I don't like the service. They said, 'What don't you like about the service?' I said, 'I don't like anything about the service. Your people are rude. Your bills don't show up. You make me trek up and down. Even your damned printers don't work. What do you do with all that money etc etc?'

It was very frustrating, because your call center people began pointing out that they were only the call center; they themselves were not Reliance.

The long and short of it was that, by the time I had hung up, your people were still insisting on a 'reason' for disconnection. I sighed, asked to be disconnected before a new billing cycle began, and also asked to be given a number for the request. I paid the last bill before a new cycle could begin, switched off the phone and hoped that your guys would do their job. And I noted down that request number in a safe place. (I still have it).

I never used that phone again. But then, I began to get strange messages on my work phone, asking me to appear in court. From an unidentified person claiming to be a lawyer's assistant, but who would not say who she represented.

I was worried. For a journalist, the likelihood and threat of lawsuits is a very real one. Then I consulted my chief, and was told it might be a prank. It was a weekend and the court would be closed.

In the meantime, Airtel provided decent service, at least to me, and as long as I was paying on time, there were no issues.

Then, I returned to Bombay. There was already one Reliance phone user in the family and there was some sort of free number scheme going on. So I filled up the form, and allowed myself to try out Reliance one more time. But I was determined not to deal with your service centers or your call center staff. I got a pre-paid deal and kept usage at a minimum.

Within a few days, I started getting text messages saying I owed a bill of Rs 1700 something. I thought it was a mistake. A few months later, the mistake was repeated.

Not just that, within a few days of getting a new Reliance connection, I got an intimidating phone call from somebody who said he was a cop. Said there was some legal notice about dues etc, that I had to present myself in court. I thought it was a prank once again, and hung up.

Odd thing was, I got calls from acquaintances and even colleagues in Delhi, saying that they too had a 'cop' calling them, saying that I needed to appear in court, leaving a lawyer's name and number.

Odd, because this happened when most of my friends in Delhi did not even have my new number.

The other odd thing was, these phone calls came to people who were not in any way responsible for me. I had never, ever, listed their names as surety on anything. They were not my guardians. I had never given out their addresses or phone numbers on any document that might link me to them. Which lawyer/ cop/ enraged lawsuit-filing person mentioned in magazine articles would randomly call up acquaintances and colleagues? Anyone with any legal sense would know that it could result in a harassment and/or defamation suit faster than you can spell defamation.

Besides, who would even know whom to call? Who, except somebody who has access to the numbers I might have called regularly whilst I still used my old phone? Who, except somebody who was able to call me only after I began to use a Reliance phone once again?

See, I don't like to jump to conclusions. But I have a brain and I cannot help wondering... Why would someone have access to this information, unless it was given out by a certain tele-services provider?

So this time, I called the cops. The real ones. I was advised to make a note of the caller's number and to ask for ID, at least for the name of the police station he was attached to and his immediate superior's name and designation.

So I called back the 'cop' and said I would like a few details. Please. Also, I would like to know since when Delhi police personnel have starting doubling up as secretaries for Tees Hazaari black-coats.

The caller never called back. But you see, I still wonder... Who would do this, except somebody who had access to phone numbers I called regularly whilst I still used my old phone? Who, except somebody who was able to call me only after I began to use a Reliance phone once again? Who had access to both sets of information - new and old? I think about things like that, and it is a nasty thought.

You are not a pleasure to be associated with, you know. We don't owe each other anything. Well, you do owe me an apology, especially considering your people randomly send text messages even now, saying I owe them any number of sums ranging between Rs 700 and Rs 2000. But forget that.

Because it doesn't matter much - to you, or to me - if I don't use a Reliance phone. But one of these days, it will become possible to switch services without switching numbers. Or to switch cities without having to switch services. And the only thing that will ensure loyalty then is a certain amount of civility and respect for other people's time and money and privacy. You ever think about that?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Very often, there is a hollow inside you. Inside your head. Inside your day as it steadily chews its way from breakfast to lunch, when there's nothing to show for your time but a spat-out glob of four hourly despair.

And you know that there is a word for this condition. That the condition is universal. That is not about you at all, but about the things you cannot find words for and the questions nobody seems to be asking, and if they were to ask, you know you'd wish they hadn't.

At such times, I go looking for poetry. For a certain kind of poem by a certain kind of poet. Tonight I found three poems like that. One is here with a ready translation, and below, I have done a rough translation of two more for readers who cannot read Hindi.

Kya Phir Vahi Hoga?/Will it be like that again?
- Kunwar Narayan

Will it happen again
the thing we are afraid of?
And the thing we'd hoped forwill it never be?

Will we go on, as we did,
sold in bazaars,
slaves to our own idiocies?

Will they buy up our kids
and take them to far-off lands
to build their futures?

Will they once again
rob us of our gold
by holding out pieces of coloured glass?

And will we, once again,
generation upon generation,
go on showing off
the ruins of our ancientdom,
our temples mosques gurudwaras?

Chaand se baatein/ Conversing with the moon
- Shamsher Bahadur Singh

(a ten eleven year old girl talks)

You're very round but
you seem a little skewed.

You wear the whole sky
showing just your face
fair and smooth
all rounded,
your outfit spread out

You do seem a little skewed
and how!

Oh really!
You seem to think I'm stupid!
As if I don't know about your illness:
when your body starts to get small
it just gets smaller and smaller,
and when it gets big,
it just keeps getting bigger and bigger,
and you just don't stop until
you are totally round.

One perfect round.
It doesn't seem like your illness
is going to go away...


That ends well

A few days ago, I had complained about the telephone and internet services at Chicago airport. The telephone-walas at Pacific seem impervious to criticism but I happy to report that Boingo, the internet service provider over there, did take note and rectify the situation.

Within days of blogging about the problem, I received an email from Danielle, who works for Boingo Wireless, apologizing for the inconvenience, offering to reimburse my money, also offering a complimentary access pass at some other airport serviced by Boingo, and the promise of fixing the truant kiosk.

I wrote back saying I was glad somebody noticed and responded to the complaint, and sent directions to the exact location of the grievance-causing kiosk at Chicago's O'Hare airport. I also asked that the refund be donated to some charity on my behalf instead of being mailed to me.

Danielle wrote back to confirm that the kiosk had been fixed by having it point to a different IP. And also that the refund had been donated to a charitable organisation called SOVA, which Boingo supports.

I'd just like to put it on record that, despite the annoying experience at the airport, I am now a satisfied customer after all. I wish all businesses would hire someone to watch out for feedback - positive or negative - in the media, including blogs and social networking sites. It is to their own advantage, for it is one way of showing that the company really does take the concept of 'service providing' seriously and that it does not treat a field of work with arrogance. It is good for 'image' too, besides just being respectful to the customer.

Coming up in the near future, a long list of long-standing complaints against Reliance on the communications front. Let's see if anyone's listening.
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