Monday, August 29, 2005

C***K F***k

In addition to Lite Lit I've survived the weekend on a diet of outrageously good looking men For example, I've spent the friday night with Richard Gere, who I encountered when he was much younger (and so was I) in Paul Schrader's terrific American Gigolo. I went to see the film twice (on consecutive days) in London, once with my mother in tow. On Saturday night, I decided to stay in for a QNI (quiet night in) with Ashton Kutcher. He's an interesting kind of guy once you rid your mind of the perennial nerd in That Seventies Show. He's a pretty awful actor, but you get the feeling that he's trying really hard. He has an interesting, almost androgynous face, bow stung lips and skinny legs which he's not afraid of showing. And to round off this hat trick of delights, I encountered Martin Vartan late on Sunday night. He's kind of scrawny rugged (unless that's an oxymoron) fortunately playing a character in his thirties. He has a great smile and a face with a ....history. His best lines are on his face-not his script.

The films in question seem to have been designed with a female/gay audience in mind. I have been told not to refer to them as Ch**k flicks as the term is derogatory to women. I agree and I shall desist. Having started with a PC qualification all these films are derogatory as well-to men! Why did I watch them. Well, they looked light enough for a weekend. (My Bergman collection is, therefore, still in its original wrapping.) The cast looked attractive-as though beauty may-just may-compensate for some crap scripts floating around in there. The triumvirate of beauty tried their damndest, but the crap won out at the end of the day.

Shall We Dance, is outrageously bad. It stars (if that is the right word) Richard Gere as a New York probate lawyer who chances upon a seedy dance school. Jennifer Lopez plays the objet of attraction. She actually shines through as her script has been sensibly pared down to a series of monosyllables. She ends up doing what she's good at - dancing and looking Good. Gere is so outrageously bad, that I had to hold a cushion to my face. Even asphyxiation didn't work. A Lot Like Love was treading in wannabe When Harry Met Sally territory. Ashton K together with Amanda Peel "star" as strangers who meet (and shag) on a flight. A relationship (or something like it) develops over the years. No prizes for guessing what happens. Monster in Law has Vartan and Jennifer Lopez (yet again) playing star crossed lovers unsuccesfully kept at bay by his mother-the indefatigable Jane Fonda (doing Joan Collins on a bad hair day). This time Lopez is unable to fall back on dance and grapples with a script so unutterably bad, that the highlights come from physical comedy- mother and daughter sock it to each other Laurel and Hardy style.

So what does one deduce from all this froth. Well for one, men are beautiful but generically stupid. If that ain't sexist, what is?! Two. Jennifer Lopez should stop making films. Three: Life always has a happy ending. Four: Women are obsessed with finding the right man-never the other way round. Five: If the script becomes really bad fall back on song and dance to keep it going. Six: I could do with another dose of froth-but at least a month later.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

The Hungry Tide

It's been a long gruelling week. Work, work and more work. The kind of week where thinking saps the marrow out of you and you return weary, dissolate and a little frayed. And if that's not enough, the tail end of the monsoon is eking out its departure. The air gets so thick sometimes I think I can see it. These are days where if you read (and we do all read, don't we?) it is time to turn to something which will not unduly tax the grey cells and will yet not stoop to the level of of the epidemic Dan Brown sorts. Amitav Ghosh is one writer who is ideal for days such as these. His prose is swift and precise but not belaboured. He has a story to tell and he tells it reasonably well. One glides through his books thinking, what happens next ? And a great deal does.
In The Hungry Tide, Ghosh returns to his native Bengal. His new novel is set in the Sundarbans, that part of the subcontinent which is substantially delta, where land and water are so deeply intertwined that the high tide submerges what was terra firma a few hours ago. Only the mangroves provide some sense of rootedness in this highly deceptive geography. Ghosh is a master of mixing fact with fiction or, more precisely, science with fiction giving his work a curious credibility. Piya is a non-resident Indian and an expert on river dolphins (related to the blind dolphins of the Indus river) who arrives in the Sundarbans to undertake her research. Kanai is a jaded fortysomething linguist who she meets on her way there. Ghosh flirts with the possibility of romance- will they or won't they. I won't give the ending away. These urbane representations of India are brought face to face with a variety of characters representing other strains. Kanai's uncle Nirmal, a disilllusioned marxist, who has left behind a manuscript for his nephew. His aunt, an "NGO type" and a realist who lacks her husband's idealism, but shares his drive to protect and develop the fragile ecosystem they live in.
And then there are Ghosh's "desi" (or should I say "deshi"?) characters. Fokir the boatman who comes painfully close to a modern day "noble savage". His mysterious mother Kusum who acquires an iconic presence as the novel progresses. She becomes at once symbolic of the land and the dangers that go with it. Add this assortment of characters onto a series of boats and you have a Bengali version of The Heart of Darkness. The voyage, ostensibly to chart the migratory movements of dolphins manages (to me) to allegorically chart the human journey in the 21st century. Ghosh's unspoken arguments pit science against the environment, man against beast (the Sunderbans are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger), man against myth (the inhabitants follow a homegrown series of religions combining Islam and Hinduism) and, ultimately, man against the elements. The most effective descriptions seek to equate the shifting and "hungry" tide of the title with equivalent shifts among the characters Ghosh peoples his novel with. It's not "great" literature, but immensely involving-especially when you've survived the mother of all weeks. Oh yes, there's a haunting quote from Rilke (Kanai's Uncle Nirmal reads the German poet in Bengali) which came back to me from a place "far ago and long away" - a time when I still read good poetry and wrote appaling poems: It reads :
"Look we don't love like flowers
with only one season behind us; when we love
a sap older than memory rises in our arms; O girl
its like this: inside us we haven't just loved some one
in the future, but a fermenting tribe; not just one
child, but fathers cradled inside us like ruins
of mountains, the dry riverbed
of former mothers, yes and all that
soundless landscape under its clouded
or clear destiny-girl, all this came before you."

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Slow is Beautiful

It is not often that I think I am going to die. One of those moments came about a decade ago, when I was awoken with a sharp pain in my chest. Despite the passage of much time, I still remember the sensation. At the time I thought it was not unlike molten metal dripping onto me. A quick call was made to some friends. I was rushed to hospital. The pain became even worse. The doctors couldn't make up their minds. Fortunately one of them decided I needed a shot of morphine. People often talk of cutting through pain, but I could feel the morphine cutting through. Hey I could begin to enjoy this stuff.
After ten days in hospital (with the doctors no clearer on what had happened) I returned home to try and piece my life together. Through the haze of prescribed sedatives, I discovered no less than fifteen boarding cards in my bedroom- all of them issued within ten days of my hospitalisation. I had apparently been to London, Karachi, Milan, Dubai, Amsterdam and a host of other cities. Epiphany. I decided I would never rush to anything again. Ever. It's a promise I've breached often enough, but I know I'm doing it. There's a deep inner voice telling me to slow down. Last time round there was none.
With this frame of reference, I set about reading Carl Honore's In Praise of Slow. I must point out, at the very outset, that this is not a self help book. Honore is a journalist with a story to tell and some interesting anecdotes to spice things up with. There's no road map telling one how exactly one should practice what the book preaches. What does Slow preach? That there is a growing emphasis on moving faster. That faster does not always equate with better. That, in many instances, faster equates with worse. In my own working life, I've seen time take over from quality in many instances. When I first started working there was neither email nor fax. (Yes, I am that old!) A rickety old telex machine (manufactured by the Karl Marx Telex Company of East Berlin) would churn out the odd international message, but there was a limit on the amount of information it could contain. With the advent of email, I am now expected to react to volumes of information in no time at all. It just doesn't work. The best I can do is acknowledge receipt and give a reasonable time frame to react. If I am pressed to react faster I will, secure in the knowledge that I am giving a second or third rate product because of the time constraint.
Honore looks at the disastrous consequences of speed in several facets of life. Work is the most obvious. Then there's "slow food" which entails cooking real food with real ingredients which have grown in a real (and therefore slow) growth environment. No force fed chicken or genetically modified lettuce here. Interestingly enough, he confesses to getting a speeding ticket on his way to a slow food conference. Then there's slow sex. I've always thought my sex was slow enough (if not of Tantric slowness) so I glossed over this one. And then there are "slow cities", "slow architecture" and even "slow" days. There's even "slow music" where Honore debates whether modern conductors of classical music have really figured out the tempo at which the music was originally intended to have been played.
One of Honore's observations on the cult of slowness is the recurrence of pastimes which were once considered passe. These include (gasp!) reading which he classifies as a "slow" activity as opposed to, say, video games which are, by their very nature, "fast." He cites the Harry Potter phenomenon as illustrative of the return to books. I've often cribbed that it takes me ages to finish a book. To me, the process of reading consists of chewing over, ruminating, rereading sentences and chapters, mentally noting anything worthwhile. I am intrigued by people who effortlessly turn page after page of their books. (Actually, I'm intrigued by people who bother to read in the 21st century, but that's another story.) I suppose much has to do with the kind of book one is reading. Poetry, I would imagine, is slower reading than prose. A thriller is a "page turner" while a tome on philosophy or metaphysics requires a little more reverence.
Honore's epiphany came when he thought of ordering "one minute" bedtime stories for his children because he became impatient with the long stories they asked him to read-or reread. Mine came when I ended up in a hospital bed on a morphine high. Having transformed myself from Uberhare to Ubertortoise I'm in no tearing rush to change that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

On The Beach

Going to the beach is an indelible part of my Karachi experience. It all started when my father decreed that he would go en famille to a company "hut" on what is now (for unfathomable reasons) known as the French Beach. Those days were mildly enjoyable. The parents would bicker on the way to the beach, while we were there and then back all the way again. Conceptually, the beach to them was an extension of the home. Leisure was an abstraction. I would take my latest Blyton blockbuster and sit on a rock chewing sandy chicken sandwiches while following the infinitely more interesting adventures of precocious children in rural England. My parents would play Scrabble (bickering in between turns) and my creative sisters would design sand towns that would put Corbusier to shame.
As a young adult, the experience was a little better. A bunch of friends would traipse out to the beach. I would join them in slathering Hawaiian Tropic all over myself (having decreed that my natural tan was insufficiently sexy) and we would lie out with Heineken's, books and a boom box. The idea was to get away from the hustle of the city, to stare endlessly at the horizon and to chatter ceaselessly with ones friends. Oh yes. The sandy chicken sandwiches were still on offer and provided a link with my earlier beach experience.
The years rolled by and I moved away to Islamabad. The beach became an abstraction. Once I remember opening some old bags and my yellow beach espadrilles popped out, replete with Karachi sand. Unfortunately, my Karachi trips were never long enough to accomodate a trip to the beach. Friends tried to organise something for a decade and a half but we never made it. My parents had decided it was easier to bicker in the airconditioned privacy of their bedroom and their beach experiences faded into sepia. So it was with some excitement that I allowed myself to be talked into a trip to the beach. "We'll be there in the morning, right?" I asked with breathless anticipation. "No you idiot. Nobody goes to the beach in the mornings any longer. We meet in the evenings for cocktails, followed up by a good barbecue." Ouch. I didn't dare ask about tanning. Maybe the health warning had finally filtered in to the Karachi demi monde.
The first apparent change hit me on the way. The shanty towns and cardboard "soft drink" stalls were now concrete structures. Hideous electricity pylons boasted the arrival of modernity. A flyover under construction announced the importance of this part of town. Further on, "green" signs advised against intefering with the sand turtles which breed in the area. The beach "huts" looked the same. Dilapilated, corroded and unfit for long term habitation. I had thought that Karachi's trademark conspicuous consumption would have worked its way into five star huts. Nothing of the sort. Maybe the well heeled enjoy the thought of slumming it for a few hours, safe in the knowledge that real comfort is only an hour away.
My spirits came crashing when I saw the sea. It was black. And it was angry. The waves crashed against the rocks periodically spraying us with a fine salt mist. I tried walking barefoot in the sand hoping that the tactile experience would bring my childhood back to me. It didn't. The sand was polluted and the soles of my feet hurt after a few steps. The sight and smell of fresh camel dung assaulted me every which way. Yes, the sunset was pretty. But the sun set behind a nuclear reactor which some demented scientist had placed on the prettiest part of the beach many decades ago. Worse still. The sandy chicken sandwiches had been replaced by canapes, salmon rolls and chi-chi cocktail kebabs. I tried hard to put on a brave face for the benefit of my hosts, but deep within I was desperately disappointed. I wanted to go home. Right away.
What is about places? You yearn for them endlessly, think about them, recreate them and (as I am doing now) write about them. Yet when you finally arrive, there is an underlying sense of not wanting to be there. The beach looked the same (from what I could honestly remember) so the change must lie within myself. Perhaps I had whitewashed the camel shit, the dirty sand, the stray dogs and the hordes of visitors in my mental drycleaning of the place. Maybe my addled brain had muddled it all up with several other, sexier beaches I've visited before. Or maybe a decade and a half in the hills had altered my aesthetics. On getting home, I plunged into a hot shower desperate to get the sand out of me. I do not think a visit to the seafront will rank highly on my next trip home.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


I’m not really a club kind of guy. Clubbing is really about batching people in sets based on perceived similarities. I tend to relate to people individually not as part of a group. This means my going into a wild flap when I have more than a dozen of them around for dinner. Having met them one-on-one, I agonise over whether they will get along with each other. They invariably do (or pretend to do so) and I relax until the next lunch or dinner comes along. As for book reading clubs, I’ve never been part of one, though a bunch of (women) friends tried their damndest to get me involved in one.

Reading “Lolita” in Tehran is a fascinating novel by Azer Nafisi. It tells of an Iranian academic who was unable to continue teaching literature because of the increasingly repressive policies of the university she taught at. Reading Lolita tells of a book club that Nafisi established at her home, where six other women (largely former students) would assemble to discuss books, including some which were officially banned. The books themselves (ranging from Pride and Prejudice to Washington Square to Lolita) are largely incidental. It is the juxtaposition of middle class Iranian women to eighteenth and nineteenth century literature which is fascinating. Reading Lolita goes a step further. It is an allegory of the role of literature in society, of the power of books to open the mind even in the most trying of circumstances and of the willingness of people to defy the odds regardless of the political systems they are born into. The chilling background (Mad Mullahs, Liberals in Drag, Forced Marriages) gives Nafisi not only a fascinating canvas to work on but also shows the universality of good literature in the most unlikely of situations. The eagerness of Nafisi's students in defying the odds and truly wanting to know about books and about themselves shines through.

The Jane Austen Book Club by Karen Jay Fowler also tells of the power of the club, but is about as different from Nafisi’s narrative as chalk is from the chador. Five men and a woman meet in California to discuss the novels of Jane Austen. Each of us has a private Jane Austen, maintains Fowler, and her six characters are created to connect to each of the Austen novels at a different novel. Unfortunately, California rears its expansive head early on into the narrative and the book club members break into what can only be described as first-person-psycho-therapy-posing-as-novel. I found the novel had more to do with the quirks of its particular characters and less and less to do with poor old Jane who seemed more like a clumsy device to hold a bunch of very disparate peopletogether. Nafisi’s club was truly interested in the novels they read each week (often relying on tattered photocopies and not books) and how they could apply them to their lives. The Californians on the other hand just talk about themselves and their not very interesting lives, with bits of Austen trivia thrown in to add some much needed authenticity to the plot. Sadder still, the passion of Nafisi's students feel for their books appears nowhere in California. Yes, they kind of like Jane Austen, but that's about it. Their preoccupation with their lives, dogs, children, lesbian daughters and parents take centre stage. For her less well educated readers, Fowler adds a brief summary of each of the Jane Austen novels at the end of her book. Yikes. I’d sooner read Pride and Prejudice in Tehran than in Sacramento.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Mata Hari

I am all aflutter. I have just returned from a never ending meeting, to my mobile telephone-which I accidentally left behind. I have no less than six text messages asking : Who is she? At first I had no idea what they were all about. Now I know. According to the BBC the British High Commission at Islamabad has removed its Defence Attache because it has "lost its confidence in him." No, this has nothing to do with misplaced dossiers. It appears that the man in question had an "inappropriate relationship" with a female Pakistani spy. According to the Beeb, the man had been "tricked into a close friendship with the attractive woman." Wow. This is hot stuff. Apart from the female-as-temptress cliche I wonder who she is. Could it be the super chic woman in the car ahead of me at the petrol pump? Or was it the dowdy one in the supermarket? And what were the "tricks" she used? They could prove to be useful. Finally, I live in a city of intrigue.

Best Served Cold

Revenge is sweet. And it is a dish best served cold. Deliciously so. Some of you may recall the episode (in my "Snub" blog) where I was made to feel like nothing, simply because I had the gall to call an Ambassador's office to ask about the status of a visa. I had mistakenly assumed I knew the ambassador as he had been over to my house several times and had stayed at the Retreat. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that the Ambassador had never heard of me. Licking my wounds, I withdrew, distressed and embarassed.
"They'll be there" said Lady M, raising an arched eyebrow. "Who?" "The Ambassador and his wife. At dinner. You sure you want to see them?" Hmmmm. "Ofcourse I do" I said defiantly " I have nothing to hide. I'm not the one who was rude." "Ok. Just remember I warned you." The hell with them. I would ensure that I got my message across. And a genteel Islamabad dinner party was just the occasion to do this. I rehearsed about a dozen scripts in my head, but then decided to let my instincts lead me. I just hoped they wouldn't let me down.
I breezed into the dinner party fashionably late. The key players had arrived, about a dozen guests. Perfect. Enough people for everyone to listen in onto a conversation. In another quick judgement call I decided that Mrs Ambassador would have to be tackled first. Women are generally more socially refined and prone to remembering social slights. (Does that make me a woman? An honorary one, maybe.) Men (especially after a few drinks) forget it all the morning after. "A strange thing happened to me. I was trying to call your husband all of last week." She looked up. "Really. He's been kind of busy." "Who is the gestapo woman he's hired to take his calls?" I asked. "Gestapo? What did she say to you?" The "gestapo" word had several bystanders look up, including a rival ambassador. "Well, she told me that he'd never heard of me and implied that I was an imposter of some kind." By this time I had the undivided attention of most of the room. "I'm amazed," I sad, borrowing a line from my blog, "that with people like her in the world of diplomacy,World War lll hasn't broken out as yet." Bullseye. "Darling" she called out to her husband across the room, as red as a tomato in a sauna. "Have you heard what happened? Your assistant has been awfully rude."
I smiled. Lady M sidled up to me. "That was brilliant." "Well. It wasn't the man, it was his assistant after all" I said. "Assistant" huffed Lady M. "You mean secretary" she sneered pronouncing every syllable of the word. Shouldn't the Gestapette have received proper secretarial training I thought.? Later on the ambassador himself shuffled over as I was waiting for my turn at the dessert table. "Now. What exactly happened?" I instinctively knew that repeating the whole story would ruin it. "Ask your wife. She knows it all. Would you like some trifle?" The rival ambassador shuffled up as well with a twinkle in his eye and whispered "They're all the same you know." "The same what?" I enquired. "Racists" he whispered and plodded on. I decided to skip dessert. I'd had sweet revenge already.

Friday, August 12, 2005

9 Jazz Vocals Everyone Should Own

A curious process has taken place in the world of Jazz and the Blues. What started life as the music of extreme poverty, blatant discrimination and (in many cases) drug abuse has now ended up as the music listened to by an upmarket, trendy, selective niche group of listeners. If you walk into the Jazz section of any good music shop, the difference is palpable. The browsers are somehow different, older, smarter. In a feeble attempt to redress this imbalance, I am putting forward a highly arbitrary list of my favourite Jazz standards. If you have them already (in which case you are truly civilized) you can forget about the rest of this entry. If you don't, I beseech, implore and beg you to buy, steal or illegally download these songs. In random order, here goes.

Fever - Peggy Lee

This has got to be one of the sexiest and craziest songs ever written. It is also the only song I know of which uses the word "forsooth" in its lyrics. The background use of strings and percussion is unmistakable and distinctive. Peggy Lee doesn't sing- she purrs her way through the song. And (unlike many jazz standards) there's a sense of humour at work. Not to mention literary influences. Romeo and Juliet. Pocahontas. Madonna did a passable rendition but cut out many of the most imaginative lines.

I Get A Kick Out Of You-Frank Sinatra

Nobody sounds like Sinatra. His voice is his signature- one that nobody has ever been able to forge. Picking a favourite Sinatra song is not unlike asking a child to restrict himself to one piece of candy. The choices are unlimited as Sinatra continued recording till the day he died. I Get A Kick Out of You is the choice I was compelled to make from scores of other songs because it showcases the swing in Sinatra's voice to perfection. Cole Porter's lyrics are romantic without being overly mushy. Oh yes. The older versions of this song contain the line " I get no kick from cocaine." Champagne eventually replaced cocaine as the vice of choice.

My Baby Just Cares For Me - Nina Simone

Nina Simone is brilliance on the edge of a carving knife. I saw her in Brussels eons ago where she had arrived to launch her Baltimore album. She was apparently on a cocktail of some very potent drugs and alcohol and was literally carried to the piano by hefty bouncers. Once she got her bearings (which took a little time) she was pure magic. Her voice is deep, low and wicked. My Baby Just Cares For Me was an obscure little song in her amazing repertoire until it featured in an advertisement for Chanel No 5. George Michael did a fun cover version where he slyly replaced Nina's trademark (the Lana Turner smile) with his own (the Ricky Martin Smile).

Sway - Dean Martin

Sway is my current favourite Jazz vocal. It evokes the dance clubs of the 50s with some of the most romantic words ever written. ("Like the lazy ocean hugs the shore/ Dance with me, sway me more.") Dean Martin was not the greatest jazz singer ever, but he manages to marginally redeem himself with this song which has since spawned a host of cover versions. Most recently, it features in the truly dreadful Shall We Dance, featuring Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez. This is the kind of music which makes me regret not knowing how to tango.

Summertime - Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong

I've cheated a little here by giving two of the greatest Jazz stars ever a single billing. Fitzgerald has a voice which sounds like honey flowing down a smooth surface. Armstrong's trademark croak is diametrically opposed to this. The combination is magic. Summertime is from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and has an amazing sense of irony wrapped into some of the most delicious lyrics ever written in the style of -wait for it- a lullabye. ("Your daddy's rich, your ma is good looking/ Now hush little baby don't you cry.")

Stormy Weather - Lena Horne

Lena Horne was one of the victims of an amazing campaign of discrimination. She was of mixed parentage in an era where even a hint of black was enough to disqualify your music from being heard in white establishments. Stormy Weather is the kind of song you listen to when you're low and you want to wallow in it for some time. It keeps on raining all the time.

Southern Fruit - Billie Holliday

Billie Holliday's life is even sadder than her music. There is, literally, no such thing as a happy Billie song. They range from the mildly sad (Don't Explain) to the downright tragic (I Cried For You). She charts the lowest depths of sadness and at points in my life I have had to stop listening to Billie simply because I feel she wants to drag me down with her. Southern Fruit is a strange song as it is not based on love (or its absence) but instead on the lynchings which took place across the Southern United States, where blacks were fatally assaulted and left hanging on trees. Hence the grisly reference to "fruit" in the title of the song.

The Girl From Ipanema - Stan Getz, Tom Jobim and Astrud Gilberto

Latin jazz has got to be one of the most happy jazz forms around. Even if you don't speak the original Spanish or Portuguese in which most of this genre is sung, the happiness and gaiety is almost infectious. The Girl From Ipanema is slightly different in that it is not in fiesta mode, but has a quiet, sad (but not tragic) melodic quality to it. The lyrics (sung in English) are about unrequited love. The Girl from Ipanema is beautiful, "but when she walks she just passes by. How can I tell her I love her?" Sounds familiar?

My Funny Valentine - Chet Baker

It is only recently that Chet Baker has acquired something of a reputation as a singer. His voice is strangely wispy, almost feminine. This is in stark contrast to the masculine notes which exemplify most male jazz singers. My Funny Valentine has got to be one of the rudest love songs ever written - "Your looks are laughable. Unphotographable". Yet it remains one of the most endearing. On a superficial note, Baker was one of the more photogenic jazz stars (that's his picture above) which may have something to do with the cult status he has acquired.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Love, Literature and Lying

I am not particularly happy about classifying literature as either "gay" or "straight". In my world, a work of art is work of art devoid of any sexuality. It is in this vein that I become really paranoid when I am presented a work of "gay literature" (or "queer lit" as it is fashionably known) by a friend to read. I generally avoid the gay listings on Amazon for this reason. The classification of literature into gay or straight follows no known logic. For example, Allan Hollinghurst, a gay English writer (and winner of this year's Mann Booker Prize) writes extensively on gay life and yet his work is never classified as Gay Lit. Perhaps, the classification is intended to apply to only those writers who never really manage to move beyond an exclusively gay readership. The most amusing effect of the sexual classification of literature came home to me at the swish Kinokuniya bookshop in prudish Singapore. A huge section coyly labeled Alternative Literature was actually home to gay and lesbian literature by the ton.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I tackled David Leavitt's novel, Martin Bauman. Leavitt's previous work includes The Lost Language of Cranes a soppy coming out- drama which the BBC (in a fit of sexual equality?) deemed fit to serialize. I later read England Needs Me Leavitt's highly stylized account of gay life in the England set during the Second World War. Martin Bauman is a cut above the earlier works. It tells the coming of age story of an aspiring writer in New York in the hedonistic 80s. Although Leavitt's protagonist is gay, I get the feeling that Leavitt wants us to read this as a serious novel and not merely as a "gay" one. The narrative unfolds biographically with Baumann living under the (wretched) influence of his teacher Seymour Flint. There follows a mildly entertaining account of demi monde life in Manhattan with a Dickensian cast of minor characters keeping the action afloat. Given the brilliant work that has been done on tearing the Manhattan establishment to shreds (Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe to name just two) Leavitt is treading on thin ice.

What I did find interesting about Martin Baumann was the treatment and exploration of sexuality despite Leavitt's apparent desire that this be treated primarily as a novel about literature and literary brilliance. Heck. Why lie. It was the gay bits that drew me to the novel including the details of his relationship with his lover Eli. And this is where Leavitt (and others of the Queer Lit ilk) succeed. Although I sincerely hope that I am proven wrong, I have yet to come across a heterosexual writer who can paint an accurate (and intimate) picture of gay life, love and relationships. The odd gay or lesbian character may crop up in such literature but he or she is not the focal point of the book. Usually (and unfortunately) the gay characters who do leap off the page are stereotypes guaranteed not to interfere with the predominantly heterosexual world in which the action is set.

So, what is the verdict? One, Leavitt has improved his writing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, his brilliance (for me) comes from the gay world he describes. Second, the gay characterization is nothing short of brilliant. The gay men and women who people his highly sophisticated world do face problems which are unique to homosexuality. It is at this point that I hear a collective sigh with a chorus that states : Well, people are people, gay or straight and the problems they encounter in relationships are basically the same. Yes and No. Yes, because the similiarities outweigh the differences. No, because, (for example) most heterosexual people do not live in a world of secrecy from the majority of their friends, parents and associates at work. Most heterosexual people do have well defined roles- sexual, personal and social-set out for them. That they may choose to flaunt these is a question of choice. Differences such as these (and many others) distinguish homosexual life from heterosexual life. And these must necessarily steep over into fiction - queer or heterosexual.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

The Tower of Babble -2

According to the BBC the word "Lollywood" has made it to the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. It means (surprise, surprise) a reference to the Pakistan film industry based in the city of Lahore. So what if we produce crap films. We've made our foray into the English Language. Something to be proud about. Finally.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Little Town Blues

"Oh how quaint. This is sooooooo like Toytown. You have one of everything here" exclaimed my friend Mad Seema. Yes, that is the general impression the world has of Islamabad. I remember leaving home in the early 90s. Karachiites were more forthcoming in their views. "Islamabad? Are you MAD?" For most dwellers of that city, the height of domestic travel is a trip to the not-so-French beach or a dirty weekend in Lahore. My instinctive reaction to my new home was the singular lack of people. The night silence became so insidious that I contemplated a new fascination with heavy metal. A city that could look so beautiful by day was completely black by night. No mountains, no trees and no flowers. Nothing was illuminated barring the odd street. Even the paan shops shut at midnight. I recall spending hours one night with a friend looking for cigarettes. We finally had to drive to the airport to find them.

A decade later, things are infinitely better. Sinatra crooned about moving to New York and watching the little town blues melt away. I often wonder if I have acquired the Little Town imprint. I wonder if my smart Karachi friends whisper about my acquired provincialism- even though (technically) I do not live in a province. I do not really live in a suburb either as there is not outlying "urb"to which we look for support. Deep within there is a kind of small-is-beautiful ethos at work here. Does it convert itself into small town meanness or inquisitiveness so beloved of television script writers. Well, for one, given the sheer minuteness of things, people do tend to know what you're up to. My previous house was way too central for comfort- people constantly called to ask what I was doing up so late on Wednesday night? (Nothing. Invariably.)

This line of thinking emanates from two extended viewings. The first of these is the much touted Desperate Housewives. Yes. I confess. I watched fifteen episodes over the week. Did I enjoy it? At a very basic level, yes. There is a vaguely adult humour at work and the use of Little Town as background is effective. Deep within though I was vaguely uneasy. Suburban life has its own horrors which cannot be laughed away quite so easily. I feel deep adrenaline unease when I drive through little towns like Okara or Sahiwal or Gujrat. What on earth do people do here to keep themselves busy? At best there is a derelict cinema or a run down games arcade. People look positively glazed. Is it habit which keeps them there? Or do they drug the water supply? To return to Housewives. I laughed at all the right moments but felt deeply uneasy about doing so.

On to Bunty Aur Bubbli(y). This is the latest offering from the legendary Yash Chopra and stars Bachhan Senior and Junior and the ubiquitous Rani Mukherjee. In a word, the film is awful. It tries (unsuccessfully) to ape the standard Hollywood tale of a Little Town couple who move to the Big City intent on a life of deception and fraud. Think Bonnie and Clyde; Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; Thelma and Louise. These are tall standards and B&B fails to meet them. Why? For one negative protagonists rarely work in Indian cinema. Second, Abhishek and Rani are unconvincing as small towners. The clothes, the accents and the attitudes belie Big City. Third. The morality angle rears its ugly head. B and B have to get married first in order to sleep, cheat, lie and extort with each other. This detracts from the plot totally. Who wants to watch a safely married couple at work ?

Back to Little Town then. What is the verdict? None really. I love the Big City with a passion even though I do not get there as often as I would like to. And I love the comfort of everything being just five minutes away in Toytown. As usual, I prevaricate. I have the best of both worlds for now. And I'm not giving it away.

Friday, August 05, 2005


Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a strange bird. He has made a number of Hindi blockbusters (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas) which are more than a cut above the standard fare coming out of Bollywood. His films are distinguishable by their staggering budgets, their amazing sense of colour and production design and by -well- the sheer orientalness of it all. Costume, ritual, motif and a deeply embedded aesthetic ensure that the millions of rupees spent on an SLB film are worth every paisa of it all. His other forte lies in extracting perhaps the best possible performances possible from his leading ladies including the likes of Madhuri Dixit, Kiran Kher and even the remarkably wooden Aishwariya Rai. He has had less luck with his men. Getting Shahrukh Khan to emote in Devdas could have been no mean feat. Likewise getting a performance out of Salman Khan must have been akin to getting a sirloin steak to dance on one's plate.

And then Bhanasali goes and breaks all the rules he has spent so long making. He makes Black. This has got to be one of the strangest and yet most involving Hindi films I've seen in a long time. First the basics: Like its Hollywood predecessor, The Miracle Worker, Black follows the tale of a blind young girl,Michelle Mcnally,(Rani Mukherjee) from childhood onward. The focus of the story is the relationship that develops between Michelle and her alcoholic, down-at-the-heels teacher, Debraj Sahai (Amitabh Bachhan) over a period spanning decades. Yes, a blind protagonist is screaming for tear jerking melodrama and Black does not disappoint on that score. It does, however, have a number of reality induced redeeming features. The sexual tension between pupil and teacher for one. The lack of soppy sentimentality when Michelle flunks her exams four years in a row. ("You are a failure.") The slap across the face when she refuses to respond satisfactorily. And the avoidance of that ghastly euphemism- "special people."

So what sets Black apart? The number of anomalies it raises for one. Bhansali abandons the path he cut out for himself in previous films. Gone are the riotous colours. Black is shot entirely in hues of blue. Gone also is the orientalness (orientality?) of previous films. Although Black is set in India (Anglo India to be precise) the characters are garbed in "European" dress throughout. Not a single sari, dhoti or shalwar crosses the screen. Nor are there any dabkas, zardozis, paisleys or jamawars. Everyone wears sensible plaids and checks. The mood is European although the faces are brown or, at best, cafe au lait. One possible reason for the occidentalisation of Black could lie in not having to deal with generally retrograde South Asian values to blindness and, more generally, physical disability. Somehow, the tolerance levels towards blindness weave in more smoothly with the western ambience in which Bhansali sets his film. The sad fact of life is that physical disability is something with which the South Asian mind has yet to grapple and come to terms with. How many of us have friends who are blind or disabled? Or how many such people are we likely to come across in everyday life. Very few, I hazard to guess.

Finally, there's the grand Mr Bachhan. To apply a quotation, he didn't get any bigger- it's just the films that got smaller. Having achieved every success conceivable in Bollywood, AB has proven to be an anomaly at best and a liability at worst in several recent films. With his jet black hair and snow white goatee, he has been doomed to play Kareena Kapoor's father or some surreal underworld don in a string of mediocre or outright bad productions. In Black, he finally encounters the kind of role he should be playing. Does he succeed ? Well, he's certainly less irritating than he's been in most other films even though he adopts an English accent from hell. He is entirely credible, however, and that credibility sets Black apart from most films coming out of Bollywood. Oh yes. There are no songs at all. Not even in the background. And unlike most Bollywood productions, Black clocks in at around just under two hours of playing time.If that aint trailblazing, I have no idea what is.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Tower of Babble

I am amazed by the amount of meaningless prose that finds its way into the media. And I intend to document a very small part of it. Today's entry is focused on a statement from the European Union on relations with Uzbekistan. (Yes, I do read the papers!) The EU states that is to "suspend further deepening" of a cooperation treaty. I wonder if the italicised words mean "Do Nothing"?

Dorian Gay

It has been a long twenty four hours. The debris from many relationships has found its way onto my doorstep and beyond. Not too long ago somebody working with a swish bank proferred a visiting card. The job designation (which then brought a smile to my face) read "Relationship Manager." I'm now begining to feel I need one of those. Let us begin at the begining. X and I have been friends for some time. We met in comic circumstances over the internet and agreed to connect in "real" life. "I'm the tall guy with the moustache" he informed me a few days before our meeting. In the intervening days he forgot about his description, shaved off his distinguishing feature and had me sizing up every moustached man at our designated meeting point. He came up bashful, apologised for the missing 'tache and (to quote Claude Rains in Casablanca) this was to be the begining of a beautiful friendship. Or was it ?
In retrospect what bound our (Platonic) relationship was books. X's job involved long spells in places so distance that I feared they had been forgotten by time, man and (sometimes) God. He would arrive, pick up a dozen books, return the last dozen he had borrowed and discuss them with me over lunch or dinner or good old potato juice. His work entailed a conservative appearance, short hair and nothing overtly gay. This somehow added to the charm of the situation. Eventually X acquired a lover and the three of us would meet from time to time over the years to discuss life, the universe and -invariably-books.
All of this changed when X announced he was quitting his job. I agreed. The constraints were begining to tell. He was terse, edgy and basically unhappy. We agreed that he needed to take some exams and head out of here. A dose of life in a foreign country would do him a world of good having survived years in the middle of nowhere. In the meanwhile he would move to the city, get himself a place and settle down with his lover for a few months. Ideal. Or so I thought. Having lived on the periphery of "civilisation" X now decided it was time for an Extreme Makeover - in every sense of the word. No subtle shifts here. We're talking tectonics. The hair grew to queeny proportions and acquired alarming hues. The mannerism became effete. And worse still, the crowd was now mainstream gay. The kind of people I have avoided because I share so little with them. My last vision of him was at a "G" party - hair down, embedded deep within a crowd of hysterical shrieking queens. I put my glass down within an hour of getting there and headed home. The quiet dinners, the literary banter, the camaraderie all became a distant past.
Until yesterday. An unknown number rang on my cell phone. It was X with a litany of grievances. "Why have you become so cold, so distant and so unresponsive to my many messages." I gulped. There was a nanosecond of doubt, before I decided on the Truth. "Can I be brutally honest?" "But you must." And so I embarked on my rendition of the events summarised above. "But did you really think I was like them?" he asked plaintively, voice aquiver. "Yes. After a point I did. You seemed so comfortable in there, it would be foolish to think anything else." "Why didn't you tell me?" This was a tough one. The truth is that I did feel uncomfortable telling him that I thought he'd sold out even though he deserved a break from his former life. In my oyster, we make choices and we bear the consequences. His oyster requires the caveat of an explanation. An emotional footnote if you like. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between. "Why didn't you call me, when I withdrew?" I asked. "Well after calling so many times, my sense of pride came in the way." Gulp. "P-R-I-D-E" he spelled, in case I hadn't heard.
In reflection late last night, I figured I live in a world where people don't really change. There is a dull comfort in relying on life's constants. Yes, people may change superficially but the kernel remains unaltered. So what happens when there is change? Are we entitled to re-form opinions we've held about people for so many years? Do we close our eyes and hope this is just a phase. Or do we move on ? I suppose the realist in me must answer that we acknowledge change and then rework our lives to fit it in. The romantic in me yearns for the other, older persona, the long lunches, the books, the debates and the flow of 'tato juice. At last reports, the head and the heart remain deeply conflicted.