Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Dog in the Night-time

Last night, the wind was not very active, and for one reason or another, I knew that something was not exactly as it should be at the basketball court. There was something going on there. The area is actually very difficult to see. Usually, it passes off, in the morning, as a makeshift place for people to meet. The dhaba nearby preempts hangers-on. The Science block makes hanging-on permissible. There are other things that come up – cavil, and college gripes and tribulations. The usual diatribe, as canvassing, during student elections. Then, of course, there is the inescapable college date.

These things keep the court occupied. The ‘court’ actually reminds me of bigger things, too. It reminds me of the Inns of Court – the Inner Temple, in such a big warren of buildings, where mounds of paper stay on as many years go by, making no one the better for anything; just insurmountable mounds of paper that live on. The Temple Church nearby that is never open. The timings are never correct and the caretakers are so willful. But the ‘court’ here, where such things do not count, makes an ideal place for evening strolls.

Last night, a dog was lying there. The dog was in terrible pain. Its legs were misshapen and it kept removing almost non-existent fur from his body. He looked terribly weak. He was writhing in a pained way, and the way it cavorted limply, because he couldn’t walk...

At night, when you return from places, like Kamala Nagar, you come in walking urgently. The lights go off at ten o’ clock and the doors shut subsequently. You need to be inside and you need to sign into a register. This is about adherence and following rules.

Sometimes, you see and hear some animals around the blocks. The squirrels can’t be seen in the nighttime but you can hear them. They squirrel around, perambulating trees, till the morning. The monkeys border the fences, but at night, they hardly monkey anymore. The birds riotously awaken to new life in the morning. At night, they sleep. At night, the only sounds of life are caterwauling sounds that somewhat die out sometime past midnight.

The dogs slink around the roads. When you see them, you feel bad. You have a bed and a room that await you. You have the keys and you keep it possessively.

The dog at the court lay there as a mound of scraggly skin, waiting patiently for posthumous notice. That night, when the wind wasn’t active, I noticed. He was asleep but he kept moving. His eyes were shut. They kept opening because the skin didn’t hold fully. His lids looked heavy with pain. Many hours later, a security guard with a long pole in his hand walked by. The pole was a metallic one and had a loop at one end. He kept the contraption safely ahead of him. The dog, of course, with its pallid eyes, could not see. The man moved behind it and stayed there for a quiet while. Then, he put the loop around the dog’s neck. He fastened the loop tightly. The man moved desperately. He knew the dog would suddenly whelp and writhe. But the dog didn’t whelp. It was already dead. All I heard were sibilant whispers from the block nearby.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Older, Longer Way

The sun continued to beat down and the people went on doing the things they liked doing. When I first got here, the list was up on the notice board. Everyone was looking at it very quickly. They were thinking of rooms and people in them, the way things would work. Large bags and suitcases lined the entrance to blocks. People came in looking lost, looking for rooms with letters and numbers overhead. When I came in, I looked in through the end of the corridor. The dark air was somehow warmer, more heated, than the sunny outside. The corridor looked shadowy and empty, the rooms were unopened. For the first time in years, I was looking for a new place to stay in. Maybe school had been accessible; a place that remained as it was no matter how many times you came to look. I never felt that things ever changed there – the bedrooms were draped in the same unsavoury linen, the doors were always white with deep gashes. The floors were always wet with muddy puddles in places. The paint was always flaking off in places and the door knobs had to be prised out of their sockets. Then, here, nothing felt familiar. The whole place seemed empty, of everything; the most austere I had ever seen.

The trees outside were somehow not the trees that looked like they belonged. Even the trees had a faraway look about them. The walls made the place itself - not lifeless, but just that – walled.

I knew what my parents were thinking. They easily slipped into worry and that worry worsened. The time came for admissions and I knew I wouldn’t be alone in what I did. There was complicity in every thought. I knew that if I had to think of urgent things, the thoughts would not go unnoticed. If I wanted to say something in favour of a course, I would have to say aloud. If I had to say anything, I had to say aloud. It was an unbridled need to hear what was being thought. But thoughts are usually silent, and quiet. They come about inside and preclude voice. That is when I knew my thoughts stopped coming to me. They are like voluntary voices that stop speaking when you demean them. It was unreasonable in some tenuous way, in some individualistic way. The building afterwards became part of the heat and cloistered-ness. I briefly met the person I would soon be sharing quarters with and felt slightly lonelier. It was as if I knew the foreground was terribly unimportant.

The New-ness of The Olde

The first day was the easiest. There was a clandestine sense of purpose moving in the air. All new entrants knew exactly what they wanted. They’d come here after interminable days and months of waiting and of not knowing if they had been admitted. Those months were unendurable. There were days when hours would pass by, food would go uneaten, listening to reportage in the news.
Had they made new rules and new policies for people to play by? Had they changed the precepts of merit? Had people become more qualified than others even though they had measly marks? Had some people become more equal than others – needing uplift, or social justice? Retribution had become so important; people who made life unbearable for people in the past would lose now, would pay by becoming less qualified as against them. Marks suddenly stopped mattering, the sleepless, dreamless nights became the only nights, days stopped meaning much to people and weeks passed by. So, when they came here, they were admitted, the simple fact of admission made people feel different. They were suddenly survivors of a surreptitiously fought battle. They were men of steel who braved the odds and broke them too. They were the new, fortuitous heroes, wearers of the horns of destiny.
For people with such presumptions, it wasn’t easy to make headway. They were all bulls in a china shop - merchandise gathered around them. In their walk and in their talk, they showed the feat of having made it here, this far, further than what others had reached. There was also a complicity in the way the others behaved. Their way of doing things was different, and more simple-minded, than others. The noncommittal sense of being here, made less likeable with time, brought in resentment. People didn’t like the fact that other people of lesser merit were admitted without qualms. People felt justified in indicting these people – calling them names, making them look and feel like feral, unwanted weeds in an otherwise nicely-kept garden. There was a sense that no matter how well people tried to work for their exams, there was always a nameless, faceless mass of under-deserving people who hid behind their merit, people who patiently waited in the wings, the snatchers-away of others’ seats.
At first, the mixing was forced and hard to do. We were scared of saying the wrong things. We were, though, verbose and said whatever occurred to us. It was as if we didn’t want to be told to behave, or speak, in new ways. We were eager and we were willing to announce our arrival. But, as things often become in times of garrulousness, voices became haggard and tired. Voices assumed lesser tones, became less insubordinate than were initially conceived. Even amongst classmates, a growing, bearing, sense of ennui became stronger, more visible. People started talking about things that mattered most to them. People started thinking, speaking more conservatively. Words not only became sparse but more laden with meaning, and intent. It is about the way things look when fashioned masks become less worthwhile to have on.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is ‘ubiquitously interesting’ for its breadth of scope and efficacy. The Act has made a huge difference in many places already. Its clauses are specific and many things prevent it from becoming another gratuitous exercise in eradicating social dependency. When Jean Dreze came to college to speak about it, it seemed worthwhile to think about its wider tenets. He is someone who carries a demeanour of complicity in the lives of the indigent. His research gives him larger credence. He began with the fundamental principles upon which the Act has been founded. The Act postulates: employment on demand, a legal right to work, universal entitlement, the payment of minimum wages, participatory planning, accountability to the Right to Information apparatus, and, crucially, full transparency. The cornerstones seem adequately well founded. It foregrounds the ability of employable people to find suitable work. The question of suitable work seems disputed, but the general munificence of the Act, in terms of generating more income than hitherto done, seems established.

A large part of the research undertaken is in terms of the ‘person’ and concomitant ‘days of work’ generated. Along this barometer, Rajasthan posits an upper limit of 77, and Kerala contrarily 3. Durgapur in Rajasthan has mainly benefited from the work-generation, which Dreze has endorsed from his own recent assessment of the place. The degree of participation of the Act was gauged in all the states. The proportion of participatory workers categorized in the SC/ST ambit is 62%. The proportion of women, likewise, is 40% as national average, which is a redoubtable claim, given that the statutes make mandatory at least a 33% rate of participation of women everywhere. There are certain differences along this parameter in different states. Tamil Nadu has the highest proportion of women’s involvement, slated at 81%, which is formidable, whereas Bihar has 17% and Jammu & Kashmir a low of 4%. An interesting clause in the Act is a proviso enabling child-care facilities in the work-sites. This effectively means that when more than five children, in toto, are brought along by mothers, crèches will be facilitated, and a woman deployed to look after the children collectively.

The wages given to the workers are more or less in close proximity. The average wage-cost per person in Kerala is Rs. 121, Rs. 104 in Maharashtra, and Rs. 51 in Rajasthan, which is ostensibly the lowest, given that a large number of people work under the Act there. The national average wage-rate is Rs. 64. In Tamil Nadu, women who hitherto earned Rs. 35 as agricultural workers have started earning Rs. 80 from work through the Act. The state governments set the rates, and the wages are paid by the central government. The mode of payment, as well, is set by the state government, as the Act does not decree any one agency. Nevertheless, keeping political exigencies in the fray, the central government can supersede the state government and establish a statutory rate of its own accord.

Jean Dreze, among other surveys, worked in one conducted in May-June this year, which looked at two districts – Ranchi and Surguja. In his talk, he focused on the latter and cited the findings therein. In an inimical, positive way, he started off on the trajectory with the apparent gains. Firstly, this legislation has achieved more progress than others. Corruption has large subsided and even the eviction of middle-men and contractors has changed things in this regard. Most of the work is productive, except in certain cases, where tortuous roads leading nowhere were being constructed, which certain students in the discussion pointedly mentioned, having seen instances like these in the course of the survey. Most families have a job-card, which enables them to come into employ, and most of these enumerate their entitlements on the back. This, of course, is part of a larger effort to make aware the workers of what their work entails and what it counts for remuneratively. Some very pertinent questions came up in this part. Some students pointed out that the people did not necessarily know what they would be paid, or if the work is commensurate with the payment. The definition of the ‘household’ in the Act isn’t exacting either.

The other deficiencies include the fact that the work entailed is not ‘demand-driven,’ deferred payment impedes incentive, and a shortage of staff at various levels hinders general efficacy. Mr. Dreze mentioned certain other, more subterranean, problems. He said, and students who worked in the survey corroborated, that one thing afflicting the ‘bureaucracy’ of the Act is the discrepancies in records. There is an official record and a more clandestine ‘real’ record. The official record usually shows a high level of attendance, whereas the other tells another tale. The records are often countermanded in times of payment. However, the Right to Information Act enables people to procure both anyway. In October, 2006 Garhwah had an attendance of 85%, whereas Ranchi a measly 33%. As far as the budgetary concerns go, the proportion of wage to material has been fixed at 60 to 40.

The talk literally drove home the importance of the Act and its modus operandi. It is, hopefully, a sustainable achievement, aided largely by antecedents already put in place by post-independence governments many years ago.

Monday, September 17, 2007

How Green Is My Valley:
Play Reviews and Writings from Old Blighty

- AR

The journey around London and the West End is a long one. It’s a bit strange in a way. There are so many epithets for it: big, wide, polyglot, mixed, far-off. There are so many things one can say. It is a bit difficult for one to know the difference between something real and something in the mind. That difference is metaphorical. Each place carries its own metaphor. The metaphor of this one is compositeness. Many of the places are Classical or Gothic or Corinthian, many of the people “multi-exit”, many of the buildings new glass monsters. Yet all of them speak of a certain glory. One only has to look hard enough. It is said that in this mixed, often mad, world of ours, each thing that is gives up something of what it is, to let the rest become something that is bigger. Each thing halves in attrition, for the big things to become bigger. So, in so many of these warren-like places, one just has to find that something. You need a well roundedness to let things in. There is always something to get, from the smallest of places. Something from the laconic street-poser; something from the pithy, incurious daily-wager; something from the vituperative foreign businessman; something from the harangue of the left-out; something from everywhere. Things, of course, change. There have been so many changes here. The people are new, the ideas are new, the motives are new, and, I daresay, even the accents are new. What happened to the fully formed vowels? Who took away the second syllables? This damned mess-up of the new half-words! However, coming back to the topic, the playhouses are exempt from these. They live in a big, wide, surreal space, where nothing else can live. They live away from the outside. They are dreamier. In the outside, dreams are daily bruised. In the inside, dreams are daily dreamt. They whisk you away, far way; albeit, for that much time. What you do with it is wholly your business.

Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

The play Equus is made of many ideas. The writer, Peter Shaffer, has written a narrative that holds strongly at the axes. Richard Griffiths plays the narrator, a psychologist who tries to treat a boy, Alan Strang. The boy, seemingly inexplicably, blinds six horses at a stable in which he works. His case and his story are unlike anything Dr. Martin Dysart has seen before. The play is, in form, his own story – he seeks to investigate causes, find explanations, without any headway. The boy’s parents are divided. The father is an atheist and the mother a devout Catholic. The boy is torn between the two, both overbearing and erratic, in a home filled with innuendo. The boy becomes fixated on a creature of his mind and his obsession becomes a link of totems – the crucifix above his bed, television advertisements, fighting his father, a stable of horses, Christ, and an encounter with a girl. He worships that which he lusts after. The play is about the doctor’s fight, his inner tumult, his own sense of purpose and his own attempt to understand the madness of men and the big lies of normalcy. I can’t quite disclose everything about the plot, but the spaces and recesses that it has, and shows of a scalded psyche are immensely powerful. These performances are sterling: Richard Griffiths’ is an apogee by itself, Daniel Radcliffe is much liked and the actors who play Mr. and Mrs. Strang are tremendously strong. So is the ingenious use of minimalist sets, foreboding lights and the big horses with big hooves.

Billy Elliot – The Musical
Victoria Palace Theatre, Victoria Street

Everyone knows the Billy Elliot movie. The musical is one of the things one just has to do in the city. There are billboards and posters everywhere. ‘The Best British Musical In Years’ it says in Tubes, indeed, in Piccadilly, on the overhead flashing large-screens. It is seen everywhere and quite rightly so. The story is the same, snipped in bits and made more adaptable. The characters are the same, with some adjustment. The gay best friend in the movie, therein marginalized, becomes less so on stage. The father, the brother and the miners’ struggle become the leitmotif; the songs and sets and people all carry it forward. The characters are cast in their best fits: the grandmother, a surly woman, who delivers the best-served wisecracks; the sissy-bashing boxing-coach, who uses the choicest Irish on “them fags and twats, the like”; the ballet teacher and her razzmatazz. The women are hardy, the men misogynists, and both fight an endless struggle that is lost from the start. It has the sounds of realpolitik, too, what with songs like ‘Merry Christmas, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher!’ viz., bashful song about the PM’s privates! It makes its points on its toes and it looks right, too. Ian MacNeil’s designs – a rough, grey wall, a curved pub front, a pop-up, spiral pithead-shaped house – move the action along. Stephen Daldry tells his story so well, which is political and personal, loud and real. Outside the theatre, I heard an ashen-faced person say, ‘This being the best thingamabob in the years – not so much yam, innit?’ Thou sayest.

The Letter
Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road

Somerset Maugham’s steamy thriller of 1927 is a great play to watch. The story is set against a colonial backdrop, in Indonesia. It has a set of old Empire characters and lots of intrigue. They belong to the usual circles – the district magistrate and wife, the estate-owner and wife, the attorney, the police officer – well ensconced, safe, and closely bound. One day, a round of pistol shots is heard in the estate-owner’s house. His wife has shot a man, a compatriot and friend, who, she says, tried to force himself on her. The police get involved and she details to them her imbroglio, why she had to shoot him, unthinkingly. She is charged and brought to trial and impunity seems furthest away. It is here that her careful lawyer discovers the secret of a letter, a letter that throws new light on motives and liaisons behind the contrite veneer of Seagrove’s character. He discovers the tale of a lover wronged, a Chinese mistress, and unrequited love. The play has a sharp tone. There is a wily ‘Chinaman’ as the lawyer’s secretary, who uses highfalutin English in long-winded sentences. A bit overdone, though it raised a few laughs. The cast has Anthony Andrews (David Copperfield) as the lawyer, and Jenny Seagrove as the wronged woman, who winces every time her lover’s non-white mistress is mentioned. The Letter is worth reopening.

The Glass Menagerie
Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue

“The two most important things in the life of Tennessee Williams were his work and his sister. In the Glass Menagerie, his first major success in 1945, we see the making of a writer and the making of his sadness, too, in the character of Laura, the writer’s sister.” I watched this play with Mr. Summerscale and his daughter. I think I might have rushed into the theatre, to take succour from the rain, but also because this was my first Tennessee Williams play. The writer, Tom Wingfield, is both narrator and participant as the play moves along. He says, in induction, that the play is about his family: his mother, an eager, hyperbolic, Christian woman, and his sister, who is young, coy and painfully withdrawn. She has a crippled leg. The mother wants to equip her with skills, make her more suitable for “gentleman callers”, her oft-repeated quip. When she discovers her daughter’s truancy, she becomes standoffish, or overbearing, or both. Her son becomes untoward and angry. Yet, in the midst of all this, they spend an evening with a “gentleman caller”. He, fortuitously, turns out to be her high-school hero and erstwhile love-interest. They strike a rapport. She shows him her glass menagerie, her tiny, glass animal collectibles. He tries to draw her out. The glass menagerie becomes a metaphor for caged-ness. Jessica Lange plays the erratic mother (“Everybody’s nagging mom”), Amanda Hale the shy Laura, Ed Stoppard the temperamental son, and Mark Umbers the infectious “gentleman caller”. Jessica Lange is a two-time Academy Award winner and her last West End production was A Streetcar Named Desire. The sets are special, in that they work on a round platform atop the stage, and from it, a spiral metal staircase leads upwards. Rupert Goold’s directorial work and Mathew Wright’s design have been ranked highly everywhere.

Fergus Lamont
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

This is my favourite play. It is the closest I have come to sensing that. Edinburgh is the Scottish city and Glasgow is thought of as the lesser cousin. The play is essentially about what it means to be Scottish. The setting is a Scottish village and Fergus Lamont is the illegitimate child of an earl. He grows up amongst a household of galley-men and lackeys and goes to school. There, he is taught by a revolutionary Socialist teacher. He goes on to join the army, where he must cover up his pidgin Scottish accent and speak English like the English do. He marries a fellow Scotswoman, who speaks English like the English do, a celebrated writer who lets him dabble in poetry, and, in the meantime, philanders away with all the high-profile men in her life. The war arrives and the political rift between them widens. Fergus Lamont, testy lieutenant, fights the way, yet renounces it. His childhood girlfriend from the village leads marches against it. She pillories his writer-wife, who, romantic novels aside, takes up the English hatchet. They fall apart. The wife marries her wealthy politician-lover and he goes off in search of an ancestral home in a faraway Scottish village. There, he marries an unschooled woman and writes his poetry. His friend continues, till then end, to rally against the war in distant, and civilized, Paris. The play puts many elements in perspective, but its unequivocal message, political and personal, hits you strongly in the face. I don’t know the names of any of the actors, but they are the most powerful I have ever seen. The cast has just a handful, who jump from character to character, from Scottish dialect to Bloomsbury English. Theirs are impossibly versatile and well-trained acts. The play has been adapted from the eponymous book by Robin Jenkins. The tone and the movement are so essential, so strongly Scottish. Local atmosphere is all!

Carthage Must Be Destroyed
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alan Wilkins’ Carthage Must Be Destroyed is set against the backdrop of The Third Punic Wars and is a story of political intrigue and double-dealing. The Senate is under pressure to make Rome rich again. Consul Cato is a practical man and knows Carthage is the solution. If the Senate hears a clamour of voices against the old enemy, order could be restored. Carthage has too much money. Carthage is stockpiling weapons. Carthage is a threat to Rome. Delenda est Carthago – Carthage must be destroyed! Cato thinks Senator Gregor is just the right man to put the wheels into motion. He’s practiced in the art of privilege without responsibility, who works his whims around Roman baths and bought-off boys with good complexions. As Cato, Tony Guilfoyle is a tightly-coiled moralist and Damian Lynch’s Marcus is a smart operator. Sean Campion’s Gregor, though, is a remarkable study of one man’s rise and fall. From privileged hedonist to a garbled, shamed war-general, his last grasp of morality becomes a symbol of how empires fall. Comparisons with today’s War On Terror are skillfully suggested rather than crowbarred in. The entire first act is done in the nude, in a steamy sauna, around which the audience are seated. When Cato makes his big speech, he moves through the audience as if romping through the people of Rome. This is a serious, meaty, astute political drama.

The Globe Theatre, Bankside

The republic of Venice employs Othello (Eamonn Walker), a self-made man and a Moor, to defend its overseas territories against the Turk. But for all his military prowess, Othello remains an outsider in the city, an object of racism, envy and mistrust. As the Turkish threat gathers and Venetian forces are despatched to Cyprus, Iago (Tim McInnerny), a junior officer secretly enraged by his lack of promotion, exploits Othello’s ingenuous nature, driving him into an uncontrollable jealousy. Performed for the first time at The Globe, this is the final thing I did before leaving the city. The theatre is a rebuild of the original (1599) where Shakespeare worked, flanked on either side by The Tate Modern and The Anchor pub (which the original actors used for change of costume), opposite St. Paul’s Cathedral. Sam Crane as Roderigo plays the jilted lover and dogged nemesis of Cassio (played by Nick Barber). Bianca (Zawe Ashton) and Emilia (Lorraine Burroughs) are each a suitably voluptuous presence on stage. Zoe Tapper is the clear-voiced and disavowed Desdemona. Eamonn Walker, as Othello, is fearsome but sometimes unclear dialogue-wise, when he says things sotto voce. Tim McInnerny as Iago is the ruthless, manipulative spin-doctor and a tremendous actor. The best tickets are the five-quid standing-tickets, where you stand through the performance in the “Wooden-O”, and cheer and holler like the Elizabethan “groundlings”. This is a truly momentous experience.

The Lion King
The Lyceum Theatre, Wellington Street
Covent Garden

I watched this West End production of the Lion King some three years back, before we produced it in school, but the memory lives forever. I thought I’d write about it here! For most of you, it should be revision and recall. Try and imagine it in a labyrinthine theatre: a magnificent, slow sunrise, the chanting of a bedizened shaman (Rafiki, as fulsome in girth as our resident version), fabricated animals trooping down the aisle, flying overhead and flocking across the stage. It is so well done that you wonder where they (the director, Julie Taymor, and her creative team) can go from there. The visuals, however, never swamp the drama. The storyline remains clear and compelling. Africa comes alive in the beats of the Serengetti Plains. The company have won innumerable BAFTA, Olivier and Tony awards, making it the superlative mega-musical in London.

Bombay Dreams
Apollo Theatre, Victoria Street

I watched Bombay Dreams the last time round too, and it is now no longer in London but perhaps on Broadway. An Andrew Lloyd Webber production, this is Meera Syal’s combination of the glamour of the movies, heart-aching romance and catchy songs. The story is about a big film director’s daughter, who wants to move away from over-used Bollywood formulae and explore real life in cinema. She falls in love with her lead-actor, a boy from Dharavi, and she pairs him opposite tinsel town’s super-heroin. Don Black’s lyrics and A. R. Rahman’s music sit well together to get many lively songs a la Bollywood.

The Old Wembley

The first thing I watched at The Old Wembley stadium was Dancing On Ice, which is a televised series where select couples of professional and non-professional skaters (like Duncan of Blue, who looked familiar) learn to ice-skate in a rigorous regimen with Torvill and Dean, the 1984 British Olympic champions at Sarajevo, and finally compete on an ice-ring in front of a live audience. The performances were enthralling. Torvill and Dean’s return to the ring roused a huge surge of nostalgia in the British viewing public. They were magnificent and the tickets were tough to get. The second thing I attended here was a Deep Purple concert, thronged in large part by rockers and Londoners who grew up on that culture. The air was charged. Roger Glover, Ian Paice, Ian Gillan, Don Airey and Steve Morse were all there, working the crowd up for a round-the-hour recce of their best-know hits. I, of course, knew only Highway Star and Smoke on the Water properly enough, and so had limited screaming to do. But was it electric, and how!

The Blue Man Group
New London Theatre, Drury Lane

The Blue Man Group is an avant-garde, percussion-driven show in a custom-built theatre. The Blue Men are Phil Stanton, Chris Wink and Matt Goldman, a trio of mute performers who wear blue grease paint, latex bald caps and black clothing! Their performance incorporates rock music, percussion, odd props, audience participation, sophisticated lighting and large amounts of paper. The show starts long after midnight. The oddities begin as soon as you step inside the auditorium. An electronic message board prompts you to shout out birthday greetings to people you don’t know. Staff members walk the aisles handing out ponchos, encouraging you to wrap it around your head and extremities. The Blue Man Group combines the best of theatre, art, music and science, and puts it in package full of humour and energy. After the show, if you go up and speak to them, like I did, they shake your hand and daub you in blue paint. It’s a euphoric experience.

Nederlands Dans Company
Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Islington

The Nederlands Dans is a product of classical ballet and modern dance. The Company is regarded as one of the most shocking, innovative and distinct dance groups in Europe. At Sadler’s Wells, the Peacock Theatre (in Holborn) and at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, more than twenty-four other companies perform in tandem. The NDT’s premiere company performs a full-length ballet by Jiri Kylian, One Of A Kind, on a starkly beautiful set by Japanese architect Atsushi Kitagawara. The company I watched at Sadler’s Wells perform three compact ballets, where the dancers move with eerie, light steps that suddenly transform into lightening flashes and stupendous what-are-called “pas de deux”. The movements are intensely sexually connoted. They use exquisite lighting, giant props and dramatic costume. They blend technical precision and contemporary movement. The last ballet uses one of Prince’s songs as a score and is riotously funny.


As I write this in Oxford, a short way away from Blackwells, one of the world’s most important bookshops, one needs to say that there are many contemporary British writers who keep a sense of British-ness changing. The best of them are Kazuo Ishiguro and Zadie Smith. The earlier modern writers are timeless – Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, G.B. Shaw (I don’t know if they call him modern), Bertrand Russel and George Orwell. There are John Keats, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, the Brontes, R.L. Stenvenson, right up to Shakespeare, Marlowe, Chaucer and Milton. There’s also Ben Johnson, who I didn’t know, until I saw his plaque in Westminster Abbey. As you can see, I’m bad with chronology. There are some very good movies, too – we’ll keep to the recent ones – This Is England, In The Name Of The Father, Vera Drake, even Harry Potter! Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys is about the archetypal British boys’ tortuous endeavour to get into Oxbridge. By this April, the play had moved on to Aberdeen (Scotland) and I had to watch it on DVD. They are now, as I have it from an “insider”, set to go to New York. So, by the by, any American readers, go for it on Broadway. As for the final bit, big thanks to everyone in London for these tickets, which otherwise I could indisputably not have on my kind of budget. I stand upbraided for the setbacks.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Walking Behind The Hospital

Now and again I walk behind the hospital. When I was younger I thought of the hospital as a place one can’t go. Full of people who are ailing and waning, full of stench and the septic smell of stunted healing, that is what it was. I had a picture of dead bodies, corpses and animal carcasses all heaped together. Heaped, continuous bodies without shape. Mixed, inseparable smells. That was years ago.

We shifted to a house nearby and the hospital came closer. Walking around the takes gumption even now. Now, there are hostels for medical students.

Students walk up and down the road every morning. Afternoons and evenings, they walk back. Hostels keel the road and they feel like parts of the hospital. People studying medicine have something peculiar about them. When you cross them on the road, their presence is barely noticed. When you walk by, you don’t see them. They don’t thrust themselves into attention or ogle. They have a preoccupied look. They have something on their minds – their eyes show that. Something about the people who couldn’t get their problems across to the doctors; something about the stitches that wasn’t done well. Endless thoughts about the workplace that crowd in on the walk back home. When I walk past them, when I see them look at me, I see some kind of focus. What can you think about someone who’s seen the human being inside and out? Does he know what it means to have pointy steel-like things poked at you? I can’t walk too slowly around them. It’s as if they know the extent to which I could walk, when the tendons and ligaments stop working normally, when anomie sets in with smoking.

The bend is lined with makeshift shops selling vegetables. Owners park their bicycles and scooters in front. Tarpaulin covers their ramshackle kiosks. No one shouts for the buyers on the road. They keep silent, unlike vendors anywhere else. Patiently they wait for someone to drop by. When I walk past, I feel them looking. They hope that I’m a buyer. I walk quickly by with redoubled pace. You can’t tell when they might ask to buy things.

Breaking their reticence, they can sometimes shout out prices in loud, summer-beaten voices. Their scooters remain standing in front. Past the shops, there is a small hill that goes onward to more hostels for students. Boys come teeming downhill in bikes and cars. Others walk down to the hospital.

When I walk I see them making a beeline for the workplace. The hospital clearly has stopped bothering them. They like being there and what is worse, they go back after working hours. It’s where they go to to meet each other. Despite the sickliness, they make it liveable.

I walk upwards and see more thatched shops. The shops look like they sell nothing, a testament to eternal futility. The road has sand and macadam mixed together. Daily-wagers come to clean up the weeds around the hostel grounds. The ones on the road are left to grow, since no one has paid for their removal. They grow bigger and the overgrown ones grow over the road. Walking over them is a bit like walking through a bog.

This is the city and these are its roads. Yet, the bog is all I feel like I’m walking over. The hostels look simple. The makers didn’t work on the aesthetics. They just let it grow out of rubble. The white walls that look spartan for the people inside. Towels hang over balconies and shoes are left to bake in the sun. Medical students know the rigmarole of wash, rinse and dry to keep away germs! Bushes along the road have snakes in them that come out sometimes. People might have been bitten before but the hospital is close by.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Return of Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin, remember him? The gnome who turned straw to gold? The vicious, slimy goofer who wreaked more havoc than made fortune? He's back. But in a different mould. You wouldn't be able to recognize him anymore; he is no longer a gnome. His antics are no longer puerile gnomery or sophisticated alchemy. He is now big and monstrous, an overpowering, scary, obscure vision that could drive you to the edge of insanity. So big a vision, he cannot be beheld in human sight, by human eyes.

He is a huge, gargantuan thing that flies from one end of the world to another: Air Force One. His place unfixed, his life uncompromised. He is the bellowing, chiding man who walks briskly at airports, keeping apace with his protective clique. President Sam!

He stops at slums and steps out of his cavalcade. He wishes the dwellers well. A charitable gesture. But usually, the slums are few and far between. Because most of them have been razed and 'cleaned', most men, women and children evicted and removed. The municipality makes no compromises. No bilge must fall in the Presidential Gaze. No dirty, ragged rabblement in the Presidential Trail. Yes, of course few can remain, as it would be too farcical to not have a single slum in India; his Presidential cynicism would be evoked.

Along the road, genuflecting ministers keel his path with gaudy garlands and ready lips, eager to smack the Presidential Anatomy from head to toe. Also, let us not forget their oily, glib paeans, terrible-sounding praises designed for visa benefits.

Rumplestiltskin walks on. He stands on a pulpit at the Old Fort (aka Purana Qila) and drones on for a while. He makes a smattering of speeches and rouses the illiterate masses. Lofty praises for Uncle Sam, lofty panegyrics for all of Uncle's Nephews and Nieces. He goes on speaking at length, rolling the 'r' in his typical North American drawl, mentioning 'I-Ran' and 'I-Raq' en passant.

Oh yeah, he ain't nothin' but back!

It takes Eleven Hours

The sky turns blue,

In heed,


The sun burns red,

Like rubies on a diadem,

The migratory aves,

Take refuge far down.

It is too hot to travel.

Yet I fly, In this bird of a plane,

The likes of a glider,

Small and midget-like,

Bigger still to the cirrus,

That flutter from end to end,

Like thistledown in the sky.

Only this far illusional,

For they appear and evanesce,

Like they were none.

To wither they flee, I hardly know.

For all I know,

I leave behind a home,

And people,

In search of Being, one may say,

Truth, may the other.

Have A Coffee Day!

Sometimes, constant living in a city can weary your nerves. Particularly if you happen to live in a city with a knack for getting to know EVERYONE in it. So even if you 'accidentally' overlook tipping the waiter, be sure that the entire town shall next hear about your gospel stinginess, courtesy, of course, your chance acquaintance at an adjoining table.

Thus it is particularly difficult to sit through an entire hour in a coffee-house. From the moment you enter, you know you have trespassed into the lair of eternal damnation where, unbeknownst to you, seven pair of ogling, decaffeinated eyes shall scrutinize your every move for the next sixty minutes. Nevertheless, you go and sit down, hoping in earnest to parry off unguarded judgment.

The situation becomes most problematic if you have girls sitting along at your table. First, the catty gobbledygook, very often over-technical and difficult to fathom, and then the extempore judgment calls. So while you sit there like a curmudgeon, your friends should have decided that the girl sitting at the next table is a total bitch and the guy dating her, a total bloody jackass for having to do so.

Thankfully, since you are only sparingly roped in for intermittent conversation, you have enough time to eat your chocolate fantasy properly. You can of course, unwittingly even, try to make fatuous and open-ended discussion about the most appropriate, and meticulous, shoes suitable for hip-hop, but this is bound to lead nowhere. Instead, perhaps you can ruminate on a comparison between water and Gatorade, one that is entirely internalized, so you need not have any apprehensions of being cut off mid-sentence.

Then, there is the most laughable agony of having to watch a passel of dimwits trying to catch the attention of your good looking friends whilst they chattily sip coffee and discuss how 'obvious' the dimwits are being. Poor morons. Sometimes you want to empathize. But I think it is more amusing, and important, to watch their libidinous activity go to waste. That way at least, you get to learn the subtleties of the act.

To put a riotous end to things, one of the blokes might eventually shake your hand and invite you to an imaginary party, but it is better to smile back genially and not take their conjecture at word, and then perhaps later even delete his number. But always remember, you must never turn back to look, for you might then find him frolicking around tables, like an angry raccoon, unleashed on a coital mission.

On Dissent

Pune, Maharashtra

"In India, the word 'public' is now a Hindi word. It means people. In Hindi, we have sarkar and public, the government and the people. Inbuilt in this use is the underlying assumption that the government is quite separate from the people. Even today, fifty-nine years on to the day, the truly vanquished still look upon the government as 'mai-baap', the parent and provider. The somewhat more radical, those who still have fire in their bellies, see it as 'chor', the thief, the snatcher away of all things."

I am a university student in Pune and I do English. There is very little for me here, in the din and hurly of dusty city life. Sometimes chance odd jobs come to me, in writing or reading and speaking, in moderation, and I let in. They are not much but they make me a quick buck. I used to think about the media here, and their glitzy tabloids. But the closer I got, the more trenchant the truth I found. They do not speak for us or write for us, or to us. They only pay loud, stentorian lip service to the elite, who lap it up like greedy men from their lackeys. It makes little use of me, armed with an English honours degree, to do much; it makes me the most useless member of society.

On most of these regular days, I love drinking tea and I love cycling. I'd bike to the cafeteria, and see what blends they have. My bedroom contains boxes and boxes of tea, and I am always happy to have new brews with which to concoct more original combos in my teapot. I am supposed to be preparing for my exams in the subject, but whatever happens I know I will skip them, go out on some pretext or other. I am too concerned with other things. Sometimes I take speed 'blues' - little blue tablets - to keep me awake, but they make me depressed, they make my skin shrivel up and I keep thinking I am going to have a concussion or something. So I usually sip spicy tea and listen to the player all night. I prefer the tuneless: Murdoc and the rest in Demon Days.

One night, chilly and in winter, the Enron factory went up in flames. It was apocalypse.

Mighty, white corporate America came crashing down on our little town; it was very strange in a way. They were so potent, so well off and we so poor. A wasted effort of retribution; but how wild and wanton it was. Nothing ever seemed the same again. The public struggle, though long and hard, was by no means magnificent.

The collared men retreated. But the local elite stepped easily and elegantly into the shoes of the corporate imperialists: a deeply impoverished, essentially feudal out-town, overnight became a modern, independent polis. The factory is now empty but now and again, they still come to collect taxes.

Nottingham, England - John Tween

'I love this bag more than I love The Clash', reads the pseudo-messy script on a young girl's satchel. She has no idea how deeply I was moved by this sentiment, by the contradiction inherent in the statement she was making. Those who truly feel that the movement was significant still hold 'Punk' and its ethos in high regard. The country's voice, as always, simply laughed it off, turning it into a pathetic fad as it burned out, its main protagonists eventually locked up or simply dejected, The Clash among them.

It is not even her fault that I am angered by this. In fact, a small part of me feels that I shouldn't be angry. If I was to confront her, she'd tell me that she liked the design, an honest enough conclusion. We're all bred in the same way round here, in the acceptance that to go against the grain is to immediately make oneself insignificant. To go against those that form the country's voice is futile.

The old town centre still stands the way it used to, but with recognizable plastic and glass brand names smashed into the bottom of the wonderful Victorian buildings. Those who once left for the suburbs have returned to the city centre, albeit five floors above any garbage that hits the ground. Those who venture into the centre that used to house a thriving marketplace, whether to shop or to socialize, are engulfed by logos and wonderful, bright, bold patterns.

Not so much the consumer, as the consumed.

And so we head to the brightest beacon in this gigantic high street and pack ourselves onto some form of transport for a break. Take a holiday, it costs just 6 months' wages, the slogans blatantly proclaim. But we always come back. We fear leaving these green and pleasant lands for too long, lest we be forgotten and pushed into insignificance. We all, like the girl who defiled punk, are bred to accept. Though in my mind I may see myself bringing down towers with no more than rage, even I will give in to the wasteful distractions of the world, accepting their frivolous nature and indulging myself in it.

Here, we could, but we don't.

The voice has always spoken to me. When I was young it escaped with ease in prank phone calls, small fires and soft drugs. The youth here escape when they feel insignificant. Then, gradually, social sensibilities overtake the senses. We are left as grey men, floating between our small, fifth-floor flats and our dull, still occupations in amongst the startlingly bold, beautiful colours of our city, where committees discuss ethos, ethics and alternative markets.

Not so much the sell-out, as the bought-out.

On Dissent

I don't know what it is that keeps all the oily machines in the world going, but you can't not notice. No matter who you are, where you are, there's always some dirty little rook who's trying to use you into the 'mechanics' of things. What mechanics? It's difficult to say. It could be simple, everyday things, like getting the newspaper while you're waiting at the airport, or making a phone call from the hostel without a phone chit. All of these things, quotidian as they are, involve the biggest amount of officialese.

And those who don't speak the language are in for some real dirt.

In a school, for example, what's so big and important about getting a simple form signed? It's the simplest thing there is. But bureaucracy has it's own way. If you want a form signed, you have to first decide who you want to sign it. If you know the person, you approach him. If you don't, you do that anyway. The person, ostensibly a teacher, isn't available for the time that he or she teaches lessons. So you have to find the right time and place to locate this one person. But then, the person might also want to read through it. Well, it's justified; after all, you expect the chum to sign it. The person tells you that it'd take some time. Of course, you agree. It must take some time. After all, a signature, given prevailing commonsense, is the most difficult of difficult things. By the time it gets back to you, after much unwarranted movement, you think it's some kind of a blessing in disguise and that every other person is the kindest Samaritan there is.

You also forget that bureaucracy "works in mysterious ways".

I remember my maths tutor, who always grumbled about the telephone department, hated the way his phone was, invariably, disconnected every month. He always paid his bills, or so at least he claimed, and spent lots of time contemplating the twisted minds of many twisted phone officers, who, for some reason, hated that he had a phone and persecuted him. I tried some consolation. You know, stuff like: it's quite normal, we're all in the same rut, we're all victims of some grand telephonic mega-conspiracy, et cetera. I tried telling him that this new Right to Information thing would be a good way out. But, I suppose, a man separated from his phone is as inconsolable as a fly caught in spiders' web.

He went and spoke to the regional manager. This one was rude, diffident and very obese. His conversation was smattering of 'Do you know who I am?' or alternately, 'Who the bloody hell are you?' My teacher, octogenarian man, old war-monger, took him on and sprung on him the biggest bureaucratic whiplash possible - he called up his immediate superior, whose son, fortuitously, was another one of his tutees. That was that, for evermore.

I guess I know what the government does with all its work, or lack thereof. Insofar as "work" is concerned, it's safe to say that kindergarten kids work with a better conscience. No matter how many drawings they disfigure, how much they disregard the spellings of words and the Oxford dictionary, these bureaucrats take the lid off them. What's actually funny is the way we, the people, have to take it all in, obligatory as it were. Would you ever have people sling things at you? Would you ever let them rob you of you livelihood's worth while you stand outside and help them load your stuff onto a truck full of stolen things? Would you even let someone take water from your backyard well, even if it were filled to the brim? People call it presumption. We never let other people get away with these things they presume they can do, but aren't entitled to.

It's tough to stand up to bureaucracy. It's very discomfiting. It's tough because these people are deafened, they have lost the faculty of hearing. They lost it long ago. They don't speak your language. They're insecure and messed up in the head beyond repair. They smell and their looks don't help very much. But it's better to start somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is here, in your head, where you can see them and mock them and prepare for the next time you meet them.

Strange Times

If you're in the process of transiting from one stage to another, then you probably know the feeling that one gets when there. There is a strangeness to it. The word 'strange' is itself very strange. It could mean so many things; for some people, strange is the easier way out of situations where one isn't too sure; one of the more common usages of the word is in lieu of 'weird'. You listen to people talk and more often than not, it's all about, 'This is weird,' or 'That is weird,' or 'He is weird,' and 'She is weird'. Everything is sometimes weird and so strange and weird become inseparable partners in the tortuous journey we call - You-know-what - and places of transit become an important part of that long, weird journey we call You-know-what. Have you ever finished off an exam and thought, 'Wait a minute, there's something left yet.' Then you go back to your room and keep thinking about it. You think and think, until you figure that the more you think about it, the more it's going to trouble you. And you don't want it to trouble you at all. In fact, you want to forget about it and let it go so swiftly that it'd even put Concordes to shame. But the point is, given the kind of pressure around an exam, you probably want to put the question at rest, but not without getting it over with it first. Sometimes you think about if you've written the question number right at the start of the question, on which, as most people are told in school, there is just as much onus as is on actually writing the answer correct. When it's worse, you think about if you left out a vital, or otherwise not-so-vital, point or two from your answer. It's mad. This shouldn't make you so much as a mite worried, and in the previous century it probably wouldn't have, but things have gotten so out of hand these days. What if you think your five looked more like a six in your answer sheet? But there are ways and means of getting over this slight mental agitation, the most effective of which is a so-called 'defense mechanism' called repression. Since a thought, or thoughts, come up and front in your head, in your 'conscious' mind, you push it into another part of your head called the 'unconscious', where it'll stay until it's ready to play peek-a-boo with you again, or until you forget it completely; but not quite, because it goes into the rest of your mind. Do you think a poor kid should have to deal with so much? Well, welcome to wherever you are. The best part of finishing off with exams is that once all of them are over and done with, in toto, you can safely rely on your 'unconscious' not to bring up any of that stuff again. It might do so unwittingly, once or even more, to get the better of you, but it doesn't mean any harm and it surely doesn't get too piqued about it. Once you're done with your exams, you can go into other 'drives', like a break-neck bout of reading books, or something else that you might have been prevented from hitherto. Once you're done with all your papers, you notice something even stranger, only this time it isn't psychic or internalized. It's the people around you. They get 'strange'. When you're in your exams, if you're the smart-type, people flock around you, putting aside earlier norms of keeping clear of your privacy, and try to get things sorted out about chapters or parts of chapters. They come and talk things out, ask questions (to verify if they or you know better and more) and fire a rapid round of things that are 'likely to come in the question paper'. Or else they just talk about how tense they're feeling or what they'd rather be doing then. Au contraire, if you're the slip-shod kind of guy, the one who wakes up to tomes of work yet unread round one-and-a-half hours before the exam, then the same people goad you into get your butt off the bed and start working. But once you're exams are over, they start acting-up. From over-drive they plummet into what I call 'limbo'. They start servicing other peoples' arses and leave yours alone. And that's good in a way. But this becomes a repetitive thing; I mean the servicing literally never stops. Some of them become taciturn and even mean sometimes, but you shouldn't get carried away with thinking that. It's best to let things be, lest you spoil the way things are meant to turn out and miss all the 'action'. But honestly, one ought to be more sparse with words in these times; the lesser spoken, the better conveyed, thus spake a famous Zen monk who never existed. But like in the books you read, about men and places, there are different ways of looking at each new thing. Bad vibes can both be good and bad; good because you're alerted to things you don't want to get into, and bad because they can very well piss you off if you're not careful! Thus also spake another monk who never existed. How does one get to the bottom of this bottomless pit, viz., the never-ending thought of going wonky with all Indian pressures around exams? I don't know. One way, certainly, is to know what's what and to stop pretending that it's any way else.