Sampath G

Archive for the ‘Interview’ Category

‘Constitutions serve a managerial purpose’

In Interview, Politics, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:53 am

G Sampath: Sunday, Feb 26, 2012
First published in DNA
While we take written Constitutions for granted today, human beings did not always organise their societies based on rules laid out in a single document. In an exclusive interview, Linda Colley, professor of history at Princeton University, who has done extensive research on the role of written constitutions in the evolution of the modern world of nation states, and was in India recently on a lecture tour, tells DNA how they served as political devices that fostered internal colonialism and aided overland and maritime empire. Excerpts:
The dominant view of a written constitution is that it is a progressive force. Are you suggesting that it is primarily a tool of empire? Would you say that of the Indian Constitution as well?
In part because the advent of modern written constitutions is so closely bound up with the American and French Revolutions, these instruments tend to be viewed as a progressive force. They often have been, but it depends on the constitution in question. In practice, constitutions can be both progressive and authoritarian. For instance, Stalin drafted a constitution in the ’30s which provided for democracy and which was ratified by over 50 million people. But this constitution was also worded so as to tie the different parts of the Soviet empire tightly together. As Edmund Burke analysed in the 1790s, virtually all written constitutions (including India’s) are the work of small groups of individuals.As senior advocate RajeevDhavan writes, many parts of India’s Constitution “struck a chord with some of the people. But whether ‘the people’ participated in the process of constitution-making is highly doubtful”. Virtually all constitutions have some kind of didactic and managerial purpose.
How would you characterise the relationship between the American constitution and American empire today?
The Federal Constitution of 1787 helped conceal from white Americans that the USA retained imperial features: it excluded indigenous peoples and blacks as well as women from citizenship, yet fostered the idea of all of the American continent as potentially a Union, a nation. Since the late 19thcentury, Americans have also (along with the British) been keen on writing constitutions for others — for instance, for Japan and Germany after 1945. As this suggests, the American constitution is a vital part of American self-legitimation as well as a text of government. It is a text which caters to the still powerful notion that the US is the vital beacon of liberty for the world.
How do you account for the universal popularity of the written constitution? What was the single biggest factor in its gaining such wide acceptance?
The success and prosperity of the US after 1787 was a great advertisement for written constitutions, especially after slavery was abolished there with the Civil War. But the most powerful reason why written constitutions took off, I suspect, was that their invention coincided with a mass expansion of print across the continents. This is one of the most important and unexplored aspects of 19th century global history: how newspapers and magazines reprinted written constitutions from across the world and so gave people struggling for rights all sorts of new political ideas.
How do you respond to the fact that the past year has seen so many mass mobilsations and people’s protests in many parts of the world, many of them asking for nothing more than for implementation of constitutional guarantees?
This shows both the strength and the limits of written constitutions. They are only as good and as effective as how far they are implemented and abided by, by the powerful. If a country’s rulers and military can override or ignore them, written constitutions, as James Madison said, are no more than pieces of parchment or paper

Lop-sided growth is beginning to threaten even the middle class: Siddhartha Deb

In Interview, Literature, Social Commentary, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 10:02 am

Published: Sunday, Aug 28, 2011, 9:00 IST | Updated: Sunday, Aug 28, 2011, 13:39 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Siddhartha Deb’s The Beautiful And the Damned: Life In The New Indiahit bookstores in India earlier this month. In an email interview with G Sampath, he talks his new book, about the challenges of narrative nonfiction, and the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement.
What was the transition like, from fiction to nonfiction? Do you think of yourself primarily as novelist who also writes nonfiction or as a nonfiction writer who also writes fiction? Which form gives you a bigger kick?The transition to nonfiction was difficult for practical reasons. I had to fund long stretches of reporting, and that was difficult at the beginning. I also had to spend a lot of time away from my very young son, and I didn’t enjoy that at all. But writing nonfiction is easier in the sense that the boundaries are more clearly defined, and so it’s harder to go wrong. If you’re reasonably methodical, you can produce something that is, at the very least, acceptable. With fiction, there are no clear boundaries, at least for me, which means there are many more ways to go wrong but also a shot at transcendence, at magic, at creating life out of even nonsense, all of which I rather like. Since I’m desperate to return to fiction, let’s take this book as a novelist’s foray into nonfiction.
You no longer live in India. How does this geographical translocation affect you as a writer? Apart from other things, especially in terms of choice of subject matter? Do you find America a better place to write from?

My first two novels were set in the north-east of India, which was not the most career affirming move to make while trying to survive as a writer in New York. So, in that sense, I’ve never been writing for a western audience, and my choice of subjects has been determined on what interests me rather than what sells. And if I possess something of the outsider’s eye in writing about India because I’ve been living in New York, I should add that the outsider’s sensibility was honed earlier by the experience of having grown up in the north-east, and of being pretty hard up for a good many years in India. As far as New York being a better place to write from, that’s not a guaranteed thing. But the city did push me harder, especially in the beginning. It taught me a degree of professionalism, gave me relatively easy access to an enormous wealth of books and other material, and handed me a surplus of hard-earned confidence.

Can you explain, perhaps with an example, what you mean when you say New York pushed you harder? Also, you say it taught you a degree of professionalism. Were you not professional enough before you moved out of India?
But how did New York push me? By not responding for many years. I sometimes meet magazine editors who ask me to write for them, not knowing that I pitched them years ago and never received a response. I learned to produce many, many more drafts to produce a good first draft. I learned to be edited, which is occasionally a painful experience — there is, for instance, an American tendency to overedit, especially among young editors — but also a really vital experience. I learned to honour deadlines, and word counts, all of which I was doing in India anyway, but in New York I did it under greater pressure. I forced myself, when writing an 800-word review of a book, to try and read everything, or almost everything, that author had written. There were no extra dollars for this, but it did help me set myself apart in some ways and get repeat assignments. New York, as I’ve said somewhere else, taught me to listen carefully to my “inbuilt shit detector” (that’s Hemingway) so that I could be brutally honest with myself and know when a sentence, a paragraph, or an entire piece wasn’t quite working. I don’t mean to suggest that I wouldn’t have learned this elsewhere, or even in India. I do, however, think from my work with publications in India that being properly edited isn’t really a part of the writing experience there in a big way.

I did misinterpret you. You’re right; thirteen years of living in New York has left an impact on me, a storehouse of memories and perceptions that’s very, very tempting to put into print. That goes along with my feeling that although New York is so written about, the versions I’ve known haven’t been captured yet. Unlike Kafka or Rana (who I know and so it’s a bit absurd not to use his first name), I have often been influenced by a sense of immediate reality pressing upon me, and my work as a journalist might be responsible for the healthy respect I have for the absurdity of reality. But while I wouldn’t be thinking about New York without living there, or about north-east India without having grown up there, I’m increasingly interested in the fabulist approach of Kafka or Calvino. One of the odd effects of living in New York is that I find India pressing itself upon me in a big way. It contains so much of my past as well as present, and I actually don’t think I could have written my north-east novels had I not been living in New York, aching for the places of my past but excited at the prospect of bringing them alive on the page.
How did the process of working on this book, and writing it, affect you as a person?

It made me far older, but writing books does that to you, as does living. It surprised me in the reporting, which often began with worry but then turned into interacting with interesting people in places that filled me with pleasure in unexpected ways. It also began as a project mired somewhat in doubt. Few publishers were interested in it, the initial advances were low or non-existent, and I had to struggle to support the reporting while also dealing with a new teaching job. But towards the very end of the project, fellowships and grants began flowing in almost of themselves, and the book has so far brought me a degree of success that sometimes feels unnerving.

It has been some time now since the book came out in India. Some of the characters who feature in the book may not have expected (or like) the way they have been portrayed. For example, SS, the nanopoet. Were you conscious of it while writing? Did it influence how you have presented their stories? Have you heard from them since publication – either positively or negatively?

I was very conscious of how the people portrayed in the book might feel. It’s not always pleasant to see yourself portrayed by someone else, as I know too well from some of the more banal interviews, profiles and reviews in which I’ve been featured. The question for me was of how to be honest and yet fair at the same time, and to push my own subjectivity into the foreground so that my biases and inclinations are quite apparent to the reader. I’m not sure why people would be willing to let a stranger like me into their lives, unless it be that there is something busy and lonely about modernity that makes the process of talking to a stranger therapeutic in some ways. I have heard from only one character after publication, and that somewhat indirectly in the form of a lawsuit. But I remain fond of all of them, if to different degrees, because it’s really hard to write as a novelist if you don’t have empathy for your characters.

One of the things I was struck by while reading the book was the kind of details you have recorded and, then, chosen to include. For example, at one point, you write, “But the anchor of the Telugu channel, a woman dressed in a Western suit, hadn’t got to the blasts yet, so the attention of the drinkers drifted away from the television.” I’m curious to know what was the thinking behind mentioning that the anchor was “dressed in a Western suit”? Also, if you wanted to get the reader to visualize what the anchor was wearing, why not name the dress, and its colour? And then why not also mention her hairstyle? Basically, I want to know how you decide what detail to put in and what to leave out. Besides, it seems to me that many of the physical details described in the book are novelistic rather than journalistic? Would you agree? I couldn’t agree more. I’m interested in details like these in creating a sense of narrative, with the feel of a fact-based novel rather than a journalistic report. “Western suit” generally means jacket and trousers for a man and jacket and skirt for a woman. I put that down because I was interested in the fact that the anchor of a regional channel could be dressed in a western suit, which indicates to some extent how India has changed from my Doordarshan-watching teenage years. I wanted to point that out quickly, for the reader who might pick up on that detail, before sending the sentence into an exploration of mood and emotion of late-night drunkenness somewhere in rural Telangana.
You were a print journalist for some years. Did you have to make any/many adjustments in your approach as a journalist while you were researching and interviewing people for this book?There was a big difference in that I went about this much more slowly, taking in the kind of details we spoke about just now. It was a cumulative process. I would look at my notes from an interview, find gaps in the notes and then try to cover those gaps in the next round of interviewing. But I generally did not push my characters too much and simply let them talk about what interested them, which is a far more diffuse approach than when I am on a deadline for an article.

What do you think the Anna Hazare-led Lokpal bill movement, that is all over the news now, says/shows about ‘New India’?
It shows how the lopsided growth of the past decade is beginning to threaten even the middle class that bought into the idea of the New India most whole-heartedly. But the movement, even when honest in its anger at corruption, is a largely elite phenomenon, with nothing to say about the nexus between state and private interests, or indeed of the far more brutal forms of suffering that afflicts the majority in the country as opposed to the petty forms of corruption that we in the middle class suffer from but also collude in. I think this movement will peter out eventually, as Baba Ramdev’s protests did, but other such movements will manifest themselves, including even millenarian ones.

Are there any writers of narrative nonfiction from whom you have sought inspiration?
George Orwell has always been important to me, especially The Road to Wigan Pier and Down and Out in Paris and London. As for more contemporary works, I’d name Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah, and the American television show The Wire, which while neither nonfiction nor a book, manages to do things that good nonfiction writing should certainly aspire to.
You are a writer whose day job is to teach writing – so, does that ever make you uncomfortably self-conscious as a writer? Also, is there ever a danger of expecting your students to embrace a writing aesthetic similar to your own?
It can, indeed, make one uncomfortably self-conscious. There’s an aspect of performance to teaching. It’s something I like, but I do worry whether the performing might affect the more reflective, less crowd-pleasing, aspects of writing. That said, it doesn’t seem to have affected my writing too badly yet, and a certain class even led to me expanding in a new direction in my fiction. As for pushing students to imitate one’s aesthetic, that’s a genuine danger for writers who teach. I’m lucky there, though, because my students are largely American, mostly middle-class, almost always young and technologically adept, and the obvious differences between their lives and mine make rote imitation difficult.

How can there be no Mumbai in a book purportedly about new India? Was it a conscious decision to skip it – perhaps because after Suketu Mehta, many others keep writing about it?
You said it. Even as I write, there are two or three new nonfiction books in English on Mumbai, all quite good, I understand.
What are you reading at present?M. John Harrison’s Light, James Scott’s, The Art of Not Being Governed, Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel, Mirza Waheed’s The Collaborator.

Are you hopeful about India’s future (I’m talking about the next 5-10 years) or pessimistic, or do you think things will get worse before they get better/more worse?
I hate trying to predict the future, or at least outside of fiction, but I am pessimistic about how things will be in the short term. In the long run, we’re all dead.
What is your next book about?

Fiction, probably a novel, maybe about New York, and about Calcutta in the eighties, and about India in the past and future.
If you happen to run into Arindam Chaudhuri at the men’s loo in Harvard, and he gives you that grin of his and says hi, what would you say/do to him?

What would I be doing at Harvard? Although I was there briefly on a fellowship, it’s not my usual hangout. I can, however, quite easily imagine a future where Chaudhuri is addressing the Harvard Business School. Were we to meet, I don’t think a conversation would be difficult, at least for me. I don’t like his tendencies towards censorship, but I don’t dislike him or find him uninteresting. The big question is: would he grin?

Akshat Verma: He knows how to produce (Delhi) belly laughs

In Bollywood, Celebs, Cinema, Interview, Uncategorized on March 30, 2012 at 9:48 am

Published: Sunday, Jul 17, 2011, 8:00 IST | Updated: Sunday, Jul 17, 2011, 0:44 IST 
By G Sampath | Place: Mumbai | Agency: DNA
Akshat Verma answers all your questions in a voice that reminds you of coffee on a cold, rainy afternoon. As it happens, we are having coffee on a cold, rainy afternoon in a coffee shop somewhere in Khar. The rain is outside. The cold is inside, thanks to the AC. And the man who thought up Bollywood’s most intelligent laughathon in a long, long time is telling me about all those years of doubt and struggle before his script attained salvation on screen earlier this month.
Verma had to wait 15 years for Delhi Belly to be made into a film. He wrote it in 1996, when he was 25, and doing a Masters in screen-writing at the UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). “When I think about the time it has taken, it really depresses me,” admits Verma.
It all began in Karol Bagh
The writer and associate director of Delhi Belly, who now divides his time between LA and Mumbai, is a Delhi boy. Both his parents were professors in Delhi colleges — his dad taught English literature at Hansraj college, while his mom taught Hindi literature at Miranda House. He grew up near Karol Bagh, and went to Springdales school. He went to college at Kirori Mal, where he studied English literature.
Verma was always interested in telling stories, and in writing. So post-college, there followed stints in the writing professions —eight months as a journalist, two years as an advertising copywriter. Going by the evidence ofDelhi Belly, where, of the four main characters, one is a copywriter and three are journalists, these early years ended up supplying plenty of material to the budding film writer.
After an inexplicable diploma in journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, Delhi, Verma took off to the US to hone his script-writing skills at the UCLA. “UCLA was the best thing that happened to me,” he says. Soon after he wrote Delhi Belly, he made a trip to Mumbai to try and sell his script, but there were no takers back then.
Going nowhere fast
So he went back to LA, where he flipped burgers, walked dogs, and did a series of writing jobs. He ghostwrote a screenplay, assisted established Hollywood names, and even took on a day job giving Hindi subtitles to Hollywood films. In case you’ve ever wondered, it was he who gave those terrible subtitles for Lawrence Of ArabiaMen In Black, and one of theSpiderman films.
But subtitling doesn’t pay well, and assisting someone wasn’t the same as working on your own script. And as the years passed, his screenwriting career was going nowhere fast. “You reach a point where you begin to question your own abilities, and you wonder if you are ever going to be able to get out of this,” says Verma, remembering those days. “Assisting someone else is also very depressing for me because I can barely run my own life, but to be responsible for somebody else…? You do a lot of work, but at the end of the day, what have you produced? Nothing.”
On Wiltshire Boulevard
Verma then tells me about the darkest point in his career as a writer, the day the absurdity of his life hit him on the head like a crashing ceiling fan.
“I was in LA, working as an assistant to this big-time Hollywood production designer. My work involved planning meetings, making hotel reservations, sorting out travel schedules, etc. In LA, there is this really busy street called Wiltshire Boulevard. One day I find myself transporting a large table across the street in the middle of traffic. It was a big table, and I had to carry it across because there was this birthday party and it had to be set up with cake and everything…..and right there in the middle of traffic, it suddenly struck me, wait, I have a f— Masters in screenplay writing from a top American university, I am a qualified writer, I could teach other people to write badly…so what the f— am I doing? At which point, I decided, you know, f— it. I am going back to advertising.”
But to get back to advertising, you needed a portfolio, and Verma’s work was all Indian. American ad agencies would not consider his work on Indian brands. “So I had to go back to portfolio school — make up fake ads for known American brands so they can see the quality of my work.” Verma eventually did get a copywriting job in the US. But soon, “my luck being what it is,” disaster struck, in the form of the recession.
“I was working on a real estate client, and this was one of the biggest companies in the sub-prime lending sector. When that company went under, a large section of the creative department, myself included, was laid off.” This proved to be a blessing in disguise for Verma, as he could then turn his attention back to the Delhi Belly script. He teamed up with Jim Furgele, who was with him at the UCLA, and set up Ferocious Attack Cow Productions. They made another trip to India, and then slowly, with Aamir Khan on board, things started moving for Delhi Belly.
Slapstick versus physical humour
If there is one thing that upsets the affable Verma, it is when “lazy critics” dismiss Delhi Belly as slapstick or potty humour. “Delhi Belly is physical humour, not slapstick,” says Verma. “The two are different. Physical humour is played straight, unlike slapstick.
Let’s say someone slips on a banana peel. If he falls down and is hurt, or something else happens, it is physical humour. But if you have funny sounds and exaggerated expressions to go with it, it becomes slapstick. I mean, slapstick ends up caricaturing, whereas physical humour is completely straight. Laurel and Hardy is slapstick, but Buster Keaton is physical humour.”
Verma has a point. One reason why some critics didn’t get it could be because Delhi Belly is indeed a path-breaking film — it is difficult to think of another film after Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro that has multiple layers of humour working at the same time. Not only are there funny lines in almost every scene, the script is infused with situational humour as well as the humour of character. Plus it is an accomplished film by most cinematic parameters.
Most of all, what distinguishes Delhi Belly is a comic sensibility that you cannot pin down to any one aspect of the film but has to do with the quality of mind of the writer — say, the x-factor that makes a Woody Allen film a Woody Allen film. That is why Delhi Belly cannot be turned into a formula for other Bollywood copycats to replicate. And hopefully, that should mean less struggle, and more demand, for intelligent, funny screenwriters like Akshat Verma.