Sampath G

Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

How to stab a bleeding heart

In Uncategorized on February 29, 2012 at 8:20 pm

G Sampath | First published in DNA on Thursday, May 29, 2008

Next time you feel like calling someone a ‘bleeding heart liberal’, take a deep breath
Lately, I’ve taken to carrying a knife. It is big, sharp, and deliciously curvy. I keep it with me so that next time somebody calls me a “bleeding heart liberal (BHL)”, I can stab him on the spot, extract the heart from his body with my bare hands, hold it up to his face, and say to him in a gentle, kindly tone with not a flicker of resentment, “My dear friend, I’m afraid you’re mistaken, it’s not my heart that is bleeding”.
This is the only way that I can think of to stop educated, intelligent, and seemingly sane people from flinging that phrase at me every time they run out of arguments to justify callousness, cruelty and injustice in the name of the market.
What happened was this: At a get-together last week, somebody started off about how the slums are mucking up Mumbai. Demolish them and pack the slum-dwellers off to some place where they can’t be seen – somewhere outside the city, this chap argued.
It’s because they sleep on the pavements and roadside that there are so many accidents – cases of drivers running over them in the night, went his logic. I should have immediately smashed my glass of lemonade on his head.
But like a fool, I got into a discussion, which in no time deteriorated into a shouting match about why the market is not delivering affordable housing to Mumbai’s majority, which is why there are slums. Evidently, there is enormous demand, but no supply.
Why? The market fundamentalists had no answers. Then the question arose: Do slum-dwellers – who by no means relish living in squalor anymore than those who send their kids to Bombay Scottish – have a say on how and where they live? Or should their homes that are blighting the cityscape be destroyed without any ado?
I maintained that, as a matter of principle, human beings should be involved in any decision-making process that affects their lives. For saying this, I was branded a BHL. This mindless sabotaging of a discussion through cowardly name-calling so incensed me that I was moved to temporarily suspend my love for non-violence.
I realised that here was an opportunity to deliver some old-fashioned poetic justice: You called me a bleeding heart liberal? Fine! I’ll show you how bleedingly liberal this BHL can get. Here, let me just cut you up, pluck your heart out and present it to you as a token of my bloody appreciation.
These days before I get into any political discussion, I take my knife out and calmly lay it on the table where it can be seen. In these polarised times, this seems to be the only way to have a civilised conversation wherein you can interrogate mainstream views and not get branded as BHL, anti-American, communist, lunatic fringe, ideological (as if there is any argument without an ideology) or regressive.
Often you get so caught up by the derisiveness of the tone in which they call you a BHL that you don’t even pause to consider, hey, what is so bad about being a bleeding heart liberal anyway? Is it bad to be kind? Is it silly to think of your fellow countrymen with empathy? I suppose unfettered, unapologetic selfishness is what is ‘cool’ today.
Anything that betrays the fact that you care for something beyond your immediate self-interest – be it the environment, social justice, or people starving in the countryside – means that something is wrong with you.
Of course, it’s okay to be concerned about these ‘larger issues’ at an abstract level, where you discuss them in terms of statistics and numbers. It’s alright to talk about poverty in terms of percentages of the population. But it is not okay to talk about it in terms of poor people living on the footpath outside your office. That’s too close for comfort, and will immediately invite the BHL tag.
So let me, for the sake of public interest and open debate, set down very briefly the gist of the BHL standpoint as I understand it and you can decide how much of it deserves opprobrium.
The BHL, by definition, places the highest value upon human life and dignity – above the market, above corporate profit, above development, above economic growth, above beautification of the city.
The underlying assumption is that human dignity is non-negotiable, while economic growth and development are handy abstractions which can be used to manipulate human beings for ends they may not agree with, but have to comply with anyway.
This means, in effect, that if you have to choose between 10 per cent economic growth and the welfare of one farming community that is going to starve to death because their land is being taken away against their will for an industrial project, the BHL will say, stuff your 10 per cent growth.
Of course, it needn’t be an either/or case, but the either/or scenario makes the priorities clear, and illustrates how decisions get taken in the real world by bureaucrats working thousands of miles away from where their decisions will affect lives.
Actually, things are not so cut and dried in real life, where double standards come into play. So it’s human dignity for the gated communities, but the bulldozer for the people who live in the slums that spoil the view from the balcony. It doesn’t matter that their television sets are smashed, their kitchen utensils strewn about on the street, their kids’ toys are crushed and the pages of their homework are flying into the gutter.
It doesn’t matter that the insides of what served as their living room and bedroom now lie exposed to full public view. What matters is that these people’s dwelling places are an eyesore and have to be destroyed at any cost. To not have to see – that is the imperative. And that is all that the much mocked BHL seeks to do: make us see what we’d rather not – the cesspool of economic deprivation that we have played a part in creating, and into which we ourselves are terrified of falling. This is the secret of the BHL’s unpopularity.
After all, how cool is it to be seen sympathising with the have-nots when you ought to be spending every minute of your life racing to the top of the shrinking heap of the haves? The BHL cuts through your fortified blinkers. Like a knife. And it’s not his heart that is bleeding, it’s your conscience. 

What’s your favourite brand of pigeon toilet?

In Uncategorized on February 29, 2012 at 8:07 pm

G Sampath | First published in DNA on Thursday, May 22, 2008

Take these two common hypotheses: Everything happens for a purpose; and shit happens. If both these statements are true, then it means that shit happens for a purpose. But I am prepared to accept this only insofar as the shit in question is human in origin, not if it is from pigeons. Because I am convinced that pigeon shit, or pigeons themselves, for that matter, have no underlying meaning or purpose for happening.
In fact, all that pigeons ever do in their entire bloody lives is wake up, fly high into the sky, and produce shit. Of course, we humans produce shit, too, and unlike us, who get paid for it, pigeons do it for free. But that still doesn’t give them the right to desecrate my car every morning. Look, I am no animal-hater. I don’t even eat them or make them search for my socks or lick my stamps. But you got to have some standards, and I draw the line at creatures that disrespect my fundamental, human, inalienable, non-transferable right not to have my bodily person or property shat upon. Pigeons as a community have been violating this right of mine every day for nearly three years now and just because my car doesn’t crib about it doesn’t mean it isn’t tired of it.
There was a time when I used to really respect these grey, unassuming co-habitants of the urban jungle. I even credited them with a subtle subversive zeal for the way they picked out statues of establishment figures to shit upon. I admired their non-violence, for unlike crows, they never attacked you or snatched candy from your baby’s fingers. But the species as a whole fell abruptly in my estimation after I moved house to my current neighbourhood, with my car.
It’s not an extraordinary car by any means – it’s an old Maruti. A 1962 model. Or it would be, had there been Marutis in 1962. I don’t know if it is its age, but there’s something about my car that triggers the crapping impulse in pigeons. I remember it being spotless white when I bought it. But now, with layer upon layer of purple-white pigeon droppings – on the roof, on the bonnet, on the windows, and even the door handles – it looks a mottled grey, as if suffering from acute leucoderma. And the guy I pay to wash the car every morning seems to have given up altogether, though he claims he scrubs it thoroughly. He apparently does his washing much before the pigeons wake up and embark upon their morning ablutions, so that by the time they are all ready and raring to go to the toilet, my car is all cleaned up and gleaming like the washroom of the Hilton. The moment they see it they can’t stop themselves.
I sometimes wonder if they take turns, hovering patiently in a disciplined formation in the sky, before one by one flying directly over my car and dropping their load like miniature bombers. I suspect they must have some system and process in place because the area immediately surrounding my car in the parking area is absolutely free of pigeon shit. Once I hid behind a tree some 20 metres away to watch how they were able to target my car with such accuracy, but none of them crapped in all the time that I was looking. I figured they would have easily spotted me from above, and thus stayed away.
Of course, I perfectly understand the temptation to rain down shit upon the world. I would do the same if I was a pigeon. If you mostly live above ground level, the way we guys are running the planet, which sane animal wouldn’t want to do that? But I believe that the pigeons who shit on my car aren’t motivated by any particular ideological reason – they are not anti-car or anything. If that was the case, all the cars in my complex would be covered in shit. But they aren’t; only mine is. I sometimes even wonder if they might have strong – though mistaken – views about automobiles, for why else would they target only my car from the 50-odd that squat in the same parking lot? Why me? Why my car? It’s got to be something personal, but they wouldn’t tell me what it is.
Yet they keep unloading their crap on my car relentlessly, day after day. It’s like every Baby Pigeon in my area, as soon as it’s born and even before it has learnt to make those annoying pigeon noises, receives toilet training from Mama Pigeon, who carries it to my car and rubs the Baby’s beak on my Maruti’s bonnet, so that for the rest of its life, as soon as it wakes up every morning, it rushes straight to my car to take its crap. And unlike humans, these birds don’t change their routine even on Sundays and public holidays. They don’t say to themselves, ‘Hey, today’s a Sunday; I deserve to crap on a Mercedes S Class’. No sir, it’s got to be my Maruti. And they don’t take a single day off, and they don’t fly away for a week to Amsterdam for a World Pigeon Seminar so that your car gets some time off from being a pigeon toilet. So far as I know, pigeons don’t have seminars, which is remarkable, considering the amount of shit they produce.
Of course, it’s possible that I am wrong. Perhaps the pigeons don’t hate my car, they worship it. Perhaps in pigeon religion and culture – about which we humans know nothing – the way you express love for your god is by bathing it in shit. Perhaps shit is the token of their devotion, and my car is their local shrine to which they all go in the morning to make their daily prayers and pay their obeisance before they leave for office or wherever all pigeons go every morning.
If that is indeed the case, then we humans should borrow this practice from them as part of our onward evolutionary march towards progress and perfection. Already I can’t even begin to think of all the leaders, gods, experts and celebrated influential thingamajigs to whom I am dying to pay my obeisance – a different one every day for the rest of my life. Perhaps that’s the lesson the pigeons are trying to teach me: be humble, say nothing, pay your respects. And of course, never forget – life is waste.

Author as everyman

In Uncategorized on February 29, 2012 at 8:03 pm

First published in DNA on Sunday, May 18, 2008, 3:23 IST 
By G Sampath
With the phenomenal success of his recently released third novel, Chetan Bhagat has become India’s largest selling author in English. G Sampath attempts to understand the secret behind his popularity
“Your paper and I have a lot in common,” says Chetan Bhagat, as we sit down for a chat. “Same target audience — young people. And similar readership figures.” As has been grudgingly, and disbelievingly, acknowledged, Bhagat is absolutely the only writer in India at the moment who can afford to make such a statement — coolly informing a newspaperman that this mass circulation daily’s readership figures (6.22 lakh in Mumbai as per the latest IRS 2008 survey) and that of his novels’ were about the same. Your initial reaction is that he’s got to be kidding. Sure, he is a bestselling author alright. In India any book that sells above 7,000 copies qualifies as a bestseller. But you later realise that he was being modest. Bhagat’s first two novels have sold more than 10 lakh copies. And his third one, The 3 Mistakes Of My Life, released this month, had a pre-publication order of 2 lakh copies. “The publisher, RK Mehra, is bewildered,” says Bhagat, “He’s never seen anything like this in the 46 years he’s been running Rupa.”
And this has been the underlying theme of every discussion about Chetan Bhagat: how can such a ‘bad’ writer sell so well? Bhagat himself is both amused and exasperated by what he perceives as the hostility of India’s ‘literary circles’.
The mixture of condescension and hostility with which Bhagat’s books have been received by the country’s ‘literati’ is not surprising. His first book, Five Point Someone, about three IIT kids who muddle their way through studies and romance, had a clear storyline, and was funny in parts, but was remarkable more for its abundance of verbal and cultural clichés. But it had a readymade cache of readers: the lakhs of youth who were either aspiring to, were already in, or had passed out of an IIT.
His second novel, One Night @ The Call Centre, is so bad that it’s worth reading. The story, an improbable one about six call centre employees with an evil boss, could have been held together only by divine intervention. And it is. God makes a call to the BPO where the characters work, and everything ends well. So well, in fact, that you will soon get to watch their story enacted in a blockbuster movie called Hello, starring Salman Khan, Katrina Kaif, and Isha Koppikar. This book again had a readymade cache of readers: the lakhs of youth who were either aspiring to, were already in, or had been in a call centre job.
His latest one, The 3 Mistakes Of My Life, is about three boys (yes, again) in Ahmedabad who just want to get on with their lives, making money, having fun and watching cricket. It is better plotted than his second one, and better written, though you’ll still find sentences like, “An awestruck Harsh air-struck a few strokes.” (p 22) and “My body trembled with violent intensity.” (p 107). Yet, this book is all set to damn his critics by selling more than both his previous novels. Why?
“People love to come up with every conceivable explanation for my success: that I am a great marketer, that I have priced them cleverly, that I have pandered to social and cultural stereotypes — every reason except the obvious one. Why can’t they for once consider that maybe — MAYBE — the books are selling because they have some merit in them after all?” asks an aggrieved Bhagat.
The merit, clearly, lies in his finely honed ability to gauge the mood of his readership and connect with it. His insight into the youth of today, which also permeates 3 Mistakes, is telling: “Only one thing can unite India’s youth, and that is money-making, making India rich,” he says. Not surprisingly, the protagonist of 3 Mistakes is a young man who wants to do “something different”, run his own business, and hates having to suck up to a boss. In today’s economic climate, such a philosophy is bound to resonate with the lakhs of youth who dream of ‘starting their own thing’.
Evidently, Bhagat knows his target audience — a strange concept for critics schooled in the idea of writing as a noble vocation and writers as artists who wrote for ‘self-expression’. Unlike so-called literary writers, Bhagat begins from the other end — the market. “It’s the readers who make you an author,” he says. “I lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. I could have written about the ‘migrant experience’ like so many have done. But what’s the point if nobody reads you? I write about the things readers want to read about. People like to say that they’ve read Salman Rushdie. It’s a way to show off, and gain acceptance into the literary elite. No one will admit to reading Chetan Bhagat. But then, there is no need to. According to sales figures, it seems nearly everyone has.”
Strangely, the three ‘secrets’ of Bhagat’s success are exactly the things for which he is vilified: First, his ability to connect with (or ‘pander to’) the petty aspirations of India’s urban middle class youth: chasing romance, getting rich, being cool. His books, like most popular novels, are powerful wish fulfillment fantasies. Second, his language. The functional English of Bhagat’s novels — with all the clichés, stereotypes, and careless colloquialisms — is also their biggest attraction. The irony is that if he were to clean up his language, his readership would most probably plummet. The polished prose that is so valued by critics is not the langauge his readers would easily relate to or care for. If he adopted it, he would cease to be ‘one of them’, andjeopardise his mass appeal. The internet has plenty of blog posts by young readers who are thrilled to find his books so accessible — rendering their experiences in their own lingo — despite it being written in English.
The third factor is the price. At Rs95, it costs less than a pizza or a multiplex ticket. “Book sellers told me that if we increased the price by 50 per cent, to Rs150, sales would drop only by 10 per cent. But if a reader came and told me that he couldn’t read my books because he couldn’t afford them, I would be heartbroken. So we stuck to Rs95,” says Bhagat. Heartbreak apart, it is safe to assume that somebody who doesn’t read fiction in general wouldn’t want to risk much more on a possibly first-time purchase of an English novel.
It would appear that Bhagat, who graduated in Marketing from IIM, Ahmedabad, has mastered the authorial equivalent of the three Ps of marketing: product (youth aspirations), packaging (language, they say, is the skin of thought), and price. Having said that, it would be unfair to reduce Bhagat’s achievement to mere marketing chutzpah. Being a writer is hard enough, and to be one with a day job as an investment banker can’t be any easier. “I am only a part-time writer,” reminds Bhagat, “don’t compare me to someone who’s devoted 40 years of his life to writing. I enjoy writing, and I am glad to have a job because I don’t want my identity to be tied only to my books.” But doesn’t he secretly aspire to some form of literary greatness — something which not even 100 years of investment banking can give? “Greatness,” answers Bhagat, “is bullshit. Total bullshit.”

Thank you for not calling

In Uncategorized on February 29, 2012 at 7:56 pm

G Sampath | First published in DNA on Friday, May 16, 2008

Mobile phones are turning us into an atomised aggregation of worker bees 
Today is World Telecommunication Day, apparently. Oh yes, they’ve got a day for that too. You no longer have to be a father, mother or earth to have a day dedicated to you. You could even be an irritating little gadget, such as a mobile phone, and the world will still remember you with gratitude and celebrate you with affection for one entire day.
It’s a day for all of us to stand up, hold hands, and emit a collective beep of gratitude: “Thank you, God, for such advances in telecommunication technology, I no longer have to speak to human beings when I have a problem with my credit card, I can happily spend hours pressing keys and chatting up machines. That’s right. Press 1 to wait for a human being, press 2 for bad music, press 3 to scratch my back, and press 4 to buzz off and not bug us again, you moron. Thank you for calling Damn You bank.”
Yes, today is the day for you to thank communication technology that has empowered you to cry into answering machines, break up on sms, and watch porn on your palm. It is the day to say thank you for ingenious inventions such as whereby you can, with one sms, tell infinite number of people what you are doing at any given moment.
If you want to inform the international media, for example, that right now you are in the middle of the longest pee in the world measured height-wise — that is, from the edge of the Grand Canyon — you can do so, thanks to advances in telecom technology that has given us Twitter.
It is also the day to celebrate the most poignant moments in a cinema hall getting marred by a lout saying, garv se of course, HELL-OW. It is the day to commemorate all your dates where the object of your lust spent the better part of the evening breathing into a shiny plastic box instead of you.
It is also the day to celebrate people killing each other on the road because their brains were too focused on a disembodied voice while they were driving. Yet, the World Telecom Day is also the day to mourn the death of travel, for no matter where, and how far away you may be, you can never leave home. Or office.
Because home (or office) is only a beep away. You could be at Bondi Beach, quietly contemplating the beauty and splendour of the female form in all its multitudinous, multinational glory, and your cellphone starts buzzing.
You know it’s got to be the wife. You pick it up, and no, it’s not the wife. It’s Morpheus, and he’s just called to tell you about the Matrix and how what you consider Reality is controlled by machines and is not real.
But seriously, we need to think hard about whether it is we who are in control of the technology we use, or is it the other way round. As an experiment, try and live without your cellphone for a month.
And keep a journal of your withdrawal symptoms. By the time you start screaming in agony and frothing at the mouth for your handset, you would be ready to understand 
the true meaning of the telecom revolution.
While it’s all very well to go into an orgy of congratulatory sms-ing to observe World Telecommunication Day, we also need to ask ourselves: is cellphone technology really a boon if it makes us dependent? How cool is it to have less control over our lives and environment at the individual level?
Networking and communication technology, while being wonderful testaments to human ingenuity, are also things that entrap you. If mobiles were really a progressive force, we should be able to live with them or without, as we choose. But the power of choice doesn’t exist for most people who have to get by and make a living.
The slogan of a leading cell phone brand, ‘Stay Connected’ is not an option, but a compulsion. It is the machine which has decided for us, decided that we can’t do without it. How it is turning us all into asocial beings — into an atomised aggregation of worker bees — is another story altogether. But today is a good day to ponder these questions. Happy World Telecommunication Day.

‘I tried to take Naipaul on his own terms’

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm

G Sampath | First published in DNA on Sunday, May 4, 2008

Award-winning British writer Patrick French is the author of Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer, Liberty Or Death: India’s Journey To Independence And Division, Tibet, Tibet: A Personal History Of A Lost Land, and most recently, an authorised biography of VS Naipaul, The World Is What It Is. In Mumbai to promote his new book, he talks to G Sampath about Naipaul, Tibet, and the subject of his next book, India.
First Younghusband, then India’s freedom movement, Tibet, a Nobel-winning author — how do you select the subject for your books? 
For me, all of these subjects link up together because I think the most interesting thing that happened in the 20th century was the end of the colonial era, which happened in many different ways in different countries. In Tibet, it was the product of the Chinese civil war. In India, you have all the consequences of Partition. In Naipaul’s case, the end of the colonial period in Trinidad, as India moved towards Independence, meant that the old structures that had made that society work, all fell apart. And so in a way, he is the ultimate, deracinated post-colonial writer. He was somebody who tried to throw off the circumstances of history — he is triangulated between the Caribbean, Britain and India. He is inside and outside all of these cultures. And for me, this made Naipaul a uniquely interesting biographical subject. If you are writing about a typical person who is Indian or British or American, you would have a simple narrative thread. But in Naipaul’s case, every thread is broken; you have to construct something totally fresh.
Were you at any point intimidated by your subject?
I was never intimidated by Naipaul though a lot of people are afraid of him. But yes, he often responds to people being nervous of him by using that as an opportunity to push them around in some way.
Naipaul’s politics have been controversial, to say the least. How did you reconcile the differences between your politics as a writer, with that of Naipaul’s? 
I tried to put my own political views and prejudices aside. Liberalism or idealism, which marks aspects of my political life, can themselves be forms of prejudice. With Naipaul, I tried to take him on his own terms. I didn’t approach him ideologically at all. I sought to represent his point of view, but even more importantly, I tried to discover the origins of particular positions that he had taken. For example, if you look at his attitude towards Africa, or his attitude towards the Muslim world, a lot of that has roots in the kind of society that he grew up in, in Trinidad, where each ethnic group was competing to assert itself. So his views on race and ethnicity are coming from an origin very different from those of somebody who grew up in India, or Britain.
The way India handled the Olympic torch relay in Delhi, with excessive security, do you think we have been fair to the Tibetans?
If you look at India’s position, they’ve given hospitality to 100,000 Tibetan refugees, they’ve given the Dalai Lama a home in exile. I think it is completely unrealistic to imagine that India’s foreign policy in relation to China would be governed by a concern for the Tibetan people. I think India has a very difficult line to tread, and it’s understandable that they take the approach that they do.
Of late, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Gandhi, Subhas Chandra Bose and other leaders of the freedom movement. How would you explain this sudden interest? When a country establishes itself as an independent nation, you go through a period of grand ambition. You had Nehru’s dream, and he tried to implement that in the 1950s, and early 1960s, and when half a century has gone by, you go through a process of putting the founding fathers aside, and concentrating on the present. Inevitably, when you begin to feel disillusioned with your current crop of leaders, you turn back and say, well, what was Gandhi’s dream for India, what did Bose want for India, and you go back to these figures. A lot of it also has to do with the films being made on these leaders, that too spurs the research and the interest that you see at the moment.
What is your next book on?
It is about the changes in India in the last 20 years. It will be told through individual stories, a kind of social history. I feel quite optimistic about India at the moment. The idea of a country being able to push itself forward so rapidly, and cope with all the kinds of fractures and spin-offs that this creates, is really remarkable. One of the things you notice now is that there’s no longer that touchiness about the colonial period. Instead, you just have a new form of identity where India is in many ways envied around the world.
Like your Tibet book? 
A bit lighter than the book on Tibet. I feel quite optimistic about India at the moment, whereas I feel deeply pessimistic about Tibet.
What’s behind your optimism?
Extraordinary things have happened in India since I first came here in 1986, the difference is monumental. The idea of a country being able to push itself forward so rapidly, and cope with all the kinds of fractures and spin-offs that this creates, is really remarkable. One of the things you notice now is that there’s no longer that touchiness about the colonial period, or the immediate post-colonial period. Instead, you just have a new form of identity where India is in many ways envied around the world. I think there has been a generational shift now. Compared to the 1970s and 80s, the sensitivities related to the colonial period simply become irrelevant.
Many in India, especially the Left, wouldn’t agree with you.
If you are a farmer who is so badly in debt that your livelihood is destroyed, or if you are from an industrial sector that has been made over-competitive by the opening up of the Indian market, then India Shining wouldn’t mean much to you. One of the things that is neglected by the people on the Left, who oppose many of the consequences of globalisation and economic reforms, is that, though there is a substantial chunk of the Indian population that is in as bad an economic situation as they were 30 years ago, there are about 150 million people who have been lifted out of extreme poverty. That is a remarkable statistic. Just because some people are still doing badly, it is wrong to neglect the importance of this social and economic shift.
Getting back to Naipaul, setting aside your professional interest as a biographer, how would you characterise your personal relationship with Naipaul? 
Naipaul had the tendency to reject people, to withdraw his friendship. There are several instances of people being ‘disappeared’ from his life. Therefore I was always careful not to presume on that friendship. I always maintained some degree of distance, because I knew that when I came to write the book, I would only be able to do that properly if I had some distance from him. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to be as objective as I have been. I am sure you’ve noticed that I very rarely sit in judgment on him, I simply present the facts as they are.
So you’d say you are in no danger of being ‘disappeared’ from his life.
Well, there is always a possibility. If you look at his life, you’ll find many examples, such as Theroux and several others. Let me put it this way: Naipaul is someone who can’t be second-guessed. He’s an unpredictable person, and so I am always aware of his unpredictability.
Before you started working on this book, you would have had a certain idea in your head about the man. Did your view of Naipaul change during the course of writing this biography?
Before I took on this project, I knew him only slightly, had met him only a couple of times. He has a reputation as a villain, and so when I discovered the ways in which he’d behaved badly I wasn’t particularly surprised. But having said that, when you consider the early period of his life, I found a lot of reasons to feel sympathetic towards him. The one thing that was a shock, was how tough his life had been in 1950s London. When he tried to get a job, he was told he had the wrong sort of face. Or when he tried to get accommodation, he couldn’t get it. He didn’t have enough money for food. The extent of that struggle, in 1950s London, was something he had never spoken about before, even though it was an experience similar to what millions of others went through. He’s always separated himself from that and made out as of he won the scholarship to Oxford and thereafter made himself into a great writer. That struggle was quite a surprise to me.

What lies beneath the skin of everyday life

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 3:01 pm

First published in DNA on Sunday, Apr 20, 2008
By G Sampath
Unaccustomed Earth
Jhumpa Lahiri
Random House
338 pages
There’s been a load of humbug written about how Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories are about the ‘diasporic experience’. Those who retail such facile commentary should be whacked on the head with their keyboards and force-fed fifty printouts of their own McCriticism.
Because to say that Lahiri describes ‘the trials and tribulations’ of Indian/Bengali migrants in the US is like saying that Moby Dick describes the trials and tribulations of whaling. Not only is it misleading and idiotic, it is unfair to the writer, for how many of us are really interested in reading about whaling?
True, like Interpreter Of Maladies, her first collection of stories, and her novel, The Namesake, Lahiri’s third book mines the experience of Bengalis planted, thousands of miles away from their land of origin, on unaccustomed American earth.
But the migrant experience is only the difficult, unpredictable sea where each of Lahiri’s modest little Ahabs battle their own individual Moby Dicks. The scale may be less epic, the battle not so spectacular, but let the authorial eye focus long and hard on the dead skin of everyday routine, and sure enough, it peels off. What you see beneath is what Lahiri’s books are about.
The eponymous opening story, for instance, sets in relief the welter of feelings that define the relationship between a retired father living by himself following the death of his wife, and his married daughter, who has to cope with the responsibility of raising a family on her own in a land which she still cannot call her home; a situation not very different from what her mother faced when she moved from India to America decades ago.
The father sees his wife in his lonely, struggling daughter; the daughter recognises the typical American man in her widower father who is now seeking companionship with another woman.
The most miraculous feature of Unaccustomed Earth is the prose. Seldom has language so plain unearthed emotional landscapes so bleak in their desolation. Though the stories are all set in the US, and the characters mostly Bengali-Americans, the travails of the migrant, in Lahiri’s hands, ultimately become a metaphor for the universal human struggle of learning to cope with the traumas of life; something which no one, not even the Bengalis of Gariahat and Tollygunge — thriving in a cultural gravy cooked long, long ago in the mustard oil of the famed Bengal Renaissance — can escape.
By far the best story in the book is ‘Nobody’s Business’, a love story that also explores the dynamics of relationships that form between housemates. Sang (short for Sangeetha) is in love with Farouk. Sang’s housemate, Paul, harbours a secret crush on her.
One day Paul answers a call — on the common phone — from Deirdre, a woman who claims to be Farouk’s lover. Should he tell Sang about the call? Won’t she suspect his motive if he did so? But if he loved her, or even if only as her friend, shouldn’t he tell her about her two-timing boyfriend? But then, as a housemate, is it any of his business?
The barely acknowledged guilt over an old act of cruelty, a sudden fear that glides across a face like the shadow of a bird, a sense of loss that seems to have no discernible origin — Lahiri misses nothing, her finely tuned prose teasing out emotions that would barely register on the Richter scale of consciousness.
And it is in simple daily events, such as studying for an exam, washing clothes, shopping, or making dinner, that Lahiri finds the telling detail that opens up a character. In ‘Only Goodness’ an innocent — and not so uncommon — bonding ritual between two siblings, Sudha and Rahul, comes back to haunt the former when her brother becomes an alcoholic, is thrown out of college, and ends up a ‘failure’ living off his father. Her parents still cannot disown him, but she is stunned to discover that she can.
Lahiri demonstrates that the bonds of love, family, friendship — much as we like to romanticise them in our ‘Indian’ sentimental way of thinking — all have their tensile limits. Perhaps, starved of native cultural nutrient, they have become weak.
But they are, nevertheless, newly vulnerable in an alien soil. In Lahiri’s Zen-like vision of life, the truth about our selves is to be found not in our grand passions, but in the little attachments: “In the end, that was life: a few plates, a favourite comb, a pair of slippers, a child’s string of beads.”
Unaccustomed Earth is a bleak book. Those who dislike depressing films and read fiction primarily to escape from the stress-inducing detritus of the workplace will not find this collection appealing.
In purely literary terms, however, this volume is flawless. With these stories, Lahiri has managed to refine further her own fictional universe which, though it has no name, is as distinctive as RK Narayan’s Malgudi or Thomas Hardy’s Wessex or Haruki 
Murakami’s mysterious urban landscapes.
She can now afford to spend the rest of her life populating this world with more and more brooding, sensitive, middle-class Bengali-Americans. What matters is whether you like the world she creates with words. Given the maturity and elegance of her craft, this can only be a question of taste, not merit. If you are open to some unaccustomed reading pleasure, the eight stories in this collection could leave you in a mood of sweet and meditative melancholy.

No Internet Day, anyone?

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 2:59 pm

G Sampath | First published in DNA on Wednesday, April 9, 2008

That unbearably light purveyor of heavy existential themes, Milan Kundera, has written a novel called Life Is Elsewhere. Remarkably, it is not about cyber addicts. But it should have been.
With reports coming in that scientists have just perfected a new, improved version of the Internet, called ‘the Grid’, which will be 10,000 times faster than today’s broadband, life (or what is left of it) can only recede further into Elswhereistan.
According to David Britton, the Nerd Number One working on this project, ‘the Grid’ will revolutionise society. Sure. Like hell it will.
It will only transform our planet – already suffering under the misrule of a trans-national elite composed exclusively of mendacious, power-hungry sociopaths – into a laboratory of atomized, earning-consuming, self-computing particles with vestigial human characteristics.
Of course, as (pre-paid) experts keep telling us, you can’t stop the onward march of technology. Have you ever wondered how, for example, advances in anti-virus software march hand in hand with the new advanced viruses they are designed to destroy?
That is why, now is the time – before our brains collectively start taking orders from the Grid, which, co-incidentally, sounds a lot like ‘the Matrix’ – to institute a holiday from the Grid, which is the Internet ka baap, as it were.
I propose that we should start observing, by way of a feeble inoculation against the further enfeeblement of the real world by the virtual, a No Internet Day every year. Just like we celebrate Women’s Day once every year so we can harass womankind without any sense of guilt the remaining 364 days.
On No Internet Day, the World Wide Web will be shut down all over the planet. Nobody – not even the CIA – should be able to log in.
Human rats all over the world will scurry to their office caves and discover that their workplace is full of other human rats, and not just computers with automatons plugged into them.
All BPO proles and call centre coolies can, on this day, live up to their reputation by smoking pot and making out in their offices, which will remain open, but with no internet connection. Professional spammers will glare in impotent rage at their prone, red-eyed mouses, and no matter how many times they click it, they won’t manage to send out even one e-mail exhorting men, women, and prime ministers to enlarge their respective penises.
Journalists, without access to Google, will be forced to hit the streets and expose their bodies to natural light and unconditioned air.
As for the stock markets, well, I don’t understand what those so-called brokers do anyway, millions of them signaling and shouting and staring at screens like zombies looking for souls misplaced. Whatever it is that they do, yakking endlessly about bulls and bears with that air of moronic self-importance – they won’t get to do it for one whole day.
And if you are one half of a working couple, and want to convince your wife/girlfriend that you did indeed miss her for at least 3.5 seconds during the day, sending her hugs on Yahoo Chat and SMS-ing her to log in and collect it won’t do.
You actually have to transport yourself into physical proximity with her, and hug her bodily – with your own ten-fingered hands with dirt-laden nails and cholesterol-laden blood coursing through them. Think of that! Fifty years into life under the Grid – that could be truly revolutionary, if the Grid hasn’t outlawed No Internet Day by then.
Exciting as this scenario sounds, I doubt if such a day will ever come to be instituted. Not because the evil military-industrial-technological complex will never allow it – though that is one reason – but more because we no longer have the power to survive being unwired.
To take my own example, I am by no means a geek – in fact, I abhor technology and computers. I prefer talking to typing. I’d rather make eye contact with the person I’m communicating with than with a totally expressionless computer monitor that is taking the opportunity to shoot trillions of malignant microwaves into my retina every second.
But even I – a lapsed Luddite, if you like – start getting nervous tics in my fingers if I go without checking my e-mail for more than 90 minutes. After 130 minutes, I start getting palpitations and my mouse-deprived palms become sweaty.
After five hours, if I still haven’t had an opportunity to type in my username and password, my blood pressure dips to dangerous levels, and I start hallucinating about jumping into the sea and swimming on my own through tsunami-size waves to the island of my favourite website whose name I can’t tell you for no particular reason. But that’s my limit – five hours.
And I am told that the threshold is much lower in the case of bloggers and game fanatics, some of whom died recently because they were unable to tear themselves from their computers for even a few hours, for life accessories like sleep, eating, and crapping. I imagine it will be a dry and difficult day for porn addicts, too, though I can’t really tell because I have never surfed porn in my entire life.
In fact, no man ever surfs porn, under normal circumstances. But the shutting down of the Internet is just the kind of abnormal circumstance that can set off in any human being a tremendous urge to access porn, and once a person comes under the sway of such an overpowering force, there is no saying how long he or she might survive such an attack – a few hours, half a day, may be, but an entire day? I doubt it.
And that is why ultimately the No Internet Day will remain a non-starter, though God knows our species needs it. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try. After all, we do need a day to remind ourselves that life is not in the Internet; it is, and alas, always will be, elsewhere. 

Brand appeal

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm

First published in DNA on Sunday, Mar 16, 2008, 3:47 IST 
By G Sampath
Celebrated British comedian Russell Brand’s memoir is a hilariously honest account of a life lived perpetually on the edge of shame and disaster, writes G Sampath
My Booky Wook
Russell Brand
Hodder & Stoughton
340 pages
If all celebrity memoirs had even one-tenth the candour, one-fiftieth the humour, and one-hundredth the amount of narrative energy that Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook has, they would be 500 times more readable than they usually are. Brand may not be well known in this country where laughter is considered a challenge, but in Britain he is a one-man comic spectacle. If you cross Cyrus Broacha with Dean Moriarty, you just might — if you do it right — get a version of Russell Brand.
Brand, by profession, is a stand-up comic, print journalist, television host/star, and actor. But if you set his profession aside for a moment, what he is actually, is the tabloid’s wet dream. He is a celebrity who, unlike other animals of that breed, would make it to the pages of the gutter press purely on merit. Brand himself has admitted that he’s fascinated by tabloid culture: “Out of sheer narcissism it’s interesting to see yourself abstracted from yourself.” While all memoirs are essentially exercises in narcissism, Brand is so maniacally narcissistic he sets new benchmarks for memoirist self-disclosure — thanks, save your paparrazzi for the others, he seems to say.
In the age of the ‘misery memoir’ it is not uncommon for unknown people seeking fame to come out with ‘shocking’ tales of abuse and suffering and even criminal transgression. But when was the last time you read a celebrity writing about his favourite place for scoring heroin? Or about the multiple times he’s multi-timed his girlfriends? Or going whore-hunting with his father? If it is possible for anyone to talk endlessly about himself and not be boring for even a second, Brand’s got to be that man.
Here’s a typical Brand episode: On one occasion, he brings a stripper home. After they’ve done the act, Brand and the stripper quarrel. She slaps him, he spits at her, and pushes her out through the front door. Before he can turn back, the door clicks shut, leaving him standing naked on the street at three in the morning. Looking for help, he wanders, completely naked, and like a phantom of delight, into a gay bar. By the time he gets through to a locksmith, his crown jewels have passed through many hands.
As the memoir opens, Brand is holed up at Keystone clinic, a sexual addiction treatment centre in Philadelphia. Before that, he had spent time at a drug rehabilitation centre. As you read about his addiction-driven escapades, you realise that it is pain that produces the best humour. Brand’s parents separated when he was six months old, and he grew up an only, lonely and depressed child. At 16, he was into drugs, and at 17 his father took him on a tour of the Far East, where he discovers the joys of escapism through orgasm. Swiftly, his life becomes a pendulum swinging from a cocktail of drugs (marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, LSD, heroin, the works) to hookers and back. What keeps him ticking, though, is his burning ambition to become a famous comedian.
But every time glory seems within reach, Brand self-destructs. He is bewildered by the fact that in school, you even have to attend classes. And when he does attend, they throw him out, for the ridiculous reason that he turned up stoned and drunk. He resents having to buy tickets for train travel. He finds girlfriends irrationally demanding — they all expect him to stop taking drugs and not sleep with anyone else. When he continues taking drugs and any woman he could, his girlfriends eject him from their flats; one of them actually throws his stuff out of the window in bin bags. Brand, cunningly, starts a new standard operating procedure: every time he moves in with a new girlfriend, he secretly makes a duplicate key to her flat in anticipation of the day when he will be thrown out, so that he can keep coming back afterwards to steal food and money.
Brand loathes authority of all kind and loves disrupting the placid lake of social interaction by flinging an anarchic rock or two into it. And his crimes against conformity keep getting him into trouble — he is forever getting evicted from pubs, flats, restaurants, hotels, schools, parties, and even streets. He gets serially sacked from every job he ever lands. He is sent packing even by that icon of wacky humour, MTV, for being too wacky. All he did was turn up for work on September 12, 2001 dressed as Osama bin Laden.
The abiding principles of Brand’s life are authenticity and “triumph over conformity”. Of course, neither of these is easy to uphold in a consumerist world that is forever pressurising you to ‘be yourself’ and ‘fit in’ by being ‘cool’, which you can only do by purchasing variously culture-coded commodities. Brand is aware of this, and he tries to — consciously or unconsciously — transgress every social and cultural norm there is. The mayhem that ensues when he does that supplies the material for his edgy comedy shows. Brand’s real body of work, therefore, is his own life — an anarchic force that is forever threatening to devour him and derail those around him. This 21st century Pan or Bacchus, whichever way you look at him, summed it up best when he wrote, “My biggest problem is that I’ve lived an autobiography rather than a life.” Perhaps that’s the only way to live. If India gets a Russell Brand-type celebrity of its own, the fortunes of our ‘entertainment’ news channels can be guaranteed to remain up, propped up by triumphantly priapic TRPs.

Misery loves company…and a good memoir

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 2:37 pm

First published in DNA on Saturday, Mar 15, 2008
By G Sampath

With LK Advani’s memoirs, My Country, My Life set to hit stands on March 19, G Sampath takes a look at a genre taking the publishing world by storm, the Misery Memoir
If you’ve been secretly working on a novel, and hoping to sell it to a publisher abroad for an obscene advance, kindly delete your hope, and move your manuscript to the recycle bin.
And remember to empty your recycle bin immediately. For at least in the West, the fastest growing market today is not fiction, but memoirs. To be precise, a sub-category of memoirs called ‘misery memoirs’.
The trend was started by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), whose tale of childhood destitution was so powerfully moving that it moved millions of copies from bookshops to reader’s homes.
In the years since, as publishers realised that there was a market for misery, they fine-tuned the formula, whose one essential ingredient is some form of violent abuse, preferably in childhood.As happened with chicklit, there began a flood of misery that has still not abated.
However, while chicklit, originally a western publishing trend, has successfully caught on in the Indian market, the misery memoir hasn’t made an impact here. This is rather strange, considering that there is no dearth of misery in our country.
So how do we account for this anomaly? According to Pramod Kapoor, managing director, Roli Books, the Indian psyche is different from the western one. “We are a very private people,” he says. “We don’t like to make our misery public just to make money out of it.”
That view does not tally with the experience of Saugata Mukherjee, commissioning editor, HarperCollins, India: “We keep getting manuscripts of what you might call misery memoirs, but they are all very poorly written.”
Penguin’s editorial honcho Ravi Singh has an interesting theory. “Misery memoirs are written by people who haven’t had it easy in life. In India, this often means you haven’t had the privilege of education, in which case you wouldn’t be able to write books.” If Singh is right, the problem in India might well be the conjunction (or the lack thereof) of misery and ability.
But who exactly are the Indians with the greatest quantity of misery in their lives? NRIs who love their native land so much they’d rather write about it from a safe distance?
Academics with too much time on their hands? Or retired bureaucrats who couldn’t find a think tank to swim in? Brimming as these lives may be with exquisite misery, they may not be in the same class as, say, the cotton farmers in Vidharba, who are unlikely to seek salvation in a book deal. At least so far, they have preferred suicide over memoir-writing.
Who else is rich in misery in our country? Mukherjee offers a clue. “Most of the ‘misery manuscripts’ we receive are from women,” he says. As 50 Cent once said, “That don’t surprise nobody.” In fact, the two titles that crop up repeatedly when you mention ‘misery memoirs’ to Indian publishers are both by women: Reaching Out To The World by Baby Halder, the memoir of a domestic help, and Nalini Jameela’s Autobiography Of A Sex Worker.
However, despite these one-off hits, there is no sign of an explosion of Indian misery memoirs. “The Indian market is not yet ready for this kind of genre differentiation,” explains Singh.
But which ambitious writer would want to count on the Indian market anyway? “Till 20 years ago, Indian publishers didn’t even publish fiction by Indian writers. They only did educational books,” reminds Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan, the publisher of Baby Halder’s book.
But our authors, beginning with Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, did make it big in the West, and as a result Indian English fiction today has a market even in India!
The only problem that needs to be addressed is: how can a writer with no experience of misery produce a misery memoir? Not everyone is as fortunate as Dave Pelzer who, in A Child Called It, describes in fascinating detail how his mother force-fed him his own vomit, and rubbed his face in soiled nappies. If you weren’t lucky enough to be born to parents with such innovative child-rearing ideas, it’s always going to be tough.
But there is a way to untie the Gordian knot though: Just write, without any exaggeration, about how you killed your father and slept with your mother before being raped by your step-father at the age of 13, for which you took revenge by castrating him after drugging him. Margaret Jones went down that path in Love And Consequences — her memoir, about a childhood spent drug-running among Black gangs, was revealed last week to have been all made up.
Guess who told the told the whole world about her fraud? Her sister. Moral of the story: If you do eventually write a fake misery memoir, remember to leave no sister unkilled. 

Life before wife and after

In Uncategorized on February 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm
First published in DNA on Sunday, March 2, 2008

There is a big difference between house-hunting as a bachelor and house-hunting as a married man. The big difference is called Wife.
When I moved to Mumbai three years ago, it took me just two days to finalise a house. I saw two places. One was a cow shed, and another was, well, a rat hole that was nearly as big as the parking space that came with it. The choice wasn’t difficult: I’ve always felt emotionally closer to a rat than to a cow. And free shelter for my four-wheeled alter-ego clinched it. I moved into my own pad within three days of landing in Mumbai. That was in 2005 BD (Bachelor Days).
The lease on my current flat runs out on March 31st, 2008 WE (Wife Era), and Wife and I (mostly I) have been scouring the city for a place to shift to. In the last three weeks, Wife has already rejected three flats I’d thought were great. And I’m not a man who takes rejection well. Seeing my face, Bhikkubhai, the broker kindly assured me that this 1-BHK in Mahim would definitely please “bhabi”.
Bhikkubhai wasn’t fibbing. The first thing that impressed me was the huge parking space. I internally rejoiced at the prospect of not having to scrap for parking space with kids on tricycles.
Making our way up two flights of stairs decorated with beautiful abstract designs in shades of red, we reached an elegant, wooden door that looked like it had been kicked open many times — like the police do in the movies. It sure had character, that door.
The room we entered had a nice dining table. The bedroom already had a bed, even a showcase. Great, I thought, no need to buy any furniture. The apartment was big enough, and within budget.
Hope surging in my heart, I called up Wife and told her to go check it out immediately.
A few hours later, Wife called. “Hello”, I said, “Liked the flat?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Now what?” I sighed.
“The staircase has disgusting spit marks all around. The front door is falling apart. The bed looks hideous. And they’ve got that monstrous dining table with Sunmica.”
“What’s wrong with Sunmica?” I ventured feebly.
“Even the showcase is Sunmica, chee!”
“It’s a beautiful showcase,” I said, bravely.
“In that case, you go live with the showcase. I’ll look for another flat.”
“But think of the parking space!” I said desperately. “We —” The line went dead. Nothing that had impressed me seemed to count for much with Wife. I took a deep breath. And dialled Bhikkubhai’s number once more.