Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Reality Bites

Picture this- Shah Rukh Khan, Salmaan Khan, Urmila Matondkar, Juhi Chawla, Akshay Kumar, the eponymous Rakhi Sawant and her latest threat to the item girl tag, Rosa Catallano. No, this is not the ensemble cast of the latest Bollywood potboiler. They are my friends who are over at my place for a high tea, this weekend. Don’t shriek yet guys. Remember figurative speech? Well they are at my place all right, but did I ever say we shared cutlery? Guys I only mean they are here, there, all over the tube and hence join me for my high tea at primetime weeknights or weekends.

The plethora of Bollywood stars and starlets making their small-screen debut is at an all time high. Given the thrill of “reality” TV and the wonders it had done to TRPs, I guess finding sponsors who shoulder the star fees and star tantrums is no big deal. After all, you have glossy sets, star judges (never mind if some of them can barely belch out Hindi) and contestants who are wannabe starlets in their own right so why not a star anchor? And then I guess it is the script’s demand. Yes dahlings its scripted, manufactured and tailored reality. All the bickering among judges and contestants that you get to get to see, all the Blackberrys that the contestants try to sell and all the tears that they shed, right down to the last detail of dress and mannerisms are carefully scripted to gather publicity, rake in more TRPs, generate drama and make a mockery of reality on your favourite reality shows.

In so far as it goes, reality TV started out pretty decent (I am talking of the Hindi general entertainment channels). After all, didn’t we have a Sa Re Ga Ma (it was called so back then) on Zee TV where we saw a juvenile Sonu Nigam crooning his way into the ladies’ hearts. And then there was a certain Antakshari where too, thanks to fiesty Annu Kapoor and his ever-changing female anchors, singing abilities mattered. And voila, there was this talent hunt on Doordarshan (Meri Awaaz Suno) where we had a Sunidhi Chauhan who wasn’t bit by the item song bug yet. Even Kunal Ganjawala and Shreya Ghoshal are Gajjendra Singh finds. And then came the Big B with a certain KBC 1 and television in India was never to be the same again. STAR’s sinking fortunes were salvaged and more than anyone else, Ekta Kapoor raked in the moolah. Two more KBC seasons came and went but Ekta went on (at least by the looks of it) forever.

So first, there were singing entertainment shows (Antakshari), then singing reality shows (Meri Awaaz Suno) later there were semi reality shows (Indian Idol, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Voice of India) and then there were the seasoned and pickled singing-cum-dancing fiascos (Chak De Bacche, where most of the kids were teenagers). As for talent, well what’s that? TRPs and SMS / IVR revenues matter. So promote regionalism through national television and happily pass the buck on to a certain Shiv Sena supremo.

As for dance, thank your stars that we still have a Boogie Woogie that remains true to format. There was a certain Nach Baliye with real life celebrity couples. Then, there was a second season where even couples just dating were allowed and then came the third season when manufactured couples were also allowed, and declared their single status barely after the competition closed. And spicing it up was our very own desi Rakhi Sawant who cried herself hoarse over alleged tampering of votes. No wonder, the original production house, SOL (which also gave us Koffee with Karan and Nach Le Ve) backed out this time.

There was also comedy and acting reality shows and chat shows which however failed to rake in as much TRPs as their singing and dancing counterparts. Moving on, we had the first intelligent celebrity chat show on Zee called Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai with the affable Farooque Shaikh as host. The show never seemed the same after Shaikh was replaced by Suresh Oberoi and in a first of sorts; father was spilling the beans of his son Viveck Oberoi’s life in one of the episodes. And then there was Sony’s Bigg Boss (at best a very poor spoof of Channel 8’s Celebrity Big Brother) where long-dead actors were resurrected and given a life.

Then came the me-too series. For game shows, we had Sawaal Dus Crore Ka on Zee where hosts Anupam Kher and Monisha Koirala couldn’t stop washing dirty linen in public, and some horrendous Sony show with Govinda. In the offing is Dus Ka Dum, Sony’s answer to Paanchvi Pass saying if you have Shah Rukh, we have Slamaan and if you can give away 5 crores, we can give away 10 and if you have juvenile questions, we have nonsensical ones.

For dance, we had Jhalak Dikhlaja, Yeh Hai Jalwa and now Rock and Roll Family where 3 generations of a family gyrate together on infamous item songs. In the offing is a real-life couple dance show on Star Plus christened Rock and Roll Soniye (guys couldn’t you have worked out a better name for the true-blue Nach Baliye?). For Star One’s The Great Indian Laughter Challenge, we had a Sony coup in Comedy Circus.

For singing, we had a Voice of India, an Indian Idol, a Jjhoom India, a Dhoom Macha De, a Say Shaava Shaava and lest I forget, the answer to Zee’s dancing family, Sony’s singing family show Waar Parivaar. So ain’t 9X or Sahara One thinking of a singing and dancing parivaar? So much for creativity guys. Concepts and formats apart, even the names and judges keep spawning. Also in the offing is Junoon, Kuch Kar Dikhane Ka where we shall have 3 teams of singers who sing 3 genres of music and yet have the cheek to compete with each other in the same contest. Yes, they shall be fought over, shamed, almost stripped and least of all, coached, by 3 gurus. The me-toos in talk shows were Koffee with Karan, Ranvir, Vinay aur Kaun and Arrested by Rakhi.

And then there were a series of spoof shows where contestants from reality shows across all channels gathered to prove their mettle once again. Not that they had much of it anyway. And there is a me-too in this area too. Ustaadon Ka Ustaad spawned Jo Jeeta Wahi Superstar on Star Plus that is if I take their small-screen release dates into consideration. But it’s hard to believe going by Sony’s copy-cat syndrome.

Here is where I would like to give credit where it is due. Guys take a cue from Balaji Telefilms. Though you cannot tell one show from another, what with actors spilling over, and plots majestically getting replicated and merged and gimmicks done to death, Ekta Kapoor sure has her vocabulary right. For one, she never sells her serials as reality shows and two; she does not believe in herd (nay nerd) mentality that our reality show makers cash in on. She calls a spade a spade and lets her content rather than her characters do the talking. It’s all right guys to call these contestants characters. After all, they survive the tears and the hugs and the tag of being ‘controversy’s child’ all for their fifteen minutes of fame. And then MTV Roadies, Anmol and Shambhavi have captured Ekta’s imagination as had Indian Idol finalist Amit Tandon. Ekta sure has a knack of spotting acting talent.

An IPL in full swing and mother hen Smriti Irani back in Star Plus’ channel-driver Kyunki later too, the reality bug refuses to die. In fact, by the looks of it, it is here to stay. Sony’s Indian Idol, “Bharat Ki Shaan” auditions are almost underway and Saibaba Telefilms (of Gajjendra Singh fame) is on a diarrhea of sorts with shows in most of the channels except his home turf Zee who have managed it very well without him and host Shaan (Aditya Narayan donned his hat very well).

Not that I have a problem with reality shows. But I certainly do have a problem with semi reality, manufactured reality, tailored reality and spoof and cliché shows. And until they call themselves that, I refuse to stop critiquing them.

Trailing Clouds

August 15th 2007; 8:15 p.m. IST. It is one of those rare evenings when Hyderabad is relatively cool. Sipping coffee, I reach the terrace where a whiff of fresh air, pregnant with a drizzle, brushes past my face. I turn on the FM and RJ Addonica succeeds in making me addicted to her aptly-titled show, Addicted to Addonica. As I scan for other FM channels once her show is over, I chance upon AIR where they are playing Gulzar’s “Chhod aaye hum woh galiyaan…” from Maachis.

Almost simultaneously, I notice the skyline of Hyderabad. A veritable concrete jungle it is. A jungle where one has to be at the mercy of the occasional drizzle to feel fresh air on his face. And for someone who has been born and brought up at a hill station, such things as muddy lawns, a mosquito coil or net, and warm dusty winds and curry-leaf-garnished Chinese food is definitely not what I call bliss.

As the song gathers tempo, it transports me down memory lane and I arrive at Shillong. Let me shed all trappings of journalism here. This cannot be an ‘objective’ report simply because the place I’m writing about has been my home for the last two-and-a-half decades. This is the place in which ‘every stone has been a boy’s book to me’ (Charles Dickens, David Copperfield).

Named after the deity U Shyllong, my native town still likes to relish it’s past. For one thing, it cannot think of shrugging away the vestiges of the Raj. And why should it? It was one of the first bases of the British in the Northeast, the capital of undivided Assam, and the first city of the Northeast until Guwahati took over in 1972.

The average Shillongite converses in English and loves rock fests and burgers. They also have their own Bob Dylan, Lou Majaw! They attend Sunday mass and do a jive and salsa. And very endearingly cling on to the city’s colonial past. After all, the Englishmen left behind them the legacy of some of the best educational institutions run by the missionaries and gave it the endearing epithet of ‘Scotland of the East’.

Shillong might not feature as prominently as the Taj in the tourist maps of India. But as Kolkatans swear of their ‘city of joy’ that it has soul, so I revel in my ‘toy city’ (it actually is a town 10.36 sq km in area, where the most you pay to be ferried around in the taxis is a mere Rs. 10-15), it has spunk; and verve. But let me first take you through to the city. It is a pleasant 100 km drive uphill from Guwahati (or about 20 from the Umroi airdrome). And the fares, Rs. 65 for a tedious journey by the government buses, Rs. 110 for a shared Tata Sumo and Rs. 150 for a shared Alto ride. Reservations are anything between Rs. 1200-1500.

The drive uphill is punctuated by sharp curves and turns and a mounting chill in the air. As the cars jog along (and seldom above 40 km/h), the eyes can feast on the lush greenery and the stubble pine forests. Yes I shall go with ‘stubble’, for the dense forests are vastly cleared first from jhumming and second, to make way for settlement and timber trade. There are several beautiful waterfalls punctuating the highway. The balmy countryside air is heady with the scent of marigolds, orchids and pineapples. It makes you both heavy with sleep and desperate for the red tea and ‘kuwai’ (raw betel nut and leaf served Khasi style with a slice of ginger) the smiling ‘kong’ (elderly Khasi woman) hands you over from her rag-tag shop lining the highway.

But wait, the car has suddenly pulled up to investigate a pretty common occurrence here, an accident. Yes, this narrow hilly road is not exactly a video-game route, though it definitely looks like one. Accidents are a common phenomenon on this highway. And the road definitely doesn’t encourage rash driving with hoardings like ‘This is an accident-prone area’ and ‘No whisky, no risky’ (seriously!), splattered generously across the entire stretch.

About half-way into the journey, halt at Nongpoh, the headquarters of the Ri-Bhoi district that has developed into a busy commercial center in 10 years flat. Look for the famous egg-chops, chilly and bamboo pickles or any western meal in the jostling-with-life restaurants. And shop for souvenirs on the street-side shops. There’s all you can get to qualify as the occidental connoisseur’s delight: exquisite bamboo, pinewood and cane furniture, decors and jewellery.

And if this isn’t enough, stop a good 16 km from the city at Umiam (Barapani) lake and bask in the bounty of nature. This lake, and the adjoining Orchid Lake Resort look straight out of a picture postcard. It is best to be there in the late afternoon when the setting sun envelopes it all in a coat of wine. Being there is like testifying Newton’s inertia; once there you just cant drag yourself to get out of it. Mostly the resort is choc-a-bloc with visitors: delegates at a formal convention, Dil Chahta Hai types friends groups and the beer-guzzling youth straying out of city limits.

Then, as you actually enter the city, one of the several arteries branch out to the scenic North Eastern Hill University campus. It is another visual treat where they’ve managed to make even such a dull academic building as the central library, resemble a cake. And just when you thought that the town is getting on your nerves, with the scent of dry fish, the lime-smeared walls and the stench of urine, voila! you are into city traffic. And just by the way, Shillong has one of the country’s highest man-car ratios, whatever technical term there is for it. And this explains why sadly like most other Indian cities, this city too seems ready to burst at the seams and is practically getting choked with smoke. And come to think of it, this is the very city in which there were no flies, no mosquitoes and no fans used, not very long ago. A textbook example of global warming.

And all around you, you notice swarms of schoolchildren. Just behind the place where the Tata Sumo draws up to stop, is the beautiful Ward’s lake where schools of fish gobble up the puffed rice the moment it falls over the tiny wooden bridge. Adjoining it is the tiny botanical garden. And both overlook the Raj Bhavan. Both man-made attractions, one wonders if Shillongites were not happy at nature’s bounty that they had to concoct their own. To continue with the other man-made attractions, there are the sprawling Polo grounds (one of the oldest in golf-courses the country and the first 18-hole golf course in Asia), Lady Hydari Park (with a small animal park and aviary), State Central Library and auditorium, State Museum and the fruit gardens and Fish Dale opposite St. Edmund’s college.

The town broods with spirituality with churches (some of the finest and oldest in the region, with even a wooden one!), chapels, mosques and temples in abundance. And there is no religious intolerance, which is why in a predominantly Christian town, there are close to 60 Durga idols lined for immersion on ‘Dashami’ and Christmas sees the entire town decked like a bride. Even Hindu families have their stars and cut their cakes. Yet, Shillong is a city that has made ‘bandhs’ and curfews a part of it’s calendar. Terrorist factions haven’t been too merciful on this cute hill station and separatist / extremist attacks are not any lesser than the neighbouring states. Having a BSF base and the headquarters of the Eastern Air Command here doesn’t seem to be of much help either.

A stone’s throw away, there’s Police Bazaar, replete with Chinese restaurants and shopping malls. For authentic Chinese food step into Bamboo Hut, Kim Fa or even Broadway. Police Bazaar is also strewn with ‘jadoh’ stalls. ‘Jadoh’ is the local delicacy, rice cooked in pork blood and served with pork and ‘turumbai’ (mashed dry fish chutney). Then, there is the great Delhi Mistan Bhandar and every Shillongite shall swear by their sweets, especially ‘jalebis’. And for the conservative, there is North Indian and South Indian fare at Baba, Regal and even Broadway. Shillong has a thriving bakery culture and delicious cakes, biscuits and pastries are practically available at every departmental store. A hotel suite in Police Bazaar, costs anywhere between Rs. 500-1200 per day. Shillong has no 5-star hotels, only 3-star ones like Polo Towers, Center Point, Magnum, Alpine Continental and Broadway.

But before you get in, stand and stare at the beautiful fountain. And if you are a nocturnal creature like me, the lights glistening in the spray will have you mesmerized. As you venture in, shop for trinkets and souvenirs in the handloom shops. For jeans, head to Glory’s Plaza (where you even have a Hong Kong market) and bargain shamelessly. And stooge into all the stores to find just the right cuts and fits and the very accessories you thought only designer stores kept. And then Shillong has its regular brand outlets and stores in place too. Only, everything seems a little over priced. But then I guess the comfort of finding practically anything on earth within a very small area more than compensates for that. But shop early, for Shillongites love to sleep early and wake late. The city practically comes to a standstill by 8:30 p.m.

A little way off is the commercial centre of Burra Bazaar (Iewduh) where the Khasi farmer arrives early in the morning to sell his yams and poultry and return by sunset. The market is a riot of colours for the Khasi farmer has pumpkins, mustard leaves, and sweet potato. And the pork and beef stalls would have the Shiv Sianiks up in arms. But avoid this place if you mind muck in your shoes and hate scooting behind heaps of outrageously stinking dry fish.

Within the city, experience the verve of youthful energy in the commercial area of Laitumkhrah, around Don Bosco square. Also make sure you visit the sprawling campuses of institutions like St. Edmund’s College, St. Anthony’s College and St. Mary’s College. Lady Keane lies just beyond Police Bazaar. For the sheer thrill of the outdoors, try moving towards Mylliem or the more touristy Shillong peak, Sohra (Cherrapunjee, 65 km), Beadon and Bishop falls, Elephant falls or even a Spread Eagle falls in the heart of the city.

All said and done, Shillong still retains its mystic charm and (I’m sure every Shillongite reading this blog will agree with me when I say this) no other city becomes your home once you’ve lived in Shillong. On rain-washed afternoons the sun still vies for attention with the rainbow in the azure cloud-rimmed sky. Groups of youngsters wind their way across cobbled streets to congregate at Police Bazaar. Little wonder then, that Shillong is the muse of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, (who wrote his famous Shesher Kabita here).

The distant chime of a church bell lulls my senses as I stare blankly and something drones in my ear. The song is over and AIR has shut down. Clasping the empty mug of coffee, I scoot downstairs. ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new’.

Shillong is the capital of the North-Eastern state of Meghalaya formed in 1972
Nearest railway station & airport: Guwahati (102 km)
Best time to visit: Between October and March
Tourist Points: Lady Hydari Park, Golf Course, Waterfalls, Shillong Peak
Travel advice: Shillong is not exactly easy on the pocket. So carry lots of cash. And travel with a lot of warm clothes for whenever it pours in Shillong, it gets quite chilly.

Yes I am Complaining

Yes I am complaining…

For drugging the appetite and making a meal…
For giving me the faculty to be and actually to feel…
For making me a scarecrow and a mannequin…
For kindling my desires and backstabbing…
For keeping the embers and killing the flame…

Yes I am complaining…

For making me a confused wishlist and an array…
For deciding to test Economics through me…
For making me a cornucopia of desire…
For making me a denounced mass of protoplasm…
For driving me up Atlas and shoving me down the chasm…
For making me a devotee and a heretic…

Yes I am complaining…

For making me the poem and the muse…
For making me the corn and the cob…
For making me the sting and the stung…
For making me yearn what I was ultimately to refuse…
For making me a whiz where it didn’t matter…
For giving me vision cloaked in illusion…
For making me a pimp and the pawned ounce of flesh…

Chak De! India

Chak De India
Released: 10 August 2007Director: Shimit AminProducer: Aditya ChopraCast: Shahrukh Khan, Sagarika Ghatge, Chitrashi Rawat, Shilpa Shukla, Vidya Malavade, Tanya Abrol, Anaitha Nair, Shubhi Mehta, Seema Azmi, Nisha Nair, Sandia Furtado, Arya Menon Masochon and Zimik Kimi LaldawlaRunning time: 2.5 hours
Chak De: Well Done
Defamed coach Kabir Khan’s motley crew of girls clinching the hockey world cup was a sweet tribute to India on her sixtieth birthday. And in case you thought I messed up the intro sentence, you stand corrected. Indeed, it is a film on our national sport hockey and well just this once; it is Kabir Khan and not the eponymous ‘Badshah of Bollywood’ who holds the film together. The Shah Rukh Khan persona does not overbear the film and that is what makes it one of Shah Rukh’s best films till date. Speculation is rife that this film must salvage the sinking Yash Raj ship post the debacle of Jhoom Barabar Jhoom and the average Ta Ra Rum Pum. Whether that happens only time will tell but what I can tell is that this is an out and out Bollywood commercial flick, which still manages to keep you craving for more.
What holds the film together is it’s tight screenplay and a predictable script. Yes you heard it right, a predictable script, yet a realistic one. There is no melodrama or slow build up to the action. Yash Raj even keeps the songs for the promos. And there is no time wasted visiting the past lives of the girls, their trials and tribulations, which would have been just the fodder for an Ektaa Kapoor or K Jo. What matters here is for the rag tag bunch of girls to win the World Cup for which they must play as a team. And that is precisely where the problem lies. The machinations of the minister have been subdued. But what will stop Komal Chautala and Preeti Sabhrawal from bickering, what will cool fiery Balbir Kaur or what will make the most experienced player, Bindia Nayak yield to her coach. And since the cast is so fresh and identifiable, and does not show an iota of awe for the Shah Rukh Khan persona, the film strikes a chord.
And then this becomes a Kabir Khan film. The person who served as the inspiration to Khan’s character in the film has confessed in television interviews to being involved with it. And Shah Rukh seems to have taken advantage of this. He essays his role effortlessly and for once looks convincing even when he’s not romancing a teary-eyed heroine or bickering with her. And to get back to the script, it is real precisely because it has its roots in living, kicking characters. And it is predictable because of the tried and tested reality gimmicks employed umpteen times by our scriptwriters: the team losing the first match to win all the others in the series, a strong team overpowered by experience and just winning by a hair’s breadth.
And just if you thought that I was going gaga over the film, well, I have my set of quarrels. For like all Bollywood flicks, the film succumbs to cultural stereotypes: the crafty bania, the foolish sardar. Here, this becomes most apparent in the portrayal of the girls like the hot headed Punjabi lass Balbir Kaur, the slit-eyed North-Easterners Molly Zimik and Mary Ralte (who sport trendy clothes and are welcomed as guests in their own country), the Telugu girl Nethra Reddy (who made a point about Southern languages and cultures enough to send this theatre in Dilsukhnagar, Hyderabad, where I watched the film, into a tizzy) and Soi Moi from Jharkhand who can only mouth ‘Thank You’ and ‘Happy Diwali’ in English. Come on Mr. Shimit Amin, we can leave slotting people behind, right? After all we are in the 21st century where even foxes are not so sly dude!
Nevertheless, the film holds together rather well without being overly dramatic or loudly patriotic like Lagaan or Gadar. And after all, let us not forget that this is also a Bollywood flick, and close on the heels of Aap Ka Suroor: The Moviee, The Real Luv Story, these matters do seem trivial. It does make a point or two about sportswomen getting married, balancing their marriages and sports, jealousies within the sports fraternity and the attitude of our ministers towards women’s sports. And does all this without seeming didactic and going over the top. On the whole, the running time of the film (barely 2.5 hours) is precious time spent well. And the aptly-timed release, will only ensure it sets the box office ringing. Kudos to Chak De and its team! The match is well-played and the trophy and laurels well-deserved

English August: An Indian Story

English August: An Indian Story
Author: Upamanyu Chatterjee
Published: 1988
Genre: Novel / Fiction / Literature
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Pages: 288

Having parents who work in the State Forest Services is forever a pleasure. And I have long entertained the desire to chronicle my days in the virgin forests of Arunachal Pradesh. And now, I have a very worthy prequel in Upamanyu Chatterjee’s English, August: An Indian Story (1988). And ‘chronicle’ is the word. For, whatever doubt I had reading the book that such intricate detail can only stem from personal observation, has been substantiated by the fact that it actually is. Upamanyu Chatterjee, the author, is in the I.A.S and this explains why, the book is for its author what David Copperfield was for Charles Dickens: fictionalized autobiography.

And a veritable David Copperfield it is at certain instances, for instance, it’s ‘Bengali-ness’: both the author and his protagonist Agastya Sen (August / Ogu) are Bengali by birth. And then, both novels deal with a lot of self-introspection by the protagonist. And finally, both Chatterjee’s and Dickens’ humour add a lot of life to the novel. Only, where Dickens is not being frivolous about disease and dirt, Chatterjee, through Agastya, is. Take the passage where Agastya is looking at the food offered to him at the Integration Meeting, where it seems to him that the green chutney seems to tell him, ‘Hi, my name is Cholera, what’s yours?’.

But then this is a post-colonial modernist novel. And the similarities with David Copperfield end there. And where Dickens’ novel gained from the intimacy bestowed by a first-person narrative, Chatterjee shies away from doing so. And gains from it too. For where Dickens’ humanism made him find hope in hatred, Chatterjee refuses to find reason in cacophony or method in madness. This is Madna, not Victorian England. And just as R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi or Hardy’s Wessex becomes a microcosm for the world, Madna with its naked reality of poverty and dirt and squalor becomes Agastya’s. It is here that the play unfolds (for this is just an episode, not a plot with beginning, middle and end and if anything, the events depicted in Agastya’s life have no causal connection). Madna serves as the backdrop to the satire just as a decadent London does to David Copperfield: ‘Ah. India lives in its villages, a terrible cliché that, but really very true, like all clichés’.

Madna is a distant district town where young I.A.S officer Agastya Sen must train under the scowling District Collector, Srivastav and his entire ilk. It is at Madna that city-bred son of Bengal Governor, Madhusudan Sen, and Goan mother Agastya must play out his cards so that the precious few whom he befriends ask him over for meals and drinks yet allow him to lie naked on his bed, smoke marijuana and feel stoned. Madna is indeed the prototype of the many district towns dotting post-British India. Most of the characters Agastya meets are straight out of popular culture; strain your neck and you will catch Vasant lurking somewhere, or the SP or Pultukaku or Dhrubo. And it is because Agastya has never lived in the hinterland that the exposure comes as a cultural shock, one which he often considers giving up. Even at the end of the novel, he writes to his friend Dhrubo, ‘I've become your American, taking a year off after college to discover himself’, as he leaves for Calcutta.

The poverty and squalor that he sees at Madna and the bureaucratization and politicization make the dough for deep satire. And satirical the book definitely is. But on the whole, which is why David Copperfield figures yet again, the novel is a bildungsroman, a book that charts the development and growth of its protagonist. For, otherwise, this could well be a travelogue gone awry with just the wrong descriptions to keep the tourist away. Yes, what salvages the book from being either a travelogue, or a memoir (and I suspect it definitely is one), is the fact that it marries the two. This is a book of self-discovery; of finding one’s calling; of fidgeting in the gray area of not willing to leave behind a cushy student’s life and yet not being ready to give up a good job for it. The self-introspection that Agastya indulges in make the novel more philosophical in tone: 'Eventually, he knew, he would marry, perhaps not out of passion, but out of convention, which was probably a safer thing. And then, in either case, in a few months or years they would tire of disagreeing with each other, or what was more or less the same thing, would be inured to each other's odd and perhaps disgusting ways, the way she squeezed the tube of toothpaste and the way he drank from a glass and didn't rinse it, and they would slide into a placid and comfortable unhappiness, and maybe unseeingly watch TV every day, each still a cocoon'.

What strikes you after reading English, August: An Indian Story is its Indian-ness. The India in the novel is for the reader to discover. It is so familiar that it slips your notice. And at the core of the novel lies it’s unhurried pace, Chatterjee’s word-smithy and wry humour to add to the already delicious brew. Which is to say, this is classic literature, which heaves, manifests and lasts. And Upamanyu Chatterjee is indeed in the big league of Indians writing in English, a worthy contemporary of Raja Rao, R.K. Narayan, Vikram Seth and Anita Desai.

I haven’t yet forgiven myself for not reading it earlier. Go grab it folks. It is a book for keeps.

Surviving Crusoe

Mine is the Arnoldian dilemma of the hapless individual caught between two worlds, one dead, the other, powerless to be born. Precisely. the world of my past is dead, cannot be re-lived. While the elusive future just refuses to blossom! And no, I’m not complaining. I am growing used to my self-ordained dictum, life will take it’s course, try as we might to alter it.

Living away from the cocoon of a doting family (and I am the pampered youngest of a family tree which could give Sooraj Barjatya a run for his money) for the last one year hasn’t been easy. Yes shopping for groceries and bargaining with the crafty greengrocer or the wily fishmonger is definitely not fun. Far from it. And then, staying alone also means managing my accounts with the measly stipend (I have papers to prove its not called a salary) that my company doles out religiously before the 1st of every month. There are rents and bills to be paid and then the wardrobe malfunction to be warded off. And all this when deadlines have to be met and extra hours put in. And I tell you, being a dutiful son of doting parents is no mean task. My phone bills will vouch for it.

And above all, staying so far away from one’s native place, one misses out on that universal juvenile addiction christened 'romance'. I mean the casual bit of flirting with colleagues is OK. But the one that stirs your soul, the one you want to culminate in walking down the aisle (yes lets face it all you long-distance lovers!) does suffer. For, there’s a sea of difference in merely saying ‘Darling, I want to hold your hands’ over the phone and actually holding her hands. Or saying ‘I love you’ over a Nokia 6080 and actually looking into her eyes when saying so.

And then the office. Well office means waking up early. For I do not have the leisure to just take my bath and dress. There’s the water to be filled, the laundry to be done and the swabbing and dusting. There’s no Maa holding out your morning cuppa to you as you whiz past her to college. Grow up lol. It’s your life. Get used to doing your things yourself. After all you have to don a parent’s mantle soon. Not anytime soon. I want to live life on my own terms for a bit. And yet I complain. There’s no urge to come back home after office. For unlike college, there’s no Maa waiting at home or girlfriend fuming at the café.

A typical day starts at 7 a.m. and ends about 7 p.m. There’s the staff bus (with the grumpy driver and garrulous inmates) to catch at 8 a.m. (it won't stop for anything unless it has a flat tyre). By the time I gather my wits and am ready to face the world for the day, I have been through an epic journey and 3 queues (one to punch in the attendance, one to get the food coupon, and one to get food). And as I perch myself at my desk and try to look busy, I realize that there’s the odd leave form to be filled and the boss (who is straight out of 1984 squinting ‘Big Brother is watching you’ out of his body language) to say 'hello' to and the swarm of colleagues to mutter (to borrow from Yeats) ‘polite meaningless words’ to. And unless you build a citadel around yourself, you are as much liable to be a subject of office gossip as a part of it. I steer clear. I don’t know how long I will be able to. But maybe because I am still in the student bent of mind or because this is my first job that such things as office politics or gossip do not excite me.

I smugly slip into work and down gallons of tea and coffee and partake of the pleasures of an occasional trip to the smoking room. And then the monotony actually seeps in. And ‘seeps’ is a mild term. It actually overwhelms you, drenches you, shoes and all. I pray for lunch time and after that try not to feel sleepy. By the way, lunch means another two queues, one to get the coupon and another to get the food. Barring the odd Saturday film, the post-lunch sessions are painstakingly boring and dull. And then just when you thought you could wind up for the day, the drone of the intercom summons you back to reality, biting reality. Yes, there’s urgent work, the MD wants to see a presentation or some nerd wants a demonstration. I often wonder why these people never have the time earlier. Perhaps they are the last surviving sheriffs who want to show that serfdom is still hip and if they pay you, you cannot question them. Question them? Forget it, you are a mere executive and a TRAINEE. So what if you went to the best schools and have shining degrees, aren’t they paying you? Learn, my dear, the world spins on money. Money is power. Period.

Another queue (out punch this time) later, I have the security frantically huddling my torso. (Maybe I look like a thug or a tout out to sell away my company secrets). And then as I make the epic journey back home poring into English, August (not solely for pleasure but to wean myself away from the knowledge of what happened at office today which some colleague or the other is too eager to tell), I am reminded of the wayward joys of being a student. The gay abandon of being a teeny bopper is no longer and youth seems competing with time to fizzle out faster. ‘See, life did take its course’, I tell myself, and ‘you thought you would never stay away from home’. Dislocation, boredom, ennui, whatever I term it, it’s been a victory for life and I am another of Destiny’s many children (the mother hen, doesn’t she ever tire of having to fend for so many?).

It is at these times that I most remember that age-old story of Robinson Crusoe that we had read at English honours. And here I am the modern Crusoe making this effort at economic individualism, this effort at keeping my sanity and making this Herculean effort to remain the Debashish of yore. Crusoe reached home. I will too