Monday, January 18, 2016

Chew (Or, how to eat a book)

When I was very little, I learnt how to read silently. Even got in trouble for it. See, we didn't have much of a library at school, but we had a "library period" - A 45-minute stretch of time where a group of fidgety 8-year-olds were expected to sit still and mumble from whichever book had been handed to them. Not because they loved it, but because "Library sir" would whack them between the shoulder blades with a freshly plucked switch if they didn’t. This wasn't meant to foster a love for reading, it was meant to keep us relatively quiet and scared; Which would describe a LOT of our classes, now that I think about it. But I digress.

My mother taught me how to read silently. It was the mark of culture, she said, to not move his lips when he read. So as I sat on the scratched, brown bench, hunched over my Blyton with no cover and ripped pages, lips unmoving, it must have seemed like I was staring, rather than reading. a classmate noticed, and keenly felt the unfairness of it all – him having to slog through books while I just sat there, in bliss, not absorbing ANY of the painful words into my brain. A teacher was summoned. The complaint was succinct. "He isn't reading. His lips aren't moving". I got away with it because, let's face it, as the only one in my class who snuck into the library rather than the football field during recess, it wasn't really believable that I wouldn't be reading. But I have always felt faintly smug about the incident, long after I had any right to be of such childish gotchas.

And then, I discovered, I was wrong. My mother was wrong. One day, I discovered the joys of reading out loud.

I blame Pratchett. The quality of his prose made me realize that it wasn’t enough to just read the words, that I wouldn’t be satisfied if I couldn’t feel them in a tangible manner. I needed to experience them through as many senses as I could, not just one. Hearing them, and yes, even speaking them out loud, feeling my lips and tongue and teeth perform the intricate symphony of storytelling the author had left there for me was a more complete experience, enveloping me and drawing me deeper into the world that had been weaved into my soul.

There is something solid about words. They aren’t simply vibrations in the air, or pixels on the screen, or curvy little blobs of ink on paper. They live, they breathe, and if I wanted them properly, I had to savour them. To say them out loud, to chew them, to bite, gnaw and nibble them until they felt real, in my mouth. I developed this system of “chewing” a story, where I don’t just read it out loud. I do the voices, I put on accents, I do characters. In short, I do my damndest to sound like a bad radio play, over-inflecting every word, suitability be damned. Does it slow down the process of reading? Certainly, but at the end of the day, it can’t possibly be about reading more than the other guy.

I don’t advocate reading whole books this way, of course. Not every word, not every passage, not every page or chapter is there to envelope you in. Some of them are there just to take you from the really good bits, and if you are lucky, the good bits are close by. But when you get to them, you will know. You will feel the familiar pinpricks of your hair standing on their end all along your arm, you will feel that tiny tingle in the back of your neck that tells you something special is going on. Your lips will part, your breath will pause, and somewhere in the deepest recesses of your animal brain, synapses will crackle with a little more fire. And when that happens, it doesn’t matter whether you are tucked into your bed with a book and a flashlight, or if you are in the metro, hanging onto the strap with one hand while you flick across your smartphones with the other, verbalize. Read it out loud. Trust me, eating your words never felt so damn good.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Plastic Pleasures

“Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.”  ― Douglas Adams

To many of us who love books, the printing press may be the greatest scientific achievement of all time. I mean, sure, without fire we wouldn’t have pizza and without the wheel there wouldn’t be a way to deliver pizza, but what is the point of a piping hot one with extra cheese if I don’t have a book to read while I absently shove slices in my mouth? Ok, that’s it with the pizza references, but the point of this is to say that people really, really, really love printed books.

And why wouldn’t they? First of all, printed books have been around for a long time. "Printed" is how we define books. It’s how our grandparents defined books. It’s how THEIR grandparents defined books, meandering back to the 1400s. Printed books are there in our bones, because they haven’t really changed in so long. We didn’t have any problem going from vinyl records, to cassettes, to CDs, to MP3, and that happened within a couple of generations. Nor do we yearn for when watching a movie at home meant lugging out the VCR and running to the video library three blocks away for a video tape that was just as likely to get wrapped up in the inner workings of the player as it was to provide an evening’s entertainment. Our music is digital, our movies are digital, our games are digital, so why do so many intelligent, reasonable people begin frothing at the mouth when the discussion turns to our books being digital?

Because they’re not wrong. There’s something about holding a book, about running ones fingers across the spine, about opening up a random page and glancing over the words. We don’t just read books. We feel books, and smell books, and touch books and sometimes, if the books are called 50 Shades of Gray, we throw books across the room in rage, but that’s neither here nor there. Books are warm and colourful and voluminous (literally). A stacked bookshelf, ceiling high, is a better adornment for any room than the world’s most expensive wallpaper. When choosing between digital and printed, the battle always comes down to aesthetics vs. practicality. And that’s the point of this post. To discover and discuss the aesthetic joys of digital.

It’s wise to remember that even the printing press was created out of a need for practicality. Books were the best way to codify and spread knowledge and information, but it was impossible to do that with the gigantic handwritten volumes of the day. The point was to speed up the process of making copies, not provide aesthetic joys. That came later, and it came because the size, shape and feel of a book became associated with memories. Practicality followed aesthetic pleasure. Hell, I bet someone complained when this newfangled thing called paper came in and made the “carvings on stone slabs” technology obsolete. This is what makes me sure that readers a few generations henceforth will find things to love about ereaders and digital books just the way we love printed volumes. The question is, what will they love?

Will they love the fact that going on vacation doesn’t mean having to choose only five of the fifteen or so books they will be reading over the next few weeks? Will they be thrilled by the way the ebook reader glows in the night…a luminous square of literature in the dark, and the rest of the world forgotten? Or will they delight in the fact that no book will go out of print. Ever.  Will they appreciate how wondrous it is that ancient philosophical texts and the latest prize winning fiction is available to them instantly? I do. It’s a thrill, a tingle in the base of my spine that I can only call an aesthetic pleasure. One that goes beyond the realm of the physical object and is almost, dare I say, magical? Yes, I recognize the aesthetic pleasures of a printed book. It’s why I have hundreds and celebrate the book fair as my own personal Christmas. But I also derive a different kind of aesthetic pleasure from a digital book. Fittingly, this is based on less tangible things, and more virtual, but it’s aesthetic no doubt, going beyond the realm of the words on the glowing screen. It’s the pleasure of more worlds to explore, more ideas to discover and more things to learn than I ever could, if I just stuck one way of thinking. Besides, printed books are not going away anytime soon, if ever. After all, we’ll always have 50 shades, and throwing my Kindle across the room get’s real expensive, real quick.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Terry Pratchett

The trouble with heroes is that up close, they disappoint. It was simpler when we didn’t know them. Before the internet. Before message boards and reddit AMAs. There was an innocence to fandom that was too good to last, really. With every new quote, revelation and news report it eroded and heroes fell. Steve Jobs turned out to be a man who had refused to acknowledge his own daughter. Gandhi was a terrible father and a man with strange fetishes. Cliff Richard’s acting was the stuff nightmares were made of. Heroes failed. Heroes disappointed. Heroes crumbled until you stopped believing in heroes. Apparently, that was when you “grew up”.

When I picked out the colourful paperback so many years ago and bought it based on its admittedly strange and somewhat incomprehensible blurb, I wasn’t looking for heroes. Honest. I was looking for a good book, a diversion for a couple of days. What I got was not one, but two heroes, a whole universe to explore, and a cult to call my own. I forget how much the volume cost me, but it was cheap at any price.

My first hero lay within the pages of the book. "His Grace, His Excellency, The Duke of Ankh; Commander Sir Samuel Vimes”, as he hates to be known as, is the man I wish I was. An authority figure who is anti-authoritarian, a man of intelligence who is smart enough to know where his intelligence ends, and a self-proclaimed “bastard” who is anything but. He’s practically zen, if zen spoke softly (on occasion, most notably when the baby was in bed), and carried a big truncheon. That’s not an euphemism.

The other “hero”, I took slightly longer to discover. His name was Terry Pratchett. He had a beard as white as Santa, but a red sack could never hold the innumerable treasures Terry carried inside his black fedora. Magician? Pffft! Magicians pulled rabbits out of hats. Terry pulled out a cosmic, spacefaring turtle bearing four elephants and an entire world on its pockmarked shell.
I devoured Pratchett. I explored Discworld, and over the course of 40 books, got to know its nooks, crannies, mountains, rivers, cities and villages better than I knew the way to my own kitchen. And believe you me, I knew the way to my own kitchen. Even now, when i close my eyes, I see the sludgy waters of the River Ankh, more solid than liquid, the only body of flowing water that supports its own fauna. I see the Ramtop mountains as they disappear into the clouds, and I know of the gods who live there. Not pretend, make-believe gods like in another, more spherical planet far away, but real gods who play with lives of men and women  (and trolls, and dwarfs and warewolves, and vampires, and golems. Well, not really golems, because golems are fireproof and thus, immune to smiting). I see the kingdom bathed in the greenish-yellow-purple hue of octarine, the most magical colour of the spectrum. And of course, I see the gushing waters of the Rimworld oceans spilling into the vastness of space, where they are magically transported back, ensuring the cycle never ends.

Terry Pratchett passed away in March. It’s taken me this long to write about it, because honestly, it still feels unreal. Strange that I won’t be reading a new Discworld novel every year like clockwork. It’s hard to accept that, because as heroes go, Terry was untouchable. I’d read up on him, preparing myself for the inevitable crash. Some skeleton in the closet that was the counterpoint to his genius. Some comment that proved his bigotry. There were none. To the end, he was the admirable, outspoken, acerbic, slightly cranky and whip-smart man I knew him to be. He was my hero, the only one I had in an adulthood teeming with cynicism and fallen angels, and suddenly, he’s gone.

Death had been coming to Terry for some time now, ever since his Alzheimer's was discovered in 2007. But then again, Death was everywhere in Terry’s rip-roaringly funny world. He  was more than a motif - he was its most prolific player; the ONLY character, in fact, to feature in every single Discworld novel. As Terry put it, he wasn’t afraid of Death because, as the man who made Death famous, Death OWED him. So when Terry took his hand and disappeared across the black desert, far, far into the horizon under the starless sky, as devastating as it was for me, as heartbreaking as it was, I could not be angry. I cannot be angry. All I can do is sit at my keyboard, flex my strained fingers and tap tap tap type away, creating teeny tiny sparks of octarine magic, in the glow of Terry’s roaring bonfire.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Movie Review: Detective Byomkesh Bakshy

I'm not much of a regionalist, but Detective Byomkesh Bakshy depressed the Bengali in me. It reminded me that the best live-action version of the quintessential Bengali detective till date was in Hindi. Rajat Kapoor played the dhuti clad Byomkesh with suavity and charm so many years ago, and he remains THE onscreen Byomkesh for a lot of people even today. I count myself among those people. No, Sushant Singh Rajput has not usurped that position, but after Dibakar Banerjee's Detective Byomkesh Bakshy, it makes me more than a little sad that the TWO best live-action versions of the quintessential Bengali detective has been in Hindi.

Now I will admit, the character is not one I am overly emotional about - not the way I am with the other Bengali sleuth. I have never much cared for the 'sanctity' of Byomkesh, instead demanding filmmakers offer me a well-acted, tightly scripted, engaging story that isn't an insult to my intelligence, or to my senses. I have been disappointed every time. Whether it's the shoddy Anjan Dutta version featuring a Byomkesh who mispronounces his 'ra' every time, or the molasses-slow Rituparno movie, or the current TV show whose only purpose seems to be to make every other version look halfway competent in comparison - Byomkesh in Bengali has fallen flat every time. Satyajit Ray's "Chiriakhana" is probably the best one in this sorry lot, and THAT had Uttam Kumar pretending to be Japanese.


Which brings us back to Detective Byomkesh Bakshy. Post Satyajit Ray, Dibakar Banerjee is probably the most talented director to get his hands on the license, and instead of adapting one of the existing stories, he has crafted his own. It has elements from three Byomkesh stories - Satyanweshi, Pother Kanta and Arthamanartham, but is wholly original in plot, with much higher stakes and intrigue that involves heavy noir elements - including a femme fatale and an unhinged, psychotic villain. Banerjee's Kolkata is straight out of Bengali nostalgia - vibrant, colourful, vivid, but with dark alleyways and looming shadows just around the corner. There's no sign of the famine of 1943, but the time and place are rooted in imagination, more than reality, so unless you are incredibly anal about history, that doesn't intrude.

Byomkesh himself is a little bit like the Kolkata of the time - brash and angry. Playing carrom in college, he tells Ajit, who has come to ask for help in finding his missing father "He's probably run off with a woman". Ajit slaps his lights out and signals that this won't be the Byomkesh - Ajit relationship we are used to. After he recovers, Byomkesh changes his mind and almost thrusts himself into the investigation - one that follows a serpentine path to murder, conspiracy, and war.

Speaking of Ajit, Anand Tiwari is a joy. He has a far more central role to play here than he does in most Byomkesh stories - it's from him that the mystery begins, after all, and he handles Ajit's strength and vulnerability with elan. He is an incredible foil to the more energetic and excitable Byomkesh, and you can believe the friendship that grows between these two men, both directionless, in their own way. If a sequel to this movie gets made, I can't wait to watch the chemistry between the two develop. Which is crucial, because there's so little chemistry between Byomkesh and Satyabati. Rookie Divya Menon plays Satyavati with a quiet confidence and is suitably deglammed, but enough time isn't given to let the relationship between Byomkesh and Satyabati build and the romance feels forced.

As for Byomkesh himself, Sushant Singh Rajput is fine, and a little more than fine in parts. However, whether it's due to his fault or the fault of the script, the Byomkesh character remains a little underwhelming. Vulnerability is all well and good, but Byomkesh is supposed to be smarter than the average bear, so to speak, and shouldn't be missing stuff the audience can see from a mile off. On occasion, he seems to lose the confidence he displays otherwise, making one wonder exactly how smart and in control he really is. But those occasions are few, and can be chalked up to his youth, something the more mature Byomkesh would grow out of.

Truth is, Rajput seems a tad weak only because the film is peppered with such phenomenal performances, and none more than the big bad. While the story goes straight up into Sin City territory in the last 15 minutes or so (and it's not like the noir graphic novel influences aren't obvious - hell, the poster is a comic book panel), what saves it is the brilliance of the actor playing the villain, which I am not spoiling here. Suffice to say what could have been ridiculously over the top is menacing, chilling and scary due to the sheer power of the performance.

So is Byomkesh Bakshy a good time? On a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a "Hell Yeah". If you like your noir gory and over the top, this is a great way to spend a couple of hours. If, however, you are walking in with preconceived notions of a lot of armchair detecting (Which Byomkesh rarely did BTW), and is the kind of person who complains about directors "changing the story" (except when Satyajit Ray does it for Goopy Gayen Bagha Bayen), stay far away. If the alt rock soundtrack in the trailer didnt tip you off (yes it's in the movie, and yes, it fits the ambiance to a tee), here's your warning. This isn't the Bakshy you are used to, and that's a great thing. Because THAT Bakshy works best between the covers of a book, and this movie is smart enough not to even try to go up against it.

PS: There's a reason why I didn't mention Swastika Mukherjee, or her character. It's because I have discovered that the secret to a happy healthy existence is a complete lack of Swastika Mukherjee in one's life. I have scrubbed her existence in the movie from my memory, and would advise you to do the same. The film is better for it.