Dec 27, 2008

Ghajini - the anti-review

Where am I? Who am I? More importantly, why am I wearing a purple jacket?

The last thing I remember is going into that indie theatre. This shifty-eyed bloke from Bradford gave me a ticket to this movie that he recommended. Have a look, curry-breath said. See if it reminds you of something.

It must have seared my memory, because all I feel now is this bloodcurdling intestinal rage. I felt a sticky something on my forehead. A Post-It. "jacket your Beneath." I wasn't in the mood for a prat's idea of a joke, so I crushed it into a ball and flung it outside the window. Which is when I looked at the ceiling. It read: "read everything in reverse, you eejit." There was even a footnote: ".above the except". I ran down and rushed past a bored looking receptionist.

After an hour's search, I found the crumpled note. Then, I thumped my head (made the throbbing worse) and opened my purple jacket. Tattoos all over. Garamond, 40 pt. This must have been serious enough to bear the cost and pain of the serifs.

(Where am I? It doesn't look like London outside. We don't have yellow taxis and hot weather.)

I have looked at all the words. Except the ones on the back. I now also have a sprained neck trying to get a look at my back. What I know so far is this: a severe trauma has left me leaking memory like a RAM chip made in China. I am tracking someone. To kill. Or at least to demand a lengthy explanation. Thanks to the spread needed for the large font size, all I can read of the people who left me in this state is: "...i of Mahmud" and "killed was meme..." I need a mirror.

After two hours of intense confusion, I realise I need two mirrors.

Update: my feet say the cryptic words IMDB and nm0634240. Also, I seem to be wearing lots of white make-up and a clown's lipstick.

From the newspaper, I have realised this is Bombay. Under the bed, I notice several polaroids of a short, dark, moustachioed man. He is always behind another short, fair man clutching several moustaches and scissors in his hand. My hotel is opposite a hairdressers'. Do these guys work there? Disturbingly, an arrow on one polaroid points to the dark bloke and says: "They complete me".

Who the heck am I? Like some strange bug, I've been following two people using a memory like a full-sized golf course. I have a framed postcard of a big mountain on the table that reads "remember?". I keep tossing and turning at night. Nor can I sleep in the day - my head hurts from the roars of a cricket match on the telly that has just begun. I feel like a canary in a magic trick - will I die or will I be revealed to the audience's cheers? It is day but I'm still in the dark.

I remember something. It wasn't an indie theatre, but an Indi-theatre. And songs were playing. One thing is for sure. I'm taking no prisoners.

The short men have walked out into the open. Time to go.

Dec 26, 2008

26th December 2008

As promised, a short post on some of the items regarding the November attacks on Bombay that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks:

I got a lot of forwards and text messages asking me to light candles, show solidarity, and the like. That misinforming email about "article 49-O" got a renewed lease of life. Given this, Shekhar Gupta's essay on what he calls the chatteranti, for me, hit several nails on their heads. But since it advocates sober systemic changes in a time of raw anger, this article is unlike to do the rounds of mailboxes.
Our lives have changed, at least visibly. Security guards give you and your bags the once-over. I hope it's not just another aimless tick on the checklist. An example of how impractical this can get was in evidence at the Sawai Gandharva music festival a few days ago. Proposed security arrangements meant mobile phones and bags were initially disallowed, but on subsequent days, no one bothered. A very cursory check took place instead.
Intensely annoyed that:
a. An insignificant and faded public figure could easily hijack Parliamentary discourse, and that the rest of our politicians prefer to walk out rather that register protest and get back to discussing measures such as the anti-terror law.
b. I don't mind that lawyers object to representing the captured terrorist if they do so independently and conscientiously. But the Shiv Sena has no right to impose its morality on others. Well, just another black tick on a massive canvas of tar.
c. There still is an atmosphere of turf battles and blame assignments.
Are we close to war? I feel it's a lot of public posturing. Been trying to not buy into the hysteria. Conventional wisdom says sucking the Pakistani army to the Eastern border strengthens the Taliban in Afghanistan. A new line of thought says that's not such a bad thing - either Obama, as stated, goes after that side, or Pakistani society is in such grave danger of Talibanisation that it gets its act together. Hard for me to tell which one is likelier.
Apart from the anti-terror bill, I couldn't tell if any concrete steps have been taken. For instance, what about modernising arms and equipment for the police? When are the various NSG hubs going to be established?
Looking for information is like standing in front of a fireman's hose. I find the news media continues to be shrill, taking easy potshots at politicians and purporting to be on the side of the common person. However, to their credit, some media men discussed some troubling aspects from the highly criticised coverage during the operations (Storyboard, CNBC-TV18), identifying areas such as: 1. the callowness of some of the on-field reporters 2. a lack of commonly accepted standards 3. the easy access of information from various govt. and military sources 4. the pressing need for training politicos and others in positions of authority in handling the media
Last link: read an interesting discussion between a pair of Indian (Nitin Pai) and Pakistani (Ahsan Butt) bloggers (link via DesiPundit)
And finally: how many of us can do simple things in an emergency such as using fire extinguishers or administering first aid for burns? What does one do if caught near a potential bomb situation (not stand and gape, hopefully)? What is the ideal response to these kinds of situations? Most of us would have no clue.

Dec 12, 2008

All that glitters and some free gifts

It's been quite a year for A.R.Rahman (and with two weeks to go, there still seems to be more left!). 7 film albums released this year (Jodhaa-Akbar, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, the already forgotten Ada, Sakarakatti, Yuvvraaj, the much feted Slumdog Millionaire and Ghajini) and now Connections, his latest non-film album.

Not to mention awards: the LA Critics Association chose him for their pick for Best Score (the Slumdog again), and he has just been nominated for his first ever Golden Globe, in the august company of Hans Zimmer, James Howard, Alexandre Desplat, and (surprise!) Clint Eastwood. That's a trivia question prediction (until perhaps the Oscars list :-)). The Oscar march has truly begun.

Back to Connections. Karthik on his Milliblog points out how anyone not buying a Nokia phone with a certain kind of music service will just have to wait a while to hear the songs (in the legal way, at least). For now, you can check out the video for Jiya Se Jiya on Rahman's official site (warning: all flash content).

Which is where our friend Arnold, a.ka. Hugger-the-(not-so)-Horrible, should take note: the song features the concept of "Free Hugs" (read Arnold's first (zeroth?) hand report on the same). I wonder if I actually saw him in the video?

news courtesy the arrahmanfans yahoogroup

Dec 7, 2008

woh to bahut hii mahaan aadmi hai.n

kuch din pahale samaachar patr me.n paDhaa avashya calcutta me.n tiis-chaalis hazaar paagal unkaa darshan karne aadhi raat #Dum Dum airport# pahunch gaye thé.
::R.P. Ramprasad Dasharathprasad Sharma
About 30 years later, nothing has changed.

Dec 4, 2008

Wolpertian Elegance

In this article, the online magazine Salon describes Lewis Wolpert thus:
Like fellow British scientist Richard Dawkins, he's an outspoken atheist with a knack for saying outrageous things.
Like Dawkins, Wolpertis one of the leading biologists of the 21st century (not bad for a man who first studied civil engineering). But unlike the hawkish Dawkins, Wolpert seems to look more kindly at the nature of 'belief', which is summarised in a very interesting book that I'm reading right now.

This post is not about the contents of that book, but how its author's books have great titles. This book has a wonderful name: Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast, referring to the exchange in Alice in Wonderland where the White Queen reveals that to be her secret regimen in order to believe in impossible things.

Wolpert's previous book studied depression, of which Wolpert was himself a sufferer. Its title, in astonishing crispness, captures the essence of the ailment. It's called Malignant Sadness.

Dec 3, 2008

Memento, but not so mori

It's fading again. Refresh.

I'm not from Bombay. I belong to a place to its south-east, a place known (and sometimes ridiculed) for its smallness (of its size, of its ambition), its insipid rains, its lack of drive (and drive-ability), its surfeit of action-less opinions, and its cynicism. In short, its un-Bombay-ness. But it suits my temperament.

I've lived in Bombay for a total of 9 years. I don't understand the people there very well, the things they do to live in a place like that. But neither did I understand why my step quickened as soon as I set foot on its roads, why I never worried about how I would get to place B from A at any time of the day, or how friends there seemed a lot more willing to take on everyday grit. I don't know anything about the city's phantoms that get invoked each time something goes wrong, but how about something called 'the idea of Bombay'? That exists for sure. Anything that's been around for that long develops an all-permeating idea that its citizens buy into.

That idea is worth protecting, just as other good ideas are.

Set a reminder? An entry in your diary? A big X on your tear-off calendar?

There's a lot of anger. Distress. Finger-wagging. I'd like to blame people too. But I'd like to start with myself.

I do not participate in society's affairs beyond the usual limits. But is that such a bad thing? I'd like to lead my life the way I want to. All I ask for is the security and freedom to do so. I pay my taxes by means of earning an honest income. I have voted in every election since I turned 18. I am aware of traffic rules. I even sign online petitions when the urge takes me. Sure, I don't stand for elections or participate in rallies. I don't know what it would take for me to become more 'activist' - perhaps I never will. But I'm making a reasonable contribution to the land I happened to be born in.

But I do forget easily. Leave aside doing something about them, I don't even know what the progress has been in previous cases of distress to affect India. It fades away from memory. Who do you blame? Life is perennially news-worthy, so the news-men have to write about those things. My own life demands my attention like an impatient child. So who is awarded the contract to keep track? We think those faceless bureaucrats and in-your-face politicos ought to. But I can't tell if they are doing a good job or not - perhaps they foiled 99 major attacks, perhaps they were incompetent enough to let through the only attack ever attempted. I simply don't have all the information.

A tattoo! That's the answer. (Stop it now - don't be flippant).

So I ask myself: how will you not forget? How can you blame the others if you don't even remember to finger-point? It's quite possible people 'out there' are keeping an eye out, on my behalf. As a member of the un-involved masses, I'm going to try and change my own state of ignorance.

People have been saying: "we will not forget", "We will be there every week". I hope they do. But I find it hard to believe they will, and cross a certain critical threshold. Unless their lives change fundamentally in order to accomodate this zeal. It's hard to be that possessive about anger. So all I, inert participant with the limited means at my disposal, will try to do is this: each month's 26th, I will write a short post on this blog, summarising all that I will have read and tracked about in that month about what is happening re: the November attacks. I'll also try to note what the others, who have promised to remember, have done. I have no idea where I'll begin, for I have no capacity for primary research here. Perhaps on most occasions, I will only announce, yet again, my failure to do even this simple task. But I will try. If this menial task is beyond me, why speak of loftier goals?

The day in 1949 the Constitution of India was passed? Nope.

For me, 'terrorism' could be anything that scares me out of conducting my life in a reasonably independent manner. In essence, rioters, dangerous traffic conditions, gun-toting extremists, do all this. Of course, one is unlike another, and for most people, an external threat is more dangerous, with a bigger outcry. If the people of Bombay could show us how to tackle big demons, perhaps we little cousins might summon up the initiative to take on our lesser evils.

Back to the idea of Bombay. Cities change over a period of time, but Bombay's ideas have been steadfast. Others in the country seem to be (regrettably) leaving behind their own ideas and copying some of Bombay's. But all the more reason to nurture the original, for who knows what will take its place if that idea goes missing.

Finally, I'm not from Bombay. But there must be some traces of it in me. I was born in Bombay. On the 26th of November. The latest entrant to a list of dates that will live in infamy. But forever? Hopefully, some day we won't need to rememeber.

Dec 2, 2008

H. Sridhar's sound fades out

The credits of every A.R.Rahman album are extensive: featuring every significant contributor, from the voice on the backing vocals to that guitarist to the sound technicians. In course of time, this made names such as flautist Naveen and singers Dominique and Clinton Cerejo well known to Rahman fans. One such name was H. Sridhar, Rahman's sound engineer, who passed away on the 1st of Dec.

The men behind the mixers are easy to miss in the glories of the music director. Think of the crisp and crystal soundscapes that you associate with the music of A.R.Rahman and one of the people you are silently tipping your hat to is his designer H.Sridhar.

Here's an obit from The Hindu of the multiple National Award winner.

Nov 25, 2008


Typealyzer attempts to find out your blog's (not your's, mind you) Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. The processing is remarkably fast, which leads me to wonder what portions of the blog they are consuming (at least the results are consistent!).

This blog for instance is classified as ISTP - The Mechanics with the description:

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts. The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.

Anyway, it's an interesting exercise in text classification and I wonder what their training data was. (The folks at LingPipe had that same question when they pointed to this link).

Nov 20, 2008

Quick Tales writing contest - Results

The Caferati-LiveJournal Quick Tales contest results came in on the 18th (the announcement here). This story of mine was placed 4th.

As it turns out, this story and three others tied for the top spot. The tie-breaker left me in the last spot (apply clichés about cookie crumbling'/'biscuit breaking'/'shrewsbury slicing' :-)).

Congratulations to all the winners (quite a few of them). Pats on back to organisers for seeing this through, and for making judging comments available.

One judge mentioned some trouble interpreting the 2nd last sentence, which I didn't realise at the time of writing (I meant one wife and two girlfriends only, present company included. The implication of who hired the man was intentionally open-ended, but in my mind, it was the wife.). I wish I had had another 50-100 words, because I had to skip past a few binding agents to fit it in.

Nov 16, 2008

The 2008 Scientific Indian Story Contest - results

The results of this year's Scientific Indian Story Contest have been announced here. Unlike last time, I didn't win anything :-), but I did get an honourable mention.

Many congratulations to the winners and other selected participants.

I was able to send in a little story this time based on thinking about isolation and human beings. I don't read a lot of sci-fi, so I grope my way in the dark when it comes to such topics. Hopefully, the process and output has shown improvement since last time.

Selva, who's kind enough to organise this contest, has also collected some thoughts on what should be there in a creative science writer's toolkit.

Nov 15, 2008

Star struck

Do you know that the inaugural Twenty20 Champions League will be held in India from the 3rd of December? And that ESPN Star Sports will telecast this?

If not, I bet you have not watched ESPN or Star Sports in the last week or so. Because these channels have been running a huge announcement logo beginning in the top left and working its way down. It encroaches so much real estate that your local cable-wallah might feel a little embarrassed if he did that to show ads.

It is either a sign of desperation or inanity, for these channels are usually viewer-friendly. But now football scores on the top right are painted over. You cannot tell what a tennis ball is doing on the left hand side of the court.

Why not put the logo in the middle and have a little inset on the top left for the sports?

Nov 10, 2008

Flick of the wrist

While looking for links in my previous post, I found this rather interesting article on carrom balls and other spin oddities. On a site about hacking Palm Pilots!

Silky wrists, but what else?

What was the last successful cricketing innovation to have come out of India? This question came up during a conversation between Harish and me. To be honest, I couldn't think of anything since Ranji's leg glance! (and that was over a hundred years ago.

To give you some idea of what we're talking about:
The Pakistanis invented the reverse sweep (Hanif or Mushtaq Mohammad), reverse swing (Sarfraz, Imran, that generation, perhaps even earlier), the doosra (Saqlain Mushtaq). The Aussies invented day-night cricket in ODIs (Packer et al.), slow bowling in the death overs, the zooter (if you believe it exists), (perhaps) trying to score at 4 rpo in a Test. The New Zealanders, usually an innovative bunch, had Mark Greatbatch taking advantage of the then new 15 overs restrictions, Martin Crowe and lot invented "Cricket Max" that eventually inspired Twenty20, not to mention opening with a spinner in ODIs. The English had the googly, Bodyline (besides, they did invent the sport!), Duckworth-Lewis, TV innovations, switch-hitting. The South Africans brought in fielding revolutions and earpieces and (seemingly) choking. The Windies used pace attacks (that was enough), and the chinaman (probably). The Lankans invented dual pinch-hitters and now re-invented the carrom ball (and flex elbows). Zimbabwe seems to have invented wicketkeeper-batsman-captains! (let's see: Fletcher, Houghton, A. Flower, Taibu).

The closest that we could think of:

1. Srikkanth's over the top hitting in ODIs (a little weak, because it wasn't sold as a strategy - he was an opener and that's how he played)
2. (Harish) Sending the top batsman to open in ODIs rather than shielding him in the middle order (as with Sachin Tendulkar)
3. Playing a spin trio? (was a strategy, but hardly any alternatives existed)
4. (Harish) Perhaps the paddle sweep?
5. Day-Night cricket for a first class game? (unless it has been done elsewhere before the 1994 Ranji Final at Gwalior)

As you can see, we're clutching at straws here. Innovations often happen as a response to constraints or as a product of careful thought that challenges existing conventions. That rules out "the Great Indian batting collapse" as an entry.

Ranji: you win, unless we can come up with something better.

How about "Mankading"?

Nov 9, 2008

'Yuvvraaj' - music review

The CD booklet for Yuvvraaj says (brace yourself) - :

Imagine a film where: Salman is a dreamy singer...
Katrina is a leading musician...
Zayed grooves to a chaotic disco sound...
Anil Kapoor enjoys only classical music...
Clearly, Subhash Ghai possesses a one of a kind, not to mention dangerous, imagination. I tried very hard to pull off this impossible task, but couldn't. I don't know how much success music director A.R.Rahman and lyricist Gulzar had, but we'll take this album as their best shot. I've tried wrapping my head around this soundtrack for a while, but continue to find it a mixed bag. I blame Subhash Ghai - I think he's finally got to Rahman, whose clever ploy of working at odd hours kept the Guy out of harm's way during previous collaborations. This one must have been made in broad daylight, which Ghai channeling Laxmikant-Pyaarelal. The result is a very confusing medley of styles and songs, and a subdued Gulzar.

lat uljhi...manamohinii more (Vijay Prakash) is the stand-out. Rahman has often thrown in western orchestrations for classical numbers, which coupled with the singer's assured singing, makes this an excellent song. The contemplative zindagii zindagii (Srinivas) is so mellow that it is in danger of being disregarded by listeners. However, it is one of the few songs in the entire album to feature some Gulzar sparks, and so worth getting on the playlist loop.

For me, the Gulzar-ARR partnership has always been successful when they have connected on an elemental level of 'sound'. Unlike the Vishal-Gulzar duo, where the music reinforces word semantics in a snug fit, Rahman's music reacts best to the onomatopoeia of the great man's words. In this album, Mastam Mastam (ensemble) achieves this in its orchestrations and sonorous lyrics. This is in the vein of ooh la la lah (Minsara Kanavu/Sapnay) and shabbaa shabbaa (Daud), and worked for me.

The recipe of dil ka rishta (ensemble) , though rich in musical themes, is a throwback to Ghai's idea of a 'musical' , with every bit of the soundscape painted mercilessly. shaaNo shaaNo ("Beware Blaaze" alarm) provides a basis for similar complaints. tu meri dost hai (Benny Dayal) has a simple melody which only improves when Shreya Ghoshal and Rahman take over in the end, while in tu muskuraa has Alka Yagnik touching Castafiore-ian scales.

Stay away from mai.n huu.n yuvvraaj (can't imagine Beethoven doing a jig at finding his name coupled with Herr Salmon) and the shaaNo Remix (to be honest: didn't bother listening to this. Why do I want to?)

I suppose all this bias is because a wise man once said: always be suspicious of any film that contains:
1. Salman Khan
2. Zayed Khan
3. Subhash Ghai
4. Blaaze
5. Anyone 'playing' a musical instrument in the proud Bollywood tradition of torturing it into revealing its octaves by giving it a good massage
6. Katrina Kaif
7. Any film title with superfluous letters, especially an extra 'v'

Nov 3, 2008

You're making me confess.

  1. I have never been economically threatened by any kind of Indian (perhaps not yet).
  2. I don't seem to have economically threatened anyone else's livelihood (yet).
  3. I do not personally know anyone whose livelihood is threatened by any kind of Indian.
  4. I have never lived in a neighbourhood whose demographics have significantly changed during my life.
  5. I have never felt the loss of political influence to "outsiders" (Perhaps people like me never had any political influence to lose).
  6. I didn't have any trouble with the last (and only) unfamiliar local language I learnt, a long time ago. Would I willingly learn a new language if I went somewhere unless I had to?
  7. Would I sufficiently integrate into another culture? Have I sufficiently integrated with the current culture? Have I even integrated into my culture-by-inheritance?
  8. I have never had to migrate for elemental reasons such as: "If I don't find a job somewhere outside, I don't survive"
Can I have any reasonable opinions on the fundamentals of these 'alien' issues, with such an invariant life?

But: somehow, the changing faces of Pune make me uneasy. It's hard to put a finger to it. I think it is because life becomes increasingly unfamiliar. It causes a discomfort that is hard to nail down. I catch myself being disapproving of certain ways some people speak, behave, flash. I instinctively seem to blame non-Punekars for being responsible for this. And for some of our own people for changing colours so easily. Was this tendency always there? I don't like these people changing the way it used to be. Luckily, there are still places I feel comfortable with and things that I can go do. If that goes, what do I do?

I thought I am (was) tolerant? But how can this be reconciled with the above paragraph?

I can't balance comfortable stability with drip-drip-drip change?

Nov 2, 2008

"A Wednesday" and "Rock On" - reviews

(possible spoilers in both review-ettes)

Wednesday is the Se7enth Day
I found A Wednesday infuriating - it could have been so much better. For one, this film should have been even shorter. Instead of packing the first segment with overdone character introductions and superfluous humour, it should have forged on ahead. I was put off by such unnecessary scenes where Anupam Kher (a welcome return to a hard-as-nails posture last seen in Rang De Basanti) gets his men to make macho statements at high decibels. Or how the police commissioner insists of making confidential statements in open corridors or in front of about 50 people. Worst, I smelt the ending too early to enjoy any surprises at the end. (There was always going to be just one possible ending).

But on the positive side, the ratio of fat to muscle was much less in this one, with no songs to break the pace. The biggest saving grace was Naseeruddin Shah's sizeable monologue towards the end, which salvaged the film for me. His motivations reminded me of Se7en (but without its superbly fuzzy morals). However, this film ended days too early for it to be in the same league.

Turn that Rock Off!
I was all keyed up to watch Rock On! because I wanted to see how the rather simple story (from the outlines I had picked up from people and reviews) had been plotted. Perhaps my expectations had been too high, because I felt bored by the middle. This was Dil Chahta Hai without the depth. Character arcs or motivations were not sufficiently explored and some of the resolutions were too easily disposed off. I was aghast to see the most interesting character - Shahana Goswami's "Debbie" - palmed off in the end with having become a successful stylist. Someone who angrily plodded through ten years suddenly has the rainbow burst through her roof - how convenient!

I couldn't tell if this was a film about the band (Luke Kenny and Purab Kohli's characters whimper along with hardly a feeling of being let down by the other two) or the Farhan Akhtar-Arjun Rampal situation. Prachi Desai fades off in the 2nd half. It doesn't help that the songs become a drag, especially with the musical abilities after the reunion conveniently taking off where they left - which for a recently promoted investment banker who has never hit a note in the last ten years and has so much time to practice, is just too easy. The climax reminds one of Jhankaar Beats, whose happy ending was a lot more palatable, just like its 'band issues'.

The lac (sic) of Magik is compounded by the silly attempt by Javed Akhtar to pass off random noun phrases as lyrical poetry, which overshadowed whatever parts of the music appealed to me. Unsurprisingly, my favourite track from the film is the mellow "Yeh Tumhaari Meri Baate.n" (Dominique Cerejo). Unlike that song, I didn't want the film - admittedly well made in some respects - to go on and on.

Nov 1, 2008

Quick Tales writing contest shortlist

Caferati and LiveJournal are running a 1000 word flash fiction writing contest called "Quick Tales". The (longish) shortlist was recently announced (here), pruning the initial set of 1024 to 134 entries.

I have two stories in this list. These are entries 639 and 823 (both untitled - no words to spare for titles :-)). The former is about a cop who has to read someone's journals, while the latter is about a bored man in a local train.

The theme of the submissions was "Journal" (in part, this exercise is also aimed at promoting LiveJournal among Indian netizens). I struggled to come up with ideas for this topic, and somehow managed a few.

Anyway, all the stories have been put up because there is a "Community Choice Winner" prize based on public voting (public == LiveJournal account holders). I'm more keen on receiving feedback, so if you get a chance, please read the two stories linked above. If you are so inclined (== sufficiently jobless), you could numerically evaluate it using a score between 1 (lowest) to 10 (highest) or textually by leaving a comment. But you'd need an LJ account to do either. So if all you want is to let me know how you felt, emailing me or leaving a comment here is just as fine.

You can also read the other stories (an index by entry id is here). Of the few that I've read, I thought #618 titled "The Quack" was very imaginative.

Oct 23, 2008

Stephen King "On Writing"

Carrie, Stephen King's first ever novel, was the first book of his that I held in my hands. I returned it back to the school library after 20 pages. This is easy to understand if I reveal that I had been looking for books by Stephen Hawking. Exactly why the missing "Haw" did not attract my attention is unclear, but there was more slime than time in this brief history.

I never ventured into King-dom, not because of the mishap recounted above, but because I don't read horror. I like the movies though, so I read Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and after experiencing The Shining, I read about the Overlook. I wasn't too impressed. It was wordy, too long, and only occasionally did the hairs on my neck demand that I shut that book and try not too look outside at the blackboard night on whom someone was writing, slowly but with careful intent, my name in blood...

So it is strange that the first King book I've really liked is non-fictional. In On Writing, King takes a practitioner's view of writing. He feels blessed to be able to write and make money off it. He wouldn't probe that bit of magic too much. Instead, he makes sure he doesn't take it for granted and work at it like hell.

King begins with a brief autobiography - he thinks it would be good for me to know how some of that must have affected his work. He then constructs a toolbox for writing. It is suprisingly small (vocab and grammar on top, Strunk and White in the middle, organisation below). Just basic skills.

The last section is On Writing. If you had to read anything about writings, you should read this. He talks about themes, about the way he revises, about reading, about blocks, about ideas and flow. It works for him, but you don't have to do it that way. This section is written with great clarity and cohesion.

If I had to apply Strunk and White's mantra of "omit all unnecessary words", this post should read as:

"Read a lot, write a lot" - Stephen King, "On Writing".
Cross-posted on our group lit blog

Oct 22, 2008

Does that stapler come with jelly?

As a big fan of the TV series The Office (the American one), I had to notice that Staples now has a store in Pune close to my house. I wonder who they'll be putting out of business here.

At any rate, it should be reasonably safe to go there since this fellow is unlikely to be "literally standing here in case you need anything".

Image courtesy Wikipedia

Oct 21, 2008

Would you excuse me while I beat you up and steal your livelihood?

I have always maintained that Indians don't get irony. They are apt to feel insulted when it is pointed out to them. So I suppose there is no point in tapping the nearest MNS guy-bearing-brick that by rioting and generally terrorising the population at large, they are depriving fellow MaraaThiis of their livelihood. People who own shops, who rent out autos and taxis, who need to travel by local buses to make a living. "Go home, so that we can fight for your rights (and my right to be a right moron), or I'll break your head."

Nikhil Wagle may be shrill, but the guy has guts. Of all the people on all the news channels, he is the only one to do what he has been doing for a long while: dropping all pretence of pseudo-journalistic-fairness on a situation that demands none. He smells a conspiracy in what the local Congress and NCP govts are doing - letting the MNS steal the carpet from under the hapless Shiv Sena's feet. He also predicts Raj Thackeray is just the latest genie to be released out of the bottle. That the fair name of Maharashtrians has been sullied. The only one to loudly ask what Raj Thackeray has done in the four years since he began this so-called agitation. No representations to the Railway Board. It takes a certain culture to be democratic and the Thackeray household consciously leaves that out of the syllabus.

Finally, I notice that almost every bit of arson and rioting seems to be captured on video. I don't know if the rioters wait for the cameras to show up, or if there just are so many cameras around. A bit of both perhaps. So is it a good thing that people see every bit of this? Ordinarily, you think the publicity ("any" better than "none") would suit the MNS (arrested at 2:30 am, delayed court appearance, overnight jail). But would too much of it be counter-productive?

Finally, feel really sad for the poor chaps who came to Bombay despite knowing that people like them have been soft targets for several years. How desperate must the situation be at home? Sentence both Lalu and Raj T to one year's servitude to the family who lost their young son in this cross-fire.

Oct 16, 2008

Tribute to Escher

In obvious tribute to M.C.Escher:

(Image source: Wikipedia)
(serendipitously, a chair was in the right part of the reflection)

Oct 15, 2008

Go fourth and concur

Such are times that 'four' is no longer the fourth digit among the 'natural numbers' (fifth for all you geeks who prefer 'whole numbers').

These days "4" is "Two 2.0".

Aug 25, 2008

The Daily Pirouette

Latin is a dead language, some say.

Well, if it’s dead, then there’re a few of its phantoms still floating around in the meme-pool. Consider carpe diem. You know, the phrase that pouts across a million wall-posters, can be found tattooed on many a motivational book’s inner sleeves, or is vaguely reminiscent of the resolution at the end of a carbon black day.

And there’s the taunting. They stand, emboldened, all of them. They mock. They point. Like street dogs who know that they hold the upper paw. "How about some seizing, my friend", they jeer. "Leave alone molest us, you don’t even make a pass!".

True. Seizing the day is a breakfast ruling, made heavy by lunch, dissolving like soap in the yellow twilight, left for the end of the day. By then, it competes with the yawn, and we’ll cease the day. No wonder, the days of the past stand in front of the door, howling with ridicule.

There are a few nicer ones. "Come out and play", they suggest. "Gather the day, pick it up, run your fingers over it". "But I haven’t done much of that", you say. They shake their heads. How do you seize the day, if you’re afraid of even touching it?

To seize the day, you mustn’t clamp down, clutching at emptiness. Instead, try opening that fist and let the shy day make its way up to you. Then you can slide your arms around its waist, pull it gently towards you, and... well, you might just figure out the rest.

Caferate LiveJournal contest

Caferati and LiveJournal have come together to present a flash fiction writing contest, which you can read about here. There are some big prizes (and quite a few of them), which should get even the more lazier writing hounds to push a pen or a key.

Sandeep Shelke: Adieu

As some of you who knew him may have already heard, Sandeep Shelke passed away last night. He is said to have taken his life by leaping off the 7th floor of Persistent Towers, which is in the Erandwana area of Pune. The police say that he left a note behind and sent a text message to his brother, citing a heavy workload as the reason. Persistent Systems has commented that there was no prior indication to this effect and Sandeep had not spoken to anyone at work about such pressures. According to the Zee 24 hours marathi news channel, neither was Sandeep’s family aware of this.

This naturally comes as a severe shock to those like me who knew him. I wasn’t close to Sandy, but I came to know him as a batchmate at IIT Bombay (he was in CSE and I was in KReSIT; the departments have since merged) and as a fellow research student in the NLP group (we shared the same advisor). He was undeniably smart, both by acumen and appearance. I can never recall him looking unkempt, which at IIT is quite something. It’s ironic that this incident comes almost exactly a year since the 2007 IIT-B convocation.

What do you do when you hear news such as this? You ask people, you look for the last trails online, scrabbling for information, you sit and wonder. To give you a sense of our amazement, hardly anyone in his inner and outer circle seems to have had any inkling. True, Sandy was probably quieter than most people with regards to such talk with anyone outside to those to which he was closest. He had had an uncomfortable time in the First Semester of the M.Tech programme. I never probed the exact reasons; I didn’t want to crowd him, but it was partly the load of the course (the first sem is a bit of a bitch). But we were glad to see him emerge out of that pall and do a fine job in the remaining 18 months. Which is why this is a shame. I wish he had thought about that Ph.D more. He had such a fine time in France in the spring of 2006.

Predictably, this is going to spark the inevitable “techies under stress" stories in the local media, some of them likely to be half-baked. Having also been at Persistent in the past (overlapping with Sandy’s first term) and with several friends there, I would not like to think that the situation could have become so arduous (but in this case, it somehow did). I’ve already seen some forums say all sorts of things about Sandy and the situation (some of the content being factually incorrect, such as confusing the bio of a very different Sandeep Shelke from Pune with this incident). All I’d like to say that there’s a family, some friends, some colleagues, who’re probably even more baffled, devastated, angry, and incoherent than we can imagine. Please give them their space. I do hope that there isn’t much more to this than we have heard.

The life of a depressive isn’t easy to fathom. Instead of speculation, take a look around, have a chat, pull yourselves together. We still want you around, you still want me around for a little time more. Sandy: how do we tell you all the nice things we thought of you if you aren’t around to hear ‘em, hmm? Cheers man, and will remember all the little moments.

A few links:
Sandeep’s CSE homepage, his Orkut page, his blog, and his younger brother Yuvraj’s Orkut page

Some updates – 8 Aug 2008
The incident received a lot of coverage in local newspapers. I overheard several people talking about it; all were very upset and saddened. Sandeep’s Orkut scrapbook was filled with messages today, most of them from strangers, who lamented the loss and wished things had turned out differently. I was busy for most of the day, so I couldn’t find out what the mood at Persistent was like.

Links: Times of India (Pune), DNA, Indian Express (contains factual errors that “He had completed his higher studies from America and had been working with Persistent Systems for two years."). Like many other blogs and news sites, the Pune Mirror cannibalized content on blogs, online forums, and Orkut scraps to fill a second page on the incident and the predictable “IT engineer-stress" theme. It also incorrectly claimed that Sandeep was in the IT industry for 7 years.

Update – 25 Aug 2008
I haven’t been able to find out what progress has been made in tying the threads in Sandeep’s case, but this news article in the Times of India (assuming it has been accurately reported) gives some clues to the current status. The report quotes a sub-inspector as saying:

What baffles the police is that the CCTV images before his suicide do not show any abnormal behaviour . "Sandip (sic) was seen walking freely and working on his laptop. We also enquired with his friends, who said that neither did he have any problems with anyone nor did he have any quarrel with any of his superiors,'' said sub-inspector U.K. Yadav.

"Probably, Shelke was bored with the mechanical life he was leading. We could gather that he was unable to spare quality time for himself due to the work pressure,'' Yadav added.

Perhaps "bored" isn’t the right choice of word, as it is hard to imagine Sandeep taking such steps because he was "bored".

The report later says:

But apart from work pressure, at times the inability to do the things which one actually wants to also leads to frustration. This was particularly observed in Shelke's case.
It doesn’t give any particulars though.

I (and others) still remain puzzled.

Aug 12, 2008

If the joker met...

...a meteorologist, he’d say: “Why so Cirrus?” astronomer, he’d say: “Why so Sirius?”
...a sprinter, he’d say: “Why so Citius?” Israeli farmer, he’d say: “Why sow Syrians?”
...a fortune teller, he’d say: “Wise old seeress!”
...a hematologist, he’d say: “Why so serous?”
...a paleontologist, he’d say: “Why! It’s a saurus!”
...a quizzer, he’d say: “Why so curious?”
(last one observed on Suvajit’s GTalk status message)
...a Dark Knight fan on IMDB, he’d say: “Why so spurious?”

Aug 5, 2008

Billshot Bungle

The only way Niranjan and I have been able to survive the urban morass of corporate jargon that pullulates life in the urban jungle is through ever-vigilant ridicule (it gets worse if we slip into the gutter ourselves). Bullshit Bingo no longer assuages the cringing soul, so we came up with an evolutionary brainwave. It's called Billshot Bungle.

The idea was simple: we came up with several malaprop versions of various terms of ja-aargh-on. You could spring it on people whose native tongue has morphed into managerese. Perhaps, like Tyler Durden in action at restaurants and films, this is probably a similar but low-grade form of guerilla warfare. If this causes some unused neuron in the recipient's head to pop in unease and shock, perhaps our job is done :-)

The idea is that the replacement 'Billshot' ought to be vaguely appropriate to the term and context that it replaces. We could do more, for instance, coming up with showstopping retorts such as: Are we on the same page. -> No, we're not even in the same chapter. But that's for later.

Here's our list.

Keep you in the loopKeep you in the noose
Touch baseTouch bottom
Learning curveBurning curve/Learning kerb
On the same pageIn the same cage
Going forwardThrowing/Blowing forward
Leverage these assetsLevitate these assets
Take it offlineTake it offshore
At the end of the dayAt the end of the play
Heads upHeads on
When the rubber meets the roadWhen the robber hits the road
Sync upSink in/Stink up
Set the right expectationsSet the bright extensions
Low hanging fruitLow hanging foot / low lying fruit
Keep the lights onKeep the tights on
Deep diveDeep fry
Ballpark estimateBallpoint estimate

Jul 25, 2008

Quizzes on Sunday

We have two quizzes coming up in Pune on the 27th. The morning quiz is "Interrogative", one of the two annual school quizzes that we are part of, while the second will be an Open general quiz. All details here at the BCQC site, with everyone welcome to participate.

Jul 18, 2008

Lovingly Smelly Phrases

Not sure if it is the lack of rain or something, but many of us are reporting Unusually Funny Objects. George picks up two instances from two classes of people genetically hardwired to generating vacuous material, film stars and politicians. Salil found Jack and the Item.

I, for my part, found this outside the IIT Souvenir Shop yesterday (it was the first day for a new batch) (quoting verbatim):

Free Gift for you at Souvenir Shop!*
*condition apply

Jul 16, 2008

I'm a Twit

Ok, don't laugh, but I'm "twittering" here. The answer to the why (if there is such a question) is that I wanted to try it, Harish seems to like it, and I realise I do want to micro-blog, but not clutter this blog with the excruciating minutiae of everyday life, which Twittering seems to massively entail.

Let's see.

Jul 14, 2008

The lasting laugh

The Knight finally comes out of the Dark this week. Some of us have been looking forward to it, especially since we are such big Christopher Nolan fans. Struck by not-so-jokey tragedy and possessing a cast sheet that promises to sock you in the solar plexus, I await the return of the most famous member of the cloud. Especially since my estimation of Batman Begins has gone up considerably since the first time I saw it.

But do we hold our breath? Will the film release simultaneously in India? Does anyone know?

Jul 13, 2008

Left pointing the other way

While using a mouse, I occasionally switch from a right-handed mode to a left-handed mode. Earlier versions of Windows used to call the relevant option under Control Panel -> Mouse as switch to left-handed mouse, but now they call it (confusingly, IMO) as switch primary and secondary button.

Which brings me to my point: software UI design, for all its comforts, still remains sinistral-unfriendly. On a typical GUI containing windows, there's no way to move the scroll-bar to the left (by default, the mouse pointer tends to rest on the LHS of the screen, but largely this could be a psychological perception of having to move to the right end of the screen). The minimise-maximise-close buttons will be on the top-right. Even the mouse arrow pointer continues to nod towards the north-west (IIRC, in earlier Windows versions, it would go north-east with a switch in mouse-handedness).

Here's an interesting little discussion between a left-handed user and a (left-handed) UI designer on the topic (look for the comment by "Sebastian").

And while on the subject, once again, all the main contenders for a US Presidential election are left-handed. The last time this happened was in 1992 when George Bush (the elder), Bill Clinton (the victor) and Ross Perot (the moneyed pretender) were on the ballot.

Jul 9, 2008

Roman Columns

The ancient Romans never thought men of the future would conjoin their words for 'many' and 'fold' to indicate an area where several people would gather to watch images projected on a white screen. Had they anticipated the modern need for the 'multiplex', they, in their infinite wisdom, may have come up with an equivalent of Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? to ask: who reviews the reviewers?

Last month, Ram Gopal Varma decided to take the mantle upon himself, delivering a scathing summary of reviews of his last release 'Sarkaar'. In doing so, he sometimes falls prey to various other pitfalls (personal attacks, rhetorical responses, no benefits of doubt for viewpoints). But then, he does so on a blog (his own), so he is entitled to much more leniency than some of the professionals that he takes to the cleaners.

This is an old debate which takes on many forms: can you comment on a cricket match if you haven't played Test matches, can you react in print to a music concert if you have never performed in a 'kutchery', and so on. Just like all reviewers aren't good enough to make, all makers are not qualified to review. However, I'd like to focus on two specific problems that arise with mainstream film reviews in our part of the world.

First, most reviewers suffer from a credibility problem of their own making. For instance, Khalid Mohamed once played lead trumpet for the Bachchans, but now seems to toot a discordant horn when it comes to them. BTW, I don't consider his having made several unsuccessful films as disqualifying him from speaking about films. One may then trot out the fact that he wrote one of the better films of the 90s, the autobiographical Mammo. But what should concern us are his intentions while speaking about films. The problem is that they sometimes seem seasonal.

Or Subhash K. Jha, who seems to consistently take ordinary prose and applies a deep-fry coating from a thesaurus. Or Taran Adarsh, whose comments are strictly functional and as profound as a football scoresheet. Very few of these can write with any 'miThaas' (by which I mean an elegance of expression), which the likes of Ebert or Lane are able to consistently provide. In fact, Ebert makes it clear that he reviews it from a relative standpoint, and makes no hard claims on how an individual *you* may like it, which seems a honest way of approaching the craft. You don't have to agree with what he says, but tend to like how it's been expressed. In addition, our reviewers don't seem to be able to communicate their love for the movies to us, by placing the movie under the microscope in context. They fail to tell us what could be if you looked at the film in a different way, often substituting it for what it is, because they're watching with the same tired eyes.

Of course, the influx of films each week that can spur them to great prose would be highly miniscule, but that's a professional hazard that the best have somehow learnt to overcome.

The other problem is the audience, about whose choices we can add a corollary to that Hitchcockian idiom of actors being like cattle. Like herds, they make their weekend viewing plans almost solely on the basis of a rating by some (usually disgruntled or uninterested) reviewer cited in the paragraphs above. There is hardly any effort to calibrate the opinion against your own preferences and past experiences. Of course, for this to work, one needs to ask: why do I watch films? I say this because the amount of complaints that one hears on a Monday morning assume irritable proportions. If it mattered so much to them, why didn't they do a little more 'research'? In the end, whether the movie experience turns out to be sweetmeat or poison pill can only be fully known on biting the white tablet. If you don't like to waste money, then wait for the film to appear on lower-cost media.

(Though I do think that for most, movie-watching is fundamentally a social activity, topped off by popcorn. It's not the same for me, which is why unlike most, I'm perfectly fine watching a small film all by myself.)

If all the audience expects from a movie review is to know which horse to bet (and lose) their money on this Sunday, then they are getting the kind of content they deserve. When they demand more than just the bland scoreline, they might find life below the pond scum to be quite interesting. Anyway, enough condescension.

My friends have different ways of approaching the problem. Daemon has a high recall, low precision approach: he'd watch almost every film that shows up and has the heart to take both the bad and the good. George goes even further, like a gold miner who does not flinch from wading through utter filth, but with the knowledge that this can sometimes unearth the most unprepossessing of gems. I seem to have a low recall, high precision approach. I may miss out on some of the unheralded pieces, but I have an instinctive feel for what works for me, which is built upon a foundation of reading and listening to people around me, at least the ones whose opinions I take seriously. I am also old enough to take a bad choice on the chin :-)

The problem, as RGV shows, is that you can hardly take the opinions of any of the big name reviewers seriously. A superb exception is Baradwaj Rangan, but that's about it for newspapers. Perhaps it is time to begin each movie screening with something else the Romans said: caveat emptor.

Jul 7, 2008

Matchless for Life

I wanted to call last night's match gazookilaciplyditabinctionatious. I don't know what it means, but _you_ tell me if you have one legal word that can do justice to what we say yesterday, spread over eight hours. However, our vocabulary has been further graced: joining Federer-esque (adj. "carrying out something with exquisite finesse and supreme elegance") is Nadal-esque (adj. "unreasonably relentless")

Tennis needs draws. The first time I felt this sentiment strongly was in the Hamburg Masters last May, watching two men drill holes in each other, only to keep coming back for more. If yesterday's Wimbledon Gentlemen's Singles Championship Final (this is one occasion when you deserve to call it by the full name) had been a boxing match, one would have had to invoke the Geneva Convention. My head's as dizzy as it was at 2 am earlier today.

I suppose it's fair reaction to what was easily the best tennis match I have ever seen. In fact, I will go so far as to say that it was the best single sporting encounter I have ever witnessed in my life. One reason why was that there was no finite boundary, no final whistle, no ships to catch. This could have gone on for ever. It seemed we would be there until Tuesday, at 50-50 in the final set. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal would have been squatting exhaustedly on the by now completely bald turf, serving underarm and breaking each other's serve just by the other making four double faults per game. If we didn't have draws, we'd all still be there.

Coming back from my little flight of absurd fancy, one would agree that if it came to a final coin toss of a point, Nadal deserved it. He broke Federer four times in the match, while the 2003-2007 champion broke the Spaniard just once. If there had been a last set tie-breaker, he might've prevailed. We need draws. I can't be pacing and bouncing up and down at 1:30 am again.

The parallels with 1981 were so striking that I half expected to wake up to Federer retiring. Whew. He's still got a lot to achieve, especially powered by that keen sense of history. Roy Emerson's 14 is easily within reach, even if not Sampras' Seven. It's easy to see this as a signal of Federer's descendancy - it may be so, but not by much. The man made two Slam Finals this year, and is playing (along with his vanquisher) at a plane that we're lucky to be able to witness, leave alone comprehend. Centre Court seemed to surreally expand in width and length each time one of the finalists wanted it to, a combination of intense will-power and a never-before display of skills providing the ductile force.

What does this mean for men's tennis and Roger's place in the scheme of things? Perhaps more interesting will be how Rafa deals with finally being at the summit (ATP rankings be damned)? I'm too scared to speculate. What we have in front of us is almost ethereal, and perhaps the spell is in danger of being broken by mundane meditation. Let's dwell on some of the geometry-defying angles, the gravity-embarassing retrievals, the traitorous net cords, the Riemannian down-the-lines, the passes of the seasons. My one line summary of the match: Federer had to keep coming back, while Nadal never left. That was the crucial difference. The good news is that surely we'll never be tormented like this next year. The bad news is pretty much the same: that nothing we ever see will be like this.

Perhaps in the year 2020, the BCCI will have, in its latest acquisition, have taken over both the ATP and AELTC. In its first order of business, it will display an uncharacteristic and rare sagacity and overturn the result of this match to a draw (a annual tradition that began in 2008). Do you have any challenges left to that?

BVHK is much more in control of his emotions in his reaction.

Three Two-times One

There were three of us in that relationship. I'm pretty sure the other two didn't even realise I was in it.

I'm sure because I'd never spoken to them, and because they never seemed to notice me. It's hard to notice me when I'm sitting two rows diagonally behind (always behind) in the bus. Actually, it's just very hard to notice me. I don't quarrel with the driver or engage neighbours in raucous conversation. I get in at the first stop, make my way to the back, and bury my nose in the Russian masters. The closest I had ever got to those two was when one day, the rain was so fierce that it blazed in through the cracks in the windows on my side of the bus. I had to stand behind them for the rest of the journey.

So how was it that I, a distant voyeur, consider myself part of that menage a trois, you ask. It's hard to explain, and I'm aware I'll come out looking like someone who needs less of an over-active imagination and more of a life (a pretty accurate representation, by the way). You see, the first time they spoke to each other, I was there. On the second day, when they wished each other, I was there. (All right, that doesn't quite work. I realise I better start elaborating.)

That day, she was wearing a red top. She had hair the colour of chocolate, the dark kind that is supposed to be good for you. Curiously, her hair was framed by one of those large and awkward headphones, instead of the sleek earphones everyone had these days. She was a little plump, but undeniably pretty. Of course, I had noticed this, but realistically, what am I to do about that? I go back to my gulags.

He, however, did something about it. I was already aware of his propensity to seek seats besides the ladies, even when there were entire empty 3-seaters available. He was a snaky little pinball, bouncing from slot to slot, trying to find the jackpot. I noticed how he, grey sweater and cargos, squeezed in beside her on a two-seater, and pulled out a book. "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People". So at least he wasn't very effective yet, I mentally chortled. On the commune, Ivan Sergeyevich paused in annoyance for me to finish.

When I looked up again, the headphones were off, she had her head down and seemed to be (from where I was sitting) fiddling in her bag. I heard how it started.

"You want a pencil?", he asked.
She smiled: "Do you have one?"
"Sure. It's sharp, unlike me."

Ten minutes later:
"I usually start with each 3x3 block and then move to the rows", he said.
"Really? I take each row, then put down each remaining possibility".
"I'm sure you get messed up with the numbers. There's hardly any space in the margins. Instead, why don't you... um, can I show you?"

She handed him the pencil and the newspaper. She was smiling. You can look at the outline of a person's cheek in profile and easily tell if they're smiling.

This is how all little love stories begin, I said to Anna Andreyevna, as I closed the book and looked out at the drizzle.

The next day, to tell you the truth, I had forgotten all about them. I had had a late night and the Russians stayed in their dachas that morning. My eyelids only opened when the driver braked hard at the ineffectual's stop. This time, the space next to her was occupied, but - note dear little Petra, note Cupidski's little intervention - she was on the aisle side, and the 3-seater to her right had exactly one place left. He swung in on the edge of that seat, pulled out Covey (merely for cover, no doubt, he'd remained on page 3 yesterday), and turned ever so slightly to his left. I looked up at her at that moment, she (headphones on) serendipitously turned right, he looked right into her eyes. They smiled at each other, spontaneously. I did so too. It was a moment of pure romance-in-a-chance.

I don't know if it was that lucky threesome, but I felt I had been appointed guardian angel to the pair. So what if he needed self-help off a shelf? Or passionately sniffed out empty seats next to girls? Eros had left me in charge. Clearly, I was to play the appreciative referee at love-all.

Tatiana, I must confess. In between reading how Vladimir and you raised three fine children in the taiga, I tried to keep an eye on them, I really did. But then it looked everything was going well. For several months, a diet of sitting together, followed usually by a dessert of coffees in the company cafe, seemed to work wonders. He got her a pair of Sennheiser earphones, they plugged it in each morning, one ear per partner. I even heard her teaching him the lyrics to "Norwegian Wood". So I didn't quite realise when it was that they unplugged the music. I only noticed when one day, he plonked himself beside me, even though she had a vacant seat next to her. Her gawky headphones were back on. She looked out at the people outside fighting the puddles as it began to thunder down. Thanks again to the broken panes, he and I had to stand. I moved ahead to be by her shoulder, while he receded further into the bus.

I swear Pyotr, it wasn't a lost drop of rain spray. It sprang from her eyes and fell on her "Large Book of Sudoko Puzzles".

When you intern with the love gods, you have to learn how to handle liaisons going sour. How bad are we supposed to feel bad? I had to think what I could do under these circumstances.

It took me a while to make up my plan of action. It involved some shopping, but soon, I was ready. So Kolya, until that day, there were three of us in that relationship.

The next day, it was raining hard again. He came in, and purposefully ignored the vacancy next to her, sliding deep into the window seat on the opposite side, opening the long neglected Covey, resuming page 3. At that point, I bid farewell to the cossacks and arose.

"My seat's wet. Do you mind if I sit here?"
She shook her head and gestured to the seat beside her.

My bag was open and as I sat down, a couple of books fell out.
"Oh, your bag's undone".
"Ow!" I had hit my head on the handle in front of me as I bent down.
"Oof. Let me help you". She pulled up "An Illustrated History of The Beatles" (I hoped she wouldn't notice it was just a day old).
"Here. Are you OK?"
"I am, thanks for asking". I rubbed my forehead.
"And this." She handed "Sudoku for Dummies" (one day old). This time she was smiling. You know, it's far easier to tell when someone's smiling if they're looking at you.
"Thanks again."
"Don't worry, we all need a little help from our friends, don't we?", she said, with a twinkle. "Who's your favourite Beatle?"
"You're a Beatle-maniac too?", I asked, incredulous.
"And you need to throw that Sudoku book away - it's useless. See, what you do is, you start with the 3x3 blocks and..."

As I gave her my pencil, I couldn't help turn and look at him, wet and shivering (with cold? with anger?) by the window, glaring at us. Not everyone is fit to be a Guardian Angel, I suppose.

So babushka, now there was just the two of us in the relationship. Believe me, it's much easier to keep count that way.

Jul 6, 2008

Why the world doesn't acknowledge I'm a genius

Because I'm fiddling about at the wrong place and time, and this modern age allows no one the luxury to slow down and discern the maestro (i.e. me) standing amidst them.

Ok, I admit: that argument works only for violinist Joshua Bell.

Some interesting viewpoints on this experiment from Freakonomics. Link courtesy Niranjan.

The dividing line

On the same day that Vcat sent out a link about Americans trying to see the positive sides to indigestible gas prices, Ajay blogged about how life around him seems to be changing: neighbourhoods show a tendency to shrink (to walkable sizes) as are per capita home sizes.

As yet, we don't quite seem to be hearing such stories here. Based on anecdotal evidence around me, if at all, the problem seems to be worsening: lots of cars, cars, cars (diesel is still subsidised, but is no longer exclusively a poor man's fuel), relative affordability of 4-wheelers, lots of executive-level people use their cars (along) instead of taking company buses out to the IT parks, roads aren't wide enough or smooth enough to allow cyclists a real chance in the traffic ecosystem. I can't see any larger signs that our culture-specific habits are changing in any way in response to the environment or the prices.

Incidentally, several Pune roads now have dedicated cycle tracks marked out on the fringes. In some cases, these are demarcated using an outer fencing, rather than just a paint marking or those tiled paths that are becoming so common. This is a welcome arrangement, but there are a few gaping holes, sometimes literally. For instance, in Model Colony, some of the tracks are punctuated by intersecting lanes that allow vehicles to abruptly enter the road - the cyclist has to, every 5 minutes, watch out for these. In other places, there are no cycling lanes at all, so using cycle tracks is safe only in very limited areas. Add to this, the manic jungle-like look in the eyes of most motorists, and you're scared to pull the old velocipede out during the day.

Baner Road, perennially under siege, seems to be nearing the end of this current stage of repair. It now is concretised and wider. But there is no divider. Crossing the road, whether on foot or on pedal, is like wading through croc-infested water while the critters set out "Welcome!" mats alongside their gleaming canines. How can you build such a big road, invite everyone to race at what seems to be a minimum of 50 kph, and forget the bloody divider?

Jul 5, 2008

Kamalhassan's Dasavatharam - Aviyal Fiction

Before I went to watch "Dasavatharam", I had the good sense to watch one of Kamalhassan's interviews. "It's out and out entertainment for the audience", he said. Since I trust the guy, I repeated it to myself each time the word 'T-A-C-K-Y' spelt itself out in front of my eyes, especially between minutes 20 and 40 of the movie.

"Dasavatharam" is undeniably tacky, but it's oddly entertaining too. There's hardly a slack moment. This is a disaster movie that could so easily have ended in one, but as it lurches from action sequence to comic interlude to philosophical filibustering, it never completely comes off the rails. I certainly didn't mind losing three hours of my life to that film (ok, except for that one minute when Mallika Sherawat (or her voice-over) avers that, of course she can speak Tamil - and does so in a badly dubbed voice ).

That Kamal Hassan is over-indulgent is a common accusation thrown at his face ('mask' may be more appropriate), but he is undeniably gutsy. Not because he spends more money on bad makeup than Shahnaz Hussain, but because who else in India would be crazy enough to cook up a hodge-podge involving an ancient Iyer-Iyengar conflict (we come off looking badly, btw), inconvenient truths about the environment, bio-war-sci-fi, atheism, the great Tsunami of 2004, chaos theory (casting credit: stereotypical digitally mixed-in butterfly), mixed with some political body-doubles that wouldn't make the cut at a school fancy dress competition. Heady stuff to unleash on the populace, which had earlier rejected some of the other cocktails (the need to have an opinion on M.K.Gandhi, matricide, communism+atheism, to name a few) that Kamal Hassan has written. Perhaps the lesson he's learnt is: be not so subtle that no one realises you're being something.

Some critical reactions that bemoaned the tackiness (that word again) of the film almost always made comparisons with the likes of Anbe Sivam and Hey Ram. But it's not as if Kamal didn't make bad movies before. From what we know of him, he's usually taken an active interest in the plotlines (even without official credit), so you'd be insulting his intelligence if you thought he didn't know what he was getting into. He's taken an almost gleeful plunge into lots of rubbish - one senses a need to get the silliness off his chest from time to time, in addition to the money needed to make the other stuff that he wants to.

Anyway, back to the movie. The film is almost hopeless in its rendition of events set amongst a laughably stereotypical American setting, but there is an instant quality upgrade when proceedings move to India. Kamal shows an instinctive feeling for dialogue, accent, placement, and scenery in local settings. As we weave our way to the end, the proceedings become madcap, the characters multiply and multi-sect, and there are homilies. Strangely, for a film that is so sympathetic of the need for science and reason, there is also a moment straight from the Mithun-Rajanikant textbook of post-modern medicine.

It's a fitting sign of the surreal nature of events that I found myself doing something I had never dreamed I would: watch a film whose soundtrack was scored by Himesh Reshammiya. Largely forgettable, the only saving grace was the devotional Mukunda Mukunda which in addition to serving as Asin's re-entry point, accompanies one of the more elegant and clever moments in the movie: the shadow theatrical play about the Vishnu Dashavatharam. There was a strange depth to the 12th century sequences as well (despite some of the CGI), which once again serve as testament that the man is good at depicting history.

And closing with the ten. At times, you're beset by the uneasy feeling that the whole of Madame Tussauds' is on the loose, there are so many pale, waxy outlines. I think there are some interesting allusions with the names of the characters which I haven't teased out fully, perhaps except for the execrable 'George Bush'. 'Balram Naidu' was nicely done (reminscent of the mayor in Indrudu Chandrudu), but perhaps the best of the lot was the tough-talking environmentalist 'Vincent Poovaraagan', in both dress and demeanour.

In all, Dasaavatharam is no six-course meal, but perhaps Kamal Hassan never intended it to be so. Of course, for all that money, it'd have been good had they hired better cutlery and not just painted it in. But as far as cinema-as-aviyal goes, it's not such a bad mix.


Apparently, it's International Free Hugs Day today (I'd say it's probably more catchy than Bug Busting Day). Arnold is the nearest we have to a Rasta-quizzer that I know of (I mean it as a compliment), so it's not such a surprise that he has decided to do something about the comparative lack of free hugs in contemporary Puneri society.

As clearly described in a front page article in today's Pune Mirror (don't think it's available online), Arnold will be providing "free hugs" on M.G.Road from 6 pm until "boredom, tiredness, or hunger" intervene. (I was particularly happy to see that it was only under duress that he revealed he works in IT - bravo!). Since, unfortunately, I can't be there to watch and report, I thought I'd at least give him a little blog plug - so if any of you is reading this today, stop, and get out to Camp, somewhere near Wonderland.

(I must admit that it's a tough Saturday for Punekars: JM Road is almost off-limits thanks to a function involving the President of India, and on M.G.Road, you risk being accosted a strange man offering hugs for no compensation in these inflationary times.)

Still, all the best to the newest Chipko. This is exactly the kind of thing that the much vaunted (but ultimately colourless, IMO) Walking Plaze could have done with more of (ironically, the Plaza has just been suspended because of the monsoon). Hopefully, Arnold has perfected his technique and may even demonstrate a range of moves (an illustrative list here). He may even come up with an Arnold-ian varation of a new kind. Hold tight and don't let the bed bugs bite!

Jul 3, 2008

Spinning a Yarn

Amit Varma was kind enough to pick up some fragments of mine for an interesting article on quizzing. Serious quizzing still remains very niche, a masonic sub-culture of sorts, but it takes a quiz-geek to know there are three ways of looking at every intersection, even if it only seems to be a straight road.

Anyway, as Amit mentions in the end of his post, check out Niranjan's primers (1, 2, 3.) on setting quizzes (to which I've made a small contribution). Perhaps they need a little touching-up, but they're perennially relevant.

Jun 29, 2008

The (already forgotten) music of Haal-e-Dil

Perhaps the fates that govern the musical birthchart of Vishal Bhardwaj ordain that several of his works are intended to be criminally under-heard. A more earthly reason for hardly anyone noticing the music of "Haal-e-Dil" could be attributed to it being an under-promoted film featuring a bunch of not-so interesting newcomers in an average script. This album is also one of those multi-composer efforts, featuring Raghav Sachar, Pritam, and Anand Raj Anand in addition to Vishal.

(I'll restrict myself to Vishal's double-header in this post, but a brief review of the album can be seen at Karthik's MilliBlog.)

Rahat Fateh Ali Khan re-appears in a Vishal song after that superbly rendered cautionary ode to love in "Omkara". "Haal-e-dil" begins with what sounded to my untrained ears as the digderidoo (perhaps just some electronic consort), and fits into the category of songs usually classified as "soulful". Also featuring the backing vocals of Shreya Ghoshal, the song is melodious and measured, with a hint of a Sufi influence. Typically for Vishal, the arrangements are interesting with a couple of eclectic interludes (is that a mandolin we hear in the middle, or just a guitar?). With Rahat leading the way, the elements of the song come together wonderfully.

The other Vishal credit on this album is a reprise of the title song, by Rekha Bhardwaj. It's a more modern, rock-ish version, rendered in characteristic fashion by the talented missus who can zig-zag the registers nicely. It does come in second to the Rahat version, but these Munna Dhiman lyrics (also a variation of the other song) are perhaps a touch better here ("tere kohre me.n dhuup ban ke kho jaau.n"). And there's some nice guitar backing all through.

In all, a cameo by Vishal and gang which, though it won't set any cash registers or weekly top 10s ringing, is worth a devoting a quiet moment or two if you can catch it.

(Crossposted at the Vishal blog.)

Jun 22, 2008

Why 'Aamir' Can't

Rajkumar Gupta's Aamir came in for much praise in some reviews (like this one), which was great to hear. However, the flaws in the story and narrative blunted my own reception of the movie. Since this post will touch upon the ending, consider the post as spoiler-enabled, so you should not read ahead if you are still to watch it (which you probably should, since it is technically well made and well performed).

(Instead of the usual blank spaces to reduce the inadvertent-spoiler-sighting, here's some mindless trivia that resulted from the movie. The post resumes after this.)

Towards the end of the movie, I noticed an actor who looked familiar. Being interested in the lesser known world of Bollywood background fillers, I carefully read his name from the credits: Uday Chandra. I had seen a little bit of Basu Chatterjee's Baaton Baaton Mein the previous day, and I knew who this was - "Henry", who suffers in his unspoken love for Tina Munim's character. When I mentioned "Henry" to George, he said: "Oh, Mazhar Khan?". Turns out the actor formerly famous as "Abdul" was "Henry", and not my bloke! So where had I seen Uday Chandra? Another little bulb pops somewhere. I had also revisited Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro the previous week (both movies having been kindly provided by Yasho). This was Duryodhana! (behind the moustache and ab drama mujhe hii sambhaalnaa hogaa).

It turns out that Uday Chandra has appeared in several films by Vidhu Vinod Chopra (a co-JBDY associate), and some may even recall him in Mission Kashmir. It also turns out that he dropped out of IIT, took up music and acting, went to FTII, acted as Saigal in a play, learns music from a guru in Pune. Even the most )seemingly innocent) inhabitant of screen space can have an interesting tale to tell.

Back to Aamir. Many reviews (example) have pointed out several aspects of the story that end up distracting from the positives. In addition, mid-way, the pace of the film becomes sluggish, which is sad for a film that is just 90 minutes long. More than the puzzling choice of reluctant bomber, the ending was less than satisfying. Aamir wants to prove that he can impose his own will even in such constricting circumstances (viewers will recall the opening lines of the film), but why should that choice be clutching the case as it blew to smitheerens? Leading upto that moment, the (astute) viewer will already have begun to consider possible endings. Such as:

One, Aamir succumbs and lets the bus be blown up.
Two, he becomes the "hero" (the moral 'hero', mind you) and saves others, while blowing himself up.
Third (most unlikely, given what we had already seen), he becomes the 'filmy hero' and turns the tables on the anonymous menace.
Or even Four (sort of a MacGuffin), where there is indeed no bomb, and this is one big scare by Gajraj Rao's character to sensitise the secularised professional to the pressing needs of the community, to whose plight he has been awakened to.

IMO, Options 1 and 4 need a lot of guts to write in and present. Option 2 is the easy way out, and though it sustains drama, it does not achieve anything beyond perhaps some sympathy for the now wasted life of Aamir. 4 would have been very interesting. Though it may seem sort of like a "it was all a dream" cop-out, but it would have had the advantages of tying in a positive slant and importantly, also avoiding a slightly dangerous side-effect. The way the narrative pans out, so many people are involved in the bombing conspiracy. A PCO operator, several hoteliers and waiters, hoodlums, not so innocent gawkers (and there's a lot of gawking in this movie) - it's as if the entire "qaum" was in on it. Is that the impression the makers wanted to leave us with?

Personally, I would have liked to see Option 1: Aamir puts his family above lots of people he's never met before, underlining the helplessness that permeates the movie. That would have presented a much more compelling dilemma than what we ended up with, which left us focusing on exactly why anyone so ruthless as the dark mastermind would run a risky operation as strategic as any of Adenoid Hynkel's.

Several years ago, I watched a televised short story where Shekhar Kapur played the role of an avaricious executive who is visited by a "Yaksha". This figure makes him an offer, which Kapur's character feels unable to refuse. The offer was: I'll pay you an immense amount of money. If you accept, as a consequence, somewhere someone will die. You won't even know who that was. Do you accept? Kapur accepts and this leads to a lot of soul-searching. Unlike this story, Aamir never hits the highs in dealing with such possible moral complications. Which is why we are left discussing what Aamir could have been.

Jun 11, 2008

A Poet Is Cornered

There was a baker named Roger
They said he baked by magic
He served up golden bagels
And many a brown breadstick

He thought they were quite sweet
His customers begged to differ
"Your produce is beautiful", they said
"But God! it tastes so bitter"

"Moo!" said Roger
in his white jacket
"I score great music here"
"not an infernal racket"

And then came Paris where
Some Muscles from Mallorca
Dished out his own dough
It was called A Special Rafa

"'The bagel's acerbic", said Roger
"The breadstick too, I'll pass"
"My medicine doesn't taste too well"
"Should I try eating some grass?"

Roger Federer, ATP artist, can still write better on-court poetry than I can with words. But of late, the symphonies have been unfinished and the notes have jarred. Now, I don't think this is the beginning of some long-term decline, for we're still talking about a World No. 1 who made the finals of the last three most important tournaments on his least favourite surface. But it's the manner of the approach (literally) that should send a twitter down some Swiss shoulders.

Nadal's come back strongly from injury; Djokovic's been tracking the top two with the intensity of a Serbian Defensive Dog - these you would expect. What you wouldn't expect is how certain aspects of Federer's game have become entangled with the mind, which at times, just seems to be milking Alpine cows.

The mind as mental barrier
In Fredric Brown's short story "Arena", the central character (Carson) finds himself fighting an alien being - one who wins will guarantee victory of his species. But neither can get to each other: they are separated by am invisible barrier that turns out to be purely a mental creation, one that the conscious mind cannot get through. It's an apt metaphor for Roger Federer's problems at the tennis net.

At the more visible barrier, he's fumbled. He's smashed and caressed balls into the wires. He approaches the tape with all the enthusiasm of a lamb to the slaughter. Even against the likes of the lowly Monfils, he was visibly reluctant to surge ahead. Cerberus guarding the doors of hell would have been easier to get by.

At any rate, this presents a challenge worthy of a champion. If and how Federer does tame these devils will be worth watching. Like Carson, it'll involve both sweat and creativity. Surely, the memory of that bitter breadstick and bagel at this year's Roland Garros final should keep him piqued.

Jun 10, 2008

No Moss

A beer-swilling A.R.Rahman who used to "talk nonstop"? Glimpses in perhaps _the_ definitive Rahman interview. Here's the feature by Baradwaj Rangan.

Jun 5, 2008

The Continuum

I had never heard of a musical instrument called The Continuum until A.R.Rahman mentioned it in a recent interview.

From what I could read, it's sort of a continuous keyboard which should help glides, mii.nds, gamakas. More info on the Wikipedia page or articles from the Dept. of ECE, UIUC website such as this one.

Jun 4, 2008

Linky Pinky Ponky

If you didn't already know (I didn't until Santosh pointed to it), Ram Gopal Varma is blogging. What's good about it is that the font size is readable and there are challenge-responses such as the following:
13. Your films like AAG, Nishabd scared me and I don’t want to watch your films anymore.
Ans: Thanks

Roger Ebert is journalling here.

Help Firefox (v3.0 coming up) create a world record.

Mulva is not just a famous typo (a la Moops). George just got the wrong person.

Jun 3, 2008

Dot, dot - who's there?

Ever notice how a lot of people (especially Indian neti-jans) seem to use a lot of ellipses in casual text? (passing aside: commentary applies to only those who are textually active).

I mean sentences like these:

umm the colour combo is great. black and green.....
if you fix the terrible things above it will be good....
In fact, it's more than the average three act ellipsis. You see a lot of mutant dot trails, leading to what I call 'comet sentences'. And in cases such as
the width need to be increased....too small....include some letters.....(at the side)
the author is loath to ever decisively finish a sentence, or even let go in the middle of it. Breathlessly, he holds on to both phrases, joining them in dotted lexical forms.

Now, since I deal with text for a living, I can either rail against such punctured notation, or I can try learning to deal with it, even if with clip on nose. Following language literature, we see evidence of several such mutations on a regular basis. Our reading also tells us that many of the language styles and meanings we cling to dogmatically today would have been blasphemes from the past. Elliptical prose is perhaps the same.

What I do wonder of course, is how this started, and why many people have taken to it naturally. What is the linguistic, economic or even evolutionary advantage of doing so, assuming there is no aesthetic reason for doing so?